WHAT IT MEANS TO HAVE AN IDENTITY
Who are you? What is your identity?
An identity is thought to consist of two component parts. First, it contains a sense of self that is enduring. All of us exist in many circles at once. All of us are family members, colleagues at work or school, friends, and at times we are all alone. To have an identity is to have something sustained that remains true of us regardless of the settings in which we find ourselves. “Otherwise there would be no ‘you.’ There would only be masks for every occasion but no actual face behind them.” So then, what of you remains consistent from place to place? What stands regardless of your surroundings and circumstances? There has to be a core understanding of who you are from day to day, and situation to situation.
Secondly, an identity includes a sense of worth, an appraisal of your own value. According to Tony Schwartz of the New York Times “We each want desperately to matter, to feel a sense of worthiness.” It is not enough for us to know ourselves, we have to value ourselves as well. What is it about you that makes you feel worthwhile and significant? What do you appreciate about who you are? An understanding and appreciation of yourself together compose your identity.
In traditional cultures, and in many non-Western cultures today, the self is primarily located not in internal desires, but in external social roles and ties. Charles Taylor describes this earlier conception of the self as “porous”; it was seen as inextricably linked to family, community, and spiritual realities. According to Tim Keller, in these contexts, the self was developed as one moved out towards others, assuming roles in one’s family and community. He writes, “If you ask people in a traditional culture, ‘Who are you?’ they will most likely say they are a son or a mother or a member of a particular tribe and people. And if they fulfill their duties and give up their individual desires for the good of the whole family, community, and their God, then their identity is secure as persons of honor.
Identity formation in modern Western cultures is almost the exact opposite of this. Instead of a “porous” self, we now have what Taylor calls a “buffered” self. According to Taylor, “For the modern, buffered self, the possibility exists of taking a distance from, disengaging from everything outside the mind.” The approach to identity formation common in our culture has been called “expressive individualism” in the classic work Habbits of the Heart by Robert Bellah and his sociologist colleagues. They explain, “In the course of our history, the self has become ever more detached from the social and cultural contexts that embody traditions…” The emphasis is now on the belief that “each person has a unique core of feeling and intuition that should unfold or be expressed if individuality is to be realized.” In the modern conception, “Finding and forging an identity means asserting our independence, breaking the bonds of dependence we’re thrown into as children.”
THE FRAGILITY OF THE MODERN SELF
Good things have come out of the way identity formation takes place in the West. One powerful example is the American civil rights movement. This movement was led in large part by the African American church, who used biblical vocabulary and categories to explain and justify itself. It has been argued, however, that the broader society was willing to embrace the movement and implement changes because of “American culture’s growing emphasis on the individualistic values of self-determination, personal freedom, and equality.” The emphasis on these categories has helped our society and others like it to become less rigid and stratified, and it has provided tremendous opportunity for many people. And yet, modern Western culture’s identity formation has some deep issues.
One major issue is that there is an inherent fragility. The messages that we consume on a regular basis preach that we do not need anyone outside of ourselves to validate us. There are not outside measures or standards. The only verdict that matters is our own. But this doesn’t actually work. Charles Taylor in The Malaise of Modernity writes, “There is no such thing as inward generation [of identity], monologically understood. My discovering my identity doesn’t mean I work it out in isolation.”
We cannot form an identity on our own or through self-recognition. It has to come, in large measure, from others. Keller writes, “In the end, we can’t say to ourselves, ‘I don’t care that literally everyone else in the world thinks I’m a monster. I love myself and that is all that matters.’ That would not convince us of our worth, unless we are mentally unsound. We need someone from outside to say we are of great worth, and the greater the worth of that someone or someones, the more power they have to instill a sense of self and of worth.”
And why is this? Because we are “irreducibly social and relational beings.” This reality is supported by atheist philosopher Alain De Button who comments, “We seem beholden to the affections of others to endure ourselves.”In isolation, the freedom “to be myself starts to feel like losing myself, dissolving, my own identity slipping between my fingers.”
WHAT WE ARE LEFT WITH: PERFORMANCISM
In our current predicament, “Our ‘ego’ or self-conception,” according to De Button, “could be pictured as a leaking balloon… ever vulnerable to the smallest pinpricks...” And how do we typically respond to that reality? Performancism. According to David Zahl:
“Performancism is the assumption, usually unspoken, that there is no distinction between what we do and who we are. Your resumé isn’t part of your identity; it is your identity. What makes you lovable, indeed what makes your life worth living, is your performance at X, Y, or Z. Performancism holds that if you are not doing enough, or doing enough well, you are not enough. At least, you are less than those who are ‘killing it.’”
