Identifying Identity

Understanding Identity
“Who am I” is a question as pervasive as “What is the meaning of life?” As a “PK” (for the uninitiated, that stands for “Preacher’s Kid”)
I was well acquainted with scripture, and with the appropriate sunday-school answers. I was taught that our identity is found in Christ, (2 Cor 5:17, Gal 2:20) that our identity was not defined by sins that we had committed (1 Cor 6:10-11), but by Christ’s redemptive work (Col 3:1-4). But as I pointed out in my previous post, I haven’t always been successful at appropriating what I was taught. The truth of how a “new identity in Christ” practically played out seemed to elude me. If I have had some difficulty understanding the concept, perhaps I am not alone.

Identity is a powerful thing. One small word can shape our whole experience of life. The specific choice to adopt any single attribute as a defining characteristic necessarily creates a bottleneck through which the whole of our experiences must pass. Even further, as every word has a context and stereotype that is broader than any individual’s experience, one might find themselves expanding their own experience to fit the context of their adopted label.

Let me provide an example from my childhood. I was a member of a boy scout troop. Not only that, but I chose to identify myself as a “scout” and was quite proud of my involvement. I donned the uniform, and found that I behaved differently when wearing it. In my mind there was an archetypal “scout” to which I must conform. There was a constantly running evaluation in my head. There was a certain poise, a certain professionalism, a certain confidence, and a certain competence that “a scout” possessed, and since I was a scout, I must measure up. In this way, an identity not only names some part of who we are, but also shapes who we will be.

Sex Sells
The power of “identity” to shape our own conception of ourselves works in both positive and negative ways. This is illustrated quite powerfully by our culture’s obsession with sexuality. Marketers use sexuality to sell candy bars and toothpaste. Sexually explicit imagery and innuendo permeates our entertainment and media. Western culture has become saturated by sex and, to a large degree, the Christian community has not done a good job addressing the pervasive sexuality of our culture. As culture has repeated the message “sex sells,” many Christian teachers have only responded “don’t buy.” While my pastors and teachers attempted to encourage abstinence in positive ways, the message that I received was that “if you succumb to sexual temptation, you are no longer pure; and with sexual sins, unlike other run-of-the-mill sins, you can’t really reclaim your purity.” This is a horrendous message under normal circumstances, but it is exceptionally damaging when one only hears it after that standard has already been broken (as in my case). While I will attest that you cannot really regain innocence, I must insist that by the Grace of God, purity is something that can be reclaimed.

I remember a specific time in my childhood when I consciously chose to accept an identifying label. It wasn’t a label I particularly wanted, but I was unable to argue with the logic my own mind presented to me. I saw this label as inevitable and so I reluctantly embraced it. As a result, I no longer fought my temptations or sought help to overcome them. I adopted an identity that spiraled into an emotionally detached yet promiscuous sexuality. I argued internally that as long as I didn’t “go all the way” there was still some hope for me. But I also knew that “who I was” was not fit for public consumption, and so I created a palatable façade to obscure from public view what I perceived to be the “truth” of my identity. Those dual identities were shattered when my perceived “true identity” was a secret I could no longer keep. At the ripe old age of 17, I became a father to a little girl. Though she was adopted in her infancy, her birth heralded the inevitable extinction of my secrets.

Interestingly, my journey to authentic identity was shaped by virtuous men who at some point in their life had experienced unchosen same-sex attractions. Even though their specific temptations were foreign to me, their struggle with identity was very familiar. Through my interactions and conversations with Dennis, Jim, Bill, and T.W., I came to see that it was possible to be defined by something other than one’s unchosen sexual attractions. They walked in virtue as an act of their will. They chose a title, a single word, a specific aspect of themselves as an identity and allowed that chosen identity, and not their unchosen attractions, to expand and direct their lives. These men all chose to be identified by their faith in Christ. While they were certainly not the first men in my life who claimed identity in Christ, they stood out to me because they lived in opposition to the cultural expectation. These four men each experienced same-sex attraction, some on an ongoing basis, but they were happily married. They were husbands and fathers because they chose to be. Some have said that they are lying to themselves or denying the truth of who they are, but I disagree. They have simply chosen what aspect of their lives they will allow to define them.

The Problem With Sexual Identity
Recently I watched a documentary called (a)sexual, about a percentage of the population who experience no sexual attraction at all. It spoke volumes about the pervasiveness of sexuality in our culture. It has become an expectation in our culture that one define oneself by one’s unchosen sexual attraction, to the extent that this subset of our population feels compelled to define themselves by the absence of sexual attraction. Rather than forming an identity from some part of their personality or ability (artist, scientist, comedian, athlete, musician, et al.), these men and women have decided to define themselves by a negation. They define themselves primarily by what they do not experience – sexual attraction. To complicate matters further, because these men and women’s experience of sexuality didn’t fit into the culturally accepted norms, they felt the need to associate themselves with the LGBTQ movement in order to find acceptance (though that community is reticent to accept them as well). Maybe, just maybe, that’s an indicator that our culture is entirely too fixated on sexuality.

Earlier this month, I came across an lengthy article on First Things called “Against Heterosexuality.” If you don’t click any other link in this post, click this one. In the article, Michael Hannon examines the surprisingly recent history and the danger of “sexual identity.” I invite you to read it, to examine your self in light of it, and to join me in utterly shunning the concept of sexual identity, both in defining ourselves, and in our evaluation of others.

Finding Authentic Identity
A friend of mine is on the front lines of reorienting society toward finding authentic identity. Andrew is a man who, though he experiences unchosen same sex attractions, specifically chooses to be defined by his pursuit of virtue. He is member of Courage and is a regular contributor to His articles do not disregard the power of sexuality, but rather examine that power in comparison with the power of authentic identity. If you, or those you know and love, have chosen an identity based on sexual attraction, I encourage you to read through Andrew’s insightful articles.

I contend that one’s identity cannot be found in an experience as narrow as sexuality, nor can it found in one’s choices or proclivities or failings. While we can be shaped by our actions, our identity can never completely be encompassed by them. I firmly believe that our identity is rooted in the inherent and incomparable dignity we possess by being created in the image of God. One’s identity is found in God whether one is aware of it or not. As St. Augustine said, “You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our hearts are restless until they rest in you.”

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