Stuart Scott has been a biblical counselor of over 30 years. He is the author of many books including co-editing one of our favorites Counseling the Hard Cases. This post was adapted from Dr. Scott's original contribution for biblical counselors at The Biblical Counseling Coalition, of which he is a board member. Stuart also founded One-Eighty Counseling and Education, for which we are especially grateful.
Years ago, I counseled a professing believer, churched for many years that we will call Jane. When she came for counseling she saw her life as a complete failure and her self as a nothing; “a zero.” She had been significantly unloved, her husband had left her, her teenagers were rebelling and rejecting her, she was soon to lose her home, and she had no job and no skills. At that time, I had never met someone so depressed and suicidal. When we met together for the first time, she was already scheduled to go to an in-patient facility for safety and help, Christian in name.
After entering the facility, it was not long before she was released due to her insurance ceasing. Coming home, she was sounding a little more encouraged, and working hard to make that small bit of encouragement stick and grow. She soon hit bottom again, in total self-focus. When we met again, she went on and on about how she had learned in her support group that she “really did have an Identity;” that she was “a Somebody, because God didn’t make no junk” and also that she was “awesome, because she was fearfully and wonderfully made.” But now, those things that seemed to somewhat soothe her soul, really didn’t change the impact or the existence of her the problems and lacks, or the fact that she was also now “a total failure as a Christian.”
When we met, we talked and then I wrote on the board:
“I was a NOBODY. Now I am a SOMEBODY in Christ.”
She said, “Yes. . .that’s right.” And then I’ll never forget the look on her face when she said, “Oh, but wait, that’s not really right is it?” It didn’t take her long to realize that there was something very wrong with the focus in those statements, in light of the perspective of Scripture. For sure it was important to address the identity issue with Jane to clear up the very good-sounding, scripturally proof-texted, counsel she had been given. But did I also need to address who God says she is in Christ? I would have to say, most definitely. It might not be the very first things we needed to go over, but nonetheless, crucial.
Identity in Christ: Toward a “Balanced” Perspective
I have no problem using the word identity, if I define it as meaning, “who we know or believe we are.” It is true that worldly philosophy and psychology have done damage to the word by directly connecting it to intrinsic worth, personal value, self-esteem, or feelings about these things.
Identity is not a biblical word per se, but it is certainly a biblical concept that God speaks to a great deal. That being the case, we ALL desperately need a good dose of our true identity. This is true whether we are an unbeliever or believer and whether we are one who is secure in our own (apart from Christ) identity or one who is not. It is extremely important to have God’s perspective on who we are, because it has everything to do with our salvation (or not), and everything to do with our living out the Christian life joyfully and dependently for God’s glory (or not).
If we deal with our own identity in Christ, or that of someone we are counseling in a way that causes a focus on self, a reveling or finding of comfort and rest in our own self, a claiming of intrinsic worth/value, or a feeding of our fleshly desires, we are stealing glory that belongs to God. And we will eventually, if not at the get-go, live fleshly.
On the other hand, if we only think of our identity as being Jesus and His righteousness (leaving us out of the picture), and not who we are in full because of who He is in full, we are in danger of not personalizing the whole gospel daily and not applying the responsibilities or the promises connected to who we are in Christ. Not remembering who we are in Christ, just as much as we are reminded of it in the scriptures, likely will lead to a short-sighted, impersonal, defeated and/or joyless Christian walk—which again only eclipses the worship and glory of God.
Identity Perspective That Glorifies God Promotes Christ-like Change
We can often tend to end up in a left ditch that says "WOW, ME! in Christ" or the right ditch that says "CHRIST! no me." However, a biblical approach would say "WOW, CHRIST! in me and me made only BECAUSE OF and FOR CHRIST!" Both ditches that we can find ourselves in or slip into are deceptions that allow pride and hinder real change.
When we take the left ditch, we are fanning that flame of self-focus. When we take the right ditch, we make it very easy for one to be strong in certain aspects of theology but not personally address our lack of living or our lack of power to live out who we were made to be in Christ.
A friend reminded me recently of an apropos quote by Warren Wiersbe:
“Balance is that point in time when we are swinging from one extreme to another.”
In our defense though, it can be very tempting to over-compensate for influences from either extreme or for extreme lacks in our lives and the lives of those around us. But the balanced truth is what we all need.
Those who grow up rather secure in there own identity can be tempted towards self-sufficiency, self-exaltation, and/or rest in their own goodness (pride). Those who grow up in debasing relationships will often fall into despair of their lack of “self-worth,” pursue worth in accomplishments, and/or live their lives for the approval of man (also pride). The last thing either need is any encouragement toward pride. It is an abomination to the Lord and the beginning of downfall (Prov 6:16-18).
