Mirrors are muted philosophers. Every time I look in one, the same questions sit on my forehead, mapped with furrowed roads of worry, surprise, and awe. But the king of questions always steps ahead of the others, strong and silent: Who are you?
Would you even have an answer? You’d probably give your name, your occupation, your social and family roles. All these things are part of your identity. But there’s also something deeper beneath the rippling water of your experience, something worthy of the title you.
The Secular Approach to Identity
Just what that something is, however, can be hard to articulate. The secular world is frenzied over identity. It’s the hallmark of artistic and cinematic expression in our age. But identity is defined, on a popular level, in ways that should make a Christian shudder. For much of the world, identity is unbound autonomous freedom—freedom to choose (and the freedom to not make a choice), freedom to express, freedom to love, freedom to “make yourself” (whatever that means).
As a father of young kids, I’ve seen my fair share of Disney movies. Almost all of them focus on this notion of free identity. Go ahead; pick one. The Little Mermaid? A girl who leaves behind her scales to put on human skin and make herself exactly what she wants to be. Frozen? A girl who ditches conformity for authentic self-expression and (in the sequel) takes up a mysterious union with the divine. The Jungle Book? A boy who leaves behind the animal world to find himself in the look of a young village girl. Even the most recent, Soul, which dares to creep into the transcendent, is all about finding identity not in greatness but in the purpose-filled, “ordinary” callings we all have (which, admittedly, is quite refreshing). It’s always about identity. It’s always about the freedom to make yourself or find yourself.
The same is the case with popular literature. Glennon Doyle’s Untamed has sold over two million copies, staying at the top of the Amazon charts for weeks. The book description says that she “explores the joy and peace we discover when we stop striving to meet others’ expectations and start trusting the voice deep within us.” It sounds a lot like Moana, which I forgot to mention in the queue of Disney films.
In secular culture, the only thing worthy of the title you is unbound autonomous freedom. You don’t take your identity; you make it. You don’t receive who you are; you create who you are. This has been called expressive individualism, and it appears to be “the highest form of authority” in our day. When you think about it, that makes total sense for a God-rejecting world. If you’re the only one in the universe and God is practically irrelevant, then your identity is pretty much up to you. It’s all on your shoulders. That can feel both liberating and crushing—liberating because it gives you the illusion of control but crushing because it’s an illusion of control. You can make a host of freewill decisions, but you can’t reject every other source of input for your identity. You need something outside of yourself to define you. Otherwise, your identity is incomplete and constantly frustrated. It becomes amorphous, ever evolving. Some people like it that way, I guess. They want identity to be constantly shifting and developing.
Yet, I can’t help thinking that those people also feel lost. And they likely feel crushed when others more powerful and influential are shut down in their attempts at unbound freedom of identity. This is where the Marxist roots of our culture become apparent. Karl Marx argued that “Whether it is politics, economics, or ideas, history is a matter of dominant, powerful groups marginalizing and silencing others.” Anyone more powerful or influential than you are who tells you “no” is, in a sense, marginalizing and silencing you. But there will always be people more powerful and influential than you are. No one stays at the top forever, and most of us aren’t anywhere near “the top.” This is a recipe for identity frustration. If we are the makers of our identity, but we’re constantly blockaded by others trying to make or maintain their identity, where does that leave us? Lost. If the very method you are using to define yourself is flawed and frustrated, then you’re never going to have a stable identity. In short, you won’t ever really have an answer to the basic human question, “Who are you?”
A Christian Approach to Identity
If you ask the same question to Christians—who are you?—we’re accustomed to saying “creature of God” or “God’s child” or “image-bearer.” All of those are correct. But the mirror on the wall isn’t so easily satisfied; it wants something more concrete. As we stare at our reflection, it presses. It pushes. It wants more. What does it mean to be made in God’s image? Some of us may have an answer to that, too. Reformed theology has traditionally taught that we resemble God in our knowledge, righteousness, and holiness. That’s true, provided that we see Christ when we look in the mirror because we’re united with him. On my own, I’d never describe myself with the adjectives knowledgeable, righteous, and holy. It’s only through Christ, into whose image I’m being crafted, that I can claim these things. And we should claim them. In Christ and by his Spirit, we know the truth, uphold the truth, and live out the truth.
Still, knowledge, righteousness, and holiness are abstractions. Our picture in the mirror is concrete. It calls for an equally concrete identity. Is there one? Yes. It may sound abstract at first, but it’s not. The Christian answer to the pivotal question of identity—who are you?—is this: a creature who speaks with God. We find our identity in a holy conversation. That conversation has a theological side and a practical side. Let’s take them each in turn.
