In session 4, we examined how temperament influences our identity. In this session, we’ll look at the final component of earthly identity: heritage. We each have a unique personal history that affects how we answer the question “Who am I?” Such factors as when, where, and to whom we were born all affect our answer. Some additional factors include where we grew up, what schools we attended, what traditions we engaged in, and any major transitions we went through. These are all aspects of our heritage that we carry with us today.
Enjoy this opportunity to trace the foundational roots of your life.
Read Session 5: Heritage.
Complete the Life Inventory: Heritage exercise beginning on page 109.
Complete the Life Inventory: Values I exercise beginning on page 112.
heritage: that which comes or belongs to one by reason of birth; an inherited lot or portion
Heritage is the environment into which someone is born and raised. We might think that because we are redeemed in Christ, our heritage shouldn’t matter. We might reason that if we are mature in Christ, our heritage should affect our identity very little. There are valid biblical truths behind such thoughts. We are now free from the bondage imposed on us by certain aspects of our heritage. For example, someone raised in a family in which fear was the motive for obedience is now free to respond to God in obedience rather than respond to the fear of men, even though the believer may pay a price for following Christ. Or when loving an enemy results in personal pain or loss, the believer is free to pursue a godly life in spite of what his or her heritage may have taught him or her.
Still, sometimes a person’s heritage contains elements that contribute to godly character. For instance, someone raised in a mainstream culture that valued relationships will tend to prioritize people over tasks. In that kind of culture, tasks don’t get in the way of valuing people and relationships.
The purpose of this session is not to judge the value of one’s heritage but rather to take inventory of it. We take this inventory keeping in mind that our heritage does influence the way we live. Ultimately, we want to explore how to respond to what our heritage has taught us—whether to embrace a given inherited trait as godly or to reject it. However, the first step is to identify characteristics from our heritage so that we can later make accurate judgments.
He himself gives all men life and breath and everything else. From one man he made every nation of men, that they should inhabit the whole earth; and he determined the times set for them and the exact places where they should live. (Acts 17:25-26)
Although we are citizens of a heavenly culture that has its own heavenly identity, we are still living as citizens of this earth. Missiology scholar David Hesselgrave writes, “Though Christianity is supracultural in its origin and truth, it is cultural in its application.” We apply Christianity in the midst of identities that have been greatly shaped by our heritage.
This truth affects our ability to communicate the Christian message from one culture to another. When sharing the gospel cross-culturally, we must try to make the message clear and accurate in that particular cultural setting. The same principle applies when we try to live out our faith. Our unique heritage affects the way we try to live out our identity in Christ within our communities.
God’s providential hand developed a particular heritage for each person. The story of Joseph illustrates the blessing of seeing God’s purpose through the good and the bad of our backgrounds:
Then Joseph said to his brothers, “Come close to me.” When they had done so, he said, “I am your brother Joseph, the one you sold into Egypt! And now, do not be distressed and do not be angry with yourselves for selling me here, because it was to save lives that God sent me ahead of you. For two years now there has been famine in the land, and for the next five years there will not be plowing and reaping. But God sent me ahead of you to preserve for you a remnant on earth and to save your lives by a great deliverance.
“So then, it was not you who sent me here, but God. He made me father to Pharaoh, lord of his entire household and ruler of all Egypt.” (Genesis 45:4-8)
For a special purpose, God used Joseph’s unique heritage as a son of Jacob who became an Egyptian civil servant. Although some aspects of our heritage are ungodly and some are godly, God has superintended the entire process and desires to use it uniquely for His glory and our good.
Heritage begins with birth and develops through life circumstances. Although you can state in a few words when, where, and to whom you were born, those facts are more than just data on a page: They have had far-reaching implications in your life.
We’ll focus on three cultural categories from which heritage develops: mainstream culture, family culture, and subcultures.
