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Understanding the Pain of Identity Loss Brought on by COVID-19 Through the Lens of Genesis 3 and 11

Alan Stanley —

COVID-19 has stripped many of us of all but essential needs.

But what is an “essential” need? Here in New Zealand, it is anything that is “essential to the provision of life” (e.g., food, medical treatment).[1] Going out to a café or playing golf do not qualify. And yet, not far from my mother’s tombstone lies another woman’s tombstone with the epitaph, “Golf was her life.” In other words, golf made her physical life meaningful and satisfying. We might say that “her life consisted in the abundance of golf” (cf. Luke 12:15). What then does one do during this time for whom golf—or work, social connection, money, travel, freedom, etc.—is their life?

When these things are “essential,” the loss, whether temporary or permanent, can be painful. This pain is universal for it is not limited to gender, class, race, age, personality, or bank balance. It is the pain of disappointment and loss; it is akin to grief. In what follows, I hope to make sense of this pain—which I will refer to as “identity pain”—by examining its origin and cause, and ultimately what we can learn from such pain during this season of COVID-19.

The Origin of Identity Pain and Genesis 3

We begin with the account of Adam and Eve’s fall into sin. Eve, with her husband watching on, succumbs to the serpent’s enticement to go against God’s command (see Gen 2:17), motivated by what she perceives to be “good” for her and her husband (3:6). We get a glimpse into her heart with the phrase “And the woman saw.” The phrase stands in contrast to “And Elohim saw” used seven times in chapter 1.[2] What the woman “saw”—and what God “saw”—was “good,” which explains why the man and woman are said to have become “like God, knowing good and evil” (3:5, with slight variation in v. 22).

How, though, have this couple become “like God, knowing good and evil”? In Genesis 2:18, it is clear that God knows what is “good” for the man. The same thought is implied in 2:9 where God creates trees that are “good for food,” obviously meaning good for humans. “Good” then, in this context, conveys the sense of essential.[3] The same is true of course of all that God has created, it is all essential for life and human flourishing.

Therefore, in the woman’s eyeing of the food, she is revealing an “attitude that says I need something I do not now have in order to be happy.”[4] She “made self-fulfilment her goal.”[5] From this point forward human beings would decide, independently of God, what would “help” or “hinder”[6] their happiness. This interpretation is confirmed and illustrated in three other places where the same three Hebrew words used to describe the woman’s actions occur together.[7] The sons of God (Gen 6:2), Achan (Josh 7:21) and King David (2 Sam 11:2, 4) all succumb to an inordinate desire for something good, something essential!

Walter Brueggemann helpfully describes Genesis 3 as “a theological critique of anxiety.”[8] Imagining they could alleviate the anxiety created by the serpent (3:1), by taking something “good” (3:6), the pair discover the “good” thing has not alleviated their anxiety at all. Rather it has resulted in fear and shame as they discover their nakedness. Verse 8 makes it clear that it is “the man and his wife” that hid. The phrase last occurred in 2:25: “And the two of them were naked, the man and his wife, and were not ashamed.”[9] It is hard to imagine a more self-conscious moment than being naked in public. And yet they are clearly blissfully unaware. But now that changes, and their fear and shame lead them into hiding. Thus, “a more complete transformation could not be imagined.”[10]

The account of Adam and Eve reminds me of a friend who took an Angus burger back to McDonald’s to complain about its size. After telling the manager that the burger did not resemble the advertised photo, the manager replied, “It never does.” Adam and Eve had a photo in their minds of what “good” looked like, but what they got was not the photo they had in mind.

What this shows us, in Brueggemann’s words, is that, “[t]he causes for anxiety among us are wrongly discerned.”[11] I call this, “misdiagnosing” our real problem. For example, we experience symptoms such as heart palpitations, nervousness, and agitation. We diagnose the problem as anxiety and prescribe ourselves medication, the “good,” to fix it. Most “attempts to resolve anxiety in our culture,” Brueggemann points out, are “psychological, economic, cosmetic.”[12] But they will all prove to be poor imitations at best, of the good we have in mind.

What then was the first human pair’s root problem? They were afraid to be seen for who and what they are: naked! In this way, “their sense of themselves and their relationship with each other is shattered.”[13] And not only do they hide their nakedness, they pass the blame to hide their disobedience (Gen 3:11–13), revealing just how “morbidly self-conscious”[14] they had become. Eventually they are expelled from the garden (3:24).

