Who are you? Sense of identity – A Christian perspective

While identity does have something to do with what you have, you will be disappointed if you base it on material assets. There is something greater.

“Who are you?”

Have you ever asked someone that question? The responses are interesting. “I’m the son of Frank Sandoval.” “I’m a chemist.” “I’m from Ghana.” “I’m the owner of this Ferrari.” “I’m one who enjoys life.” These answers are revealing. They show where the person places value regarding his or her identity.

Your identity is no different. It largely depends on how you answer three basic questions: (1) What do I have? (2) What do I do? (3) To whom am I connected? The answers to these questions shape your identity.

What you have

For many people, identity is about the possessions they have, the tangible things they own. The more they have, the better people view them – or so they believe. They bask in the glory of having the most of something, or the best of something, and so they seek to obtain more money, newer gadgets, and greater status.

This view creates a value system in our society where everything is not worth the same. The price for a rare item is much higher. So we look for something that most people don’t have, perhaps a type of car or style of clothing. We long to be unique. When we have that “uniqueness” in our possession, we begin to see ourselves in a new way. After all, this is how people will remember us. It becomes our form of identity.

What happens, though, when these distinctions fade – when you lose your wealth, or your trinkets tarnish, or everyone unexpectedly seems to have what you thought was only yours? Suddenly, you feel devalued. The foundation of your identity has collapsed.

While identity does have something to do with what you have, you will be disappointed again and again if you base it on material assets. There is something greater.

The intangibles. Your identity of what you have should focus on the intangibles. The inner traits of peace, joy, courage, faith, and love are what really count (Galatians 5:22, 23). They provide the basis for a stable, positive sense of identity – one that cannot be taken from you (Luke 10:42; John 16:22).

Of course, not everything that is intangible builds a positive identity. Bitterness, selfishness, and negative thinking can hurt your identity more than you may realize. These negative traits easily embed themselves on the mind and can become a way of life, jeopardizing your relationships, your health, and your own self-concept.

On the other hand, you can focus on building positive traits. They do not, however, simply arrive by osmosis. Rather, you must intentionally decide to nurture these inner, intangible attributes. This is where the power of choice comes into play – a will that is empowered by God and guided by the Holy Spirit, but set in motion by a personal decision.1 It is your choice. You may choose to live with joy, peace, and love in your life – regardless of whether or not you have material possessions, money, or fame.

The higher order of things. Once you understand that the intangible things you have are the most valuable, possessions aren’t so essential. The main goal in life, then, is no longer to make money, but to develop character.

This does not mean, however, that we should just give up our jobs and houses and live on the street. When you understand the higher order of things, you realize that God is the Giver of our physical possessions. He invites you, in fact, to come to Him for your physical needs. “If you then, being evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father who is in heaven give good things to those who ask Him” (Matthew 7:11)!2 It is simply a matter of priorities. “Seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness, and all these things shall be added to you” (Matthew 6:33). Jesus is saying, “Don’t worry about these physical things. They do not make for a lasting identity anyway. I will be your Father, you will be my child, and I will take care of you.”

Ellen White notes, “Worldly display, however imposing, is of no value in God’s sight. Above the seen and temporal, He values the unseen and eternal. The former is of worth only as it expresses the latter.”3 This, then, is the higher order: first come to Christ, not worrying what you will eat or what you will wear (Matthew 6:25-28). Then, as you seek to nurture those attributes that are like His character, He will provide for your needs. Your identity will be secure in this confidence.

What you do

In the world, identity is very much about what you do. It seems that our society is always demanding that we do more, work harder, and achieve greater things. While it can be helpful at times to have such targets in our lives, they can become detrimental when they become the main goal of life. In fact, one reason why many people are over-stressed is because they are trying to achieve too much.

Our generation has seen a growth in workaholics – individuals who have become obsessed with performance. The quest for approval has become the prime motivation. I remember, for example, when learning to play the piano that I would often find myself practicing to perform, rather than seeking the meaning and enjoyment of the piece. How is it for you?

