In the world, we are pressed to “be ourselves.” Phrases have even been coined to encourage this mentality – “keep it real,” “you do you,” “speak your truth,” and so on. What happens when we adopt this way of thinking into our churches and walk with God, though?
Over the last couple of months, I have had a lot of time to think and learn about myself. I think awareness of self is a good thing; it is important we know what our strengths, weaknesses, quirks, and backgrounds are. The uncontrollable events in our individual lives have somehow come together to shape “who we are.” Culture, hobbies, career paths, social groups, surroundings, family background… it all is said to mold what we call personality. Isn’t it interesting that these have nothing to do with us? They are just the external factors that we take on as “ourselves,” though we have no control over who we will actually become (if we base self solely on the events that happened or are happening to us). We are the passive subject in a chaotic life, but by assuming the occurrences that we have experienced, both good and bad, we take ownership of it, then control it by calling it “me.” Personality is fluid (a shifting sands, if you will), so how are we supposed to know who we really are if our view of identity is temporal and ever-changing?
Our personalities bow to God, not the other way around. Over the course of the last few months, this did not hold true for me. After hearing about all of the personality tests out there — the enneagram, the Myers-Briggs, the DISC test, OCEAN, even dumb ones on Buzzfeed like, “What Candy Bar Are You?”, I began to grow more infatuated with what made up “me” and how to perceive others through these lenses. I want to preface with the fact that for some, personality and the study of it can be healthy and balanced well. I know for myself, delving deep into what makes me “me” proved to be a stumbling block. I started to view the personality test as a way to further sanctification, a means to understand myself, thus be more refined by the Lord. Do you hear it, though? How many times I have said, “me,” “myself,” and “I” in this paragraph? That was the problem. I saw the world through a self-centered lens – one in which personality alone equaled identity, a means to a more insightful and enlightened end. So if you are an INTP or a Type 8w7 or anything in-between (or have no idea what that even means), I have some news for you. That is not all you are. In fact, Jesus desires so much more for us than how we see ourselves. He has given us a “new self,” designed to imitate His likeness.
Come, Let Us Make Man in Our Image
Our original design, our humble beginning, was to display the splendor of our Creator. In any painting, song, writing, or work of art, the artist’s traces can be seen in the beauty of their masterpiece. They have a distinct voice, technique, or style that is easily noted by an observant audience. Claude Monet and his original impressionism, Whitney Houston and her mastery of melisma, Dr. Seuss and his use of made-up words and rhymes – the hand of the artist can be seen in the art itself.
In Genesis, it says that we are made in His image – the image of Father, Spirit, and Son. We were originally designed to walk with God in perfect harmony, just like Adam and Eve. We were meant to have a relationship with Him and through Him, to depend on Him alone, and to see ourselves through His eyes. If we were created in His image, that means that we were made to reflect Him. Human beings were made to show the goodness, beauty, and greatness of God.
26 And God said, Let us make man in our image, after our likeness
Of course, we know when The Fall happened, this became a much more difficult task. Because sin now tainted the humans and the earth, reflecting God became more difficult because self was now involved. Adam and Eve’s eyes were opened to their own fleshly desires, and that was put before God. Though created for fulfilling communion with their Creator, they traded His image for the image of individuality, instead.
It’s as if the art got up, walked away from its designer, and made a life apart from the one who breathed it into existence. Impressionism told Monet it was original, melisma told Whitney Houston it is its own artist, rhymes of made-up words told Dr. Seuss that they now spoke for themselves. Mankind told God that His image was not enough.
Come, Let Us Make a Name For Ourselves
With sin on the scene, God’s original design became less and humanistic ways of thinking became more. If you read anywhere in the Old Testament, it is easy to see the ways in which perfect creation turned sour. This is where we find ourselves now, in a fallen world, trying to get back to our original design. However, the trickeries of the world and the ways of man bring us to a halt on our way back to Him. Fine-sounding doctrine, temptations, sin, insecurities, desires unaligned with God’s – these all cause us to slow our zeal to find Life again.
In one specific instance, Genesis 11, the people are blinded by the desire to become great. With bricks and prideful hearts, the people, who were meant to display and worship God, build a tower to exalt humanistic abilities instead.
