At the beginning of every semester, I usually handout a 3-by-5 index card to each of my students, and ask them to write down their answers to four questions: (i) What is your purpose in life? (ii) What are your reasons for taking this course? (iii) How does this course contribute to your life’s purpose? and (iv) What are your expectations of the professor? In almost a decade of teaching and doing the 3-by-5 index card exercise in social work courses in public institutions, most students affirm that their purpose in life is somehow related to serving the vulnerable, and fighting injustice.
In my new employment at a Christian University I repeated the 3-by-5 index card exercise with the expectation that Christian students would answer the questions about their life’s purpose differently. Surprisingly, most Christian students stated that they are still searching for their specific purpose in life, even though they boldly, and unashamedly profess their faith in Jesus Christ.
I wrongly assumed that students in Christian institutions would have been exposed to professors, courses, and other faith-integration activities that would have helped the students develop an identity based on their professed faith and their pursuit of purpose. I expected that Christian students would have a clear sense of purpose, live purposefully, and manifest their purpose as part of the great commission. Then it occurred to me: as a Christian professor, can I say with confidence that I know my own identity, or who I am in this profession? That is, am I clear about my own God-given identity which authorizes me to pursue my perceived calling as a Christian social work professor/practitioner? If I cannot answer the identity question of who I am, how then can I help my students know who they are?
To answer this question about our identities – that is, who we truly are – there are two inquiries that beg for our careful attention. First, the question our Lord Jesus Christ asked his disciples in Matthew 16:18 is the same question I pose to you: “Who do men say you are?” Like the disciples, you will likely answer this question by telling me the nice things students, clients, and colleagues have said about you.
The majority of us most often define our identities by our “flesh and blood” answers, that is, our academic, and/or, professional qualifications, which unfortunately are irrelevant to our divinely appointed identities. Jesus Christ told his disciples that our true identities are revealed by our Father who is in heaven.
The second question is: “Who does God say you are?” Answering this question, and understanding your God-given identity, helps every Christian social worker to know who they truly are, as well as the specific assignments to which they are called. We find some examples of this in the Scriptures. For instance, the revealing of the identity of Peter as a rock, and his apostolic role in the future of the Church of Jesus Christ. This example clearly indicates that our God-given identity is not the same as our “flesh and blood” identity, and the revelation of who God says we are is what we should build our professional calling on.
As we continue to serve as Christian social work professors and practitioners, it is important to pause and ask ourselves: “Is who men say I am the same as who God says I am?” I pray the Lord will give you an answer of peace.
Christson Adedoyin, MSW, PhD is an Associate Professor of Social Work at Samford University, Birmingham, Alabama. He has been a member of the NACSW since 2007.