The problem seems to be that these demands of social conformity take control of your life. We live in a culture, for example, that pressures people to behave in certain ways. As an adolescent, you were not “cool” unless you were on the varsity team at school, attended parties, or dressed in a particular way. It doesn’t change as you grow up. In actuality, we have trained a generation to give in to peer pressure to obtain an identity. The result? A society that would rather go with the flow than stand up for what it believes is right.

On the other hand, some people feel that they have to do something radical in order to gain a name for themselves. This is why it is not uncommon to see individuals attempting dangerous stunts or, in some cases, engaging in extreme sports. This is where their idea of identity resides, so they go out and risk their lives needlessly for a moment of presumed honor. Perhaps, all that they really wanted was to be noticed, to be appreciated, to be identified.

What you don’t do. While the perspective of looking at your achievements for identity is misplaced, so also is basing your identity on what you don’t do. As Adrian Ebens observes, “In Satan’s kingdom you are accounted a citizen by doing or not doing.”4

Many times, Christians pride themselves on what they don’t do – “I don’t steal,” “I’ve never killed anyone,” “I don’t eat meat,” “I don’t drink alcohol.” Early on, I found this trap particularly enticing. For the most part, I was a good kid (personal reality check). My parents had trained me well, and I was quite proud about my ability to stay out of trouble. My identity, however, was based on my own achievement – my success at avoiding certain undesirable behaviors.

Achievements, however, have a way of lifting you to an emotional high when you succeed and then dropping you to the depths of depression when you fail. By yourself, you ultimately fail. Ebens argues, “Whether you seek to perform or seek not to perform, the issue is still performance rather than relationship.”5

Perhaps the greatest problem, however, is that your lack of evil works can camouflage your allegiance to Satan’s kingdom. If the devil can’t win you over with evil deeds, then he will create a legalistic counterfeit to God’s way of sonship, a counterfeit of avoidances. A counterfeit, however, is actually very similar to the original. While you know that God’s kingdom is neither based on personal accomplishments nor avoidances, your Christian identity is still connected to what you do.

Reaching outward. In the Christian perspective, rather than focusing on yourself, you look beyond yourself. Rather than wondering, “What can I do to get attention today?”, you ask, “How can I make a difference?” You reach out to others – through worship and service.

One way to reach out to God is through worship. Once you realize what God has done in your life, the natural response is to praise Him. The psalmist said it well: “He brought me up out of a horrible pit, out of the miry clay, and set my feet upon a rock, and established my steps. He has put a new song in my mouth – praise to our God” (Psalm 40:2-3). Thankfulness is, indeed, key to any healthy relationship.

When you are grateful for something someone has done for you, you feel an indebtedness that will lead you to do things that please that person. In the same way, when your life is filled with gratitude, God’s commandments no longer seem to be a burden. The motive behind your obedience will be love, rather than necessity.

When God gave the Ten Commandments to the Israelites, they readily promised to obey them (Exodus 19:8)… out of fear. This sense of necessity, however, was short-lived (Exodus 32:1-6). To be effective, the principles of God’s law, the expression of His character, must reside in the fabric of your life.6 They must become a dimension of your identity. “This is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the LORD: I will put My law in their minds, and write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be My people” (Jeremiah 31:33).

Jesus reminded His listeners that love to God should find expression in love toward fellow human beings (Matthew 22:35-40). This love for others finds expression through service, and service comes through love for one another (Galatians 5:13). When you care about others and seek to make a difference in their lives, you begin to serve them. Your actions are acts of kindness, rather than self-aggrandizement. You will have a spirit of compassion and will enjoy doing things to benefit others. This reflects back on your identity.

Geiger explains, “Experiencing God overflow out of your life to serve others, trumps anything the world has to offer. There is a blessing in serving that cannot be experienced any other way.”7 This effect includes a sense of personal worth. As you reach out to others through worship and service, you yourself will experience an enhanced sense of personal efficacy and value. These, in turn, contribute to a positive identity.

To whom you are connected

Finally, personal identity is shaped by relationships. In contemporary society, however, emphasis is placed on the horizontal plane. Here, we tend to focus on the way in which others view us. The idea promoted is that our value is determined by the consensus of the “important people” around us. This is why students at schools form cliques, why the number of friends on social networking sites is important, and why many persons want to be connected with those in high positions.

