“Who am I?”
This is THE question. Not everyone attempts to answer it the same way, but everyone wrestles with it. The search for self is why Alexander the Great pursued world domination. It’s why Bruce Jenner became Caitlyn Jenner. It’s why Donald Trump ran for President. It’s why your legal guardians raised you. And it’s why you make particular choices concerning career, relationships, and even style of clothing. This question of self-identity is more than just a philosophical exercise. It impacts daily decisions and commands the very trajectory of your entire life.
But what are we to do with such a weighty question? Where should we even start? The current culture confidently screams, “look within!” Personality tests like the Enneagram, Myers Briggs, and StrengthsFinder are as popular as ever. All the best-selling books on Amazon and the most watched TED talks tend to revolve around the topic of finding yourself. DNA tests like 23andMe and AncestryDNA have taken the world by storm. These tools may seem vastly different at first glance, but they appeal to the masses for one and the same reason – the promise of self-discovery. These tools glitter like gold because they promise to accurately tell you who you truly are.
Strangely though, I’ve found that despite this trend, the average adult today – and particularly the average Millennial – feels thoroughly out of place, and perhaps even lost. As we search, and search, and search within, we get excited to discover a new characteristic here, or a new personal fact there… but in understanding personal identity in its entirety, we never quite arrive. Complete self-knowledge and a thorough sense of identity are strangely elusive. We want to know who we are. We need to know. And we are certainly the most diagnosed and self-labelled generation in all of human history. But with every answer we obtain and with every label we latch onto, 100 more questions arise, and I’ve begun to wonder if our counselors and teachers and mentors could be wrong. I’ve begun to wonder if we’re looking in the wrong place, or even asking the wrong question…
When we want to understand a painting, we speak with the artist. When we want to understand a building, we speak with the architect. When we want to understand a complex piece of technology, we speak with the designer. But when we want to understand ourselves, when we want to understand a human being, who do we consult? Ourselves! It just doesn’t add up. The question is not “Who am I?” The better question is “Who is my Maker?” because maybe, just maybe, self-identity has existed outside of ourselves all along…
The secret to self-discovery is God-discovery.
Let’s go all the way back to the beginning. The first chapters in God’s Word recount how God handcrafted humankind in His own image, according to his own likeness. And if this is true, then human identity is forever linked to God’s identity. Let’s consider an illustration. Paper airplanes are made in the image, according to the likeness, of real airplanes. And if you want to understand airplanes, what they really and truly are, your best bet is not to become an expert on paper airplanes. No matter how many hours you spend pouring over the angles and points of a flimsy, paper-constructed-toy, your understanding can only advance so far. If you really want to understand the inner-workings, physics, purpose, function, and meaning of paper airplanes, you have to explore The Original, a real airplane. There are certainly some key differences between the two. The real one is bigger. It is better. And it does have some mind-boggling qualities and characteristics that a mere paper airplane lacks. And this is also true of the contrast between humans and God. But despite these differences, everything good in a paper airplane is present and perfected in a real airplane. And everything good in humans, created in the image of God, is present and perfect in God Himself.
Do you want to understand why you crave community? Consider the perfect community of the Triune God – Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, engaged in perfectly harmonious friendship since eternity’s past. God made you in His image. Do you want to understand why your blood boils when you encounter something unfair? Consider the perfect justice of God, which will one day be applied to make right everything that has been wrong. God made you in His image. Do you want to understand the grief you feel toward the death of loved ones and and the bitterness you feel in thinking about your own mortality? Consider the living God who has always existed and always will, the One who originally created humans in his likeness to live forever, and who will one day reverse death and give eternal life to those who trust in Him. God made you in His image. Everything that is good in humans is a reflection of His character.
But wait. There’s more…
For Christians, if we abide in God and God abides in us (1 Corinthians 3:13, 2 Corinthians 5:17, John 14:20, John 15:4), then how much more so is finding yourself achieved by seeking the God who literally lives inside of you?! The Holy Spirit chose you as his home and became cemented to who you are (1 Corinthians 3:16). This cannot be overemphasized. “Christ in you” (Colossians 1:27) is the fundamental reality of who you are, how you are, and why you are as a Christian. In this way, for believers, self-identity is doubly related to the identity of our God as He lives inside of us and continually shapes us to become more like Him. Paul even takes it a step further, claiming not only that he has found himself in Christ, but that Christ has actually replaced his identity altogether: “It is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me” (Galatians 2:20). This changes everything.
We can never find ourselves as a means to an end because, without Christ, our hearts are deceptive, self-centered, and sin-stained (Jeremiah 17:9). Although God created us perfect, our current identity has continually deteriorated since we rebelled and separated ourselves from Him. Without Christ, there exists a disconnect between who we are today and how God designed us. Should we look to how we currently exist as sin-stained people in a sin-stained world, or should we look toward the Person we were created to resemble, the Person the Holy Spirit continually shapes us to reflect, namely, Jesus Christ Himself? C.S. Lewis understood this reality: “Look for yourself, and you will find in the long run only hatred, loneliness, despair, rage, ruin, and decay. But look for Christ and you will find Him, and with Him everything else thrown in.”
When we can’t find ourselves, God says “I can and already have, so look to me for your identity, because you once were lost but now are found.” God is the only one who can tell us definitively who we are because He is the One who designed us, who truly knows and loves us, and who cleanses us to become more like Him. It’s a beautiful thing.
Matthew 10:39 (MSG) “If your first concern is to look after yourself, you’ll never find yourself. But if you forget about yourself and look to me, you’ll find both yourself and me.”
Finding and knowing God is the only way to truly find and know yourself. If your identity is the lock, your God is the key. The secret is ours, and so is the choice… Let’s stop looking inward. Let’s start looking upward.