In Japan, when you are introduced to someone, it is helpful to remember the Biblical declaration that “the last shall be first, and the first, last.” This is because the Japanese name order is the reverse of ours, with the family name coming first and the given name last.
This putting of the family name first reflects the group-oriented nature of the Japanese culture. Here a person’s identity is defined by the groups to which he belongs: family, school, club, company, etc. Americans, on the other hand, tend to take a more individualistic approach to personal identity. We tell our given name first, immediately distinguishing ourselves from the others who share our surname. We are also quicker to assert our particular beliefs and affirm our peculiar likes and dislikes, seeking to stand out rather than to blend in.
In spite of this difference in cultural emphasis, both Japanese and Americans share with all human beings a need to establish our identity both as distinctive individuals and as members of a group. All of us want to be recognized as unique, to be seen as more than just a face in the crowd or a number in a database. Yet at the same time, we all want to belong, to be connected with others and not left alone and isolated. I want to be me, but I don’t want to be me by myself; I want to be me together with you.
Unfortunately, one or the other of these fundamental needs is often frustrated in a world that tends to make conformity the condition of inclusion. Peer groups frequently impose uniformity as a condition of acceptance. I must suppress my individuality in order to fit in; if I refuse to do so, I suffer the consequences of exile and exclusion. Either choice is painful.
But God doesn’t work that way. He made us to be different, and yet to belong. Each of us is “fearfully and wonderfully made” (Psalm 139:14), a genetically unique creation formed from an original combination of DNA. We are not all stamped from the same mold, but are individually fashioned according to God’s design.
There has never been another just like me. Yet it is also true that I have inherited my genetic identity from my parents, who in turn passed on genes received from their parents, and so on. Thus I entered the world not as an isolated individual, but as the latest bud on my family tree, with a blood connection to the rest of the clan.
To be sure, because of the fall, this setup often breaks down, and within families a member’s individuality might be suppressed or his inclusion denied. But in Christ the balance between individual and group identity is restored. As a Christian, I am part of the family of God, with a glorious heritage among the saints. Yet I have also been given a special name known only to God (Revelation 2:17), reflecting the unique way in which I exhibit the glory of my Redeemer, and the unique service I can offer to Him. I can rejoice both that I am one of His, and also that He has no other like me.
On top of this, I have been re-created in Christ, and given a new nature with a unique set of giftings (1 Corinthians 12:4). Yet these endowments were not meant to enable me to function on my own, but rather to prepare me to fit into my particular place in the Body of Christ (Romans 12:5).
The unity of the Body is not a uniformity; I do not have to be the same as all the other members in order to belong. Rather, it is precisely my individuality, my difference from all the other members, that assures my place as a necessary component of the whole. There is a perfect balance between the one and the many, with every individual embraced by the group yet not absorbed by it.
In Christ there is neither Jew nor Greek, Japanese nor American; within the Church, there is no division into exclusive sub-groups. Still, though we are all one in Him, we are not all the same. We do not lose our identity when we are incorporated into Christ; we find it. Thank God that in the Body of Christ we can be ourselves and still belong!