Each person's foundational sensory-motor functions, intellectual abilities, and virtues shapes how he or she understands and interacts with the world—but they don't determine who he or she is, at the core. The philosopher Plato had his "analogy of the cave" to explain his view of every thing's identity. This is our "analogy of the parasailer," which we hope sheds light on the idea of each person's identity.
See the parasailer at left? He’s attached to a boat via a rope, and he’s attached to a parachute—much closer to him—also via ropes. So, his experience is one of flying, being aloft, looking down and seeing so much. Yet what’s most meaningful in terms of the direction his route (life) takes isn’t his immediate surroundings, it’s the boat up ahead. In life, the boat up ahead is who each of us will be, where we will be, where we'll end up.
Likewise, the parasailer's parachute is what’s behind him, who he has been. In life, the parachute is who each of us has been—our past. The parachute—that temporal drag of who we have been—is what keeps us aloft at all. We sometimes want to cut ourselves loose from our pasts, to totally redefine who we are, but we can never completely do so. Who we’ve been is keeping us aloft as who we are.
When who we’ve been is ultimately cut, at death, we become who we will be—we will fall to the water, unnaturally, and the boat to which we’re attached will reel us in. Until that point, we’re held between two tensions of who we have been, which affects how present we are in the moment, and who we will be, which affects where we’re going.
Let’s further picture that our parasailer can radio down and ask the driver where to go—the equivalent of prayer to God or, if on the wrong channel, the equivalent of shouts in the dark. When we pray—when we radio to an all-powerful Captain—our influence is real, but also partial. The Person at the helm ultimately has control. God, of course, has control over His boat. Forces of evil, too, have control over their boats. But God has control over the seas, too: He can bring to pass whatever He decrees—including the demise of any boats who oppose Him.
As parasailers, we can look around at our surroundings: the air currents, the trees, the water. We can appreciate our experience. But there is something about experience that clouds the truth that we are connected to a boat that has already crossed where we are, steered by someone who has seen where we're going. We must, nevertheless, recognize: we're tethered to the boat. Even when the boat disappears behind a cloud or behind a bend in the river, we're still tethered to it.
Not all of us, though, are tethered to the same boat. Some are tethered to a boat called "Christ." Others are tethered to any of thousands of boats called "the world." A wonderful privilege of those parasailing with Christ is being able to radio down to God, asking Him to pick up parasailers floundering in the water, whose boats of the world have stalled. These "pick-up" missions are helped by a number of factors, including
• God's desire to save downed parasailers (1 Timothy 2:3–4);
• Floundering parasailers' dismay at losing loft or, later, treading water; their desire for safety and security; their realization that their boats have failed; and their recognition that they are unable to save themselves (Luke 5:27–32);
• God's patience—before, during, and after rescue missions (1 Timothy 1:15-17);
• God's consistent, dependable piloting (James 1:17); and
• God's power to see the rescue through—from
• Seeing others' needs before His current parasailers do (foreknowing them), to
• Seeing the eventual destination of all whom He rescues (pre-destinating them), to
• Seeing the example of His Son—His first Parasailer who rescued others, who joined Him in rescuing others, who joined them in rescuring others, who joined them in rescuing others, who joined them…; to
• Seeing the hope that those who follow in His way indeed become more and more in rescuing character and general demeanor like that first rescuing parasailer, God's Son. (This change of character and participation in the mission is part of the "destination," determined from before the foundation of the world, to where everyone whom God would be rescuing is headed.) (James 1:18).
Because God has determined the destiny
of all He rescues and is able to ensure their safe arrival
where He's headed (Romans 8:38–39), He can call them in
love, take care of their sin issue so they can join Him
(can "justify" them), and can bestow upon them the honor that the royalty He pours into them deserves (can "glorify" them). Sometimes, it's tough for those who have been rescued to see the substance of these wonderful realities in their lives. We look at our experience. Sometimes, we feel distant from the boat we're connected to. But we're called to have faith—to enjoy the substantiation of what we hope for (Hebrews 11:1).
Sometimes, it helps to focus intently on the boat, secure in the correcting tug of the rope that connects us. Sometimes, it helps to realize how indispensable we are to God's rescues. He could, of course, save anyone from the water without the help of those He had already saved—but in doing so, He'd be spoiling those He had already saved, allowing us to become immature and lazy, hardly fit to be His partner for time everlasting. Thus, He ties His initiative and power to the actions of those He's rescued—His parasailers, His people (Romans 10:14–15).
Other times, it helps to look back and see the wake of the boat, notice it’s basically the same track that one’s life has followed, and then recognize, simply, that none of us controlled that course in and of ourselves.* It’s a powerful recognition—and it can’t be had by looking at our immediate surroundings.
"Who am I?" is a powerful question! Unfortunately, the more we strive to answer it, the more we often end up attending to our surroundings—or contemplating our navels. A more important question is "Whose am I?". I change constantly. But if I belong to Someone I can depend on to be consistently faithful, my willy-nilly sense of self becomes grounded in something (or, more accurately, Someone) timeless. And if I'm securely in Him—securely attached to His boat—I can appreciate the changes I experience while I trust His ongoing care (Matthew 6:19–34).
* Looking back at the wake of the boat to see God's faithfulness over time, rather than at our own recent successes or failures, charts an important move away from a psychoanalytical approach toward the Light of Truth. Ron Julian, in his book Righteous Sinners, explains this concept using an analogy of a scrapbook. Many times, those who have believed into Jesus look at ourselves in the mirror. We're growing in the Lord, yes, but we have so much more growing to do! We mess up so often. Sometimes, we look at our disheveled selves and wonder, "Am I really a believer? Am I one of His? Do I really know Him… or am I just a fraud?" At such times, we will usually do better to look at a scrapbook of our lives, rather than in the mirror. In the scrapbook, do we see God's hand at work, conforming us to His image? That's what matters, regardless of how disheveled we feel now. If we see Him conforming us to His image, we can trust His declaration: He has made us saints.