I think the struggle with identity is core to our faith. The Israelites spent a lot of time struggling with their identities, through the desert and through the time of the judges, requesting a king. Acts and the letters of Paul particularly shows the struggle early Christians had defining their identities.
I've been struggling with my identity recently, yet I only just really realized in how many ways I am. I was debating about writing about this. Then I got a devotional email from Ransomed Heart entitled "Identity is Bestowed" (copied below), which talks a bit about the power of identity in our lives. That sent a message to me that this is an important topic in my life right now and that sharing my struggles with it may help others...
Some history in my conscious struggle with identity. I grew up in a small mountain town in Southern California. It took at least 30 minutes to get to any urban area that included such things as movie theatres and malls. Going to UC Berkeley for my undergrad degree was a big change in many ways. My senior year in high school introduced me to politics through my government class, and this field fascinated me. Going to Berkeley, a politically intense place, would give me a lot of opportunities to engage in a field that I could not have participated in in my hometown.
I joined the Berkeley College Republicans, worked for our conservative magazine, the Cal Patriot, as an editor, and interned in the California Assembly. My political affiliation became core to my identity. I realized this in particular when in my Spanish class I became known as "the Republican." Even the professor would often say, "Well, let's ask what the Republican thinks about this," referring to some political issue.
I didn't like being identified like that. Political affiliation and perspective should not define me; I should define it. Plus, the political realm was starting to really irritate me. I decided that if I was going to be defined by something by others, I would want to be defined by my faith. So I began getting more and more involved in my church. Declaring Religious Studies as my major helped this new identity, which worked well through my graduation.
No big changes or struggles with my identity seemed to occur through grad school, except for normal professional identity development associated with my theoretical orientation and comfort in becoming a therapist. However, less than a month ago, classes ended. For good. I have one year of internship and then I get my doctorate. Yet I realized a huge part of my identity was being lost. I had been a student since age 5. I'd always been in school (minus some summers). School was what I did well in and was something I took pride in and got a lot of confidence, comfort, and identity from. I would need to find a new identity, which would probably be a good thing.
In the last month, I have become more involved in my church. Formal ministry is a great thing and a great way to develop a holy identity, right? In part. But as I have preached for so long, I am having to remind myself that various forms of Incarnational, implicit ministry are just important as being employed by a church. Further, I am realizing my identity, including my faith identity, is becoming too defined by my church affiliation. I think this happens to many of us, unconsciously, because it looks like it's a good thing. However, I am realizing we begin to have problems when we begin to have our identities too tied up with any organization or institution.
This has literally been something that just I realized in the past day. I'm not sure where it will lead me. I think this transition is going to be exemplified by NOTW's "No Religion, Just a Relationship" saying. Unaffiliated faith, being a husband, being a daddy to my kitty. Those are identities that are a lot more meaningful, purpose-driven, and enduring than other identities...
Deep within the Arrows stay, poisoning our self-perceptions, until someone comes along with the power to take them away, free us from all the false selves we use to weather the world’s weather, and restore to us our true identity. Identity is not something that falls on us out of the sky. For better or for worse, identity is bestowed. We are who we are in relation to others. But far more important, we draw our identity from our impact on those others—if and how we affect them. We long to know that we make a difference in the lives of others, to know that we matter, that our presence cannot be replaced by a pet, a possession, or even another person. The awful burden of the false self is that it must be constantly maintained.
We think we have to keep doing something in order to be desirable. Once we find something that will bring us some attention, we have to keep it going or risk the loss of the attention.
And so we live with the fear of not being chosen and the burden of maintaining whatever it is about us that might get us noticed and the commitment never to be seen for who we really are. We develop a functional self-image, even if it is a negative one. The little boy paints his red wagon a speckled gray with whatever Father left in the can after putting a new coat on the backyard fence. “Look what I did!” he says, hoping for affirmation of the wonderful impact his presence has on the world. The angry father shames him: “What do you think you’re doing? You’ve ruined it.” The boy forms an identity: My impact is awful; I foul good things up. I am a fouler. And he forms a commitment never to be in a place where he can foul things up again. Years later, his colleagues wonder why he turned down an attractive promotion. The answer lies in his identity, an identity he received from the impact he had on the most important person in his world and his fear of ever being in such a place again.
(The Sacred Romance 86, 88)