5 Myths about Your Personal Identity

This article is part of the 5 Myths series.

Where to Find Yourself

Personal identity is a subject of unprecedented interest in our day. Knowing who you are and being true to yourself are seen as signs of good mental health and well-being, and the keys to authentic living and true happiness.

Most people today believe that 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. This strategy of identity formation, sometimes labeled expressive individualism, is the view that you are who you feel yourself to be on the inside and that acting in accordance with this identity constitutes living authentically.

How to Find Yourself

Brian S. Rosner

This book challenges the popular idea that expressive individualism—looking inward—is the sole basis of one’s identity. Brian Rosner provides an approach to identity formation that looks outward to others and upward to God, which leads to a more stable and satisfying sense of self.

Despite some clear benefits, key aspects of expressive individualism are open to question.

Myth #1: The best way to find yourself is to look inward.

In principle, there is nothing wrong with looking inward. Personal exploration and self-reflection are valuable. The desire to see many marginalized groups in society, those whose
identity markers differ from the mainstream, given appropriate dignity is commendable. And authenticity as a moral ideal is a good thing.

But there are three fatal flaws with the strategy of only looking inward to find yourself. It generates a fragile self, being easily destabilized and lacking in genuine and lasting self-knowledge; it is failing to lead to the good life, too easily producing selves that are self-deceived, self-absorbed, and self-centered; and it rests on faulty foundations.

In order to find yourself there are three other places to look: (1) around to others; we know ourselves by being known intimately and personally by others; (2) backward and forward to your life story; and (3) upward to God.

The third is the most controversial. Yet, looking up, one way or another, seems to be an irrepressible human urge. The idea that human beings have an incurable predilection to worship is certainly the Bible’s view of human nature. Each of us has a God-given awareness that there is something more to life than what we experience on earth; God has “put eternity in the human heart” (Eccl 3:11). And as Rowan Williams asserts, “without the transcendent we shall find ourselves unable, sooner or later, to make any sense of the full range of human self-awareness.”

Myth #2: The Bible has nothing to say about personal identity.

Given that the focus on personal identity is a relatively recent development, we might assume that the Bible, a collection of ancient texts, has little to say on the subject.

However, although no word is typically translated into English as “identity,” several words in the Bible have a wide range of meaning and include the notion of personal identity and the self. In certain contexts, for example, words usually translated as “soul” and “life” can be rendered “identity.” When Jesus says in the Sermon on the Mount, “life is more than food, and the body more than clothing” (Matt. 6:25), we might translate, “your identity is more than food and clothing” pointing to his insistence on the limited role of material possessions in defining a person. When in Psalm 19:7 it says that “the law of the Lord refreshes the soul,” we can legitimately translate, “The law of the Lord refreshes your true identity,” your very self. The Bible actually includes the injunction to “think about yourself with sober judgment” (Rom. 12:3).

Myth #3: You are your ethnicity, gender, or sexuality.

Many people today define themselves in terms of certain identity markers. Along with your ethnicity, gender, or sexuality, other markers such as your race, nationality, age, culture, physical or mental capacity, occupation, possessions, and marital status are also often critical for self-definition.

However, the Bible judges the traditional identity markers to be inadequate foundations upon which to build your personal identity. According to Galatians 3:28, you are more than your race, ethnicity, nationality, culture and gender, for “in Christ Jesus “there is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” And according to 1 Corinthians 7:29-31, you are more than your marital status, occupation and possessions, and there is a sense in which you should “live as if you were not married, had no dealings with the world, and did not take full possession of anything that you own.”

While such markers of identity are essential for personal identity, they are not the whole story. The traditional identity markers are all important, but none of them is all-important.

Myth #4: You belong to yourself.

You belong to yourself sounds like a solemn declaration of human rights; being subject to some external authority is almost the definition of oppression. Yet, with respect to finding yourself, the elevation of personal autonomy to ultimate status is misguided. The Bible takes an entirely different course. Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 6:19 what sounds like a direct rebuttal of expressive individualism: “you are not your own.”

The cross of Christ proclaims that God has claimed you as his very own; you belong to him.

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 her parent turns up and claims her as the parent’s 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, 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 that you are not your own. The words following Paul’s rejection of personal autonomy in 1 Corinthians 6:19–20 explain why you belong to another: “you were bought with a price.” You belong to another because you are loved beyond measure. That love was expressed in the high cost of your redemption: “you were ransomed from the futile ways . . . not with perishable things such as silver or gold, but with the precious blood of Christ” (1 Pet. 1:18–19).

The cross of Christ proclaims that God has claimed you as his very own; you belong to him. But the surrendering of yourself in this way does not lead to the eradication of yourself or an oppressive subjugation. In losing yourself and belonging to one who loves you with an everlasting love, you will find your true self.

Myth #5: Your unique life story defines you.

Telling your own story is at the heart of expressive individualism. We might even say that our day is characterized by “incessant autobiography,” a term coined by C. S. Lewis, which is a fitting way of describing how everyone seems to be feverishly telling their life stories on the various platforms of social media. It is possible today to document your life story in considerable detail and publish it widely on a daily basis.

Your story is fundamental to your personal identity, but it’s not an individual story. Being social animals, we live in shared stories. It is a mistake to think that our life stories are simply our own making and played out in isolation from others. The metanarrative, or big story, in which each of us lives is a combination of defining moments, goals and expectations of life related to stories handed to us by our families and related to the stories of our nations, ethnicities, social classes, and religious faiths.

There are two big stories to which the vast majority of people in the West subscribe today, and these are playing a big role in forming people’s identities. They are the story of secular materialism and the story of social justice. Both are fueled by the movement of expressive individualism. Like any good story, they each have a basic plot and setting, key turning points, central themes, stock characters, conflicts to be resolved, and an anticipated climax. While they are understandably attractive in various ways, both are seriously flawed. As life stories go, they are ultimately unsatisfying because both have a truncated view of human nature and fail to look up.

The story of God’s people, on the other hand, is the ultimate indictment of the heart of the expressive individualism message. 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 a glorious hope. Intriguingly, it 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 (Col. 3:3-4; my own translation).

Brian S. Rosner is the author of How to Find Yourself: Why Looking Inward Is Not the Answer.

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