On the broadest level, mainstream culture involves the historical time period in which we’ve lived. Mainstream culture consists of those characteristics that were realities within the local community where you were born and raised. It might include characteristics of religion (Christian, religious, nonreligious, pluralistic), ethnic environment (homogeneous, multicultural, minority in majority culture), political environment (democracy, socialism, conservative, liberal), media (sources of news and entertainment; exposure to radio, TV, and printed materials), traditions (holidays, historical events, dietary habits, fashion), and art (purpose, emphasis on freedom of expression). While the mainstream culture is the larger environment that influenced you, your family culture reveals more specific expressions of each of these categories.
Family culture is the pattern of behaviors and values that individuals learn because of the way their family related and lived out roles. This culture is the one that influences most people to the greatest degree. It’s the environment in which most people have spent the most time, especially in their early childhood years. Louis Luzbetak, another missiology scholar, writes,
An individual to a large extent reflects the values that he or she has learned (either through intended education, conscious imitation, or unconscious absorption) from those with whom he or she is in contact. In fact, the closer and the earlier the contact, especially if it is continuous, the greater the impact.
Families develop certain patterns of thinking and behavior. For example, one person’s tendency to be aggressive in conflict may stem from the way his or her family typically dealt with it.
Family culture influences some people less than others. As the family unit breaks down, children can become more influenced by the mainstream culture or subcultures.
These are the various environments outside the family culture but distinct from the mainstream culture. An example is the Boy Scouts. For a certain boy, his Boy Scout experience might have provided a subculture that significantly affected his life. This category also includes particular church or parachurch cultures. For people who strongly identify with a particular subculture, its effect on their heritage may be great.
A person’s heritage is both concrete and developing. Looking back at our past, we can see an unchangeable history of experiences in various environments. At the same time, our current experiences and environment are shaping our heritage of tomorrow.
Heritage affects the way people relate with others and fulfill their roles. For instance, people who have been in environments where emotions are expressed through physical contact will likely respond differently than those whose backgrounds are primarily verbal. It’s helpful, then, to understand other people’s heritages as well as our own. In order to grow in our ability to love others, we must understand the “heritage lens” through which we view life as well as the “lenses” through which others see life.
This session neither exalts nor condemns someone’s heritage. The primary objectives are to acknowledge our heritage and learn how it affects our identity. God has sovereignly placed us where He desires us to be. It is only appropriate that we thank Him for our lives and what He plans to do in, through, and with them.
Read Session 6: Values.
Complete the Life Inventory: Values II exercise beginning on page 114.
Our next session will tackle values and get to the core of why we do what we do. Therefore, now would be a great time for you to be alone with God and reflect on your values. A time of solitude is ideal for doing the “Life Inventory: Values II” exercise, which asks you to be honest with yourself about your real values in your daily living. Here is a suggested plan for using this time alone with God.
Spend time in silence, prayer, and worship. Focus on God and enjoy His presence. Consider the profound reality that God, who is above and beyond all earthly things, has touched our lives as believers through the work of Christ. Enter into God’s presence, reflect on His glory, and communicate your praise to Him. You may choose to spend some time reading and thinking over some passages from Scripture, or you may just spend some quiet time in worship or prayer.
In your “Values I” exercise, you’ve already written your twelve most deeply held values. Use the “Values II” exercise beginning on page 121 to validate your values with specific actions from your life. Think through your life (weekly schedule, relationships, work, ministry, studies) and consider how your life “proves” each value you hold. Write down actions you consistently do that reflect each of your twelve values from the “Values I” section.
Do this with complete honesty before God. You may not be able to substantiate some values. Those are values that you wish were priorities but that you don’t practice as much as you’d like.
Next, go back through your list of values and mark each value as real (values consistent with the way you live) or ideal (values you hold in an idealistic way but can’t validate from patterns in your behavior).
Finally, meditate on what you’ve discovered and ask God these questions:
Close with some time in prayer and journal writing. Reflect on what you’ve learned about your identity, and write down any insight from God that your time alone has revealed.