Identity and faith

September 1st, 2014

“Who am I?”

For a recent sermon series, our church gave away copies of a book that claims to help us understand our purpose and why we are here. The books “flew off the shelves,” and we ran out quickly. We don’t have that problem with free books on stewardship and tithing. On Facebook and other social media sites, you can find popular quizzes that will try to determine, “Which Disney character are you?” “What classic novel describes your life?” “How Southern are you?” or “Which poet are you?” Psychologists use the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator® and other self-perception tests to help us understand our personality and how we interact with others. Even a trip to a Chinese restaurant can tell you who you are by looking at the placemat (I’m a monkey). I have a friend who says she changes her hair color every time she goes to the salon because, in her own words, “I don’t know who I am.”

At some point we will all ask this question: “Who am I?” We crave an answer to the question, even as we are hesitant to take an inward journey to find that answer. In order to know our purpose and calling, we first have to know who we are. Some people wrestle with identity just a few times in their lives; for others, it’s a lifelong quest. And even when we think we know who we are, change happens, and life’s bumps and bruises have a way of making us question our identity. Sometimes we feel like Alice. When asked, “Who are YOU?” by the Caterpillar in “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland,” Alice replied, “I — I hardly know, sir, just at present — at least I know who I WAS when I got up this morning, but I think I must have been changed several times since then.”

We are more likely to use nouns to describe our identity and adjectives to describe our personality. Terms like mother, child, Hispanic, African American, female, male, artist, engineer, Democrat, Republican, Christian, and Jew are all examples of identity labels. And we relay our identity through various channels. The bumper stickers on your truck or the tattoos on your arm give others a sense of your identity, as does the flag flying in your front yard or the photos on your office desk. We live in a confusing, challenging, and competitive world, and our identity gives us a starting point as we set our course in life, as well as a way to differentiate ourselves from the masses.

Definitions of identity

Merriam-Webster defines identity as “who someone is” (that person’s name) or “the qualities, beliefs, etc., that make a particular person or group different from others.” Definitions of identity vary depending on the context, but in general, it has to do with how we see ourselves in relation to society.

Our ancestors lived and traveled in tribes. They had a small group of people to relate to, and anyone who wasn’t in their tribe was “other.” They knew who they were and where they belonged. Now that the planet is highly populated and we live in high density areas, our need to identify with groups or tribes still exists, but we act it out in different ways.

“Who do you say I am?”

If we don’t know who we are, we leave ourselves open to letting the world define us, which is never a good thing. In his blog, young adult novelist Archer Swift writes that coming of age and finding one’s identity are a common theme in literature. He argues that a fuller definition of identity addresses whose we are (the imprint our parents, faith, and culture have on us), who we are (what makes us unique), whom we share life with (the communities we relate to), and where we are going (our purpose and direction). Depending on our upbringing and circumstances, these identity elements can provide us with inspiration and meaning (self-worth), or they can fill us with uncertainty and disorientation (self-doubt).

The term negative identity refers to “the assumption of a persona that is at odds with the accepted values and expectations of society.” Body image, race, sexual orientation, and job status are examples of identities that might not fit in with the cultural norm. If your ethnic identity is Vietnamese and you live in a mostly white suburb, how might that affect your identity? If you are unemployed or overweight, how might that affect your self-worth? It’s estimated that more than 90 percent of teenage girls want to change at least one aspect of their physical appearance, with body weight ranking the highest; and 12 percent of teen boys are using supplements or steroids to change their body image. Since adolescence is a critical time for identity formation, these issues can affect a person for the rest of his or her life.

Circumstances change our identities, sometimes rather quickly. The powerful manager becomes unemployed, the busy parents become empty nesters, the healthy person becomes chronically ill, the confident woman becomes a divorcee, and the happily married man becomes a widower. In his book “Falling Upward: A Spirituality for the Two Halves of Life,” Franciscan priest Richard Rohr explains the difference between relative and absolute identity. In the first half of our lives, we need a strong “container,” or relative identity, that includes relationships, community, success, and security. But our task in the second half of our lives is to find the identity that this container is meant to hold, our true selves. This absolute identity is defined by God, and it “can be neither gained nor lost by any technique, group affiliation, morality or formula whatsoever,” Rohr states. He further explains that our absolute identity, while possibly hidden, is actually “the pearl of great price” that we are to find, and sometimes that involves suffering.

Identity in the Bible

After much suffering over being elderly and childless, God gave Abram and Sarai new identities — and literally new names. Abram became Abraham, father of many nations (Genesis 17:5). Sarai became Sarah and went from being barren to being a mother of nations (Genesis 17:15-16). In Genesis 32, Jacob suffers and wrestles as he seeks a blessing. Because he overcomes, he leaves behind the name Jacob (the supplanter) and becomes Israel (he who struggles with God) (verse 28). An encounter with the living God always results in an identity shift, a change that brings us closer to our true selves.

Scripture tells of a Jesus who knew his absolute identity, even in the first half of his life. He knew his purpose and who sent him. The writer of the Gospel of John records a number of “I am” statements that Jesus makes during his ministry: “I am the bread of life... the light of the world... the gate... the good shepherd... the resurrection and the life... the way, the truth, and the life... the vine” (John 6:35; 8:12, 10:9, 11; 11:25, 14:6; 15:5). In John 8:58, Jesus says, “Before Abraham was, I Am.”

Before Moses is willing to accept the purpose and call given to him by God to bring his people out of their enslavement in Egypt, he demands of God a personal name, a revelation of identity. God’s response is, “I Am Who I Am,” or in Ancient Hebrew, YHWH (Exodus 3:14). God does not respond with a noun, but rather a verb, a form of “to be.” Writer Thomas Cahill says we can interpret this response in three different ways: (1) “I am he who causes (things) to be”; (2) “None of your business”; or (3) “I will be-there with you . . . which emphasizes God’s continuing presence in his creation.” This YHWH (we add vowels and pronounce it “YAH-weh”) is an ongoing powerful presence and a creative force, refusing to be limited by a simple name.

As children of God, we too can be assured that our true identity is beyond what this world has to offer and is “hidden with Christ in God” (Colossians 3:3).

Be sure to check out FaithLink, a weekly downloadable discussion guide for classes and small groups. FaithLink motivates Christians to consider their personal views on important contemporary issues, and it also encourages them to act on their beliefs.

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