Now the whole world had one language and a common speech. 2 As people moved eastward, they found a plain in Shinar and settled there.
3 They said to each other, “Come, let’s make bricks and bake them thoroughly.” They used brick instead of stone, and tar for mortar. 4 Then they said, “Come, let us build ourselves a city, with a tower that reaches to the heavens, so that we may make a name for ourselves; otherwise we will be scattered over the face of the whole earth.”
The people here are determined to build a city, with a tower high enough to reach the heavens at the heart of it all. They are high off of their own capabilities, now fully (and ironically) powerless to see anything past themselves. They spent time, money, and energy on building a place to boast of their splendor, with the sole purpose of making a name for themselves.
Is this the tower of Babel all over again, seeking to make a name for ourselves based on our own individuality and uniqueness? The letters and numbers that encapsulate our very essence of individuality – could this be our Babel? In Shinar, the people come together to make a name for themselves, united and strong with each other. I argue that the opposite is at hand, now. Instead of a people gathered with one purpose, we are individuals, gathered to construct our own Babels. We shout, “Come! Let me make a name for myself, hiding behind the bricks of personality and personal strength, finding refuge in the comfort of ‘who I am’ as an answer to my desire to be known.” We seek to be known by something else. If it’s not a personality test, then it’s something that is even more “our own,” a distinct trait unlike anyone else. Because if I’m not set apart, then who even am I? We demand to be unique, different from the other towers, better than the other self-made fortresses. It is not enough that we have an identity in Christ, we must be known for something other than Him.
Come and Lose Yourself
C.S. Lewis said in “Mere Christianity,”
” It is no good to be ‘myself’ without Him. The more I resist Him and try to live on my own, the more I become dominated by my own heredity and upbringing and surroundings and natural desires. In fact, what I so proudly call ‘myself’ become merely the meeting place for trains of events which I never started and which I cannot stop.”
So if the basics of “who we are” don’t define us, what (or who) does?
First, we must come to terms with the fact that whatever identity or image that we try to create will not prevail. If it is of human origin, it will not last (Acts 5:38). We were not designed to define ourselves, we already came with a deeper purpose. If we go on trying to find ourselves, it will only confuse us more. Why? Because we seek a Truth by going to everything but. We must understand and humble ourselves to see that we are meant to reflect God. That’s it. That is our image, our beautiful design. The self is not involved in the purpose of man.
If we are to return to our original design, it will mean death to ourselves, losing ourselves.
25 For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me will find it.
Though it sounds drastic, that is what must happen for “new self,” a new creation, to exist. They cannot cohabit with each other, one must be forsaken. In the words of Scott Hubbard, “In our culture of self-help and self-realization, of individuality and independence, of ‘you do you’ and ‘follow your heart’, Jesus’ call to lose ourselves stabs at the very heart.” This means that our identity is no longer in the expression of ourselves or even who we perceive ourselves to be. Our old self – everything and anything that would define “me” in the world – must be abolished.
Who will I be if I hand over ‘self’ to the Lord? Won’t I be like a robot if I don’t get to acknowledge my personal attributes? Does God seek to destroy my idea of self and create clones of Him? These are valid questions that death to self may bring up. My argument is not that we lose ourselves and become gray and mundane. I am saying we must lose our tendencies of self-glorification and rather than look to other means of self-definition, look to God. If we believe that God created us and formed us in our mother’s very womb – that he knows the number of hairs on our heads – then shouldn’t we believe that our idea and understanding of ourselves is limited (Ps. 139:13, Luke 12:7)? God knows us better than we do. Losing ourselves is trusting that God knows us deeper than we know ourselves and that who he says we are is more authentic than our own self-conception.
We must believe that dying to ourselves is the way back to the “true me.”
Come Unto a New Self
Jesus does not seek to obliterate our personalities, rather He desires to open our eyes so we may see the greater purpose beyond them. The fact of the matter is, yes, we are different people. We don’t have the same experiences, outlooks on life, temperaments, interests, or desires. This should be celebrated but within the context of celebrating the Creator of this diversity, not worshiping the differences themselves. It is so easy to see that God is not a god of the mundane. Just look around at the oceans teeming with a variety of life, the earth spotted with wildflowers of vibrant color, the collision of uniformity and randomness to create a complex, beautiful world.
