How do we find our true identity?

Ed Shaw writes: Today there is so much confusion over questions of identity – especially for the younger generations the church is struggling to reach. When, for instance, it comes to our experiences of gender or sexuality the options used to be binary: “I’m a man!” or “I’m a woman!”, “I’m straight!” or “I’m gay!” – it is now multiple choice. 

And the result is an identity crisis for many growing up inside and outside our churches. They are not just having to make decisions about their future studies and careers but over which personal pronoun they prefer or what initial might best encapsulate their developing sexualities. 

And there are potential casualties from the growing cultural pressures to self-define at such a young age. Ritch Savin-Williams, an academic psychologist (who is himself gay), writes:   

…despite the speculations of some clinicians, the idea that it is healthy for an adolescent to identify with a sexuality has not been proved. Clinicians are fond of assuming that not adopting a label is unhealthy, that it may be an indication of possible psychological problems. An individual’s reluctance to embrace a sexual identity, they say, suggests that the person is in denial, afraid to confront his or her sexual reality.  Yet how do we square this view with the overwhelming evidence – produced by these same clinicians – of alarmingly high levels of depression, substance abuse, dangerous sexual activities, and suicidality among these young people who self-identify as gay? Is it possible that self-identifying gay youth are more unhealthy than nonidentified same-sex attracted young adults?

His questions are ones that all of us who care for younger generations should be asking: are we forcing young people to make identity-defining decisions dangerously early? Would they and we be better waiting – or just not defining ourselves in these sorts of terms at all? With more recognition of the fluidity of sexuality – especially amongst young people – should we all be looking for some different, more enduring identity markers? 

Turns out that there is an urgent need to better resolve our issues of identity. And here’s a novel idea for the contemporary church: why don’t we turn to Bible to see whether it can possibly help us? Perhaps the great and beautiful story of our Creator God’s love for humanity has the resources we need to solve our identity crises? 

There are two key biblical doctrines that are especially there to help us. Both have been of particular help to me personally and as I minister to younger generations in an Anglican city-centre church plant.  

a. We have been created in the image of God

What does God himself tells the whole of humanity about our identity in the very beginning? That more than anything else we were created to be God’s children, his image-bearers. As children bear their parents’ image, look like them, act like them, we were created to look like God, relate to him, act like him, in ruling this world for him. 

In the beginning humanity did not need to self-identify because God himself gave us an identity. One rooted in him and our place of honour in his creation. One permanently established in his Word – despite our rejection of him. Although we have marred his image in us it has not been destroyed and this divine imprint continues to mark us out from the rest of his creatures.  

Today so many young people are struggling not just with issues of sexuality and gender but with a basic lack of self-esteem. Our culture is confusingly telling them that they are both uniquely special and just an evolutionary successful mammal and many are struggling with the obvious contradiction. The relational consequences of this are harmful to us all because: 

The ability to act effectively and confidently, to give love and receive it…requires a sense of self-worth and significance. But if the self is constantly in flux, a shifting sand of doubt and reinvention, how can such a delicate thing sustain a sense of its own worth and value?

Harrison’s question is answered by the frightening statistics of a growing mental health crisis amongst young people and by the anecdotal evidence of a generation struggling to develop a healthy relationship with their own bodies – let alone anybody else. 

Into such a context the biblical teaching that we have been created in the image of God needs to be declared and demonstrated with a confidence that offers hope to those lost without it. Churches need to stop just talking about this beautiful truth when it comes to the debates over abortion and euthanasia and instead have it front and centre when it comes to proclaiming the gospel afresh to younger generations struggling to work out both their value and values. Our evangelism needs to speak this good news into the current identity crisis in a way that helps people find in their Creator God the answer to who they really are. So many young people are asking the right questions – are we providing the right answers from God himself?  

b. We are being recreated in union with Christ 

Any discipleship of younger people then needs to build on this with the truth that, as Augustine put it: “Christ, the master of the mint, came along to stamp the coins afresh.” The image of God is being restored in all Christians by the perfect man Jesus who lived, died and rose again to restore us to our status as God’s dearly loved children. United to him, with this new identity, we now have the great challenge of increasingly becoming what we already are (New Testament ethics in a phrase). The great joy of Christianity is not having to self-construct a new identity but instead increasingly inhabit the free gift of an identity as a daughter or son of God, a brother or sister of Christ (and all other Christians). I love how Henri Nouwen puts it for us:

Our first and most important spiritual task is to claim that unconditional love of God for ourselves. We have to dare to say “Whether I feel it or not, whether I comprehend it or not, I know with a spiritual knowledge that I am God’s beloved child, and nobody can take that divine childhood away from me.”

