By Seana Scott
The pandemic caused a widespread identity crisis as we isolated into the islands of our homes. Some of us now ask, “Who am I since COVID changed my life?”
But the struggle to define our identity existed before the pandemic. The Enneagram movement and books on identity in the Christian market reveal Americans’ search for self-identification. Is our identity our role in the family? Our faith? Our personality? All of the above?
Our culture argues that identity is something we find within ourselves, but Scripture teaches differently. I suggest we reconsider our theology of identity as we lead in ministry in a post-pandemic culture, because how we define ourselves shapes how we worship and how we disciple others.Our culture argues that identity is something we find within ourselves, but Scripture teaches differently. — @Seana_S_Scott Click To Tweet
I offer some things to consider as we rebuild our theology of identity to withstand the next storm of a personal or global crisis.
My Identity Crisis
My first identity crisis hit when I became a mom. Our son entered the world with his intestines in his lung cavity and I saw him for the first time trapped behind a plastic box with lifesaving tubes pumping air into his body. Doctors projected a 50/50 chance of survival. We brought him home—miraculously—one month and one day after his birth with corrective surgery.
I endured post-hospital weeks hustling to continuous doctor appointments and pushing to return work emails in the few moments I scrounged each day. I burned out. Then the Spirit clearly led me to quit my job and my sense of identity and value resigned with it.
I went from feeling productive to shuffling through middle-of-the-night feedings, stinky diapers, and scrubbing last night’s spaghetti sauce off dishes—thinking, “Who am I now?” Depression replaced cubical comradery. I let what I do define who I am. And it wrecked me.
But my theology of identity was cultivated in a culture—a church culture—that highly valued quantifiable success. At home, no one left me a thank you note and gift card for shampooing the carpet stained with spit up, while I lived in pajamas for days, nursing an infant every two hours in between his nebulizer treatments.The pandemic toppled what many of us used to build our sense of identity: positions, possessions, and our image of success—even in ministry. — @Seana_S_Scott Click To Tweet
I heard it said, “If your theology cannot be applied to all people in all situations, you need to reconsider your theology.” My theology of identity needed remodeling—and maybe yours does too. The pandemic toppled what many of us used to build our sense of identity: positions, possessions, and our image of success—even in ministry. Now is the perfect time to reconsider our theology of identity as we help others rebuild theirs in a post-pandemic world.
Psychology Today describes identity this way: “Identity encompasses the values people hold, which dictate the choices they make. An identity contains multiple roles—such as mother, teacher, and U.S. citizen—and each role holds meaning and expectations that are internalized into one’s identity. Identity continues to evolve over the course of an individual’s life.”
A survey from Lifeway Research highlights two major ways Americans define themselves. Americans are equally split with 42% saying who they are determines what they do, and 42% saying what they do determines who they are. The study also revealed the top three ways Americans define themselves: their role in their family, doing good deeds, and their achievements.A Lifeway Research study revealed the top three ways Americans define themselves: their role in their family, doing good deeds, and their achievements. Click To Tweet
This makes me wonder: What happens when roles in the family change? What happens when we are waylaid at home and can’t volunteer at the food pantry? What happens when a loved one’s medical attention replaces career achievement? Our sense of identity erodes. Is this how God designed us—to constantly have a shifting sense of identity? I think not.
Theology of Identity
In Scripture God identifies people in two significant ways: Family of origin (Genesis 4–5; 1 Chronicles 1–8; Luke 3:23–38; John 4:1-26; Romans 10:12; Philippians 3:5; Revelation 7:9), and the God/gods people worship (Exodus 20; Judges 2:11–15, 10:6, 11:24, 16:23; Isaiah 45:3; Acts 19:28, Revelation 19:20).
Genealogies within Scripture trace the redemptive work of God from Adam and Eve through the line of Seth—through Abraham—through David—and culminating in Jesus Christ. Jesus is the promised Messiah to come (Matthew 1) and the blessing of Abraham for all the earth (Gen. 12:1–3).
God chose Abraham’s family to be the line of the Seed of Promise, thus identification with the tribes of Israel (Abraham’s descendants) became very important. Even Paul in his New Testament writing, traces his lineage back to the tribe of Benjamin (Philippians 3:5). Similarly, other people groups recorded their genealogies, such as the Egyptians, Sumerians, and Hittites. Recording history through family identity (genealogy) was a common practice.
