Identity Image

Have you ever heard the story of Sanctus, an early Christian martyr who was able to handle torture better than James Bond? Eusebius records the story:

Sanctus “endured marvelously and superhumanly all the outrages which he suffered. While the wicked men hoped, by the continuance and severity of his tortures to wring something from him which he ought not to say, he girded himself against them with such firmness that he would not even tell his name, or the nation or city to which he belonged, or whether he was bond or free, but answered in the Roman tongue to all their questions, ‘I am a Christian.’ He confessed this instead of name and city and race and everything besides, and the people heard from him no other word.”[1]Eusebius, Church History, Book 5.1.20, available from: http://www.newadvent.org/fathers/250105.htm

One of the topics I am passionate about is identity formation. Our modern world puts so much emphasis on discovering identity that it almost becomes laughable. Common wisdom says that people need to look inward to find themselves. We see this in everyday slogans like:

  • “Follow your heart!”
  • “If it feels right, do it!”
  • “Be true to yourself!”

This idea leads many people into constant introspection and the endless pursuit of  identity formation. By contrast, the world of the bible was “not psychologically minded but rather anti-introspective.” [2]Bruce J. Malina, Portraits of Paul: An Archaeology of Ancient Personality (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 1996), 156

Instead of looking inward for purpose and identity, the ancient person looked outward, finding identity and fulfillment in relationship. A Bible scholar named Malina describes this contrast well in his book Portraits of Paul:

“Instead of a ‘vanity wall’ with plaques marking personal accomplishment such as we might see in a friend’s office or home, the first-century Mediterranean would feature masks, busts, and memorials of ancestors who made them to be who they were, thanks, of course, to the God(s) of these ancestors. Romans actually set out these representations on the walls of their houses. Israelites did much the same in the cadences of their genealogies.” [3]Ibid., 218.

Anyone who deeply imbibes the biblical worldview knows that  our identity comes not from within, but from the one who calls us by name and who knew us before we were born. Ravi Zacharias appeals to this idea in his book The Grand Weaver: How God Shapes Us through the Events of Our Lives:

Our identity is derived from relationship. We carry within us a deep-seated bond to those we love and know and represent. Our identity means something more than just our separate individual lives. For Christians, who we are is always defined by ‘Whose’ we are first. My name is identified with Christ’s name. … Your ultimate identity is wrapped up not in your ethnicity or your gender or your socioeconomic background or your vocation or your age or your current living situation or anything so temporal or changeable as that, but in your identification as a son or daughter of God, as a co-heir with Christ and a citizen of heaven. That is who you are, if through faith in the risen Jesus you are ‘in Christ’ — and that can never change. [4]Ravi K. Zacharias, The Grand Weaver: How God Shapes Us through the Events of Our Lives (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2007), Kindle Location, 2756.

But how do we get to a place where we are sure of our identity in Christ? The first step is acknowledging that you are not your own. It is learning to receive your life as gift. As Paul said, “What do you have that you did not receive?” (1 Cor. 4:7) Believe that God made you the way that you are for a reason, and that everything about you, including your gender, your parents, your natural abilities, and your life experiences are things he can use for his glory. Learning to accept that God is the Grand Weaver behind our lives is not easy to do, but trusting in something greater than ourselves is the only way to find identity that doesn’t come from within.

As Os Guiness says in his book The Call: Finding and Fulfilling the Central Purpose of Your Life:

“Only when we respond to Christ and follow his call do we become our real selves and come to have personalities of our own. So when it comes to identity, modern people have things completely back to front: Professing to be unsure of God, they pretend to be sure of themselves. Followers of Christ put things the other way around: Unsure of ourselves, we are sure of God.” [5]Os. Guinness, The Call: Finding and Fulfilling the Central Purpose of Your Life (Nashville, TN: Word, 1998), Kindle Location, 545.

I know this isn’t easy to do, but if we can take Paul seriously, contentment comes from finding identity in Christ alone. Paul himself brags that he has learned the “secret of contentment, in each and every situation” (Phil. 4:12). Can we get there too? Take comfort because the next verse says that we “can do everything through Christ” (Phil 4:13). Here’s some advice to help you keep focusing on Christ, from Robert Murray McCheyne:

“For every look at yourself, take ten looks at Christ. He is altogether lovely. Such infinite majesty, and yet such meekness and grace, and all for sinners, even the chief! Live much in the smiles of God. Bask in his beams. Feel his all-seeing eye settled on you in love, and repose in his almighty arms…Let your soul be filled with a heart-ravishing sense of the sweetness and excellency of Christ and all that is in Him. Let the Holy Spirit fill every chamber of your heart; and so there will be no room for folly, or the world, or Satan, or the flesh.” [6]Memoir and Remains of the Rev. Robert Murray McCheyne (Edinburgh, 1894), 293

Recommended Books:

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In Praise of Less Introspection: Identity Formation

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2 thoughts on “In Praise of Less Introspection: Identity Formation

  • July 24, 2014 at 10:49 pm
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    Insightful article Josh…states the Truth in love and should set each and everyone free if they truly receive the message of Jesus Christ

    Reply

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