This is the sort of everlasting identity that we all most need to thrive as human beings. Because they can’t that away from me – or you: it is a reality not rooted in any contemporary, ever-changing understanding of gender, sexuality or whatever but instead founded on a declaration made before the creation of world. A self-sacrificial decision of Father, Son and Spirit to adopt us into their divine family. 

At the church I serve we are increasingly seeking to use music and liturgy that boosts the Christ-esteem of the younger generation that make up our church family. That gives us all the tools to identify ourselves primarily in who we are in Christ not what we might be feeling (or being told) about ourselves on any given day. We recently all said these words of Bishop Handley Moule as part of a church service:

I believe in the name of the Son of God.
Therefore I am in him, having redemption through his blood and life by his Spirit,
And he is in me, and all fullness is in him.
To him I belong, by purchase, conquest, and self-surrender;
To me he belongs, for all my hourly need.
There is no cloud between my Lord and me.
There is no difficulty outward or inwards that he is not ready to meet in me today.
The Lord is my keeper. Amen.

What wonderful truths to speak into our contemporary identity crisis! To shape our growing understanding of who we are, our value, what we should be doing with our bodies and lives.

More help needed? 

UK charity Living Out are running a conference on the 21st June entitled Identity in Christ: A Firm Foundation in a Fluid World. Speakers Tim and Kathy Keller from New York will be helping us think through these sorts of issues further. 

Tim introduces the conference here: https://vimeo.com/267876981 

Further details: http://www.livingout.org/identity-in-christ 

Ed Shaw is the pastor of Emmanuel City Centre in Bristol, a member of the General Synod of the Church of England and part of the editorial team at www.livingout.org. He loves his family and friends, church and city, gin and tonic, music and books. He’s the author of The Plausibility Problem: The church and same-sex attraction (IVP). 


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20 thoughts on “How do we find our true identity?”

    • Also from me – well said Ed.

      I am struck by your words:
      “The ability to act effectively and confidently, to give love and receive it…requires a sense of self-worth and significance. But if the self is constantly in flux, a shifting sand of doubt and reinvention, how can such a delicate thing sustain a sense of its own worth and value?”

      …. a great question.

  1. Excellent stuff. A superb children’s song for this theme: ‘Made in the image of God’, by John Hardwick. Also, ‘Nobody’s a nobody’.

  2. It is worth exploring the connection here with the other big identity question, ethnicity. Does encouragement to positively affirm a particular ethnic identity do more harm than good? Perhaps the most vigorous ethnic identity marker of the past half century has been the Afro-American ‘say it loud, I’m black and proud’. Has that liberated people or locked them into a self-understanding which is rigid and limiting?
    Also I sense in N T Wright’s ‘Paul and the . . .’ a wariness that discussing identity in Paul risks dragging in modern preoccupations with identity didn’t operate in the same way in his context.

    • Good questions.

      Ethnicity (and the related race) is an extremely vexed concept in modern society. The fashionable (PC) view appears to be that some people groups (mainly non-white) should be encouraged to identify with their ethnicity and its culture and these should be protected from ‘appropriation’, ‘micro-aggression’ etc. However, there is usually little appetite to apply these ideas to ‘white’ (European) people groups and culture (with which is often, and absurdly, included Christianity, when Christianity is obviously not a specifically white religion).

      The asymmetries in our approaches to ethnicity and race can produce some odd effects, such as: ethnic and cultural factors in social problems are deliberately (and subconsciously) suppressed by media and public authorities, preventing them being fully understood and effectively addressed; some ethnic groups are encouraged to form ethnically-based states at the same time as Western/European states do not permit themselves to recognise a continuing relationship between ethnicity and nationhood in their own self-understandings; ‘alt-right’ and other forms of white identity politics emerge in reaction to non-white (and anti-white) identity politics; Western culture and institutions are attacked for being too white (‘hideously white’, ‘male, pale and stale’ etc), and also too Christian, despite them being the culture and institutions of the (Christian) European peoples; the nasty aspects of European history are accentuated and those of other people groups overlooked to create a tendentious and divisive narrative etc. Themes like this can create an unhealthy sense of victimhood among some minority groups and resentment and bewilderment among others.

