Lately I’ve been forced to get on my face before God and re-ask some fundamental questions about myself. “Who am I, God? Who am I becoming?” Our identity, I think, is like a series of rings or concentric circles. This may get a little trippy, but hang in there, okay?

My family spent some time in the Redwoods of Northern California this past summer, exploring and gaping our way through one of God’s most breathtaking showpieces. At one interpretive center we found a tree trunk sliced crossways to show the rings. The tree on display was eight hundred years old or something like that. Wow.

At my core is my spiritual DNA, the “real me.” This is what the Bible calls my spirit. Whereas souls are just part of us, our spirit IS us, and as such is ascribed specific qualities: Evil, good, pure, holy, fearful, prideful. When we’re in Christ, our spirits are labelled “righteous.” You could say my spirit is me, my core. The second ring is my soul—my mind, will, and emotions. This measures how well the real me, my spirit, is able to express itself. And third, as my mind, will, and emotions think, choose, and feel, my identity is expressed through my actual life and behavior. The third ring.

Every year we grow, we change—and various qualities are added to our second and third layers (soul and behavior) through our experiences. A significant part of who I am emerges as the real me interacts with the real world — experiencing pain, joy, success, failure, sadness and wonder. Personally, much of the graciousness I’m known for blossomed because I lost my first pastoral position in a painful evaluation and suffered through disillusionment. That changed me, enabling me to better extend the grace I wish I was given when I needed it most. Another example: my creativity has been modified and shaped by the world’s response to what I’ve created. Sometimes this has gone well, other times not.

You could also put identity on a continuum, if you’d rather work with lines than circles. On the far left is who I am. On the far right is who I will be someday. Everything in between is who I am becoming.

This isn’t a straight line, though, because we often take one step forward, two steps back. Hard won ground in our character is lost through poor decisions or disappointing reactions toward hard times. My wife Shauna took a decade-long detour through a valley called mistrust after I lost my pastorate, for example. It was hard to watch as the trusting woman God made her to be was buried in an avalanche of bitterness and fear. She’s beginning to blossom again, and I love what I’m seeing. The real her, her spirit, is beginning to express itself in godly thinking, choosing, and feeling again. Her life is now much closer to what God had in mind.

Life changes us, and we either grow more like Jesus or less so. More thoughts to come.