Understanding Identity

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A recent article in Psychology Today asks, “Do you sometimes feel you don’t love your life? Like, deep inside, something is missing?” The article says that this sense of something missing is because we’ve “allowed other people to influence or determine our choices” and points out that one reason this makes us unhappy is that other people’s expectations are always changing. The underlying assumption of the article is that other people’s expectations are a prison that we all need to break out of if we are to live truly authentic lives.

One step on the road to living authentically is to answer the question “Who am I?” which is something most of us ask ourselves at some point in our lives – very often in adolescence. It’s a big question, and one that often can only be answered by asking ourselves a lot of other questions, like “What do I like?” or “What am I good at?” or “What do I stand for?” or “Who do I love?”

The answers that we come up with go into developing a sense of identity for ourselves. Our identity is something that shapes most of our lives – it helps us to know the principles by which we are going to live and the goals we’re going to work toward. Our sense of identity often grounds us in the world and helps us maintain our understanding of our personhood.

Throughout history, people have turned to different places to find answers to the question “Who am I?” These have included the surrounding community, religious faith, mass media and all kinds of other things. Recently, however, western culture has increasingly turned to a single source for the answer to this question – ourselves. This means that we look into our own minds or inner lives to discover the things that are true about us and start to build a sense of our identity based on what we discover.

This turn toward the inward person is rooted in our ideas about authenticity. Authenticity can have many meanings, but for a large number of people it means conducting a deep exploration of ourselves independent of any outside influence. We worry that if we allow other people or ideas to influence our identity then it won’t be truly authentic. We worry that we’re just living up to other people’s expectations and not really charting a course through life that reflects who we are, rather than who other people think we are. In order to be truly authentic, we need to make sure that we develop our sense of identity without anything being imposed on us from the outside.

These ideas around authenticity aren’t entirely wrong – they’re just incomplete. Articles like the one in Psychology Today wisely warn us against living to meet others’ expectations, but they also can shut us off from other, more healthy ways to form identity. For Christians, it can be helpful to ask ourselves a different question. Rather than asking “Who am I?” we could ask ourselves “Who has God created me to be?” By asking the question in this way, we allow ourselves to do some of the inner exploration that can help us to understand ourselves as the unique people that God has designed, but we also open ourselves up to other sources of information as we begin to build our identity. We can allow other people to enter into the conversation and make observations about who we are. More important, we can allow God, through Scripture and the work of Holy Spirit, to have the final word on our identity. As we explore important identity questions, we can invite God in through prayer, Bible-reading and through trusted others.

Allowing God to have the final say on our identity is almost always very painful. This is because as we look at our own hearts and minds, we will inevitably find things that are very deep within us that we believe are fundamental to who we are, but that are in conflict with what the Bibles says. When this happens, we have a choice to make – will we pursue what we’ve discovered in our hearts, or will we pursue what God has for us? Giving up on our own answers means dying to ourselves, which is at the heart of Christian spirituality.

Being a spiritual person will necessarily mean walking a difficult path. However, it is the path to which Jesus has called us. The good news is that life with Jesus is always worthwhile – He is the source of life, healing and forgiveness, and to walk with Him is to know freedom.


Journey Canada