What Identity Means and Why It Matters

What is identity?

Our identity is who we are and what is most important about us. Our identity is how we define ourselves at our core and what makes an individual who they are. It’s not merely a reputation or our image—what we or others think about us—but it’s what we understand as basic and defining about us. Image comes out of identity, but identity is more fundamental.

Every person seeks for an answer, even if not consciously, to the question “Who am I?” That answer makes sense of our story, our life, our purpose, and where we belong. The universal tendency to want to “find out who you are” is because human beings are meaning-makers. Because a void in identity is a void in meaning, we are driven to define ourselves by something. That something—or someone—is our identity.

Why Identity Matters

Where does identity come from and what does it affect? Identity matters because we live and behave in light of our identity. Multiple research experiments have demonstrated that how we view ourselves (identity) changes how we then act.[1] The self-help and self-esteem movements gained momentum because of a right understanding that identity shapes behavior. The problem is that these movements offered an inflated view of self without offering a satisfying and coherent identity. Identity matters because we live, operate, relate to others, and find meaning all from our identity.

For example, if I define myself by my career then my hopes and satisfaction will depend on my performance at work. I’ll align life with my career, do what it takes to arrive at success, and be happy when others at work think well of me. In this case, if I then struggle in my job or lose my job then the very thing I’ve defined myself by crumbles and therefore my life crumbles. That’s one small example of how identity determines behavior.

Identity comes from somewhere. Whether we know it or not we find our identity within the story we live according too. Again, humans are meaning-makers and we all live according to some story, some understanding of how the world came to be, why we’re here, what is true, and where we’re headed. Let’s look at two brief explanations from two different authors on the subject. Tim Keller explains how our behavior is “enacted narrative.”

“While many stories are often no more than entertainment, narratives are actually so foundational to how we think that they determine how we understand and live life itself….A worldview is not merely a set of philosophical bullet points. It is essentially a master narrative, a fundamental story about (a) what human life in the world should look like, (b) what has knocked it off balance, and (c) what can be done to make it right. No one can really function in the world without some working answers to those big questions, and so, to provide those answers, we adopt a world-story, a narrative that explains things—a worldview.” [2]

A second way of explaining this which I find very helpful uses the language of “scripts.” Dr. Mark Yarhouse explains how scripts (stories) shape the understanding of our identity, which in turn impacts how we live.

“When I use the term ‘script,’ I’m referring to a way in which we come to understand ourselves and our lives. Scripts reflect the expectations of our culture in terms of how we are supposed to live and how we should relate and behave…It is important to understand how scripts function in the lives of actors. Actors read from scripts all the time. They use scripts to determine how their character thinks and feels and relates to others. [We] similarly look for scripts to read from to make sense of who they are.” [3]

What both Keller and Yarhouse argue is that we place ourselves into some story, a story based upon our beliefs about the world, about God, and about ourselves. The story we live according to is how we make sense of our lives and form our identity. The questions “Who am I?” and “Why am I here?” are answered by why we think anything is here, or where we all came from, and what purpose life has. Our worldview offers a script of who we are and how we should live. If our script says there is no god and this life is all there is, then I might understand myself to be an accident of evolution and I should live without regard to anything other than what my random neurological firings give me an impulse to do. Or, if I believe the story of the Bible and salvation by grace than I understand myself as a person created by a personal God so I can know Him, reflect Him, and live in light of His explanation of the world. Stories create identity, and identity drives behavior.

Identity not only drives behavior and purpose but it tells us where we belong. If I define myself by my race than I’ll attach myself to people who look like me. If I define myself by my sexuality than my community will be those with similar sexual attractions. If my identity is in sports, art, or music than that will tell me where the others like me are and I where I can belong. Identity gives us purpose and affects our behavior. Identity places us into a community and tells us where we belong. And identity determines how we’ll evaluate whether we are succeeding or failing, faithful or unfaithful, and whether we should be happy or sad.

However, one of the confusing things in our culture today is that so many people have no story. People don’t know what they believe or where their beliefs come from. This means they’re patching a story together bit by bit in light of their experiences. This is why so many people have no answer to who they are and why life lacks meaning and purpose. Identity should drive experience and behavior but because so many people have no roadmap for understanding who they are (identity) they define themselves based on experiences, expectations, value, and roles. Beliefs should drive identity but those without a set of beliefs will let identity (built on experience) drive beliefs. God’s great narrative answers not only biggest intellectual questions but our deepest questions of the heart. Who am I (identity)? Why am I here (purpose)? Where do I belong (community)?


[1] Two good examples of this are given in Transformational Discipleship. Eric Geiger, Michael Kelley, and Philip Nation, Transformational Discipleship (Nashville: Broadman & Holman, 2012), 93-94.

[2] Tim Keller, Every Good Endeavor (New York: Dutton, 2012), 157. Italics mine.

[3] Mark A. Yarhouse, Homosexuality and the Christian (Minneapolis: Bethany House Publishers, 2010), 48.

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