“I’M A CREATIVE” & OTHER SIGNS OF IDENTITY IDOLATRY
Written by Doug Ponder on July 24, 2015
What’s Your Identity?
Recently I stumbled upon a website offering some résumé-building tips. I’m not in the market for a new job (I plan to serve in my church until I retire or die), but I read the article anyway.
One recommendation in particular caught my eye: “The word creative is fine,” it read, “just don’t use it to describe yourself.” Apparently these experts were tired of reading thousands of résumés from people who said, “I’m a creative.”
I’m not interested in picking on people who use that phrase. I’m interested in the reason why so many people are drawn to describe their identity like that. Indeed, the Internet is full of articles aimed at readers who self-identify in certain ways:
“22 Things Creative People Do Differently Than the Rest”
“12 Things Every Introvert Wishes You Understood”
“13 Things Nurses Are Tired of Hearing”
“15 Things Only a Dog Owner Will Understand”
“45 Things Only People Who Grew Up in the South Can Appreciate”
At the heart of each of these articles is the assumption that the topic of the article is the most important thing about you, the defining characteristic of your life. I’m a creative. I’m an introvert. I’m a nurse. I’m a dog owner. I’m a Southerner.
Now, we almost universally reject such labels when someone else attempts to foist one upon us. That’s why the cesspool of public opinion that is Urban Dictionary has nothing but fierce denunciations of “labels.” But we don’t seem to mind labeling ourselves: #coffeesnob #glutenfreechef #extremejuicer #organicshopper #catlover #workingmom. The list of labels grows ever longer.
The Journey to Find Ourselves
It is not a small inconsistency that we love defining our own identity but hate when others attempt to do so for us. Rather, this discrepancy reveals the heart of one of humanity’s oldest problems: “Come, let us build ourselves a city, with a tower that reaches to the heavens, so that we may make a name for ourselves” (Genesis 11:4).
Their quest didn’t end well, as everyone who’s read about the tower of Babel knows. We still speak of those tower-builders today, but they do not possess the name they sought for themselves—only one of shame and judgment. That is how every journey to “find ourselves” or “define our identity” or “to make a name for ourselves” is doomed to end, yet we continue trying on new labels like a girl in search of the perfect prom dress.
This tendency arises in us because we have an enduring desire to discover who we are. We want to know something solid about ourselves that we can grasp onto, something that makes us feel significant and uniquely loved, something that we can point to and confidently say, “This is me. I know who I am.”
The False Gospel of Self-Discovery
As I’ve written about before, we don’t know who we are. But that doesn’t stop us from trying to find out. Indeed, the long story of human history is a Gauguin-ian quest to discover where we came from, what we are, and where we are headed. Our central problem, then, is that we continue looking to ourselves to define our identity, and this solution hasn’t worked—and never will. The self makes a terrible point of reference when trying to define the self.
This is the false gospel of our modern times. It is the “good news” of self-realization and so-called authenticity. But the uneasiness in our souls points to the reality we don’t yet recognize: there’s nothing authentic about the labels we adopt for ourselves, and the ‘logic’ of authenticity has already shown itself to be self-defeating. Hence our culture inconsistently says it’s correct to tell a gay man, “You were born this way,” while simultaneously claiming it is oppressive to say the same thing to a transgender man.
The stunning good news about Jesus includes a surprising reversal of the world’s way of thinking. While everyone everywhere is telling us, “Just be yourself,” Jesus says that way of living is actually the source of all our problems. So instead of our endless identity-searching, label-making, and faith in uninhibited self-expression, Jesus invites us to do something refreshingly different: ‘Deny yourself, take up your cross daily, and follow me’ (Luke 9:23).
The True Gospel of Grace
In the light of the gospel we see that the Babel-like attempt to make a name for ourselves can never lead us where we want to go. The only way up is down (humility). The only way forward is looking back (to creation and the cross). And the only way to find our true selves is to lose the self we have tried to create in our own image (Matt. 10:39). For we already have an identity, and who we are is His. Jesus has given us a new name, which can never be taken away. The facts of his cross bring the weight of God’s reality to bear upon our lives, setting us free from every self-centered attempt to carve out an identity for ourselves.
Do you feel dirty or shameful? Jesus says you are fully clean (Eph. 5:26-27). Do you feel condemned? Jesus says you are completely forgiven, now and always (Rom. 8:1). Do you feel lost or alone? Jesus says he will never leave you or forsake you (Deut. 31:6), and he will come again to receive you to himself (John 14:3). Do you feel insignificant? Jesus says you are a co-heir with him in God’s eternal kingdom, made a citizen by his glorious grace (2 Pet. 1:11). Do you feel unwanted or unloved? Jesus says he loved you to the point of death on a cross (Rom. 5:8). Do you feel hopeless, like your life is a lost cause? Jesus says he is making all things new, and that includes you (Rev. 21:5).
In all of this, therefore, we see that we have no need to self-define our identity, to make a name for ourselves. For we have a new name and an unshakeable identity through Jesus Christ our Lord. We are his, and he is ours. And as one author aptly puts it, “When we come before Him, we find all our self-idenitifcations going up in a blaze, like tissue paper in a wood stove.” But for those in Christ, the smoke that rises comes not from the lake of fire and sulfur, but from the refiner’s flames that melt away the dross (1 Pet. 1:7). And when his work is done, we’ll see that who we are is who we’ve always been by grace.
Doug Ponder is one of the founding pastors of Remnant Church in Richmond, VA, where he serves in many of the church’s teaching ministries. He has contributed to several published works and is the author of Rethink Marriage & Family. His interests include the intersection of theology, ethics, and the Christian life. Follow him on Twitter @dougponder.