Thursday, April 24, 2014

Are you having an identity crisis?

What defines you as a Christian? What characterizes your faith? Are you missions-minded? Are you Spirit-filled? Service-oriented? An altruist? A pro-lifer? A prayer warrior? A generous giver? A theologian? An evangelist? Or maybe a you identify yourself as a struggling believer? A doubter? A lost sheep? A failure?

Your answer to the question: what defines you as a Christian? is pivotal. And if your response doesn't flip the subject of this question from a what? to a who? you could potentially be experiencing an identity crisis...
I believe that many Christians today are losing their identity. It's a serious problem that isn't only reserved for Christians who are straying from their faith. Upstanding, well-reputed, practicing Christians can be the victim of an identity crisis. And it usually creeps in when we least expect it. 

When our identity is rooted in being a 5-point-Calvinist, an Arminian, a home-schooler, a Baptist, a Methodist, a Pentecostal, a missionary, a ministry leader, a helper of the poor, a Christian who's "in touch" with culture, ANYTHING other than in Christ, we are missing the mark. These may be good things. Some of them may indeed be crucial, biblically correct things. But they cannot replace Christ. And if they become our identity, we have a problem. We have an identity crisis.

In other words, if we define our identity by our theology, our spiritual gifts, or how we live out our faith, rather than finding it in Christ alone, we are inching down a treacherous path. This is not to say that these things are unimportant. Sound theology is an indispensable means to understanding God's Word (1 Tim 4:16). A God-honoring life should display the fruit of our faith as an essential outworking of our sanctification (Jam 2:14-26). And it is important that our spiritual gifts be used wisely for God's glory (1 Pet 4:10). But theological knowledge can become a source of pride if we get our identity wrapped up in it. We can become self-righteous and legalistic when our focus is on our own achievements rather than on God's grace to us as sinners. And we can become more self-centeredand less Christ-centeredif we get preoccupied with our spiritual gifts rather than being enthralled by the One who so graciously bestowed them on us in the first place. 

The fact is, we're all sinners and we all fall short of the glory of God (Rom 3:23). It is by grace we have been saved, not by works, so no one can boast (Eph 2:8-9). Seeking our identity in the life-choices we make, like how to dress, how to educate our kids, how to spend our money, what to eat and drink, etc., can too easily lead us to become judgmental of others or to think of ourselves more highly than than we ought. These things, many of which may be meaningful, shouldn't define us.  If they do, we'll end up with a life dominated by pride, insecurity, and eventually failure.

We are all vulnerable to having an identity crisis. I speak from experience, because I've had one myself. When I had my first baby seven years ago, I experienced a text-book case of identity crisis. I had recently left my job and with it, my sense of worldly significance. I felt purposeless. Rather than using my skills and education, I now spent my days at home with our baby who slept most of the time, leaving me alone to clean up a perpetual mess of misplaced sweet-potato spoonfuls and stray Cheerios. I was having an identity crisis because even though I had been a Christian for years, I had been seeking my identity in the wrong places—in how the world viewed menot in Christ alone.

It is not only when we're struggling, but it's also when we're doing well in our Christian walk, that an identity crisis can occur; like when we've used our gifts to make a difference, when we've experienced a triumph over sin, or when we've made a remarkable accomplishment in ministry, for example. But we must be sure that we don't self-identify with our achievements—or our failurestoo readily. If we continue to give all the glory to God in our high-points and seek refuge in Him during our low-points, we will be protected from losing sight of our true identity. This might seem like Christianity 101, but simple truths like these can easily elude us if we don't stay grounded. Scripture says, "let anyone who thinks that he stands take heed lest he fall." (1 Cor 10:12). Paul is talking here about temptation. Have you ever noticed that it's often when you think you're doing pretty well in your Christian walk that you suddenly find yourself falling? You get complacent for a moment, maybe even a little arrogant, and before you know itwham!you're knocked off your feet. This isn't ultimately a bad thing. Being brought to our knees can be the most convicting reminder of our deep-seated need for God.

A hard-hitting example of this recently unfolded in the highly publicized Bill Gothard scandal. Gothard's Advanced Training Institute (ATI) conferences have been the subject of scrutiny since the many allegations of his sexual misconduct went public. ATI has been a popular gathering spot for thousands of Christian families, including the Duggar family from TLC’s “19 Kids and Counting,” and others from within the Quiverfull movement. But in a recent article, "Growing up Gothard," a former ATI family member, Derek, writes about the problems that come from a Christian culture that's caught up in the throws of what I believe to be a mass-identity crisis.

Derek describes how he grew up within a culture of "quarantined Christianity" in which the sinful and demonic forces of the outside world were shut out in an effort to preserve an oasis of Christian perfection within their community. The ATI culture was inwardly focused, and as a result, "the fatal flaw in the system (other than being completely contrary to the missional purpose to which we are called), is that sin was treated as an external force, rather than internal. The focus on the external resulted in a forced attempt at an appearance of godliness, while burying internal struggles." In other words, the ATI ministry promoted a cultural identity that was based on perfect Christian living. Without their identity being rooted firmly in Christ, it was possible for the ATI community to overlook Jesus' very last, and arguably His most important, commandment to go out into the world and make disciples (Matt 28:19; Mark 16:15). Furthermore, self-righteousness was rife in the community while the internal heart-problem of sin was glossed over, and in some cases completely hidden. 

