“I have always heard that I’m supposed to find my identity in God, but I don’t get it, what is that?”
When you close your eyes and look deep down, who are you? How can anyone distinguish you from another person? When you imagine yourself, what are some of the key characteristics that set you apart from other people and contribute to your uniqueness and individuality? In your opinion what are the most important things that make up the person who you are? Those things are likely the primary sources of your identity. I have some 16 year old Facebook “friends” who imagine that they are hard core, cussin’, street-racing, gun toting, bank-robbin, gang-banging, thugs for life. They post photos of themselves showing gang signs, firing automatic weapons, or other uncivilized behaviors’. In “real life” they are pimply teenagers that still need mom to pick out the lettuce from their sandwich, in their minds, they are tough and truly masculine. Why do they form such a mental and social image of themselves? It’s because they want to be set apart and different from regular teenage boys who are weak and pitiful, they want to be different from regular people who are boring and passive. They want to form an identity and distinguish themselves.
But not every person finds their identity in being counter-cultural or pretending to be someone they are not, most people find their identity, distinctiveness, personality, selfhood, status, or uniqueness by being or doing something well and truly being the person they want to be. Identity, in essence, is the mental action of finding our self-worth or personal value in something we do or something we are.
HOW IS IDENTITY FORMED?
Identity comes to us either as a conscious and willful choice or without our thoughtful choice, as something inherited from our culture. In the case of the gangster wannabes, it is the former. A group of guys who feel they are not valuable enough adopt a life pattern that mimics that of their heroes, or people and things that they value. Simply put, they feel insignificant so they copy someone who is significant in order to also feel significant. Often people don’t merely copy, but become that which they think will bring them value. Those who think firemen are really important and valued in society, become firemen to also be important and valued in society. Those who think a particular political party is the true answer to the world’s problems, will join the party and thus they will gain great personal delight and significance from being a part of this highly important undertaking.
The second way we form our identity is not through conscious choice, but by way of inheritance. If one is born into a particular national, ethical, or religious group that elevates the value of its members above other groups, its children learn from the elders that belonging to that particular group is better or more meaningful than other groups. The family name and identity is passed to children without their choice and they soon learn where the family is on the social ladder, and if it’s important or notable, the children will likely adopt the same feelings of honor that their parents esteemed. Even in cases of an unimportant family background, the children often still adopt their family identity, and find personal satisfaction and significance in not being “rich and snobby” like the (hated by them) upper castes of society. The bottom line is that all people are on a quest to become valuable and significant, to have reason, purpose, and meaning. All people do this, there is no exception, the only question to each of us is what are the primary things that we use to form our identity? What are the primary things do we take pride in? What are the primary things make us feel valuable?
TWO TYPES OF IDENTITY
There are only two sources from which we can draw our primary identity and personal significance. I know it sounds unbelievable, nonetheless, if we were to take all the things in the universe, basically that’s a lot of things, we could then sort them into two categories. Our identity and personal significance is based on things from one of these two categories (though sometimes we can stray into both). Paul Tripp describes these two categories as Horizontal identity and Vertical Identity. I have long thought about the two, and Tripp’s names perfectly fit my ideas.
1. Horizontal identity (Regarding Creation)
This type of identity occurs when self-worth is determined by the horizontal relationships with people around you. There is something, and it could be virtually or literally anything, that you see as incredibly important and being or doing that thing makes you feel important. In addition you (often subconsciously) classify yourself on a scale compared to other people: If you are doing the important thing, your identity is as one who is important, if they are not, then you consider yourself more important than them. This can happen explicitly (you think or say that you are more important) or implicitly (you are just focused on how important you are that you ignore others who seem less important than you). If we draw on these things to form our primary identity, even if we claim that we do not put others down, we are ultimately committing the sin of idolatry, for by allowing our personal significance come from created things, the most important things to us become created things.
