Online personality quizzes. Love ‘em or hate ‘em. They’ve become part and parcel of Internet life. We’re used to them popping up on our newsfeeds, uncovering apparently profound revelations about our friends (or at least about how our friends spend their time):
- “Which Downton Abbey character are you?"
- “Which city should you actually live in?”
- “Which Disney princess are you?”
And for all that they are just another bit of harmless internet fun. There’s also something about them that’s intriguing and attractive. We're drawn to the idea of defining ourselves, labelling ourselves, although of course we’ll happily not share a particular quiz's results if they don’t square so nicely with how we like to think of ourselves.
(Oh, and before you ask, I was Queen Elsa).
But what about when we ask ourselves a slightly different question:
When God turns his attention to you, what does he think of you? How does he see you?
How we answer that will take us to the heart of what we think primarily defines us, and how we understand our Christian identity. Of course much life can feel like one long identity crisis, particularly when our circumstances change.
I remember leaving my home for the first time, and heading off to the sunny climes of South Africa for six months. I loved inhaling the new experiences and cultures, but I was also very aware that things had changed. I didn’t have family, friends, or my church family around me, and suddenly I found myself asking “who am I?”
Identity Issues in Galatia
I needed to learn that Jesus is better than finding my identity anywhere else.
And it’s not just individuals who go through identity crises. Whole churches can suffer from them too. The Apostle Paul’s letter to the church in Galatia reveals a young group of Christians suffering from what we could describe as an identity crisis.
And Paul’s response takes us to the heart of why Jesus is better than finding our identity anywhere else.
The Galatian church were being heavily influenced by another group of believers who were calling their very Christian identity into question. They were being told that the way to grow and mature in the Christian life was to keep parts of the Old Testament law, to get circumcised, and to remember special so-called holy days. The implication was that only in doing these things could the Galatians be sure that when God looked at them he was pleased. Naturally it sounded so holy, so spiritual: “Yes, Jesus is important, of course he is, but if you were truly part of God’s family, you’d also be doing this…” But it was dangerous because it was subtle. And when Paul got wind of what was going on, there were fireworks.
Take a look at this section towards the end of chapter three:
26 So in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith, 27 for all of you who were baptised into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. 28 There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. 29 If you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise.
Notice the striking language Paul uses. Twice he describes their relationship to Jesus as being “in” him (v26, 28), as well as also saying they’ve been baptized into Christ and clothed with Christ (v27).
Perhaps it’s just me, but that’s not often how I describe being a Christian and I think that’s why we often go wrong when it comes to our Christian identity.
When we become a Christian, Paul says we’re now “in Christ Jesus.” We’ve been bound to him, united with him, immersed into his death and resurrection, and so securely enjoy all his benefits, as if we were him. Paul phrases it as if Christ is the garment around us. Totally wrapped. At one.
And as he unpacks this truth in v28, he deals a killer blow to all other ways of defining ourselves. These first-century Christians were no longer to define themselves as primarily Jew or Greek, slave or free, male or female. First and foremost their identity was “in Christ.” Of course some of these may not be the exact categories we’re tempted to see as definitive for us in 2014, but we’re certainly still susceptible to chasing after various identity markers.
Take the imagery of clothing that Paul uses: how we dress is often an example of how we informally mark ourselves out as part of a certain crowd: preppy, hipster, or whatever. Of course. it can also formally do this, as our “uniform”: overalls, blue collar, white collar, exec., etc.
And then there are all the groupings that we define ourselves by. “I’m in that crowd”—whether it be social, theological, racial, denominational, or political.
And as Christians define, we often also divide. That’s what was happening in the Galatian church. Because they were defining their Christian identity by certain practices, that naturally divided the church. Unsurprisingly those Christians from a Jewish background were seen as a notch above those who were from Gentile backgrounds.
And that’s the way it’ll always be when we look for our primary identity outside of being “in Christ.” Other identity markers will leave us constantly seeking to be in the right group, either looking down on those who aren’t in or striving to be like who we want to be.
But Jesus is better than a life of that.
When we’re “in Christ,” we already have everything he has. It’s not that those other identity markers go away. I’m still a bloke, still someone’s employee, and still British. Those differences amongst us still remain, whether it’s culture, class, or our role.
But what has changed is that these have ceased to be the primary way of identifying ourselves. I’m now primarily “in Christ.”
And as Paul explains in 3:29, because Jesus is the promised heir of God’s great promise of blessing made to Abraham back in Genesis, that means we’re also to be considered heirs of that promise. Like Jesus is God’s Son, we’re also now adopted as sons (4:5). In the first-century that was both a way of saying we have the full legal standing of the adopted heir, as well as also being a familial, relational term. God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, so that we can cry “Abba Father!”
Although all of humanity is created by God and made in his image, our rejection of him means that our relationship is not marked by friendship but enmity. Yet through faith in Christ, God no longer sees us as enemies but as his Son, as his children. This is the end of looking elsewhere for our identity.
As David Powlinson says, “The true Gospel does not allow God’s love to be sucked into the vortex of the soul’s lust for acceptability and worth in and of itself. Rather, it radically decenters people.”
Jesus is better than striving to find my identity anywhere else. Rather than looking within ourselves, or at our shifting standing within a social order, we’re called to instead exercise our trust in another, Jesus Christ and enjoy the very relationship with our God that the Son of God had with his Father.
Robin Ham (@rhamage) is completing an MA in Theology at Oak Hill College (www.oakhill.ac.uk) in London, as part of his training to be a pastor in the Church of England. He is married to Zoe and has one daughter. He loves writing and loves spellcheck even more. He blogs on theology, social media, and culture at hamage.wordpress.com. You can follow him on Twitter.