The demoralized or abused person should be very compassionately pointed to the Value, Worth, and beauty of Christ and the gospel, their humble place, and also what each aspect of His person means to who they are now (and are to be) in Christ. But then, they must also be cautioned that they are only who they are because He is who He is and has accomplished what He has.
The answer for those who have been truly abused is not to be pumped up with self-esteem, but to look at our awesome, gracious, and loving God, and whom He says He has made us in Christ—by no merit of our own. We are wonderfully and intricately created, but that does not mean WE should go around thinking we are wonderful . . .He is wonderful (Ps 139). We must not encourage those we love to think, “I am really SOMETHING.” If we do, we are encouraging them to be worldly, and to feed their flesh and the pride of life (1 Jn 2:16). We must place our focus and glory on God.
Practical Outworking of a Balanced Perspective . . .
So, is it ok to be encouraged, thankful, and remember our identity in Christ? Are we to help others explore who they are in Christ? As for me, I am weighing in that it is not only permissible, but much needed to give God the proper glory and develop humility and change. We must remember, our identity in Christ includes much more than we are His, we are loved, and we are new. As important as those truths are to remember, we are also forgiven sinners, made temples of the Holy Spirit, bond-slaves of the Lord, worshippers made for Christ, children of the light, athletes in a race, dependent branches, disciples, soldiers in a battle and more.
For the proper balance, we would do well to always think in these terms when considering our identity:
“Because God is _________I am _________, all praise and honor to Him!”
Without our joy stemming from who He is and the glory going back to Him, we will become misrouted. Do people need, or should they claim intrinsic worth or value? Absolutely not. It is God’s worth, not our own, that gives us any importance, and our identity, in total, is only that which is imputed or bestowed on us by the grace of God. Just as with the 10 lepers who were healed (Lk 17:11-19), there are far more people who end up just reveling in what Christ has done for them, or who He has made them, rather than those who also quickly return to focus on Him (for all He is and has done for them) with thanksgiving and service.
Some confuse a basic respect for human life with intrinsic self-worth.
Because all people are made in the image of God (persons), all should give others a basic human respect that is fitting for a creation of God that is not an animal or a thing (1 Pet 2:17). When a person has not been given that very basic human respect in a sustained way, they have been greatly sinned against, and must find God’s perspective on suffering, hurt, and forgiveness. They no doubt must also renew their mind with God’s truth on their equality with others (both in sinfulness and as an image bearer). But they do not need to work to build their self-esteem and lift themselves up, or find self-worth. They need to revel in God’s worth and person, and in what that means for one who is in Christ.
Sometimes, when I am reading material on our union with or our identity in Christ, the writer seems to be lifting up the creation above the Creator. And we must be careful that we don’t sound like a Christianized self-esteem presentation. We must guard against being instruments of more demise to already hurting and/or miss-focused people. Passages like Psalm 139, that was mentioned earlier, are sometimes twisted to be all about us and our worth, rather than about how amazing God is. In fact, the whole psalm can become about us, rather than more about God’s awesome omnipresence, omnipotence, and omniscience. David’s perspective throughout the psalm, though he can legitimately take personal comfort and joy in it, is basically, “WOW!—How great is our God!”
The Bible is our “divine tuning fork” to keep our lives and perspectives on perfect pitch. So let us not fear in addressing and taking joy in our God and His gracious bestowment of our identity, with the right perspective. As long as we keep God/Christ as the main subject of the portrait, and us as the mere backdrop to make that main subject (Christ) more prominent and beautiful, we can acknowledge that we are present and blessed. Even in passages that call us to a Christ focus (Col 3:1ff; Gal 2:20ff) we are not absent. Like John the Baptist declared, He must increase and I must decrease, but part of increasing Him in my life depends on my acknowledging who He has made me and living that out for Him.
It may not be easy to strike the biblical balance on the issue of identity, but we must. Because He is all that He is and has done all that He has done, we, in Christ, are: forgiven sinners, His worshippers, adopted and beloved children, His own creation and redeemed possessions, sheep of His pasture, disciples who must follow, friends of God, athletes, soldiers, new creations with a new kind of heart and power, the temples of the Holy Spirit, and branches connected to the True Vine—“. . .all to the praise of his glorious grace” (Eph 1:6) and because “. . .from Him and through him and to Him are all things. . . (Rom 11:36).”