How much more does God want to use these beautiful characteristics within us for His will? Once we lose ourselves, we may be saved. The new creation emerges in place of the old self that was given up.
17 Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: The old has gone, the new is here!
-2 Corinthians 5:17
When we give ourselves up, God is gracious enough to replace it with something so much better – the image of His Son, Christ. He gives us the honor of bearing His name and His likeness, the Image that we were first fashioned for and fell so short from. What a good God! In his goodness, He restores us to the identity that mankind had in the beginning.
Not only does this “new self” bring about freedom from the ways of our flesh, but it continues to renew us, meaning that coming back to our intended identity is a process of God giving our “self” back to us.
18 And we all, who with unveiled faces contemplate the Lord’s glory, are being transformed into his image with ever-increasing glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit.
-2 Corinthians 3:18
With the increasing growth in the closeness to our “true self,” The Spirit alone transforms us. The image of Christ and “self” becomes one, using us in our unique set of gifts and weaknesses to show others the perfect image of His Son. It is a display of reconciliation between man and God, with full submission to His will, while we remain in our physical bodies.
…you have taken off your old self with its practices 10 and have put on the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge in the image of its Creator.
-Colossians 3: 9-10
When we draw near to God, our Creator, we begin to understand who we are. We have been given a “new self” and are being renewed in the sole act of knowing our Maker. When we know God, we begin to know ourselves more. Who we are in Him and what our purpose is according to Him reveal that our lives, our rawest identity, truly are hidden in Christ (Colossians 3:3).
17 Join together in following my example, brothers and sisters, and just as you have us as a model, keep your eyes on those who live as we do.
So now, our personalities are not buttresses for our identity, but simply a gift to enjoy from our kind God. Our social groups will not be restricted to those who “get us,” but expanded to the most unlikely of friends. We no longer find identity in our future or how focused on success we may be, but rest in the name Jesus gives us.
Even more than obtaining a new name and being renewed daily, when we submit to the identity that God has bestowed upon us, we not only get a new self, but we begin to think of ourselves less. We begin to discover that we become most when we forget ourselves and are consumed with Him.
30 He must become greater; I must become less.”
Come and Use Your Gifts for His Glory
If we enjoy identity in Christ alone, then everything else that once defined us now becomes the gifts that God has given us. Our extraversion levels, our charisma (or lack thereof), idealism, logic, talents – they are all the cherry on top of the new creation we embody. This is where I got tripped up, as I mentioned before. I delighted in the gifts of God instead of the Savior Himself. I revered the little colors of personality rather than the One who gave it to me. I found myself in the gifts of God rather than God himself. The new identity we accept means that we are apart of something bigger than ourselves. His kingdom. His body of believers. His bride.
27 Now you are the body of Christ, and each one of you is a part of it.
-1 Corinthians 12:27
As a part of the body of Christ, my responsibility with the specific life He has given me is to build up his people in love and humility. Each one of us plays an intricate and vital role in the functioning of the body. This is where the beauty of diversity comes in even more! The function of the body is to live and to glorify God, but a body cannot operate properly with just hands or just feet. We need toes, ears, eyes, kneecaps, even hair! The multi-faceted personalities that God has put in us must be used to keep the body working smoothly. Only by staying alive and acknowledging all parts’ importance can the body accomplish the will of God to reflect His image. We don’t glory in the nose or ankle itself, but the important role that it plays in helping the overall whole.
I want to travel, teach others English, become a wife and mother one day. I would say that I am extroverted, I enjoy working with kids, and tend to have patience with others for the most part. Conversation comes easy to me, I thrive in creative settings, I love deeply. These things are not bad! They’re also not me. These traits (that I once believed made up who I inherently was) make up a concentration of how God can use me in the mission of His greater purpose. These are presents that God has given my heart to yearn for, but they are not me. I am His. My identity lies fundamentally in the fact that I’m a creature of God, with a nature that has a design given by God, meant to display the image of God. Even more, I have gifts (and so does everyone else) that may be used to accomplish the quest to find and know Life to the full, on earth (John 10:10). The unique gifts that God put in each of us are expected to be used for His glory, not our own.
