When life peels away everything that defines you, who are you?

“Take heed and beware of covetousness.  For a man’s life does not consist in the abundance of things which he possesses”(Luke 12:15).

“What do you do?”  In our society, that’s often the first question people ask.  It implies…

–that you do something in the way of a career.  Woe to the unemployed and those who call themselves homemakers.

–that you are what you do.  That your identity is bound up in what you do to earn an income.  Too bad if you lose your job or retire.  You become a cipher, at least in the minds of some.

If you don’t have a job, who are you?  If, like my wife Bertha, you loved being married to a pastor, when God takes him home and you can no longer fill the role you loved so much–the wife of a pastor–then who are you?

In our world, people’s names were often given in accordance with what they did. They received names like Baker, Cook, Weaver, Smith, Taylor, Hunter, Fisher, Farmer, Shepherd, Miller, Marshall, Ward.

I want to call your attention to a little story found in Luke 12.  Then, I’ll be asking you to use your imagination with me…

A fellow came to Jesus and said, “Master, speak to my brother and tell him to divide the family inheritance with me.” Jesus said, “Sir, be on your guard against greed. For a man’s life does not consist in the abundance of things that he possesses.”

Now, using our imagination, let’s invent some variations on this little story…

One.  A woman: “Master, speak to my husband that he get more involved in life.  He needs to get out more and be more active, do more things, and work in the church more.”  Jesus: “Be on your guard against hyper-activity.  For a man’s life does not consist in the abundance of things that he does.”

Two.  A man:  “Master, speak to my wife.  She needs to study more, to use her mind, go back to college, become a Bible student. She takes everything a preacher says without question.  I value an inquisitive mind.”  Jesus: “Be on guard against the conceit of knowledge. A man’s life does not consist in the abundance of things that he knows.”

Three.  A woman: “Master, speak to my sister.  She needs to get more excited about you.  I belong to a dynamic Spirit-filled church where we raise our hands and shout. We feel our religion.  Her church is so drab and lifeless.”  Jesus: “Beware of emotionalism.  A person’s life does not consist in the abundance of things he feels.”

Four.  A man: “Speak to my wife. She needs to take more pride in her appearance, in her hair style, her clothes and makeup.”  Jesus: “Take heed and beware of superficiality.  A person’s life does not consist in the image she projects or the impression she makes.”

Life is not made up of what we possess, do, feel, know, or in the way we look.

All of this begs the question:  What then does life consist of?

What is the essence of a genuine, well-lived, satisfying life?

Before trying to answer this, let’s emphasize that it is indeed important what we do (our deeds), what we know (our learning), how we feel (our emotions), the impression we make (our impact), and what we have (our possessions).

But we must never get them out of order.  These are all secondary considerations in a life well-lived.

In 2 Corinthians 5:1, the human body is referred to as a tent.  We are promised that one day this tent will be collapsed and replaced by a house, a permanent, heavenly structure.  For now, though, the important thing about the tent is not how it looks, how fancy it is, how we dress it up, or what the neighbors think of it.

The most important thing about a tent is who lives there?

So the real issue before us today is the inner you.

Who are you?  Who is at home inside the earthly tent which is your body?  The old line goes, “Who are you when no one is looking?”  Who you are in the dark.

The simplest way to find out is by stripping away all the externals.  What’s left is you.

If you were broke and in poor health and jobless, if you were separated from the people you know, the books you love, and everything familiar to you, then who would you be?  That is the real you.

What’s left is who you are.

Two stories…

Robert McQuilkin was for years president of Columbia Bible College and Seminary.  He retired to take care of his wife Muriel who had Alzheimers.  That awful disease stripped her like a banana, peeling away all the externals and coverings.  What was left was not her mind. She was saying no when she meant yes, and she could not complete a sentence.  What was left was not her vanity.  She refused to take a bath.  What was left was not her social graces.  In the grocery story, she would walk away with other people’s basket.  What was left is love.  Dr. McQuilkin said, “She can say only one sentence. ‘I love you.'”  When he was still working, she would sometimes leave home and walk a mile to his office.  He’d have to take her back home. Some days she walked to his office ten times.  One evening as he was preparing her for bed, he found her feet bleeding from all that walking.”  Her doctor said, “Such love.”

