The first two chapters of Genesis suggest that identity is built upon two foundational layers:
1. I am a human being.
2. I am a man or a woman.
Now, those with a Christian monotheistic worldview would generally add to the first that I am united with God because He is my creator, and that I am mysteriously filled with His breath, which produces potential, and resemble His image, which produces value. To the second, one might add, whether as a man or as a woman, that I thus demonstrate a unique aspect or set of aspects of God’s character.
But those additional definitions aside for now, in which there is much more that can and has been discussed within volumes of literature; for the one who does not identify with God, what is the next layer?
Perhaps it could be summarized thus:
3. I belong.
There are a few other expressions or words that would also suffice. Regardless, what is the point? What does “belong” mean?
The Merriam Webster Dictionary defines belong as “to be suitable, appropriate, or advantageous.” In other words, to belong means to be honest or truthful, which is where “suitable” and “appropriate” synonymously lead, and to care or love, which is where “advantageous” synonymously leads. I belong when I am truthful and loving. At the surface, this can be directed to creation. Deeper, it finds greater fulfillment when directed toward God, toward something beyond the senses. This is meaningful because God first offered or directed truth and love to man. He did this because it is His nature, YHWH, “I am.”
Considering the beginning of Genesis once again for a moment: before chapter 2, verse 18, this conclusion seems sound—that these three foundational layers are enough. But then God Himself adds a caveat to man’s identity, a fourth layer:
4. I need people.
In community, we form or fulfill - at our greatest potential - the most dynamic expression of God’s character. In community, we exemplify unity. We give love and receive love. Even without a consciousness of God, most people usually acknowledge that they cannot survive on their own. If honest, no one is holistically strong enough to truly and ultimately live alone.
Unity is an important result of living in recognition of these fundamental layers of identity. Unity produces peace. Unity fosters hope. Unity strengthens purpose. Granted, I believe that God unites and directs identity better than anything else. Still, without God, I can find a degree of unity with the world because I am simply part of it. Yet that can eventually lead to questions about origin. Without God, I can find unity with men and women because of an understanding of our basic similarities and differences. Yet when those definitions are muddled, that can lead to questions about the importance of male and female being a foundational layer of identity in the first place. Furthermore, without God, I can find belonging because there is a basic universal understanding of truth and deception as well as right and wrong. Yet when that universality is reduced to subjectivity, that can lead to questions about meaning. Finally, without God, I can recognize that people are important because human experience generally supports that people affect my life, whether for good or ill. Yet precisely when trust is broken, I can find myself questioning whether I really need people after all.
Round and round the stories go, in the silence of the cold.
When it seems that God is silent, when the chaos of evil seems to dominate all perspective, all these layers seem to crack and crumble. If honest, I will come to acknowledge that I am in some way broken inside, that my identity lacks wholeness. This is a pivotal revelation. Without it, there can be no progress—no restoration of identity.
The Enemy often wants me to think that I am whole or perfect, that I need nothing—that I have everything to live to the fullest.
But then Jesus came.
"In the cross and resurrection of Jesus we find the answer: the God who made the world is revealed in terms of a self-giving love that no hermeneutic of suspicion can ever touch, in a Self that found itself by giving itself away, in a Story that was never manipulative but always healing and recreating, and in a Reality that can truly be known, indeed to know which is to discover a new dimension of knowledge, the dimension of loving and being loved." (N.T. Wright, The Challenge of Jesus).
Another Way to Think about Identity
Jesus revealed our need for mending. He affirms that our humanity, gender, relationship with God, and relationship with others must not be forgotten or neglected. He challenges that these layers of identity reveal how unity, strength, purpose, and ultimately peace are indeed possible in life. They are possible. Dynamic, growing love is possible. But because the world, like me, is also fallen, I experience none of this flawlessly. That is where Jesus’ promise begins to stir: the hope of the Kingdom of Heaven. The Kingdom will come to full fruition when Jesus returns. The Kingdom has already begun. Jesus began it on the cross. He demonstrated it in his resurrection. Thus we pray, “Let your kingdom come, let your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven” (Matthew 6:10). Disciples of Jesus Christ desire for God’s goodness to reign right now, and because of Jesus, it does so—at least in part. It has begun, but it is not yet complete. The Enemy still holds a lot of territory and power. There is some mystery in this. There is much war.
Without Jesus, it is not difficult for me to see good and evil at work in the world. Yet questions can arise because, without an awareness of God, or the narrative of His love for the world and vision of the Kingdom of Heaven, I do not understand the source of that good and that evil. Thus I grow disheartened to the point of despair. Thus I lose strength. I lose hope. I lose peace. I lose a sense of identity.
Conclusion = Action
So, how is a disciple of Jesus Christ to respond? Perhaps it is best to first be able to acknowledge that everything is in some way broken. Humanity, gender, belonging, community—they are all broken. If that can be acknowledged, if the rubble and dust can be recognized, then purification can occur. Identity can begin to be rebuilt.
As already mentioned, it can begin without God. But ultimately, the only really satisfying answer to the cleared spaces of identity will be Jesus Christ himself, God incarnate. Joseph Ratzinger writes, "Only the man who is reconciled with God can also be reconciled and in harmony with himself, and only the man who is reconciled with God and with himself can establish peace around him and throughout the world. . . . The struggle to abide in peace with God is an indispensable part of the struggle for 'peace on earth'" (Jesus of Nazareth).
Living in the identity of Jesus Christ, in the power of his Spirit moving in us, those of us who are his disciples have a powerful opportunity to journey together and in relationship with those who do not know God. This is our purpose:
"To tell the story, to live by the symbols, to act out the praxis and to answer the questions in such a way as to become in ourselves and our mission in God’s world the answer to the prayer that rises inarticulately, now, not just from one puzzled psalmist but from the whole human race and indeed the whole of God’s creation: 'O send out your light and your truth; let them lead me; let them bring me to your holy hill and to your dwelling.' . . . It is a matter of sharing and bearing the pain and puzzlement of the world so that the crucified love of God in Christ may be brought to bear healingly upon the world at exactly that point." (N.T. Wright, The Challenge of Jesus)
Thus identity begins to be renewed. Thus it can continue on, by the grace of God, to find the confidence and vision that the Gospel of Jesus is all about. Soli deo gloria.