Biblical worldview: Identity

As our Creator, God determines our identities, and rebellion against our God-given identities is rebellion against God, but we naturally want to follow our desires.

In Romans 14, the apostle Paul writes:

For none of us lives for himself, and no one dies for himself. If we live, we live for the Lord; and if we die, we die for the Lord. Therefore, whether we live or die, we belong to the Lord. (Romans 14:7, 8)

This passage is reflected in the first question of the Heidelberg Catechism, which asks, What is your only comfort in life and in death?” Answer: That I, with body and soul, both in life and in death, am not my own, but belong to my faithful Savior Jesus Christ.”

I am not my own,” the Catechism says.

We belong to the Lord,” Paul writes (Ro 14:8).

Do not be deceived

The Bible often speaks of deception and warns us of its dangers. Twice in 1 Corinthians, Paul uses the phrase, Do not be deceived (1Co 6:9; 15:33). Writing to the Galatians, he says again, Don’t be deceived (Gal 6:7). James writes, Don’t be deceived, my dear brothers (Jas 1:6). Jesus said, Watch out that you are not deceived (Lk 21:8). Even the Old Testament warns, Be careful that you are not enticed,” or deceived (Dt 11:16).

Over the course of time, the world’s philosophies and worldviews have a way of creeping into the church. They may slowly influence our thinking, eroding the biblical worldview we ought to have. Paul understood this point and said, Do not be conformed to this age, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, so that you may discern what is the good, pleasing, and perfect will of God (Ro 12:2).

We, as Christians, need to exercise our minds daily by intentionally putting ourselves under the influence of God’s word. We don’t have to work to be influenced by the secular, unbelieving world around us. Chances are, if you go to school, go to work, listen to the radio, turn on the TV, browse the Web, check Facebook or Instagram, or even glance at the magazine rack in the grocery store, you will be within the sphere of worldly influence. So, renewing our minds, bringing them into line with the will of God, requires a level of commitment and intentionality (Ro 12:2).

Today, we’re talking about identity—who are we?—and I mention this matter of deception creeping into the church because identity is an area where extremely dangerous, unbiblical ideas can be very subtle. In fact, I would argue the most dangerous ideas are almost always subtle. When false doctrines are obvious, we’re quick to notice and reject them. When they’re subtle, we may not notice them until they’ve already done their damage.

Perhaps you’ll see what I mean as we continue.

Created by God and for God

If I were to summarize the biblical worldview regarding identity, here is how I would define it. Everyone is created by God and for God. Let’s consider both parts of that statement.

Created by God

First, everyone is created by God. This point is clear enough in the very first chapter of the Bible. After God had formed the world and everything in it, he said Let us make man in our image, according to our likeness (Ge 1:26). Then, we are told, God created man in his own image; he created him in the image of God; he created them male and female (Ge 1:27).

Immediately, we see that God’s design of humanity was very intentional. Genesis does not merely say, God created man (Ge 1:27). It says, God created man in his own image; he created them male and female. While all of God’s creation was certainly part of an intentional design, Scripture seems to emphasize this point regarding the creation of people. We’re explicitly told that God designed humanity in a specific way—namely, as creatures in his own image as well as distinctly male or female, which leads to the second part of my definition.

Created for God

Second, everyone is created by God and for God.

If you have determined to make something, it stands to reason you have a purpose in mind for the thing you intend to make. If you want to bake bread, for example, you will use specific ingredients, put them together in a specific way, and have a specific goal in mind, which is to eat the bread you’ve made. From the moment you conceive the idea to make something, everything you do will be dictated by the purpose for that thing’s existence. If the thing didn’t have a purpose, you wouldn’t make it.

God created human beings with a purpose in mind. That’s what I mean when I say we are created by God for God. The distinct and intentional way he created us implies that much, but God also explicitly says, Let us make man in our image, according to our likeness. They will rule the fish of the sea, the birds of the sky, the livestock, the whole earth, and the creatures that crawl on the earth (Ge 1:26). Then, he says to the man and woman he created in the beginning, Be fruitful, multiply, fill the earth, and subdue it (Ge 1:28). While that’s not the totality of what he created us for, it shows that he did create us for something. He had a purpose in mind, and he designed us according to that purpose.

