“You need to have your identity in Christ.”
Growing up in the church, I heard this phrase a lot. Like much of Christianese, the idea of it is profoundly true, but in my mind, it was equally as vague. What does that actually mean? And practically, what can I do to put my identity more in Christ?
The concept of identity is one of the most profound concepts we wrestle with as humans, so I'm not going to be pretend that this is the article to end all articles on the topic. But I am going to share what I've learned so far, and what has helped me to put my identity in Christ.
Before we can know how to make something our identity, we need to understand better what an identity is.
Identity comes from how we tell our story. When people meet us, they want a little snapshot of our identity. We often tell them things about us, like where we work, what family or community we are part of, and where we live. These are parts of our story that we feel comfortable telling someone new. As we build trust with people, we tell them some of the deeper aspects of who we are- where we came from, what we have experienced, what we believe, and what we hope to accomplish. These are all aspects of our identity.
A modern myth is that we outgrow stories. When someone asks us to explain who we are, we tell a story.
– Michael Horton, The Christian Faith
God designed us for stories. We love stories, from fairytales to historical accounts of the valiant deeds done by our ancestors. If you're interested in nerding out (like I do) about why stories are powerful, check out this article about how scientists recognize that our brains are wired to think in terms of stories. A story connects both sides of our brain, our thinking side and our feeling side. It's just how God made us. Okay, I'm done nerding out (for now).
I was singing in church one Sunday, just over a year ago, when the words coming out of my mouth struck me in a new way. “You are my story.” The more I thought about it, the more it made sense. Jesus being my story is my identity in Christ.
Back in my late teens, I had a story I wanted to live. It was a small, selfish story that went something like this: “Rachel was loved by all who knew her, she married a nice Christian man when she was 22, had some children, and died peacefully in her sleep from old age.” Pretty boring, huh? Yeah, God thought so, too.
I didn't live that story as I had planned. God intervened and dramatically changed the script. Act 1 included waiting impatiently year after year as man after man was interested in a relationship, but God closed each door. Frustrating. Act 2 introduced utter chaos, as family and church rejection and abuse brought my idealistic homeschooled world to a screeching halt. I had been heavily invested in a para-church organization, and when the leader fell into grievous sexual sin, the movement fell apart. The life paradigm I had zealously held to all came crashing down, leaving me to question everything I had built my life around, even (for a time) my faith. Act 3 was made up of utter hurt, exhaustion, and trying to pick up the pieces of my broken life.
So instead of the story I would have written for myself, I now get to tell the story that's really worth telling… I get to tell the story of how Jesus intervened in my life and took me on this wild adventure. I get to tell the story of how God was with me, even in my darkest moments when I felt most alone. I get to tell the story of how His Bride, the church, cared for me and loved me in ways that taught me what God's love looks like. I get to tell the story of how God is faithful, and how He is still in the process of showing me what that means.
I get to tell the story of how God brings beauty from ashes.
This story gives me a new identity that isn't simply that of wife, mother, and friend, even though I am some of those things. My identity has been broadened from a narrow understanding of the roles I fill, to encompass so much more. As I have learned to tell my story differently, my identity has changed.
That's the thing… our understanding of our identity is too small. Our view is too narrow. We identify as a man or woman, worker in this occupation, and by whatever our relationship status is. All of these are important things, but these aren't the most defining things about us. We are these things, but we are also so much more.
When you think about it, the Bible itself is a story. As we read the Bible, we learn more of how our own personal story fits into the epic history God is writing. The Bible's history becomes our History, telling us more of our story. We simultaneously see ourselves as part of a grander story, and also understand more intimately How Christ has entered our personal story in the details we would otherwise overlook.
The world has a story it's telling us. It defines success in life as having the most comfortable life you can have, the American dream… vacations, a fulfilling job, conflict free relationships, a perfect body, that significant other. It says that whatever you want, that's what you should have. When we buy into this story, we get our identity from how closely we achieve that ideal. We see ourselves as successful or a failure in relation to that story. We say, “I'm to fat” or “too skinny”, “too poor” or “too unfulfilled in my job”, “too single” or “not happily married.”
But the Bible gives us a counter-story. A different story to measure ourselves by. We are adopted. Prized by God. Redeemed sinners. We are new creatures in Christ. We are His hands and feet to the world.
However, the Christian faith is a counterdrama to all the meganarratives and metanarratives of this passing age… It speaks of the triune God who existed eternally before creation and of ourselves as characters in His unfolding plot. Created in God's image, yet fallen into sin, we have our identity shaped by the movement of this dramatic story from promise to fulfillment in Jesus Christ… Having exchanged our rags for the riches of Christ's righteousness, we now find our identity “in Christ”. Instead of God being a supporting actor in our life story, we become part of the cast that the Spirit is recruiting for God's drama.
– Michael Horton, The Christian Faith
So practically, how do we put our identity in Christ? We change the story we tell to ourselves and to others. We have to fight, each and every day, to tell ourselves the story of the gospel, allowing our identity to be slowly and surely molded into one that is “in Christ”. Soon, we will find ourselves viewing ourselves not as a success or a failure, but as bought by Jesus, prized by the Father, and made new through His Spirit.
We change our identity by recognizing His presence and telling that story to ourselves and others.