The other day a young lady asked me a question about her source of identity. Her confusion was grounded in whether to opt for a traditional identity in which her religious faith and family supplied her or a modern identity that secular cultural provided for her. She didn’t want to opt for an identity she felt was outdated, but neither did she feel like the secular version was consistent with her Christian faith.
My answer was simple. Opt for neither. The young lady was delighted to hear there was a third option. In this article, I offer a more detailed answer to her question than I was able to offer her at the time.
What is an identity?
There are three ingredients to secure an identity: a sense of self that is durable, a sense of purpose that makes life meaningful, and a sense of worth that makes one acceptable.
Allan Rudolph says that “human identity is the most fragile thing that we have.” So true. This is something the young lady seemed to already understand.
One reason for the fragility is that most people are unaware of the source of their identity because it is invisible to them. They don’t think about and, by and large, it is one’s culture, religion, or family that assigns you one.
Traditional Option: You are your duties
As a result of growing up in a Christian family, the young lady was assigned a traditional identity formation, rooted in a collectivist cultural understanding where the group is more important than the individual. What is most important in this view, is living out the role that you were assigned, in her case, becoming a wife and mother.
What is the traditional source of identity? You are your duties. Prestige is given to those who subordinate their personal desires to serve the goals mentioned above.
While being a wife and mother can be an important part of a woman’s identity, it is not the primary source, and for the woman who may choose the single life, it may never be a part of her identity.
If this is one’s primary source of identity formation, it does offer a sense of purpose, making life meaningful, as it is assumed that sacrificially serving as a wife and mother is helping her a God-given mission. But is it a durable primary source of identity?
While I am not shunning that view as one source of identity formation, it is crucial to understand that my purpose here is to analyze the best “primary” source of identity.
In this identity framework, one’s identity is based on performance, where the inner voice to perform causes you to continually evaluate whether you are a good mother or not or whether you are a good wife or not, placing you on the treadmill of continuous self-doubt.
The problem the young lady was facing was that she was single and did not have immediate plans to marry. If she hoped to have a durable source of identity under the traditional understanding, she would need to get married or have kids.
This view seems to be completely unaware that the Christian faith is one of the only religions that encourages singleness.
Traditional identity formation leaves young women with just two options. Either secure an identity by getting married and having children or opt for a secular answer.
Secular Option – You are your feelings
While religion primarily supplies traditional identity formation, a secular framework provides the individualistic identity formation, where you are your feelings. The young lady wisely rejected this view.
This identity structure totally shuns anyone or any institution that foists an identity on you. This means that it is up to every individual to look inside one’s self and locate their own identity.
This quest for identity, though secular, has borrowed heavily from the schema of spiritual renewal, a cultural artifact deeply embedded in our nation’s history. In this renewal schema, there was a point where religion was lived out in a way that was lively, resulting in having a profound effect on culture as well as the individual lives of people.
Spirit renewal is recovering this spiritual state. Consequently, people were encouraged to be engaged in spiritual renewal so they can get reinvigorated to successfully live out their faith.
This secular vision of identity formation also has a robust spiritual renewal component. This view believes that there was a time when one was born with a clean slate, with one’s true identity intact. Borrowing religious terminology, it was who they were before the Fall.
Then something happened. Maybe it was a traumatic experience or religious teaching, or something else where one received some external identity that was foisted upon them that caused them to live life inauthenticity.
To rectify this malady, they were encouraged to discover their true selves, which, maintaining this renewal idea, results in one receiving a secular salvation experience.
To discover this true self, one is encouraged to look within by locating a feeling that reveals who one really is. Once this true self is located, embraced and fully expressed, one is promised to achieve a victorious life.
A real problem arises, as many in our culture are beginning to discover, that this identity formation is less durable than the traditional version.
As Tim Keller has said, to have a secure identity, one needs a voice from the outside to ground that identity. In the traditional culture, there was an objective source of identity given to you by your culture.
The secular version leaves one plagued by self-doubt because one’s identity is not objective but subjective, rooted in a feeling. Since feelings come and go, it leaves one to wonder if this is who they truly are. Consequently, when the feeling subsides, there is a continuous quest to reinvent one’s self.
Christian Option – You are who Jesus says you are
The Christian option is antithetical to both the traditional and the secular identity formation. In the traditional model society names you, whereas in the secular model no one names you but you. Below is a brief reflection on what a Christian identity offers.
First, Christianity offers a durable self. It says you have worth because every human being is created in the image of God, meaning you have essential worth and dignity. You don’t have to earn it because dignity has been given to you by God.
Therefore, it doesn’t matter if society affirms you or not because it is not a primary source of identity. For the Christian, the voice outside that names you is God through the finished work of Jesus. You can know what he thinks of you by turning to the Bible. Such a pronouncement means one’s existence has already been validated.
Second, Christianity offers a purpose that makes life meaningful. For the Christian, the objective is to be conformed into the image of Jesus and develop a loving and sacrificial relationship with Him.
Third, Christianity offers a worth that makes one acceptable before God. Because of the finished work of Christ, the Christian’s identity is secure. The Christian has been adopted into an eternal family, declared eternally righteous before God, chosen by Him, and guaranteed eternal life.
Apprehending a Christian identity in your heart of hearts, however, is not without a struggle. To formulate one requires you to approach it with the same tenacity as the Old Testament patriarch Jacob did when he sought an answer from God. He was determined not to let go until God blessed him. The result of his quest was God renamed him.
If you are struggling with identity, seek God, renew your mind with his Word, and allow Him to rename you too.