How do my so-called ‘river twists’ relate to what defines our personal identity?
As our lives take their God-ordained twists and organic turns, we adjust how we define ourselves. My life has had its fair share of unexpected turns, and as a result I have defined and re-defined how I understand myself. This understanding has gone deep enough to impact how I identify myself.
What is meant by identity? Is it simply how we see and define ourselves? Or does it also imply an identifying with something or someone else? Can we have a completely personal and isolated identity? I guess I am wondering as I am writing that maybe we have misconstrued this concept a bit, that we would aim for a personal identity rather than a relational or community-based identity. The concept of identity is linked to our values; but I would suggest in this post that for the large part our identity is shaped by our narrative – our story.
As a Christian believer, our story becomes inextricably connected with the narrative of Scripture, of the kingdom of God being made manifest through the life, death and resurrection of Christ. We know that we are children of God (1 John 3:1), that our lives are hidden in Christ (Colossians 3:3) and that one day we will know as we are known (1 Corinthians 13:12).
These are all truths. And yet, when I am honest with myself (and here, with you all), the way I identify myself today is not simply and unconditionally those Biblical truths. The way I see myself is complex and in ways twisted, and in ways exaggerated. I do not simply see myself as a loved child of God.
I reckon there is a way that our personal narrative shapes our identity. The way we would tell the story of what happens to us (and what we ourselves do), defines how we see ourselves. And this covers everything – the good, the bad and the ugly of our lives. Our identity is not some philosophical debate (and I found a few of them out there when I did a web search on personal identity!), and it’s not something abstract we can decide upon and then apply to our lives perfectly and wholeheartedly.
I remind myself here that there is a difference between my real life and my ‘if I were a perfect Christian’ life. In my real life, where my thinking gets twisty and runs away on me at times, I define myself through a mixture of things, through what people have said to me, or about me, events that have happened to me. This includes what happened before my conversion as well as after.
And I want to talk about my own narrative in this, so that this theorising has some grounding. How has identity shaping and defining worked out (or not worked out?) for me?
Certainly as a young person I defined myself so much by what I DID. Whether that was sport or schoolwork, I felt defined by my doing and not my ‘being’. So I would name myself based on these activities – ‘I am a hockey player; I am a geeky student’. And as I grew older, I became a medical student, and that was certainly an identity seen somewhat as a status symbol, an identity to be proud of. When at university I came to the decision to follow Jesus Christ, it certainly brought in lots of new ideas – that I am a loved child of God, defined by my identification with the death and resurrection of Christ, but it did not delete previously held ideas and belief-sets.
Quite shortly after my conversion I began experiencing significant mental health distress. This removed me from medical school and my identity there, but more significantly, the disability of my mind not working as I had been used to it doing so, meant I could no longer ‘do’ as I had ‘done’ before – so how could I define myself, if not through what I was doing? And repeated attempts at ‘doing’ were unsuccessful and reinforced an identity of failure. It was easy to drift (or fall?) into identifying myself through my experience of mental distress. Not always through labels of diagnosis but also more subtly, by owning my illness ‘my illness’ rather than or through my work that emerged from my experience of unwellness and recovery. So now my identity was a weird jumble of knowing I am a loved child of God, as well as identifying myself by my job and what I was ‘doing’, and the identity of my distress and how all-consuming that felt at times.
Recently this year, I have had a very intense period of unwellness, which took me by surprise. I ended up in hospital, and was removed from my usual life. All at once that sense that my identity was tied up with what I ‘do’ came back to me – and what was confronting was that what I was doing was not only not my usual activity, but quite radically unhelpful and distorted. How now to make sense of my identity, when I could even use the word ‘hate’ against what I was doing and thinking? This indeed was a tremendous struggle. In some ways, I worked on reminding myself through Scriptural promises of who I was, but most often I relied upon the encouragement of others, telling me positive truths about who I am. They would say I am loved, that God is for me and not against me, and that nothing could separate me from the love of God. These carried me when I could not trust my own perspective of who I was, when my illness (for that is what it appeared to be) took over how I identified myself.
Following this, and after other episodes of extreme distress, I find that the internal language I use towards myself makes a big difference towards how I allow myself to be defined. For example, rather than describing mental ‘illness’ as ‘mine’, it becomes an experience that has brought distress as well as growth. It is something I have been through, and not something that I ‘am’. What’s more, I realise now that what I do in life is just what I do – and this flows out of who I am and not the other way around. This is really helpful when river twists change what I think I am going to ‘do’ – that this doesn’t have to therefore infer a change in my identity, but that my identity can remain more stable and less affected by circumstances.
So how do I come to an identity that is godly and truthful? I have a value of not ignoring my past but finding ways to resolve all of my life experiences into an identity that is founded upon truths. I wish I could give you a five point alliterated list at this point. Alas, but more helpfully, commitment to self-reflection – prayer in the context of allowing Scripture to challenge and change us – is a longer term but more lasting solution. We need to be ready to confess thought patterns and beliefs that are not true and yet have a hold over our identity.
In and through this, is the importance of relational identity. The God we trust is Triune and relational in His own identity, so it follows that our identity will be relational, too. I know that the people around me influence how I see myself, and so allowing trusted other to challenge me in how I identify myself is a key. I also know that it is hard to know who those people are who will speak Gospel truth to me, consistently. And when I meet them, they become treasures.
I know that the more I allow the word of Christ to dwell richly in my heart, the more I will be changed into His likeness – the more my identity will be aligned with who He truly is.