Dr. Bob Lynn tells of a little girl named Eleanor who went with her mother to see Grandma in the nursing home.  Grandma was suffering from Alzheimer’s.   Eleanor hugged her. “Look, Grandma! We brought you a present–strawberry ice cream!  Your favorite.”  Grandma said nothing, but ate the ice cream.  Then Eleanor said, “Grandma, do you know who I am?”  “Yes. You’re the girl who brings me the ice cream.”  “Yes, but I’m Eleanor, your granddaughter. Don’t you remember me?” Faint smile. “Sure, I remember you.  You’re the girl that brings me the ice cream.”  Suddenly Eleanor realized that Grandma would never remember her, that she lived in a world all her own.  “Oh, how I love you, Grandma! ”  A tear rolled down the elderly woman’s face. “Love,” Grandma said. “I remember love.”

Eleanor’s mom said, “That’s all she wants, honey.  Just love.”  Eleanor said, “Then I’ll bring her ice cream every weekend, and I’ll hug her even if she doesn’t remember me.”

After all, it’s more important to remember love than someone’s name.

As we age, life has a way of stripping away the externals, of peeling us like a banana, leaving for all the world to see who’s at home.

Who would you be if you had no job?  Poor health?  No lovely appearance.  And if you could not give to others or talk to them in a meaningful way?

Make me.

The selfish young man we call “the prodigal son” of Luke 15 made two requests of his father.  At the start of the story, in verse 12, he said, “Give me.”  He was interested in possessions.  Toward the end, verse 19, he said, “Make me.”  That’s the prayer of a broken man, one ready to be made new.

Phillips Brooks used to tell of a ship caught in a hurricane.  It was a scary scene. Waves slamming the ship around, winds beating against the sails, the storm smashing against the ship in all its fury, causing the structural timbers to groan and creak. The ship seemed to be in a fight for its life.  But Brooks said, “In truth, the battle was fought long before. It was fought in the forests where the timbers grew, in the shipyard wehre the nails were driven, the planks laid and the seams caulked.  It was fought in the care and maintenance given the ship through the years in guarding against dry rot and broken ribs and loose fittings.”

The storm was merely the test.  The battle had been fought and won or lost long before.

And so with us.  When disease comes or unemployment or one of a thousand other disasters tries to wreck us, remember: this is just the test to see who we are. The battle has already been fought.

It was fought in the pew where you worshiped.  Did you open your heart to the living God?  Give your life to Him?  Receive Him as Lord, and leave behind the petty and superficial stuff you brought inside with you?

When church is over, a custodian walks through the sanctuary gathering up the trash left behind: a crumpled bulletin, a discarded tissue, a candy wrapper.  But what if we really worshiped God, and the custodian was able to gather up the debris from our humility and repentance?  He comes along and finds someone’s grief which they have left behind, another’s doubt that has been replaced by faith. Over there is a grudge and here is a filthy habit. Some people met the living God and He changed them forever.

The battle was fought in the prayer closet in your home.  In that special place where you go to be alone and think. Where you can pray and reflect and be quiet and worship without distraction or interruption.

Be still there, friend.  Be quiet.  Be alone.  And don’t be in a hurry.  Stay awhile.  Real life is made on this very spot.

“There is a place of quiet rest, near to the heart of God. A place where sin cannot molest, near to the heart of God.  O Jesus, blest Redeemer, sent from the heart of God, hold us who wait before Thee, near to the heart of God. Amen.”












3 thoughts on “When life peels away everything that defines you, who are you?

  1. Bro. Joe you brought back so much in my last few days with mom. I gave so much that after she was gone I had nothing left to do. I had no idea what my life would be or where was I to go. I sat on the pew a while and just tried to regroup. My computer died and with the new computer new ideas sprang up. I finished another book and started baking mom’s t-cakes to share. Appreciate your wise word sir. Thanks


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