We all struggle with it. Many are unaware of its presence, much less the influence it has on our day to day affairs. It can be the culprit of great pain. It can produce heartache unmatched by external influences. Whether we recognize it or not, our decisions are often weighed and our worldview is frequently determined by its connection to our lives. If you allow it to have free rein, your life will be defined by it. If you surrender to its persuasiveness, your life will be wasted. What is this pervasive thing I speak of? It is identity and our desperate search for it.
Identity has been defined by many people and in several ways. For our purposes, identity is the place from which a person derives their self-worth. It can be something as simple as a career, relationship, hobby, or a cultural concept or idea.
When I was studying at Denver Seminary, I became infatuated with the culture of Colorado. There are so many things to love about the state. For example, there is an excellent bicycle culture; fresh and organic meal options; restaurants serving only vegan or vegetarian cuisine; all the coffee and experimental beer a connoisseur could dream up; and a “be whoever you want to be” mentality that is refreshing for a Midwest guy like myself.
During our roughly four year stay in Denver, I became convinced that I was an “outdoorsy hipster.” Anyone who knows me can attest to my love for cycling and most things outdoors. I was obsessed with all that Colorado had to offer. The problem was, I didn’t just want to live and breathe the mountain culture, I wanted everyone I knew to associate me with such things. I would have never admitted it at the time, partially because I was deceived by my own desperate search for an identity, but when I posted something online, I wanted everyone to think my life was cooler than theirs because I lived in the mountains. I was determined to live the life I thought others wanted at the expense of living the life God wanted for me. In short, Colorado had become my identity. It probably won’t surprise you to learn that those were some of the darkest days of my life.
More times than not, the things people choose to attach their identity to are good things. For instance, a fulfilling career with lots of earning potential can be a wonderful blessing. A romantic relationship can have many thrills and often produces joy that is unrivaled by the world around us. In my case, riding bicycles and eating well are wonderful ways to steward the body God has given me.
There is absolutely nothing wrong with enjoying God’s creation and the good blessings he gives. In fact, we are commanded to give thanks to God in whatever activity we find ourselves doing (Colossians 3:17). The problem lays in our attempts to find self-worth in anything other than our creator.
If you are a Christian, you have been called to a life surrendered to Jesus. Furthermore, your self-worth is found at the cross of Christ alone. No substitutes. As Dietrich Bonhoeffer famously said, “When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die.” Are you dead yet?
The Bible talks a great deal about identity “in Christ.” Study the book of Ephesians if you want to go deeper. The Apostle Paul doesn’t leave the conversation with the Ephesians, however. In Colossians 3:1-4, Paul says:
“Since, then, you have been raised with Christ, set your hearts on things above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things above, not on earthly things. For you died, and your life is now hidden with Christ in God. When Christ, who is your life, appears, then you will also appear with him in glory.”
In another location, Paul urges his readers, “Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is — his good, pleasing and perfect will (Romans 12:2).
We can know God’s good, pleasing and perfect will when our minds are transformed and we stop conforming to the pattern of this world. In what follows, I’ll provide three practical statements that have helped me overcome (mostly) my desperate search for identity in this world.
1. You are not what you do.
In a recent sermon at my church, the pastor claimed that the statement “you are what you do” is one of the darkest lies from the pit of hell. Our world thrives on the notion that we are what we do. One of the main questions people asked me during college was, “What are you studying?” I’m sure many people simply wanted to have a kind conversation, but many others, whether they realized it or not, were measuring my worth and future success by my choice of degree. If you study medicine, the thought goes, you’ll likely live a great life with material comfort. On the other hand, if you study Philosophy, like I did, well, don’t get your hopes up.
You are not what you do! Your life is hidden with Christ (Colossians 3:3). The truth of that statement is that your eternity is fixed. Your salvation is certain. If you are a Christian, you have hope for the future that began the moment you received Jesus. It does not matter what career you choose so long as your heart is set on things above, namely, on Christ, who is your life.
2. Your worth is not in what you own.
There is a beautiful hymn with similar words which was written to help us reorient our hearts and minds around the truth that Christ is our greatest treasure. Like the statement “you are what you do,” we can often believe our worth is found in the amount of stuff we own or the zeros behind the numbers in our bank accounts and investments.
The lyrics in the hymn are full of gospel truths, but here are a few lines that are a powerful reminder:
As summer flow’rs we fade and die
Fame, youth and beauty hurry by
But life eternal calls to us
At the cross
I will not boast in wealth or might
Or human wisdom’s fleeting light
But I will boast in knowing Christ
At the cross
3. Your circumstances do not define your value.
I’m not sure where you’re at in this moment. Your life circumstances may be marvelously blessed. Maybe life is better than you ever imagined it could be. Praise God for his provision! Do not believe for a second, however, that your life is valuable because of your current circumstances. Circumstances can change in an instant.
Let us remember what David wrote about the brevity of life in Psalm 39:4-5:
“Show me, LORD, my life’s end and the number of my days; let me know how fleeting my life is. You have made my days a mere handbreadth; the span of my years is as nothing before you. Everyone is but a breath, even those who seem secure (emphasis mine).
Our identity should be found in Christ alone. Our heart cry should be: “I belong to Jesus!” He is the only person who will eternally satisfy.