The idea of identity is one of those nebulous concepts that can be hard to understand. Consequently, I consistently deal with the implications of how people identify themselves in my pastoral and counseling ministries. I have found there to be much confusion on this topic and a myriad of opinions in our culture concerning the matter. Is my identity something I discover? Is it something that is assigned to me? Is it something that I am supposed to create? As muddled a topic as identity can be, I have found God’s Word to bring great clarity to the subject.
Working Definition for Identity
One theologian describes identity as a sense of self and a sense of worth. This has to do with how a person values themselves in light of what they do or how people see them. There are so many facets to this description. Without unpacking them all, for our purposes in this blog we will discuss identity in its purest form, seen in Genesis 1 and 2. Any worth or sense of self in Adam and Eve was determined by how the Lord spoke over them. In other words, their meaning and purpose came directly from God.
Boiled down, there are two categories for how identity is shaped from a cultural standpoint. Both approaches have problems. My goal in mentioning them is not to critique them, but rather to briefly show how they play into how people’s identities are influenced by cultural pressures and beliefs.
The traditional approach is not as common today as in previous generations. The mindset of this approach is that a sense of self/worth comes from roles within the community. Roles are assumed or given for the good of the family and/or community. Individual importance is laid aside for good outside of self. It is a form of self-denial. An example that comes to mind is my great-grandfather. He was a farmer, not out of deep aspiration, but out of necessity for the good of the entire family.
The second category is the modern approach, in which a sense of self/worth is sought inside the person. Dreams, feelings, desires, and aspirations are created and then expressed. This is self-assertion and is the root of modern day individualism. Disney makes a lot of money creating movies that promote this type of pursuit.
Identity as Defined by Scripture – Ephesians 2:1-10
While our culture encourages creating your own identity, in contrast Ephesians 2:1-10 teaches that our identity has already been determined by God. We discussed earlier how God declares mankind’s identity by speaking it over them in Genesis 1-2. Once sin enters the world in Genesis 3, that God-spoken identity is fractured. Ephesians 2:1-3 speaks to the pervasive state of brokenness as a result of the fall.
Paul describes the state of mankind as “dead” due to sin. This is an inescapable condition encompassing every aspect of creation, including mankind’s identity. Paul uses different examples in verses 2 and 3 to bring this point home. In essence, he is saying that because of sin we are utterly defined by darkness. This means that no matter what a person does to try to make an identity of their own, outside of Christ they are utterly defined by darkness.
In verse 4 the good news is drastically articulated. “But God” brings a change in direction that is solely due to the action of God. Through Christ, God’s mercy is lavished upon those who put their faith in Christ. It is predicated on nothing else. Out of his immeasurable love and great grace, God gives us life through Christ. Verse 5 is key in understanding our new identity when Paul teaches that God “made us alive together with Christ.” This truth points to the reality that the same power that rose Christ from the grave gives us life. We are given a new identity when God rescues us. Just as Ephesians 2:1 describes a holistic death apart from Christ, in Christ we are given a holistic, all-encompassing new life.
Here are a few biblical descriptors of what our new identity in Christ secures for us:
- Election – God’s choosing of some people to be saved
- Justification – Legal status of a Christian declared righteous by God and put into a right relationship with God
- Purification – Being purified, cleansed, and washed by Him
- Regeneration – God imparts new spiritual life to us; “Born Again”
- Adoption – God adopts us into His family
- Union – The intimate, vital, and spiritual union between Christ and his people
- Propitiation – Substitutionary atonement; Christ bore God’s wrath for us
- Redemption – Paying a ransom to buy back a slave or captive
- Reconciliation – Now we have peace and communion where there once was hostility
- Inheritance – Saved into the glorious riches of His grace
- Sanctification – Process whereby redeemed sinners are made holy
- Glorification – Final step in salvation, where we are given perfect bodies that will never sin or die
In biblical counseling, keeping the framework of Ephesians 2:1-10 must be of utmost importance. The tendency of the flesh is to seek worth and value apart from Christ. If that pursuit brings any sense of worth or value, over time it becomes a greater defining part of a person than it should. The fallout of this is a heart filled with pride and idolatry.
I see this situation all the time in counseling. A wife finds worth in how her husband treats her or talks about her in the presence of others. A young man finds value from the promotion, praise, and accolade he receives from his bosses at work. A pastor finds respect and meaning from the responses of the congregation after he preaches. Over time these pursuits become the greatest identity of the person. Their hearts elevate a sub-identity over their greatest identity. The power of their greatest identity in Christ is traded for a temporary descriptor of who they are or what they do. The progressive, sanctifying work of the Holy Spirit in our lives is greatly stalled amidst such identity confusion.
These examples may seem harmless. But how devastated will the wife be if her husband has an affair? What will the fallout be for the young man if his company has major cutbacks and he is let go? What if the pastor begins to get consistent critiques on his preaching from people in the congregation? Their hearts are at the mercy of what they have leveraged to bring a sense of self and a sense of worth.
As biblical counselors and ministers of the Gospel, we must remind our counselees who they are apart from Christ, but also the beautiful gift of life and hope secured for them through Christ. As sufferings and trials squeeze our hearts, what is often exposed is where we have found identity outside who we are in Christ. Anytime this happens our hearts are left wide open to assured sorrow, brokenness, and heartache. Learning to see how we live with misplaced identities helps us put ourselves back under Christ, which spurs on sanctification.
Questions for Reflection
Do you view your identity from a biblical perspective or have cultural beliefs influenced your thinking in this area? What are some other passages you like to share with counselees who are struggling with misplaced identity?