      Socially acceptable views at the moment seem to oscillate between the claim that ethnicity is nothing (everything should be colour blind, neutral between cultures etc) and ethnicity is everything (ethnicity and culture must be recognised, respected, protected and proportionately represented in everything etc.). To me it seems that nobody has a coherent account of how to think about ethnicity and race (and nationhood and statehood) at the moment, and it all seems very messy and is producing some serious social dysfunctions.

      Here’s my recent attempt to discuss some of the issues involved: https://www.crisismagazine.com/2017/europeans-making-stateless

  3. Hi Will,

    I think that the issue is not whether ethnicity is nothing or everything, but whether it defines hegemony.

    In your piece for Crisis magazine, you wrote: But even without government encouragement people will naturally link their identity to their ethnicity and their ethnicity to the culture associated with it.

    Perhaps, but this statement doesn’t give sufficient weight to the link forged by European colonialism with people like my parents, who, though born abroad (as part of the Windrush generation), still viewed their British identity as the ‘gift’ of Empire, which preceded later recognition of third-world independence.

    Multiculturalism has evolved as a reaction to the doctrine of patriality which was imposed through successive Tory policies (Ed Heath’s 1971 Immigration Act and Thatcher’s 1981 Nationality Act).

    So, when British identity based on the social cohesion of allegiance, aspirations, history and traditions is supplanted by a conservative legal doctrine in which citizenship is primarily founded upon native family descent, this creates a void which multiculturalism has unsuccessfully tried to fill as the only other alternative.

    It is on this basis (despite being a native British citizen, and being brought up both here and in a former colony), that, among the white majority, I can still be considered a “second-generation immigrant”. And that’s based on what you describe as the pronounced correlation between culture and ethnicity.

    That attitude surfaces in white people who, with some annoyance, repeatedly probe my answers to questions about my identity, such where I was born and raised (respectively, Streatham and South Norwood):
    ‘No, I mean, where did your family originally come from?’

    Also, your biblical survey highlights what you describe as the permanence of ethnicity, but does not give sufficient weight to God, not only reminding Israel of its former status as a stateless minority in Egypt, but also instructing the nation to accept foreigners in their midst as natives: Ex. 22:21; Lev. 19:34; Lev. 23:22; Deut. 19:9-10; Deut. 23:7.

    I worry when you offer Norway’s foreign aid offsetting immigration stringency as a potential model ‘to ensure that European states will retain their essential character as the home countries of the European peoples well into the future.’

    To me, it smacks of European identity essentialism, but it would help for you to clarify those characteristics which you consider to be essential to (i.e. irreducibly define) European identity.

    • Hi David

      I rather think identity is more like a collection of sufficient conditions than necessary conditions. Ethnicity for example is sufficient for a sense of belonging to a certain community (eg a home country) but not necessary as otherwise nations would be too closed and exclusive. Other features such as the ones you give can also be sufficient. There is also a matter of degree here.

      For example, I’m ethnically British (as far as I know) and that helps me identify with Britain. But say I found out I wasn’t ethnically British. I wouldn’t suddenly feel like I wasn’t really British. I’d probably feel a little less British, and would want to learn more about my ethnic group. But all the other reasons I felt British (home, upbringing, culture, aspirations etc) would still be there.

      What do you mean by defining hegemony? Does this mean that it’s good to identify with your ethnic group when you’re a minority but bad when you’re a majority? On what scale do you have to be a majority to make it bad? How do you ensure that people will shift from seeing it as a good thing to a bad thing in their different contexts and when their circumstances change? I fear an approach like this is psychologically unrealistic and socially divisive.

      • Hi Will,

        Thanks for engaging.

        When I refer to the issue of ethnicity defining hegemony, I mean that ethnicity can and does correlate so closely with the hierarchies controlling our society as to be one of their defining characteristics.

