Ed: How did you get interested in the topic of personal identity?
Brian: It was for very personal reasons. Back in the 1990s I had my own crisis of identity of sorts. Some big changes happened in my life and I found myself asking some uncomfortable questions. I talk about it in the opening pages of the book.
Being a Christian, I turned to God and the Bible for answers. What I found made an enormous difference to me personally. It also dawned on me that I was far from alone in wrestling with questions of personal identity.
In the ensuing years I had conversations with and read about people in all sorts of circumstances—people who’d been made redundant; people whose parents had died; people whose identity online leaves them feeling like a phony; people with questions about gender and sexuality; people who felt deflated by their aspirations for life not coming to fruition; people who felt diminished by consuming responsibilities for children or parents; and people who felt at sea in our rapidly changing world.
As Kevin Vanhoozer puts it, at the beginning of a new millennium, the human race seems to be suffering from a collective identity crisis. The book is my attempt to pass on what I’d learned.
Ed: People define themselves in all sorts of ways, with reference to their race, gender, age, marital status, occupation and so on. What does the Bible make of the so-called ‘traditional’ identity markers?
Brian: Such markers of identity are obviously essential for personal identity, but they are not the whole story. They are all important, but none of them is all-important. The Bible judges them to be inadequate foundations upon which to build your personal identity and even warns about putting too much weight on them.
To cite a couple of the more striking texts, according to Galatians 3:28, you are more than your race, ethnicity, nationality, culture and gender, for “in Christ Jesus “there is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”
And according to 1 Corinthians 7:29-31, you are more than your marital status, occupation and possessions, and there is a sense in which you should “live as if you were not married, had no dealings with the world, and did not take full possession of anything that you own.”
Indeed, a key feature of the Bible’s perspective on personal identity is not to regard other people “by what they seem to be” (2 Corinthians. 5:16), but to consider them from God’s point of view.
Ed: What would you say to the issues of our day where people ‘self-identify’ in ways that Christians might find problematic to the Scriptures?
Brian: I don’t deal directly with this issue in the book. But, to be honest, I think the Bible is against all ‘self-identification’. Personal identity is not a ‘do-it-yourself’ project. And the notion of a ‘buffered self,’ as it’s called, where we find ourselves by excluding external influences and simply look inwards, is a postmodern invention, and a bad idea!
We are social beings and know ourselves by being known by others. Rather than say, “I know myself, therefore I am,” it is better to say, “I am known, therefore I am.” And for believers in Christ, when it comes to the core of personal identity, who you really are, being known by God is where it’s at.
Ed: That brings us to the title and central idea of your book—being known by God. It’s not an obvious angle on the question of personal identity. How does it work as a unifying theme?
Brian: It works very well. It’s a neglected angle, no doubt. But once I started digging, it’s like I fell into Smaug’s Cave in The Hobbit, after the dragon had been defeated: gold and gems everywhere, and all of it for the taking!
I’m not talking about omniscience—that God knows about everyone—but the notion that God knows believers intimately and personally, as a parent knows their child. Our identity as his children is grounded and sustained by his constant attentiveness. He remembers us when we are in trouble and he knows our names. Being known by God overlaps with other biblical themes, such as being made in the image of God and being in union with Christ and puts them in a different light.
Ed: Speaking of Christ, evangelical biblical theology typically puts Jesus Christ at the center. Where does Jesus fit in your understanding of the Bible’s teaching about personal identity?
Brian: In short, he fits very snugly. Pilate said, “Behold the man!” And the identity of Jesus Christ as the Son of God is central to human identity. The twist in the tail is that Jesus Christ also embraces his identity by being known by God.
Ed: The series of which your book is a part is called “Biblical Theology for Life.” Each of the volumes has a long section reflecting on the relevance of the material under discussion for everyday life. What are the practical implications of finding your identity in being known by God as his child?
Brian: There are four main benefits, all of which figure prominently in the Bible and to which I can give personal testimony. Being known by God gives a person a profound sense of significance and value, it provokes a needed humility, supplies cheering comfort when things go wrong, and offers clear direction for how to live.
Ed Stetzer holds the Billy Graham Distinguished Chair of Church, Mission, and Evangelism at Wheaton College, is executive director of the Billy Graham Center, and publishes church leadership resources through Mission Group.