Consider what the Baptist Confession of Faith says about our creation:

After God had made all the other creatures, he created humanity. He made them male and female, with rational and immortal souls, thereby making them suited to that life lived unto God for which they were created. They were made in the image of God, being endowed with knowledge, righteousness, and true holiness. They had the law of God written in their hearts and the power to fulfill it.

Notice how the Confession presents an inseparable link between God’s design of humanity and his intended purpose for humanity, which follows what we read in Genesis. God made us male and female, for instance, so we could fulfill our God-given purpose to be fruitful, multiply, and fill the earth (Ge 1:27, 28). He gave us rational and immortal souls, knowledge, righteousness, and true holiness,” according to the Confession, to make us suited to that life lived unto God for which [we] were created.”

In Colossians 1, Paul says, Everything was created by him, in heaven and on earth, the visible and the invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities — all things have been created through him and for him (Col 1:16). All things,” of course, includes us. We are created by God and for God.

Created to glorify God

To get a complete picture of what God created us for would take a considerable amount of time. The short version is, God created us to glorify him. We exist to (1) experience and (2) reflect his goodness, beauty, and majesty. That is why Paul says, Whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do everything for the glory of God (1Co 10:31). No matter how mundane the task, from the time we wake in the morning to the time our heads hit the pillow at night, our God-ordained purpose is to experience and reflect his glory.

If we want specifics, we would have to study his word. We would have to learn his commandments. Keep in mind, his commandments aren’t meant to limit or hold us back. Instead, they show us how to live out our purpose. They show us how to live as God designed us to live. Some people have referred to the Bible as an instruction manual for life, and there’s some truth to that. All Scripture is inspired by God and is profitable for teaching, for rebuking, for correcting, for training in righteousness, so that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work (2Ti 3:16). We might say Scripture equips us to live out our purpose, to live as God intended.

You will be like God

Once again, humanity was created by God and for God. But as we know, the first man and woman acted contrary to their Creator’s will. And what happens when we use something in a way for which it was never intended? It breaks. It doesn’t quite work right anymore. Consider the smartphone in your pocket. That device can do many incredible things, but it wasn’t designed to drop on a hard floor or take a swim in the washing machine. Drop it on the floor or wash it with your laundry, and chances are, it’ll never work as well as it did before.

Genesis 3 tells the story of man’s fall this way:

Now the serpent was the most cunning of all the wild animals that the LORD God had made. He said to the woman, Did God really say, You can’t eat from any tree in the garden’?”

The woman said to the serpent, We may eat the fruit from the trees in the garden. But about the fruit of the tree in the middle of the garden, God said, You must not eat it or touch it, or you will die.’”

No! You will certainly not die,” the serpent said to the woman. In fact, God knows that when you eat it your eyes will be opened and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.” The woman saw that the tree was good for food and delightful to look at, and that it was desirable for obtaining wisdom. So she took some of its fruit and ate it; she also gave some to her husband, who was with her, and he ate it. (Genesis 3:1-6)

Look closely, and you’ll notice that everyone involved in this original sin is twisting and distorting human identity.

First of all, God created Adam and Eve, not the other way around, yet the serpent is tempting Eve to question God. Did God really say—? Don’t believe that for a moment. God knows that when you eat from the forbidden tree your eyes will be opened and you will be like God (Ge 3:1, 5). Sadly, Eve forgets she is like God because she was made in his image. But she’s only an image, a reflection of God. She’s not God, and she has no right to question or contradict him.

Second, notice the twisting of male and female here—husband and wife. The serpent doesn’t approach Adam, who is the head of his wife, Eve doesn’t consult Adam before eating the fruit, and Adam doesn’t intervene to protect Eve. Paul tells the Corinthians, Christ is the head of every man, and the man is the head of the woman, and God is the head of Christ (1Co 11:3). Christ submits to God the Father, men submit to Christ, and women submit to men—namely, their husbands. That is God’s design for men and women, but Adam and Eve rebelled against God as well as their God-prescribed identities as male and female.

As the story continues, Adam and Eve immediately feel shame. They become so uncomfortable in their own skin that they physically hide and attempt to cover their bodies with fig leaves (Ge 3:7). That’s a profound detail in the story. Before they corrupted themselves by twisting and distorting their identities, both as God’s creations and distinct sexes, they could walk around naked without a care in the world. Every bit of their persons was on display, and they never gave it a thought. Then, suddenly, they have an overwhelming impulse to hide themselves. They don’t want to be seen by one another or God.

