The Struggle of Identity
One year ago I was graduating from seminary and stepping out of my role as a student and into the unsure territory that is the “real world.” The stress of relinquishing my identity as a student, which had characterized me for most of my life, was compounded by the fact that I had no idea what I was going to do next. I believed that God wanted me to stay in Colorado and had every intention of going back there after my visit to Dallas, TX for Christmas, but my plans fell through and I found myself staying at home for an indefinite amount of time. I began pursuing an alternative teaching certificate because I thought I wanted to teach but felt God turn my attention towards pastoral ministry, which surprised me as I had disregarded it as a ministry path. As I prayed through this calling and tried to discern where I should go to get more practical ministry experience I got a job to begin saving money. It was only a few months that I waited for an opportunity to present itself or direction to be made clear to me, but it seemed like much longer. Finally, I was informed of a church plant in Stillwater, OK where I could help start a new church and undergo pastoral development: Redeemer Church. But my excitement at having direction devolved into despair as I greatly struggled to acclimate to a new city, a new church, new people, and a new role. It seems to me that over this past year God has been systematically destroying the idols in which I have placed my identity and have given me hope, comfort, or assurance to drive home the truth that my identity is in Christ alone.
It is possible that you have been, or currently are, experiencing an identity struggle like me. If you profess faith in Jesus, then you know conceptually and theologically that your identity and hope are only in Christ, but functionally you may be trying to find your identity elsewhere. Possibly you have placed your identity in work, achievements, or your various roles. Maybe relationships or your personal background or history define you. If you are a student then maybe your status as a student, your college, or your grades are the most important thing about you. Perhaps your philosophy, political leanings, social causes, or your adherence to a moral code provide purpose. Maybe you dislike feeling the constraints of an identity bestowed on you but would rather attempt to construct your own identity.
The reality is that sin has so infected our hearts that we try to fulfill our inherent longing for love, acceptance, and purpose with fleeting things that are not secure. People will inevitably let us down just as we will let others down. Our work and achievements are not lasting and will either be surpassed or lost in our lifetime or in future generations. Our roles and responsibilities are in a state of flux and we often change hats frequently. We cannot create our own identity because our inner thoughts and feelings conflict with one another and are constantly changing. It is not a question of if these things will let you down, but when. Therefore, we need someone to speak into our hopeless situation from the outside and give us a name and an identity.
This person to name us must extend unconditional love and acceptance that is not subject to change based on our performance. They must be someone we esteem and hold in high regard or else the identity they bestow on us does not carry much weight. They should also never be unfaithful or disenchanting. Being given an identity by this sort of person is the only way to have identity security, and the only person that fits these criteria and is up to the task is Jesus. Christ bore your sins in his own body on the cross and died the death that you should have died (1 Peter 2:24). Through faith in Him God has forgiven you of all of your sins (1 John 1:9; Hebrews 10:17) and reconciled you unto Himself (2 Corinthians 5:18; Colossians 1:21-22). He has justified you and declared you righteous because of Christ’s work on the cross (2 Corinthians 5:21; Romans 3:21-24). God has adopted you into His family as a son or daughter in Christ (Gal. 3:26; 4:4-7). But your salvation is not only individualistic because Christ’s shed blood on the cross was to purchase a people for God (1 Peter 2:9-10). Therefore, you are reconciled unto God and unto one another as Christ’s body (Ephesians 2:14-16), and as the body you are to mutually love and serve one another (1 Corinthians 12-13). This is your identity in Christ and it is secure. God’s love and approval are not subject to change because there is no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus (Romans 8:1). Therefore, you are free to live your life to bring praise to God in wholehearted devotion.
I think it is helpful to view of our identity as a deck of cards. Each card represents an aspect of our identity that we believe to be enduring throughout our lives and which gives us meaning. If you have placed your faith in Christ, then one of those cards is your Christian identity card. For many people this card is somewhere in their deck but it is not at the top. Being a Christian is part of their identity but they would not say that it is the whole of their identity or even the most important aspect of their identity. For others their Christian card is like a wild card that they use as a means to receive their identity from somewhere else (health, wealth, pleasant circumstances, achievements, status, etc.). God appears more useful to achieving their own ends rather than beautiful and deserving of worship in and of Himself. But placing your identity in anything other than Christ will inevitably be shown to be a fruitless and futile endeavor. What those in Christ must do is take their identity in Christ card and place it as the first card at the top of the deck. This can be done by believing that Jesus actually died on the cross for your sins, letting that truth affect your heart and mind, and seeing the gospel as so beautiful that it goes to the core of your life. If this happens then your Christian card will always be the first and only card played because it is the only true, lasting identity we possess.
In light of this beautiful reality we are liberated from trusting in heart idols and are able to face each day with joy, confidence, and peace. Trials, suffering, difficulties, and hardships lose their evil potency because we know that we belong to Christ and that He has the final word. He will never leave us nor forsake us despite all of the ups and downs of life, and in Him we have a confident hope. We are prone to forget this truth and turn our gaze away from Christ, therefore, it is of the utmost importance to daily remind ourselves where our identity comes from.
*Originally Posted January 2016