It’s no wonder that we have trouble “finding ourselves” today. My Facebook feed is full of conflicting messages. One post is teaching me how to apply makeup like a professional, and the next tells me to celebrate the beauty of a natural body and not to worry about how I look. Another tells me about how courageous Bruce Jenner is for surgically altering his body to become Caitlyn, and the next criticizes Hollywood for celebs who get too much plastic surgery, or too much Photoshopping models in magazine pics. Pop culture is very confusing.
In the midst of it all, we are all trying to find a way to be authentic to ourselves. We are all working on loving ourselves, as is. It’s easy to love the person we are trying to become, but in the meantime… Should I love the real me that I am right now and be content to be right here forever, or should I love the me that I am working toward? And which me is the real me?
Is being authentic being true to the person I am, or the person I am becoming? Growing up in church, my pastors taught me to “fake it ’til you make it.” What they meant was that I should adopt the behaviors of the me I wanted to be, and my core identity would follow. For example: If you’re not a runner now, but want to be one, then start running. Buy the gear; get outside and go—even if you are doing more walking than running. Call yourself a runner, even if you are more of a walker.
Things are different today. Calling someone a fake is one of the worst kinds of insults. We put so much value on individualism and tolerance that I think we have lost our appreciation for evolution. My identity is not static; it is changing daily. Hopefully I am looking more and more like Jesus.
Even as leaders, we may spend years finding our identity. We get so consumed by all the demands of ministry—answering people’s crises, fixing things, finding new leaders to help us, paying the bills. In the midst of a myriad of responsibilities, we may find it difficult to explain who we are as a leader. Even tougher is translating that identity into a “brand.” Our ministries often look more like the team members that we work with than what we had originally envisioned. Leaders often struggle to shape culture and church identity because we have what seem to be bigger issues we save our emotional energy for.
Before we can shape our ministry identity, we have to have a concrete sense of our own identity. All of it—what we are good at, bad at, character strengths and weaknesses, goals and past triumphs.
Miley Cyrus recently decided that she doesn’t identify as male or female, gay or straight. She/he has decided that her/his identity is to not identify with anything. She/He is a product of today’s American values. Her/His decision not to choose an identity doesn’t leave her/him without one, however. It just created a very confusing paragraph, which probably reflects this confusing identity.
In this very confusing climate about identity, how do we navigate?
In the midst of all these confusing identity messages, I’ve put together some thoughts on what has shaped my own sense of identity.
1. Identity is a journey.
Who I am is not fixed in stone. Experiences shape us and as we evaluate new ideas with an open mind, we change. As Christians, we must pick up the mission that this is indeed a journey. We should not be the same in a year.
Changing doesn’t mean that we don’t love ourselves right now or that we have lost our authenticity. When you have a child, you go from being a daughter to being a mother. Your identity has changed, and it’s an amazing, beautiful, authentic change.
Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: the old has gone, the new is here!
(2 Corinthians 5:17, NIV)
2. You don’t have to love every part of who you are today, but you can love who you are becoming.
Chances are, you aren’t where you want to be yet. Welcome to humanity—no shame there. If Jesus has grace for us today, then we can give ourselves grace for the places we are still developing. Feeling badly that we are not further along is a waste of emotional energy.
A sense of dissatisfaction propels me forward, but it does not make me hate where I am today. Sometimes we just have to pause and remind ourselves of what we have overcome. You’ve come a long way, baby!
If I have a healthy self-awareness about what the Holy Spirit is still working on in me and give him the freedom to coach me, then the results are going to look good. He is going to chip away the rough edges and make me look like Jesus. That is the true, authentic me that is my God-designed identity. That’s a me that I can love.
And we all, who with unveiled faces contemplate the Lord’s glory, are being transformed into his image with ever-increasing glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit.
(2 Corinthians 3:18, NIV)
3. Your identity comes as much from whom you are connected to as from yourself.
We get so very inward-focused when we think about identity. We tend to think about what we are good at, what we look like, our job, our Facebook marriage/partnership status.
