My neighbor recently built a brick fence around his property, I watched as the carpenter constructed each wall, brick by brick, with mortar in between each one. I saw how he meticulously ran a leveling line to assure the blocks were leveled. This provoked a thought about identity.
Who am I? What is identity? How is it constructed and formed? These simple questions have confounded humanity for centuries, but how you answer these questions impact your everyday life. For instance, if you replied by saying, “I’m a teacher or student,” “I’m a mother or father,” or “I’m a football player” or “cheerleader,” then you have defined yourself by what you do. What happens when you quit doing those things? Basing your identity on performance, looks, skills, talents, or pedigree sets you up for an identity crisis because all these factors are subject to change, like your age, health, skill level, and external circumstances.
To begin, I am a self who has an identity. Once I articulate myself—37 year old, male, Latino, professional counselor, Christian, American, married, father of two daughters, named Stephen Galloza—an identity is owned, like a finger print. Some of these characteristics I mentioned are fixed, like my age, race, and kinship, where others can change, like my name, religion, and work. So, identity is both given and fixed but also acquired and always changing. The self is embedded in the flow of life and circumstances can change your “state of being”—now friendly, now angry; but even more than that a person can claim multiple identities. For example, my education is important to qualify me as a professional therapist but it’s not important to my identity as a Christian, even though I am both at the same time. It’s like the wall that I watched being built; I observed each brick stacked on each other that eventually made up the whole wall. Similarly, identity is made up of the different parts of the self that are constructed into a whole, which makes us who we are. We are made up of the sum of our parts. We don’t normally think this way because we are accustomed to seeing the whole before we see individual parts, like a painting, building, or a piece of art.
Why is this so important? Identity just doesn’t happen to us, it comes from us: We are our own “architect,” “construction worker,” and “engineer” in forming our individual identity. Even though we are not always aware that we choose our own identity, it remains that identity is built brick by brick out of the raw materials of the fixed and acquired bricks of who we are, to include our key relationships, life experiences, and personal choices. The mortar in this construction is a mixture of our perceptions, our interpretations, our personal narratives (the way we tell the “story” to ourselves), our worldviews, and our life philosophy.
Another key factor in this construction site is the influence of others, which are your social authorities: parents, school, mentors, peers, religion, science, and psychology. These factors act like levelers to the way you are “supposed” to build and manage your construction project. All together, your conscious and subconscious choices, spiritual and social influences, plus the mortar of the way you see the world become powerful shaping influences that make up “who you are.” We cannot forget the influence of our hardwired sin nature. Our building projects will always be perfectly imperfect because of the pervasive influence of sin, however, there is hope! We were also created in the image of God so our building can always reflect His blueprints.
So far, we have discussed that identity is very personal, relational, and contextual. This forming never takes place in isolation, some parts of us are biogenetically hard-wired, like temperament and personality, and other parts are shaped by relationships that impart morals, values, and views about the world. Another way to view this synergy is the way children develop language. Their brains and tongues are pre-designed to speak, but this inherent ability to talk is formed by family, peers, and culture.
Psychologists recognize that identity is as much a construction project as it is an expression of our essence. The “engine” that drives identity is personal values, beliefs, and religious commitments. The main issue, for anyone, and particularly for Christians, is what you set your affections and desires upon, as they will determine your attitudes and behavior.
In Jesus Christ, we can re-construct our identity, based upon the redemptive work of Calvary and the power of the Holy Spirit. The Scriptures declare, “But to all who believed him and accepted him, he gave the right to become children of God” (John 1:12, NLT). In Christ, a new you is born! The Apostle Paul explains it this way: “What this means is that those who become Christians become new persons. They are not the same anymore, for the old life is gone. A new life has begun!” (2 Cor 5:17, NLT). Yet, this truth must be appropriated by faith and obedience to God’s Word. This truth transcends behavior, it’s a new identity. We become sons and daughters of God. Your construction site now becomes holy ground because Jesus is now resident within the bricks and mortar of your life: Transformation!
Why do some people take terrible experiences and make it work for them, while others take any experience and make it work against them? Christian author, Graham Cooke , says “Knowing who you want to be is an identity issue. Knowing what you want to do is concerned with destiny. Both are two sides of the same coin. They cannot be separated. Both require choices to be made that are premeditated and predetermined. Choices are the root of power and that level of ascendancy is never, ever spontaneous. You cannot drift to the top of a mountain. Pipe dreams are not for players but for the spectators in life. Real dreaming produces purposeful living in the present and takes hold of the future in the form of choices.”
Never forget that real sustainable change for the Christian is a grace infused process called sanctification: a lifelong commitment to obey Christ through a very narrow and often complicated path, which is lived in the company of the family of God and the rich fertile soil of the body of Christ. The cross of Jesus signifies the end of the “old self,” a radical and progressive re-ordering and re-orientation of our identity. But sin is like a stubborn mule, especially at the very core of our being, and the “old” self dies a slow death, “such were some of you…But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified…(I Cor 6:11, NLT). This promise is your in Christ for the taking, a finished work!
If you are “stuck” in your identity construction project, do not become discouraged by your present situation. “It does not matter where you start but where you finish” (Bishop T.D. Jakes). Identities that originate in Christ are made by Him, and for Him, be “confident of this, that he who began a good work in you will carry it onto completion until the day of Christ Jesus (Phil 1:6, NLT). Remember where sin abounds, grace abounds even more. Be humble and authentic about examining your heart and repenting of the distorted and dwindling effects of sin in your life. Grace is your portion, such is our hope!