At York University where I serve as Campus Minister and Director of a Christian student club, I have come across students who struggle with issues of identity. One female student, for instance, struggled with thoughts of worthlessness, feeling stupid and ugly. Another male student struggles with finding significance in his life. These students are essentially struggling with the question, “Who am I?” It is an issue of identity, of seeking to find your selfhood.
I want to explore a biblical, theological answer to this question. A big picture theological answer is important since our specific individual search for self always takes place within a bigger framework. In fact, our big picture framework influences how we carry out our specific individual search. Let me illustrate this with a few examples of how some distorted frameworks can in turn distort our individual search for self.
Distorted Views of Self
In Western history, there are three basic answers to the question, “who am I”?
- Physical – You are what your biology is.
This framework emphasizes our biological make up: our DNA, our sexual identities, our body shape, etc. This view sees humanity as nothing more than a biological organism. Our sexual and gender identities as male or female, according to this view, determine how we think and act. Your genes determine what kind of person you are. Almost everything, from kindness to criminal behavior, is credited to nature. A more subtle form of biological reductionism emphasizes racial categories as identification markers.
This distortion of biology’s role in our self-identity partly creates our culture’s unhealthy obsession with “looking good”. North American culture is fixated on looking good in order to feel good. The reality TV show Extreme Makeover was one example of this phenomenon. Participants put their faith in plastic surgery to save them from feeling bad about their physical looks. Their self-identity, and hence, their self-esteem, are tied to their physical make-up. Other less “extreme makeover” options include special diets, exercise gadgets, and herbal or pharmaceutical products that enhance various body parts! A whole industry thrives on this obsession with our bodies as means for self-identity: “I am a special somebody because I have a great body!”
But what if you don’t have a great body? What if you can’t afford the cosmetic surgery or give yourself a physical makeover? What will happen when old age catches up with you? What about those who are born with physical impairments and disabilities? As you can see, a distorted big picture can distort our personal search for self-identity. In this case, we are seduced into letting our physical make-up overly affect our selfhood. We did not, of course, come up with such views on our own. This distortion is pushed on us by our society and culture.
- Social – You are what your social group is.
This view reduces your identity to being determined by your social group – your family, your community, your culture and/or your nation. It is popular these days, for instance, to view how we think, choose, and behave as determined by our ethnic cultures. It’s almost as if our cultural or family background “programmed” us into the kind of person we are. There is some truth to this; social groups do tend to make their members conform to certain standards or values. But, just as we cannot reduce our self to our bodies, our individual self cannot be reduced to our social networks. It is very important to “belong” to a community. Such belonging is fundamental to our self-identity and well-being. But it is very easy to turn belonging to a community into believing in the community. When we give our communities, cultures or nations our ultimate loyalty, obedience, and hopes for the future, then we are putting them in God’s rightful place in our lives.
We see many different examples of this idolatry: when cultural ethnicity, for instance, becomes our primary form of identifying ourselves, or when an unhealthy patriotism looks to our country for a sense of self-worth, of mission and of identity. Even Christians can turn belonging to the church into believing in the church.
Belonging to a social group can be very comforting. But when the group becomes “all in all” it can be suffocating. In the animated movie, Antz, an ant named Z (voiced by Woody Allen) complains to his therapist that the ant colony mentality makes him feel insignificant. To which the therapist responds, “Excellent! You’ve made a real breakthrough. … Yes, Z. You are insignificant!” In a seemingly vast uncaring world, many of us struggle to find significance in our lives. Some of us find significance in belonging to and having roles in a social group. Others, like Z, find social definitions and roles suffocating, and they want to break free from them. Their identities, instead, become tied to their individual achievements.
- Functional – You are what you do.
If the social framework leans too much towards corporatism, the functional leans too much towards individualism. The focus here is on individual achievements or performance. Self-worth is tied to what you can or cannot do, what you have or haven’t done. A simple example is how some people identify themselves by their careers or jobs. They are so defined by their work that they are at a loss without it. Others are driven to succeed as a means of self-fulfillment. From American Idol to Survivor, our society idolizes “winners”. Conversely, some feel that they are insignificant or “losers” because they don’t have the high paying job.
A more subtle, but perhaps more sinister, example is consumerism. Consumerism defines the ideal human as an ideal consumer – someone who buys or consumes all the important, fashionable products. The motto here is: “Whoever has the most toys wins”. The consumer society defines what the necessary “toys” are for us to be happy: the big car (an SUV perhaps?), the big house, the big TV (plasma screen?), the fastest computer, the latest DVD player, etc. You are made to feel that you need to watch the latest movies, wear the latest fashions, or shop at the ultimate stores, because, according to consumerism, you are what you consume. If you have met all your “felt-needs,” then you are “with it” or “hip”, you can feel good about yourself and have a positive identity – you are a “somebody”. If not, then you are “missing out”, fallen short, less than successful, or an oddball; ultimately, you are not the ideal human.