The problem is that using a select group of friends and supporters to establish your popularity and personal identity can be unsettling. Such relationships can be shallow and, at times, fickle. When people lose their status, for example, what happens to their “friends”? Think of the prodigal son in Luke 15. When his money ran out, where were his friends in his time of need? Most people feel devastated as their friends slip away to find someone else who is “higher up.” Without a firm foundation for your relationships, an identity based on popularity crumbles.

A young lady described her life in this way, “I began to cling desperately to each relationship that came into my life as my source of security and purpose. My dating life became my identity. My emotions became hopelessly battered by each rocky relationship.”8 This is hardly a foundation for a positive, stable identity.

Another potential problem with the horizontal dimension is that people often “get used” for another’s benefit. In other words, persons are pushed down in order for someone else to climb to a higher level. Their gain is your loss.

The story is told about a caterpillar named Stripe which was trying to succeed in life. One day, he saw a column of caterpillars pushing and pulling on each other, trying to climb to the top of the pile. So Stripe decided to climb, too, and find out what was at the top. As he climbed, though, he saw that many caterpillars lost their hold as they got stepped on, and tumbled into oblivion. Stripe pressed upward, however, determined to reach the top. When he finally arrived, he discovered that there was actually nothing at the top.9

There must be something better in life than trampling others – trying to establish our identity by crushing theirs. After all, we, like the caterpillars, are to experience a transformation (Romans 12:2). We were made to fly.

The vertical dimension. The vertical connection is the most important relationship that you can develop. This is the relationship with your heavenly Father. To understand the full value of this relationship and how it affects our identity, we must understand the battle behind the scenes.

In the beginning, God created us in His image (Genesis 1:26, 27). Tragically, we all have sinned and lost much of our resemblance to God, particularly in terms of His character (Romans 3:23). Consequently, our God-given identity has been distorted. The good news is that Christ loved us, and redeemed us from the kingdom of Satan (Titus 2:14). That is why Jesus came to earth, lived a sinless life, and died on the cross. The best part, however, is that He rose again to break the power of eternal death and to restore in us His own identity. “Behold what manner of love the Father has bestowed on us, that we should be called children of God” (1 John 3:1)! To give you identity, Christ purchased you and made it possible for you to become His child.

What does it mean to be God’s child? It means that you have a personal relationship with the Father, that you can come to Him anytime, that you are an heir to His kingdom (Romans 8:17; Galatians 3:29; 4:7; Titus 3:7; Hebrews 1:14; James 2:5). The best part, however, is that your heavenly Father has promised never to leave you nor forsake you.10 With these benefits in mind, Ellen White wrote, “Would that all could understand the value that there is in acknowledging our relationship and loyalty to Him whom we claim as our Father.”11 Being a child of God is an incredible experience, and provides you with the most stable and affirming source of identity. With the privilege, however, there is responsibility.

First, being a child of God calls for you to give God your agenda – your own plans and desires. “Consecrate yourself to God in the morning; make this your very first work. Let your prayer be, ‘Take me, O Lord, as wholly Thine. I lay all my plans at Thy feet. Use me today in Thy service. Abide with me, and let all my work be wrought in Thee.’”12 In essence, God calls us to give up our fragile, self-constructed sense of identity and to rely on Him for our true identity – based on His acts of creation and redemption.

Second, being His child asks us to listen to His voice. Geiger asks, “Will we ever stop talking to listen? Instead of listening, our prayers are often long run-on sentences with no commas and no pauses. God speaks to us, wanting to share His thoughts, but we often talk over Him.”13 When things don’t work out, we unfairly blame our problems on God. Perhaps we simply didn’t take the time to listen to His instructions.

Third, as His child we must grow daily. Growth is a sign that we are learning from our Father. The more we develop, the more we will exemplify His attributes. We become like a calm lake, reflecting the beauty, the identity of the Father.

The larger perspective. Once we realize the importance of our relationship with our Father, all other relationships come into perspective. The horizontal dimension has meaning, but only in relationship to the vertical. We now see everyone else as a child of God, and no longer as an obstacle in our career path. We have glimpsed the wider horizon.

