By Jeff Faull
Who am I? How do I see myself? How do I want to be perceived? Which aspect of my identity is most important to me? Is there a right way or a wrong way to settle these questions as a follower of Jesus?
When considering these questions, some people focus on racial, ethnic, or national identity. Others are consumed with sexual or gender identity. Still others emphasize economic, professional, cultural, social, or even religious identity. With the furor over people, politics, passions, pride, power, perceptions, and pronouns, identity always seems to be an issue and an unceasing source of confusion and division. Church leaders can flounder when asked to address the conflicts stemming from these heated identity battles.
The writings of the apostle Paul offer guidance in our own quest for self-identity. Taking time to consider Paul’s path can help us lead people who are struggling with identity questions. Paul’s statements and self-descriptions provide several guiding principles for navigating our own expressions of identity.
No Aspect of Our Identity Can Compare to Our Primary Identity in Christ
Paul’s great declaration in Philippians 3 recounts his national, ethnic, tribal, and religious identities. He wrote,
Circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; in regard to the law, a Pharisee; as for zeal, persecuting the church; as for righteousness based on the law, faultless (Philippians 3:5-6).
Paul immediately stressed, however, that his only reason for listing these identifiers was to point to his primary identity in Christ. In fact, he considered everything else rubbish compared with that identity.
But whatever were gains to me I now consider loss for the sake of Christ. What is more, I consider everything a loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things. I consider them garbage, that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which is through faith in Christ—the righteousness that comes from God on the basis of faith (Philippians 3:7-9).
In the apostle’s mind, everything paled in comparison to his relationship with Jesus. However, Paul’s writings also give us another important insight about our identity.
We Don’t Need to Ignore Our ‘Lesser’ Identities
The apostle referred to many descriptors of his identity. He spoke of his Hebrew heritage. He flashed his Roman citizenship card when necessary. He shared his extensive résumé and credentials on several occasions. He called himself a Pharisee. He revealed his marital status. He appealed to the fact that he was aged. He enumerated his many experiences and even his visions. He spoke of his physical limitations. Looking to his past, he called himself a sinner, a persecutor, and a violent aggressor.
As Christ followers, we certainly should never glory in any identity that is immoral, unwholesome, contrary to God’s clearly stated will, or which purposefully demeans others and promotes division or hatred or self-righteousness. Paul openly shared multiple aspects of his personal identity, but his intention in revealing and leveraging them always served to further his primary identity in Christ.
As believers, it’s completely acceptable to accurately describe ourselves in various ways. For example, I’m a male, a husband, a father, an American, a Caucasian, and many other good things, but though important, none of them supersedes my primary identity in Christ.
Our Main Identifiers Come from Our Relationship to Christ and Commission from Christ
Finding our main identity from something or someone other than King Jesus leads to disharmony, discord, and disillusionment. Perhaps that’s why Paul was quick to correct believers in Corinth who wanted their identity to come from their association with him or Apollos or Cephas.
Paul taught that his identity, and ours, is in Christ as children of God, new creations, more than conquerors, God’s workmanship, fellow citizens, and joint heirs.
Paul shared some of his favorite self-designations in his letters. He referred to himself as a “bondservant of God,” an “apostle of Jesus Christ,” a “fool for Christ,” “a prisoner for the Lord,” a “steward of the mysteries of God,” and a “preacher and a teacher.”
Someone suggested that if you want to identify the theme of nearly any book of the Bible, you generally can do so by looking for the words “in Christ,” determining the context, and understanding what flows out of that. When we consider who we are in Christ and passionately seek him and his will, we gain clarity concerning our own identity and in helping others to find theirs.
No wonder Paul said, “May I never boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, through which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world” (Galatians 6:14).
Jeff Faull serves as senior minister at Mt. Gilead Church in Mooresville, Indiana, and as a board member for e2.