God, you know me, I am yours

By on October 1, 1999

‘Who am I?’

A GREAT TEACHER of the history of religion once identified the question “Who am I?” as the first and most fundamental religious question.

It sums up a host of other smaller questions, “Where did I come from?” “Where am I going?” “What am I here for?” into a question which, although it may sound at first rather egotistical, leads inevitably to relationships with others, and for most people in history leads to God and eternal purposes.

But the question is also the title of a poem by one of the least egotistical heroes of the twentieth century, the German theologian and martyr, Dietrich Bonhoeffer. The poem was given to me some years ago, and I carry it with me in my diary.

In the poem, written while he was in a Nazi prison, Bonhoeffer sets out two pictures of himself. First, he describes how others speak admiringly of him – confident, strong, free, clear – and how they envisage him facing his inevitable death – calm, smiling, proud.

Then follows his description of the inner realities as he feels them – devoid of calm, thirsting for human companionship, trembling with rage about trifling injuries, weary of thinking and empty of prayer.

He then asks, “Which am I? Am I one person today and tomorrow the other? Both at the same time? A hypocrite to the world and a weakling to myself?”

All those questions he leaves unanswered. He makes only this affirmation, “Whoever I am, O God, you know me, I am yours.”

Though I could never imagine myself in circumstances as dreadful as those of Bonhoeffer, I still identify with the problem of communicating public self-confidence and coping with raging inner self-doubt.

This past summer I had a splendid month of office work – almost uninterrupted, dealing with mountains of paper, reducing them by about 95%. The result was a sense of competence and satisfaction usually unknown to me.

Then on the last day of the month came a series of blows – a meeting with a long-time friend diagnosed with a malignancy, a court judgment which has serious consequences for a diocese and the national church, an exit interview with a member of staff whose early retirement is a personal blow, the news that someone close to me will be unemployed because of a situation over which she has no control.

In a day I went from a sense of being able to handle things to the complete opposite. My coping mechanisms, which within myself I know to be feeble, seemed to be publicly inadequate. Who am I? Someone who can only cope when all is well?

And in the end my affirmation is Bonhoeffer’s: God, you know me, I am yours.

Part of me would dearly like God to do better things with me than has been the case so far, but that can only come through a more generous self-opening to the God who knows me and deeper self-offering to the God whose I am.

Self-recrimination is pointless – that’s not why God came into the world; it is not the way Jesus handled either the desert temptations or his trial, torture and execution. Self-offering is the point – what God will make of us is not proportional to our brains or energy or strength, it is proportional to how much of those things we put at God’s disposal.

Archbishop Michael Peers is Primate of the Anglican Church of Canada.

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