“We [still] need to counter the world’s standards of identity and worth based on performance, on biology, on comparison/competition, on acquisition, on conformance, or on exclusion . . . From a biblical perspective, our identities and self-worth are rooted in the relationships we have with God, with our fellow humans, and with God’s creation.”
Today Comment reprints reflections from 2004 that are equally imperative seven years on.
Life’s Big Questions: Who Am I?
Originally published June 2004
One of the things I do as a campus minister at York University is publish a newsletter which solicits students to write and voice their opinions. Reading the student articles over this past semester, I find some common recurring themes. One female student, for instance, wrote, “I have to admit, that to feel secure in myself and in others takes more work than it has in previous years.” She complained about how the media, the fashion world, pop culture, and the risks of rejection in dating relationships all help to increase her sense of insecurity in her looks, her personality, her self-image, in short, in who she is.
Echoing her struggles with self-worth, another female student wrote about her own former struggles with depression that was rooted in low self-esteem: “Throughout my years as a teenager, I was overcome with thoughts of worthlessness. . . . All I knew was that my mind was increasingly consumed with negativity and, eventually, self-hatred.” Another student, a male this time, wrote, “So many of us struggle to find significance in this vast world. Where do we belong? Where do we fit in?”
I have also come across similar questions of self-worth, of direction, of who we are and where we fit in, where we belong, in various pastoral sessions with students. Many of these questions, I find, are ultimately rooted in what I call life’s big questions, such as Who am I? Why am I here? Where are we? What’s wrong with the world? Does God exist?
Everyone asks these questions, or variations of them, in every age and every culture at some point in their lives. From the old philosopher to the five-year old child, one or another of these questions have crossed their minds, if not their lips.
In this article, and the next three, I will explore four of life’s big questions—Who am I? Where am I? What’s wrong with the world? Why am I here?—from within a reformed Christian framework, beginning with the first question, the one linked to our self-image: Who am I?
You may ask, why do I need a Christian framework, or any framework for that matter, to answer this question. I know who I am: I am, for example, Chinese, son of my father, youngest brother to my siblings, husband of my wife, a father of my two daughters, a committed Christian, a member of a church, a campus minister, a writer, etc. Isn’t that enough? Isn’t that, really, the answer to the question, rather than a big, abstract theological or philosophical answer?
On one level, yes, but on another level, such specific answers are not enough. These specifics need to fit into a bigger picture or a framework that holds them together and gives them a bigger meaning. As an analogy, think of a jigsaw puzzle. Most puzzles come with a picture of what the completed puzzle looks like. Thanks to the big picture, you know where to fit the individual pieces. When the puzzle is complete, you can see the whole picture. Similarly, these specific pieces of our self-identity—being a daughter, belonging to an ethnic group, being a student, etc.—only begin to fit together and show a more complete self-image when there is a bigger picture or framework as guide.
Of course, the Christian framework isn’t the only framework out there that tries to define who you are. Many different ideologies, philosophies, cultures, and institutions all have their own take on who we are. For instance, our current economic practices tend to define us as merely consumers—people who live in order to consume, to buy stuff, to use things. Or take the fashion and media culture as an example, which reduces women to sexual objects for male consumption!
These definitions ultimately affect people who live and breathe in their areas of influence. Because definitions of identity act as standards for self-worth, they can be either destructive or constructive to our personal well-being. If women are, for instance, sex objects, then a woman who is not blessed with good looks feels less than a woman. The subtle implied message is that she is not good enough or not worthy because she cannot fully participate in the dominant culture. Hence, feelings of low self-esteem can occur.
Or, to use another example, if we don’t make enough money to buy the latest technological gadgets, watch the latest movies, wear the latest fashions, eat at the trendy places, in short, if we do not have the money power to participate in the culture of consumerism, to be a consumer, we are left out at the margins; we are not “in” or “hip”; we are made to feel that we are missing out. We are not worthy because we don’t fit the big picture definition of who we are supposed to be.
In effect, the consumerism economy presents the big spending consumer, with the big car, the big house, the big TV, the fastest computer, and so on, as the ideal human being, the successful human. And we are fed these images constantly through savvy marketing techniques, which influence us to want to become this “ideal human,” which means we need to gain money power. But to do so means we need the right job, which normally requires us getting the right education, and so on.
Similarly, the woman who is less than the so-called ideal sex object may feel she needs to change her appearance by undergoing an “extreme makeover” via plastic surgery, by cosmetics, by dieting, by wearing the right clothes, all of which also means that she has to be an ideal consumer too.
Of course, I am greatly simplifying here to make a point: big picture frameworks matter. It matters what our ideological framework is for identifying who we are, as it affects all of us as a community and eventually affects us at the individual personal level. Before I give an account of what I think the biblical framework is, let me name one more common destructive definition of human identity.
One common view of humanity traces its roots all the way back to the ancient Greeks. Aristotle defined humans as the rational animal. Many others have followed the Greeks in identifying human rationality as what makes us truly human. Who am I? The ancient Greeks, many modernists, and even a lot of Christians would answer: I am a rational thinking agent/animal. Many Christians adopted this view by interpreting our rationality, our ability to think and reason, as the substance that makes us “the image of God” (Genesis 1:27). In other words, we are created in the image of God because God created us with rational powers, unlike the animals. This has been a popular Christian view, but, in my opinion and in the opinion of an increasing number of Christian theologians, it is the wrong view. I will look more closely later at the doctrine of the image of God, or in its Latin terminology, the Imago Dei.
But this reduction of the human identity to our rationality has had destructive outcomes throughout Western history. For instance, oppression of women as second-class humans had often been justified by claiming that women were less rational than men. Slavery was justified by arguing that the slaves (Africans and Native Americans usually) were less than human because they did not demonstrate the same level of civilization that a truly rational human community, such as the White Westerners, created.
