Tiberias, Sea of Galilee, Israel. Photographer: Tiberias municipality
“A man should carry two stones in his pocket. On one should be inscribed, “I am but dust and ashes.” On the other, “For my sake was the world created.” And he should use each stone as he needs it.” Rabbi Bunam.
IDENTITY: WHAT IS IT?
Identity. What is it? Who are we? Are we just conscious units of matter? Are we just meat algorithms swayed by our biology and circumstances? How much agency do we have? How much do our genetics drive us? Can we be reduced to one of 16 MBTI personalities? How much of our identity is based on complicated true and false running narratives we view life through? How much of our identity is derived from money, beauty, power, intellect or the pursuit of it? How much of our identity is community based stemming from our religion, our politics, our sex, our communities? The thoughts and ideas behind identity are complicated and multifaceted. In a 1999 paper from Stanford Political Science Professor James Fearon that said “despite this vastly increased and broad-ranging interest in “identity”, the concept itself remains something of an enigma”. This is perhaps why there is an international group of scholars dedicated to meet up yearly just to talk about the various evolving research on identity. So, obviously I won’t be able to tackle all of the facets of this subject in the next few pages, nor would I be qualified to do so. However, what I would like to do is give some basic principles on identity from one Christian’s perspective to help serve you further.
WHY IS THERE SUCH A FOCUS ON IT?
The first thing I would like to focus on with this subject, is the very question of why is there so much focus on identity in certain strands of Christianity? I think as with most complicated subjects there are many reasons for this. I believe the idea of identity strikes a particular chord with many because at the root of identity is a desire to feel valued, loved, validated, and accepted. This desire is a powerful feeling. Many people’s lives and pursuits are wrapped up in this pursuit often times even unknowingly. This pursuit of this feeling is in my opinion a valid and human one as long as we are looking to feed this feeling in the way we were created to.
Another reason there is so much focus on this subject is we are deeply affected by a hero narrative. This story line is fed into us over and over through movies and media from a young age. We want to be important, we want to be the one who makes a change. We often times look to hero’s of various movements and forget the armies behind them that really made the movements work. Apart from the cross, very rarely has an important work ever been done singularly without the help of others.
Finally, there is an intoxicating and romantic arbitrariness with the message of identity. The vagueness of the message excites us with so many possibilities. The vague statement “find out who you are in Christ” is often taught in a way that implies the same vocational secular message of “you can be whoever you want to be, and do whatever you want to do when you grow up.” While, there is nothing wrong with having big goals, and putting thought into your career, self help is not the gospel. The truth is our core identity is more about Christ than ourselves. When we become Christians, God doesn’t become an empowering junior partner on our journey to self actualization. He becomes Lord of everything, and uses us as faithful humble servants, often times in ways we can’t guess or desire.
PART OF OUR IDENTITIES ARE COMPLICATED AND MALLEABLE
The next thing I would like to focus on is the fact that part of our identities are malleable. “‘We contain multitudes,’ wrote American poet Walt Whitman, referring……to the fact that we see ourselves radically differently in different contexts. Everyone struggles with that existential plum, ‘Who am I?'” * So, what does it mean to have multiple identities? It simply means part of the way we see ourselves is not exhaustive in one way at one moment, and parts of our identity change based on time, circumstances, and role. One man/woman may view themselves as father/mother, son/daughter, spouse, and as a lawyer, or janitor or whatever career they have. That same person may view themselves differently depending on the rotating friend groups they are with. This person may have a work friend group where they are more reserved and see themselves through a more professional lens, but may become the life of the party around some of their closer personal friends. As time goes on, this same person gains more responsibility at work, their children get older, and their developing self is viewed with a different lens based on the changing circumstances. This is just one example but there are many ways we can change, and view parts of ourselves differently over time.
This ability to have part of our identity change over time is important. This gives us the ability to change and progress. If every part of our identity never changed or we lacked the ability to change we in a sense would be slaves to our minds and the outcomes that derive from the circumstances that our unchangeable minds encounter. Thankfully part of our identity is always in a kind of state of renegotiation. For the Christian, it is a renegotiation of seeing the world through the mind of Christ. It is a battle of seeing the world through eyes of love, goodness, and justice. Do we see ourselves as loved, redeemed, children on mission for a good King? Or do we see ourselves as being defined by our past sins, our failures, our successes, or our fickle careers?