Understanding Identity Pain and Genesis 11

Fast forward to the end of Genesis’ primeval account of history where the central characters are not two human beings but the “whole earth” (11:1–2).[15] The setting is Babylonia and serves as a fitting conclusion to the Fall account. For just as the first humans acted independently of God’s command and opted for their version of good, so too the people of the “whole earth” now act independently of God’s original intent to be “fruitful and multiply and fill the earth” (1:28; 9:1 cf. v. 7) and choose instead the security of sticking together (11:4).[16] Their independence from God is further highlighted by their location: east (11:2), signifying moving away from God’s presence (as in 3:24; 4:16). Furthermore, the peoples’ command to “Come” (11:3–4) is matched by God’s command to “Come” (11:7),[17] indicating that they too, like Adam and Eve, had become like God.

With such a clear trajectory between Genesis 3 and 11, it is reasonable to assume that fear and anxiety is what prevented humanity from scattering across the earth, as God had commanded. They chose instead to settle down and build a city and tower to “make for ourselves a name”(11:4). To desire a “name” is to want an identity. In the same way that the first human pair hid behind trees to cover their nakedness, so too, the peoples of the whole earth hid behind their building efforts to “cover” their fears and insecurities in order to establish “a false identity.”[18] Brian Rosner defines identity as “our sense of self, our value and worth.”[19] That the desire for a name/identity is the climax of this first section of Genesis demonstrates that the search for value and worth, or in Brueggemann’s words, “anxiety about self,”[20] is the root of all sin. This idea is enhanced when we recall that Genesis begins with God making a “name” for himself through his creation (e.g., Ps 8:1, 9; 89:12; 124:8; 148:5). Now humankind seek to make a “name” for themselves through their creation.

The fact that the next section of Genesis opens with God promising to make Abraham’s “name great” (12:2; cf. 11:4) shows just how important the theme of identity is to the biblical narrative and God’s plan. The same promise next occurs at another significant biblical juncture when God promises David, “I will make for you a great name” (2 Sam 7:9). The link between Abraham and David points ahead to “Jesus the Messiah the son of David, the son of Abraham” (Matt 1:1) who will call people to be baptized “in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit” (28:19). Hence, it is clear from Genesis 12 onwards that if our “name is ever to become great it will not be because of any self-initiated effort. The great name will be a gift, not an achievement.”[21]

What We Can Learn from Identity Pain

That our identity is in God is a truth Christians know, but all too often fail to experience. Rosner lists eleven “essential dimensions” that can have an inordinate influence on a person’s sense of identity:[22] race/ethnicity/nationality, culture, gender/sexuality, physical and mental capacity, family of origin, age, relationships, occupation, possessions, religion, and personality/character. In and of themselves, none of these are problematic. In fact, each one is God-given and thus an opportunity to image God to others. The union between husband and wife, for example, according to Paul, reveals something of the relationship between Christ and the church (Eph 5:32). But even Paul knows that marriage can become all-consuming and go against God’s purposes (see 1 Cor 7:29–31). Thus, Rosner points out that human beings have the propensity to turn any of these eleven “essential dimensions” of a person’s sense of identity into an idol.[23] Or in the language of Genesis 3, we turn a created thing into a “good” (essential!) thing. Which is precisely what we see in chapter 11, in particular, the idols of nationalism, culture, physical and mental capacity, and very likely family of origin and relationships, and perhaps more.

This point is so fundamental to the way we live that it cannot be stressed enough. We are hardwired because of the events of Genesis 3 to find our satisfaction and identity in created things rather than in God himself (see also Rom 1:21–25). Sören Kierkegaard articulates the root of the human problem as well as anyone:

when the ambitious man whose watchword was “Either Caesar or nothing” does not become Caesar, he is in despair thereat. But this signifies something else, namely, that precisely because he did not become Caesar, he now cannot endure to be himself … This self which, had he become Caesar, would have been to him a sheer delight …is now absolutely intolerable to him.[24]

“Caesar” is, of course, a metaphor for anything that we think will fill the void of discontentment. It is the “good” that Eve went after. “Caesar,” we think, will give us a worthy identity. If our “Caesar” materializes, we might experience “sheer delight” for a time—though still in despair, just masked. If it does not, “gnawing pain” and “torment”[25] will be the result. Kierkegaard is not the only one to observe this. Ancient philosophers described the unfilled heart as “sick with fear” and exhausted “with cares.”[26] And that “depression, irascibility, malevolence, quick temper” or even “theft, adultery, and violence” (think of the violence that characterizes humanity in Gen 6) are symptomatic of heart “sickness.”[27] The root problem? Like the tower builders at Babel, we are afraid and insecure without accomplishments. To recall Kierkegaard again, we “cannot endure to be” our (naked!) self.

