How to Respond When the World Tries to Dismantle Your God-Given Identity
By Wes Beavis
“I hear voices inside my head.” This statement raises the sensitivities of a clinical psychologist. Hearing internal voices can be a sign of schizophrenia, which can drive people into homelessness. But schizophrenia is not just limited to the down and out.
John Nash, a brilliant mathematician, would carry on conversations with people inside his head. His story was made into a movie called A Beautiful Mind. Despite suffering from schizophrenia, Nash’s intellectual capacity and achievements led to him being awarded a Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences. However, without antipsychotic medication, Nash would spend his days under the influence of the voices in his head.
You might be thinking, I’m glad that doesn’t happen to me! But we all have voices inside our head. In most cases, these voices do not merit a mental illness diagnosis, but these voices still have some influence.
My father was a well-educated individual. At age 49 he had three doctoral degrees: doctor of ministry, doctor of theology, and doctor of divinity. Yet, my father would never lay claim to being an intellectual genius. He admitted his achievements did not come easily. His academic milestones were the product of a dogged determination to be an effective Christian leader. Yet, he was also motivated by a voice in his head.
When he was a teenager, his high school principal told him, “David, you should leave school and learn a trade. You don’t have the brains for higher education.” Those words echoed in my father’s mind for years. I’m not saying my father’s ultimate goal was to prove his high school principal wrong. But, to a certain degree, his high school principal was an influential voice in his head . . . and it motivated him!
When I was a teenager, I was enamored with the rhythm and rhyme of the rap art form. Frankly, I wanted to be a Black artist. For many years I tried to incorporate rap style into my musical performances. I even wrote a rap song based on the steps of salvation outlined by Restoration Movement pioneer Walter Scott. I had immense fun performing “The Walter Scott Rap” at concerts all over the nation. Admittedly, my career as a rap artist never gained much traction, and my rap song has long been retired.
Today, I wonder whether performing “The Walter Scott Rap” would be deemed socially unacceptable. Voices inside my head tell me it would be inappropriate. As a White man I could be guilty of “cultural appropriation” by performing that genre of music. Long before the concept of micro-aggressions had been formulated, I sang the rap with blissful ignorance. Now there are definite voices in my head saying, “Be careful, someone might take offense.”
Over the last decade society has adopted new cultural norms. Stemming from these cultural norms are voices telling us who we are and how we should behave. This is the basis of identity politics. We have learned we should stay in our “identity lane” and not veer out of it. The price for swerving out of our lane can be very high. One ill-conceived comment or action can cancel an entire career and overshadow a lifetime of good deeds. There is no forgiveness or mercy. You don’t get a second chance.
At times I fear being canceled. To reduce the possibility, I have established a personal screening system through which I filter every thought and behavior. Though it pains me to admit it, the heavy hand of “cancel culture” has played a role in influencing my identity.
In answering the question, “Who am I?” I want to say, “I am a child of God, made in his image, and put on this earth to do good works for which he has prepared for me to do” (ref. Ephesians 2:10). The sobering reality is that I am also influenced by the world telling me who I should be.
If I am Caucasian, I should think this way. If I am a Christian, I should vote this way. If I am a male, I should be aware of my privilege. If I am a specific age, I should start thinking about retiring. If I am a psychologist, I must not impose my value system on a patient. Sometimes these voices threaten reprisal if I veer from the “acceptable” viewpoint.
These voices exist on a national level as well. Currently, the United States is being torn apart by voices and viewpoints.
The name United States of America is itself ironic. You don’t have to be a sociologist to recognize we are anything but united. Some people joke that our name should be changed to the Divided States of America. Is the U.S. suffering an identity crisis? Because if we’re not united, then who are we?
Maybe the name was meant to be aspirational rather than descriptive. Did the Founding Fathers put “United” in the name to incentivize the people of a new nation to “live up” to the name? Did the Founding Fathers choose “United” to act as a magnetic force to pull divided people together? We may never know, but we certainly know the price of being “one nation” has been a hard-fought-for identity, often paid for in blood.
As a psychologist, I am a strong proponent of building one’s identity (and of not allowing the metaphorical “high school principal’s voice” within us to exercise undue influence in formation of our identity). As a Christian, I advocate building our identity firmly on the foundational identity God gives us—an identity his Son fought for and paid for with his own blood. Considering this, we must safeguard the identity God has given us. We must fight to protect it from the influence of alternate voices seeking to mold us into something the secular world would prefer.
The world tries to dismantle our God-given identity. The world wants our identity to reflect its values. Criticism by criticism, the world chips away at our divine identity with inferences like, “You’re not enough . . . you also need this!” and “Align with this position or you’ll be canceled.” These voices can be quite intimidating and cause confusion and doubt. So, when we are feeling confused about who we are, it is important to revisit the foundation of our identity.
Jesus asked his disciples,
“Who do you say I am?”
Simon Peter answered, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.”
Jesus replied, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah, for this was not revealed to you by flesh and blood, but by my Father in heaven” (Matthew 16:17).
Jesus said that identity is revealed from God the Father. This is as true for you and me as it was for Jesus.
In answering the question, “Who am I?” we must first ask, “Who does God the Father say I am?” For our God-given identity keeps us anchored, upright, and stable. Conversely, culture’s voices induce identity anxiety because culture is always changing its mind. To avoid identity anxiety, we must screen cultural voices through the filter of our primary identity, which is “who God says we are.” When we do so, we become grounded again. We are less swayed and confused by culture’s demanding and ever-changing voices.
IDENTITY AT WORK
I live in California, a state with an alarmingly high homeless population. Many of those living on the street suffer from schizophrenia. You don’t need to be a clinical psychologist to identify someone experiencing the turmoil of hearing voices. They are the disheveled person having a robust conversation with a voice inside their head. Schizophrenia is a debilitating condition.
Some time ago, while on a road trip, I pulled into a fast-food restaurant. As I sat down at an outdoor table, an unkempt guy came and sat at the table next to me. He proceeded to light up a joint and have an intense and animated conversation with someone in his imagination.
I initially was irritated he was interrupting my meal with the pungent smell of marijuana. Then a voice inside my head said, “Wes, that could be you. That could be one of your sons. Stop judging the guy and do what Jesus would do!” Guided by that voice, I went and ordered the guy some food and a drink. When I gave the meal to him, he didn’t even acknowledge me. He hungrily devoured the meal, all while carrying on a robust conversation with a person who was not there.
He was busy conversing with a voice in his head. But so was I. In my head a voice said, “[Wes,] whenever you did one of these things to someone overlooked or ignored, . . . you did it to me” (Matthew 25:40, The Message).
I wish I could say that in every situation, the first voice in my head is the Holy Spirit’s, but that is not always the case. Eventually, the divine voice that tells me who I am and what I am on the planet to do is the voice that gets my attention. The more I listen to his voice, the more gracious I become, and the less I fear being canceled.
So, the answer to the question “Who are you?” is simple. You are who God says you are. It is an identity paid for with the blood of Jesus. When this is the foundation of your identity, you can avoid being sidetracked by the voices of the world and get back to doing good and godly work!
Dr. Wes Beavis has served as a pastor in Restoration Movement churches in both the United States and Australia. He is also a licensed clinical psychologist who specializes in helping ministry leaders navigate the leadership journey. His latest book is Let’s Talk about Ministry Burnout: A Proven Research-based Approach to the Wellbeing of Pastors.