by Robert Jacobs
In his book Whistling Vivaldi: How Stereotypes Affect Us and What We Can Do, Professor Claude M. Steele explores a concept he terms identity threat, “the threat that [one’s performance on a task] could confirm or be seen to confirm a bad stereotype” associated with a particular group identity held by the individual. For instance, Professor Steele includes data from an experiment conducted at Princeton University in which African American students were asked to complete a short round of putt putt golf. When the African American students were told that their performance would reveal information about their intelligence and academic ability—an area where the African American community held a negative stereotype—the men performed poorly; however, when the African American men were told that their performance would indicate their level of athletic acuity, their performance significantly improved.
While the Princeton University experiment represents just one example of this theory in action, Professor Steele develops and expands this idea over the course of the book, ultimately discussing how we can mitigate the effects of identity threat. He finds that even if a person holds an identity with a negative stereotype in a particular area, they can override the effects of stereotype threat by instead focusing on an alternate identity where either no such negative stereotype exists, or (even more effective) an identity with a positive stereotype.
For example, in a study conducted at Harvard University, a large group of Asian women were split into two groups and given an identical math exam. One group, however, was given a questionnaire regarding their gender, putting their feminine identity (a group stereotyped as bad at math) at the forefront of their mind. The other group was given a questionnaire regarding their Asian heritage, an identity that holds a positive stereotype about math. The study found that the women who focused on their female identity did significantly worse on the same math exam when compared to the group who focused on their Asian identity.
So, what does any of this have to do with following Jesus? Professor Steele’ research sheds light on what it means to be a child of God who still resides in the flesh, a soul—to quote countless theologians and a 1984 Amy Grant song—caught between the now and the not yet. While there are countless identities in this world (Black, White, Hispanic, man, woman, genderless, transgender, gay, bisexual, heterosexual, etc.), the two identities that Jesus repeatedly invokes are son of man and son of God.
Jesus was the son of God, taking on the identity of son of man when he came to this world. Conversely, we hold the identity son of man from our conception and then gain the identity son of God at our salvation. Though Jesus did not start as son of man, He did not possess a diminished form of humanity when he came to this world. In the same way, though we did not start out as daughters and sons of God, our status as God’s child is in no way subordinate to our humanity.
The key, then, is to focus on our identity as children of God, not our fleshly identity. When we focus on our propensity for sin, we will get sin. When we keep our identity as daughters and sons of God in center focus, we will find life. To quote Paul, “to set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace” (Romans 8:6)
Never forget who you are. You are beloved by God (1 Thessalonians 1:4). You are His legitimate child, “and if [a child], then heirs—heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ” (Romans 8:17). You have been set free, free indeed (John 8:36). “His divine power has given us everything we need for a godly life through our knowledge of him who called us by his own glory and goodness” (1 Peter 1:3).
Your fleshly identity may be crying out that you are a slave to sin, that you can choose nothing but that which is contrary to God. Yet, you must take that lie captive and bring it before Christ, declaring all the while your identity as God’s child.
Take heart! The same spirit that raised Jesus form the grave resides in you. Live in light of that identity this week.