An Identity that Won't Crush You

Who Do You Think You Are?
Let me tell you a story you are familiar with:
A young child whose parents are royalty suffers the traumatic experience of their parents dying at a young age. Terrified at the prospect of being thrust into the limelight and assuming the responsibility of becoming the next ruler, the child hides and evades responsibility. Eventually the child runs away out into the wilderness where they can be unfettered by the expectations and obligations of their station, and there they learn a new philosophy to live by that dispenses with their prior fears and responsibilities. But, while they are basking in their newfound freedom, someone from their kingdom finds them and tells them that their absence and abdication of responsibility has come at a great cost and they must return to put wrong to right.
What story did I just tell you? I just told you the story of The Lion King and of Simba, the would-be king who flees after the death of his father and finds refuge in forgetting his past and living according to the Hakuna Matata lifestyle of no-worries for the rest of your days.
But, I also just told you the story of Frozen and Elsa, who, after the death of her parents, is slated to become the next queen, but for fear of her hidden powers, and years of “conceal, don’t feel” finally hits a breaking point, she flees into the mountains where she lives according to the Let it Go philosophy of “no right, no wrong, no rules for me, I’m free.”
But, like I said and we all know, both Simba and Elsa’s flight from responsibility comes with a cost. Scar has taken over Pride Rock and Elsa has actually summoned a deadly winter. And both are pursued by members of their old life, Nala and Anna, and are told that they must return, and both tell the person “no” at first, but both wind up eventually returning and facing the challenge. But the reason they return is fundamentally different.
Simba looks up and sees his father in the stars and is told: “Simba, you have forgotten me, you have forgotten who you are…you are my son, you are the one true king, remember who you are.” Simba realizes that the Hakuna Matata life is not who he is, but was an abdication of his true identity. This is a great picture of the traditional perspective on identity formation: you are who you are by the role you play in your family, tribe, society. You are a son, a baker, a peasant, an Englishman, a child of God, etc. Your identity is given to you in large part by the community, the world, even the cosmic forces around you—they form you.
Elsa, on the other hand, only returns because she has been kidnapped. And while upon her return she learns that her family and her kingdom accept her for who she is, the whole point of the Elsa story is the almost complete opposite of the Simba story. For Elsa, the Let it Go life is who she is. Her life prior to that was one of concealment, hiding her true identity because of the fear of her parents (conceal, don’t feel). This is the “it” that she has let go, the expectations and restrictions of her community that stifled her feelings and true self. This is a great picture of a modern perspective on identity formation: your true self is found deep within, in what feels most authentic, and the role of community is not to form you, but to affirm you as you perform your identity. “Expressive individualism,” was a term that the sociologist Robert Bellah popularized in the 80’s in his book Habits of the Heart, a classic sociological work that looked at the modern Western idea of identity formation. You are not who your family or community say you are, rather, ‘each person has a unique core of feeling, and intuition that should unfold or be expressed if individuality [or identity] is to be realized.”[1]
So, here is the question: which story, which perspective leads to a more durable and more valuable sense of identity? The two components of identity consist of durability, “To have an identity is to have something sustained that is true of you in every setting,”[2] and value, a sense of worth, of self-regard, “what about you makes you feel your life is worthwhile, good, and of significance?”
The Benefits of Traditional Identity Formation: Durable
One of the strengths of traditional identity formation is that it provided you with a durable sense of self. If you lived in a traditional or ancient culture and were to tell someone, I feel like I don’t know who I am, people might think you are insane. But if someone said that today, far from meeting their utterance with bewilderment, we would naturally feel sympathetic and immediately understand what they meant. Our sense of self is largely today a psychologized identity, it is who I feel myself to be. And my subjective sense of self is fickle. Our interests, desires, and abilities change. Sometimes we are fascinated and entranced with one idea, only to later find that we no longer identify with it, which can create a serious mental and emotional whiplash if that is where our identity is based. The modern sense of self has a real kind of liquidity to it.
But in a traditional culture, your identity is not an internal reality. Simba’s sense of self was not constrained to a psychological reality. Who was he? He was the son of Mufasa, the one true king. Regardless of his reckless laziness and abdication or responsibility, eating bugs with Timon and Pumba and Hakuna Matata, Simba is still the son of Mufasa and the one true king. It is durable, constant, and unchanging, and it is from that durable reservoir of identity that he finds the strength to overcome his fear, his guilt and shame, and face responsibility. He remembers who he is.
