Self-Identity: Understanding Who You Are

4k-wallpaper-backlit-basketball-1331750.jpg

Last Christmas, my wife and I bought a basketball for our 9-year-old son. He'd never played basketball before and our new house had a hoop out on the driveway he wanted to try. A few weeks later, our son mentioned he wanted to play basketball on a team, and soon, I was sitting in the bleachers of an elementary school, watching my son play basketball with other 9- and 10-year-olds in the gym. He double-dribbled, traveled, fouled, and shot air balls. My son was still learning how to play basketball (so of course, he wasn't very good), but I remember thinking to myself from the bleachers, “That’s my boy! I love him, and I am so proud of him.” My love for him wouldn’t change if he'd performed like an NBA pro. I was proud for the simple fact that he is my son.  

I share this story because my son is developing his identity. Apart from intentionally helping him shape that, I want him to know that I love him no matter what, and that I am so proud simply because he's my son. I struggled to believe that myself as a boy and young man. I interpreted messages then that had me place my identity in other things—like my abilities and strengths.

Identity is important for all of us and it plays into our mental, emotional, physical, and spiritual well-being. Identity is largely concerned with the question: "Who are you?" What does it mean to be who you are? Identity is about how you define yourself and ties to basic values that dictate your choices. You begin developing your identify and self-esteem as a very small child. When you were a baby, sometimes you cried. If your caregivers responded to you promptly and in a loving manner, you probably began to learn and believe you were valuable. You probably began to learn and believe your feelings and needs were important. If your caregivers didn’t respond in an appropriate way, though, you may have begun to learn and believe you were not valuable and that your feelings and needs were not important. 

The messages we receive from our caretakers or from society are simply internalized. Sadly, the values of our parents or dominant cultures are often out of alignment with our authentic self and can create an unfulfilling life. Research shows how struggling with identity issues or not having a strong sense of self can lead to anxiety and insecurity—and can contribute to marital struggles, work struggles, parenting struggles, and spiritual struggles. It's important, then, to develop a strong sense of identity because it's the foundation for good mental health.  

Knowing who we are plays a key role in how we think, how we feel, and how we go about our lives. Without knowing our personal identity, we're like a rudderless ship drifting aimlessly on the ocean, subject to the whims of the tides and winds. If we don’t know what our identity is, then we can't live a life consistent with our true nature and values—and we'll only frustrate ourselves, rather than living in harmony with our identity and reaching our true potential. 

Our true and authentic identity is not defined by race, color, nationality, language, or place of birth. True identity is not defined by our families—whether it be the family that we grew up with, or the one we currently have with our spouse and children. It's not defined by a person’s occupation, vehicles, home and property, bank account, or any other superficial thing. Our true identity is not defined by our bodies, athletic ability, our personal style, or overall appearance. It’s not defined by our thoughts, feelings, or dreams. If you make the mistake of thinking your self-identity is the same as your nationality, what you do for a career, your family status, your financial status, your social status, or perhaps your health status (healthy or sick), then you're just setting yourself up for failure. When your self-identity is made up of things and not your deep, core beliefs, you're on your way to an identity crisis. “Things” can disappear for whatever reason, but your true, authentic, deep core values will always be there to provide a stable foundation from which to live. 

A poor sense of self can contribute to other problems in our lives. A few years ago when I was a lead pastor at a church plant we'd started, I signed up to be coached by another fellow church planter and spiritual mentor. In our first week, he opened my eyes to how Jesus got his identity. In Mark 1:9-13, we find Jesus at the point before he's done any miracles; before he's preached the Gospel; before he's fed the 5000; and before he's raised anyone from the dead. This is important, because God had something important to tell him in front of the crowd, and He needed to say it before all the miracles started. Many of us know the story:  

“One day Jesus came from Nazareth in Galilee, and John baptized him in the Jordan River. As Jesus came up out of the water, he saw the heavens splitting apart and the Holy Spirit descending on him like a dove. And a voice from heaven said, 'You are my dearly loved Son, and you bring me great joy.' The Spirit then compelled Jesus to go into the wilderness, where he was tempted by Satan for forty days. He was out among the wild animals, and angels took care of him.”

It was here that God gave Jesus his identity. Here, God the Father calls Jesus his Son. God could have identified Jesus in different ways that would have been true—a savior, messiah, or king—but He identified him as Son. Jesus’ identity was that he was God’s Son, who He loved. What was God pleased with Jesus about? Remember, Jesus had not performed any miracles yet, so God’s pleasure with him was because Jesus was His Son. Jesus’ value was in who he is. This is true for us, too. We are not more or less valuable by what we do; we are valuable for who we are. In light of this, our task is to remember that our value is in who we are and not what we do. We have to fight the lie that our value is tied to our work.