Remember high school? All the “progress” of the last few centuries seems to break in high school, where life returns to the old familiar structure of castes or social classes. The attractive and fashionable people were always in the same cliques, and the awkward looking nerds, being a whole different social class, hung out with each other. Some people who have been gifted with remarkable physical attractiveness can find that it opens many doors for them, earns much respect, attention, friends, and therefore they can easily find their self-worth and identity as someone who is beautiful. Losing that beauty becomes one of the most frightening things that could be imagined, indeed the person couldn’t even imagine life without it. Yet, those who are not necessarily gifted with physical attractiveness can just as easily find their personal significance in beauty, and their whole life becomes a quest for ways to make themselves be more attractive. They wear all the latest fashion, receive expensive skin care, undergo costly plastic surgery, and spend a great deal of time trying to increase their beauty primarily it is the main source of their identity, significance, and value. When they close their eyes and wish to be someone, its someone who is immensely beautiful; this is the deepest longing of their heart and the biggest part of their identity.
It’s natural to cling together with members of one’s own nationality or “race.” In prison, for example, inmates quickly form into groups of Whites, Blacks, and Hispanics because it’s such a deep part of human identity. There they engage in fights and competition which stems from the fact that each groups thinks its superior. If Hispanics did not think their racial group was “better” why else would they join it? If the white group thought everyone was equal and did not think they are better, why would they not allows people from the other two to join them? Of course not everyone is a racist, but many people do base a part of their worth on their ethnic, cultural, or national roots. An example that is close to my heart, is the people from my own Slavic culture. To my great shame, I see some who are more proud of the fact that they are “Ukrainian” or “Russian” than “Christian.” They devalue everything that isn’t Slavic, even to the point of thinking and acting as if Slavic churches are inherently more holy or closer to the Gospel than the local American churches. I know some quick witted Slavs who perpetually mock certain Americans that are not equally gifted, claiming that all Russians are naturally smarter. It seems that in some of their minds the fact that they are of Slavic descent is not merely descriptive of their origin, but it’s their current source of honor, self-worth, and significance. Conversely, some of my Slavic friends are quick to ridicule other people of Slavic descent as being uncivilized in an effort to appear more distinguished. In any case, regardless the cultures involved, whether you are so fascinated with accepting or rejecting one type of ethnicity or culture it shows a predominant focus on ethnicity as a source of significance and identity.
I remember when I was a teenager I wished I could have a really cool talent. I jealously eyed those around me that were able to perform well in the arts or sports. In my eyes all I had to do to become popular and well liked was to either become a star athlete or a popstar. Tragically, I had the skills for neither, though I did learn to play the guitar and for years I’d sing my heart out until my face was blue. When I am reminded of this I literally laugh because I see how much of my identity was contained in this misinformed desire to be a well known performance artist. That part of my life seems so silly now because I know I had very little skill, hardly enough to think of myself the way I did, yet it shows that any skill, ability, or talent can become a very strong source of identity to those who do indeed have it. Even though I have nothing outstanding today, I can still be plagued by the desire mentally increase my self-worth because of some miniscule ability I possess. The dangers of this do not elude me, for if part of my identity comes from ability, I subconsciously compare myself to those who don’t have it, and I come out on top, becoming more distinguished and more valuable in my eyes. Whether we are talking about Hollywood celebrities, teenage football players, or anyone in between, most people in their lives have used a specific ability or talent in order set themselves apart from their peers. And most of us wish we had even more abilities, which clearly shows the importance we give to abilities in determining our personal worth.
This section applies to everyone who is not a hermit and lives in a community of people. Then again, it does apply to hermits, as they draw upon commitment to avoid human contact as the primary thing that gives them significance, meaning, and self-worth. For the majority of people, however, human contact is vital to life, and often vital to identity and self-worth. I know a young man who thrives on human contact; he feels at his best when he is around people and all attention is focused on him, and he is depressed when he is alone. I also know of a common condition affecting many younger people wherein they feel “incomplete” and worthless if they are without a romantic entanglement. I know of a family that is unable to bear children, and because of this inability to be parents they struggled through many bitter days. The ruling principle in all of the above examples is that people often form their identity based on their relationships in their community. If they are “in love,” have children, have a set amount of friends, they feel significant, loved, and valuable, but were those relationships take from them, they would quickly lose their meaning and be utterly empty.
