Who am I? As children our answer to that question was based on anything from our favorite ice cream to who our best friend was at the moment. As adults our answer relates more to things like what we do or how much we have.
But as Christian adults we recognize that who we are (aka our identity) comes from only one source. And who we are in Christ affects every part of our lives—from how we think and feel to the choices we make each day.
At the zenith of the Beatles’ fame, John Lennon wrote, “You can learn to be you in time/it’s easy.” It’s a catchy hook for a song—if only it were true. Of course, Lennon was not writing hymns for the church at large, nor was he sketching out a robust theology of sanctification for an Ivy League symposium. And I suppose Lennon was half right. Yes, we can discover our true identity in time (i.e., eternity). However, it’s not necessarily easy. In fact, it never seems to be easy.
It’s Not Easy Being Me
Any theologian worth his salt would tell us that becoming who we were meant to be in Christ is a lifelong process that borders on the eternal. It involves prayer and time—lots of time—and growth, not to mention faith and a healthy dose of love. Scripture and community are essential ingredients too. There are no quick fixes when it comes to developing our identity in Christ. Nothing worthwhile happens in a nanosecond.
Erik Kelly, a student at Bethel University, agrees with this line of thinking. “The task of [finding our identity in Christ] is at times a dirty and painful process,” he says. “The ultimate aim is to be transformed into the image of Jesus, so God calls the individual beyond the limitations of the self. I don’t know how close we come in this life, but I do know we come to [reflect the image of Christ more] fully when we depart to be with the Lord. The important part is that there is always more for us in this arena—it is a lifelong adventure.”
And Kelly would know. As a teenager he turned to drugs and hedonistic relationships as a way to escape the memories of his childhood. Yet this lifestyle only temporarily abated the pain and left him cold and empty. Ultimately Kelly found solace in spiritual books—the writings of contemplative thinkers such as Brother Lawrence, Dallas Willard, and Thomas A’Kempis.
“God led me to Bethel Seminary where I got to study the subjects that naturally appealed to my temperament,” Kelly shares. “I had never been in an environment that encouraged my gifts and introduced me to people who were like me. Jesus has also been healing the deep wounds I sustained from an abusive childhood. Finding my identity and being set free from the past has revolutionized my relationship with God and with others. It has been a very long and difficult road, but God never left my side.”
Wrestling in the Mud
As Kelly attests, finding our identity in Christ is not a simple process. It’s not about copious amounts of church attendance. It’s not about simply fleeing to a nunnery. And it’s not about getting tattoos on our backs that say “wisdom” in a dead language.
Finding our identity in Christ involves time, prayer, and honest introspection. Sometimes it even involves forgiveness. Yet it always involves getting down in the mud and wrestling with our perception of who we are and what it takes to change. Only God can shape our spiritual identity. And only God can bridge the gap between our concept of who we are and who He wants us to become. It may not be an easy process, but finding oneself in Christ is an adventure that cannot be bottled by words.
Out of Africa
This adventure plays out in different ways for different folks. For Kelly it meant entering seminary and diving into books. For Krista Bergstrom it meant buying a one-way ticket to Africa.
Growing up in a good, churchgoing family in Minneapolis, Bergstrom had a mysterious burden for Africa. She fell in love with pictures from Africa, stories about Africa, as well as the need for missionaries in Africa. So after eight years of teaching in an elementary school, Bergstrom raised support to work with a church in the Democratic Republic of the Congo for a year.
“It took me awhile to come out of my shell and find out what God wanted me to do,” Bergstrom says. “My identity had become so wrapped up in all of the things I wanted to do, rather than what God wanted me to do. I really had a heart for Africa, but it was always in the abstract; and I got so sick of dreaming big in the abstract. So after the encouragement of pastors and friends, I decided to take the plunge. I got my regimen of shots, and I bought a plane ticket to a different country in a different hemisphere. And I haven’t been the same since.”
Now back in the United States, Bergstrom realizes how much she has grown from her experience. “I feel that I am closer to my true identity than ever before. After living without some of the material things we often take for granted—things like television, Starbucks coffee, cheeseburgers, SUVs, accessible Wi-Fi—I feel much more grounded, like I am more ‘me’ than I’ve ever been before.”
“It hasn’t been an easy process, though,” she adds. “Becoming who you were meant to be in Christ is never easy. And I’m just getting started.”
So by signing on for the adventure to answer the question, Who am I?, we can actually become more like Christ in every aspect of our lives. And that, after all, is