When Jesus ministered on earth, he referred to his genealogy as well to verify his identity, “Before Abraham was, I AM” (John 8:58). Jesus’ earthly genealogy traced back to David and Abraham, but his complete revealed identity extends for all eternity passed.
After Jesus’ earthly ministry, the identity of the family of God broadened. We now have our DNA lineage, but we are also adopted into the family of God (Ephesians 1:4-5). Now the blessing of the promise of Israel’s Messiah extends to all by faith in Christ (Ephesians 2:8–10). When we believe the gospel, we become children of God (1 Jn. 3:1), a part of God’s household (Ephesians. 2:19–20).
So, as we rebuild our sense of identity in a post-pandemic world, we should build with the foundation of our spiritual genealogy—we are children of God by faith in Christ.
Another significant way Scripture identifies people is by who they worship—their relationship to their God/gods. However, in the Lifeway study, only 37% of Americans say faith plays a significant role in their identity. I suggest this might add to the felt need of Americans to find identity in other ways.Only 37% of Americans say faith plays a significant role in their identity. Click To Tweet
But God defines His people by their relationship to Him. Yahweh told the Israelites not to intermarry with surrounding peoples because those peoples worshipped false gods. If they intermarried, “they will turn your children away from following me to serve other gods” (Deuteronomy 7:4). Other people groups in the Old Testament period were also defined by who they worshipped (Deuteronomy 20:17–18) and Paul identified Ephesus with Artemis worship (Acts 19:28). The last book of the Bible begins with God identifying various groups of believers by how they worshipped him (Revelation 1-3).
As we re-engage with the question of identity in a post-COVID world, we should consider who and how we worship. Our relationship with God must become a primary way we identify ourselves.
We might start with asking, “Does the Lord really have my affection?” James K.A. Smith states this simply: We are what we love. We may not set up Baals to worship, like Israel when they rejected God to follow the cultural practices of their neighbors (Numbers 25:1–3), but we still acquiesce to cultural practices that turn our hearts away from worshipping God. Our love, what we value, informs our perception of our identity.
We scroll Instagram instead of opening the ancient scroll of Scripture. We sacrifice prayer time to binge on Netflix—every night. We choose consumerism rather than contentment for the sake of helping the poor. Smith writes, “Our thickest practices…shape our identity by shaping our desire for what we envision as the kingdom—the ideal of human flourishing” (Desiring the Kingdom).
How do we spend our time? How do we feed our imaginations toward the ideal of human flourishing?
The pandemic revealed my misplaced identity in writing for ministry. My vision of human flourishing included sitting at my desk with a hot cup of coffee writing deeply about Scripture. Suddenly I exchanged exegeting scripture with exegeting phonics and listening to Jack Hartman on repeat.I can write about theology, but sometimes it hurts to live it out—especially when it includes setting aside what I lean on for identity rather than how God sees me. — @Seana_S_Scott Click To Tweet
I know the Scriptures teach that children are a blessing from the Lord (Psalm 127:3). I know God wanted me at the kitchen table mid-morning talking through magnetic force with my 3rd grader. But in the moment, I felt a bit lost. I can write about theology, but sometimes it hurts to live it out—especially when it includes setting aside what I lean on for identity rather than how God sees me.
What practices of your heart might you need realigned to your identity in Christ?
Re-Building Our Identity
Our identity does not change with the pandemic—the stock market—or our health. Our identity is steadfast in the hope and love of God the Father, through faith in the Son, by the power of the Holy Spirit. As we recover from the pandemic, I offer two suggestions in rebuilding our theology of identity.
- Consider your genealogy. Scripture defines us as children of God. How are you defining yourself?
- Examine your worship. Where are your affections and what is forming your heart’s desires?
When we find ourselves spending hours searching the vortex of internet job boards, longing for the days of eating in our favorite burger joint, or paying off credit card debt from pandemic-living—let’s remember our identity is not in any of those things. We’re defined by our relationship to God as his child and how we live a life of worship (Galatians 3:26; Matthew 7:21–23; Revelation 13:8, 22:12).
Seana writes and speaks to equip and inspire others in their relationship with God. She produces and hosts the Well Soul Podcast, a weekly devotional podcast with Scripture, reflection, and prayer. Her writing has been featured at Christianity Today, Fathom Mag, (in)Courage, and Lifeway Research. You can connect with her on Instagram @wellsoulpodcast.