In other words, Adam and Eve are ashamed of themselves. They’re ashamed of the new identities they’ve created for themselves by denying and distorting the identities God gave them.

Delightful to the eyes

Let’s back up and notice what drove Eve to succumb to the serpent’s temptation. The text says, The woman saw that the tree was good for food and delightful to look at, and that it was desirable for obtaining wisdom. So she took some of its fruit and ate it (Ge 3:6).

Was the tree good for food? (Ge 3:6). Was it a means for obtaining wisdom? No, far from it. The fruit on this tree was poisonous. Previously, God said, You must not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, for on the day you eat from it, you will certainly die (Ge 2:16).

Eve, however, isn’t thinking about objective truth. In fact, she’s being pulled away from objective truth by the allure of subjective aesthetics. She saw that the tree was good and delightful to look at (Ge 3:6). The appeal isn’t truth. The appeal is a mirage. God says, You are this, and here is what you must do to be this.” But Eve says, I would rather be that, and here is what I’ll do to become that.” Eve was wrong, of course, and would never achieve what she thought she could achieve by twisting her God-ordained purpose and identity. She threw her iPhone to the floor, if you will.

In 2 Corinthians 11, Paul says Eve was deceived (2Co 11:3). She was seduced by a lie, which she converted into a real possibility within her own mind. She attempted to create reality from her psychological desires, but of course, reality is reality whether we want it to be or not. Yet, this basic truth hasn’t stopped people from embracing their psychological desires as reality. You’re likely familiar with René Descartes’s first principle of philosophy, which is, I think, therefore I am.”

From desire to death

According to the biblical worldview, our psychological desires do not become reality. It is quite the opposite, in fact. The book of James tells us, Each person is tempted when he is drawn away and enticed by his own evil desire—“ that is, any desire that does not conform with God’s will and purpose (Jas 1:14). Then after desire has conceived, it gives birth to sin, and when sin is fully grown, it gives birth to death (Jas 1:15). In other words, if we deny reality in pursuit of our psychological desires, we will not find a more satisfying life. Instead, we’ll find death.

Let’s say I desperately want to be a bird. More than that, I believe myself to be a bird. Clearly, I’m not a bird. God’s word says I’m not a bird. I’m a human being, which should be self-evident, but I believe myself to be a bird nonetheless. Now, what would happen if I act upon that desire? What if I climb to the roof, flap my arms, and jump? Would I fly? No, I don’t have wings. Despite this delusion I have about myself, I’m not really a bird. God created birds, and he created human beings, and I belong to the latter. If I follow my desire too far, I will die. After desire has conceived, it gives birth to sin, and when sin is fully grown, it gives birth to death (Jas 1:15).

Granted, my illustration may seem absurd—who would believe himself to be a bird?—but it accurately reflects the prevailing philosophy of the time and culture in which we now live.

Think about it. Maybe only ten years ago, if I had gone to a doctor and said, I feel like a woman trapped in a man’s body,” that doctor would have correctly diagnosed me with a psychological disorder. He would have attempted to bring my irrational mind back into line with the reality of my body. Today, however, that same doctor may attempt to mutilate my body to bring into line with my irrational mind. Western culture in the 21st Century says, You think, therefore you are.”

To be clear, this worldview doesn’t necessarily reject God outright. The deist, for instance, embraces the existence of God, or a god anyhow, but may still reject the notion that God created us for himself. The biblical worldview says we are created by God for God. The prevailing worldview today takes issue, at the very least, with that last part. It rejects any notion that God designed us in a particular way for a particular purpose. Like Eve, it lifts man to the position of God, puts self at the center of the universe, and promotes a false idea that we can be whatever we want to be. It says there are no rules, limitations, or consequences.

An individualistic society

As we’ve seen, this worldview is nearly as old as time itself, originating with the very first man and woman, and it has continued to progress over the course of human history. On the one hand, this obsession with self is nothing new. On the other hand, the modern Western world has created an environment that has proven ideal for elevating the obsession with self to a dangerous level not only for the individual, but also for all of society.

