A gym near me advertises itself with the slogan “Be Fit. Be well. Be you. A new apartment complex around the corner, featuring high-end luxury designs, carries the “An Unlimited You” line. One school’s marketing gave this advice to current and prospective students: “Be inspired. Be challenged. Be great. Be you. People everywhere are saying, “Be true to yourself”, “Follow your heart”, “Be yourself”, “You do”. We live in a time of unprecedented interest in the subject of personal identity.
Most people today believe that there is only one place to look to find yourself, and that is within. Personal identity is a do-it-yourself project. Any form of external authority should be rejected and everyone’s quest for expression should be celebrated. You are what you feel inside, and acting in accordance with that identity is authentic living. This movement is sometimes called expressive individualism.
Dangers of self-focus
In itself, of course, there is nothing wrong with looking within. Personal exploration and self-reflection are valuable (2 Corinthians 13:5). The desire to see many marginalized groups in society, whose identity markers differ from the mainstream, enjoy appropriate dignity is commendable. And authenticity as a moral ideal is a good thing.
However, despite these advantages, there are fatal flaws in the strategy of only looking within to find yourself.
First, self-focus generates a fragile self, easily destabilized and lacking in true and lasting self-knowledge. Receiving her honorary doctorate from New York University, Taylor Swift summed up the cultural identity moment thus: “We are so many things, all the time. And I know it can be overwhelming to know who to be. . . . I have good news: it’s up to you. I also have terrifying news: it depends only on you.
“The cruel irony is that while knowing who you are has never been more important, it has never been more difficult.”
With the exciting opportunity to find yourself, comes the daunting possibility of not succeeding – or not liking what you find. The cruel irony is that while knowing who you are has never been more important, it has never been more difficult. According to Kevin Vanhoozer, “The human race is suffering from a collective identity crisis” (The Cambridge Companion to Christian Doctrine158).
Looking within to find yourself doesn’t lead to the good life either. Many widely reported societal trends suggest that life is getting worse rather than better for many people: rising rates of anxiety and depression, an explosion of narcissism, a lack of compassion in our society, our culture of reflexive indignation and (by all accounts) a decline in happiness and well-being.
People point in many directions to explain these trends: not enough mindfulness, technology disrupting our brains, crowd behavior, failure of large institutions (politicians, churches, media, banks), loss of shared values , the lack of community cohesion and soon. However, some of them are symptoms rather than causes. I suggest that a big part of the problem is where we seek to be. And that means the solution includes a broader perspective.
Where to look to find yourself
Being social beings, we look at others; we know ourselves by being known, intimately and personally, by those around us. The limits of self-knowledge are imposed on me every time I buy clothes and the dressing room has more than one mirror. Or when I listen to my voice on a recording. In both cases, I think, Who is this?
You and I might like to think of ourselves as boldly expressing our individuality in order to find our true selves, but the truth is that rather than being a single soaring eagle, watching our prey from a great height, we are more like a honking goose in a tight V-shaped flight formation. Like geese, we humans are also wired to be interdependent, secure in a web of relationships, with invisible connections and unbreakable bonds.
As storytelling beings, we also have look back and forward to our life stories. Your story is fundamental to your personal identity, but it is not an individual story: we live in shared stories. The meta-narrative, or grand story, in which each of us lives is a combination of life’s defining moments, goals and expectations. These can be linked to the histories of our families, nations, ethnicities, social classes and religious denominations.
Being adoring beings, we too look up to god. This third direction is of course the most controversial, since not everyone professes faith in God. Yet to look up, one way or another, seems like an irrepressible human need. The truth is that we will serve the true and living God or dumb idols (Joshua 24:14-15), failing gods. And as Peter Leithart argues, “personal identity cannot be compellingly anchored without transcendence” (Solomon among the postmoderns131).
You are known to God
We are deeply social, deeply story driven, and we have eternity in our hearts. To find ourselves, we look around us, back and forth to our stories, and up to God. According to the Bible, all three are important, but looking up is key. And the cross of Christ makes all the difference.
Being known to others has its limits, given the imperfection and impermanence of our relationships. A blessing of the gospel is that those who trust in Christ not only know God, but are also known to him, intimately and personally, as his children. It gives our lives comfort and meaning and a stable sense of self: “Now that you have come to know God, or rather to be known by God. . .” (Galatians 4:9).
And that identity is a gift that shapes our conduct and our character as God conforms us to the family image: “Those whom [God] foreknew that he also predestined himself to be conformed to the image of his Son, that he should be the firstborn of many brethren” (Romans 8:29).
You belong to God
The gospel teaches that “you do not belong to yourselves” (1 Corinthians 6:19). In an age of expressive individualism, a more countercultural statement is hard to imagine.
Yet, even in our time of insisting on the priority and benefits of personal autonomy, there are contexts in which belonging to someone else is still seen in a positive light. A young child lost in a mall doesn’t complain when his mother shows up and claims him as her own. Likewise, although open to abuse, true romantic love has mutual belonging at its heart. Countless love songs, beginning with the Song of Songs in the Bible, contain refrains such as “My beloved is mine, and I am his” (2:16; see also 6:3). .
Indeed, given the social animals that we are, nothing gives us a greater sense of value and value than being loved so much that we belong to another. Far from being distressing or oppressive, such an embrace reassures and liberates us. Indeed, love is the context for Paul’s startling assertion: “You are not your own. The words that follow Paul’s rejection of personal autonomy explain why you belong to another: “You have been bought with a price” (1 Corinthians 6:19-20).
“By losing yourself and belonging to the one who loves you with an eternal love, you will find your true self.”
To all who are in Christ, the cross of Christ proclaims that God has claimed you as his own; you belong to him. But abandoning yourself in this way does not lead to the eradication of your self, nor to any form of oppressive subjugation. By losing yourself and belonging to the one who loves you with an eternal love, you will find your true self.
You can’t define yourself
Looking up gives us a new and better story to live in: the story of God’s people. This story also offers the ultimate indictment of expressive individualism. He asserts that you don’t have it within you to define yourself. You need an intervention outside of yourself. It’s both the darkest and brightest story on offer, pessimistic about human nature, yet infused with glorious hope.
Curiously, this story is based on the life story of Jesus Christ: “You died, and your identity is now hid with Christ in God. When Christ, who is the story of your life, appears, then you will also appear with him in glory” (Colossians 3:3-4, my translation). As Colossians 3:5-17 explains, putting on a new self is central to the Christian life. Believers in Christ are those who died with Christ, who were resurrected with him, and whose destiny is tied to his glorious appearance.