In the Genesis account of Creation, God sets a pattern for life in this world, a part of that pattern is 6 days of work and the 7th day of rest. Whether we like it or not, the majority of people in this world will spend most of their life doing work. Therefore, it’s not hard to see how ones vocation can often define their identity and be the primary reason for their personal significance. At any workplace around the world, you will find an organized system or ladder, ranging from those on the bottom to those on top. Often this ranking system is determined by the level of education one undergoes. In a hospital the doctors, who have the most education, are clearly at the top, followed by the nurses, and then by the cleaning staff. Each group finds personal significance by evaluating and comparing their occupation and education with those below them; and those at the bottom often using other reasons to find their own self-worth, such as being the most tenured and etc. This reminds me of the Russian Army stories my dad told me, where those who are at the top abuse those at the bottom of the chain of command. And lastly all those on the bottom (privates) are still categorized by old recruits and new recruits, the new often being abused by the old. In every case above the issue is identity, all want to feel significant, and so they adopt whatever vocational or educational background they have and use it to pump up their personal self-worth and identity on a horizontal level: being able to point out those who they surpass in occupation or education.
Historically, society has always been broken down into levels ranging from the least valuable people to the most esteemed, and those at the top were there because of family name and wealth. Royal families passed down inherent self-worth to their children by form of a last name that gave one external power over other people and an internal feeling that one was more valuable than many peasants. Other esteemed families passed down self-worth and significance in the form of wealth. Throughout history being born into a wealthy family was enough to set one apart from the poorer classes of society; externally, one would hold friendships only with the rich, avoiding the poor, and internally, one actually believed he or she was far better and more cultured than the rogues of society. Today we claim this social segregation does not exist, yet human nature does not allow such things to pass away. When I was a kid I lived in the projects (Gov funded apartments for the poor) and the school I went to was separated into the kids from the projects and the “kids who live in houses.” I never did forge friendships with anyone outside of my social class because my out of style Value Village outfit betrayed that I was poor. I could not even be friends with the more nerdy rich kids because they all had expensive video games to talk about and I didn’t. I hated being poor. Yet I am not simply blaming the rich for letting wealth became part of their primary identity, because while I never had any wealth, I did the same thing and it also became part of my idea of personal significance. I sought wealth and idolized it, I literally though that were I to have it I would be complete. I drew my source of personal worth from the dream that I would one day be rich just like the “kids who live in houses.” It does not take having wealth to make it a part of your identity.
Here is the section that religious people will definitely not be fond of, likely misinterpret, and possibly even fight. Karl Marx once said “religion is the opiate of the masses.” What he meant was that life is so gruesome and terrible, and the poor masses have so little hope that they use religion and the hope that their suffering will be repaid in Heaven, as a painkiller. In some sense he was indeed correct, if one looks at the world’s religions (including “religious Christianity”) and compares all to the Gospel of Jesus, religions really are build by humans to feel better about themselves. The Pharisees, a group of religious leaders who opposed Jesus, were highly moral and they drew their whole identity and self-worth from just how perfectly good and moral they thought they were. Yet this was a horizontal type of identity, they were able to constantly compare how much more valuable they are to God compared to others who are not as moral and therefore not as valuable. The biggest part of the Pharisees identity, and indeed any of us that are of the same mindset, did not come from the God they served, but from the level and type of service they did. In their minds they elevated moral perfection as the most important of all things, and thus drew their identity from becoming morally perfect. Thus on a good day, they felt good and deserving heaven, on a bad day they felt terrible and undeserving; and unfortunately religious people, in their minds, have very few (if any) bad days. Just to clarify this, doing things that are morally good isn’t wrong, that would make no sense, however, drawing your feeling of self-worth, significance, and identity from your own good works is really an act of idolizing your good works.
