Three Identity Struggles

Discipleship is essentially following Christ for the purpose of maturing in Christ-likeness. Disciples rediscover and then faithfully live in light of their identity in Christ. Or to say it differently, discipleship is the process whereby we’re remade and we regain who we were created to be as image-bearers of God by being transformed into the image of Christ.

If believers have a new identity in Christ why don’t we live it out? Obviously layers of answers could be offered here related to doctrines of sin, sanctification, and glorification so let me narrow the question. What are a few identity issues that keep Christians from understanding and living out the reality of who we are as a new creation in Christ?

Whether we call it identity theft, identity myopia, identity amnesia, or mistaken identity, these phrases all get at the reality that a key to walking in Christ is knowing our identity in Christ, or what’s true and defining about us. When we forget, neglect, or misunderstand our identity we image more of fallen self and the broken world than we image Christ. This happens when we take our cues from the wrong script. There are a number of false scripts out there that offer us an alternative identity. We’re often unaware of the stories we step into and the voices in our heads so we fail to see what scripts are informing our identity, which in turn is driving our behavior. The Bible offers us our true script—the script that will lead to us being most alive—by giving us an identity in Christ. As we participate in God’s grand narrative of redeeming a people to Himself we find out who we belong to, why we’re here, and who we are. We need to continually go back to the right source so that we live out our gospel-identity in Christ. I want to give three examples of how distorted identity struggles can get in the way of our maturity in Christ.

Identity Confusion

Dietrich Bonhoeffer has become well known over the last decade and many people have found great wisdom in his writings, especially The Cost of Discipleship and Life Together. In high school I first encountered Bonhoeffer in his Letters and Papers from Prison. What resonated with me as a young man and still resonates with me today is his restless poem “Who Am I?” In this poem he wrestles with what is true about himself. Is he what the prison guards or inmates think about him or is he what he thinks about himself? Even that question is hard because what he thinks about himself might change hour to hour.

“Am I then really that which other men tell of? Or am I only what I myself know of myself?…Who am I? This or the Other? Am I one person today and tomorrow another? Am I both at once? A hypocrite before others, And before myself a contemptible woebegone weakling?”

Bonhoeffer’s struggle over a confused identity captures one identity issue many of us face. How do we answer the question, “Who am I, really?”

I think many of us suffer from identity confusion because we don’t know or can’t admit what’s true of us. For some, that’s because we often have a certain view of ourselves, either how we think we really are or how we wish we were. This creates dual-identities in our mind. That might be the case for those who have a wrong view of self, in big or small ways. It could be an aging woman who thinks her value is synonymous with staying young and attractive. Or, maybe it’s the guy who thinks he has it in him to be a professional athlete and he was unjustly skipped over or had a bad break. In his head he still defines himself as an athlete when in reality he’s just your average Joe.

This confusion could play itself out in more serious frustrations for a person. There are many young people who try experience after experience, friendship after friendship, or job after job. All of this is done in the pursuit of figuring out who they are, but the trail of unsatisfying, hodge-podge experiences might leave them more confused. Where do I belong? What am I good at? Which experiences were defining?

Identify confusion comes into play because we lack clarity to the question “who am I?” And we lack clarity because we don’t know where the answer is found. Which scripts and voices in my life offering a view of the world and a view of myself are correct? Where can I find insight about who I am that speaks deeper to my humanity than my looks, jobs, and experiences?

This is part of why thinking about the issue of identity and opening our Bibles to seek the wisdom of our Maker is so important. Discovering our identity in Christ can be clarifying when we don’t know who we really are. It might be painful up front if it means letting go of or dying to a false identity we have in our head. But better to get rid of a false or unrealistic identity now than keep going with the frustration of trying to be someone else. The long-term benefit of that is it is liberating to not have to be the imagined person in my head and know the “real me” is okay, or, at least the real me gives me a place to move forward from.

God provides a story of the world, fashions mankind out of dust, and places us into that story. He then tells us who we are (identity) and why we exist (purpose), and even where we belong (community). The cloudy confusion of identity can be cleared up when we allow our Creator to define us. God’s scripts casts us into the role of image-bearers who are made to know and reflect our Maker. We are human persons, which means we are relational, thinking, moral, worshipping beings, which in part is why all the man-made voices weighing on my identity feel so flimsy and temporal. The Bible makes sense not only out of who I am but what’s wrong with me (sin), and then it offers the chance to be renewed and remade in Christ. “Most of us feel a mixture of fatalism, assent, and chagrin about our not-always-chosen but fully operative identities. But in Jesus, we are renamed.”[1] To be renamed is to be given a new identity, one that is fitting with our new self.

