Building a Christ-Centered Identity

Building a Christ-Centered Identity

A Biblical Answer to the "Just be You" Trend

by Leslie Ludy | December 1, 2016

Unless you are prepared to let go of what you are,
you'll never become what God intended you to be.

- Ian Thomas

The aroma of pepperoni and cheese lingered in the air as my girlfriends and I tossed our paper plates into an overflowing garbage can and meandered into the living room where our pretty, twenty-something youth leader was waiting to inspire us with a weekly “devo” (youth group slang for a devotional lesson).  As we settled onto the couches and floor, sipping on sodas or nibbling candy, she launched into her theme for the evening:  “Learning to Be Yourself.”  After spending several minutes condemning the media for putting unhealthy expectations on teen girls and philosophizing about the dangers of peer pressure, she got around to the main point of her talk.  “God smiles when He sees you being YOU!” she told us passionately.  “Don’t try to be someone you’re not.  Just be yourself — and let everyone else deal with it.”

It sounded like great advice.  In a world that was constantly insisting that we needed to look and act like a Hollywood starlet in order to be truly acceptable, it was refreshing to hear a different message.  The problem was, none of us had a clue what “being ourselves” really meant.  Commercials, magazines, and pop-songs continually reminded us that we should do whatever made us happy, pursue our own desires, and listen to our hearts.  These relentless messages combined with many well-meaning exhortations to “just be you” caused most of us to come to the conclusion that being ourselves meant expressing our unique personalities, catering to our own whims, and doing whatever felt right in the moment.

My friend Carrie, for example, had a boisterous personality and liked to be the center of attention wherever she went.  Her raucous laughter and loud behavior dominated every social situation.  Other girls usually felt insecure or inferior around Carrie because she was always the life of the party.  Her conduct was often crude or sensual and she continually made her fellow Christians uncomfortable.  But whenever someone tactfully suggested that she consider toning down her behavior, she would shrug and boldly declare, “I can’t help it — this is just who I am.  God made me this way.  I can’t be someone I’m not!”

Kylie — another girl in our youth group — was a dark and brooding young woman with piercings and tattoos all over her body and wildly colored hair.  Despite the fact that she attended the church youth group, she constantly used foul language and often wore shirts with offensive statements or evil-looking characters on them.  She complained that people (mostly her parents and relatives) were always trying to get her to alter her look into something more conservative.  “You can’t change me!” she would tell them defiantly. “I don’t wanna be you — I’m gonna be ME!”

I was a quiet, introverted person, and often had a hard time seeing beyond myself and reaching out to others.  But whenever my mother encouraged me to be more outward-focused, I immediately reasoned to myself, “That’s just not who I am.  Some people were born friendly, but I wasn’t.”  That excuse kept me comfortably in my own little selfish bubble throughout most of my high school years.  And as I pursued the specific dreams I had for my life (for example, to become a famous Christian recording artist) I often overlooked the needs of others — especially my family — under the banner of simply “being true to myself” and following my heart.

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Each of us in the youth group, in our own unique way, had twisted the idea of “being ourselves” into nothing more than a spiritual-sounding excuse for living selfish, flesh-ruled lives.  We hurt others, rebelled against our authorities, and turned every day into an “all about me” extravaganza — because we bought the lie that being true to ourselves meant following every self-centered whim that came into our heads.  We’d been taught by our culture and even by Christian leaders that following our hearts (i.e. doing exactly what we wanted) and boldly expressing our individuality was the way we could glorify God and fulfill our true destiny.

This kind of “be true to yourself” confusion has spread far beyond youth group devotional lessons over the past couple of decades. It has permeated much of modern Christianity, convincing believers of all ages that they must fight to protect their individuality, that they should only do the things that make them feel happy, and that they should be intentional about building a strong “sense of self.”

Many a young mom has been told that she should fight to protect her “me time” and aggressively cultivate her own interests apart from her husband and children, so that she doesn’t spend her entire life serving others and forgetting all about herself.  

Single young women who are looking for godly older mentors are often turned down because older Christian women are convinced that “I’ve put in my time, my children are grown, now I can finally do what I’ve always wanted!”  As a result they have become too busy with their own pursuits to invest spiritually into the lives of others.

My husband Eric and I have spoken with quite a few ministry leaders and missionaries who are desperate for Christian workers who will cheerfully do whatever needs to be done.  But they admit that these kind of servant-hearted sorts are nearly impossible to find, because Christians who have been raised on the modern “be true to yourself” message quickly abandon less-than-glamorous assignments, saying “that’s just not me” or “that’s just not my true passion.”

Life for many Christians today is a journey of self-discovery and self-fulfillment.  We are preoccupied with the questions “Who am I?” and “What will make me happy?”  Our culture has told us that it is noble and right to pursue our own dreams and protect our own interests.  We are taught that to “lose sight of ourselves” is a very dangerous thing.

But what does God say?

