Maybe It's Time We Redefine Ourselves

What do you do?

Isn't that the first thing you ask after meeting someone? Other than first name, it seems to be the most important piece of information you can obtain. Once we get those two data points, we can begin to accurately triangulate our new acquaintance's identity.

And since we place such a high value on occupation (I use the term loosely), it's no wonder that the loss of a job leads to a loss of identity. It's no wonder stay-at-home parents despair when their children leave home for good to go to college. Their job is done.

InAweOfGod'sCreation (CC)

We wrap up our identities in what we do. When we lose that thing—whatever it is we do—we feel a loss of purpose. As an author I have struggled with this. If a book doesn’t sell well or isn’t reviewed well, then I must not be worth very much. It is hard for me to separate my worth from the books. 

But the truth God has been reminding me of is this: Your identity lies not in what you do, but to whom you belong.

Easy to say, right? But unfortunately for us humans, it’s not as simple as that. And the more I’ve thought about that statement, the more I’ve realized just how deep the problem goes.

What Your Last Name Says About You

My in-laws recently returned from a trip to the UK. 
Among other gifts and photographs, they shared with me a history of the name Gilmore. I knew the surname had Irish origins, but I had no knowledge of its meaning.

Turns out Gilmore is derived from Mac Giolla Mhuire which translated loosely means son of the devotee of Mary (Mac = son, Giolla = devotee, Mhuire = Mary). Mary, of course, meaning the virgin Mary. The clan eventually dropped the Mac, leaving just Giolla Mhuire or Gilmore.

Considering I'm protestant, that doesn't do anything for me. In fact it's kind of a let down. I was hoping it meant something like dragon slayer or tamer of wolverines.

But the exercise did get me thinking.

What’s the purpose of a last name? When only Adam and Eve were walking about, there was no need for a second name. But as the world became more populous, and everyone started naming their sons Jacob or John or Matthew, things got confusing. Thus arose the need to distinguish between one John and the next. Enter: surname.

Surname is borrowed from the French surnom, with sur meaning “in addition”. So surname roughly means “additional name.”(1)

That’s all pretty obvious. But is differentiation the surname's only purpose? What if I told you the last name is simply the oldest form of marketing?

So says Rabbi Daniel Lapin in his book, Business Secrets from the Bible (affiliate link):

Traditional Jewish surnames indicate a person’s profession. If you are a Goldberg, it means one of your ancestors worked in the gold industry. If you are a Wasserman, you have an ancestor who worked in the water industry. . . Are you a Silverman? Someone in your family worked in silver.(2)

We see this phenomenon in the West as well.

If I asked you what the most common last name in the US is, what would you say? Chances are good you'd say Smith, and you'd be right. Smith is a shortened version of Blacksmith. If you were a Smith, you worked with metal. Another popular name is Miller—someone who works with grain.

This reality exists in the Bible too. I'm thinking of Simon the Tanner, i.e. Simon the leather worker. And Tanner is still a common last name. (Full House anyone?)

For people who possessed these types of last names, that second question, "What do you do?" Was redundant. "What's your name?" Was enough. Identity was inexorably linked to occupation.

Of course not all surnames point to occupation, and those that do no longer hold the same meaning. Now we simply hang on to surnames for purposes of distinction.

But there’s a difference between differentiation and identification. We may be differentiated by the services or goods we can provide, but we are identified by the blood Jesus provided to us. Losing what you can do does not devalue you, because you belong to God.

Acknowledging we are not the evil we commit, or even the good that we do, frees us to embrace our true identity: children of God.

What do I do?

It doesn't matter.

This is yet another reason for the institution of the Sabbath. God wanted Israel to cease work for a day as a reminder of who they were.

The Israelites were more than what they did, and forcing them to pause reminded them of their status as God’s people. When the Hebrews were slaves in Egypt, they did not have the option to rest. Now free of Egypt, the Sabbath rest became part of their identity.

I write about this point at length in my first book, Do No Work. If you’d like to check it out, you can download the first chapter for free here (just enter your email address below):

I retitled the excerpt Beat Burnout God’s Way, and it gives you a framework to help prevent the onset of distress and exhaustion that too easily creeps into our lives. I pray it will be a blessing to you.

2. Daniel Lapin, Business Secrets from the Bible: Spiritual Strategies for Financial Abundance (Hoboken, New Jersey: Wiley, 2014), 51-52.


  1. Thank you for the reminder that I do belong to Jesus Christ.