Part of our frustration with life and why we so often feel like we never fit in our clothes in this world is because of the confusion of our identity. So many of us go around looking for our identity under every rock and taking our cues from so many different scripts that we have no longer have any clue as to who we really are. God steps into our lives and gives us His Word not merely as the ethical book telling us what to do but as the great Story telling us who we are. It answers, makes sense of, and defines our identity and does so while putting in our hands a script that tells us our part in God’s redemptive drama and how we flourish in our new role. When it comes to identity, in the world we’ll find confusion and chaos but in the Word we’ll find clarity and cohesiveness.

Identity Confinement

If the first struggle with identity related to the struggle to answer who we are, the second one points to how others often answer the question for us. Identity confinement recognizes that at times our identity gets twisted because others limit our view of self to what they think about us. We are pigeon-holed in our personhood and we live accordingly.

One place this is often seen is in the context of the family. Whether you’re the responsible older sibling, the forgotten middle child, or the beloved but careless youngest child, family dynamics can greatly affect identity. This in turn shapes our behavior. For many people, these aren’t just roles but these are fundamental aspects of what makes me me. How often does it happen that the responsible firstborn is eaten away by their expectation of always setting the bar high and being an example in everything they do? How often does the “middle child syndrome” as a kid transition into an attention-starved adult seeking a place to belong and be loved? How often does the baby in the family turn into a self-centered person who lives under the assumption that the world really does revolve around them?

For these adults, they either don’t how to be anything else or they don’t feel like they can step outside of the identity they’ve been appointed by the people around them. This is just one simple example but it demonstrates how small things, like birth order, not only shape our personality but they can corner us into an identity we may or may not want. It happens in many other ways. When people define us and then set expectations on us—positively or negatively—the identity they’ve labeled us with becomes a confining reality. Whether it’s a leader told “this is how you should be and act” or whether it’s an addict who’s forever viewed by his failures, many people struggle under the weight of identity imprisonment. They can’t be who they want or they think they are because others won’t let them out of their confined identity.

Discovering our identity in Christ can be freeing if for too long we’ve felt confined or constrained by what others think of us or what they expect of us. Going back to the Bible and letting God—you know, the one who Makes and therefore defines us—release us from the incarceration others put us in and finally live in the wide open expanse of our identity in Christ as a redeemed image-bearer gives us new life. We’re free to be who we are in Christ and live according to the boundaries and expectations of God rather than man. Whether others believe we can change or not, in Christ God says we are finding ourselves again in Christ and through him we are becoming who we were meant to be.

It’s true that we can’t change ourselves or become something we’re not; which is why so much of the self-help and self-improvement stuff out there doesn’t work. Trying to make a better you when the “you” is broken and sinful is a surefire crash-and-burn strategy. The possibility of change is possible only if our identity changes. In Les Miserables, Javert (the police captain) always pursues Jean Valjean because he believes it is impossible for him to change. No matter what he becomes, how he now lives, or what he does, Javert believes Jean will always be a thief and a slave. He pursues him because he believes it’s impossible for someone like him to become a different, and perhaps better, person than himself. He doesn’t get that Jean Valjean is different because he now belongs to another…who makes him different. Redemption means we have a fundamentally new identity, which means real change is actually possible.

People who knew the old you might say, “Who are you kidding? Who are you trying to be? I know the real you.” But, they only see the world through their scaly eyes and so they don’t realize you’re not the old you because you got help, put your best foot forward, or decided one day to make a change. NO, you’re not the old you because you’ve died and been raised up with Christ, given the Spirit to transform you into your new identity, and adopted into a new family with a whole new set of habits and values. In other words, if we are made new in Christ then we’re freed from the identity confines we’ve known all our lives. We can become a new person because the truth is we are a new person.