When I began to pursue Christ in a serious way, I realized that in my attempts to “be true to myself” I’d been missing the essence of true Christianity.   As I began to truly seek after Him with all my heart, it became clear that He was asking for all of me.  That meant letting Him have His way in my life — even if it looked completely different than what I had always wanted.  It meant letting Him shape and mold my longings from selfish desires into Christ-centered ones.  It meant not merely hearing but also living according to the words of the Apostle Paul in 1 Corinthians 6:19-20: “You are not your own … For you were bought at a price…” (emphasis added). A true commitment to Christ meant giving up all my rights — including my right to myself.

A TRUE COMMITMENT TO CHRIST MEANT GIVING UP
ALL MY RIGHTS — INCLUDING MY RIGHT TO MYSELF

Yes, God made me to be a unique individual.  He wasn’t asking me to become a robot without a personality or feelings. But instead of truly being the person God designed me to be, I’d fallen for a twisted counterfeit.  I had been fighting for my own way and clinging to my own preferences under the banner of “being myself.”  Now, He was asking me to redefine what “being myself” really meant — according to His pattern and not the world’s.

Understanding Who We Are

It has been said that we can’t really know who we are until we discover who God is.  Until our identity becomes wrapped up in Him, we will always be searching for a counterfeit identity.  As women, we are especially prone to looking to everything but Him to define who we are.  In our search for identity and purpose, we frantically seek after self-discovery, self-fulfillment, and self-expression. Yet the Bible makes it clear that the Christian life is not about self-fulfillment or self-expression, but self-denial.  As we see in Luke 9:23, Jesus said, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself…” (ESV). The word “deny” here literally means “To lose sight of oneself and one’s own interests.”  What an opposite mindset from what most of us have grown up with!  What the world deems dangerous and wrong (i.e. losing sight of yourself and your own interests), God deems noble and right.  

As we follow Jesus and yield our lives to Him, we are meant to lose our own identity and take on His instead.  No longer are we to be defined by our own personality, tastes, or desires.  Our lives are now defined by the simple, amazing fact that we are daughters of the King; that we are bondservants of the Most High God; and that we are in Christ Jesus.  He alone must be our identity.  The Apostle Paul declared in 1 Corinthians 2:2: “I determined not to know anything among you except Jesus Christ and Him crucified.” Though Paul had an impressive list of accomplishments by human standards, they meant nothing to him.  His identity was completely and wholly wrapped up in Jesus Christ.

WE ARE MEANT TO LOSE OUR OWN IDENTITY AND TAKE ON HIS INSTEAD

As Ian Thomas so eloquently described it, “The Christian life can be explained only in terms of Jesus Christ, and if your life as a Christian can still be explained in terms of you — your personality, your willpower, your gift, your talent, your money, your courage, your scholarship, your dedication, your sacrifice, or your anything — then although you may have the Christian life, you are not yet living it.”

When we really understand who Christ is, and who we are in Christ, we won't fight to be noticed, appreciated, or applauded.  We won’t be preoccupied with trying to figure out who we are and what makes us special or unique.  We won’t stubbornly cling to selfish whims or personal preferences under the banner of “I’m just being myself!”  

Colossians 3:3 reminds us of the incredible transformation that takes place when we enter into a covenant relationship with the King of all kings:  “For you died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God” (emphasis added).

“Hidden” in this verse means “to conceal, to escape notice.”  Christ’s amazing work on the Cross did not “set you free to be you” as some modern voices insist.  Rather, He gave His life to set you free from yourself, so that you no longer need to be controlled by your selfish, fleshly whims.  Because of His work on the Cross, you are free to be completely and wholly His.

HE GAVE HIS LIFE TO SET YOU FREE FROM YOURSELF,
SO THAT YOU NO LONGER NEED TO BE CONTROLLED
BY YOUR SELFISH, FLESHLY WHIMS

Of course, your individual personality and your specific likes and dislikes don’t disappear when your life is hidden with Christ — but they are no longer the focal point of your existence.  When people look at your life, they should not primarily see you; they should see Jesus — His nature, His attitude, His love, and His life.  Your job is not to fight for your own individuality, but to fight for His glory.  God may certainly choose to use our unique qualities for His purposes.  But that is His business, and not ours.  Our only job is to make ourselves completely available to Him, just as a soldier is completely at the disposal of his commanding officer (see 2 Timothy 2:4).

Elisabeth Elliot said it this way: “The world looks for happiness through self-assertion. The Christian knows that joy is found in self-abandonment. If a man will let himself be lost for My sake, Jesus said, he will find his true self.” 

Just like Paul, let your own preferences, desires, accomplishments and uniqueness fade into the background and become nothing — less than nothing — in light of who He is (see Philippians 3:8).  Let His astounding, amazing, awe-inspiring presence overtake your personality and transform it into a reflection of Him. As you do, you’ll discover who God has made you to be — a vessel in the Potter’s hands; a soldier of the Cross; a privileged servant of the King of all kings.