Of course, not all of these oppressions are direct results of this faulty definition of our humanity. But the definition creates a framework that allows for these injustices to occur with full intellectual and theoretical justification. In other words, it creates a framework where the picture of slaves and women as second-class humans are not seen as out of place but as fitting. Or, put in another way, it allows for society to see these practices as making sense; it’s plausible and logical. In today’s world, with our new framework, these pictures don’t fit in at all and are seen as total nonsense and must be discarded. That’s what ideological frameworks can do to whole societies.
According to the Bible, human beings were created in the image of God. What exactly does this mean? As mentioned earlier, many Christians in the past have defined this to mean that some substance, or some part of us, make up God’s image in us. In our history, rationality has been the leading candidate as the substance that we can point to and say that’s the image of God in us. Other candidates were conscience and morality.
But there is another tradition, articulated by early reformers such as Martin Luther and John Calvin, which saw the Imago Dei as relational. The image of God is not defined by what we have but rather defined by our relationship to God, a relationship where humanity images God on earth. This view was in seed form in Calvin and Luther. Other modern-day scholars have built on Calvin and Luther’s seeds and developed this relational idea of the Imago Dei.
In summary, a relational idea of the Imago Dei means that we are created to have a relationship with God, to love God, that we are beings in relationship with God. Being related to God is part and parcel of who we are, of our basic make-up as human beings. If our relationship to God is distorted, our humanity is distorted. Like an image in a mirror, that image will only remain accurate if the mirror stands in proper relation to the object it is reflecting. If the mirror turns to a different angle other than directly facing the object, the image in the reflection will be distorted. Thus, being created in the image of God, humanity’s relationship to God is closely tied to humanity’s existence and nature.
This doesn’t mean that our attributes of rationality and morality, for instance, are not important. Although these attributes may not be the image of God; they are nevertheless necessary, in my view, for imaging God. To expand on the mirror metaphor, our human attributes of rationality, morality, and conscience, among others, are what make up the mirror. The mirror itself is not the image, but without the mirror, there wouldn’t be an image. But if you have a fully functional mirror that doesn’t stand in proper relation with God, there won’t be an image of God properly reflected either.
Talking about a fully functional mirror brings me to another aspect of the Imago Dei. Proper relationship to God also entails proper functioning. In other words, there is also a functional or instrumental angle to being the image of God. Our relationship to God is expressed in action, in acts of service, devotion, obedience, and love. For instance, God calls us to take care of the world and to cultivate it. In Genesis, when God created Adam, He “took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to till it and keep it” (Genesis 2:15). Just as parents should try to help their children develop to their full potential, we are called by God to help His creation develop to its fullest potential. We try to help creation bear its potential fruits. Because, in doing so, we also develop our own potential as humans in God’s image; we are also imaging Him in doing so.
In short, God created us to find our fulfilment in loving communion with Him, with each other, and with creation. To be truly human is to have harmonious being—with God, humans, and creation. We are not merely human beings. More accurately, we are human co-beings, or human beings-with. We are not autonomous, independent of others. Neither are we dependent on others to the point that our individuality is an illusion. We are interdependent creatures made for loving relational existence.
What are some of the implications of this biblical framework for our everyday lives? For one, if our worth is rooted in the image of God, which is in turn rooted in our relationship to God, our ultimate identity and worth are not in any human, temporal, or earthly categories. True, because of sin, we are distorted images, but we are not erased images. The image of God in us is distorted, not destroyed. This means that no matter how many mistakes we make in life, no matter how many times we screw up, no matter how sinful our lives are, we are still in the image of God, albeit distorted, which means that we are never worthless, we are never less than human in real terms, even if we feel or act subhuman at times.
Through Jesus Christ, we can be set right again; our distorted images are reset to their original and proper reflections. Only Jesus Christ, whom the scriptures call the paradigmatic “image of the invisible God” (Colossians 1:15), makes us regain our true humanity, our true nature as God’s image-bearers. And this identity of true worth is a gift that we receive in gratitude, not a trophy we earn by our performance. If our identity and self-worth are based on our performance, our ability to live up to certain standards, then our identities are insecure. In contrast to our culture’s performance-driven identities, the gospel’s truth frees us from the pressures to perform and conform. A gift cannot be lost unless one despises it and throws it away.
Another way of saying this is by using Philip Yancey’s definition of grace: “Grace means there is nothing we can do to make God love us more [or] to make God love us less” ( What’s So Amazing About Grace?, 70) Our identities, our self-worth, are not performance based but are gifts of God’s grace. There is nothing we can do to make us more worthy human beings or to make us less worthy in God’s eyes.
Thus, our actions and behaviours, our working, our studying, our kindness, our acts of justice, our loving are not performances to earn our worth. Rather, they are performances that show our true nature. We are beings-in-relationship, and, hence, actions that promote good harmonious relationships only serve to promote our own well-being. And, in such harmonious and loving relationships, our lives and our world reflect God’s image more clearly.
In summary, we need to counter the world’s standards of identity and worth based on performance, on biology, on comparison/competition, on acquisition, on conformance, or on exclusion (being with the “in” crowd). From a biblical perspective, our identities and self-worth are rooted in the relationships we have with God, with our fellow humans, and with God’s creation. These relationships are not governed by the rules of competition but are governed by God’s justice, mercy, peace, and love. Thus, a homeless person on the street is not any less a person in the image of God, and any less worthy, than the prime minister of Canada. Donald Trump, with his wealth and power, is no more worthy than a child who has nothing but a pure delight in the wonders of creation. This third relationship, the one with creation, will be the topic of my next article.