‘Who are you?’ While quite formulaic in today’s culture and typically resulting in a formulaic response, this question, taken to its logical conclusion, points to a much deeper and foundational idea: that of identity.
Identity is certainly not a new topic of discussion; however, it has lost none of its relevance or importance to contemporary conversation. As Americans, this battle for identity has been playing out in very real, tangible, and heartbreaking ways -ways that have become more and more visible as time has gone on. Slavery, while in many ways a result of cultural perversion and economics, was at its core an identity problem: defining men and women based on biology (skin color, physical ability, mental acuity, race, etc…), rather than on any reference to the dignity that God has given all mankind by the fact they are made in his image. Abortion, at its root, is a question of identity: whether an unborn baby is merely a clump of cells with no inherent selfhood of its own, or the converse position, “Your eyes saw my unformed body; all the days ordained for me were written in your book before one of them came to be” (Psalm 139:16), where at conception we have identity given by God himself. Transgenderism is inherently an identity problem: defining ourselves in ways that completely divorce us from any scientific and spiritual standard of reality (Macarther). However, while these are all examples of high profile and visible identity crises, it often takes more subtle forms. When asked to describe myself, my past and who I am, descriptors such as introvert, single, family guy, etc.etc tend to be some of the first used. Many people do the same: identifying themselves by their work, friends, hobbies, relationships, parents, organizations, entertainment preferences, and preferred foods. Not everything people identify with is ‘positive’, sometimes people identify themselves (whether they admit publically or not) by the ways others treat or treated them, or even by the things in their lives that they are most ashamed of: sins or failures in their pasts. While reality dictates that all of these things do indeed affect us, if this is where our ‘identity’ ends, then we are just as divorced from reality as the most insane person.
Identifying the self with causes, relationships, and any number of other things is inherently insufficient in itself, and leads to the same core problem found in slavery, abortion, and transgenderism: man, left to his own devices, provides no absolute for defining identity, but subjects it to mere practicality, politics, and selfishness. So, where does one look for identity? For all men, believer and unbeliever alike, it is found in God alone. Calvin addresses this whenever discussing self-knowledge:
“True self-knowledge only comes after first contemplating the face of God and then, afterwards, looking into ourselves. We as sinful men think of ourselves as righteous, holy, and just, and when comparing with the world around us, can find ways to rationalize this belief. If our behavior is at least some better than another’s we have ‘justification’ for our self satisfaction[…]so long as we keep our mind within the confines of human pollution, anything which is in some small degree less defiled delights us as if it were most pure ” ~Institutes, Bk 1, Ch1, Sctn 2
Only by “contemplating the face of God” can man gain any real understanding of who he is, how broken he is, and where his true identity is found. Because all men fell in Adam, they are ultimately defined by that fall apart from the grace of God: men living in active and willing rebellion. That is the identity of every man, woman, and child on this globe proceeding from natural generation -none is innocent. However, there is another identity offered, one made possible through the sacrificial death of God himself in Jesus Christ. For those who believe, although still living in the realities of the fall, identity is found in Christ and his victorious and finished work. We are no longer vessels of destruction, but rather vessels of mercy (Rom 9:23-24). In the end, at the root of all, one of these two realities defines us, not our family, age, work, social circles, organizations, causes, etc. Either Adam or Christ.
The question of identity is incredibly important, and yet it is very easy as Christians to fall into shallowly defining ‘self’ in just the same way the world does: by starting with ourselves. Jesus is the answer to man’s broken identity, the anchor which alone can provide the mooring where men and women can thrive and by His grace become ever more as they were originally designed. Apart from Him we are all but rebels and traitors, destined for wrath and torment, and justly so. Who are you?