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Living in the Shadow: Discovering Identity, Purpose, and Direction

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Have you ever felt the weight of living in the shadow of a more successful person? For many, that presents no serious challenge. But not for those feeling compared to that towering figure. The one in the shadows can feel overlooked and devalued compared to a recognized parent, sibling, or associate. This burden can become overwhelming and defeating.

The sports world captures well the reality of living in another’s shadow. Think of the dynamics in the Manning family with dad Archie and his two sons Peyton and Eli. Though the two sons would eventually exceed Dad’s NFL records, the pressure, for example, on Eli as he grew up had to be immense. Eli had two shadows cast over him from dad and older brother, Peyton. However, despite the pressure of living in the shadows, Eli still won two Super Bowls.

Ironically, the pressure may not always be coming from the person casting the shadow but from the people comparing us to the shadow-caster. As was the case in the Manning family, there is no malice, jealousy, or belittling from the one creating the long shadow. They even encourage the other to pursue another interest altogether with their full backing. The problem resides with the crowd watchers. 

The Other Simon

Of Jesus’ twelve disciples, three of the lesser-known ones stand out to me as living in the shadows of another disciple, one of the other Twelve whom they shared life with every day. Consider the one referred to as “James the Less” in Mark 15:40. Everyone always compared him to James, the son of Zebedee and John’s brother, who, along with Peter, were unique members of the inner sanctum with Jesus. But James the Less lived on the outside. He was identified as “the Less” because this enabled people to identify him. How did James the Less manage being in the shadow of the James?

There is also the one John 14:22 calls “Judas (not Iscariot)”! Even after the death of Judas Iscariot, he is identified based on who he is not—not the betrayer of Jesus. But readers would have known this since the betrayer had hung himself! Talk about living in the shadow, and in this case of a dead and evil man.

And then there is Simon the Zealot. Have you ever wondered if he felt compared to his fellow disciple Simon Peter, the Rock? I believe there is an untold story here that can profoundly affect anyone subjected to comparisons. In this article we will observe Simon the Zealot living under the shadow of Simon Peter.

Simon the Zealot, along with James the Less and Judas (not Iscariot), had to daily answer for himself three critical questions as he stood in the shadows: 

  1. Who am I? (What was his identity?)
  2. Why am I here? (What was his purpose?)
  3. Where am I headed? (What was his direction?)

Let’s consider how Simon the Zealot established his identity, purpose, and direction under the shadow-caster Simon Peter, the Rock. 

Who was he in comparison to the Rock? Why was he on the planet in comparison to the Rock? Where was he headed by comparison to the Rock?

To help give us an idea of what it felt like to spend three years—in ministry, of all places—living under the shadow of another disciple who would go down in church lore as a foundational cornerstone of the church, let’s imagine Simon the Zealot telling us this untold story. 

I am Simon the Zealot, one of the twelve disciples Jesus chose to be with Him for His earthly ministry. As a zealot, I had a zeal, thus the name. My life aimed, along with hundreds of other zealots, at overthrowing the Roman rule in Israel, which required violence and terror. I trained as a militant and accepted the terms: I must be willing to die to free Israel. To be free occupied me mentally in my occupied land militarily. 

After Jesus called me, I accompanied Jesus day and night for nearly three years. However, I lived under the shadow of another Simon—Simon Peter, the Rock. Even then, as we traveled about and the message of Jesus spread, Simon Peter’s reputation spread, whether about him walking on water to Jesus from the boat on the Sea of Galilee or being privileged to behold Jesus transfigured in glory on the mountaintop. When people swarmed us and heard another disciple call out to me, “Simon, come here,” a dozen or so people would run to me, thinking I was Simon Peter. “Is it true you walked on water and saw His glory on the mountain?” Each time, I had to reply, “I am Simon the Zealot. I am not Simon Peter the Rock. He’s over there.” Immediately, they hushed, looked embarrassed, and exited as quickly as they had rushed me. Then I watched as they huddled around Simon Peter for as long as they could. This was the shadow I lived in.

