Have You Not Found Your Identity?

One of my favorite tales from our family’s canon features my grandfather, picking up a hitchhiker in the sixties. The flower child hitchhiker was likely sporting the uniform of his tribe—a breezy shirt, bell-bottom jeans, and flowing hair. After finding out where he could drop him off, my grandfather, a high school football star turned electrical engineer company-man of twenty years, asked the hitchhiker what he was doing.

“I’m searching for myself.”

“Mm-hm,” my grandfather nodded. Then after a beat: “And what’ll you do when you find yourself?”

       It’s humorous because it’s two very different people talking past each other. In the self-discovery ethos of the sixties and seventies, as in today, there is no end to the quest. There is no arrival; the journey itself is the end. By definition, you’ll never come to a final, completed self. As long as you are living, you are becoming. Traditionalists scoff and roll their eyes at this sort of thing. They see a life dissipated in drifting through an existential cloud. But the Bible is not so dismissive. The Bible, in fact, gives Christians many of the very same self-discovery imperatives in its own language. “Put off the old man, and put on the new man.” (Eph 4:22-24) “I do not consider that I have made it (an identity of Christ-likeness) my own. But one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead...” (Phil 3:13)

       No author in the Bible spent more time dissecting the metaphysical mysteries of identity tension and discovery than Paul. I doubt many people would have accused him of being an aimless drifter. In 2 Corinthians 3:18, Paul harmonizes the two elements of identity that we often forget or distort. Our identity is both static and dynamic.

       “We all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image, from one degree of glory to another. For this comes from the Lord who is the Spirit.”

       The static identity of a Christian is the image of Christ. We are created in the image of God as human beings, and as a Christian we are re-created into the image of Christ. Bot those identities are as stable and immutable as God himself, because they are derived from God. As human beings, we will never shake off the image of God, no matter how depraved, distorted, disabled, degenerated, or dysfunctional we are or become. Likewise, for the truly regenerate Christian, he can never shake off the image of Christ, try as he might to suppress his conscience, to mar it, to deny Christ (i.e Peter), or pretend that he is only shaped by the world. These identities are static.

“We are created in the image of God as human beings, and as a Christian we are re-created into the image of Christ.”

       Yet those same identities (creational image of God and regenerate image of Christ) are also dynamic. They are dynamic in the ways we grow in or depreciate in our knowledge and understanding of what these identities mean and how we should live them out. That’s why Paul can say we are being transformed into the same image. Transformation surely implies, that the thing transformed now looks a lot different than it used to. But Paul says that Christians are repeatedly, continually “transformed”… into the same image. How is that possible?

        Much of our modern identity confusion stems from a lack of understanding of the static and dynamic components of identity. Every identity, to varying degrees, has both parts. By rough analogy, we can think of these components as “form” and “trajectory”: identity “form” is static, and identity “trajectory” is dynamic. If you’re already familiar with Aristotelian metaphysics, this is nothing new. In Aristotle, there’s substance and accident. But these words have different nuances, so let’s not confuse the matter.

       Because our identity emphases and presuppositions are different today, let’s use the words “form” and “trajectory”. Take the example of a lion cub. I think we can grant that the cub looks quite different than the proud, prowling, roaring king of the jungle. But what do we say about the cub? Is it any less a lion? Is it not, down to its very core, and through and through, still a lion? Would any other word do? Other examples of identities that are both static and dynamic can be seen all around us: the baby or the young child, the seedling of an oak tree, the high school quarterback, the medical doctor who is a resident-in-training. All of these have a recognizable, static “form” which will remain constant, but they also have a dynamic growth trajectory which moves toward a more mature version of the same identity.

The word identity has become so broad and sweeping that it’s hard to get our hands around. Everything is an identity. Therefore a person’s a unified identity, how they ultimately think about themselves, is cobbled together through a fusion of sub-identities. It’s tempting to just throw your hands up and say the whole thing is crazy. “Some things just “are”, and they don’t need to be discovered or developed!” This is an understandable sentiment, but we needn’t feel so frustrated. The world is not either-or, static or dynamic, but everywhere it is both. God made it that way, and it can be a beautiful and exciting way of seeing the world if we can learn to spot these two components showing up time and again. The truths of God’s Word and humanity have not changed, but a worldview of identity looks at those truths from a different perspective.

       Let’s try to get some categories in mind, and then see how each category contains the static and the dynamic. Hopefully this will allow us to talk past other people less when identity language comes into play.