You Are They: The Trinitarian Theology of Our Identity
In terms of theology, who you are is rooted in who God is. And the one God is three persons. God is the Father constantly communing with the Son in the power of the Spirit. God is a being who communes with himself. In a sense too high to articulate, God is always speaking with himself, always conversing, always expressing, and sharing in unbound fellowship. That’s simply who God is.
The constantly conversing God defines us. We are creatures made for communion. Or, as Geerhardus Vos put it, everything in us is “disposed for communion with God.” But another way of saying this is that we’re creatures made for speech with God. In fact, we’re creatures created, governed, and redeemed by divine speech.
The Father spoke us using words, derivatives of his Son, the eternal Word (John 1:1). And he did that in the power of his Spirit, which was then breathed into us (Genesis 2:7). That’s why the psalmist can write, “By the word [the Son] of the LORD [the Father] the heavens were made, and by the breath [Spirit] of his mouth all their host” (Psalm 33:6). We are divinely uttered syllables from the speaking God. We were created only in relation to the Father, Son, and Spirit.
And that creative speech didn’t leave. It stayed. It continued to govern the world. Isaiah writes, “For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven and do not return there but water the earth, making it bring forth and sprout, giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater, so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth; it shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and shall succeed in the thing for which I sent it” (Isaiah 55:10–11). The natural laws of the universe are, in a sense, just faithful words of God. His speech stays in the natural world.
But it also governs us. As we are identified through the speech of God, so we are guided by the speech of God. And it’s not a cold, legalistic guiding. It’s personal. It’s loving. “If anyone loves me, he will keep my word, and my Father will love him, and we will come to him and make our home with him” (John 14:23). God gives his word to shepherd us in love. By keeping that word and by being governed by it, we more faithfully reflect who we are in him. But that comes only after we’ve been redeemed.
And it’s God’s speech that redeems us, even while that speech is governing us and holding our molecules together (since God’s common grace can be understood as a form of speech). We are redeemed by the greatest speech of God, the greatest word. The love song of the Son serenaded a sinful world. The word entered an era and became silent for our sake (Isaiah 53:7). We speak holy words only when we’re in that word, when we’re in Christ, when we speak in his silence. But that word is the word of our Father, spoken in the breath of God’s Spirit. Trinitarian speech redeems us.
In short, trinitarian speech creates; trinitarian speech governs; and trinitarian speech saves. When someone asks who you are, you might reply, “I’m a unique word spoken by the Trinity.” That’s the theology of your identity. Breaking the bounds of English grammar, we can say, you are they. You cannot be identified apart from the Father, Son, and Spirit who speaks. That doesn’t mean you’re divine; it just means your identity comes from the one who is. You are fully yourself when you are abiding in the Godhead who already dwells in you. We abide in Christ by the power of the Spirit and are brought into the presence of the Father. That’s our identity. As Rankin Wilbourne put it, “You no longer belong only to yourself. Your identity now includes another; it is broadened from ‘me’ to ‘us.’ ” You are they.
You Are They: The Trinitarian Practice of Our Identity
The theology of our identity demands practice. If you are a creature who speaks with God, then you have to. . .you know, speak with God. It’s a wonder to me that we can claim to be followers of Christ, that we can claim to be Christians, and not cultivate a daily conversation with the Trinity.
I worked in a supermarket as a teenager. There was a man who would walk up and down the aisles in his old plaid shirt and ripped khakis, mumbling about the products on the shelf. He would browse the lightbulbs and say, “We’ve got 75 watt, 60 watt, 30 watt. . . we’ve got soft white, bright white, clear glass. . . we’ve got appliance bulbs, household bulbs, exterior bulbs. . .” He was talking to himself. That made him a “crazy person.” Why, exactly? He was talking to someone no one could see. Well, people could see him, but usually we talk to someone else we can see. The point is it would be insane to speak to what you cannot see.
But isn’t that what we’re called to do all the time? The Thessalonians are called to “pray without ceasing” (1 Thess. 5:17). That means, “Never stop talking to God.” But God is a Spirit (WCF 2.1). So, we can’t see him. Put conversationally, the Thessalonians are told, “Always talk to the invisible God. Always look like the crazy person.” Sounds wild, doesn’t it? To be more accurate, it sounds otherworldly, and it is. We are citizens of an invisible country, inhabited by invisible saints, governed by an invisible God. We can’t get around invisibility. But neither can we get around the call to speak constantly with God.
A practical outworking of our identity is talking to the Father of love, the Son of grace, and the Spirit of comfort. Speech with the Trinity is a manifestation of who we are. You are they. You can’t define yourself apart from speaking to the God who loves you, the God who is love (1 John 4:8). You can’t.
