Identity Development and Transformation in Christ (4/7): Transitional Identity

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The House of David and the House of Saul: Transitional Identity Issues for Muslim Inquirers

The following article is the fourth in a seven-part series on Identity Development and Transformation. This series is geared for Muslims who are leaving Islam and embracing Jesus Christ as Lord, as well as those ministering to them.

Identity Development and Transformation in Christ Series:

  1. Muslim Identity – To be or not to be Muslim? [Available Oct 9, 2017]
  2. Flexibility of the term “Muslim” [Available Oct 16, 2017]
  3. Shahada and Muslim Identity [Available Oct 23, 2017]
  4. Transitional Identity [Available Oct 30, 2017]
  5. Christo-centric Identity [Available Nov 6, 2017]
  6. Christo-centric Identity for Former Muslims [Available Nov 13, 2017]
  7. Identity Applications [Available Nov 20, 2017]

Introduction to this Article

This article begins a pivot from the foundational material laid regarding Muslim identity. The data considered thus far indicate that permanent retention of Muslim identity thwarts the development of Christ-centered identity. Now, the series addresses transitional or temporary states of identity.

As a Muslim-background disciple of the Lord Jesus, I have frequently thought of a verse that captures something of the internal conflict of identity transformation. “Now there was a long war between the house of Saul and the house of David; and David grew steadily stronger, but the house of Saul grew weaker continually” (2 Sam 3:1). David represents the worshipper of God, while Saul represents the king who trusted in his own flesh. All believers in the Lord Jesus are on a spiritual journey in which we become more like Jesus by worshipping Him. The House of Saul may represent the House of Islam which must lose its grip over the life of those who worship Jesus.

The Long “Tails” of Transitional Identity

In ministry to Muslims, the identity transformation process rarely happens quickly. Indeed, a moment exists (frequently unbeknownst to us) in which a new believer’s name is written in the Lamb’s Book of Life (Rev. 21:27). We also hear testimonies of Muslims who have met the risen Savior in a dream or vision. He or she may be able to point to “that day” or “that moment” when he or she was birthed into the Kingdom of God.

While we are encouraged that these testimonies exist in greater numbers today than in yesteryear, we must not make the mistake of thinking that identity transformation happens in a moment or in a day. Legal or positional justification transacts immediately based on the efficacy of the blood of Jesus. Identity transformation, on the other hand, comprises a key component of discipleship. And discipleship does not happen overnight. The best disciple-maker Who ever lived, the Lord Jesus Christ Himself, spent three years of daily (not weekly!) interaction with His disciples. Even after these three years, Jesus’ “transition team” was still largely a mess. Fear plagued them. Their leader, Peter, had denied Jesus before servant girls. One of the disciples decided to cash in on his relationship with Jesus, betraying Him for thirty pieces of silver. It would take bitter tears, repentance, and a filling of the Holy Spirit to bring this team out of its malaise and dysfunction.

As mentioned above, Muslims are not different in essence than other humans. They are sinners whom Christ loves and died for. If discipleship and identity transformation among other humans is a process that cannot be rushed, it will be no different among Muslims who are turning to Christ. This may be disappointing for those seeking to plant “rabbit churches” among Muslims which multiply rapidly, as opposed to “elephant churches,” which reproduce slowly. Well, Muhammad was reportedly born in the “Year of the Elephant,” so there is my contribution to contextualization.

Seriously, the Holy Spirit may be active in the identity transformation process long before others may see these Muslims as spiritual inquirers. For this reason, their period of transitional identity may be quite lengthy, graphically extending into or under the Muslim (left side) and Christo-centric (right side) identity phases on our continuum. For Daniel Shayesteh, an Iranian Christian minister who previously served in the Islamic Revolution, he received what he called a “childhood prophecy” when he was in the seventh grade. At that time, seven boys were playing a game and drawing pieces of paper by lot in which futures were written, such as “doctor,” “engineer,” or “mayor.” Daniel drew a paper that said, “In the future you will become a Christian.” 1 Ashamed and embarrassed, Daniel then beat up the boy who organized the game. Nevertheless, Daniel recognizes in retrospect that a spiritual seed was sown that would later impact his identity.

This example illustrates a “tail” of transitional identity extending far back into a Muslim’s life, as a Muslim. Tails of transitional identity also extend right-ward well after the person has publicly confessed Christ as Savior and/or has been baptized. Years or even decades later, a Muslim-background disciple of the Lord Jesus (MBDLJ) may wake up wondering what he or she has actually come to believe!

Temporary Dual Identity

As a Muslim inquirer moves toward faith in Christ as Lord, his or her identity situation may be difficult to sort out. Here I will re-introduce the identity matrix from the first article in this series:

Perception from within Perception from without
Individual Self-perception

(“Who am I?”)

Perception of individual by others

(“Who is he/she?”)

Group Collective self-perception

(“Who are we?”)

Perception of group by outsiders

(“Who are they?”)

 

The self-perception question, “Who am I?” likely will be the first area impacted on the Muslim’s spiritual journey. In my own life, I began to experience a period of introspection and dissatisfaction. Only long after I had become a Christian and became familiar with the teachings of the Bible did I recognize that, years earlier, I had been under the conviction of the Holy Spirit. When I was actually going through this process, I did not have the perspective to know what was happening.

