Recently a Dutch man attempted to have his age legally changed from 69 to 49, citing several personal episodes of age discrimination, the most prominent of which was his inability to connect with potential dates, twenty years his junior, on Tinder. His argument can be summarized by this quote: “We live in a time when you can change your name and change your gender. Why can’t I decide my own age?” You can read the full article here.
He has a point. We now live in an age of fluidity where anything that can identify us may be altered to suit our felt needs. The idea of “gender identity” serves as the most prominent example of our identity crisis. (I’ve written about this in the past but thought it deserved repeating here.) At the core, it’s a concept that’s based on personal emotions and ideas that are inherently flawed and susceptible to change. Therefore, how you identify yourself today may very well change twenty years from now. And in the midst of those struggles you’re reinforced by a society that values free self-expression above all. So some resort to mutilating their own bodies just to find a peace and wholeness that, despite great surgical skill, will never truly satisfy. We find ourselves in a generation of people desperately crying out to understand who they truly are, or who they could be. This has profound implications for both the individual and humanity as a whole.
This past Christmas, while attending a Christmas Eve service, the minister used a phrase I’ve heard several times in the past but never really stopped to consider until now. In preparing for communion he began by saying, “If you identify as a Christian…” This time the phrase gave me pause, especially in light of the ideas mentioned above. If in fact there are so many malleable factors to my identity, surely my religious affiliation is amongst those most easily shaped. If all I have to do is follow a certain teaching or conduct a certain lifestyle, then I can lock in my religious identity tomorrow.
As with most things, however, it’s not that simple. Who I am is not the fruit plucked from the tree called who I want to be. I have less control over my identity than I want to admit. All sociological factors aside, for a moment let’s think about the spiritual ones. If you want to identify as a believer in a faith, can you simply call yourself a believer in that faith? For the vast majority of the world and it’s religions, the answer is “yes”, since the basic requirement is adhering to a certain code of conduct or prescription of worship – thus the name “adherents”. Like any other activity, if I follow the rules of that activity, I can identify as a participant in that activity.
Christianity would easily fall into that category until one begins to truly examine its fundamental concepts. Unlike the others, Christians cannot declare themselves as such. True, one can observe the tenants, but simple observance and participation cannot earn the title of “believer”. That title must be granted by God himself, apart from the completion of any requirements. Perhaps the best illustration of this is from the opening salvo of John’s gospel account. Alongside the many messianic declarations is this: “But to all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God, who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God.” (John 1.12-13).
A couple of points can and should be made here. First, this statement indicates that no one is automatically a child of God. We are not born into the family, despite popular opinion to the contrary. Being “born of blood”, simply being human, does not grant us familial rights. Second, no human effort (“nor the will of the flesh nor of the will of man”) can reward us a name change. This is where cultural or religious efforts fail us. Our “good works” are good by our own standards but gain us no favor or elevated standing with God. In short, we can neither inherit nor earn the title of “child of God”. Instead, to be a child of God, I must be born of God.
Many today roll their eyes at the phrase “born again”. It’s an antiquated term used by the old-timers or the fundamentalists, neither of which have been ushered into the light of this new age. Even many modern believers wince at the sound of it. I assume they feel its use will regress the last few years of gospel modernization. That phrase, however, is anything but backwoods or obsolete. It’s biblical. It’s implied here (“born of God”), but used explicitly by Jesus himself in John 3 were he expounds on the subject to Nicodemus. Peter also uses it in his first letter (1 Peter 1.3, 23). Overall, the concept of new birth is replete throughout the New Testament, so being “born again” is essential to a Christian identity.
Here’s the point: You cannot identify as a Christian until God has given you that identity first. To “believe in his name”, you cannot simply follow the teachings of Christ, but Christ himself. It’s a relationship, not adherence. It’s personal, not practical. And in doing so, God the Father gives you “the right” to be named after his son. He gives you the right; you cannot take it for yourself, because new birth comes from a new Father.
But don’t overlook the good news, the best news. You can have a new identity. It may not be what you crave or even understand, but that’s the point of a new identity, right? We can be reborn into an image that isn’t dependent upon our limitations, imperfections or insecurities, but founded upon realities bigger than our own. We don’t have to repeatedly redefine ourselves, but can rest in how God defines us: created in his image, fallen yet relentlessly sought after by him, ready to lavish his grace on us in the form of his son Jesus Christ, given a new life and a new name – “sons and daughters of God”. Isn’t this what we are all looking for? That’s an identity worth seeking.
Scripture quotations are from the ESV® Bible (The Holy Bible, English Standard Version®), copyright © 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved. May not copy or download more than 500 consecutive verses of the ESV Bible or more than one half of any book of the ESV Bible.