This discontentment with our selves may be particularly acute during and post COVID-19. We have all been stripped of certain things, and for some, those things will be “Caesars.” To use Rosner’s categories, we may be feeling the pain of a changing culture: the inability to travel, restrictions on our freedom, or simply living in a vulnerable world? Occupation: job losses, temporary or permanent, cause insecurity. Our physical or mental capabilities may be significantly curtailed. If we are in the prime of our life, particularly the latter end, we may be threatened by the possibility of not being unable to maximize our potential, in which case age may be a source of pain. For those who thrive on touch and connection (relationships) this time is particularly difficult. It is even possible that our nationality is causing us despair if our identity is tied to our country’s performance. If our identity is tied to religion (an organized gathering, activity programs, traditions, even a building) there will no doubt be considerable discomfort.

In one way or another, to have our identity props stripped away, or at least threatened, will be painful. To explore the nature of this pain, it is good to consider an illustration from Jesus. In Matthew 18:8–9, Jesus prescribes the course of action required for anything that “causes you to sin/stumble” (skandalizō), namely, cut off your foot and remove your eye. Why though emphasize body parts when Jesus knows that the “heart” is the source of sin (15:19)? The term skandalizō refers to anything that is an obstacle to faith.[28] In the history of Israel these obstacles are idols (e.g., Jud 2:3; Ps 106:36). Thus, an eye or a foot signifies idolatrous obstacles, things that we hide behind to cover our “nakedness.” They have become so much a part of who we are, that to eliminate them would be painful; as painful as removing body parts.

J. C. Ryle wrote, “I will never shrink from declaring my belief that there are no ‘spiritual gains without pains.’”[29] But our fallenness has wired us to think of pain as something to avoid. Many Christians have been taught that pain is bad. It is possible to de-spiritualize pain, even blame it on Satan (think of Gen 3:13). But this goes against what Scripture teaches, namely, that pain and fruitfulness are inseparable (John 15:2; Heb 10:11). Pain associated with losing one’s sense of self and worth should not be avoided.[30]

COVID-19 is an opportunity for “honestly facing the dissatisfaction with our idols” and “restore a more genuine and authentic identity.”[31] Rosner also recognizes the opportunity a “crisis” affords one to reflect on those things we are depending on—and hiding behind, albeit subconsciously—for our identity.[32] How do we do this? C. S. Lewis observed that God speaks to us in our pain.[33] It helps, though, if we can see the pain for what it is, having to endure our naked self. We can imagine a recovering alcoholic not understanding their pain as withdrawal symptoms. The pain of an unmasked identity is normal and understandable. Hence, “[p]art of the sanctification process of the Holy Spirit,” Peter Scazzero writes, “is to strip away the false constructs we have accumulated and enable our true selves to emerge.”[34] It is the stripping away that hurts.

Once the cause of this pain becomes apparent, the path ahead becomes clearer. The answer is not to follow Eve in search of that “good” thing—that would be to gratify “the desires of the flesh” (Rom 13:14), having the same effect as a band-aid on a gaping wound. The path ahead is to re-evaluate our priorities, to trust that our “life is hidden” not in nationality, culture, physical and mental capacity, age, relationships, occupation, possessions, or religion; rather “your life his hidden with Christ in God” (Col 3:3). Governments may have decided what is essential for life, but at a deeper level, COVID-19 gives us the opportunity to reflect on what we have considered essential for life.

Jesus Our Example

Jesus’ experience in Gethsemane illustrates the point being made here. His “deep personal desire”[35] is to bypass the cross. His prayer, “My soul is overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death,” reveals his intense anguish (Matt 26:38 ESV). It is as though he is dying inside.[36] The dying feeling is the result of knowing that the weight of the world’s sin is going to separate him from his life source, his Father’s presence (see 27:46). What Jesus is feeling is an extreme example of what we all feel when our source for life is taken away. Nothing exposes what we trust in more than our reaction to loss. If we want to know what our “Caesars” are, take them away—which is what COVID-19 is doing. Jesus’ reaction to the prospect of being separated from his Father reveals the “Caesar” of his heart. Hence, what is going on in Gethsemane is profound. In addition to the soteriological benefits, Jesus does in this garden what the first couple failed to do in their garden, namely, provide us with an example of what it looks like to not grasp equality with God. And it was this path that led him to receive “the name that is above every name” (Phil 2:5–11).