Just when you think this essay could not peel back any more layers, here is one last one, ministry. Christian common sense would tell us that for someone to say that the most important thing about himself is that he is a minster or a pastor is a very good thing. This means he lives a sanctified life, most of us would say. And indeed ministry is good, whether its vocational, pastoral, and lifelong, or the simple ministry by a teenager who serves in a soup kitchen. However, ministry is still a created thing, no? I served as a youth pastor for about four years, and in that time I do think (hope?) I did some valuable things that will resonate in eternity. Yet near the end of my tenure I began to realize how great a chunk of my identity this made up. When describing myself I would not first think I am a miserable wretch in need of Grace, instead I would first identify myself as a leader in Gods kingdom. I was not filled with arrogance to the point that I told others “I am better than you,” but I began to expect too much of myself. I began to expect that I should indeed be able to do certain deeds because of who I was, and while regular church people cannot, I ought to because after all, I am a minister. At times this battle for identity led me to trust in my “ministry” for satisfaction and encouragement instead of my Lord. In recent years, many ministers have gone public with similar pronouncements and much has been said about not allowing ministry to become our primary identity. Because ministry is indeed important, anyone who serves in is prone to finding identity and self-worth because of the ministry instead of the One they minister for. Heck, I could probably start finding my identity in having a stupid blog and deep down think I am more meaningful because of it; that would be tragic.
2 Vertical Identity. (Regarding Creator)
One of my favorite songs starts off with the lyrics “In Christ alone my hope is found, He is my light, my strength, my song.” There is no truth sweeter or dearer to those who have truly come to know the reality of these words. In Colossians 3:3, Paul writes that your “ life is hidden with Christ.” This is precisely what a vertical identity looks like; it is not one that depends on other people or on created things, instead its wholly dependent upon Christ. I know this sounds churchy enough that we are immune to the real meaning of these words. I will do my best to explain it and to quote Paul, “I don’t mean to say that I have already achieved these things or that I have already reached perfection. But I press on to possess that perfection for which Christ Jesus first possessed me.”
I was nothing
The biggest and most important realization that every man, woman, and child must make is who they really are. With all of the sources of human identity that exist, of which we discussed many above, all are things we obtain after being born into this world. We come into it naked, bloody, poor, powerless, and dirty. We were created to be image bearers of God, but fell in Adam to our pitiful, rebellious state and come into the world with nothing but our sinful desires. Then we obtain earthly things of value, and create our identity, find significance, and self-worth because of these created things, we become blind to who we really are. The rich man cannot see his spiritual poverty, the strong man cannot see his true weakness, the beloved model cannot see her inner ugliness, the respected politician cannot see his heart’s disdain, the educated professor cannot see his deep ignorance, the moralist cannot see her immorality. The sinners cannot see their sin because they have hidden their diseased bodies by putting on beautiful cloaks. Yet, what happens when you take all of that away? What happens at that moment of twilight when it’s not yet night but the day has clearly passed? In that instant all these horizontal sources of identity begin to wilt away. What are you when all created things are slowly stripped away from the frail body on life support? That is what you truly are. A being who was born as nothing, squandered all his time to become something, and in the end lost everything only to become what he truly is: nothing. That helpless dying sinner is the essence of your true nature and until you realize it and embrace that nothingness, you can never be anything. Tim Keller once said that in order for God to approve you, you must bring Him nothing, but the problem is none of us have nothing, all of us have something that we want to be approved for. You must drop the illusion of being something valuable and stop building your personal significance and self-worth on created things that you possess or things you have become. They are fleeing and temporary. So thus your identity in them will likewise wilt with the coming of winter and you will be forever doomed to spend eternity seeking a home you will never find.
I am His
The Bible says “You are not your own” (1 Cor 6:19). But we are often so inoculated against church language that we read things like this and misconstrue it. We either think it means God is a legalist and we have to grudgingly force ourselves to abandon all joyful things because we have to spend all our time doing meaningless religious rituals, or we ignore the passage completely. Nothing could be further from the truth. Our error is that we have long enjoyed receiving our personal significance from created things, we are so used to receiving our identity horizontally that now we fear the only other alternative, vertically. If we accomplish much in this life, we are proud of it, and know for certain that we have accomplished, or become, better than or beloved by our peers. You see, in horizontal relationships, we are in control, and we can do something to control our life or mindset to make us better or beloved. Yet when looking vertically, and comparing yourself to God, we clearly see that we are literally nothing compared to God and absolutely powerless make Him love us. This is frightening. Yet, in every encounter with man, God has said “do not fear.” And even more so He has taken the initiative to love, pursue, and save us. He abandoned His Son Jesus on the cross, to embrace us. The Father sent the Son to become poor that we would be rich, to be a curse that we would receive a blessing, and to die that we would live. This is the love of our Triune God. This love is the ground for our relationship with God. This love is the primary source of identity for a Christian. Any other thing we may find our identity in, will always cease and disappear; The Scripture says even God’s spiritual gifts for ministry, like prophecy and tongues, will cease, but Love will never cease. And in this love we are to stand, live, and find our meaning. My whole life I eagerly desired to be or do things that would make people respect and love me. At times I even tried to be morally superior and serve the church just in order to get God to love me. Much of the time my identity was found in the adoration of other people, wealth, ministry, and so many other things, and while somewhere at the back of my mind I “knew” Jesus loved me these created things would often blind me to my weakness, and the Creators great love in spite of that weakness. When I look at the wonders of the universe, I find that the greatest paradox is the human desire to find identity, value, self-worth in created things instead of the undeserved love of the Creator.