Simon Peter’s notoriety always eclipsed me. Of course, Peter did not try to put me into the shadows. Peter was Peter, one seeking to make sense of all that transpired in front of us and what Jesus taught us. We all gloried in the revelation that Peter received from the Father as he exclaimed, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” This was Peter, who always fixated on the meaning of the incidents with Jesus and the parables of Jesus. I always loved and honored Simon Peter for that innocent and holy curiosity. He caused all of us to discover more about Jesus and relish what we learned. Whenever Jesus was away praying, Peter would never stop talking about the significance of it all. He lived in the wonder, privilege, and implications of all that unfolded before us.

The issue wasn’t about how Peter selfishly cast his shadow over me. Peter had no interest in selfishly eclipsing me. I presented no threat. Instead, I faced two facts about myself as I found myself in Peter’s shadow. 

One, I had been a zealot and thus identified as a violent and rebellious person set on overthrowing the Roman oppressors and liberating Israel from that wicked regime. Most were suspicious of me due to my past, and I could tell they were baffled as to why Jesus would call someone like me who had been set on slitting the throats of Roman soldiers. Often, the eleven glanced my way when Jesus commanded us to love our enemies and pray for those who persecuted us. I knew they wondered about my true allegiance to Jesus. That underlying astonishment troubled me, and though the label “Simon the Zealot” surfaced to distinguish me from Simon the Rock, everyone stood back to size me up as though the label should trigger a measure of caution about my motives, character, and loyalty. They always looked for my knife. I could never get out from under that shadow of the zealots.

Two, I would never have the stature and influence of Simon Peter. Jesus authorized him to be the rock upon which the church would be built. I would never be in that league with that authority and sanctioning. Instead, my distinction would remain simple: Simon the Zealot. I would be considered the primary reason Jesus taught us to turn the other cheek, forgive our enemies, and do good to those who hate us. I would never live down my zealot past. I served as a reminder of what Jesus opposed: having an earthly army where those who lived by the sword would die by the sword. 

Truth be told, I lived under two major shadows that obscured my deepest heart from those around me. One is Simon Peter the legend. I would never be seen as holding his heavenly authority. Two are the zealots. I would always be seen as hating earthly authority.

What about you? Can you relate to my plight and fight? Simon versus Simon. A contest I could never win. It was made worse due to Simon Peter giving me no thought. Peter never stressed over me. I did not show up on his agenda. He would not even engage me when noting some confused me with him when hearing my name called “Simon.” Sometimes, he grinned, but that was the extent of his acknowledgment. We never talked about what I felt and what it meant to live in his shadow. It didn’t matter to him like it mattered to me. He wasn’t mean or gleeful, only unempathetic and unaware, which troubled me. I stood in the dark shadow alone. I was Simon, but not the Simon who mattered.

So, what did I do? Well, what would you do if you were me and had to always read in the Gospels about “Simon the Zealot”? I resolved that my identity (who am I?), my purpose (why am I here?), and my direction (where am I headed?) would not be determined by the shadow of Peter.

1. My Identity: I Am Chosen—Though in the shadow, Jesus still picked me despite Peter and my zealot past.

In those moments when I questioned who I was as a person since I had to live down my past terrorism and shrink compared to Peter, I would revisit the day Jesus looked at me and called me to join the Twelve. He chose me! He selected me as one of His closest disciples in all of Israel. He did this despite my anger and violence and revealed to me and others that He chose me for His mission, not my merit. 

Later, when I met the great apostle Paul, I realized he had not been chosen as one of the Twelve. That made me feel special. At the same time, it put me in a position to decide where to focus when living in Peter’s shadow. Would I look at who I am not or look at who I am? Would I look at the Lord’s loving choice of me for His purpose and direction in my life? Or, would I keep thinking, “I never walked on water. I never saw the transfigured Jesus. I never heard the Father’s voice from heaven, ‘This is My Son in whom I am well-pleased.’ I am not called to be the rock upon which the church will be built”?

