Identity, Duty, and Planning

Stephen W. Hiemstra, Living in ChristBy Stephen W. Hiemstra

What motivates us to act? 

We can act out of identity, duty, or planning (telos), but many times we fail to act. This is particularly true when our motivations are unclear or we are unprepared to make a decision.

Rational versus Behavioral Decisions

Consider the case of shopping for toothpaste. If you routinely buy a particular brand or always buy the cheapest, you are purchasing out of habit and no independent decision is made on particular purchases. However, your habit may have begun with a thorough review of alternative brands or research that suggested the brands were equally effective in preventing cavities. The investment of time and effort on that first purchase may then have convinced you to use your current rule of thumb—buy the brand or buy the cheapest. Thirty years later, you may have forgotten the motivation and only remember your rule of thumb. 

Illustration Described

In this illustration, the original decision involved a rational decision process, while using the resulting rule is more of a behavioral decision process (a path of least resistance). Ethics focuses primarily on rational decision processes where we weigh the pros and cons of a decision before deciding and we need to think through our motivations. Behavioral decisions, where we simply respond to positive and negative stimuli, are not unethical, but they may pose occasions when we are not fully aware of our motivations. 

Incentive to Procrastinate

It may be difficult to make a decision when our habits are disrupted and we need to make a rational decision on how to proceed. Rational decisions require more information, skill, and effort than we may be comfortable with, which may motivate procrastination. Typically, we are invested in our previous decisions which suggests that decisions to change those precedents, even in the case of really bad habits like addictions, require an equal or greater investment in the new decision.

If you took up smoking in high school, for example, your habit may be closely associated with a person or experience back then with great personal meaning, even if that meaning has since been forgotten—each puff is like a walk down memory lane and something especially hard to give up if life has not treated you well since then.  Miller and Rollnick (2002, 10) ask whether we are “ready, willing, and able,” which suggests that we frequently are not ready, willing, or able.

Identity and Character

We are created in the image of God, the core of our identity:

“So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them.” (Gen 1:27)

The context here is important. We are in the first chapter of the first book in the Bible so every implied by these three verses about what it means to be created in the image of God has to appear in the prior verses. How does the text describe God?⁠1

Divine Attributes

Consider these four attributes:

  1. Verse one tells us that God is a creator who, being eternal, sovereignly stands outside time and space. 
  2. Verse two shows us that God can through his spirit enter into his creation. 
  3. Having created heaven and earth, verse three describes God speaking to shape the form of creation beginning with light Note the exact correspondence between what God says (“Let there be light”) and what he does (“and there was light”)—God is truthful, authentic. 
  4. Verse four tells us that God judged to be good and he separated it from darkness—God discriminates good (light) from the not so good (darkness). 

God is sovereign, authentic, and ethically minded. If God has these attributes, then as image bearers we should aspire to them too.

Consider the question of God’s sovereignty. Do you think that God is reluctant or afraid of making tough decisions? For us, sovereignty could mean having the courage to commit the time and energy to make good decisions.


Identity motivates us particularly in our careers. You can always identify the fire fighters—those are the folks running into burning buildings when everyone else is running out. It part of their identity and training as firefighters that they act out every day. 

Similarly, as Christians we act out of our identity as image-bearers of a Holy God.

Duty within Community

The Apostle Paul makes image theology explicit when he writes: “Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children.” (Eph 5:1) Paul draws this theme out in more detail in Galatians 5:16-24, where he contrasts the works of the flesh with the fruits of the spirit echoing God’s self-revelation:

“The LORD passed before him and proclaimed, the LORD, the LORD, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness…” (Exod 34:6)

The Apostle Paul alludes to this verse when he writes about putting off of the old self and a putting on of the new self in Christ (Eph 4:22-24).

Context of the Ten Commandments

Still, the context for Exodus 34:6 is that God has just given Moses the Ten Commandments for the second time (Exod 20). God disclosed his character aa an aid to interpret the Commandments, should anything be unclear. The Commandments themselves served as a thumbnail sketch of each person’s duty to God and to the Nation of Israel⁠2 under the Mosaic covenant. 

Duty or Identity?

While many people see the Ten Commandments as their duty under the covenant, another way to look at the Commandments is as describing the characteristics of people who make up the covenantal community. Similarly, Christians can be described simply as the people who follow Jesus and obey his commandments (Matt 4:19-20). 

Do we act out our duty as members of the Christian community or simply out of a deeper sense of identity?

Planning and Leadership

If there was ever a man on a mission, it was Abraham, as we read:

“Now the LORD said to Abram, Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. And I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and him who dishonors you I will curse, and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.”  (Gen 12:1-3)

Abraham became a leader among men possessing his own private army that conquered all the known powers of his day in retrieving his kidnapped nephew, Lot (Gen 14:11-17). But most of his actions were defined by the mission that God gave him: “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you.” (Gen 12:1)

Great Commission

God has also given us a mission in the Great Commission: “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations…” (Matt 28:19) What is interesting is that when we act out of our mission, we also gain an identity.

It is also important to recognize the importance of having a vision. Knowing that Jesus rose from the dead and will return for us (John 14:3) means that we know the future. It is like having tomorrow’s newspaper today—we can buy the best stocks without any risk of loss. 

Future in Christ

Knowing the future is in Christ frees us from worry allowing to act boldly and take risks to advance God’s kingdom today that would otherwise seem foolish.

Like Abraham, we are blessed to be a blessing to others.


1 Hoekema (1986, 1) turns the discussion of image around. Instead of asking who is God? He asks: who are we?

2 In his survey of the areas of continuity and discontinuity between the Old and New Testaments with respect to the Mosaic law, Thielman (1999, 2) observes: “Everywhere that Christian thinkers such as Irenaeus, Origen, Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, Martin Luther, or John Calvin attempted to explain the entire Bible within a insole, coherent theological system, it became essential to ask what role the Mosaic law played in the system.” Thielman asks whether the Christian duties outlined in the New Testament were not themselves based on the same Jewish sources, as many (myself included) assumed was the case.


Hoekema, Anthony A. 1994. Created in God’s Image. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans.

Miller, William R. and Stephen Rollnick. 2002. Motivational Interviews: Preparing People for Change. New York: Guilford Press.

Thielman, Frank. 1999. The Law and the New Testament. New York: Crossroad Publishing.

Identity, Duty, and Planning

Also see:

Preface to Living in Christ 

A Roadmap of Simple Faith

Christian Spirituality 

Looking Back 

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