        The power elite is predominantly white and male.

        So, when the Tetrapak billionaire, Hans Rausing (a native of Sweden) and many others like him, gained residency here, but claimed non-domicile status to escape UK tax on income and capital gains outside of the country, it didn’t become a national scandal: http://www.nickdavies.net/2002/04/01/the-rich-man-and-his-tax/

        However you or I might want to construe British identity, it’s the State that decides and distinguishes other characteristics which correlate with ethnicity as sufficient alternative conditions of British identity.

        And that’s why Rausing can continue to live here while paying less than ten per cent tax on his income without attracting widespread anger for being an economic migrant to the UK.

        That’s also why it probably wouldn’t cause you too much chagrin to discover that you weren’t ‘ethnically [sic] British.

        I’m not even sure what’s meant by that term, when Prince William of Wales is 35% English and 14.4% Scottish. His royal ancestry is predominantly German.

        There’s nothing inherently bad about anyone identifying with their ethnic group, whether they form a numerical majority or minority.

        What’s wrong is when the majority ethnic group exerts political power to erode the citizen status of minority ethnicities.

        • Hi David

          Why is ethnically British a questionable concept? Is it any less coherent than any other ethnic group (or groups, including at least English, Scottish and Welsh ancestry) such as ethnically French, Italian, Chinese or Indian?

          Everyone knows the royal family have strong German ancestry!

          I agree ancestry should never be used to diminish the citizen status of ethnic minority citizens or as grounds of discrimination in a society.

          I’m uncomfortable with statements like the power elite are predominantly white and male, just as I would be a statement like the financial elite are predominantly Jewish. Whether or not it’s true it implies some kind of ethical problem. The elite in Africa are predominantly black, in China Chinese, in India Indian, in Arabia Arab. So what?

          • Hi Will,

            How would you ethnically distinguish a Scotsman from an Englishman? Or Germans from the Dutch?

            The fallacy of a British ethnicity is exposed by the legal fiat which formed Great Britain (the Act of Union). If the link between culture and ethnicity is as strong as you say it is, then British ethnicity could have achieved unification without resort to an Act of Parliament.

            Yes, everyone knows that the Royal Family has strong German ancestry. However, a 25% Teutonic infusion into English, Scottish and Welsh ancestry won’t diminish perceptions of their British ethnicity in the same way as would an Englishman marrying a non-European (e.g. Prince Harry to Megan Markle).

            In response to your ‘so what?’, I would point you to human history which chronicles centuries of racially motivated atrocities and exploitation on an industrial scale perpetrated by the white male European power elite against non-whites.

            The reassertion of their shared European identity and fear of its diminution is often at the expense of non-Europeans and is always cause for concern.

  4. Hi David

    Ethnicity is basically a matter of ancestry.

    The concept of British ethnicity/ ancestry is largely a combination of English, Scottish and Welsh ancestry. It is not a uniquely fallacious or problematic concept. It can’t be discredited without discrediting the whole concept of ethnicity, which I assume you are not doing?

    Ethnically motivated oppression and prejudice is not unique to white people, and these days is less characteristic of them than some others. So there can be no justification for singling out white people as having a uniquely problematic relationship to their ethnic groupings. To encourage non-whites to identify with their ethnic groups but tell whites the same identification is morally problematic is intellectually suspect and socially divisive. What makes white people special?

    Ancestry is an important element in nationhood for non-white peoples and so it is for white peoples. The principles underlying phenomena such as nations don’t work differently for people with lighter skin tones!

    • So, let me get this straight. The Royal Family is British because their forbears include some amalgam of English, Scottish and Welsh ancestry. The admixture of 30-odd per cent German ancestry does not affect this: a bit like a national ‘one-drop’ rule.

      Therefore, on this basis, the offspring of Prince Harry and Megan Markle will be ethnically British. In fact, if I can point to a single native Briton in my ancestry (whose own ancestors might have arrived here from an earlier Norse migration), then I am ethnically British too.

      In fact, the whole British ethnicity enterprise has been logically untenable and this explains why, as a basis for patriality, it has required successive and contradictory Immigration and Nationality Acts to shore it up.