“Perception from within” typically begins to change before “perception from without.” One may begin to doubt his or her Islamic identity yet still attend mosque and pray the prayers, almost out of habit. One may not want to “cause waves” too early, especially while convictions and identity remain in such a state of flux.

Temporary Spiritual Identity Vacuum

Increasingly we are hearing testimonies from former Muslims who will describe their departure from Islam as occurring years before than their embrace of Christ as Lord. One sister in Christ testified that she rejected Islam while living in Saudi Arabia, but only accepted Christ many years later. Upon rejecting Islam, she no longer prayed the daily Islamic prayers. This period could be considered a vacuum between leaving Islam and embracing Christ. Of course, much was happening spiritually as God continued to write the chapters of her life in this transitional stage. However, she would have had a hard time making any affirmative answer to the question, “Who am I, spiritually?” She perhaps could have only stated in the negative, “I am not a Muslim.” This could perhaps be considered a temporary phase of agnosticism (not-knowing).

This dynamic will likely increase as some Muslims reject shariah-based systems under which they may be forced to live. Iran provides one example of this. Many Muslims who were forced to live under ISIS have developed a revulsion for Islam, unless they were able to explain ISIS’ actions as incompatible with Islam.

When is Patience Needed?

While Westerners may change their religious affiliation with limited consequences, Muslims understand almost instinctively that apostasy from Islam brings severe consequences. Once I was teaching a class on ministry to Muslims at a seminary in East Asia. A young Muslim background disciple of Jesus from Afghanistan was also enrolled in the class. The other students, including several Christians from a high-persecution Muslim context, embraced this young man. At one point, however, they noticed that “he seemed to be a Muslim” on some of his social media postings. At the seminary, on the other hand, he identified himself firmly as a Christian.

These concerned students approached me, feeling this young Afghan may have been an imposter. My impression of this situation was that this young man identified himself as a Christian internally and among his Christian circles, but that he had not announced his new faith to his family and Muslim friends. I encouraged the Christians to be patient, and to encourage this young brother in his faith in Christ. In ministry to Muslims, these situations arise continually, and no one has a 100% success rate in assessing what may be going inside the souls of others.

When is Boldness Needed?

Transitional identity states cannot be permanent ones. As we have seen earlier in this series, the Umma of Muhammad is not the Church of the Lord Jesus Christ. One cannot simultaneously be a Muslim and a Christ-worshipper. While recognizing that transitional identity exists for Muslim inquirers, and this may include short-term dual identity or an identity vacuum, the House of David must ultimately overtake the House of Saul. Two kings cannot reign over the same kingdom. A house divided against itself cannot stand. Ultimately, Jesus must eclipse and erase the covenant of Muhammad in a Muslim’s life.

Muslim inquirers who allow a normal transitional identity period to extend indefinitely face the peril of “Permanent Identity Bifurcation” (PIB). I have addressed this more fully in the Journal of Global Christianity. 2http://trainingleadersinternational.org/jgc/59/pursuing-integrated-identity-in-christ-in-ministry-to-muslims. [/ref] By bifurcation, I mean a split-identity state in which the individual’s identity is neither integrated nor converging toward an integrated, unified state. As mentioned earlier, the convergence must be upon the Lord Jesus Himself.

An example of PIB occurred in the life of a North African man I knew for several years. During his spiritual journey he became exposed to the Gospel. He later emigrated from his home country. He attended baptismal and discipleship classes. He was able to articulate a clear testimony and was baptized. He attended meetings for other Muslim background disciples of the Lord Jesus (MBDLJs). Eventually, his wife was able to join him in the new country. This brother felt, however, that his staunch Muslim wife would divorce him and leave with the children if she found out about his conversion. He refused to tell her even though he was counseled that he must tell her at some point. Eventually she discovered his conversion because he talked about Jesus in his sleep! This obviously caused a crisis—a crisis he could not bear at that time because of the fear that had hindered his spiritual growth. More boldness was needed at an earlier time.

Conclusion

Transitional identity is commonplace for Muslims on their spiritual journey to Christ. This stage may be more lengthy and formidable than many have previously realized. Transitional identity may include vacuums or identity bifurcation. Our hope is that Muslim inquirers will not be in transitional states forever. No simple formula or program exists which will make it easy for Muslims inquirers to make the difficult choice between the affirmation of their Muslim family and friends versus recognizing and worshipping Christ as Lord.

The good news is that Jesus knows all about family rejection (Mk 3:21), community rejection (Jn 1:11) and persecution to the point of a humiliating death. None of the challenges faced by Muslim inquirers are unique in the history of the Church. Many Muslims are breaking through transitional states of identity as they recognize the “fellowship of His sufferings” is coupled with the “power of His resurrection” (Phil 3:10). We will now turn toward Christo-centric identity.

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Notes:

  1. Daniel Shayesteh. The House of Left Behind: A Journey from Islam to Christ. Sydney, Australia: Talesh Books (2009): 36-37.
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About Author

Rev. Fred Farrokh is an Iranian-American Christian of Muslim background. He is an ordained missionary with Elim Fellowship. He has a PhD in Intercultural Studies from the Assemblies of God Theological Seminary.

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