true self

Expressive Individualism (EI) and Identity: Part 3

By: Brad Rogers

 

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Several years ago, Rachel, my wife, was the matron of honor in a Macedonian wedding steeped in the Greek Orthodox tradition. She had the time of her life even though she hardly knew what was being said during all of the beautiful and elaborate rites in such a wedding.

 

One part of the ceremony was abundantly clear to her; the husband and wife were crowned as king and queen. No, despite what it might look like they were not crowned as King and Queen of Macedonia – it is a democracy after all.

 

In Greek and Eastern Orthodox wedding ceremonies, the husband and wife are crowned to symbolize that they are made in God’s image and that they are to take dominion on this earth as image-bearers. The act of crowning the bride and groom communicates who God made them to be as well as their responsibility to fulfill their calling together as God’s vice-regents in creation.

 

The beauty of this rite is that it signifies who they are before they have yet achieved anything. It demonstrates their God-given identity, and it certainly carries with it a great degree of responsibility while conveying a wealth of freedom in carrying out that responsibility.

 

This picture paints for us a sharp contrast between the way personal identity is understood in a culture dominated by expressive individualism, where one must forge one’s own identity, and a Christian’s understanding of identity as something received as a gift from God.

 

Selfie or True Self?

In my previous posts on expressive individualism (part 1 & part 2) I noted that the mindset of “You do you” involves forging one’s identity by being true to one’s deepest desires and, purportedly, without input from or regard for others. Using thoughts from Tim Keller’s book Making Sense of God, I noted some problems with expressive individualism and identity. Today, I want to focus on how a Christian is to understand her identity from a biblical vantage point.

 

In contrast to expressive individualism, a Christian’s identity is not found deep within oneself with all of the problems and stress this brings, but the Christian’s identity is found outside of oneself. As Soren Kierkegaard put it, who one is before God is who one really is.

 

In the Christian worldview, all of us are created by God in his image. As image bearers, we are to reflect in this world something of who God is and it speaks to how we are to take care of this world. This worldview considers every person, regardless of race, class, or even creed, as having profound dignity and significance regardless of the good or evil acts they have done in life. Every person has significance and worth in the eyes of God because of how God made us and who he made us to be.

 

For the Christ follower, there is an extra dimension to our identity as both redeemed people and adopted children by our heavenly father through faith in Christ. A follower of Christ never has to wonder if he has done enough or if he is enough. She never has to wonder if she is accepted. He never has to wonder if he is significant, because God already declared his significance. She can know that she has been made in the image of God for the glory of God and is loved so much that God, the father, sent his only son to die for her, that she might be adopted into God’s family.

 

If expressive individualism states that you are what you make of yourself, then the Christian view states that you discover your true self in relation to the God who made you. This means that my identity is not merely, nor chiefly, a construct of my own preferences, choices, accomplishments, and affiliations.[1] Rather, I am who I am according to the God who made me. And this is a glorious identity.

 

A Christian who is truly grasps her identity through Christ can love and serve others freely without the need to make a name for herself or prove her own worth. You don’t need to work for approval, but you can work knowing that God approves of you and you can enjoy the security and freedom of knowing you can’t lose it. In stark contrast to the age of the selfie, a Christian doesn’t need to forge an identity for himself, he must only seek to further understand his God given identity.

 

Lost and Found

The specific commands in the Bible that God gives to us specifically as his image bearers are there to help us live out our true identity. As creator and designer, God has the absolute right to direct us in how he made us to live. The fish can yearn for a free life outside of the fishbowl, but he will quickly find that life without water doesn’t bring him the freedom to be himself it seems to promise. Tim Keller writes, “. . . those things he (God) prohibits are the intrusions of the foreign matter of sin and not part of the person I was made to be. . . ”[2]  

 

Accepting our God given identity and following Christ means we have to quit trying to “find ourselves” and allow ourselves to be found in Christ. It means we must humbly deny ourselves, giving up our right to self-determination, and follow Jesus. It is in losing our identity that we truly find ourselves, for Jesus said, “Whoever finds his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.”[3] He also says in John 8:36, “So if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed.”

 

Uniqueness in Conformity

Some people interpret the notion of denying ourselves and taking up our cross to follow Jesus to mean that we must leave behind the traits that make us uniquely us and that Christians are supposed to have a uniformity that is boring, bland, and devoid of individual difference and taste. Yet, this fails to account for the jaw-dropping diversity of our great creator God.

 

Have you ever seen a lionfish? Or a duckbilled platypus? Are any two snowflakes exactly the same? As Rankin Wilbourne wrote, God never runs out of ideas: “He is the master artist, an infinite creator, not a factory. We can see from looking around us in the world that his goal is not uniformity.”[4] As Christians become more like Christ, we also become more like the unique individual God created us to be. We are God’s workmanship (Eph. 2:10); that is, we are his works of art.  

 

Please don’t think I am saying it is easy to step away from expressive individualism and our cultural views or to take up one’s cross. It’s not easy to swim upstream in culture like this. However, following Christ is far from enslaving. It’s also far from boring. We are God’s crowning achievement, and he calls us to live like it. In reality, it’s quite a freeing and a glorious privilege.

 

 


References:

[1] Rankin Wilbourne, “Union with Christ,” 145.

[2] Timothy Keller, “Making Sense of God,” 141.

[3] Matthew 10:39 (ESV).

[4] Rankin Wilbourne, “Union with Christ,” , 162-163.