The Right Way to Be Yourself

I shared in a previous article about being in a hair salon and watching a fourteen-year-old girl beginning the process of gender-switching by chopping off her long hair in exchange for a butch cut. Everyone who knew what she was doing (her mother, partner, and the women who were looking on) made supportive comments such as, “It’s so great that she has the courage to finally be herself!” and “Good for you, honey! It’s so important to be the person you were meant to be — no matter what anyone thinks!”

Our culture has warped and twisted the idea of “being ourselves” to such an extreme that it has become perfectly normal — and even applauded — to reject the way God designed us; the gender He made us, the age He made us, and the family or circumstances He has placed us in.  If someone doesn’t like his or her gender, that person can simply change genders and declare “this is who I was really meant to be.”  If a boy doesn’t like his parents or teachers, he can simply reject and disregard them (and in some cases, plot to hurt or kill them as we see in many heartbreaking news stories today).  If a woman doesn’t like the age she is, she can simply resort to plastic surgery to look thirty when she’s really fifty.  If a teenager doesn’t like his life circumstances, he can simply take on a virtual reality instead. If a husband doesn’t like the wife he married, he can simply run off with another woman he feels is his true “soulmate.”  If a single person doesn’t like being single, he or she can simply get online and “shop” for a spouse through an online dating site.

And the list goes on.

Even those of us who don’t follow these specific paths often reject God’s design for our lives in more subtle ways.  Many of us are prone to getting upset with God if He doesn’t give us exactly what we want, or rushing ahead of God out of impatience and trying to manipulate our life circumstances so they will line up with our desires.

Amy Carmichael, a missionary to India in the early 1900s, wrote, “In acceptance lieth peace.”  To joyfully and gladly accept God’s design for our lives is the only way to truly “be ourselves” according to His pattern.  It is the only path that leads to true peace.

Are you single today? God designed you to be single today.  Are you afraid of getting older? God made you the exact age He wants you to be.  Are you in a challenging family situation?  God has put you there for a reason.  Are you a woman?  God made you a woman on purpose. 

Contrary to what we often believe, God doesn’t make mistakes.

In order to “be who we are” according to the biblical pattern, we must learn not to fight against God’s sovereign plans and purposes for our lives — but to embrace them as gifts from Him.  Instead of getting angry or impatient when our circumstances don’t line up with our desires, we can ask Him to give us a heart that willingly proclaims, “Not my will, but Yours be done, Lord!”

This doesn’t mean we shouldn’t pray for challenging circumstances in our life to change, or that we shouldn’t lay our desires before Him.  But it does mean that we should willingly embrace His design for our lives, and that we should cultivate a heart of surrender and acceptance even when things don’t turn out exactly as we want them to.

One of my favorite verses is Psalm 37:4, “Delight yourself in the Lord, and he will give you the desires of your heart” (ESV).  At first glance, we may assume that when we delight in Him, He will give us everything we want.  But looking deeper, this verse actually means that as we build our lives around God and His priorities, He actually places His desires within our heart — He changes our desires to align with His desires for our lives.

HE CHANGES OUR DESIRES TO ALIGN
WITH HIS DESIRES FOR OUR LIVES

A missionary named Jackie Pullinger once told the story of arriving in the Walled City of Hong Kong as a young woman.  It was a filthy, crime-infested place of darkness and despair.  Most law officials and even other missionaries wanted to avoid going there.  And yet God gave Jackie an inexplicable, overwhelming desire to pour out her life in that destitute place, and she could hardly wait to go and live there.

One of the surest ways to tell whether God has shaped the desires of your heart is that you find yourself longing for things that this world deems strange and undesirable. Instead of desiring comforts, pleasure, and ease, you now long for the privilege of being Christ’s hands and feet to a dying world.  You long to become a poured-out living sacrifice for Him. You long to take His message of salvation and redemption to the lost.  You count it a privilege to suffer for Him.

If your own desires are standing in the way of God’s purposes for your life, don’t fight and scrape for your own way.  Rather, lay your own plans, dreams, and longings at His feet. Joyfully accept where He has placed you today.  And ask Him to lovingly shape the desires of your heart into His desires for your life.

Surrender is the only way to become the person God created you to be.  In acceptance lieth peace.

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If you are searching for your identity and grasping for your life’s purpose, Jesus made things very simple when He said, “It is enough for a disciple that he be like his teacher, and a servant like his master…” (Matt. 10:25).  

This is the great privilege of every set apart follower of Jesus.  Why would we ever want to be more than a disciple of the King of all kings?  The world can keep its frantic fight for individuality.   Being like Him is the truest identity we could ever find and the greatest purpose we could ever have.  And it is enough — more than enough — to fulfill us at the deepest level of our soul.  Let a new prayer echo from our hearts today:  “Lord, may I not seek to be more and more like me … but to be more and more like You.”