As a lecturer for Houston Baptist University’s Honors College, I have the privilege of shepherding each new freshman class through the Iliad and Odyssey. In the former epic, Achilles, the greatest soldier in the history of Western literature, suffers something of an existential identity crisis as he questions who he is, what his purpose is, and whether life has any meaning. In the end, he makes peace with himself and his community, but only by returning to the narrow parameters that define the good life, the good man, and the good society in the microcosm of the epic.
Within the context of the Iliad, the resolution is both powerful and satisfying, but it does not resolve the deeper question that all people must answer: not “How do I know I have value as a Greek warrior living in the Mycenaean Bronze Age?” but “How do I know I have intrinsic value apart from my profession, my gifts, or my family relations?” After all, we can lose our jobs, become physically incapable of using our gifts, and watch helplessly as those we love are carried off by violence, disease, or inescapable old age.
Surely, an identity that rests solely upon skills, awards, or people that can be suddenly and irrevocably taken away is tenuous at best. There must be a more stable foundation on which to build. Thankfully, the Christian gospel provides just such an unshakable foundation: that the God who created us thought us of such value that he not only sent his Son to die for us but sent him at the very moment when we were the most rebellious and unlovable (Rom. 5:8).
Given this great declaration of God’s unconditional love and our inestimable value, one might think that Christians would not struggle with issues of identity and self-worth. Yet struggle we do, particularly in the face of an incessant media onslaught that tells us we cannot be happy, successful, or even fully human unless we use a certain product, look a certain way, or measure up to a certain standard. Rather than define ourselves by Christ’s love for us, we allow society to define our identity in innumerable ways, all of which run us ragged and leave us empty.
A Much-Needed Antidote
Enter Identity Theft: Reclaiming the Truth of Who We Are in Christ, a simple but profound book that offers a much-needed antidote to the angst and confusion of our times. Edited by Melissa Kruger, an author, speaker, and editor for The Gospel Coalition, Identity Theft brings together ten incisive, accessible essays from evangelical women that combine solid biblical exegesis with sound, common-sense advice. Though each of the essays is free-standing, framed by the life experiences and particular interests and emphases of its author, nine of the ten are structured around a specific three-step process.
Kruger describes those steps as follows in her introduction:
Identity theft: Expose our false notions of identity.
Identity truth: Understand the biblical truth of our identity in Christ.
Identity transformed: Reflect on what it looks like to live in our new (and true) identity.
While most of us would like to jump ahead to the transformation part, we cannot assume our true and full identity in Christ before first seeing through the false identity thrust upon us by society and then searching the Scriptures to determine what exactly it is that Christ desires to do in and through us.
In order to set the stage for this threefold process by which we can reclaim, and then strengthen and mature, our God-given identities from a world that would steal, twist, and pervert them, Jen Wilkin offers an opening essay built around a different triad. Wilkin, a popular Bible teacher whose books include Women of the Word, reminds us that we do not immediately become perfect Christians the moment we are saved. As she succinctly phrases it, Christian growth proceeds through three stages: salvation, which sets us free from the penalty of sin; sanctification, which sets us free from the power of sin; and glorification, which sets us free from the presence of sin. Only by understanding and working our way through this process can we hope to avoid what she identifies as the false freedoms of license, legalism, and escapism.
On the basis of this foundation, writer Hannah Anderson, author of Made for More, takes up the key biblical doctrine that we were created in the image of God and “are called to show forth the glory, power, and might of our King.” Alas, she argues, we too often “confuse our created identity with God’s identity as our Creator.” That is to say, we succumb to the temptation of the serpent in Genesis 3, believing that we can and should be like God rather than be his representative. When we do that, we become easy prey to the media’s siren song of self-actualization apart from obedience to our Creator.
How can we escape from this temptation? By understanding that when “Jesus willingly took on the limits of our human identity, when he became obedient to the Father, he restored our true identity as image bearers.” Only as we realize, accept, and embody this truth can God shatter our false identity and replace it with a transformed identity modeled on that of his Son.
Which leads naturally to the essay by Courtney Doctor, author of From Garden to Glory. What we truly long for, writes Doctor, is to know that we are God’s beloved child, “to know, and I mean really know, that [we’re] loved with a love that is so steadfast, so safe, so pure, so good, and so abundant that [we] can rest deeply in it.” While the devil seeks to convince us that we are slaves who must “work, and work hard, to secure and sustain the Lord’s love,” or orphans who are abandoned and alone, or illegitimate children who don’t belong, Christ promises that he has irreversibly adopted us into his family and that we can rest safe and secure in our new identity.
Children we are, but also saints, argues Kruger, highlighting a biblical truth that should inspire humility rather than pride. Contrary to popular perception among believers and non-believers alike, the fact that we continue to struggle with sin offers proof that we are saints rather than sinners. “As a saint, we’re uncomfortable with sin,” writes Kruger. “There’s a fight going on within us. While we may conclude the battle waging in our hearts points to the fact we’re sinners, it actually points to the fact we’re saints. The Spirit awakens our heart to do battle.”
Jasmine Holmes, who teaches humanities at a classical school, cautions us not to confuse being a saint with having a Type-A personality. While “our culture pretends to loathe, but secretly loves ... the control freak,” the Bible makes it clear that “true fruitfulness is found only by abiding in Christ” as the branch abides in the vine. Meditating on the good wife described in Proverbs 31, a portrait that too often makes Christian women feel pressure to exhibit Type-A traits, Holmes offers this sage advice: “It’s not a point-by-point guide to wifehood, but a picture of obedience expressed in all different aspects and seasons of life. ... It’s not a picture of a specific woman, but a passage meant to draw us into deeper reliance on Christ as we strive to be faithful in all of our duties at home and abroad.”
As I hope this passage suggests, Identity Theft is a book that, though written by and targeted for women, has just as much to teach men who have ears to hear. Indeed, most male readers will, if they let themselves, be especially challenged by the three chapters that call us to be active members of the church body, worshipers of God rather than self, and citizens who long for their true home.
“Though the world would tell us that church is an option, an irrelevance, or even an obstacle,” explains Megan Hill, author of Praying Together, “the church is essential to who we are.” Yes, our identity rests in Christ, but that does not mean we were made to be autonomous individuals cut off from community. Indeed, when we do cut ourselves off from our place in the Body of Christ, we are more likely to fall prey to a subtle temptation that Lindsey Carlson, who teaches and disciples women through her writing and public speaking, exposes in her chapter on worship.
We may claim our compulsion to perform is done only for the name of Christ, but as Carlson observes, we “also want to be recognized for these accomplishments for our own sake. We want to be praised for our unique insight, brilliant creativity, selfless sacrifice, and dogged persistence. Sought out for our excellence or expertise. We may not want to admit it, but we want to be worshiped. To that end, we’ve become public-relations managers tirelessly crafting our own lives into personal ad-campaigns to sell the product of ourselves.”
Needless to say, this temptation, though it has been with us since Eden, has been greatly magnified by a social-media world that pushes and prods us to define our own identities as we see fit, without giving thought either to our essential natures or our familial and communal commitments. I hope we will see more books like Identity Theft over the next decade. We need them if we are to stay the course, forsaking the false identities that lie behind and pressing forward to the transformed identity that awaits us.
Louis Markos is professor of English and scholar in residence at Houston Baptist University, where he holds the Robert H. Ray Chair in Humanities. His books include Atheism on Trial: Refuting the Modern Arguments Against God(Harvest House), From Achilles to Christ: Why Christians Should Read the Pagan Classics (IVP Academic), and On the Shoulders of Hobbits: The Road to Virtue with Tolkien and Lewis (Moody).