Not everyone is comfortable with who they are, and the world knows this all too well.
Digital and print advertisements prey on our desire to be the best version of ourselves. We are constantly exposed to commercial branding that would have us reinvent our identity again and again. From hair color to the perfect car, many of these products are aimed at reflecting, enhancing, and in some cases, creating who we are.
But we also know that identity is more than skin-deep.
People struggle to find their inner-identity, and understand what that means for their relationships. Self-help resources remain bestsellers…for example, questions about gender identity are being raised everywhere. And we all nod our heads in familiarity when someone mentions going through an “identity crisis.”
So what does Christianity say about these struggles, and where does identity come from?
Christianity has a long track record of helping people discover who they are as individuals. The Bible doesn’t want people to be confused or scared about identity questions. There’s a lot the Bible doesn’t answer about you personally, but it builds the foundation to answer your questions of “Who am I?” by approaching identity from two directions.
First, people have lots of “horizontal” identities. Horizontal identities come from the roles and relationships we have with other people and organizations. When a person walks into a Costco or Sam’s Club membership-based retail store and flashes their store card, they’re showing one of their identities: a member who gets to shop there. Or when someone travels to a local polling place to cast their vote in an election, they give their name, revealing their identity as a registered voter.
Other common horizontal identities include being a son or daughter, parent, friend, employee, volunteer, citizen, etc. The Bible affirms these identities and acknowledges them as being a big part of who we are. Not only do they help give identity, but they also shape what we do in life.
With each horizontal identity comes privileges and responsibilities. How do you know what to do when you get up in the morning? Your earthly identities will guide how you spend your time at home, at work, and in the community. You will reap the rewards that come from these relationships, and you will be called to contribute to them as well. In these sometimes chosen, sometimes assigned roles and relationships, we discover and live out who we are.
But second, understood from a Christian perspective, a person’s ultimate identity comes from a “vertical” relationship with God. A person’s worth in God’s eyes doesn’t come from what they do in their roles on earth (in the horizontal). Worthiness before God comes from God himself, as a gift (in the vertical). As Christians we understand our ultimate identity and existence—our vertical identity—to come from God as well.
We believe that Adam and Eve, the first humans, lived perfect lives in the beginning. But eventually they opted to go their own way, independent from God. Their act of independence is sometimes called “original sin,” and it brought all kinds of problems. To this day, those problems affect our natural identity as humans.
In our horizontal identities, Christians are called to be active in our various roles. But our vertical identity requires nothing from us. Simply out of His good favor, God makes us part of his family. He replaces our flawed identities as sinful human beings with a new identity as followers of Jesus. He does this through the love he shows us in Jesus Christ. Jesus won the victory over sin, death, and every evil when he suffered and died on the cross for the sins of the world. God then delivers that victory to people as they come to know and trust him.
The most important identity we have is given, not earned.
The Bible speaks of God creating humans in his image: “So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them” (Genesis 1:27). This means that humans have received from God their core identity as created beings.
We can never be totally rid of the image or likeness of God. There are some differing views among Christians about what being created in God’s “image and likeness” means, but there seems to be a consensus on at least the following points:
- Bearing God’s image sets humans apart from the rest of creation.
- Being “set apart” means that there is a special relationship between humans and God.
- Humans resemble the character of God, moreso than just “looking like God.”
- There is a responsibility for humans to take care of the earth as ambassadors of God
- To say we’ve been created in the image of God is to say we’ve been created in the image of Jesus Christ, who is the image of the invisible God, the express image of his person (Colossians 1:15; Hebrews 1:3)
- The image of God is restored to humans as a result of being connected to Jesus, and the clearest way this happens is through the rite of water baptism (Romans 6:3-5).
This becomes really important when thinking about who you are in God’s eyes (vertical identity), and how you should be seen by others (horizontal identity). If what you do or how you function is what determines who you are, then what happens when you can’t do much? Do you stop being a person? For instance, if your contribution to society (something you do) is a determining factor of your core-identity, then what are you when you are no longer able to contribute to the greater good? What does that say about people who are unconscious, disabled, or unborn? No, your core identity can’t come from what you do or earn, but from what you have received from God; your identity as one who bears his image.
What if I don’t like who I am?
Identity issues can get complicated when our deepest desires don’t match our physical genetics or abilities. Most people will never swim like Michael Phelps, despite their wish to become an Olympian. Some will never feel comfortable with their physical gender, even though they long for a different body. What’s a person to do when they don’t like who they are, and feel limited by their genetics or inclinations, physical or otherwise?
An early Christian teacher and theologian named Augustine once prayed and said of God, “You have made us for yourself, and our hearts are restless, until they can find rest in you.” In search of who we truly are, we will sometimes try to find our core identity and purpose in other people or organizations. But in the end, these horizontal sources, as good and helpful as they can be in a limited way, will leave us restless for more when seeking an ultimate sense of who we are.
According to Jesus, any restless search for who we are will finally be met with relief in him. Jesus is said to be the image of the invisible God (Colossians 1:15). He initiates and gives us our vertical identity. Despite our desires to be more or different than we feel we are, Jesus assures us that we have value in his eyes. There’s no need to search madly for an identity that doesn’t fit very well.
An identity reboot
It would nice if life had a Control-Alt-Delete function. There’s times we’d all like to reset things that have gone haywire. Our past can jam things up, leaving us feeling guilty and ashamed, even dirty about what we’ve done and left undone.
Jesus seemed to be on the lookout for people with sketchy pasts (See three prime examples here: Luke 19:1-10; John 4:7-42; Acts 9:1-20). He had the ability to speak the truth about someone’s past and present—not to make them feel badly, but to help them reboot their identity.
The truth of our past can haunt us. But Jesus speaks of a greater truth that trumps our past with good news for the future. Jesus is an ‘identity reboot’ specialist. Rebooting a computer or phone is a kind of death-then-life operation. That’s exactly what becoming a follower of Jesus is all about: “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come” (2 Corinthians 5:17). Jesus came to reboot everything. He came to kill off our old nature and make us alive as new and clean people with a future.
Jesus can create a new identity for us because he himself has lived the perfect life that we have failed to live. He died on a cross, so our fallen condition could be made new. He suffers the consequences for our past so we can have a new future. And in his coming back from the dead—his resurrection—Jesus assures us that we have new life too. And the best news of all about a Jesus-reboot, is that he does it all as a free gift: “For the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 6:23b).
A final thought about who you will be
Christians understand that who they are in this life is not who they will always be. The Christian rite of baptism is talked about in the Bible as a rebirth (John 3:5-6; Colossians 2:11-12; Matthew 28:19; 1 Peter 3:21). Water baptism is understood to be the way God gives us this rebirth through a physical and spiritual connection with people. A person’s baptismal identity as a child of God is meant to bring assurance and comfort about who we are.
But there’s always more with God. God promises that one day, our identities will be perfect, just as he initially designed.
“See what kind of love the Father has given to us, that we should be called children of God; and so we are… Beloved, we are God’s children now, and what we will be has not yet appeared; but we know that when [Jesus] appears we shall be like him” (1 John 3:1-2).
Christians look forward to a time when our identities will be perfected, and the image of God is fully restored, at the end of time as we know it. Until then, we can remain content to live out who we are in our dealings with others, even as we experience rest and joy in knowing that our core, vertical identity comes from God.