A gym near where I live advertises itself with the slogan “Be Fit. Be Well. Be You.” A new apartment complex around the corner, offering high-end luxury designs, carries the line “An Unlimited You.” One school’s marketing gave this advice to its current and prospective students: “Be Inspired. Be Challenged. Be Excellent. Be You.” People everywhere say, “Be true to yourself,” “Follow your heart,” “Be yourself,” “You do you.” We live in an age of unprecedented interest in the subject of personal identity.
Most people today believe there is only one place to look to find yourself, and that is inward. Personal identity is a do-it-yourself project. All forms of external authority are to be rejected, and everyone’s quest for self-expression should be celebrated. You are who you feel yourself to be on the inside, and acting in accordance with this identity constitutes living authentically. This movement is sometimes called expressive individualism.
Dangers of Self Focus
In itself, of course, there is nothing wrong with looking inward. Personal exploration and self-reflection are valuable (2 Corinthians 13:5). The desire to see many marginalized groups in society, whose identity markers differ from the mainstream, given appropriate dignity is commendable. And authenticity as a moral ideal is a good thing.
However, notwithstanding these benefits, there are fatal flaws with the strategy of only looking inward to find yourself.
First, the focus on self generates a fragile self, easily destabilized and lacking in genuine and lasting self-knowledge. Receiving her honorary doctorate from New York University, Taylor Swift summed up the identity cultural moment in this way: “We are so many things, all the time. And I know it can be overwhelming figuring out who to be. . . . I have some good news: It’s totally up to you. I also have some terrifying news: it’s totally up to you.”
Along with the exciting opportunity to find yourself comes the daunting possibility of not succeeding — or of not liking what you find. The cruel irony is that while it’s never been more important to know who you are, it’s never been more difficult. According to Kevin Vanhoozer, “The human race is suffering from a collective identity crisis” (The Cambridge Companion to Christian Doctrine, 158).
Looking inward to find yourself also fails to lead to the good life. Many widely reported societal trends suggest that life is getting worse rather than better for many people: rises in cases of anxiety and depression, an explosion of narcissism, the absence of compassion in our society, our culture of reflexive outrage, and (by any measure) a fall in happiness and well-being.
People point in many directions for an explanation of such trends: not enough mindfulness, technology addling our brains, crowd behavior, the failure of major institutions (politicians, churches, media, banks), loss of shared values, absence of community cohesion, and so on. However, some of these are symptoms rather than causes. I suggest that a big part of the problem comes from where we’re looking to find ourselves. And that means the solution includes a broader perspective.
Where to Look to Find Yourself
Being social beings, we look around to others; we know ourselves by being known, intimately and personally, by those around us. The limitations of self-knowledge are impressed upon me every time I shop for clothes and the change room has more than one mirror. Or when I listen to my voice on a recording. In both cases, I think, Who is that?
You and I might like to think of ourselves as boldly expressing our individuality in order to find our true selves, but the truth is that rather than a being a single soaring eagle, eyeing our prey from a great height, we are more like a honking goose in a tight V-shaped flight formation. Like geese, we humans are also wired to be interdependent, secure in a network of relationships, with invisible connections and indissoluble ties.
Being storytelling beings, we also look backward and forward to our life stories. Your story is fundamental to your personal identity, but it’s not an individual story: we live in shared stories. The metanarrative, or big story, in which each of us lives is a combination of defining moments, goals, and expectations of life. These can be related to the stories of our families, nations, ethnicities, social classes, and religious faiths.
Being worshiping beings, we also look upward to God. This third direction is of course the most controversial, given that not everyone professes faith in God. Yet looking up, one way or another, seems to be an irrepressible human urge. The confronting truth is that we will serve the true and living God or dumb idols (Joshua 24:14–15), gods that fail. And as Peter Leithart contends, “Personal identity cannot be anchored convincingly without transcendence” (Solomon Among the Postmoderns, 131).
You Are Known by God
We are profoundly social, deeply story-driven, and we have eternity in our hearts. To find ourselves, we look around, back and forth to our stories, and upward to God. According to the Bible, all three are important, but looking up is the key. And the cross of Christ makes all the difference.
Being known by others has its limitations, given the imperfection and impermanence of our relationships. One blessing of the gospel is that those who trust in Christ not only know God, but are also known by him, intimately and personally, as his children. This gives our lives comfort and significance and a stable sense of self: “Now that you have come to know God, or rather to be known by God . . .” (Galatians 4:9).
And this identity is a gift that shapes our conduct and character as God conforms us to the family likeness: “Those whom [God] foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn among many brothers” (Romans 8:29).
You Belong to God
The gospel teaches that “you are not your own” (1 Corinthians 6:19). In the age of expressive individualism, a more countercultural statement is hard to imagine.
Yet even in our day of insisting on the priority and benefits of personal autonomy, there are some contexts in which belonging to someone else is still seen in a positive light. A young child lost in a shopping mall makes no complaint when his mother turns up and claims him as her own. Likewise, while it is open to abuse, true romantic love has at its heart a mutual belonging. Countless love songs, starting with the Song of Solomon in the Bible, contain refrains along the lines of “My beloved is mine, and I am his” (2:16; see also 6:3).
Indeed, given the social animals that we are, nothing gives us more of a sense of value and worth than being loved to such an extent that we belong to another. Far from distressing or oppressive, such an embrace reassures and liberates us. Indeed, love is the context of Paul’s startling assertion “You are not your own.” The words following Paul’s rejection of personal autonomy explain why you belong to another: “You were bought with a price” (1 Corinthians 6:19–20).
To all who are in Christ, the cross of Christ proclaims that God has claimed you as his very own; you belong to him. But surrendering yourself in this way does not lead to the eradication of your self, or any kind of oppressive subjugation. In losing yourself and belonging to one who loves you with an everlasting love, you will find your true self.
You Cannot Define Yourself
Looking up gives us a new and better story in which to live: the story of God’s people. This story also offers the ultimate indictment of expressive individualism. It asserts that you don’t have it within you to define yourself. You need an intervention from outside of yourself. It is both the bleakest and the brightest story on offer, pessimistic about human nature, but instilled with glorious hope.
Intriguingly, this story is based on the life story of Jesus Christ: “You died, and your identity is now hidden with Christ in God. When Christ, who is your life story, appears, then you also will appear with him in glory” (Colossians 3:3–4, my translation). As Colossians 3:5–17 goes on to explain, putting on the new self is at the heart of the Christian life. Believers in Christ are those who have died with Christ, who have been raised with him, and whose destiny is tied up with his glorious appearing.