Unfortunately, I don’t have time to explore all of the relevant history of secular philosophy that has led us to the place we now find ourselves as a nation. If you are interested in that history, I would recommend a book by Carl Trueman titled, Strange New World. The history is very enlightening, but for our purposes, we’ll jump ahead in the timeline.

Western culture has long placed heavy emphasis on the individual. Our own nation was founded upon the principle that each person has the unalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. You, as an individual, have the right to pursue happiness, according to your own terms, as long as you don’t harm anyone else or violate their rights. Yet, even the founders understood this experiment in freedom required a certain level of morality and righteousness to maintain the system they built. Despite being an individualistic society, they correctly assumed it could only work if society as a whole continued to practice and culturally enforce a reasonable degree of morality.

For most of human history, the predominant culture has been one of honor and shame. While sinners have always been preoccupied with self to some degree or another, most people have not seen themselves as independent individuals but as members of a community. First and foremost, they thought about their place in the community and behaved accordingly.

For example, homosexuality was rampant in the former Greek Empire. Even so, homosexuality was not what Jerry Bridges would call a respectable sin. A man may engage in that unholy act behind closed doors, but he would never flaunt it. Why? It would bring shame to him and his family because society as a whole considered it shameful. Furthermore, he would never make a connection between his sexual preferences and his identity. That is a very modern phenomenon. In his mind, he was not a gay man. He was a man, who perhaps committed homosexuality at times.

Think back to the story of Cain in Genesis 4. Obviously, Cain had an unhealthy preoccupation with self, which ultimately led him to kill his brother. Then, God doles out his punishment, saying, You will be a restless wanderer on the earth (Ge 4:12). And the Western reader thinks, That’s it? That’s his punishment for murder? We may even think Cain would be relieved he got off so light, but he says to God, My punishment is too great to bear! Since you are banishing me today from the face of the earth, and I must hide from your presence and become a restless wanderer on the earth (Ge 4:13, 14).

Among other things, the story of Cain shows the significance of an honor-shame culture. Just the thought of being excluded from his family and community leads Cain to cry out, Lord, my punishment is too great to bear! (Ge 4:13). Though he elevated his selfish desires even above his brother’s life, he still thinks of himself not as an independent individual, but as a member of a community. In a very real sense, his identity was his community.

That has been the perspective of most human beings throughout most of our history. Even as we have progressively moved toward an individualistic society in the Western world, we still see this innate desire for community approval and acceptance. When teenagers or young adults decide to rebel against their parents and communities because they don’t want others preventing them from being their authentic selves, you’ll notice they always seek out like-minded people—online or elsewhere. They want to be independent, but they don’t want to be alone. They want to be independent together.

So, human beings are naturally selfish. We naturally want to follow our desires even if those desires contradict our God-given purpose and design. Then, as our sense of obligation to community deteriorates, especially within an already-individualistic society, and secular philosophies and worldviews creep into popular culture, we have everything we need for moral collapse.

Expressive individualism

In one interview, Carl Trueman explained:

Expressive individualism is the dominant way of thinking about identity in the modern Western world. Essentially, the expressive individualist intuits that the true self is that which we are inside, the inner emotions and psychological feelings that we experience.

Trueman goes on to say the authentic individual is one who is able to act out in public that which they feel inwardly.” In other words, expressive individualism is the idea that one’s identity is not based on objective truth. Instead, it’s entirely based on one’s subjective feelings. I think, therefore I am. For someone to be authentic, then, means he must let his feelings dictate his actions even if those feelings contradict the truth about himself.

Perhaps you remember watching Oprah Winfrey decades ago ask her guests, What is your truth?” She didn’t ask, What is truth?” No, she would ask, What is your truth?” She may even turn to the next person on stage and ask again, What is your truth?” She was effectively normalizing the absurd notion that truth can be whatever you want it to be. Even before Oprah, we were using phrases such as Be true to yourself” and Follow your heart.” Though it seemed trivial at the time, pastors were warning parents about the dangers of the growing self-esteem movement decades ago.

Lovers of self, not God

On the one hand, this all feels strange and new like it suddenly appeared out of nowhere. On the other hand, as I said, expressive individualism has a much longer history than most of us realize. In fact, we should hardly be surprised at all because the Bible addresses its most basic tenet. For instance, when the apostle Paul speaks of hard times that will come in the last days, the first point he makes is that people will be lovers of self (2Ti 3::1, 2). As he further explains, they will be lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God (2Ti 3:4).

