When it comes to explaining the Christian life, these days the premier conceptual tool that evangelicals are deploying is that of “identity.”  And in doing so, we’ve turned the affirmation of people’s “identity in Christ” into a cliche, neutering it of its force and stripping “identity” of any meaningful, positive content that people can actually understand and interpret their lives through.

Let me, though, back up a second.  For a long time, I’ve been touting the language of people discovering their “identity in Christ.”  The wisest, most Godly person in the world I know started drilling it into me some eight years ago, and I haven’t quite recovered from it.  I make use of the concept in my chapters on sexuality in Earthen Vesselsin part to try to separate out the ways in which our sexual lives intersect with the reality of Christ’s work.   So I think I know whereof I speak here and am as sympathetic as they come.

But these days, our affirmation of people’s “identity in Christ” is more often a sort of negative theologizing, a way of stripping away all the unhealthy and sinful forms of life and practices that are contrary to the plans and purposes of God.  Work too much?  Thankfully your identity isn’t in your job, but in Christ.  Struggling with sexual desires (of any sort)?  Well, good thing that your identity isn’t in your sexuality, but in Jesus.  Wrestling with some “daddy issues,” or some other family problem?  You’ve been rescued out of all that and your identity is in Jesus.

Unfortunately, the positive content of our “identity in Christ” rarely gets filled in much beyond that.  Instead, we are left with a void, an empty hole that can neither guide nor instruct us in how we should live in the world.  Our “identity” may be “in Christ,” but given that every dimension of our lives has been separated from that identity we are left with no imaginative possibilities for conceiving of what our new lives in Christ might actually look like.

Take, for instance, this interesting post by Jeff Buchanan at The Gospel Coalition:

Understanding our identity in Christ is essential for Christian living. When we were born again, we received a new identity, and we are complete in Christ (Col. 2:10). We will share in Christ’s inheritance, and as we grow in the revelation of our new identity, we will increasingly be enabled to live according to God’s will. If our identity is “in Christ,” can we add to this identity without implying that Christ is somehow deficient?

With every additional label–whether it is occupation, gifts, interests, or sexual orientation—we detract from the complete work of Christ in our lives and splinter our identity into fragments. We become defined by our actions and our desires, which plays into the pragmatic mindset of “I am what I do.” Rather than looking in a mirror that is complete and unbroken where we can see a perfect image, we are content with piecing together a distorted mirror of our own making. In Christ we have an identity far greater than the sound-bite descriptions commonly found on dating services.

I find it surprising that additional labels would “detract from the complete work of Christ.”  What if, you know, I am a writer and it’s part of my identity to write?  What if I’m not Matt Anderson unless I’ve the room in my life to hammer out words on a keyboard and raise a ruckus like I might do here?  God might take it all away and I would still be content, but when we all get to heaven if writing is the sort of thing that I’ve been called to, that it’s somehow tied to who I am in this world, then I might someday make my way to a keyboard.1   To use a biblical example, St. Paul seemed to call himself an apostle and the New Testament seems fine with that.  Is that a “label”?  Sure seems like it to me.

English: Jesus Christ - detail from Deesis mos...

English: Jesus Christ – detail from Deesis mosaic, Hagia Sophia, Istanbul (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In short, incorporating my social role, my desires, my actions, my life into my understanding of who I am in Christ doesn’t diminish the work of Christ.  It’s for the sake of reforming all of it that Jesus made me his own, and for the sake of jettisoning those parts of my life that are sinful and corrosive to my human flourishing and the flourishing of the community around me.  Whether my work can be incorporated as is remains a separate question, though, than whether it is my “identity.”  And, dare I say, a considerably more helpful one at that.

Let me try to drive at this from a different angle, by introducing a difficult question:  is it the case that Jesus would still be Jesus if he did not do what he did?   We know him as the second person of the Trinity precisely because of his death on the cross and his resurrection from the dead:  he is more than his history and his words and deeds,  but we have no access into his identity or life except through those very same things.

In short, it seems we should get to our “identity in Christ” by a road other than negation.  Suppose, for instance, we say something like we are “children of God.”  That fills things out quite a bit more, for to be a child is to be something.  There’s a social role there that can be filled, a role that imposes duties (play!) and obligations (play nicely!).  One of my concerns with the language of identity is that by separating out the reality of our union with Christ from the roles, duties, and obligations that seem to constitute identity-bearing things, we actually create conditions where sanctification and the recognition of our real responsibilities to conform every part of our lives to that of Christ’s is more difficult than it would be otherwise.

How does all this work out with respect to sexuality?  Well, there’s a tricky set of questions that we should take up sometime.  But in the meantime, let’s reconsider not just the language of “sexual identity” but that of “identity” altogether.  Because the help it is providing may be less than we think.

***Before you overreact here, let’s remember that here at this blog we try to think out loud.  I’m trying to work my way through the above and would appreciate feedback.

 

 

  1. 1. This uses the language of vocation, which isn’t exactly the same as the language of “identity.”  But there is conceptual overlap, as well.  Certainly one of the things we are (or might be) is called to do something in the world, such that our doing something becomes a constitutive part of our identity. []

Posted by Matthew Lee Anderson

Matthew Lee Anderson is the Founder and Lead Writer of Mere Orthodoxy. He is the author of Earthen Vessels: Why Our Bodies Matter to our Faith and The End of Our Exploring: A Book about Questioning and the Confidence of Faith. Follow him on Twitter or on Facebook.