The Dark Side of Identity
One consequence of the proliferation of “reality” TV seems to be a growth in the competition-izing of life. Who will be the next American Idol or America’s favorite dancer or the top chef or model or fashion designer? And, as we are regularly reminded, no one remembers who finishes second.
It’s not as if we weren’t already facing enough pressure to navigate the often cruel world of high school, find the right spouse, and land a job that hopefully fulfills us and pays the bills. In the midst of all that, we wonder, “What makes me stand out from the crowd as someone special?”
When I was a kid, I occasionally had to accompany my mother to what was then called the “beauty shop.” The most interesting thing to do for a boy at such a place was to watch a row of women sitting with the top halves of their heads covered by dome-shaped hair dryers. The rather bizarre sight conjured up notions of torture devices or space travel.
Perhaps to preserve my young manhood, on one occasion I recall taking a book to read about great NFL quarterbacks. One woman asked, “Why does everyone want to be the quarterback?” Although I didn’t say it, I thought, “They write books about great quarterbacks, not great defensive tackles!”
Yes, I shared the common dream of athletic fame and glory. The fact that I was reading a book about sports, however, more accurately foretold my academic future. (Unfortunately, they don’t write many books about great academics either.) My athletic accomplishments were confined to backyard, intramural, and church league competitions, and the moments of glory were few even there.
I am thankful that I was able to perform well in school. Neither of my parents finished high school, but they placed me in a position to be successful. I was the first person on either side of my family to finish college. The opportunity to go beyond the bachelor’s degree and eventually teach at Lipscomb, while also serving in ministry, has been a great blessing.
Even in this context, however, I occasionally hear those nagging voices in the back of my head. “What about those more gifted and charismatic teachers and preachers?” “What about those in bigger churches who get the keynote speaking invitations?” “What about those who write more books, sell more books, have more Twitter followers, etc.?”
I share this little walk down insecurity memory lane not to provoke responses of sympathy or reassurance. I hope instead that you can resonate somewhat with these feelings and recognize how perilous our quest for identity can be. Questions like the ones above are understandable, but they are also dangerously misdirected.
Our experience in the world convinces us that we find a special identity by birth (e.g., a royal family, or one of wealth or power) or by accomplishments that set us apart from the crowd. Such a system inevitably results in a division between the “haves” and the “have-nots.” It also fosters pride, jealousy, and unhealthy forms of competition.
Identity in this context actually focuses less on who we really are and more on what will provide us with security and power. Ironically, however, those seeking distinctiveness through athletic or artistic or financial success frequently find their lives filled with insecurity because they realize how fragile is the status they strive to sustain. Those on the outside looking in, being unfamiliar with this insecurity, continue to long for what others have.
The biblical notion of identity, on the other hand, operates quite differently. Human beings are endowed with the capacity to reflect the glory of the Creator in a variety of ways. Rather than competing with one another for personal glory, God’s intent was that we combine our capacities to reflect his glory more fully. In the process, human beings find joy in fulfilling their high calling.
When Jesus calls us to find our identity by losing it, the goal is not to lose our true self, but to strip away human pretensions so that we can rediscover our true identity. Paul’s elaborations of the church as a body provide a glimpse of a healthier interplay between individual and corporate identity.
False, self-promoting identities that offer counterfeit security, however, retain a powerful appeal because they promise power. In the next post we will explore biblical examples of these alternatives, including false religious identities.