31 So whether you eat or drink or whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God.
-1 Corinthians 10:31
To reflect His glory with our abilities is why we are given these gifts in the first place. Even things such as our upbringing, our physical and mental capabilities, and geographical location are things given to us by God, the great and generous Father – all that we may turn to Him (Acts 17:27-28), find our source of Life, and come back to the Image we were meant to bear.
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My point is not to belittle the gifts and personalities that God has instilled in us. I think they are great when viewed with a healthy judgment. I don’t think that seeing and knowing how we operate is inherently bad, as long as it doesn’t take us over. For me, it did. The power of knowledge is an enticing one, even the first humans weren’t exempt from its charms. The flesh craves to be something apart from its modest meaning, to follow falsehood that whispers, “Take a bite from the fruit. You’ll know more, you’ll be more. Seek to find yourself elsewhere and you’ll really be fulfilled.”
I will reiterate, our identity lies in not who we are, but who He is.
“Just be yourself” holds no candle to becoming the person God made us to be. In fact, in embracing the “new creation,” we become more ourselves than we could have ever been on our own. So, you see, the Christian viewpoint of identity is not constructed or even inherited. It is given. It is by knowing God and being known by God that our eyes are opened to our truest form of self.
Being an adoptee, I have always struggled with my identity. Throughout my life I have worn many masks seeking love, validation, or getting a sense of just being wanted. Many adoptees struggle with an underlying belief that they are “bad” at their core, which is something I myself know very well. My identity has always been shame-based and deep down it’s hard to shake the belief that there is something inherently wrong with me.
When I became a Christian, I was so happy that God had rescued me from the slavery of the world where I no longer had to conform to the world’s way of living and being loved. Even so, I still battled the belief that there was something deeply wrong with me and, not that I had flaws, but I was a permanent flaw just simply in my existence.
The Word of God offered me so much hope and relief from this thinking, however, at some point in my journey, I began turning to self-help books and taking a psychological approach in order to understand myself. I believe these books can be beneficial and serve a purpose for certain season of life. The problem with my approach was that it became a compulsion to read book after book searching to understand my identity more. The more I read, the more I became fixated on my weaknesses and my brokenness that led me to feel increasingly overwhelmed and reinforced the insecurities that I am simply bad. I felt like if I could just gain more information and knowledge, then I could fix myself and then I could be more lovable. The problem with the approach I took was that I was completely missing out on the grace and acceptance of God. I was desperate to figure out how to love and accept myself through the world’s advice, which again, can be helpful in ways. But when I elevated what these books were saying about me, though it was always through a very narrow scope, I could only see myself in a narrow way —broken. How could I ever get better? The more I read these books the more despaired I became.
It wasn’t until recently where God was calling me to put down the self-help and psychology books and turn back to Him and His truth. He taught me that the only way I could really understand myself was through the reality of His truth, the only way I could love myself better was if I came to know Him better. Now, I am renewing my mind to turn to scripture and prayer when I am feeling insecure, or seeing my brokenness, because God is the only one who can heal. I wanted to be able to heal myself through more knowledge of myself, but I actually am more healed through the knowledge of God. It turns out the more I focus on myself the more depressing life becomes. It’s only when I focus on God the more joy and peace I have! I will never find ultimate answers outside of God, it always leads me to a dead and empty end. The more I know God and His love for me, the more I can see and love myself. The most beautiful thing is that I don’t have to fight to “get better,” I can simply rest in his His promises, His goodness, and His grace.
Special thanks to my dear friend, Sarah, for sharing what God has personally taught her about identity in Christ. I am grateful for your open heart and the ways God is using you!
Many concepts in this post were inspired by other writings such as:
“You Are Not You Without Him” by Scott Hubbard: https://www.desiringgod.org/articles/you-are-not-you-without-him#modal-2364-jl7r1pld
“Don’t Be Yourself” by Greg Morse: https://www.desiringgod.org/articles/dont-be-yourself
“A Christian View of Human Identity” by Michael F. Bird: https://www.patheos.com/blogs/euangelion/2018/10/a-christian-view-of-human-identity/