Looking back, I realize that who I have been has just as much been defined by who I am connected to as who I perceive myself to be. My family has been part of my identity, as well as my church family. My leaders and teachers and who I follow are a major part of my identity. We overlook this one frequently.
Who do you admire? Who do you follow closely in the media? What do you fill your spare time being interested in? You may not have noticed it, but they are defining you too.
The people in my inner circle affect my identity. Conversely, the person I choose to be impacts the people in my world. We are connected. What feels good or right to me is not always good for my family or for my community. When we make a decision about our identity, we have to think broader than our individual preferences.
Western culture encourages us to prioritize me first. We choose who we are, and everyone else has to just deal with it, and support us. This is not the way Jesus taught us. He taught us to love your neighbor as we love ourselves, and that if you want to be great, learn to serve others.
If we recognize and acknowledge the connection between our identity and the people we love, it feels right and good to consider the impact of our personal decisions on others before moving ahead with them. What isn’t good for my family isn’t good for me. What isn’t good for my church community isn’t good for me. I am connected to a larger identity—the body of Christ.
Now you are the body of Christ, and each one of you is a part of it.
(1 Corinthians 12:27, NIV)
4. You are more than your mission, but your mission is part of your identity.
Your true identity is bigger than the borders of your life. One of the greatest things that we can become is to be part of something larger than ourselves. It goes beyond our family, our house, our 401K, and our vacations. These things are important, but a sense of mission extends our identity wider.
Some people’s sense of mission seems to be limited to promoting tolerance and acceptance. This seems like a low-level mission to me. It’s super non-confrontational in a world that needs change. Not every choice that everyone makes is okay or deserves our tolerance. A sense of mission makes us need to make things better, not more accepting of what exists.
Sometimes a job is only about paying bills–just a job. Hopefully that is a temporary situation. I very much believe that ultimately, we should choose a profession that we can be passionate about. As we work, we work out our mission.
What we do to serve God’s kingdom should be motivated from the deepest place in us. That sense of mission from the Holy Spirit compels us to bring his abundant life to other people.
Paul got a whole new identity when he changed missions. His mission as Saul was to kill Christians. When God got a hold of him, his mission changed. He started working to convert new Christians.
While they were worshipping the Lord and fasting, the Holy Spirit said, “Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them.” So after they had fasted and prayed, they placed their hands on them and sent them off.
(Acts 13:2-3, NIV)
From this point forward in scripture, Saul is referred to as Paul. His mission changed his identity so much that it changed his name. He was so different he had to be called something different. Just like Paul, our calling changes who we are. It changes our motivations and our values. It is part of our identity.
5. You are more than what you look like, but what you look like is part of your identity.
Nobody likes being ignored or underestimated based on their appearance. What we look like is a major way we communicate our identity to other people. It explains part of who we are. We don’t have to look like everyone else, but we should be intentional in the way we look. People interpret what we say through the filter of what we look like. My appearance expresses my inner identity.
Jesus was highly critical of the Pharisees, who were so focused on looking right that they neglected to be right. He said they look like whitewashed tombs, beautiful on the outside, but filled with dead things. (Matthew 23:27) While the way we look matters, it can’t become the primary focus of our identity. If it does, we run the risk of making the same mistake. Who we are in the inside matters first, before what we look like.
6. You are the only you.
As middle school kids, most of us felt like we just want to fit in and be like everyone else. At some point in life, we realize not only that we’re not like everyone else—but that everyone else isn’t like everyone else. We are all different. When we get comfortable with that and stop trying to be the same, the happier we are.
Our differences make us interesting. By nature, we are attracted to people who seem to be like us because the familiar is less scary. It is also far more boring. Being comfortable in our own skin means that we are less intimidated by the differences we encounter in others. We can appreciate and enjoy them rather than feeling uncomfortable or envious. Everyone has a different journey, and we can cheer people on in that discovery process.
You are an amazing, awesome you, created to look like Jesus on the inside and your fabulous self on the outside. (I’m glad he gave us a pass on looking like his outsides because a beard would not look good on me.) Go be your strong, gorgeous, God-called you today.