Identity and Expression
Now, where does that leave us in terms of self-expression? I mentioned earlier that we live in an age of expressive individualism. We feel entitled to self-expression. And that’s not all bad. God does want us to express ourselves as unique creatures. But we’re not unique creatures in isolation from him. We’re not autonomous, much to the chagrin of modern society. Remember, you are they. We can’t truly express ourselves apart from finding that expression in the Trinity. Thoughts, speech, and action that express the diversity, order, beauty, power, relationship, and restorative work of God are healthy expressions of identity. And we find examples or pointers to such expressions in Scripture. Thoughts, speech, and action running counter to the God of Scripture are unhealthy expressions of identity. But digging into examples would require another article (or book).
Let’s end on a practical note. When we stare into that mirror each morning, some of us might be disappointed with saying, “You are they.” (I won’t be, since I teach writing and grammar, and that sentence just makes me smile.) Isn’t there something dynamic, some energizing definition of self that can spur us into the day? I think there is, and (surprise, surprise) I think it’s trinitarian, too. Each of us can claim our identity in the triune God, but that also leaves the door open to how we’re being shaped each day and what blessings we can bring to others in the world.
Identity through Stability, Variety, and Relationship
True identity, I learned from the late Kenneth Pike (and from Vern Poythress), involves stability, variety, and relationship. Who am I? A creature who speaks with Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. That’s my stability. That’s my rock. That’s my mountain. It’s not leaving. It’s never changing. I am grounded in the God who spoke me, silenced my sin, and then restated me in the power of his own breath. I don’t have to wonder about “finding myself” or “making myself.” I’m found; I’m made. And because of that, I’m free. I don’t have to go asserting my identity on the runaway train of expressive individualism. I’m safe. The more rooted I become in who God made me (and remade me) to be, the more myself I am. My identity is found in another. That’s why “you are more and most yourself when united to Christ. He covers you; he shields you; he represents you before the Father. He also fills you, illuminates you, and animates you, making you more yourself and more human than you could ever be on your own.” Stability is found in relationship with the Father, in the Son, and by the Spirit. That is the stone we stand on.
But we also develop and change, don’t we? Each day, we are a variant of our true selves, looking more like the God who made us. And so, variety is a critical component to our identity too. We are constantly growing and expressing ourselves in new ways. That doesn’t change who we are. The peonies outside our window have just burst into pink blossoms, bright voices on the dark landscape of green grass and brown mulch. But just a week ago, their heads were still wrapped shut, tight and full—treasures in humble silence. So much was coming for them a week ago, but it was hidden. They blossomed in time, not apart from it. But they were still peonies last week. What changed wasn’t their identity; it was their expression of that identity in a later stage of maturity. The peonies this week are a variant of the same peonies from last week. Their beauty comes in growth, in unfolding, in the worship of a thousand open hands.
Identity also involves relationship, and that, too, is built into us by the Trinity. We cannot identify ourselves in isolation. No one can truly be by himself. We are identified, in part, through our relationships with others. Who is the Father? He’s the Father of the Son and of the Spirit. He is known in relationship. Who is the Son? He’s the Son of the Father and joined to him in the Spirit. Who is the Spirit? He’s the Spirit of the Father and the Son. Identity lies in relationship. When I ask myself who I am, it’s the same. I’m the son of Donald and Monica; the brother of Tucker, Trevor, and Toby; the husband of Christina; the father of Isaac, Nora, and Heidi. I’m identified in my relationships.
My identity is stable in the Trinity, and so I can grow each day and spread my life into a million other relationships as who I am becomes more fully realized, more mature, more gloriously Christ-like.
Knowing “who you are” can sound cliché. But what we think about, what we say, and what we do—all of that is based on who we are. In a world that is constantly challenging identity as something given rather than made, we need to be intentional about looking in the mirror. As I stare at my aging self each morning, I say with quiet joy, “You are they. Now go and grow.” The more we embrace who we are in God, the greater freedom we will have to be our true selves. We’ll
also be a light to those around us struggling to find or make an identity on their own. That project is not only futile; it’s exhausting. People need to see us as truly at home in the Trinity. That’s who we are. We are they.
Why not end with a poem? It’s another expression of my identity in the God of words.
God of glory, grass, and men,
Of colored things and spirits living,
Tell me who I am again.
“A man among the God of giving.”
Father, Son, and Holy Ghost,
Speaking, sharing, giving chase,
You make me more; you make me most.
You paint into my penciled face.
In you, I am, my vine and door.
You grow me strong and call me in.
Whether I want less or more,
I find myself where you begin.