By Joe Brinkmann
One of the words that is often used in any conversation about counseling is the word “identity.” Not only is it a common concept within counseling, but you have probably heard it repeated in sermons, books, and conversations with friends. Identity concerns the answer to the big question we are all asking, “Who am I?”. This seems like a simple and natural question, and it is. But it can quickly become complicated and even misguided depending on how we are asking it. For example, do we ask this question apart from any consideration of our relationship to our creator? Do we ask it in light of the community in which we have been placed? Or do we see ourselves as isolated individuals who get to define ourselves?
The reality is that we all seek to be autonomous (self-ruled) beings. Because of this, the question of identity is not a safe one. It is riddled with all sorts of self-centered (dare I say, sinful) motives. At the same time, we are created to ask this very question. It is not inherently wrong to be curious about who we are.
This is a complicated matter. Because of the dubious nature of this subject, some Christian responses to the identity question have sought to snuff out any sense of self. Seeking to correct error, they place all the weight on God’s identity. This is understandable since God truly is at the center of everything. However, this same God has told us that we, as his prized creation, actually have incredible intrinsic value. It almost feels scandalous to say this, but he made us in his very image. We are made to partake of the divine nature (I Peter 1:4). We participate in his glory in ever increasing measure (II Cor. 3:18). So, what is the proper view of self?
Let’s seek to judge this by its fruit. In a healthy context, seeking to understand who you are will always coincide with understanding who God is. And if we have seen who God is, we will worship. One of the misnomers about identity is that it is all about us. Truly, it is about us, but, according to the gospel, we can’t talk about us apart from our good God. Without him, there would be no us. In order to recover a proper understanding of self, we need to recover a proper understanding of God’s view of humanity at the same time. The answer to the idolatry of self is not to remove the concept of self. Rather, it is to insert the heart of God concerning humanity.
This is where Biblical counseling comes into action. In the vast world of secular psychologies, there is one common denominator. They all look for the answer to our problems from within ourselves. The change is ultimately going to come from within. This stems from a skewed understanding of self that fails to consider how twisted and limited our sense of self actually is. The truth is that we are not our own. We belong to someone. This someone is able to change us because he has the authority as our creator. In Biblical counseling, we seek to look to our maker for the information and transformation that we so desperately need.
Within Christian theology there is a doctrine called union with Christ. Basically, it means that our life, if we follow Jesus, is wrapped up in Jesus’ life (Eph. 2:1-10; Gal. 2:20). This neither elevates self above God nor diminishes self below God. It simply means that we are distinct from God while also being intrinsically connected to God. We are united to him. This implies that God really likes us and values us. People don’t choose to unite themselves to something that they don’t value.
But aren’t we sinful? Yes, we are. This is the scandal of the gospel. God has restored us to a place of honor by taking our sin on himself (Eph. 5:25-27). This is because he always intended to be united to his amazing creation called humanity. Sin was never going to stop him from getting what he wanted. Because he is so powerful and so good, our sin only revealed his heart even more. Therefore, while salvation is pretty amazing, dealing with our sin is not the main point. We are not valued simply because God saved us. We are valued because God made us. Indeed, he does save us, but think of this salvation as something that points us to God’s original design for humanity. God didn’t just want little pets that he could save from the streets and offer a better life. He desired a people he could be united with like a man and woman are united in marriage.
Biblical counseling seeks to recall this identity for each of us in our particular circumstances. This requires revelation from God’s Spirit who is the agent of our union with Christ. The Spirit helps us in our weakness and conforms us to the image of Jesus right now in the midst of our sin (Rom. 8:26-27). As we call out (sometimes in desperation), “Who am I?”, he is faithful to reply with profound and powerful truth.