My children joke that every few years I go through an identity crisis. They aren’t completely wrong. The upheaval of each international move followed by a change in role and community does give rise to a certain identity angst and its accompanying quest for belonging. Decisions over how to dress and what labels to use in introducing myself give rise to the deeper questions of who I am, from where I derive my value, and with whom I belong.
Without the taproot of a secure connection to God, we are unable to relate securely with each other.
The more I look around, I suspect our society is in the midst of an identity crisis. Whether this crisis is the inevitable aftermath of soul-denying modernism or the product of media-induced hyper-connectivity at the cost of local community, the signs are obvious. We are scrambling to stake out who we are, what matters to us, and with which tribe we belong. Issues such as our opinions on health practices, racial narratives, and political parties suddenly define us more than where we live, to whom we are related, or to Whom we belong. Interestingly, it is not enough for us to simply know these things about ourselves. We feel compelled to make sure that everyone else knows them about us and, while we are at it, that everyone associated with us identifies themselves in the same way. Yet our fierce insistence on our labels only reveals how deeply insecure we really are.
But what is making us insecure? Why is this new form of tribalism suddenly so urgent that it would transcend our former relationships and suck us in to virtual “position” wars? While recently working with a cohort of Christian leaders in Nigeria, we identified displacement, loss of livelihood, and loss of cultural or religious identity as threats that give rise to oppositional identity. This posture of “my identity at others’ expense” comes from fear of scarcity or loss and leads to distrust, division, hostility, and eventually violence. It doesn’t take much to see the similarity between ethnic conflicts in Nigeria and tribal polarization in America. We erect media barriers, dig positional trenches, and lob slander grenades to preserve an identity that we feel is under threat.
Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in the heavenly realms with every spiritual blessing in Christ. For he chose us in him before the creation of the world to be holy and blameless in his sight. In love he predestined us for adoption to sonship through Jesus Christ, in accordance with his pleasure and will…
I wonder, however, if the real threat is from within. We don’t know who we are, what gives us value, and to whom we belong. Our identity dysphoria leads us to lash out at anyone whose difference exposes our inner insecurity. Untethered from any deeper sense of meaning, value, or belonging, we frantically lash ourselves to those labels and groups which provide the illusion of a stable identity and community.
His purpose was to create in himself one new humanity out of the two, thus making peace, and in one body to reconcile both of them to God through the cross, by which he put to death their hostility. He came and preached peace to you who were far away and peace to those who were near. For through him we both have access to the Father by one Spirit. Consequently, you are no longer foreigners and strangers, but fellow citizens with God’s people and also members of his household, built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the chief cornerstone.
The human need for a secure identity is primal. Knowing who we are forms the foundation for interpersonal relationships and social functioning. Years ago I took a seminary class on the book of Ephesians while at the same time discipling a group of South Asian women who were new believers in Christ. They had left behind their former cultural-religious narrative and needed a new sense of history, belonging, and purpose. My professor emphasized the major theme of identity in Ephesians, pointing out Paul’s agenda to root pagan-background Greek Christians in a narrative that would hold them together with their Jewish Christian counterparts. That shed new light on Paul’s labelling them as “God’s holy people in Ephesus,” his retelling of the story of their adoption, inclusion, and eternal purpose, his prayer for them to be rooted and established together in love, and his instructions on how to live in community. This was just the sort of identity formation my South Asian sisters needed. They needed a taproot of secure connection to God and each other if they were to flourish.
For this reason I kneel before the Father, from whom every family in heaven and on earth derives its name. I pray that out of his glorious riches he may strengthen you with power through his Spirit in your inner being, so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith. And I pray that you, being rooted and established in love, may have power, together with all the Lord’s holy people, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, and to know this love that surpasses knowledge—that you may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God.
Perhaps the same could be said of us. Without the taproot of a secure connection to God, we are unable to relate securely with each other. We need His direct, steady affirmation of love for us. We need to know who we are in His eyes and what we are in His telling of our story. This comes as we sit long in His presence, consume a steady diet of His Media, and imbibe deeply of His Spirit. Deepened intimacy with God produces a security within ourselves that will in turn enable greater elasticity in our engagement with others.
Far from encountering difference as a form of threat, we will experience it as an opportunity to learn and grow.
As I have learned through my many life transitions, identity crises present a beautiful opportunity to return to our Source and deepen our roots in His love. The questions they raise can lift our eyes to the grand narrative from which we derive our meaning and in which we currently participate. If we know who we are, from where we draw our value, and to Whom we belong, we can be open to those around us, able to receive the gifts and absorb the shocks that come through our interactions. Far from encountering difference as a form of threat, we will experience it as an opportunity to learn and grow.
I urge you to live a life worthy of the calling you have received. Be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love. Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to one hope when you were called; one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all. But to each one of us grace has been given as Christ apportioned it.
In 2021 our tribalism is competing with our identity in Christ, threatening to transcend the unity we share as His Church. Among the saints at Ephesus, just as in the Church of our day, “one Lord, one faith, one baptism” does not negate our differences; rather it encompasses them, tethering us all to a shared Center. This is the holy common ground on which we take our stand.
…until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ.
Ephesians 1:3-5, 2:18-20, 3:14-18, 4:1-7, 4:13.