As the years past, and people said to me that they were not chosen, and they felt inadequate compared to me, I quickly pointed out to them that their names are written in the book of life and they too are chosen—chosen to be in God’s family as adopted children, not only forever, but as fellow heirs with Christ, meaning that everything Jesus receives, they receive. Yes, for me to be chosen as one of the Twelve did provide the privilege of sitting on one of the twelve thrones for the apostles and judging the twelve tribes of Israel. And, yes, I would have my name on one of the twelve foundations in the Heavenly City. I am as overwhelmed by that as anyone, but that might be 1 percent more important than the fact that all of us are chosen as beloved children to be with God forever and marveling at the Lion of Judah in all His glory. Actually, that’s 99.999 percent of what it means to be chosen.

2. My Purpose: I Have My Story to Tell—Though in the shadow, I have a unique testimony of being changed by Jesus.

My preoccupation with our cruel occupation depressed me. Day after day, I felt impotent against the Roman legions. I could only do acts of terror here and there in the evening. Three of us would ambush a Roman soldier. After killing him, we would dart up the hill out of the valley under the moonlight, crawl through a vineyard on the plateau under the stars, and then run hard on the road for several miles to our village until we saw the faint glow of the evening fires as families gathered in their courtyards. We then separated, slithering back into village life, hoping no one saw us or knew we were gone since the Romans were certain to search.

That was my purpose in life, which, in the scheme of things, would not bring down the Roman Empire but only poke its eye and provoke its backhand. Many of my zealot friends had been crucified. 

Now, with Jesus, a whole new purpose emerged. Instead of bringing death as my mission, I brought life—eternal life—as my mission. Instead of aiming to end an earthly kingdom, I aimed to start a heavenly kingdom. Instead of never bowing in allegiance to Caesar, I bowed in allegiance to Christ.

I always wish I had more worldly power and positions to enact changes from the outside so people could experience happiness inside. However, with Jesus, I shared a different kind of power, the power to change lives from the inside out, no matter the circumstances. With Jesus, my testimony, not my title, transformed the hearts of others. One day, that truth hit me like a bucket of ice-cold water in the face. Caesar had a title, but I had a testimony. Pontius Pilate had a title, but I had a testimony. Herod had a title, but I had a testimony.

I could let my light shine in the shadows, allowing the shadow to highlight my silhouette—my unique story as a transformed zealot. I could testify to how Jesus changed my heart from murdering to ministering, from slitting throats to serving the thirsty, from depression and joylessness to delight and joy. Even though fewer would look my way since I was no Simon Peter, the water-walker, glory-seer, and crowd-caller, I had my niche. Jesus had chosen me for a purpose.

I welcomed that I could meet with two in dark quarters, not three thousand in daylight as Peter did when salvation came to them through his preaching. Those two would be zealots I had fought side-by-side with. I knew them, and they knew me. We trusted each other. They would listen to and identify with my testimony. I was not a fisherman but a violent hater. God knew there needed to be someone like me to share with people like them. 

3. My Direction: I Will Represent Christ—Though in the shadow, as a former zealot against Rome, I will speak of a different freedom, slavery, enemy, fight, and kingdom. 

I could zealously honor and glorify Jesus before a watching world that His kingdom was not of this world—not a world of warring zealots, as I had been.

I had a new message for others about Jesus, the King of kings, especially for those Jews set on overthrowing the Roman oppressors in Israel with violent fighting to gain our freedom. My message was simple: I had it all wrong. 

My Freedom! I sought and fought for freedom but only found true freedom when I found Christ. Jesus rocked my world the day I heard Him say, “The truth will set you free.” I realized then that my zealot compatriots and I had it all wrong. Not terrorism but truth—the truth of Christ—sets us free (John 8:31-32).

My Slavery! And a second revelation that day came crashing down on me like a falling stone wall. “Very truly I tell you, everyone who sins is a slave to sin. . . . So if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed” (John 8:34-36 NIV). What? I was not a slave of Rome, though that was real enough. I was a slave of sin. I needed to be set free but from a different oppressor. I needed freedom from sin. I needed to be freed from my sin against God, not Rome’s sin against me. All of this became crystal clear as I later fully understood what I beheld from a distance of Jesus my Lord nailed to the cross. 