When we find our identity from our Father in heaven, then we can be free, like Jesus, to love in obedience to God—not because we have to so that He will love us. No, we serve and obey God because we are already his dearly loved children. We do what sons and daughters of God do, and we live out the identity that God has given us. For Jesus, that meant he went out to the wilderness to be tempted. What does that mean for you? What or where is the Spirit compelling you to go? I now work in the counseling field. I didn't see this five years ago, but one day, the Spirit compelled me to go back to school and get my degree in Marriage and Family Therapy—and here I am today. My value does not come because I'm a good or bad counselor; my value comes and remains because I'm a loved son of God, in whom He is well pleased.

So, where is an appropriate place to dig into the identity from which we live? For me, the place it began was in a discipleship group. Maybe you could look into finding someone to disciple you and dig into the identity you currently have. Another good place to discuss identity-related issues is counseling. Through counseling, many people experience a reduction in their depression, find ways to cope with struggles associated with their identity issues, and ultimately find themselves in the process of becoming the man or woman they dream of being.

I can imagine you're thinking identity work sounds like a good idea and that taking on the identity of a well-loved son or daughter of God should be easy. Well . . . my journey has showed me that this can sometimes be painful. I discovered that I gained a sense of identity from my past pain, abandonment, my career, my abilities, my heritage, my marital status, my accomplishments, my family legacy, and so much more. It’s painful, because God requires our identity in Christ to supersede all these other identities. I've had to let go of so much, and releasing my identity from these things has at times been very difficult. How did I make it through it? All throughout this journey, I had to remember that the "things" I had found my identity in were really nothing in comparison to the new identity I've found in Christ. I hope and pray you will remember that, too, as you walk this road. God bless.

Finding Meaning in Work

snow day.jpg

Our son burst into our bedroom one morning recently with an alarming proclamation. “IT SNOWED last night!" he exclaimed. "Do we have school today, Mom?”    

Attempting to gather myself and slow my racing heart, I rolled over towards my bed stand, grabbed my phone, and squinted at the blinding screen. “Sorry bud, no cancellation notices. You are going to school,” I announced.

I'm sure you can imagine the immediate deflation of an eight-year old boy with grand hopes of playing in the snow and sipping hot chocolate, who now faced the crushing reality of another day of times-tables and cafeteria food. As I put my phone back down in a sleepy haze, our son stormed out in disappointment, lamenting, “Why do we have to go to school . . . ?”

To be honest, there have been many days that I've woken up with the same dispirited feeling wishing that I didn’t have to go to work. The “Sunday blues” is a real emotion that many people feel as the weekend comes to a close and Monday morning looms ahead. I'm not alone in this battle. In a recent Forbes poll, only 42.6% of workers liked their jobs, 52.3% of people were unhappy with their work, and 70% of workers weren't satisfied with their career choice. With 1/3 of our day spent at work, and with so many people unhappy at their jobs, we have a real problem on our hands.

The Bible actually talks a great deal about the subject of work. As a matter of fact, the very first words in Genesis reveal that God was at work and actually enjoyed it—He declared that His work was good. Near the end of the creation account, God creates man and woman, and He creates them in His own image. God blesses them and gives them a job to do: “Be fruitful and multiply. Fill the earth and govern it. Reign over the fish in the sea, the birds in the sky, and all the animals that scurry along the ground” (Genesis 1:28 NLT). God entrusted work to human-kind and invited them to partner with Him in the building and stewarding of creation and culture.

Nancy Pearcy, in Total Truth, writes, “The first phrase, ‘be fruitful and multiply’ means to develop the social world: build families, churches, schools, cities, governments, laws. The second phrase, ‘subdue the earth’ means to harness the natural world: plant crops, build bridges, design computers, and compose music. This passage is sometimes called the cultural mandate because it tells us that our original purpose was to create cultures, build civilizations—nothing less.” Unfortunately, we've lost this biblical perspective and our work has become a means to an end. We work to pay the bills, to put food on the table, to put our kids through college—or as the popular expression goes, “I work hard so that I can play hard.”

