Bruce Jenner and Rachel Dolezal are two individuals that you may have heard of in the past few weeks. Bruce Jenner is an Olympic decathlon gold medalist who recently announced that he is in the process of becoming his “true” self: a female named Caitlyn. Rachel Dolezal is a female from Washington whose parents are both Caucasian, while Rachel identifies as black and is the head of the local NAACP in Spokane. Both of these situations are examples of an increasingly public discussion on ideas concerning self-declared “identity.”
How are we, as the redeemed in Christ, to think not only about these two circumstances, but for new ones in the future? What do we mean by “identity”? For Bruce and Rachel, identity means being included in a group that they feel comfortable in–identifying with a set of customs and rituals that a group of people have accepted. For Bruce, who feels that he is a woman, this means wearing dresses and long hair and giving himself the name of Caitlyn. For Rachel, it is a connection with African Americans even though by her skin tone she would be identified with whites. Neither one of these short sentences hardly scratches the surface when it comes to probing deep into what we mean when we say “men,” “women” or “white” and “black.” When Bruce Jenner says he identifies as a woman what is his definition of “woman”? So much of what we would define a woman as is culturally dictated. If you went to another time or place the definition would be different. So what is the underlying issue that drives people like Bruce and Rachel to seek identities outside of the ones that intrinsically belong to them?
“The greatest enemy to human souls is the self-righteous spirit which makes men look to themselves for salvation.” Charles Spurgeon
Finding identity is our attempt to save ourselves. We sense the brokenness in us, even if we can’t perceive what is broken. For some, it is a lack of productivity and worth is found in leaving success to one’s children. Others seek a remedy for their brokenness in relationships, either romantic, friendly, or with their children. Still others feel a need for more drastic change, as in the case of Bruce Jenner, whose self-diagnosis told him that he “has a woman’s soul” and therefore he was living a lie as a man. The modern search for identity is another form of idol worship. Instead of men and women finding their identities in images of wood and stone, they are finding them in more abstract idols like success, feelings of love, and cultural norms.
God has not left us to our own devices to come up with our identity. He gave us His Word, the Bible. The Bible tells us that God is the one who created mankind and gave man and woman their original identities, in which their significance was found in community with Him. God is the beginning and the ultimate end of our identity. The Bible tells us that mankind fell from its perfect realization of its identity given us by our Creator, and we are now, according to Romans 1.21-23, forever trading the glory of God for created things. Sin has turned our focus in on ourselves, and we hate what we see in the depths of our being, so we are constantly clawing for something that we will never find in creation because we were never meant to find it in creation—identity. Romans 7.15-19 tells us our bodies are at war within themselves. Because of sin, we chase after anything to make ourselves feel secure in own skin, even if it means procedures as radical as gender “re-assignment” or as simple as embellishing a resume.
Because of sin, we chase after anything to make ourselves feel secure in own skin.
Enter Jesus. Jesus comes as the second and truer Image of God (2 Corinthians 4.4, Colossians 1.15), and we are being conformed back into that Image (Romans 8.29). Our original communion with God and others is being put right. Peter tells us in 1 Peter 2.9-10, “You are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s special possession, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light. Once you were not a people, but now you are the people of God; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy.” No longer is our identity dictated by cultural norms or our individual actions. Instead we die with Christ and live now by faith to accomplish the task of making God known amongst our neighbors and the nations (Galatians 2.20). It seems abstract at first, but what this means is that men and women can now go anywhere at any time and be anything to anyone. This is Paul’s point when he declares in 1 Corinthians 9.22, “I have become all things to all people, that by all means I might save some.” We don’t hold ourselves to or give our culture’s expectations to the nations, we give Jesus and His teachings (Matthew 28.19-20) so that the gospel of Jesus starts to transform the culture by the power of the Spirit wherever it goes.
God through Christ gives His people their true names and identities.
When we see people trying desperately to write their own identity, whether through work, family, sexuality, gender, etc. we, as Christians, know what they are really searching for. When we see Bruce Jenner as he pursues this path for identity we know that it will never satisfy him. He may feel that he has found his “true” self, but he is deceiving himself and will soon have to face the hard reality that nothing in this life can satisfy our deepest longings for identity because the mirror in which we see who we are is not a horizontal one, but a vertical one. We are called to bear witness to the good news that Christ has inaugurated the Kingdom of God on earth and that we live in the not-yet-now of the final healing of everything, including our sin-warped identities. In His salvific work, God through Christ gives His people their true names and identities (Isaiah 62.4, Revelation 2.17). And we, as the people of God, are to live before the world bearing the image of God Himself so that the world will know He alone is the eternally joyful end of desperate search for identity.