Consumerism elevates the individual over the communal; it is the individual who consumes. By gaining lots of money (the lottery perhaps?) one can be free to do (read: consume) and be whatever you want. But this is an illusion. Consumerism can be just as suffocating as our communities and social traditions, if not more. Those who do not perform up to par are excluded from full participation. For instance, what about the poor, the unemployed and the homeless? Many, in fact, treat the poor as insignificant because they are not the ideal consumer; they are “nobodies”. Many of us, therefore, are driven to get the “right jobs” with the “right pay” in order to buy the “right things” so that we can be full participants – a somebody – in the consumerism society. Thus, we are not free at all.
Biblical View of Self
In contrast to these distorted frameworks, the Bible gives a proper perspective on these three areas. We find our individual self within the boundaries of creational, relational and spiritual spheres.
Creational – You are what God created you.
Our physical bodies, our biological make-up, are created by God. We are each unique individual creations of God, a “one of a kind,” a work of art, not by mere chance. Thus, no matter how we look, how big or small, short or tall, white or black, male or female, we are worthy because God created us. You are not somebody because of a great body; you are already a “somebody” because you are “fearfully and wonderfully made” (Psalm 139:14 NIV). People with physical disabilities are not less worthy than those who don’t because we are each God’s handiwork, each of us are of special worth in God’s eyes. We should praise God for and with our bodies, enjoy our bodies, and serve God with them.
Relational – You are what you love.
God created us not only as physical beings but also as social beings. We are commanded to love our neighbours as ourselves (Mark 12:31). This is because God created us as relational, loving beings. If God is love (1 John 4:16) and we are created to live with God, then we are created to live in love. Actions that promote love, grace, peace and harmony among relationships are what help us find our human calling. Conversely, acts of hatred, bigotry, violence, and exclusion are what de-humanize us. The less loving we are, the less human we become because we drift further from the “image of God.”
Spiritual – You are what you worship.
According to the Bible, human beings were created “in the image of God” (Genesis 1:27). What exactly does this mean? At the very least, it means that we are made to have a special relationship with God. This is why the first part of the greatest commandment is to “love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength” (Mark 12:30). And this love is expressed as worship. Worship is more than just singing songs to God. Ultimately it involves putting God in the center of our lives where everything else – all our achievements, all that we do – revolves around God. We are spiritual or religious bodily creatures made for loving relationships with God and with each other (and with creation).
Finding Your Self
How do these biblical frameworks help us find our individual self? Fundamentally, they free us: “Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free” (John 8:32). All three distorted frameworks create a standard or mould that you are expected to live up to or to conform: carving out a “great” body, conforming to social norms, achieving or performing “great” things. These standards are ultimately oppressive. The biblical frameworks free us from these oppressions in three ways.
- They free us from being obsessed with the project of self-fulfillment. These biblical frameworks help us find our individual self by first freeing us from looking for our individual self! This paradox is similarly captured in Jesus’ words, “Whoever finds his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it” (Matthew 10:39). Eugene Peterson in The Message translated it very nicely for our purpose: “If your first concern is to look after yourself, you’ll never find yourself. But if you forget about yourself and look to me, you’ll find both yourself and me.” The distorted frameworks push us to be preoccupied with our selfhood, as if self-fulfillment is the key to our happiness or salvation. But, in effect, this project of selfhood makes us self-centred, which distorts our true natures. The biblical frameworks tell us that we are not created to be self-centred; we are God-centred creatures. All the fundamental aspects of our being are not earned but are given. Our created physical bodies, our relationships of love with our families and communities, our worship of God with all that we do and act – these are all gifts to us, not something that we make of ourselves. When we understand that life is a gift from God, and not a problem to be solved, then we are freed from the oppressive project of self-fulfillment. We say, “No,” to the project because selfhood is not a project.
- They free us to properly delight in and interact with our physical bodies, our social networks, and our human functions and roles. Once we reject this project of self-identity, then we are freed from abusing our physical nature, our communities, and our human activities as means towards self-fulfillment. We can then enjoy them for what they are. Our bodies help us to delight in God, to enjoy this world, and to serve God. Our families, cultures, communities and nations all bring us to love each other, to look outside of ourselves, to embrace others and to be loved and embraced in return. Our activities, our work, skills, gifts and achievements are all for the glory of God, they are ways we express our worship to God, our love to our fellow humans, and our stewardship of God’s creation.
- They free us to be simply who we are. Ironically, this is how we actually find our selves. Not by taking on the project of selfhood but by forgetting this project and putting God first and centre in our lives do we actually “find” our personal self. Our individual uniqueness will arise, perhaps surprisingly, out of our whole-life faithfulness to God. As an analogy, think of our unique selfhood as a gift from God that comes in creational, relational and spiritual packaging. We can thankfully unwrap the packaging and be surprised by what we find. Or, if our thinking is distorted, we can use the packaging materials to make our own gift, our own self. But whatever it is we make from the packaging – the physical, social and functional materials – we can never make anything even close to what God has given us.
So, how do you find your self? First of all, forget it! Secondly and most importantly, look to Christ Jesus for you belong, body and soul, to him (Heidelberg Catechism, Q & A 1). Thirdly, get to know and enjoy God in all his gifts to you – physical, social and functional. Then you will find both yourself and the triune God.