By John W. Nielson
The question of identity is important to everyone. So much of our life is framed by the struggle to truly understand who we are and why we are here. From childhood years, through the turbulent teenage years and all the way through adulthood, there will be moments when we question our identity or struggle to reflect who we are as our best selves.
One of the underlying themes of Les Miserables is this question of identity. Once Jean Valjean tears up his parole papers, he becomes a fugitive from the law and must conceal his true identity. Utilizing the generosity of the Bishop’s gift, Valjean prospers. He assumes a new identity as Monsieur Madeleine, a wealthy factory owner and he is also the mayor of the town of Montreuil-sur-Mer. All the while, he is hiding his true identity: Jean Valjean; convict, parolee, fugitive. The prisoner number, 24601, is tattooed on his chest, but that identity is kept hidden away so that know one knows who he truly is.
Then comes a defining moment in the life of our hero. Upon discovering that the policeman, Javert, has arrested someone thinking that he is Valjean, Jean Valjean is confronted with a difficult choice. Does he speak up and save an innocent man realizing that he will in turn be arrested and sent back to prison? Does he remain silent and save himself and continue to provide for those in his employ, yet live with the fact that he has condemned another main unjustly? He shares his dilemma with some haunting words; “If I speak, I am condemned. If I stay silent, I am damned.” Confronted with this choice, Jean Valjean questions his true identity. In the song, Who Am I?
There are several key themes that this song raises for us;
1. Do we really know who we are?
2. How does our identity shape our actions?
3. Are we willing to do what is right, even when it will demand a personal cost or sacrifice?
The Decision of Valjean
Let’s look at how Valjean answers these questions.
First, he acknowledges that there is a tension in his life between who he really is and who people think that he is. He has kept his past sins hidden, so that he is known as the Mayor of the town and a respected businessman. Little do people know that he has a prison number, 24601, tattooed on his chest and that he is a convict who is wanted by the law.
But there is another choice beyond who he is when defined by his past, and the person that people perceive him to be. There is the more significant issue of his identity in the eyes of God. He sings these words, “My soul belongs to God, I know. I made that bargain long ago. He gave me hope when hope was gone. He gave me strength to journey on.”
This is the second key. It is when he finds his true identity in what God has done in his life, that he recognizes what he must do and finds the strength to do it. He then is able to confront the reality that he has kept hidden and reveals himself to Javert and to the court, confessing that he is, in fact, prisoner 24601.
We quickly see his answer to the third question. Valjean decides that he must do the right thing and save an innocent man even though there will likely be a huge personal cost. He is willing to give up his life, wealth, and freedom rather than see an innocent man suffer. This self-less attitude continues when he seeks to help Fantine upon discovering how she had been wronged and asking Javert for time to take care of her needs, then promising to return and face the consequences of his previous actions.
Throughout the show, Valjean will continue to wrestle with his true identity, continuing to live a life of hiding. Was his identity really tied to his past, to being prisoner 24601? While he had the courage to face up to the consequences of who he was, at the same time, Valjean refused to let that dictate who he would become. It is on his death bed that he once again reveals to Marius, his then, son-in-law, the whole story of his life and his true identity. This time, singing the very same melody as our song today, Valjean will again ask, “Who am I?” to which Marius will answer, “You’re Jean Valjean.” Here his identity is revealed to be more than a number, but a name; a name from which the ex convict was forced to hide for so long. Now, at the end, his identity is embraced in the light; he is Jean Valjean. It is Marius who names him. It is truly a powerful moment when our true identity is fully known by another.
The Journey of Jesus
In Mark 1:9-15 we find a series of events in the life of Jesus that Mark presents in a most compact way. Where other accounts give us more detail, Mark gives us a condensed version of the Baptism, temptation and ministry inauguration of Jesus.
1. His Baptism
By coming to the waters of baptism, Jesus humbles himself. He identifies with us. It is a decisive moment as the identity of Jesus is revealed. As Jesus is baptized, the Heavens split apart, the Spirit descends and the Father affirms the identity of Jesus. Jesus hears the words, “You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased.” (Verse 11) All through his ministry, Jesus will define himself by that identity. It will be the basis for the choices that he makes and will be with one thing that will guide him when all other voices would seek to pull him towards another path.
2. His Temptation
It is once this identity is affirmed in his baptism that the Spirit, “at once” will send Jesus to the wilderness. There, across a period of forty days, Jesus was tempted by Satan. He is tempted just like we are. In Mark’s account we have only the simple declaration of the fact. No details, no specifics, of either the temptation or Jesus’ response. No quotations from Deuteronomy. For these we must hear from Matthew. Mark simply states the fact, so quickly after the similarly shortened account of the baptism. Perhaps because of this, the connection between these two events stands out all the more plainly. Jesus was able to withstand the temptation of the evil one because of his rock solid awareness of his true identity. Mark also includes the simple statement that while he was in the wilderness, with the wild animals, angels attended him. Jesus was under God’s care and provision. Why, because of his identity as the Beloved.
3. His Mission
Mark quickly moves from the temptation of Jesus to the inauguration of the ministry and mission of Jesus. In two short verses, Mark summarizes the message. Jesus was preaching the Good News, the Gospel, and here is the message in a nutshell: “The Kingdom of God has come near so repent and believe the good news!” This is still the good news that we proclaim and that people need to hear. Jesus’ message was an outflow of his identity. He knew who he was, why he had come and what he needed to do and say. This message never wavered.
Again, we must not miss the connection between these three events. Mark links Jesus’ baptism, temptation and ministry. They flow from one to the other. In every case we see the clarity in who Jesus is and why he came. All of this speaks to the power of knowing our identity and Jesus was always crystal clear about his. Jean Valjean may have struggled with the question, “Who am I?” We may struggle with the question, “Who am I?” Jesus did not. And it was his clear sense of his identity, who he was as the Beloved, that gave him strength to endure the temptation and testing of the wilderness and a focus to his mission and ministry.
The Question For Us
What about us? Where do we find our true identity? Does our identity in Christ truly shape how we live and what we do? Does our identity in Christ give us the ability to do what is right, despite the cost?
First, we must find our identity in the right place. Our identity must not be tied to our work, wealth or what others think about us. It must not be based on our gifts and abilities and our performance. It must not be based on past failure or even present performance. It must not be based on who others say we are, but who God says that we are. Our identity must be grounded in God and God’s love for us. Whoever you are, you can know that you are a child of God and that you are loved by the one who created you.
In his book, Abba’s Child: The Cry of the Heart for Intimate Belonging, Brennan Manning says, “Define yourself radically as one beloved by God. This is the true self. Every other identity is illusion.” Find your identity in God and the knowledge that you are loved.
Second, we must seek to let our identity shape how we live. If knowing his identity enabled Jesus to face temptation victoriously and to engage fully in the mission that the Father had entrusted to him. It will be no different for us. We too can overcome temptation in our life, yes with God’s strength and with God’s word, but also when we remember who we really are. We must always ask, are the choices I am making consistent with who I truly am in Christ?
Third, we must fully embrace our true identity even when there is a price to pay. There will be times when to embrace our true identity will involve a cost. We must be ready for surrender and self-sacrifice. There may be times when to be who we are in Christ will not be easy or popular, but when we are sure about our true identity, we can rely on the strength that comes from God to live our life consistently with who we truly are.
“My soul belongs to God, I know . . .” This is the secret that Jean Valjean learned and one that we must learn. Who am I? I am John Nielson, a man loved by God. And that is enough.