“Be Fit. Be Well. Be You.” This motto of a local gym captures the essence of today’s culture that constantly reinforces the mantra of self-identity. From apartment complexes promoting the idea of an “Unlimited You” to schools encouraging students to “Be Inspired. Be Challenged. Be Excellent. Be You,” it seems we’re steeped in a society deeply focused on personal identity. It’s an era of expressive individualism where finding oneself seems like the ultimate quest, but should this quest only lead inward?
The Power and Perils of Self-Exploration Reflecting on ourselves is certainly not harmful. Personal exploration, introspection, and self-reflection, as recommended by 2 Corinthians 13:5, are valuable. Recognizing and respecting the unique identities of diverse societal groups is indeed a noble pursuit, and authenticity is an admirable virtue. However, the inward search for self-identity isn’t without its perils.
The Self-Identity Paradox Focusing solely on ourselves can lead to a fragile sense of self, prone to instability and often devoid of lasting self-understanding. As Taylor Swift eloquently pointed out while receiving her honorary doctorate from New York University, finding ourselves is both exciting and terrifying. With the freedom to define who we are comes the daunting prospect of failing in that quest, or of uncovering aspects of ourselves that we may not appreciate. The paradox of our times is that while self-identity has never been more critical, it has also never been more elusive.
A Society in Distress Looking inward for identity also appears to be leading us away from contentment and fulfillment. Current societal trends, such as escalating cases of anxiety and depression, rampant narcissism, lack of empathy, reflexive outrage, and a general decline in happiness and well-being, are evidence of this. Many factors contribute to these trends, but a significant part of the problem might stem from our relentless introspection and self-identification. We need to broaden our perspective.
The Tri-directional Quest for Identity As social creatures, we need to look around us; our identity is shaped by the understanding and intimacy we share with those in our lives. Reflections of ourselves in the mirror or the sound of our voice in a recording often leave us questioning, “Who is that?” indicating the limits of self-knowledge. We thrive in interdependent networks of relationships, much like geese flying in a V-shaped formation, relying on each other.
Our life stories also shape our identity. These narratives, imbued with defining moments, goals, and expectations, aren’t solitary; they intertwine with the stories of our families, societies, ethnicities, classes, and faiths.
Additionally, we look upward, to God. While not universally accepted, the search for something beyond ourselves is an intrinsic human trait. We serve either the true God or succumb to false idols (Joshua 24:14–15). Anchoring our personal identity convincingly requires transcendence.
The Triune Connection: Around, Back, and Up Being social, story-centric, and possessing a desire for transcendence, we find our identity by looking around, referring back to our stories, and reaching out to God. The Bible affirms the importance of all three, but it emphasizes the upward glance.
While our relationships with others offer a sense of identity, they are imperfect and impermanent. For believers in Christ, knowing God and being known by Him provides comfort, significance, and a stable sense of self (Galatians 4:9). It shapes our conduct and character, as we are conformed to the image of His Son (Romans 8:29).
A Transformative Surrender The gospel asserts that “you are not your own” (1 Corinthians 6:19), a statement that seems almost subversive in our era of expressive individualism. Yet, belonging to someone else, as a lost child belongs to their mother or lovers belong to each other, can offer a deep sense of worth and value. In the context of love, belonging to another is not oppressive but rather liberating. Being bought with a price (1 Corinthians 6:19–20) implies being claimed by God as His own. Through surrendering ourselves to God, we do not lose ourselves but instead, discover our true selves.
A New Narrative Looking upward also provides us with a new story in which to live. This narrative challenges the concept of expressive individualism, proclaiming that we cannot solely define ourselves and need external intervention. This is the story of Jesus Christ. As per Colossians 3:3–4, our lives are intertwined with His. As Christians, we are called to put on the new self, reflecting the reality that we have died with Christ, have been raised with Him, and our destiny is tied to His glorious appearance.
In summary, our true selves cannot be merely found within but must be discovered in relation to others, our personal and shared stories, and most importantly, in relation to God. This perspective is not just an exploration of our identity; it is a celebration of who we are, our social connections, and our eternal relationship with God.