I am an old white guy who grew up poor, and then became an ordinary pastor of modest means, basic education, mediocre talent, decent health, and a sushi-loving appetite. Which begs the question: Who am I? Are these things me, or are they simply about me? Are they descriptors or definers? Are they mere bio-line factoids, or are they my identity?
Identity is much on our minds these days. You’ve probably read or heard a TED Talk about it. We’ve all heard of the sad and disturbing confusion about gender identity, with various other identity crises and identity disorders to be had as well. Likewise, identity politics plays no small part in contemporary culture. Then there is one person who may be just finding her identity, while another is having his stolen. And because there are such things as a false identity and identity fraud, we sometimes need proof of identity just to cash a check.
We haven’t even mentioned people’s social media identity, which quite possibly is very different from their live-and-in-person identity. There’s a fascinating theological debate about which of those two versions is the truer version of a person. But while we’re engaging that debate, high-tech algorithms are humming along, collecting data on all of us. All these data make cookies—or whatever the right term is—and get processed somewhere to end up spooking us by flashing advertisements and information on our screen that mysteriously match where we’ve been and what we like. Clearly, someone’s always tracking our steps through the shopping, scrolling, and messaging netherworld called the World Wide Web, all of which tempts us to ask, “How do they know who I am?”
Who Am I, Really?
Thankfully they don’t really know who we are. But the problem is that we don’t either. For eons, humans have been asking the Who am I? the question, and for just as long have searched in vain for identity in what they do, or wear, or drive. We’ve looked for identity in where we live, who lets us into their circle, how we look or feel, how much we know, what schools our kids attend, or what social-club memberships we have scored. Some have tied their identity to an addiction, like “I’m Tim Shorey, and I am a New England sports fan.” Others seek their identity in gender or ethnicity or class or position or even lack of position. If I have that one thing, then I am a winner. If I do not, then I am a loser.
But who am I, really—not as self or society or sociologists define me, but as God does? Believers in Jesus Christ need to take their identity cues from the Word, not the world. While the world can no doubt discern characteristics and circumstances that describe and affect me, it cannot tell me what defines me (though it certainly has long tried). It tried even back in Bible times. More than once, Paul debunked such categories—identity walls constructed by people to separate, demarcate, and discriminate—and then showed how they could not hold true before the liberating power of the gospel (Ephesians 2:11-22; Galatians 3:26-28; Colossians 3:11; Romans 1:14-16)). Paul’s consistent point is that while these distinctions may be real in the sense that they reflect actual conditions and callings in the world, they are not real as definers of our core identity. They don’t tell us who we are.
This isn’t to deny that there are Greeks or Romans or Jews or males or females or slave or free or barbarian or Scythian. Nor is it to ignore those who are poor or rich or widows or fatherless or oppressed or oppressors or kings or citizens. But it is to know—and it is something we must know and re-know every day—that these are not defining or primary categories. If for no other reason, they are not primary because they are not permanent.
The truth is that humans defy these categories every day in their ever-changing circumstances and choices. Many of us may feel oppressed at times, and at other times may make others feel that way. We all are given authority on occasion (in home, school, work, or organization) and are sometimes under authority. We might well be poor and then rich and then poor again. We might be among the educated, but not the super-educated. Compared to most in this world, most everyone I know is advantaged. But they are disadvantaged when compared to others. Such category-terms can be helpful in describing our current condition, but they are of minimal to no value in defining our core identity. They may affect us and even describe us, but they cannot define us. And we shouldn’t let them if they try!
We need God’s clear, unadulterated Word to tell us our core identity as biblically defined. I am thinking here of believers, not unbelievers. Unbelievers are a topic for another time. My question now is: How should we believers see ourselves so that what we see is the same as what God sees? I’ve got nothing much new to say on the matter, but perhaps a different way to say it. Let me answer our question, and thereby define C.O.R.E. Identity clearly, by offering four biblical lenses through which we may look to see the true us. I hope that this will enable us each to say, “This is who I am!”
C-reated image-bearer. Genesis 1:27 and Psalm 8:4, 5 offer our Creator’s essential definition of what it means to be human. The very first words ever used to describe human beings are these: “Made in God’s image.” Our label defines who we are. That we are created is important, for it reminds us that there is a Creator and that we are not him. That we are majestic image-bearers of our Creator matters since it reminds us of our inestimable privileged responsibility to reflect and represent him in this world.
O-ppositional sinner. That we are all sinners bent toward sin, and away from God, any honest person will admit. Before conversion, we were constantly oppositional toward God (Romans 8:7; Philippians 3:18; Genesis 6:5). After conversion, our hearts remain a battle-ground on which constant, fierce, and complex back-and-forth skirmishes with remaining sin take place. Sin is ever-present with us, making war with the Spirit and all that is holy, beautiful, true, and good (Galatians 5:16-24; Romans 7:15-23). Unflattering as this may be, this lens to see into our own identity is important. Knowing that this is us—and will be until heaven dawns—will keep us humble before God, amazed at forgiving grace, and active in the good fight of faith. Failing to know it will make us self-righteously smug, while perpetually stuck in the same old sins.
R-edeemed child of God. We are redeemed, ransomed from sin and hell with precious blood (1 Peter 1:18-19; Matthew 20:28). We have been bought with a price, which ties our identity and calling to our Redeemer-Savior-King (1 Corinthians 6:19). In union with Jesus, we are the children of God; blessed, chosen, consecrated (holy), adopted, redeemed, lavished with grace, destined for glory, and made heirs of an eternal inheritance (Ephesians 1:3-14). Though we still sin, and the flesh still makes war with the Spirit, our new true-believing self—created and enabled in Christ Jesus—will win the day (Ephesians 2:10; Ephesians 6:10-13; 1 John 5:4-5; Romans 8:31-39). This is who we are. “This”—each one of us who believes may say—“is who I am!”
E-ternal worshiper. Peter teaches us our identity. We are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, and a people cherished and belonging to God—and as such, we are called to “proclaim his excellencies” (1 Peter 2:9). We are who we are that we might praise the One who is what he is—excellent in all his being and doing. We are saved to sing, to live to the praise of his glorious grace (Ephesians 1:6,12), and to join in the everlasting praises of the One who is worthy (Revelation 5:9-14; Revelation 7:9-17). We are made to worship!
The business of life is to know our Creator and Savior and to know who we are in him. Through these C.O.R.E. realities, we can discover our identity and calling, both who we are, and why we’re here. Through them, we will learn that if we lose ourselves (that is, our self- and culture-rooted identities), we will find ourselves (in Christ). In this way, we will discover the One who made us, and how and why he made us in the first place.
I recommend, too, that in these troubling and polarizing times, we utilize these C.O.R.E. identity lenses to see and define every believer we ever meet. To keep from labeling others by external changing dynamics, and to inspire respect and love for all our brothers and sisters in faith, let us see every believer as a created image-bearer (sharing equal dignity with us), an oppositional sinner (fighting the same sin battles that we are), a redeemed child of God (equally and wonderfully blessed in Christ), and an eternal worshiper (destined to share with us in the eternal praises of God)!