To recognize that sin is an internal heart-problem necessitates our dependence on Christ and compels us to seek our identity in Himnot in any man-made system or Christian culture. Remembering that our righteousness is imparted to us in Christ, and is not achieved in our own strength, will cause us to doubt in the possibility of a man-made utopia on earth, Christian or notHowever much we shut ourselves off from the sinful world outside, sin will still be rampant in our fallen hearts and will still permeate our families and community. Bill Gothard now faces the shameful reality of his own sin despite creating a false identity for himself and his followers, which concealed it for so long.

Another concerning case of sin being brushed under the rug can be seen in the touchy-feely culture of the emerging church movementa broad, multifaceted movement that generally-speaking seeks to use culturally sensitive approaches to reach younger generations, who have been leaving the church in droves. Rather than an insular, conservative culture like ATI that shuts out the world, though, emerging churches are outreach-focused. Within the movement, there is a general sentiment that the traditional way of doing church has failed, and that the Christian message should be repackaged to be more relevant, and to generate wider appeal, in a post-modern context

But in their attempt to hold the fleeting attention of young people, emerging churches tend to mirror the worldly culture around them rather than presenting a counter-cultural message. In this vein, polarizing truths such as black-and-white issues of right and wrong are conveniently ignored so as not to turn people off or alienate them. The word, sin, is largely avoided in this context, sometimes being replaced with more benign terms such as "mistakes." This approach, however, often fails to address the root causethe heart-problemthat is leading young people to walk away from their faith in the first place. Instead of addressing the heart-issue of sin, the tendency is to focus on emotional healing or behavior modification, which is like applying mere band-aids to expanding wounds in sinful hearts.

By glossing over the seriousness of sin in order to appeal to a worldly audience, our need for a Savior is marginalizedand a large-scale identity crisis is perpetuatedIn fact, the unoffensive message preached in many emerging churches gives seekers the impression that their existing sense of identity can remain intactbecause God loves them "just as they are." This conveniently by-passes the gospel-centered truth that God does love them, and is pursuing a relationship with them, but His love for them is exactly why He wants to make them new in Christ. This is why He doesn't want to leave them steeped in self-destructive lives of fleshly sin! Sadly, however, seekers are often encouraged, within the emerging church culture, to remain secure in their pre-existing state of identity crisis. And so, the opportunity to share the good news that they can be miraculously transformed in Christ is tragically missed.

An identity crisis is not to be taken lightly. It can have devastating, self-destructive results. For example, an identity crisis is arguably what led to Satan's downfall from Heaven. The Bible tells us that before his fall, Satan was the “anointed cherub” (Eze 28:14) and “the model of perfection, full of wisdom and perfect in beauty.” (Eze 28:12b) It is likely that Satan was one of the highest of all angels because he had enough influence to convince one third of them to join him in his rebellion (Rev 12:4). There is speculation that Satan was the leader of worship in Heaven. But what we know for sure is that Satan found his identity in the wrong places. He didn't find his identity in being an angel of God. Instead, his identity was wrapped up in being the special oneone who was exalted above others. His identity was rooted in pride. And the effects of this were catastrophic. The fact is, Satan rebelled against God despite being anointed by, and in close relationship with, Him. This sends a chilling warning to us as Christians, doesn't it? Satan's story shows us how important it is that our identity be firmly anchored in Christ. And if it isn't, it is always rooted in some form of pride. 

Satan wants us to seek our identity in prideful things, just like he does. And our fallen hearts will likely succumb to this temptation if we don't keep our eyes off ourselves and fixed on Jesus. Jesus made it clear that following Him involves denying oneself and taking up one's cross daily (Luke 9:23). Ironically, denying ourselves isn't to become enslaved; It is to become free from enslavement to our fleshly desires. (God's truth often turns human logic upside-down doesn't it?) These desires lead to death, but those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires (Gal 5:24). Denying ourselves, then, actually serves to protect us from destroying ourselves.

This is a daily process. For me personally, it's a struggle to surrender my heart each day. I can easily get too busy with "immediately pressing" needs or get preoccupied with my own thoughts and activities. It's at these times that I quickly begin to lose myself to a myopic world that's all about me. It's when I'm not consciously seeking after Jesus that I find my true identity slipping away. And my thought-patterns start to reflect an internal monologue, a commentary on my self-absorbed worries and concerns, rather than a conversation with God about His will, His thoughts, and His ways. In these moments, it helps just to stop and take a deep breath. Sometimes, I do this while praying, "more of You (breathing in), less of me (breathing out)." It really works!

Paul's words are so powerful when he writes, "I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me." (Gal 2:20). We can be encouraged to live by faith knowing that in Christ, we are a new creation. The old has passed away and behold, the new has come. (2 Cor 5:17). Praise Him that we have a new identitya righteous identityas children of the living God! We can put off the old self, and put on the new self, created after the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness (Eph 4:24).

I'd rather have an identity that reflects the likeness of God than my own sinful nature any day!