We see this mentality manifested in a plethora of ways, and while we may feel the effects of it more severely today, it is certainly nothing new. In 1965, journalist Gay Talese profiled the legendary singer Frank Sinatra for Esquire magazine. His article was entitled “Frank Sinatra Has a Cold.” The piece begins by painting a picture of Sinatra sitting with his entourage in this exclusive club in Beverly Hills, but in a deep depression. Why? He explains: “Sinatra was ill. He was the victim of an ailment so common that most people would consider it trivial. But when it gets to Sinatra it can plunge him into a state of anguish, deep depression, panic, even rage. Frank Sinatra had a cold.” Talese continues:
“Sinatra with a cold is Picasso without paint, Ferrari without fuel— only worse. For the common cold robs Sinatra of that uninsurable jewel, his voice, cutting into the core of his confidence, and it affects not only his own psyche but also seems to cause a kind of psychosomatic nasal drip within dozens of people who work for him, drink with him, love him, depend on him for their own welfare and stability.”
The common cold had tremendous power over Frank Sinatra, causing him to lose his confidence, even his sense of self. Frank Sinatra with a cold in an important sense is no longer Frank Sinatra, because he is no longer able to perform. This is what performancism does.
I AM WHO YOU SAY I AM
One of the great gifts that God’s word gives to us is an identity. One of the verses I go back to time and again is Colossians 3:12 which reads: “Therefore, as God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience” (NIV). Katie and I had the latter portion of that verse printed on our wall for several years, and I pray for Oliver every night before I put him to bed that God would work those virtues (compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience) in our little guy’s heart.
While that list is striking and powerful, it is not the most important part of the verse. The most important aspect of verse 12 is the designation that God gives to those who belong to him through Christ. In Christ, we are God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved. This is our identity.
I think it is tremendously important that the identity, the designation, precedes the list of virtues. The passage does not read: “If you clothe yourselves in compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience, then maybe you can earn the right to be called my people, holy and dearly loved.” This is the way of performancism, and this is the way that we are used to functioning. As the pastor Justin Buzzard comments, “Every other belief system makes you earn your identity through your performance.” But the gospel works in the exact opposite direction. The gospel “gives you an identity before performance.”
So who are you? If you are in Christ, you are his chosen one, holy, and dearly loved. This is God’s declaration over you; it is the result of his grace given to you.
 Timothy Keller, Making Sense of God: An Invitation to the Skeptical (New York, NY: Viking, 2016), 118.
 Tony Schwartz, “The Enduring Hunt for Personal Value,” The New York Times (The New York Times, May 1, 2015), https://www.nytimes.com/2015/05/02/business/dealbook/the-enduring-hunt-for-personal-value.html.
 Charles Taylor, A Secular Age (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2007), 36. Taylor writes, “the inside is no longer just inside; it is also outside. That is, emotions which are in the very depths of human life exist in a space which takes us beyond ourselves, which is porous to some outside power…”
 Keller, Making Sense of God, 118.
 Taylor, 38. He qualifies, “This is not to say that the buffered understanding necessitates your taking this stance. It is just that it allows it as a possibility, whereas the porous one does not.” He continues, “As a bounded self I can see the boundary as a buffer, such that the things beyond don’t need to “get to me”, to use the contemporary expression. That’s the sense to my use of the term “buffered” here. This self can see itself as invulnerable, as master of the meanings of things for it.”
 Robert N. Bellah et al., Habits of the Heart: Individualism and Commitment in American Life (Berkley, CA: University of California Press, 1996), Kindle, Chapter 3 and Glossary.
 James K. A. Smith, On the Road with Saint Augustine: A Real-World Spirituality for Restless Hearts (Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos Press, a division of Baker Publishing Group, 2019), 106.
 Keller, Making Sense of God, 122.
 C. Taylor, The Malaise of Modernity (Toronto, ON: House of Anansi Press, 1998), 47.
 Keller, Making Sense of God, 125.
 Alain De Botton, Status Anxiety (New York, NY: Village International Vintage Books, 2004), Kindle, Chapter 1.
 Smith, On the Road with Saint Augustine, 62.
 De Button, Status Anxiety, Kindle, Chapter 1.
 David Zahl, Seculosity: How Career, Parenting, Technology, Food, Politics, and Romance Became Our New... Religion and What to Do about It (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2019), Kindle, Chapter 1.
 Gay Talese, “Frank Sinatra Has a Cold,” Esquire, November 5, 2018, https://www.esquire.com/news-politics/a638/frank-sinatra-has-a-cold-gay-talese/.
 Justin Buzzard, The Big Story: How the Bible Makes Sense out of Life (Chicago, IL: Moody Publishers, 2013), 52.