There are three loose categories of identity. I say loose because these three overlap, intersect, or fuse together for different people at different points.

1. Identities of origin. These are identity markers which are given to us at birth. They include things like ethnicity, gender, nationality, time and place of birth, parents and lineage. As life goes on, our identity of origin continues to amass historical, objective, “single-point” events, both ones we have chosen, and ones that have simply happened to us.

2. Identities of role. Role implies some sort of action, but as it applies to our identity, the relative significance of a role has to do with the level of responsibility we feel on account of that role. Roles can be more or less important to us depending on the person, the time, and the activity involved. For example, although it is a role that I have, it’s unlikely that I will ever deeply contemplate my identity in terms of “Justin, the unloader of the dishwasher.” Identities of role include things like grandfather, mother, sister, son, granddaughter. It includes other relational roles, such as employee, boss, colleague, friend. They also include roles of choice and vocation, like student, nanny, golfer, lawyer, handyman, etc.

3. Identities of affinity. This category of identity is the most dynamic one, both in its potential for change, and the likelihood of a high desire to grow this identity along a trajectory toward perfection. Identities of affinity include anything someone is passionate about. This category also holds the most potential energy, to steal a physics term, for an identity to rise in its importance. An identity of affinity, as it grows in importance, will play more of a role in shaping that person’s community and values. These identities can include things like: playing tennis, watching The Office, like political parties and religious affiliations, being a veterinarian, a particular musical taste, and fitness/ diet lifestyles, to name a few.

       You’ve already spotted the difficulty. Any one of these identities can exist in multiple, if not all three categories. I’ll give you an example. Ross is the son of a software engineer. That’s an identity of origin. As he grows up under his software engineer father, it shapes the way he think about life, and what he learns. He goes to school for, and becomes, a web designer. That’s an identity of role (though school turns into an identity of origin). Ross is motivated in how he thinks of his role in large part by his father, and his upbringing – his identity of origin. Finally, the goal of responsible tech becomes a passion for him. That’s an identity of affinity. He dedicates himself to trying to make websites that are both helpful and healthy for human beings. All three identities are coalescing. That’s okay. The point is that these are separate categories, and they may or may not overlap to that extent.

        The point of laying out these categorical distinctions is to see that Christianity, as a “master identity”, rightly works its way back through, and infuses meaning, into all our other identities. It also provides a structure for rightly organizing and prioritizing our different categories of identity, and keeping them in their rightful balance. Likewise, we can quickly see how other identities, springing up from origin, role, or affinity, can co-opt the same function as Christianity (i.e. gender, sexuality, vocation, family upbringing). They serve as a master identity, and begin to shape and provide a context and interpretive grid to every other identity.

        It’s also important for us to recognize, when thinking about our own lives, or when interacting with others, that every identity, in every category, has a static and a dynamic function. For example, take a hypothetical story about the character Esther.

       Esther is born in Chicago in the 1970s. That’s an identity of origin. It’s also a static, unchanging fact. Yet Esther’s understanding of what it means to have grown up in Chicago during that time period will continue developing. She will grow in understanding how that shaped her preferences and personality.

       Esther moves back to Chicago after college. She now has role identity as a citizen of Chicago. That identity is static. Yet there’s also a dynamic component as she begins to learn the city better as an adult, understand how to explain its culture, and see how she is shaped by it in what she does for fun, how she gets around, and the sorts of conversations she has.

       Lastly, Esther becomes an advocate for city development and flourishing. This is an identity of affinity. She joins neighborhood associations, speaks at hearings, and writes petitions. This is a static identity in that it can be defined once and for all as caring for the wellbeing of Chicago. But this identity is dynamic as she grows in developing her ideas about what city development should look like.

       Understanding the static-dynamic identity dualism helps us know ourselves better and offer a compassionate hand to those who are confused. Life is not merely fixed, static, and boring. We are always meant to be growing and changing to be more like the ideal person of Jesus Christ. Yet, perhaps most comforting in our cultural moment, not everything is subject to change. In fact every identity must have a static, unchangeable definition otherwise it ceases to have any meaning at all. God has given us all a longing for rootedness and permanence, as well as growth and development. An identity hidden and planted within Jesus Christ offers both.

Justin is a pastor at Westminster Presbyterian Church in Fort Myers, FL; he received his MDiv from Westminster in 2015; he writes regularly for Reformation21, and on his blog, Time and Chance.

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