      I never suggested that ethnically motivated oppression and prejudice was unique to white people. However, the comparatively greater global industrial scale of white oppression is incontrovertible, as evidenced by centuries of Western imperial expansion and racial hegemony.

      British ancestry may well comprise a significantly greater proportion of a person’s ancestry than any other. So what? What action should such people (or the State) take to preserve that proportion of their ancestry as a key component of the British identity?

      What’s morally problematic has never been the mere assertion of an ethnic identity, but the action taken by those in power to preserve it as the basis for defining who has an inalienable right to belong to this or any other nation.

      • Hi David

        You’re still singling out white people and people of British ancestry for special treatment in your treatment of ethnicity. Whatever ethnicity is there must be one rule for all, not different rules for darker and lighter skin tones, or a special rule for Great Britain.

        The relationship of ancestry to nationhood is not binary or neat and tidy, as the examples you give make clear. But if you want to deny it for white people groups you have to deny it for all. But no one really wants to do that. Yet we must have consistency for intellectual plausibility and to avoid social divisiveness and resentment.

        The main so what is a recognition that there is something valuable about the idea of ancestry and ethnic group that we need to be careful to respect and not lose. Otherwise the concept of a diaspora would be meaningless, and repatriation policies for a diaspora wouldn’t make sense. But they do. We have no problem recognising this for non-white groups. But there must be one rule for all, not different ones depending on skin tone. It’s mainly about rates of immigration and demographic change, so that nations can retain their distinct identities while also allowing natural change. There are also cultural and financial aspects of demographic change and immigration of course.

        • Hi Will,

          I’ve not denied white ethnicity, which is based on racial characteristics. So, that’s a ‘straw man’ that shouldn’t undermines the intellectual plausibility of my argument.

          Of course, I do question the notion of British ethnicity because, as you admit, is neither binary, nor neat and tidy.

          What’s revealing is your defending the notion of white ethnicity as if synonymous with British ethnicity.

          I certainly recognise and respect ancestry. However, I’m still wondering what you consider to be a loss of what you called British ethnicity and the kind of action that you are encouraging to prevent that.

          So, just a few questions:
          1. Do you consider the Windrush immigration to be part of a black diaspora?
          2. If so, what should be the appropriate repatriation policy for them?
          3. Did the Pilgrim Fathers begin a similar white diaspora?
          4. If so, what should be the repatriation policy for their descendants?

          • Hi David

            By repatriation policy I meant the policy of a nation state to its own diaspora not that of countries to their ethnic minorities i.e. welcoming people home not encouraging anyone to leave. These are common eg in Italy, Ireland, Germany, Greece etc. I haven’t given thought to the idea of a black diaspora and its relation to the Windrush generation. There seem multiple complexities there. It’s interesting that the US at the moment uses the term African American, which makes direct reference to Africa as a core part of (American) black identity.

            America is an unusual country in that it originated as European colonies (with African slaves), and maintained a racialist immigration policy until the 1960s. Like Australia, it has a particularly complex (and fraught) relationship to ethnicity and race. I think Americans have always struggled with questions of what is their identity and what is their culture, and especially how it relates to England and Europe.

            I don’t identify British ethnicity with white – many white people are not British. I identify British ethnicity with people of some combination of English, Scottish and Welsh ancestry (which happens to have lighter skin tones). I don’t think that is controversial – it isn’t meant to be.

          • Hi Will,

            Thanks for clarifying what you meant by repatriation policy. As a mechanism for forcibly removing non-white ethnic groups from the UK, it is commonly associated with (and is, indeed, the rally cry of) right-wing extremism.

            If anything, the recent issues facing the Windrush generation are in danger of being overcomplicated.

            As you’re aware, the ‘50s influx from the Caribbean was encouraged by government policy to remedy post-war labour shortages.

            Prior to the independence of Caribbean states, those who immigrated here would have travelled on British passports. As is common, children would have entered the UK on their parent’s passports.

            The real problems were caused by the Home Office (under different administrations) which:
            1. Didn’t keep records of those granted leave to remain or issue any confirmatory paperwork.
            2. Decided in 2010 to destroy the landing cards belonging to Windrush migrants (and could have proved they were here legally).

