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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