The traditional and modern sources of identity – found by looking outward to society, cultural roles, and affirmation or inward, following one’s desires and finding affirmation there, are unsatisfactory … inherently insecure. The traditional model can be suffocating, while the modern model is crushing. In contrast Tim Keller (Making Sense of God: An Invitation to the Skeptical) argues that we should look upward. An identity found in Christ is not suffocated by traditional chains or crushed by the fads of modernity. He quotes Paul (1 Cor 4:3-4) “I care very little if I am judged by you or by any human court; indeed, I do not even judge myself. My conscience is clear, but that does not make me innocent. It is the Lord who judges me.” An identity found in Christ is free from the demands and whims of the world. This is an identity that is not achieved by belonging to the correct family or through performing well, but is received from God through Christ. We are loved.
And now in Christ it is literally true that the person we adore most in the universe adores us. In the eyes of God, in the opinion of the only one in the universe whose opinion ultimately counts, we are more valuable than all the jewels that lie beneath the earth. (p. 137)
An identity found in Christ provides a new motivation for life. “You serve him not in order to coerce him to love you but because he already does.” (p. 137) If we follow Christ, there is the expectation (even the command) that we obey his commandments. (e.g. Mt 7) However, God is not a petty dictator, ready to condemn his serfs for minor offenses of omission or commission; rather he is a loving father shaping his children. This doesn’t abolish the activities of the world (family, career, public service …), but “they are, as it were, demoted to being just good things.” (p. 138) Our self-worth rests in being created in the image of God and adoption to sonship (whether male or female) through Jesus Christ.
When we stop building our identity on career, or our race, or our family, or any other created thing and rest in God, the fears and drives that enslave us recede, and we experience a new freedom and security.
Walking with God, who always sees us and loves us, brings a new integrity of self. We cannot and do not simply blend into each new setting, saying the things we need to say to get the most benefit out of the situation. We are not merely a set of dramatic roles, changing every time we play to a new set of spectators, because God is our primary audience every moment. (p. 141)
I will take this further than Keller (who is soft complementarian in outlook) … when we stop building our identity on our gender as male or female (a created thing), but on Christ, it brings freedom. I, for example, am a woman … but I am not a culturally ordained set of acceptable roles. I am a child of God, called to serve only him with my heart and abilities. There are many equally satisfactory ways this can play out. Identity is not found in career or family, it is not found in being a provider and protector. It is found in Christ alone. To quote Paul’s letter to the Galatians:
So in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith, for all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. If you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise. (3:26-29)
This (as Keller points out) doesn’t obliterate all distinctions into some bland mush of humanity, but it does free us from the roles that establish identity and acceptance in anything other than Christ. It is also significant that our identity is not found in dichotomies that place some people on the outside and others on the inside. “We overseparate from the Other when we fail to recognize what we have in common. We refuse to admit that we are to a great degree like them. But we overbind to the Other when we refuse to grant them their difference, when we insist that they really are, or should be, just like us.” (p. 145)
Christianity has permeated the far reaches of the globe – and one feature of this is that (despite the best efforts of some missionaries) Christianity doesn’t demand cultural assimilation. Keller points out that Christianity truly is a global religion. Summarizing data from a Pew Report and a few other sources: about 26% of Christians (Catholic, Protestant, and Orthodox) live in Europe, 25% in South and Central America, 12% in North America, 22% in Africa, and 15% in Asia (the fastest growing region). They won’t always be our type or do things our way … but that shouldn’t really trouble us.
Worldly measures of success don’t define Christian identity, where the humble will be exalted, the last first, and the poor or outcast given the place of honor. Keller concludes:
If I build my identity on what Jesus Christ did for me and the fact that I have an everlasting name in him by grace, I can’t, on the one hand feel superior to anybody, nor do I have to fear anybody else. I don’t have to compare myself to them at all. My identity is based on somebody who was excluded for me, who was cast out for me, who loved his enemies, and that is going to turn me into someone who embraces the Different.
Christians, of course, so often fail to realize and live out of the resources they have. But the world needs millions of people who have the capacity to do what the Gospel compels and empowers them to do. (p. 151)
The crying shame is that Christians, including Christian leaders, do so often fail to live out a life and identity founded in Christ. Self-worth is found in worldly success in business, government, academia, or the church. Self-worth can be evaluated by salary, business acumen and promotion, professional recognition and awards (a particular temptation in my field) or leading a large church. None of these focus on an identity in Christ – even in the church the emphasis is on comparison with others, not on faithfulness.
The crying shame is that Christians too often build an identity around excluding the other – however that is defined. It can be ethnic, racial, national, doctrinal, political, or any of a number of other factors.
The crying shame is that Christians too often build identity on the basis of XX and XY chromosomes rather than on Christ. We are complementary in this (and other) ways – but this doesn’t define Christian identity, roles, or calling. The problem I have with the complementarian (i.e. male headship) movement in evangelicalism is that the gospel and Christian identity are confused with (and used to bolster) male headship. The problem I have with “radical feminism” in the church is that it too confuses the gospel with other factors. (As in our culture “mankind” can no longer be usefully generalized to mean all humanity, so too “feminism” cannot be usefully generalized to mean generic egalitarianism. Too many will hear a different intent behind the word.) Although we are called to defend the poor and oppressed, we are not called to demand rights or respect. We are called to follow and obey to the best of our abilities, even in the presence of opposition or hardship.
To what extent is our identity found in Christ?
What does this mean?
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Related articles: http://billbremer.org/category/character/