            If this had been a case of missing or destroyed donor or surrogacy consent records, I’m sure that the Government would have treated their de facto parents of affected donor-conceived with far more compassion.

            You wrote: ‘I don’t identify British ethnicity with white – many white people are not British.’

            That’s true, but, for many here, the issue of British identity boils down to codifying the white race in terms of English, Scottish and Welsh ancestry, so that far fewer non-white people will benefit from the legal recognition owed to British citizens.

          • Hi David

            I, like many, was appalled by the Windrush scandal and it made me ashamed of my country. Hard to believe that in an age so often attuned to issues of racial justice this kind of thing can happen. True incompetence at the highest level. I was particularly shocked that May avoided much criticism given that she was at the Home Office when the rules were changed and the exemptions for former Commonwealth citizens were removed. This fiasco was a major contributor to my being unable to bring myself to vote for the Conservatives in the recent local elections.

            I should clarify that in talking about British ethnicity I was not implying that British identity (or citizenship) was to be restricted to people of British ethnicity. While I think there is a relationship between ethnicity and nationhood and statehood it is not a simple one, and by no means should national or civic identity be reduced to ethnicity, which would be horribly exclusive and prejudicial. We discussed above the other factors which can contribute to feelings of national identity.

  5. Thanks for such a stimulating piece on this topic. It is especially resonant for those of us who do not have younger generations in our church but have a heart for them.
    I appreciate it was only a short account but wondered if you ever explore those counterintuitive words of Jesus which impinge on identity and which contradict the present worldview: ‘whoever desires to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it’?

  6. This is a wonderful piece from Ed and we are indeed ‘created in the image of God’ and ‘being re-created in union with Christ.’ Yet we are also unique (after all, we can be identified by our DNA) . I know that some conservatives will think that there are shades of ‘individualism’ in my statement that we are all unique, but I do think that our uniqueness also needs to be taken into account. Will and David have been discussing ancestry, something which has played a significant part in my life – I now live in England but I was born in Wales to a Welsh (Baptist) father and an Irish (Roman Catholic) mother, something one of my Uni lecturers described as ‘a volatile combination’ – true words, and thereby hangs a tale which I will not tell here!
    Also, on an everyday level, I am aware of my identity being relevant in many ways , such as when I swipe my bus pass on the local bus (I can’t use this bus pass in my Welsh homeland!), when I press ‘identify’ on my ‘pinsentry’ gadget to access my online bank account, and when I showed a recent utility bill to bailiffs to prove to them that I was not the person they were looking for!
    We are indeed all one in Christ, but we also need to embrace and respect many individual differences that exist as facts of our lives. Without getting into the gender debate here, I will say that I believe that we are all called to be faithful stewards of everything our Creator God gave us, which of course includes our bodies.
    Christine

  7. I see no reflection of my true identity in the person of an opinionated and judgmental straight man who proclaimed himself god two thousand years ago.

    In general I have rather a low opinion of opinionated and judgmental straight men. I certainly don’t see any reason to worship them. What’s to worship? Their inflated idea of their own importance?

    However unsympathetic Christ may seem to me, I certainly see his reflection in the straight men I have to deal with on a daily basis. Massive egos, total belief in their own superiority, threats of violent punishment for anyone who dares to question their authority, and an ability to create arbitrary rules for every occasion: really, one could be forgiven for imagining they think they ARE Christ.

    My true identity is based around who I am and the experiences and interactions of my life. Being gay forms part of that identity, just as being straight forms part of the identity of every straight man I’ve ever met. Christ plays no part in my identity beyond a rejection of self-congratulatory, self-proclaimed divinity, quite simply because there’s nothing about the man that I find either interesting, attractive or convincing. All I see is an ordinary straight guy who thought himself extremely extraordinary and was willing to sacrifice his life to a fixed and obsessive idea of himself as a manifestation of the divine.

    The only gay men I’ve ever met who are attracted by Christianity are those who’ve been taught to reject their difference by the straight people in their lives. They spend their lives seeking the approval of the people around them, which will only ever be forthcoming if they pretend to be just like them. It’s pitiful.

    Those who claim to love you, but will only do so if you change yourself to look exactly like them, do not love you. They love themselves. In this they have indeed modelled themselves on their Christ.

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