Of course there remains part of ourselves that may or may not change much at all, and if it does change, it changes rather slowly. It is fairly uncommon for someone to change drastically between personality types over a short period of time. The way we see the world, ourselves in the world, and our interactions with others in the world rarely change fast on a macro level. This can be really good in some ways, because we are all unique individuals, and parts of us shouldn’t be disrupted drastically and continually, otherwise we would never recognize each other from day to day. The challenging part is some of us need to learn to accept and love parts of who we are that we may be unhappy with. I say this isn’t hoping not to be confused with a fatalistic acceptance of some of our sinful behaviors but in reference to the parts of us that make us uniquely individual.
WHAT IT DOESN’T MEAN TO HAVE A NEW IDENTITY.
So, before we discuss what I think it means to have an identity in Christ, let’s see what it doesn’t mean to have an identity in Christ? It means our identity in Christ isn’t based on works, our body type, our failures, our sins, our successes, our past, our age, our sex, our vocations, our callings, our place in society’s pecking order, or anything but the Love and truth of Christ. Any core identity based on something other than Christ, is a low and inaccurate view of identity. Our value doesn’t come from positive self mantras, cute signs that say you are loved, or anything fickle that won’t work. We are valued because we are made in God’s image, redeemed through the cross, and loved because God is good. Our core identity is in Christ and any other identity needs to take second place and not be held with such a tight grip.
Chris Rock in one of his Netflix comedy specials talks about how one of his children recently entered High School and he went to a freshman orientation. The Vice Principal gets up on stage and tells the students that they can be whatever they want to be. Chris Rock thinks “Lady, why are you lying to these children?” Maybe four of them could be anything they wanna be. But the other 2,000 better learn how to weld……I’m looking at these kids right now. I count at least 60 Uber drivers. They could be anything they wanna be? Then how come you’re a vice principal? Was that the dream? Did you dress up like a vice principal when you was a kid? Put your little vice principal hat on? Tell the kids the truth.”
I mention this Chris Rock example because our vocation in our culture and probably most cultures is such a defining piece of who we are. Our vocation says so much about our status, how others view us, and how we view ourselves. But this is not the case at all in the Kingdom of God. When you become a Christian, you derive your value from God alone. We are loved by God, redeemed by God, made in His image, and on mission for His Kingdom as children of God. What we do for our work isn’t what is most important, it is how we do it. Paul says in His letter to the Colossians “Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for human masters, since you know that you will receive an inheritance from the Lord as a reward. It is the Lord Christ you are serving.”
Paul describes the early church as not many having come from noble backgrounds. The truth is most of us will work jobs that we may not exactly love, and may not always be world changing work. Our desire for value should be found in Christ alone. Our desire to change the world should be funneled primarily through being a missionary in our work place. Our desire for greatness should be pursued through serving.
WHAT IT MEANS TO HAVE A NEW IDENTITY
So, what does it mean to have a new identity in Christ? Well, technically, the word, identity is never mentioned in the Scriptures, so I will try to take a stab on what we could possibly derive implicitly from them. One thing I see in scriptures is that we see God renames people throughout Scripture at various times. Saul, goes from a persecuting enemy of God, to Paul, the hardest working missionary the world has seen. Jesus renames Simon, an impulsive, insecure man, to Peter, a solid rock in God’s early church. The book of Revelation says those who remain firm in Christ, shall receive a new name in the new Heavens. Why does God rename people? Part of it I believe is because when we come into the saving power of God, we become a completely new person, are given a new perspective on life, and a new mission. We are born again with a new nature and a new identity. This of course does not mean there is complete instant change when someone meets Christ in all areas of their life, nor does it mean there is no lifetime sanctification process. The war against the flesh, and the works of the devil, is never over till we die.
In the Scriptures we also see that the overarching narrative is that we are loved by God, redeemed by God, and on mission for God. I think this is the bedrock of how we should see our identity. It may sound simple, and even perhaps may not seem to explicitly answer all aspects of our identity questions. It instead does something better it serves as a healthy, universal lens to see every aspect of the world through. Tim Keller once said “bold planning comes from a strong belief in God’s love for you.” The truth is institutions, communities, pastors, churches, friends, and family will all fail us. Often these will fail us in our hardest times. The beauty of the gospel is this, God’s love will not fail you, and you can be sure of that, whether you feel it or not. Paul tells the Romans church the power of God’s love here:
“What then shall we say to these things? If God is for us, who can be against us? He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things? Who shall bring any charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies. Who is to condemn? Christ Jesus is the one who died—more than that, who was raised—who is at the right hand of God, who indeed is interceding for us. Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword? As it is written,
“For your sake we are being killed all the day long;
we are regarded as sheep to be slaughtered.”
No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”