“Appie?” I asked, offering the tray of roast beef crostini and bacon-wrapped mini sausages with a confident smile. Who could resist? Apparently she could.
“I’m vegan,” my young guest shook her head. “I don’t do meat.”
Ah. One of those. “Cheesy crackers?” I countered, my smile still determinedly in place.
“No thanks, I’m already over my carb count for the day.”
Dang. And here’s me, all out of organic, fair trade, free range, non-GMO broccoli florets.
Perching the tray on my hip, I tried to look breezy and millennial. “So hard to find healthy, affordable snacks these days, isn’t it?” I asked casually. “What with the pandemic, global warming, political sub-agendas
regarding non-renewable fossil fuels and the insidious manipulations of social media
disinformation by the dominant consumeristic Western global powers.”
Ha! Take that, Keto Queen.
She raised a derisive eyebrow. “I don’t really do politics. Just watching what I eat, you know.”
“Oh, yeah, totally. Me too.” I gritted my teeth, rapidly scraping the bottom of my social etiquette barrel.
“Well, we women like to keep fit, right?”
Her look was now openly condescending. “‘We women’?” she sniffed. “That’s a little binary, isn’t it?”
As a newbie Christian, I recall panicking over how to raise children. Was there a manual? How do Christians successfully breed other little Christians? My default strategy was harm-reduction: Keep the bad stuff away, and hope that good stuff takes its place. In this way, my kids grew up with a long list of prohibitions–everything from TV shows to clothing styles to plastic guns to iffy playmates to reductionistic divine sovereignty theology. Just doin’ my job.
In place of an identity, I managed to instill in my children a strong sense of “I-don’t-ity.”
As adults, they look back now with disdain over my clumsy attempts at protectionism, but the issues they face as parents are not so very different. If anything, the list of religious and societal prohibitions seems longer than ever.
In his book, GloboChrist: The Great Commission Takes a Postmodern Turn, Carl Rasche writes, “The dominant culture of the West since the eighteenth century has been secular and individualistic, convinced that the supreme goal of human life and human history is the private pursuit of happiness and the guarantee of distinct individual political rights.”1 With personal fulfillment as the ultimate goal, it is inevitable that we become obsessed with personal agency. In today’s extreme of expressive individualism, a sense of Self must be established apart from any status quo; one must be decisively “not” something, in order to “be” anything. Individualistic self-actualization apparently requires frequent fits of oppositional defiance: Don’t tell me what to believe. Don’t tell me what I am feeling. Don’t tell me how to behave. Don’t tell me what I am.
Don’t, don’t, don’t.
My parent’s generation believed in moral absolutes and human potential. My generation realized that to fulfill human potential one must break with those traditions that limit and label. In my children’s generation, all labels–along with all claims of meta-narrative and absolute truth–are to be discarded. Young adults are being asked to define themselves without any parameters for self-definition. “I am not, therefore I am” is a fitting, if nonsensical, maxim for the millennium.
Secular wisdom (and certain animated ice princesses) would have us define ourselves according to our core desires; a daunting, if not impossible, task. How do I pull identity out of the tangle of conflicting, inconsistent, and ambiguous human desires? Do I want freedom, or intimacy? Safety or love? Autonomy or community? Ice cream or a waistline? Do I defer to the spontaneous burst of my most powerful emotion, or to the incessant nagging of my most recurrent one? What of those emotions that are so nuanced—or so turbulent—that they are incomprehensible?
If my emotions are to lead the way in discerning my identity, how can I know which Self is my truest Self?
Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor, in his book Sources of Self, describes Western culture as a “society of self-fulfillers”2 revolving around the primary values of self-expression, self-realization, self-fulfillment, and authenticity. It is a crushing burden. Anxiety and depression among young adults in developed countries has reached an unprecedented high. Youth are told to pursue a life path that fulfills their heart’s desires–but which desire? Overwhelmed, many are paralyzed by indecision. If they do manage to choose a path and forge ahead, they are appalled to find that, just as they reach their goals, their desires have shifted and left them stranded.
In the face of such disillusionment, who can blame one for blaming? We all do it. We blame others (“You are failing to fulfill me. I want a new lover”), we blame society (“This social system is failing to fulfill me. I am perpetually outraged”), we blame ourselves (“I am failing to find fulfillment; I am a loser”), we blame God (“God, you are not fulfilling me–the deal is off!”), or we simply give up (“There is no such thing as fulfillment; Nietzsche was right”).
This is not the Gospel.
All things, we are told in Romans 8:28, are working together for good, for those who love God and are called according to his purpose. Yet this is not the “good” of personal self-actualization, but the good of being conformed to the image of Christ (v. 29). Being conformed involves not what one rejects, but what one embraces. It is to choose, as Jesus did, to be led by the Holy Spirit, to be submitted to the Father, and to be committed to a People.
Led. Submitted. Committed. Words that are emphatically not the parlance of our day. The Gospel is profoundly counter-cultural, more so now than ever before.
Identity is much more than a right that we claim, a potential that we develop, or a desire that we uncover; it is a garment that we are given. Ephesians 4:24 tells us that it is God who clothes us, as we “…put on the new Self, created to be like God in true righteousness and holiness.” Only God sees us as we are meant to be, as he created us to become. He offers us not a label, but a name.
My hip young friend at the party looked blank when I later asked, “So, what’s your story? Who are you? How did you get here?” Years later, we are still having that conversation. Slowly she has become less and less about her list of “don’ts” and is beginning to see within herself the emerging image of a Creator. The great “I Am”–the one who has had no personal identity crisis whatsoever–is naming her.
Nikki White is a writer and prayer mobilizer with MULTIPLY, teaching prayer training workshops in both local and global churches. White is the author of Identity in Exodus, winner of the 2019 Braun Book Award for non-fiction. She and her husband live in Langley, B.C., and attend North Langley Community Church.
Carl Rasche, GloboChrist: The Great Commission Takes a Postmodern Turn (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic Press, 2008) 17.
Charles Taylor, Sources of the Self: The Making of the Modern Identity (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1989) 508.