I’ve noticed that many churches and ministries emphasize knowing one’s “Identity in Christ.” I attended a YWAM DTS training school — it’s a training school designed to prepare one for cross-cultural ministry — and an entire week of the curriculum was called “Identity Week.” Aside from that, two entire weeks not entitled “Identity Week” covered much of the same material.
During identity week, almost every statement in the New Testament that could possibly hide any truth about the identity of believers on this Earth before God in Christ was turned into emphatic “I am” statements, and students were led to announce aspects of their identity loudly to themselves and the Heavens, until they really felt it had been able to sink in and they could believe these amazingly powerful and positive things about themselves from God’s perspective.
Sacred Cows of Identity
I remembered many sermons I had heard elsewhere on the topic of identity. Charismatic believers, of which I am one, are often taught extensively that spiritual power is linked to confidence in one’s identity. (I’m not sure I completely agree with this, but it is often unquestioningly taught as a basic truth.) As one often-shared story goes in many sermons, Jesus was tempted by the devil with continual attacks on his sense of identity, with satan repeating, “*IF* you are the Son of God,” do this or that. The premise of these messages was that the temptation of the enemy was aimed at getting Jesus to question who He was, which would have incapacitated him.
But, as I’ve reconsidered this, I think the emphasis in this story is not that satan comes to steal our identity from us — if anything, it began to stand out to me that satan was challenging Jesus with an “if” that was already a given, creating “if…then” statements to tempt Jesus to do something BASED on his already firm acceptance of his identity, which would have been out of line with the Father’s will, and done instead out of personal pride. “IF you are the Son of God, throw yourself down from the temple,” was inviting Jesus to act in His own sense of Himself, rather than to do only what He saw the Father doing. Identity, even when based on truth, can become pride, or at the very least distract us from the focus we ought to have and instead put our focus on ourselves.
What Actually IS Healthy Spiritual Identity?
Ultimately though, learning one’s identity in Christ has a place. Yet another risk awaits those who teach and learn about this; and that is, that identity is cultural. Western cultures tend to form identity based on individualism, whereas Eastern cultures, of which the Bible is based in, emphasize a person’s role in connection with a broader group, such as a family, or a clan, or a tribe, or a nation. Yet in teaching from the Bible about identity, people in the West tend to notice and emphasize aspects of identity that function as individualized definitions. We need to be aware of this inherent weakness we as Westerners have in how we even approach the idea of having an identity in Christ, as Christian identity is a little bit individual but more so it is extremely collective.
So then, my identity is not just a child of God, but it is a sister in the faith in reference to you, another child of God. IMHO, I think if done corrrectly, learning about our identity, should not be something that separates us more from one another or gives us reason to feel proud, but instead be something that humbles us before the Lord in seeing His love for us undeserved, and then teaches us more about who we are collectively, as a body, and as a temple being built TOGETHER with spiritual stones, as a holy Priesthood, a holy nation, and a family.
We talk a lot about community in the body of Christ, but unfortunately deep expressions of community that are not mere frriendship cliques are in short supply among God’s people. I think if we did do a better job of teaching a more accurate Biblical identity, it may go a long way in helping us embrace a vision of who we are as a house of and for God, a radical community of people loving and walking with one another, that transcends ethnic and racial boundaries, age boundaries, political boundaries, personality preference boundaries, common hobbies, church cliquiness and religious social ladders, to instead become something this world has rarely seen, a group of people who through their shared fellowship, friendship, and life truly demonstrate together an “US” — a holy habitation of people joined heart to heart in which is found God’s kingdom come to Earth.
In short, a robust awareness of our identity in Christ I think ought to challenge us to see ourselves not so much as the individuals we are prone to be, but as those who learn to love others and walk with them as those who are literally part of us, and us part of them. Perhaps those who see identity as being a key to spiritual power may have some truth then, for Christ’s people are never as powerful as we are when we are humbly laying down our lives for others, and learning to walk in love and the connected joy of sharing in Christ with others, and sharing in common humanity with all.
Yet, Going Beyond Identity
Yet there is however something else to be considered when those who disciple others emphasize learning about and embracing one’s identity. The other day I was reminded of Erickson’s Stages of Psychosocial Development, and my conviction deepened that barking up the identity tree too much might be not so much the wrong tree, but may certainly become unhealthy as too prominent a tree when there are other trees to eat from which require leaving behind that one and moving on to others. Ok, that may be a clunky analogy I know, but I wonder if emphasizing identity as our source of power and strength all the time may cause us to not realize how identity really functions in terms of a timeline of human growth and development.
Erickson was a developmental psychologist who observed that in human development, there is something of a crucial struggle at various ages, where things could go one way or another. So for instance, a first grader who is struggling in school unfortunately is also in the stage of life characterized by developing a sense of inferiority versus industry. Success at this stage means people develop a sense of efficaciousness in their own ability to do things — industry, while failure at this stage leads to inferiority. The stages progress as one ages and encounters new inner struggles.
It is in teenager-hood that the main struggle becomes Identity. However, the struggle is not between identity and inferiority, as inferiority was the foe to deal with in an earlier stage. Now the struggle is between developing a coherent identity and confusion about how one’s various roles and self-expressions make a coherent self. Yet this stage usually gives way to another stage of development in early adulthood.
Now certainly some people may have gotten lost somewhere in an unsuccessful attempt to create and understand a whole identity for themselves in teenagerhood; just as others may have enduring complications from earlier stages than that, such as industry vs. inferiority. But identity development is just one stage of many; and it is not as though all the stages hinge on that one.
In Christ, we do receive a new identity with our new birth. And this can be healing for those who never developed a cohesive identity in their teens, or it can be redefining for those who did. But this is not the be-all and end-all of personal development. There are more stages yet to come.
So it is not as though I am saying that identity is not worth teaching about. But what I do think is that it is not worth getting stuck on it, as if it is a fountain from which all spiritual life and health emanates. We must press on to know the Lord, and this also means pressing on to seeing Him manifest in other stages of development that are not focused on identity.
The next stage in young adult life is the struggle between intimacy and isolation. This is rarely taught about in Christian circles; other than to exhort everyone to be part of a church. But many young adults do get lost in not being able to meaningfully find their place in community or with a significant other, and the struggle to define the intimacy vs. isolation stage of life can be even louder and more crucial than identity. How can we disciple people through this process, of learning how to interact in healthy ways as part of a community, and appropriately respond to others’ healthy or unhealthy attempts to seek intimacy or break out of isolation created either from their own decisions or the unhealthy decisions of those around them? A robust expression of Christian faith needs to be able to address this even more than have people state truths about their identity.
And by far, the bulk of a lifetime is spent in yet another phase: Generativity vs Stagnation. Someone in this stage may not feel any deep connection to a teaching about identity, even though at some points it may have cross-over to the struggles of this stage, but the struggles finally are not the struggles of identity. They are struggles of resource management, of dreaming, of partnering with other’s dreams, of birthing, of growing, of molding and shaping, and knowing one’s desires and which to explore and build out of. This is the most long-term stage, how does the church walk people through this one?
Finally, in older years, the last stage is integrity vs. despair. There is wisdom to be had in how to regard one’s earlier phases, how to regard the successes and losses, how to recapture things and still build even in a late hour, how to appreciate and celebrate and remember and commemorate what has already been done. This is also something for mentoring and discipleship and support, even as people in this stage may turn and be the ones mentoring, supporting, and discipling.
To sum it up, I hope this can open up a broader discussion among people and groups who read it, as to where the importance of teaching about identity does or doesn’t rightfully have a role of importance in the discipleship process of people. Thanks for reading, and, as always please comment below.