In other words, Scripture teaches us to expect the era between the two advents of Christ to be marked by widespread rebellion against God, where people choose themselves and their felt needs over truth and righteousness.

I probably don’t have to tell you what happens when a society abandons truth. Last week, my father-in-law and I put together a play set for the kids. Can you imagine what would have happened if we had ignored the instructions? What if the instructions had said, Part A connects to Part B,” but we personally felt Part A should connect to Part F? Assuming we managed to put together a structure that even stood on its own, do you think it would have been safe for the kids to play on?

Jesus said:

Everyone who hears these words of mine and doesn’t act on them will be like a foolish man who built his house on the sand. The rain fell, the rivers rose, the winds blew and pounded that house, and it collapsed. It collapsed with a great crash. (Matthew 7:26, 27)

When people lose all regard for the truth, not to mention personal responsibility to their community, the house is bound to collapse. We may as well hire an engineer who doesn’t believe in math, which is precisely what some people have explicitly said they want. There is an ongoing debate right now among academics regarding whether or not math is racist. Just last year, the Oregon Department of Education argued, The concept of mathematics being purely objective is unequivocally false.”

It’s one thing for people to deny the truth of God and his word in the interest of pleasing self, but denying facts that can be observed and replicated without the results ever having a hint of deviation takes the biblical idea of suppressing the truth to a whole new level.

They exchanged the truth for a lie

Speaking of Romans 1, I think that chapter of the Bible is quite applicable to this situation. Paul describes the Gentile world as suppressing the truth of God. Therefore,” he says, God delivered them over in the desires of their hearts to sexual impurity (Ro 1:24). Increasingly, our nation’s culture has elevated sexuality to a core part of one’s identity, which makes sense when you realize that the world’s concept of identity is really a matter of base desires. You are what brings you pleasure.

Paul says, They exchanged the truth of God for a lie (Ro 1:25). Then, throughout the rest of the chapter, he demonstrates two things. First, he shows how this rebellion against God and the truth manifests itself through various sins—greed, envy, murder, quarrels, deceit, malice, gossiping, arrogance, pride, disobedience to parents, and so on (Ro 1:29, 30). Perhaps unsurprisingly, he places homosexuality at the top of his list as though nothing better illustrates the suppression of truth. After all, you don’t even need the Bible to understand the biological absurdity of what Paul calls an unnatural relationship (Ro 1:26).

Simultaneously, Paul shows us how God judges this kind of widespread rebellion against the truth. In verse 24, he says, God delivered them over in the desires of their hearts (Ro 1:24). In verse 26, he says, God delivered them over to disgraceful passions (Ro 1:26). In verse 28, he says, God delivered them over to a corrupt mind (Ro 1:28). In other words, he doesn’t rain down fire and brimstone. Instead, he simply pulls back whatever restraints he previously had on the people. He simply lets the people fall even deeper into their delusions.

Then, at the very end of the chapter, Paul adds this remark. Although the Gentiles know God’s just sentence — that those who practice such things deserve to die — they not only do them, but even applaud others who practice them (Ro 1:32).

Does anyone still question the Bible’s relevance?

Frankly, the Western world has gone beyond applauding expressive individualism. Popular culture—the entertainment industry, in particular—embraced it a long time ago and has promoted it for decades. Tech companies have since joined the movement. Now, civil authorities at all levels from the federal government to local school boards are striving to implement it by force, which obviously puts the true church holding to the biblical worldview of identity at direct odds.

We belong to the Lord

I’ve spoken to enough Christians about this subject in recent years to know that many are surprised and, consequently, panicked. The problem is, we keep comparing our current situation to life in America seventy years ago. Instead, it would better for us to seriously study what life was like for the church in the first century. Most surprises would be eliminated, and we’d learn how to respond without panicking. There is nothing new under the sun (Ecc 1:9).

There’s plenty more I could say about this subject, but let me reiterate the biblical worldview regarding identity and leave you to think through its many implications. Everyone is created by God and for God. I am not my own,” says the Heidelberg Catechism. We belong to the Lord,” says the Bible (Ro 14:8). As our Creator, God determines our identities, and rebellion against our God-given identities is rebellion against God.

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