The Benefits of Modern Identity Formation: Value
One of the benefits of this perspective is the emphasis it put on the value of the individual. This emphasis has led to several benefits today. Let’s consider just two: Freedom and Equality
The entire concept of our modern economy and political system is based on the idea that you can rise above your station, that just because you were born to a certain rung on the social ladder need not dictate the rest of your life. That’s very different than the traditional method of identity formation. Maybe you were born to a family of candlestick makers, but found the work dreadfully miserable and unsatisfying. It didn’t matter. Maybe you had a natural aptitude for education and writing, but because of your social station or the color of your skin, you were never given opportunities to learn. The value now placed on the individual and their freedom for expression has created a society where the individual is vastly more free to pursue opportunities than previous generations.
Some of the worst crimes of history we can think of came from a person being deprived of any value or self-determination because they belonged to a lower class. You were who society said you were, and if you tried to rise above your station then you were promptly and sometimes aggressively told to “know your place.” Traditional cultures may provide durable identities, which was great if you were one of the rare few who had a comfortable station in life, but most humans who have lived have been in the low castes, the low stations. And for them their “durable” identity often led them to be victims of grave injustice. If you were a peasant and the prince wanted to take your 11-year-old daughter for himself, there was nothing that could be done about it. Know your place. In Larry Siedentop’s book, Inventing the Individual, he argues that it was by no means self-evident in ancient cultures that individuals had inherent dignity. You had value provided you were born a male, not a slave, not a plebe, and of aristocratic stock.
Critique of Modern Identity Formation
Since I already criticized some of traditional culture, let me now turn to the much more dominant view: modern identity, the Let it Go perspective. This is the view that says that no one can tell you who you are, live your own truth, be your own person. Three problems with this: it is incoherent, it is crushing, it is impossible.
It Is Incoherent
If you are your deepest desires, then how do you know which desire is the deepest? If you look inside of yourself, you’ll find many desires, but you’ll also find that they are in contradiction with one another. Maybe you are in love with a girl or boy, and maybe you’re in love with a hobby, and maybe you’re in love with your education. How do you know which one is you? And what happens when they begin to contradict with each other, when you realize you have to choose one over the other?
Even more serious, how do you even know what your “deepest” desire is? Desires and feelings are hard to discern, a dark whirlwind that can blind us from the substance at the center. This is evident when a person is caught up in a moment and pledges or vows to something or someone, to only later think: What on earth was I thinking?! What then happens if you are left with no way to determine your deepest desires? Now, some even say not even our physical bodies are solid enough to grant a basis for identity. But how can we know what our identity is?
It Is Crushing
“You can be whatever you want to be” sounds like a recipe to empower people, but in reality it puts an exhausting burden upon people. In a traditional culture, your sense of self was a given. You knew who we were. But today we believe that you make yourself into somebody. This turns our relationships, parenting, careers, beauty, and wealth into stages where we perform an identity, and this can create a crushing amount of anxiety. If your sense of identity comes from being a good mom or a sophisticated intellectual, how will you ever know you’ve secured that identity? This leads to what David Zahl calls “Performancism” or what he calls elsewhere “enough-ness.”
“Performancism is the assumption, usually unspoken, that there is no distinction between what we do and who we are. Your resumé isn’t part of your identity; it is your identity…Listen carefully and you’ll hear that word enough everywhere…You’ll hear about people scrambling to be successful enough, happy enough, thin enough, wealthy enough, influential enough, desired enough, charitable enough, woke enough, good enough. We believe instinctively that, were we to reach some benchmark in our minds, then value, vindication, and love would be ours—that if we got enough, we would be enough.”[3]
Ironically, this emphasis on being a “self-made” individual makes us more dependent on the affirmation and praise of others—we need them to affirm our identity: you are a good mom, you are attractive, you are smart. And when we lack the affirmation, likes, and hearts of others around us, we experience a crisis of self. Because, ultimately, self-made identities are impossible.
It Is Impossible
Charles Taylor, a Canadian philosopher, in his book Sources of the Self argues that it is impossible to gain an identity with no regard for other people. Psychopaths may be the only people who walk around saying, “I don’t care what other people think of me,” and actually practice what they preach. But almost no one really lives like that. Taylor explains, “One is a self only among other selves. A self can never be described without reference to those who surround it.”[4] I am who I am because of who is around me.
Consider for a moment the childhood thrill of being picked for the team on kickball during recess. As the kids line up and are chosen one by one by the captains, what happens in that moment? We are recognized, named by someone: I want you on my team. And that grants a great boon to our sense of self. That is because identity requires acknowledgement, recognition. We cannot construct any meaningful sense of identity in isolation.
