After having to be absent from Abel House two Wednesday evenings, I found returning to be like homecoming. Gathering to grow a family and to share Bible study with other Christians brings a sense of belonging and peace. As we sat and related fun facts, I thought about our identities, both unique as individuals and shared as a group, and how our shared identity is growing. That stayed on my mind during our study of Jeremiah 1.
“Identity” is a fact of who or what a person is. To be identifiable by a fact, whether in terms of physicality or personality, that fact must be completely exclusive to who or what is being singled out. For instance, a person is most definitely distinguished from all other people physically by DNA because each of us has uniquely combined DNA in what must be a near infinite number of possible combinations or by the whorls in our skin captured as a print, such as a fingerprint or palm print. Both DNA and fingerprints have been used for decades to determine particular individuals from the rest.
And we have other differentiating physical marks of our identity. Except for identical twins, has anyone ever seen two faces exactly alike? Heard two exactly alike voices? Yes, those very DNA strands may be close enough to give us parts much like our parents’ or our siblings’, so we remark, “She has her mother’s eyes” or “He has his father’s build,” but they are not exact matches. Our physical selves are very much ours alone. (And people who know us just breathed sighs of relief!)
Those distinguishing physical marks must be the same or continuous throughout life. The tiny footprints taken at birth should match larger ones taken many decades later except in size. DNA extracted even a decade after death matches an extract taken when life was still present decades before death. True physical identifying characteristics are held by no other person and do not vary over time or alter with circumstances.
What is true of physical markers is also true of personality markers: Basic identifying characteristics are present even before birth and remain unchanged throughout life. If sameness and continuity in personality are suddenly lost or even disturbed, we are most likely to suspect mental illness or chemical or traumatic brain alteration.
I have heard parents say that they knew from birth that their baby was “fearful,” or “vocal,” or “demanding,” or “easy-going,” and on and on—just the way that child is as a teenager and, later, adult. I know adults adopted as infants who grew up to be like their birth parents—with the same interests, same physical and mental problems, same personality traits, even the same values! As a teacher, I could easily accept the cliché “The apple does not fall far from the tree” when the “tree” was nearby, but I was amazed when I observed that the truism holds even when the “apple” does not know or remember the “tree.”
This is not to say that no one can change but that either physical or personality identification change would likely require surgery or medication or an act beyond our comprehension at this time. And what can change will never be those finally identifying distinctions. The root of the words “identity” and “identify” (ident or idem) supports the idea that identity cannot change. It is Latin for “again and again” or “repeatedly.”
So what does that have to do with Abel House?
Our study of the Book of Jeremiah began with a brief study of Jeremiah himself. We are told at the beginning of Jeremiah 1 that Jeremiah was a man of words—both written and spoken, a son of Hilkiah, a descendant of priests, a native of Anathoth, a member of the Tribe of Benjamin, and a hearer of God’s word. Those six characteristics, however, do not distinguish Jeremiah from all other men, so they are not fully distinguishing traits. I ask then, What is it that distinguishes Jeremiah from other sons of Hilkiah, descendants of priests, natives of Anathoth, members of the Tribe of Benjamin, and writers and hearers of God’s word? What is it that singles him out for God’s work?
In the search for answers in Jeremiah 1, I find clues. I find that the Lord told Jeremiah what we believe to be true for all of us individually as it was for Jeremiah: God knew Jeremiah before Jeremiah was in his mother’s womb. The Lord also knew that Jeremiah would be a prophet, a calling set to take place in the time of his youth, before Jeremiah’s birth.
More clues followed in God’s response to Jeremiah’s very human, understandable protests of his own youth and his admission of inability to speak as he would need to speak. The Lord simply assured him that He would be the source of Jeremiah’s strength, words, and protection, even making him “as a fortified city, and as a pillar of iron, and as walls of bronze.” He promised Jeremiah that even though the whole population of the land might fight against Jeremiah, He would be with Jeremiah “to deliver him.”
All the clues serve to begin a description of Jeremiah that should eventually separate him from all others, that should eventually fully explain who he was and why God chose him. But I submit that Jeremiah is not distinguished to that extent in Jeremiah 1. He, at that point, is one of the all whom God knew before creation, set upon a path, strengthened, empowered, provided every need (even the words to speak), and protected. But the identity God had established before creation was there.
Do we not all of us have all of that, too?
Thus, I mull what we will learn in the weeks to come. What is it about Jeremiah that does separate him from the rest of us? Will we learn as we study all fifty-two chapters of Jeremiah’s words how he stands alone even though we all have gifts from God?
I do already see a difference in Jeremiah’s responses to God as compared to our all-too-common responses. In his responses, Jeremiah alluded to his weaknesses, to his humanity in contrast to the God before him. He admitted that he did “not know how to speak,” but he never said he would not speak. When God asked questions, Jeremiah answered immediately and honestly, never parsing his response, never searching for the “right” answer or what might be behind the question, never trying to figure out what God might be getting at before he answered. When the Lord gave his reassurance to Jeremiah, Jeremiah never said, “But what about . . . ?” He made no protests, voiced no doubts of God’s promises.
Is it then complete faith and obedience that set Jeremiah apart from other people? Is it that Jeremiah listened, heard, accepted, and followed? Are those traits of unquestioning faith and obedience what never change, what occur again and again, in the long years of Jeremiah’s prophetic ministry?
I now am fascinated by Jeremiah and what makes him alone the Jeremiah God called upon to be His prophet beginning in the thirteenth year of the reign of Josiah. What about his single identity made him perfect for God’s plan? Will I learn from Jeremiah? Will I learn to listen, hear, accept, and follow as did Jeremiah? Will I learn to obey, as did Jeremiah? Will I learn to answer without seeking to deceive God as did Jeremiah? Will evenings spent at Abel House help us all to find answers to our single and group identities in Jeremiah’s story?