Identity Condemnation

A third common identity issue that causes people to misunderstand who they are and how to live is identity condemnation. There might be a few different shades to this struggle. For some, they define themselves by their biggest failure, worst moment, or biggest sin. The crushing weight of shame or guilt is something they can’t get past. For others, they might simply not like who they’ve become or how others view them. Whether it be a personality or character issue in their life they don’t like what they see in the mirror or who they’ve turned into. Others might always be haunted by a sense of failure or disappointment. They feel condemned because they never can reach theirs or others expectations and life has become an exhausting treadmill of performance. And finally, there are those who have been wronged or sinned against by others, in both small and enormous ways, and they feel like this wrong defines them.

All of these identity distortions leave the individual with a sense of condemnation and disappointment about who they are. They live day to day with the nagging suspicion that there’s something wrong with them or that they’ll never become whole. This not only robs the person of life’s joy but it leaves them with either a sense of needing to hide who they think they are or to make up for it. This can be an isolating experience of never feeling like people see or know the real me. One of the lies rolling around in the person’s head is that if anyone knew what I’ve done or what’s been done to me I would never be accepted, loved, or forgiven.

The identity condemnation also leaves people exhausted because they’re always under the pressure to make up for the past or become something better than what they are right now, or at least what they think they are. Whenever we see ourselves through the lens of judgment, censure, or disapproval we right away feel outside of any community and think that we’ve blown it when it comes to purpose.

Discovering our identity in Christ can be liberating and life-giving when we realize we are not what we’ve done or what’s been done to us. God has much bigger plans and can redeem the sins and struggles of our life. Our identity in Christ doesn’t get rid of the pain but it helps us think about it rightly so that it no longer condemns us and defines us. The good news of the gospel has multiple tentacles that spread out into all aspects of our life and we need to rehearse them again and again.

We need to remember and live in light of the fact that the blood of Christ cleanses us fully of all sin and shame down to the core of our core. The darkest spot in our lives is no match for the penetrating power of Christ’s blood that removes all our guilt from us (Heb. 9:14; 10:22). We need to let it sink in deep to our bones that Christ has forgiven me and granted me his perfect righteousness. My justification and complete approval and acceptance before my God isn’t based on my behavior or performance but on Christ’s performance. This removes us from the pit of identity condemnation where we view ourselves fundamentally in terms of failure and inability to measure up. We need to remember that at the moment of faith when we’re united to Christ we’re made a new creation as our old man is buried and our new self is raised with Christ (Col. 3:1-4; Rom. 6).  For a Christian, the past is the past and despite what others tell me or what I sometimes think, my identity is found in who I am in Christ who I belong to because of Christ.

In his excellent chapter on Identity Distortions Bill Clem summarizes this well. “So I am not what I do, but I am what Jesus has done for me. I am a redeemed image bearer, being renewed daily in the image of Christ (Col. 3:10). I am not what has been done to me, but I am free because of what Christ does on my behalf. When I sin, I have an advocate before the only one who can judge me, and my advocate is Jesus, the one who bears my judgment (I John 2:1-2).”[2]

When we let our identity be defined by God through the script of his promises in the gospel we can let go of the condemnation and live in the fresh-air of our justification. This daily battle to believe what God says about us over what we feel about ourselves is part of the fight of faith. But if we keep fighting it will finally leave us standing before God astonished that he knows everything about us and yet welcomes us without any hesitancy. The solution to identity condemnation is to stop looking at ourselves apart from Christ and to believe that our life is now hidden with Christ. What is true of Christ becomes true of us through union with him so that we become the loved and justified sons and daughters of God, who belong in the people of God, and can live with the purpose of reflecting God.

What we learn then as that God does want your best life now and he does want you to become the greatest version of you. But, where so many religious and psychological spokespersons miss is that what’s best for us and the true you is actually found in Jesus Christ. As we take our eyes off of self and lift them up to see Jesus as he is portrayed in the Word, and as we stop listening to scripts defining our identity outside of God’s Scripture, we will see that God is the one who knows us best, defines us rightly, gives us a new name and new identity, and has taken on himself the work of remaking us into the image of Christ. As we fight to believe the stunning and gracious truths of the gospel and as we fight to redirect our affections away from sin and towards Christ, we will discover what it means to be most human and most alive as we live in the sweet spot of life through our identity in Christ.

[1] Peter Hubbard, Love Into Light (Greenville: Ambassador International, 2013), 88.

[2] Bill Clem, Disciple (Wheaton: Crossway, 2011), 87.

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