Our understanding of our identity as a brother or sister to those around us is crucial to how we relate to others. First, it enables us to love our neighbor (Matthew 22:37-40; 1 John 3:14). This view helps us resolve any differences we may have with those around us (Matthew 5:23-24). After all, our war is against Satan and his kingdom of death (Ephesians 6:12).

The perspective also clarifies how others can influence our lives in positive ways. Think about it. If it were not for your relationships, would you be the person that you are today? We all have something to learn from others. One of the most important lessons that I learned from my own father was the spirit of self-sacrifice and service. I’ll never forget the evenings when we would play table tennis in the garage. Even though my father was very busy, he would always make time for us to play. And it wasn’t just with me. He was always willing to help his students, even if his schedule was full. His motto: Live to serve. These, and many other lessons, have deeply impacted my life. Without my relationships with others, I would not be the same person I am today.

Finally, in the larger perspective, you have received a divine commission. Jesus said, “Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.”14 As a witness, you are to give both a verbal and a life testimony, so everyone can clearly see to which kingdom you belong. In reality, witness is your ultimate identity – unmasking the distorted depiction of God that Satan has drawn. This is why it is essential that you pattern your life after your King. Ultimately, people won’t see you. Rather, they will see through your words and actions an authentic, inviting portrait of God.

Conclusion

Who are you? Where do you find your identity? As we have seen, personal identity has to do with three fundamental questions: What do you have? What do you do? And, to whom are you connected?

The way you answer these questions, however, can result in either a fragile, fleeting sense of who you are, or a secure and solid identity.

In my own life, I have found that the material possessions we have, the acts of self-glory we do, and the shallow, self-seeking relationships we form will all pass away. Our true value is found in the unique qualities God has given us, in how we reach out and touch the lives of others, and in the kingdom to which we belong. This is the identity that will never fail.

When we recognize that God is the foundation for our identity, we no longer need to worry about what others think of us. Our identity is from God. Our identity is for God.15 Redeemed by God, we have been born again, born into the kingdom of Christ (John 3:3-21). We have become a new creature (2 Corinthians 5:17), with a new identity — an identity that no one can destroy.

John Wesley Taylor VI is a college student at Southern Adventist University. John Wesley Taylor V serves as associate education director at the General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists and as an editor of Dialogue. They are followers of Jesus and father and son. They may be contacted at JohnWesleyTaylor@gmail.com.

REFERENCES

  1. “What you need to understand is the true force of the will. This is the governing power in the nature of man, the power of decision, or of choice. Everything depends on the right action of the will.” Ellen G. White, Steps to Christ (Mountain View: Pacific Press Publ. Assn., 1956), p. 47.
  2. All Scripture quotations are from the New King James Version, unless otherwise indicated.
  3. White, The Ministry of Healing (Mountain View: Pacific Press Publ. Assn., 1909), p. 36.
  4. A. Ebens, Identity Wars: The Road to Freedom (Penrith: Maranatha Media, 2005), p. 31.
  5. Ibid., p. 58.
  6. As Ebens (2009) observes, “It was one thing for God to speak the law from Mt. Sinai, but this law would have no protective effect unless its principles resided in their hearts and became part of their way of thinking.” In Life Matters: The Channel of Blessing (Penrith: Maranatha Media), p. 96.
  7. E. Geiger, Identity: Who You Are in Christ (Nashville: B & H Publishing Group, 2008), p. 107.
  8. E. Ludy & L. Ludy, When God Writes Your Love Story (Colorado Springs: Multnomah Books, 2009), pp. 51-52.
  9. T. Paulus, Hope for the Flowers (Mahwah: Paulist Press, 1972).
  10. On his deathbed, the great reformer John Wesley was surrounded with his closest friends. He called them close to him as he breathed his last words, “Best of all, God is with us” (Geiger, p.120). The Holy Spirit is God’s promise that He is with you (John 14:16-18).
  11. White, “The Lord’s Prayer,” The Signs of the Times, October 28, 1903, p. 1.
  12. White, Steps to Christ (Mountain View: Pacific Press Publ. Assn., 1956), p. 70.
  13. Geiger, Identity: Who you are in Christ (Nashville: B & H Publishing Group, 2008) p. 127.
  14. Matthew 28:19
  15. Geiger, 189.