He is everything
Sometimes I think the reason we fear embracing God most fully, is that we imagine Christianity is boring, and in hushed tones we may even secretly whisper in our minds that God is boring. When we compare the unknown Creator to the pleasures of sin at our disposal, we dread having to give up the known delights to gain the unknown. We are blind, for in our ignorance we don’t see the far greater pleasures and delights set before us. To modernize an analogy of CS Lewis, we are like children who are too afraid to give up our short playtime at home when we are invited on a long vacation at Disney World. We are fools. Our horizontal identity is well known to us, and we understand the delight of knowing that we are significant and valuable because we are attractive, popular, educated, and moral, however, we are fools because we would use that to give up a vertical identity found by treasuring the ultimate of all treasures. In the beginning I said people find significance by picking something they value immensely (like a political party), joining that (political party), and drawing their self-worth from being a part of that (political party). Yet all earthly things pale and melt before the triumphs of Christ. If we were to truly pick the most valuable object to love, join, and draw our self-worth from, the absolute, transcendental, perfect ideal would be found in the Person of Christ.
In my own life I have tasted the bitter sting of identity crisis. I had almost two decades trying to become everything until I realized I was nothing. And even when I truly became a Christian about six years ago, my identity had for so long been gained from created things and horizontal relationships that I was driven by the desire to be worthy, valuable, distinguished, and loved. And the more I sought to earn that, the less I began to see the greatest Treasure of all. But when Christ is the greatest treasure and the primary source of our identity, then all things matter far less. If you aren’t the most physically attractive person in the world, you hardly care or notice, but others think there is a beauty in you that is beyond this earth. If you are of a race or culture that is lower, you hardly care, and all cultures become friends for you, and all embrace you with openness as a result. When others have abilities that you don’t, instead of jealousy, you encourage them and are genuinely excited for them; and in this people see you have the one ability that very few have. You don’t need friends or family to make you feel loved, instead you love everyone like they are friends and family. You don’t join the rat race at work, you don’t feel jealous of someone with a higher salary, and you recognize the value of the most unskilled worker and realize that were it not for them, your job could not exist either. You don’t tout your degrees in intellect above others, but it enables you to listen to the wisdom of others. No longer do you idolize wealth and money and your joy stops going up and down with the stock market. You even pity those who are so poor in spirit that they have to make it up with money. You no longer have a list of who is worse than you and who is better. There is not more comparisons, and words like “more” or “less” are never used when talking about sin and other people. You see your own weakness and sinfulness every day, yet you are secure in your salvation for you know it comes faith in Christ work, not yours. You minister and serve other people not because you are important, but because they are. You are not the object of your service and life, but Christ is. This is what identity in Christ is.
The Apostle Paul once had an identity that was horizontal and based on created things, not Creator; but his life, identity, self-worth, and value was radically transformed. He says he could take pride in the fact that he was born into the chosen people (Phil 3:4-5), had a great Hebrew education, was in the best sect in Judaism, and was even perfect morally (Phil 3:6), yet he counted all of this as rubbish to gain his identity from the greatest treasure of all: Christ. (Phil 3:7-8). Then when all was ripped away from this man, when the breath had escaped his mouth, and all created things were torn from the frail body under the Roman sword, Paul was still the richest man in the universe.