Many of us may be at a crossroads in our lives, and we need to step back and get a larger vision, a transformed perspective, and a broader paradigm of the transcendent purpose of work itself. Having a biblical perspective of work doesn’t mean that we go to work to share our faith with the hopes of converting our co-workers (though that may happen), but instead, we see that our vocation is part of God’s grand story that started in the garden and will continue when Jesus returns and establishes a new heavens and a new earth. Our work is a part of God’s Kingdom coming here on “earth as it is in heaven” (Matthew 6:10).

Walking out of my church's sanctuary, the words on the back wall read: "We go out as partners with God.” Our work, whether it's paid or unpaid, is in partnership with God. Like He assigned the naming of the animals to Adam and Eve, so He assigns us tasks to steward creation and culture in a way that glorifies God and serves the common good (Proverbs 12:11, 14b, 24; 14:23). How do we do this? Jeremiah 29:4-7 gives us an example: “'Build houses and live in them. Plant gardens and eat their fruit. Take wives and become the fathers of sons and daughters. And take wives for your sons and give your daughters in marriage, that they may give birth to sons and daughters. Become many there, and do not let your number become less. Work for the well-being of the city where I have sent you to and pray to the Lord for this. For if it is well with the city you live in, it will be well with you.’”

Though God holds an extremely high value of our work, our value is not determined by our work. This can be a stumbling block for many of us who've been raised to believe that our work is our identity. A great way to determine if this is an issue is by identifying the emotions we experience when someone asks us, “So, what do you do for a living?” Do we cringe or do we gloat? Unfortunately, we live with the consequences of Adam and Eve’s sinfulness—thus the struggle to enjoy work, to work too much or too little, or to find our value or our identity by our work. Thank God that Jesus came and redeemed humanity's failures so that those who put their faith in Jesus can be adopted as sons and daughters into God’s family. God loves us and is pleased with us because we are His kids. We can’t do anything to earn His favor; Jesus did that for us. But just like the devil tempted Jesus' identity in the wilderness, he too will tempt us to live out of a false identity pursuing our ambitions, appetites, and approval through our work.

God’s desire is that we approach our work with a new paradigm of partnership with Him to bring about His Kingdom on earth with all of heaven’s resources at our fingertips. Hugh Whelchel, in his book How Then Should We Work, writes, “As we in obedience answer the vocational call in our own lives, we must learn to believe God uses everything we do. ‘ . . . we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.’ (Romans 8:28) All of our work, even the most mundane things we do are taken by God and transformed into Kingdom work.”

Finding Identity in the 'Holy Dance'

Sunrise.jpg

As Christians, we believe God is Trinity— Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—living uniquely and yet unified in mutual, self-giving love. The relational character of God is often described as 'a holy dance' between Father, Son, and Spirit, whose purpose for creating the world was to bring humanity into a shared relationship with the Trinity—as adopted sons and daughters. Because humans are made in God's image, the capacity for relationship is innate in all of us. As the apostle Paul wrote, “God decided in advance to adopt us into his own family by bringing us to himself through Jesus Christ. This is what he wanted to do, and it gave him great pleasure” (Ephesians 1:5). I am in awe that my adoption, with all the rights and privileges of a natural born child, gave God great pleasure. All of humanity is invited, but never forced, into the holy dance with the Father, Son, and Spirit. When our identity is secure in relationship with the Trinity, we are free to create, explore, and enjoy the abundant life here and now.

perichoresis.JPG

When we lose our ability to make meaning out of our experiences, however, it is difficult to thrive. As author C. Baxter Kruger states, “the goal of the evil one, is to destroy the dance of life shared by Father, Son and Spirit on this planet."

People are complex; our experience, as well as our faith tradition, informs our view of God and how we walk out our faith journey. What seems consistent in the human experience is the tendency to lean more heavily on one aspect of God’s character to the exclusion of another. As a child, I believed God was impersonal and uninvolved in the lives of people. Then, as a young adult, I belonged to a church tradition focused on holiness and obedience, which seemed to underemphasize God’s grace and mercy. Fear was a dominant emotion during those years, because I lived out of an identity focused on pleasing God.

Identity issues have been part of my own personal struggle and for those I work with, as well. As I recover from a distorted identity, I am learning to rest in God’s embrace and risk in relationships with others. God is the prime example of a relational being existing in the Trinity: Father, Son, and Spirit. For humans made in the image of God, relationships are at the core of who we were designed to be. It takes courage to walk toward freedom after years of hearing hurtful messages that reiterate “you don’t have value.” Through 'the holy dance'—a deep sense of belonging as a loved and valued child of God is available to all.