Alan Stanley spent 15 years in Australia, 10 of those years as a pastor, and all of them lecturing in Bible College, and since 2013 as Director of Post Graduate Studies and lecturer in New Testament and Theology at Brisbane School of Theology. In 2018 he returned to NZ where he was born and raised, and now resides in Cambridge with his wife and three teenage children. He is a freelance speaker, writer, Christian educator, and is involved in theological education in Asia, as well as training preachers in New Zealand and Queensland. He has published books and articles and is currently finishing up a book on the Sermon on the Mount.

[1] New Zealand Government, “Essential Businesses,” https://covid19.govt.nz/businesses-and-employees/essential-businesses/.

[2] See Gen 1:4, 10, 12, 18, 21, 25, 31.

[3] Cf. Gerhard Von Rad, Genesis: A Commentary, 3rd ed.; trans. by John H. Marks (London: SCM, 1972), 89cited in Brian C. Howell, In the Eyes of God: A Contextual Approach to Biblical Anthropomorphic Metaphors (Eugene, OR: Pickwick, 2013), 130: “in this context ‘good and evil’ should be understood more as what is ‘beneficial’ and ‘salutary’ on the one hand and ‘detrimental,’ ‘damaging’ on the other.”

[4] Victor P. Hamilton, The Book of Genesis: Chapters 1–17, NICOT (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1990), 190.

[5] D. Kidner, Genesis, TOTC (Chicago, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1967), 68.

[6] Von Rad, Genesis, 89.

[7] The 3 Hebrew words ra’ah (“saw”), tov (“good”), and laqakh (“took”) occur together only in these passages.

[8] Walter Brueggemann, Genesis, Interpretation (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1982), 53.

[9] Gordon J. Wenham, Genesis 1–15,WBC 1 (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1987), 76.

[10] Wenham, Genesis 1–15, 76.

[11] Brueggemann, Genesis, 53.

[12] Brueggemann, Genesis, 54.

[13] Craig Bartholomew and Michael W. Goheen, The Drama of Scripture: Finding Our Place in the Biblical Story; 2nd ed. (London: SPCK, 2006), 41.

[14] Bartholomew and Goheen, The Drama, 41.

[15] People are clearly in view since the whole earth is depicted as speaking.

[16] The phrase “across the face of the all earth” in Gen 11:8–9 harks back to the same phrase in 1:29. The phrase also occurs in 7:3 indicating that God’s original intention at creation is continuing despite humanity’s attempt to resist it.

[17] See Wenham, Genesis 1–15, 240.

[18] Bartholomew and Goheen, The Drama, 51.

[19] Brian Rosner, Known by God: A Biblical Theology of Personal Identity, Biblical Theology for Life (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2017), 62.

[20] Brueggemann, Genesis, 53.

[21] Hamilton, Genesis 1–15, 372.

[22] Rosner, Known by God, 41; the following list is from p. 41.

[23] Rosner, Known by God, 61–63.

[24] Soren Kierkegaard, The Sickness unto Death (Radford, VA: Wilder, 2008), 14.

[25] Kierkegaard, The Sickness, 14.

[26] Lucretius 3.806–29[2]. This and the following reference are from A. A. Long and D. N. Sedley (eds.), The Hellenistic Philosophers: Vol. 1, Translations of the Principal Sources with Philosophical Commentary (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1987).

[27] Stobaeus 2.93.1–13[1–2]. See further, Alan P. Stanley, “Gospel Ethics” in Convergence: Essays on the Intersection between Philosophy and Theology, ed. Daniel J. Fick and Jesse K. Mileo (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2018), 62–88.

[28] G. Stahlin, “σκάνδαλον σκανδαλίζω,” TDNT 7:345.

[29] J. I. Packer, Faithfulness and Holiness: The Witness of J. C. Ryle; rep. ed. (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2002), 125.

[30] Not all pain is so acutely related to identity of course, and there are times when the catalyst for pain must be dealt with (e.g., child or spousal abuse).

[31] Richard Lints, Identity and Idolatry: The Image of God and its Inversion; New Studies in Biblical Theology (Downers Grove, IL: Apollos, 2015), 162.

[32] Rosner, Known by God, 26.

[33] C. S. Lewis, The Problem of Pain; rev. ed. (London: William Collins, 2015).

[34] Peter Scazzero, Emotionally Healthy Spirituality (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 2006), 28. Cf. Gordon Dalbey, Healing the Masculine Soul: How God Restores Men to Real Manhood (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1988), 69: “encountering the fullness of God’s power means being stripped of your own.”

[35] Grant R. Osborne, Matthew,ZEC NT (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2010), 979.

[36] Osborne, Matthew, 979.