This article was previously published in Sword & Spade magazine.
Ed Toth, Fraternus Sage, didn’t recognize his worldly attachments and identities until they were gone.
I remember hearing the revelry and cheering outside as the new year dawned on December 31st, 2019. I was alone, laying on the floor of my newly emptied office staring at the ceiling. I had worked in that office for close to 20 years, at one point having 20 employees in it, but at that moment there was nothing and no one in there but me. I was closing that office and all it represented, because I was going bankrupt.
On the surface, bankruptcy is just a financial process, but any man knows there’s more to it. “It’s not about the money,” as they say. Even though legal bankruptcy is literally “all about the money,” the process internally isn’t. Interestingly, I asked my attorney why everyone didn’t file bankruptcy when they needed to.
Aside from actually having the resources to do it, she said the biggest reason is admitting failure. We can’t admit we’re broke because we’re too wrapped up in what that means to our sense of worth, identity, and status in a community.
As I went through it, I often denied that I cared about money in that way, or was the type that identified myself with such worldly success. I would tell myself I wasn’t like that — that I was detached — but the real experience forced the question: “Am I?” In order to file bankruptcy, I had to inventory all my debts (easy) and all my assets, anything of value (hard). In this process, if you can sell a dish for 10 cents at a garage sale, it’s an asset. If I wasn’t drawing my identity from mere things and business success, why did I feel like part of me was getting ripped out when I started building that spreadsheet of everything that I owned?
For most of my life, I felt pretty sure of myself, but now I was forced to ask hard questions. Why was I so attached?
What did this stuff really mean to me? Is this really who I am? What do people know me as? So began my journey of really testing who I thought I was. Who am I? What do I value? What’s my “worth”? As I built my spreadsheet, line by line, I could feel a piece of me that was identified in so many material things. You see, you can fool yourself into all kinds of things. You may truly believe that your identity isn’t rooted in the things of this world, but you never know what your identity is rooted to until that root gets pulled.
Up then Down
For the better part of my adult life, my wife and I were “successful” business owners in the telecom industry. I was there making money as the cell phone industry took off. Everything we touched turned to gold. It was an amazing journey. We dedicated our company to God and experienced what seemed to be blessing after blessing. For 15 years we dominated our niche in the industry.
Then one day, without warning, things began unraveling. One by one our trusted vendors, business partners, and friends turned against or betrayed us. It took a few years, but in the end, not one stayed true, and it was all gone. We kept trying to plug the holes, but the efforts failed, and we were sinking.
Naturally, I started reckoning with reality and diversified out into new ventures. But nothing seemed to gain traction. I had understood myself as a successful man, but “successful” days were starting to look like an old “me,” not the current one. If I was no longer a wealthy entrepreneur, who was I?
Keeping My Posture
As far as communicating this new sense of “failure” to past and distant business contacts, that was easy. I just didn’t have to communicate. No one could see that things were different, and I had nothing to show them. But that was not the case in my community. How my posture and status changed there was a completely different story.
For many years in my community I was the “go to” guy for big donations and big projects. As we saw pretty clearly, God had blessed us and we were called to be generous — and people knew that. Fundraisers, building campaigns, organizations, friends, family, you name it, they came to me. And if a true need was presented, I went all in.
Being a dependable benefactor to so many good things was actually a sort of salve for my conscience, because while my business was financially fruitful, it was not directly spiritually fruitful. (Stringing fiber optic cable between cell towers does nothing for hungry children on the streets.) Of course I entertained thoughts like “sell it all and give it away!,” but I eventually found peace in the idea that my part in the body of Christ was supporting those in more direct apostolic activities. I was thoroughly convinced that was my position on this earth, and I still believe that to be true. What I didn’t suspect was that it wasn’t a lifelong position.
Even as my business started to lose steam, I continued financial support to many non-profits. I must admit part of this was keeping my settled identity. I was the “go to” guy! It was my job to share the fruits. That’s who I was. I thought of the old lady who put her last two coins in the box and gave more than all the rich people who only gave out of their excess. It’s easy to be generous when money is flowing! So, I wasn’t going to let that be me. I did not want to be like “those” rich people. This giving out more than I was taking in continued to the point that, when business income stopped almost completely, I switched to selling assets I had accumulated to keep being generous. These were blessings, and God needed them back. No problem! I was still sure things would turn for the better eventually.
“Eventually” was taking longer than expected, so along with saying “no” for the first time for big gifts (building campaigns, for example), I had to stop regular support for works I had been giving to for many years. That was much harder. It’s much easier to stop support before it begins, it’s another to stop support that you knew was depended upon. I started small at first with a few cutbacks. It will give me some time to regain steam, I thought to myself. But the steam never came.
I had related to my community as a generous benefactor for nearly 20 years, and now that means of relationship was gone. As I stopped support one by one and continued to say “no” to new requests, I stopped getting the phone calls. Having money is lonely, but I learned then that losing it is lonelier.
I couldn’t wrap my head around it. God, how can this be your plan? I’m the “go to” guy! I was sure of it. Where would all those people go now? They needed me, didn’t they? Was it my pride that thought that? Was I wrong all this time? I still struggle with that one. Finally, one day, my “go to” title was gone. Now who am I?
Back to taking an inventory of all my possessions: With my business gone and my “go to” title stripped away; I was down to looking at a spreadsheet of household goods. Did these define me? I don’t even know anymore. I never thought a minute about being defined by these things, I just know it was way more painful to list my remaining material goods than I ever thought it would be. It was time to really ask myself who I was. “I’m a child of God” was no longer just a flippant slogan, it was a life test. Did I really believe it?
What many of us call identity is really just a label, something stuck on the surface. We all have labels and not all labels are bad, but most are temporary. If you get too stuck on one, it’s painful when it comes off. When the labels are gone, what’s left? That’s where you’ll find your true identity. There’s your root and it better be a strong one. With no end in sight to my label stripping process, I had a choice to make. My identity as a son of God was just another label that could be gone at a moment’s notice, or it wasn’t. Could I finally be at peace knowing that’s all I need? At that point, this was the only truly “rooted” identity, one that sunk deep into who and what I really am. It was an identity I was able to embrace more fully than ever, precisely because the other sources were gone.
How many people out there don’t even know that “son of God” is an option for them to choose? And, we must ask, can we really ask it before other labels are ripped off?
There are plenty of obvious identity issues running around that are easy to point the finger at. I believe there are many more that are hidden in each of us. What I know now is that some things just can’t be known without the cross, without enduring loss and going through struggles. I still desire to be paid well for my labor and to be able to be known as a generous man in my community. That may be good. But I have had to learn that it is also good, perhaps better, to just be a son of God and a brother and friend to my neighbor. Some things may change, but that won’t.