There is only one question: Who are you? Everything else in life flows from that one question. That is true whether you are a person of faith or not; the identity question is the question. In fact, every religion, every denial of religion, and every philosophy or ideology seeks to tell people who they are, how they fit with the reality around them, and how they should then live. If your life has any meaning, it will be because you project—and have projected—a meaningful identity.
Who are you? Who gets to say? My answer is God, but that raises the question, Who speaks for God? My answer is Scripture, but that raises the question, Who gets to interpret Scripture? In the end, each person is responsible for interpreting, but that does not suggest some kind of naive individualism or that you can make a text mean what you want or that readers do not need to be taught. Interpretation should take place within a community of faith, one that includes the whole church, past and present. We read together to understand together and hold each other accountable.
The purpose of any “scripture” is to answer the identity question, to tell people who God says they are. A text is only called “scripture” because someone believes that text has power to define and transform life. This is certainly the case with the Bible. The Bible seeks to tell us who we are, who God says we are—and should be—how we fit in God’s purposes, and how we should live because of our identity.
Image Versus Identity
At some level I have always known Scripture was about identity. Long ago I discovered a statement. I have lost the source, but the statement is lodged in my mind. It says, “People were always coming to Jesus and asking, ‘What must I do?’ and he in effect responded, ‘Tell me who you are, and then you will know what you must do.’” Since discovering this statement, I have had an interest in identity, an interest that grew slowly at first but then became a compelling fascination. In more recent years I have begun to understand that all my work as a New Testament scholar and teacher seeks to explain identity.
The Bible is about identity. It explains God’s identity or Christ’s identity, but such explanations never have the purpose of giving us abstract knowledge about God. The identity of God or Christ is explained to show what humans created in God’s image are to be. John Calvin put it this way: “Without knowledge of self there is no knowledge of God. Without knowledge of God there is no knowledge of self.” Theologians have often said something similar, but Plato had made the same point 2,000 years earlier than Calvin. You cannot know yourself without knowing the One in whose image you were created.
I am well aware that the word “identity” does not appear in most translations of the Bible and that there is no obvious corresponding Hebrew or Greek word. The English word identity appears late in the game, toward the end of the 16th century. Ancient people did speak of being and of self but had no word corresponding to our word identity. While the word may be recent, the thinking and theology are not. At some level, if you are human, you have to focus on identity, even though many try to avoid it. Life is about identity construction.
In our postmodern world, identity is a hot topic. Technology has heightened the concerns about identity, for people can create an identity, even multiple identities, through social networking. Social media tend to distort identity, because they heighten self-centeredness. Much of this activity betrays a malignant narcissism, manifested especially in selfies and a desire to accumulate followers—“I am somebody if people know about me.”
At the same time, many in our society have lost any sense of a stable identity and have a gnawing anxiety about what it means to be a human. They have no idea who they really are or should be, and merely go through the motions of living. They give little explicit attention to their identity, and their identity is chameleon-like, shifting at a moment’s notice when the people around them change or the subject changes.
Image is not identity; image is what we project to others, what we put on display, and is an attempt to show how we would like to be seen, which may have little to do with who we really are. Our society spends billions on image and gives little real attention to identity. When tragedy comes and strips away possessions and appearances, who are we then? Or, who are we when we really face ourselves without our props?
A Greek philosopher was captured by pirates and put on the slave market. When a potential buyer asked what he could do, he replied, “Govern men.” Similarly, a man asked a Spartan woman being sold as a slave if she would be good if he bought her. She replied, “Yes, and if you do not buy me.” Both the philosopher and the woman knew their identity did not change just because they were stripped of possessions and placed in slavery. Who are you without your stuff and the pretenses?
I recall reading a news report about a 24-year-old woman who was deeply in debt and in jail for fraud in accumulating designer clothes; she said, “I do not know who I am without my stuff.” You are not your stuff. You are not your money, your clothes, your house, or the car you drive. You are not the group you belong to; you are not your political party, your country, your sports team, the celebrity you try to imitate, your job, or your entertainment. These may be factors in your identity or attempts to achieve identity, but they are not who you are and certainly not who God says you are.
If ever people—especially Christians—needed to face the truth and resist the dictates of society, it is now. True identity has little to do with status, possessions, clothes, employment, entertainment, or honors. Christians by necessity must resist “herding,” even when done by other Christians. Without question, other people influence us, but we must be sure that their influence does not take us away from our true selves.
No matter the dangers and problems in focusing on identity, we do not have a choice. All of life is lived out of a sense of identity, even if one’s sense of identity is confused or unconscious. Therefore, we must give direct and frequent attention to identity. The Christian faith says not only that you can know yourself, at least at some level, but that you must know yourself, sin and all; that grace makes it possible to look honestly at yourself; and that you will know yourself and find your true self only by knowing the God revealed in Jesus Christ. With the conviction that Christ is the ultimate image of God, Blaise Pascal commented, “Not only do we know God through Jesus Christ alone; but we know ourselves only by Jesus Christ.”
Every reality of Christian existence is at bottom an issue of identity. Unfortunately, the church has often failed to communicate well what identity is about. Especially in societies like ours where many claim the label “Christian,” what really makes a person a Christian? How tight or loose should the definition be? Lack of clarity renders the church ineffective. The gospel in our time is for many an unimportant item in their lives, as if it were a minor attachment, one that barely touches their identity. This is not the Christian faith.
Christ is not an add-on to an existing identity; he seeks to remake your identity. Often conversion language is a gross exaggeration and implies that nothing of the old identity remains. Obviously much remains the same; you are still physically the same person with the same history and propensities in the same culture. What is changed is the old life of sin, the old being, and its old orientation. Even the things that do not change are seen from a new perspective. Christ is not an accessory to your identity, as if you were choosing an option for a car; he takes over identity so that everything else becomes an accessory, which is precisely what “Jesus is Lord” means.
We have been sold a cheap gospel without demand and without content, as if faith were a short transaction, a prayer, or a decision, to get security taken care of so we can go to heaven, but the New Testament is far less concerned with going to heaven than people think. In fact, as important as God’s promises about the future are, the concern for going to heaven is one of the most distorting factors in evangelical Christianity. What counts is life with God and an identity shaped by God, both now and eternally.
Klyne R. Snodgrass is professor emeritus of New Testament at North Park Theological Seminary. This article is taken from his book, Who God Says You Are: A Christian Understanding of Identity (Eerdmans). Used by permission of the publisher. All rights reserved.