I recently watched a documentary about a 16-year-old boy in the UK who wanted to become a drag queen. He had already come out as gay and had decided to come out as a drag queen at his school prom. I found this deeply sad, particularly because of his somewhat tenuous relationship with his father, from whom he desperately wanted some approval and yet received none. This program prompted some theological reflection. It was a statement that this 16-year-old made which set these thoughts in motion. He said that he just wanted to be who he is instead of hiding it.
The problem here is not so much that Jamie wants to be a drag queen or that he is gay. Those are merely symptoms, not the heart of the problem. The problem is that he wants to define his own identity – “this is who I am.” This is a problem which we all have, not just cross-dressers, LGBTQ and drag queens. Theirs is but one manifestation of the human condition. Every one of us wants to define our own identity because every one of us is rebellious against the Creator to various degrees.
In the beginning God created human beings in his image and according to his likeness (Gen 1:26-28). One implication of this is that humans are made to be defined by their Creator, since as created beings they reflect the one who made them. The first humans had their identity given to them as creatures, who are the crown of creation. This is the way we are intended to gain our identity, that is, from God.
But unfortunately humans did not continue to draw their identity from the Creator for long. There are no identity statements made by humans before the fall; only God defines humanity. But after the fall humans begin to make identity statements and those were the result of sin. When God was walking in the Garden of Eden he asked Adam, “Where are you?” and Adam replied, “I heard you in the garden, and I was afraid because I was naked; so I hid” (Gen 3:8-10). It is clear from verse 11 that this statement of Adam’s is the result of his eating of the forbidden tree. Adam’s sinful identity statements are twofold: I was afraid; and I was naked. Before he sinned Adam was not afraid. He was naked but it was certainly not an identity matter, since he was not even aware of it. Defining himself this way sprang from his rebellion against his Creator.
Since that time human beings have taken it upon themselves to define who and what they are. We say all sorts of things about ourselves: I am a happy person, I am a people person, I am a loner, I am intractably grumpy, I am useless. I’m not saying that if you make a positive statement about yourself then that is fine and a negative statement implies that you have an identity problem. In fact it is not what you say in regard to your identity that matters; it is that you take it upon yourself to make an identity statement that is the problem. It is a problem because we have no right to define our own identities. That right belongs to our Creator and we have usurped that right as rebellious creatures, who want to be our own gods. We want to be god and to determine everything about our own existence, including who we say we are.
Jesus did not define his own identity. He always thought about himself and spoke about himself in relation to the Father. He was sent by the Father; he did the works of the Father; he spoke the words of the Father; and he did the will of the Father (John 5:36; 12:49). He did not succumb to the temptation to define his own identity nor did he allow others to define his identity. But when Jesus was crucified he lost his connection to the Father. He cried out from the cross, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Mark 15:34). At that moment Jesus did not know God as Father any more. He did not know himself as the Son. He lost his identity. He experienced what it is to be under the power of sin. We might understand this event by linking Romans 1 and Romans 8. Rom 1:18-32 describes the wrath of God against sinners. Humans refuse the knowledge of God. They do not define themselves according to their Creator, but ignore him. Therefore God gives them over to their sin (1:24, 26, 28) and to self-definition. Romans 8:32 tells us that God gave over his only Son for us. (The word in Greek is the same – paradidomi). In his cry of dereliction from the cross Jesus is given over to sin and the consequences of that sin, which include the loss of true identity. It is in the resurrection that Jesus receives back his identity as Son. Rom 1:4 tells us that “through the Spirit of holiness he was declared with power to be the Son of God by the resurrection of the dead.”
Therefore, through his cross and resurrection Jesus has given us back the chance to know true identity as sons of God again. “But when the time had fully come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the law, to redeem those under the law that we might receive the full rights as sons. Because you are sons, God sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, the Spirit who calls out, ‘Abba, Father’” (Gal 4:4-6). For this reason we need to abandon the rebellious need to define our own identity. It is not an easy thing to do, but that is what repentance is for. Instead of deciding who you are, allow the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ define who you are. We, like Jesus, must refuse to define our own identities, refuse to allow others to define our identity, and instead accept the identity which has been given to us by God through Christ.
There are some implications of deciding to define your own identity. I think that a couple of recent examples in my own life might help to make the point. One is a few months old and the other one a few days old. Towards the end of last year I went to one of my periodic meetings with John Yates. One of the things which he told me was to be more nurturing. At the time I said to him, “There’s Buckley’s of that happening!” The whole idea of being nurturing was utterly terrifying since I thought of myself, had defined my identity, in terms of not being a people person. I said of myself, “I am not pastoral.” I was clearly busy defining my own identity instead of allowing the Father to do that for me. I have been working out repentance for this. More recently, while I was writing the draft of this, I found myself thinking of myself, “I am a very goal-centred person.” That is in fact an identity statement. I had to pull myself up when I realised what I was doing.
I think that three connected things flow out of defining your own identity. First, like me, you find excuses to not do the will of God. I said that I could not be nurturing because I am not a pastoral person. That is not true since I am being renewed into the image of my Creator (Col 3:10) and thus am able to care about people. So it is just an excuse for not doing what God wants me to do. If I define my own identity then I will continue to find reasons why I can’t do the will of God. Second, defining my own identity can result in refusal to mature as a Christian. Perhaps you say, “I have had a lot of sad experiences in my life, so I can’t be a godly person.” This is false. This is just defining who you are instead of allowing God to define you. Third, it results in refusal to repent. “I can’t stop being angry because that is just who I am, an angry person.” The truth is otherwise. I am united to Christ in his death and resurrection and now walk in the power of the Spirit. So I don’t have to be angry. That is not who I am and I need to repent of that characterisation of myself. So a continual process of repentance is necessary in order to stop making identity statements about myself, since I do not have the right to do that. I don’t doubt that you also make these kinds of statements about yourself and make the same kind of excuses. Repentance is the appropriate response.