“You know what the scariest thing is? To not know your place in this world, to not know why you’re here, that, that’s just an awful feeling. Now that we know who you are, I know who I am, I’m not a mistake!” At the close of M. Night Shyamalan’s brilliant 2000 film, Unbreakable, Elijah Price realizes his destiny and purpose in light of David Dunn’s existence in the world. After living an isolated life being bullied and outcast, Elijah gives meaning to his identity as an outcast, validating his purpose in life. Everyone does this in some form or another all throughout their lives. We develop an identity for ourselves and we present that identity (often to varying degrees) to the world at large. However, does this concept of identity hold any significance for those who have been changed in light of the gospel?
For better or worse, our first encounter with identity often stems from our interactions with our parents or guardians. Is this obvious? Sure but these identities are often neglected, denied, and outright rebelled against (particularly if our parents were less than spectacular or downright bad). Our parents’ influence often forms the basis for our worldviews, perceptions, mores, etc. For example, “I see a lot of your father in you,” or “You get that from your mother.” A parent’s encouragement, or neglect, of a child informs how that child views himself.
This identity is molded throughout the formative years (adolescence and young adulthood), and often the need for identity causes a child to break away from their parents to “discover themselves”, carving their own destiny and identity. Seeking the wisdom of the culture around them to cultivate an identity can be dangerous for a child who has had no solid structure or discipline. This takes the shape of an identity informed by cinema, music, sports, philosophy, etc. While none of these things are inherently bad as entertainment outlets, these pursuits can lead to destruction when they become gods. Once we have carved for ourselves an identity we present it to the rest of the world. We stand and proclaim “this is me” for the rest of the world to accept, often expecting no judgment. This is the face we put on for the world and it can manifest itself on different levels for different people at different times. Simply put, we don’t often act the same around one group of friends or another, or at a work function, or a family function. We’re always hiding one thing or another.
Regardless of what we choose to present or omit concerning ourselves, we present to the world around us an identity to understand us, a window into the heart and soul. This appears in a thousand different ways — some liken themselves to heroes and dedicate themselves as servants to protect the world (military, police, etc.), some view themselves as rulers and get into politics and government, and some people become teachers to pass on their knowledge to upcoming generations. More often than not though these identities are caught up in temporal things, trends and movements that are like the wind, here today, gone tomorrow, and utterly meaningless in the grand scheme of history.
Should Christians find their identities a different way? If so, how and why? Consider the words of Paul in Ephesians 2:10: “For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.” Here we glimpse a grave contradiction between the world and the identity we cling to in the flesh and the cold, sobering light of the gospel. Here we are not what we were born into, or what we have to offer or what we have built up for ourselves. Rather, we are the very workmanship of Christ! This new reality predicated upon Christ’s work is also the predestined reality ordained by the Father before the foundation of the world! We read in 1 Peter 2:9-10:
“But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into His marvelous light. Once you were not a people, but now you are God’s people, once you had not received mercy but now you have received mercy.”
This scripture presents our newly minted identity in light of the gospel. We are no longer slaves to our sexuality. We are no longer striving to carve a legacy around ourselves and our accomplishments. We no longer are the “heroes” of our story striving to save ourselves or those around us, nor are we “villains” scarred by the tainted legacy of our parents or the taunting and belittling of our value by others. “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come.”
(1 Corinthians 5:17)
Hero or villain, protector or teacher, father’s son or rebel child, it matters not in light of the gospel. In Christ we find new identities and realize that everything we’ve built up to this point to shine a light on ourselves is worthless by comparison. To the person who thought much of himself and spent his life building up his worth to others, that time was nothing but vanity. To those who think themselves worthless or unworthy of life and its joys, this too is foolishness. In Christ all people, great and small, are brought together through the torn veil! Once dead, now alive! Those who have been chosen by God and renewed by the gospel find their deepest joy in this, a new identity defined by one central reality:
“And you were dead in your trespasses and sins in which you once walked, following the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience, among whom we all once lived in the passions of our flesh, carrying out the desires of the body and the mind and were by nature children of wrath like the rest of mankind. But God, being rich in mercy because of the great love with which he loved us even when we were dead in our trespasses made us alive together in Christ by grace you have been saved and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus.” (Ephesians 2:1-6)