Knowing who you are is an important concept when it comes to good mental health. Development of a healthy sense of self is one of the primary tasks of youth. However, a sense of self is a problematic concept for a lot of Christ followers. Are we supposed to love ourselves? Where is the line between loving myself and “thinking more highly of myself than I ought”? If I’m confident in myself, does that mean I’m not humble? While the answers to these questions are complex, I think the answer lies in having our identity in Christ, but what does it really mean to have “identity in Christ?”
A sense of identity in the world generally occurs through relationship. My identity as a child follows this loose formula: I start to get a sense of myself; I start to get a sense of you; and then the relationship that exists (how you interact with me, what you think of me, how you respond to me) shapes my identity. As you go on in life, this same loose formula applies. My sense of myself as a wife is based on knowing myself, knowing my husband and the relationship we have with each other – the ways we respond and love each other confirms my identity as his wife. Even non-personal identities can be formed this way. A sense of identity as a certain kind of employee is based on knowing me (my skills and what I have to offer); knowing the company (what skills are required and what they are looking for); and then the relationship between those two is confirmed with production, employee reviews and so forth. I get a sense of identity as a certain kind of worker through the relationship between these three things.
I think we can apply this same loose formula to our identity in Christ. Identity in Christ is based on knowing who I am in relationship to Him; knowing Him and what He has done; and the relationship that exists between us – how He interacts with me, responds to me, what He thinks of me and how He reveals himself to me. If any of these three pieces is out of place, my sense of identity in Christ will be skewed accordingly. That’s why perhaps it’s easier to talk about this topic in terms of how you might know if you don’t have a solid identity in Christ – and how you can work on that. Since I’m defining identity with a three-part equation, I’ll also identify three different pitfalls.
Identity Crisis #1: Self-righteousness or Judgmentalism – I don’t know who I am. This may be one of the hardest to diagnose in ourselves, because none of us want to think of ourselves as self-righteous or judgmental. But we all are this way from time to time, and it comes from not having a clear view of who we really are and how we stand before God. If you read Romans 1:18-3:20, you will get a very good picture of what your position is before God (I recommend the Message version). This is the beginning of Paul’s classic text on salvation – and he starts with the fact that we are all guilty, every single one of us. God does not “grade on the curve”- we are all in the same boat, sinners every one. It’s so easy to compare ourselves to others and say “they” are so much worse than “us”; but Paul calls our bluff. Of course (thank goodness) Romans goes on after Chapter 3, verse 20. Knowing how we really stand before God isn’t just to shame us or make us feel horrible. But if we find ourselves consistently feeling overconfident, self-righteous or judgmental of other people, our identity in Christ is skewed. We need to be careful not to put ourselves above any other human who has ever lived – we are all guilty. If this is you, I recommend immersing yourself in these verses from Romans until you really understand your position before God.
Identity Crisis #2: Low Self-Esteem – I don’t know who God is. If you have low self-esteem, you might be overly focused on your guilt and sin – knowing full well your pitiful position before God and consumed with that – without balancing that with who God is and what He thinks of you and has done for you. God created you and thinks you are a masterpiece (Ephesians 2:10); He has gifted you and has plans for you (Jeremiah 29:11); if you were the only person living, Jesus would have still died for you to offer justification by faith for your sins. God loves you, with a pure and intentional love. If you don’t love yourself, you are saying something about what He’s created that is almost disrespectful in nature. It would be like accepting an art piece someone handcrafted for you, saying you are thankful for the gift, but then treating it poorly. The artist would not feel good about giving such a gift to an ungrateful receiver. Loving yourself and seeing yourself as uniquely gifted, handcrafted and beautiful is a respectful and correct view of yourself in light of God being your loving Creator. You cannot have a secure and firm identity in Christ if you have a consistent low self-esteem. I recommend immersing yourself in Scripture that assures you of who God is and how He feels about His own creation, and then lining yourself up with this truth.
Identity Crisis #3: Getting identity mainly from my work or human relationships – my relationship with Christ is not central. The third piece, once you are clear on who you are and who God is, is the relational piece. If relationship between yourself and God is central in your life, then God’s interaction with you is the primary place you get important feedback. God’s response to you, communication with you and love for you is where you can find real security. If this relationship is not central, you will need to rely on feedback from other sources, such as your job or your boyfriend or kids. We all rely on interpersonal feedback for our sense of identity – the question is simply which interpersonal feedback we will choose to have primary sway. Whatever we assess to be the most important relationships will have the most influence on our identity. So if success at work is our primary goal, then the opinions of our success at work will have the most influence over how we feel about ourselves. But if what God thinks of me is my primary goal, then what He thinks of me is going to be the most important feedback. This doesn’t mean that success at work and my other relationships isn’t important; it just means that if I’m ok with God, I’m ok. Those other things can now ebb and flow without the highs inflating me or the lows destroying me. If you find yourself being overly concerned with success at work or obsessed with what someone else thinks of you, you may want to work on making your relationship with Christ more central in your life. You might want to pursue intimacy with Him, find out more about what He says and feels about you. Otherwise, you will spend a lot of time trying to manage and/or control relationships and work issues that are not actually in your control.
Because this is a three-part formula, the concept of balance is obviously important. There is almost a knife-edge balance to be had here between being overly confident in God’s beautiful artwork (you) and being hopelessly lost in shame over your guilt and sin. You can be so centrally focused on your relationship with God that you find yourself not participating in the real concerns of life, or you can find yourself so consumed with your job/bills/kids that you forget to listen for God’s voice. Like riding a bike, balance is the process of constantly losing and then re-finding your balance. True identity in Christ is like that moment your parents let go of your bike and you actually rode on your own! Freedom indeed.
*Read my comment(s). My dear friend has agreed to give her non-therapist view of my crazy ideas to get the conversation started. Jump in!*