My Enemy! I recall the day Jesus taught us to pray, and in that prayer He petitioned, “deliver us from the evil one.” All my life, I dreamed and plotted to be delivered from the evil Roman rule. Though I welcomed such deliverance from Rome, I now knew I needed a different deliverance from the true enemy: Satan, the evil one. I had my enemy all wrong.

My Fighting! Jesus said to Pilate, “My kingdom is not of this world. If My kingdom were of this world, My servants would have been fighting, that I might not be delivered over to the Jews. But My kingdom is not from the world.’” As a former zealot, I gave up worldly fighting. The servants of Jesus were not called to fight as an army. Instead, the fight was spiritual. I became a prayer warrior who stormed heaven with a humble demand, “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.”

I was never a Simon Peter, with thousands coming to Jesus in a day, but I had my part to play behind the scenes among those who lived a clandestine life against Rome. With them, I had a message. I understood them, and they understood me. So, here and there, I spoke of these truths with one, two, or three.

What About You?

Can you, too, say, “I know who I am, my identity. I know why I am here, my purpose. And, I know where I am headed, my direction”?

Below are some questions below that can aid you in the process of dealing with the shadow that falls over you. I recommend meeting with a trusted and wise friend to answer these. 

In conclusion, as tough as it is to be in the shadow of another, we can learn the above wisdom about our identity, purpose, and direction. We can be the person God made us to be and called us to be based on the conditions surrounding us. Ask Simon the Zealot.

*A podcast was also recorded on this topic focusing on the Identify portion. HERE

Emerson Eggerichs, Ph.D.
Author, Speaker, Pastor

Questions to Consider

Identity (Who am I?)

  • How do I build a healthy identity and experience healthy self-esteem when the shadow can make me feel small and like a non-entity?
  • What strengths, interests, and convictions has God planted in me for His purpose?
  • Can I express gratitude for what I have and who I am instead of comparing myself to the person casting the shadow over me?
  • How do I ignore the people who unthinkingly make remarks that compare me to the shadow-caster? 
  • How do I navigate the shadow? How do I oversee being overseen?
  • What applies to my life from what Simon the Zealot learned about being “chosen” by God?
  • What does 2 Thessalonians 2:13 mean to me? “But we should always give thanks to God . . . beloved by the Lord, because God has chosen you.”

Purpose (Why am I here?):

  • What goals do I wish to pursue for myself that, when achieved, will provide self-satisfaction and contribute to others?
  • Who are the people who can benefit from my contribution?
  • What opportunities are before me that align with my passions and competencies?\Am I willing to encounter and endure unexpected challenges that can discourage me as I explore various options and opportunities related to life purpose?
  • Am I willing to encounter and endure unexpected challenges that can discourage me as I explore various options and opportunities related to life purpose?
  • Do I welcome the early seasons as moments for personal growth in exploring my meaning and purpose instead of demanding immediate and breathtaking success
  • What can I learn from Simon the Zealot about discovering his unique life message? Though he did not reach thousands, there were people in his world that he was best suited to reach more than anyone else. Is that true of me, and does this suggest my purpose? 

Direction (Where am I headed?):

  • Is there a wise person who can take me under their wing and guide me in answering these questions, and in a position to open doors to enable me to test the waters?
  • In the face of challenges as I pursue a particular course reflecting who I am and my purpose, how can I cultivate resilience and maintain the motivation to pursue my chosen path while living in the shadow of another?
  • Am I willing to persist in this direction and in defining myself based on the above criteria rather than succumbing to the temptation to be a reflection of the person casting the shadow to emerge from that shadow?
  • Have I recognized that the Bible tells us there are varieties of gifts, varieties of ministries, and varieties of effects (1 Corinthians 12:4-6)? In other words, no one is the same, yet God uses everyone and their gifts with unique effects based on who they are as an individual. This is their purpose and direction. Do I truly believe that?