Flashback to health class, eighth grade. A teacher with frizzy hair and a shapeless denim jumper directs the class to page 124 in the textbook and asks for a volunteer to read the definition of self-image. No one raises a hand, so she calls on an unlucky student sitting in the “T-zone” who momentarily failed to maintain downturned eyes.
“Self-image is an individual’s awareness of, and attitudes toward, his/her own physical person; an individual’s perception of him/herself, which is learned in social interaction,” the kid stutters out.
By the end of the lesson, the students walk away with the idea that self-image is how you view yourself, what you think of yourself as a physical and social being. This view comes from many sources, they are told, but it’s important to have a good self-image because you have to believe in yourself. Whatever that means.
According to this definition, I was a skinny kid with bad bangs and a 4.0 who played oboe and did gymnastics. My circle of friends came from honors classes and band. In a word, I was a nerd.
Like the (usually) dutiful child I was, I embraced my nerdiness. Once I realized during the second grade spelling bee that I was going to be one of the smart kids, I started wearing plaid skirts and cardigans, packing impeccably healthy lunches, and reading at home through plastic sunglass frames with the lenses pushed out. As I got older I devoured classic literature, withdrew from social situations, and continued dressing like I attended parochial rather than public school.
In short, I acted out my self- and socially-constructed identity as a nerd. Once I labeled myself thus, I lived according to my title with indefatigable consistency. My parents even responded to my sense of self-image with textbook precision: my Christmas gifts always included a microscope, calculator, or spelling quiz book which inevitably served to crystallize my sense of self.
Christians also live and grow according to their identity. The question is, do we believe what God says of us, or what we’ve gleaned from parents, peers, and second grade spelling bees? As I’ve been studying Colossians in cell group and now Ephesians for home church, I’m seeing the gravity of our identity in Christ. As Dennis McCallum emphasized in Walking in Victory, “doing arises out of being.” I will act like a nerd if I think I’m a nerd. I will act like a child of God, an heir of His Kingdom, and an instrument of His glory only if I truly believe, at the deepest level, that I am exactly that.
The Christian walk isn’t a matter of gradually obtaining blessings from God. Ephesians 1:3 boldly states in the perfect past tense (i.e. it’s already happened) that “God…has blessed us with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places in Christ.” When we’re “in Christ,” meaning we’ve personally claimed Him as our Lord and accepted His death on the cross to pay for our sins, God views us as He views Jesus. He’s God’s son, and so we are children of God, “adopted as sons” as Ephesians 1:5 puts it. As a son, Jesus inherits God’s Kingdom. And so do we: we’re co-heirs with Christ (Romans 8:17). We are “holy and blameless” (Eph. 1:4) because we’ve been completely forgiven (Eph. 1:7). Once slaves of our own insatiable desires, we’ve been redeemed, meaning bought back, from the Greek word apolutrosis. Less ubiquitous today, it was a common word, the dream of every slave, to be “bought with a price” (1 Cor. 6:20) in order to be set free from a lifetime of grinding slavery. Now we’re free to serve God, based on a free will choice to love Him, and our “God-shaped vacuum” (Pascal) no longer gapes with vacuous futility. And these are just a few of the many identity truths found in Scripture.
But knowing and believing are two different things. If you know the ice is thick enough to hold your weight but don’t believe it will, you’re staying on the shore. Similarly, if we know that God has set us free and adopted us, but we don’t believe and grasp this as our true identity, we will never live with the priorities, purpose, and power God intends for us.
Our identity in Christ is more than a spiritual alias we don when doing ministry or devotions. It transcends all our daily routines and roles and defines the very core of who we are. Once we understand our position in Christ, it can infuse those routines and roles as we live as children and heirs and instruments of God in everyday practical ways. The experience of our position in Christ in daily life is known as our condition, and unlike our identity, it can fluctuate frequently depending on how we live according to our identity.
Without understanding and experiencing our position in Christ, we cannot grow spiritually in a deep, lasting way. All we can do is superficial piddling with the exterior, while the inside of the cup remains unchanged. As Nee describes it, “at the beginning of our Christian lives we’re more concerned with our doing than our being.” The clear implication is that change works in the opposite direction. Christian growth depends on learning, believing, and appropriating our identity rather than trying to do certain behaviors in hopes that they will change who we are inside. Understanding our identity in Christ is therefore the key to growth.
One of the reasons our identity is so critical is that our doing is utterly sinful and ineffective. “Your righteous deeds are like filthy rags,” God says(Isaiah 64:6). Our total depravity taints even our best efforts to do good; it is only God’s grace that empowers us to do His work. This theology is immensely practical, as we’ve all experienced. “We all stumble in many ways” (James 3:2) as we constantly sin in both obvious and subtle ways. If we take our identity from “being good,” we are immediately doomed to defeat. But outside the realm of our sinfulness, other’s free will also threatens to crush our efforts and in turn our self-image, if we derive it from what we do rather than who we are in Christ.
For example, you may serve and love and witness to someone faithfully for years and never see the person come to Christ. If you are what you do, this failure becomes debilitating, making it all too easy to give up and slip into depression. Two years ago, our deaconship was turned down (for good reason). I was devastated, not so much because I wanted the title of deacon, but because my pride, my sense that I was doing something right in ministry, was dealt a near-fatal blow. I cried the same as when I’d been turned down after auditioning for the Akron Youth Symphony when I was thirteen. Nothing damages the ego like a direct “no” in response to your efforts.
Unless you’re taking your identity from Christ, in which case it’s much easier to sustain rejection or failure. Last week was a particularly difficult one, as I was dealt three ego-threatening blows within four days. I learned that I was in danger of losing a(nother) disciple, that our deaconship had been decided against again (for good reason), and that my first article submission had been turned down (“it does not suit our current editorial needs”). Although it was an emotionally straining time that I needed my friends to get through, I wasn’t devastated or depressed like I would have been two years ago. All the issues were a matter of spiritual work, including the article which was, ironically, about being a perfectionist. But a recent cell group study of identity seemed to carry me through, reminding me that I’m not what I do, but who God says I am. It wasn’t apathy, the sense that it’s too hard to care so I’ll just give up. Actually, I think I felt joy in knowing that I could take even my failures to God, lay them at His feet, and let Him help me pick up the pieces by the power of His grace.
I certainly haven’t arrived when it comes to the realm of experiencing my identity in Christ. It’s still a tremendous struggle, especially for a perfectionist like me. There are so many deep, beautiful, intriguing truths about my identity in Christ that I’ve just only begun to realize. And being a nerd has nothing to do with it.