Not only that, we cannot even sift and discern our own desires without others. Tim Keller’s illustration of an Anglo-Saxon warrior from the 9th century and a modern Western urbanite proves very helpful here.[5] Picture an Anglo-Saxon warrior walking around in the 9th century. When he looks inside of himself he finds two very strong desires. One desire is a proclivity to violence and brutality; he wants to just murder his enemies. Another desire is a sexual attraction to other men. What will that warrior do? He will look at his desire for violence and say: “That’s me, that’s who I am,” and look at his sexual desire and say, “I must repress that, that isn’t who I am.” Now picture a modern Westerner living in some large city in America today who possesses the exact same desires. What will he do? He will look at his sexual desires and say: “That’s me, that’s who I am,” and look at his desire for violence and say, “I should get therapy, I must get rid of this.” Both men experience the same desires, yet both men find themselves filtering their desires through a grid that identifies one desire as right and the other as wrong, with opposite results. So, of course, the question is: Where does the grid come from? It comes from the community they inhabit. Community and culture say: This is a legitimate identity, that is not. 
You see, modern identity formation is impossible. Everyone depends on the approval and estimation of the community we are in, just now we do it while telling ourselves we don’t. And that, ironically, makes us far more prone to being duped by what our community says. If we think: I am in control, I chose this, while remaining blind to how we are influenced by others, we will be highly susceptible to all kinds of influences.
Because modern identity is so flimsy, so far from durable, it is prone to disappoint us.
What do we need? An identity that is both durable and grants value.
What Christianity Offers: An Identity that is Both Valuable and Durable
First, Christianity teaches that all human beings, regardless, are made in the image of God, and therefore have an identity that is constant across all stations of existence and is freighted with great value. Again, see Larry Siedentop’s book, Inventing the Individual, for the case that it was the influence of Christianity that gave us our assumption that we have a moral imperative to value all human life. It is the doctrine of the image of God that is the basis of our modern conception of human rights, and this is universal—no matter what someone’s own religious belief is.
Second, Christianity teaches there is a unique identity bestowed on those who are followers of Jesus. An identity that is inestimably more durable and infinitely more valuable. 
The apostle Paul teaches: “But with me it is a very small thing that I should be judged by you or by any human court. In fact, I do not even judge myself…It is the Lord who judges me.” (1 Cor 4:3-4). On the one hand Paul says: I don’t care what you think of me, I don’t care what anyone thinks of me. That sounds like a modern identity! But then he says: I don’t even care what I think of me. That doesn’t sound very modern. What does he care about? I only care about what God thinks of me. Paul’s sense of self is not tethered to the opinion of others, but it also doesn’t come from his own sense of self-esteem. It isn’t created by himself, but it is given by God. So he later explains: “But by the grace of God I am what I am,” (1 Cor 15:10). It is God’s grace that grants Paul his identity. Every other identity we can have in life—good mom, hard worker, funny guy, intellectual, suave slickster—are all identities we work for. And if you perform well enough, you might feel like you have it. But it leaves us perpetually in a place of defending and upholding that by our own effort, and like we said before, that is a crushing weight, and therefore isn’t a very stable identity. In Christianity, however, our identity is simply granted by the merciful, gracious gift of God. It is given, not earned, so it can’t be lost.
What does God think of you? If you are a follower of Jesus, what is the name granted to you? The word “Beloved” occurs 66x in the New Testament. Eight of those apply to Jesus Himself in the gospels. The rest of them, shockingly, apply to just ordinary Christians. What does it mean to be “beloved”? It means to be an object of love, a recipient, one who draws love out of another towards yourself. And that is what we are in God’s eyes. We are so beloved that we are given surprising, scandalous pictures of God’s posture towards us:
“…he will rejoice over you with gladness; he will quiet you by his love; he will exult over you with loud singing,” (Zeph 3:14)
“For as a young man marries a young woman, so shall your sons marry you, and as the bridegroom rejoices over the bride, so shall your God rejoice over you,” (Isa 62:5)
Go dances and rejoices over you, He leans in towards you the way a giddy groom does to His bride on the wedding day. What does this tell us? It tells us that we are incredibly valuable to God. And that, that evaluation, that naming, that recognition, heals a deep ache we have. “The praise of the praiseworthy is above all regards,” said Tolkien. God is the epitome of “the praiseworthy,” and yet He praises us with His undeserved love. That is an identity that is not only durable, but jaw-dropping-ly valuable.

[1] Robert Bellah, Habits of the Heart, p. 333-34
[2] Tim Keller, Making Sense of God, p. 118
[4] Charles Taylor, Sources of the Self, p. 35
[5] Keller, Making Sense of God, p. 126-27