Tag Archives: search for identity

The Search for Identity: Healing Our Image of God and Of Ourselves

We primarily associate the search for identity with a phase of life occurring during the teen years.  Young people are expected to be “finding themselves,” questioning the messages they receive from authority figures, pushing boundaries, etc.  My experience is showing me that the search for identity continues beyond adolescence and may be a life-long process.

We are all asking the same existential questions:

What are we about?
Why are we here?
Where are we going?

And to answer these questions, we invest our energy in these things:

We are what we do.
We are what others say about us.
We are what we have.

As long as we are experiencing success and people are saying good things about us, or we are living comfortably and enjoying good relationships, we can feel OK.  But when we face failures, when others’ disapprove of us, when we lose people and things that are dear to us, then we may experience an existential crisis.

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My earth-shattering existential crisis occurred when I was 30 years old (four years ago…in case you were wondering!:).  There have been small bumps and jolts along my journey that have caused me to question things before, but at thirty I faced a tidal-wave of paradigm-shifting crap heaped up on my life that turned everything upside down and left me at ground zero.  My greatest discovery as I rebuilt my life was that I was finding my identity apart from God.  I was finding my identity in what I did, what others said about me, and what I had.  All my life, I have loved God and His Church.  But for the first time in my life, I am now living as one beloved by God.  And I am finally experiencing fullness of life and freedom in Christ!

All humans are created imago dei (in the image of God) and only in finding our identity in God can we experience life in all its fullness.  We need to recover the image of God in our lives by finding our ultimate identity in reflecting and representing God on earth – as His beloved children.

Living imago dei means finding your identity “from Him and to Him and through Him” (Romans 11:36).

To understand what it means to live imago dei, let’s first look at the Creation account in Genesis 1.  Verse 27 says,

So God created humankind in His own image, in the image
of
God He created them; male and female He created them.

Conservative scholars agree that the author of the book of Genesis was Moses, writing around 3,500 years ago.  This was during a time when emperors placed statues of themselves throughout their kingdoms, signifying who was in charge.  These statues would loom over town centers and were often made of precious metals and stones.

When my brother and I were backpacking through Europe, we visited a museum of communist and Nazi statues from the mid-20th century.  These huge statues had been formidable, oppressive symbols for the people who lived with them in their midst.  When Sadam Hussein’s regime fell, I have vivid memories of watching newscasts of people tearing down his statues, with tremendous effort and emotion.

Statue of Saddam being toppled in Firdos Square after the US invasion

Statue of Saddam being toppled in Firdos Square after the US invasion

When we think of these images of emperors being a normal aspect of life during the time of Moses, the beauty of God placing humankind as His image on earth is astounding.  We were created to represent God’s glory and diety on earth.  In heaven, it is clear who is in charge as God sits on His throne and is worshipped in a non-stop chorus of hosannas.  On earth, God has given us the choice to worship Him or not.  And He has given authority to humankind to rule and steward His creation.  And yet, unlike the emperors’ statues, who were made from precious metals and stones, we were made from the dust of the earth.

It is important to recognize two things about humanity from the Creation account:

1.  We are made for DIGNITY – to represent God’s glory and diety on earth
2.  We are HUMBLE creations – made from dust, not diety ourselves

Whether or not we are living our lives in devotion to God, every human being has dignity and value as image bearers of God.  This is common grace for all.  To live fully imago dei, however, goes beyond our creation as God’s image bearers.  It also means finding our identity as image bearers, living “from Him..to Him…[and] through Him.

Living imago dei means finding our source, purpose and meaning in God

There are three aspects to finding our identity as image bearers of God:

1.  Live in communion with God
2.  Live in community with others
3.  Steward creation the way God does

In struggling with our identity, we tend to start in the opposite order:

Do something…
Then ask for help from others…
Then, in a last ditch effort, quiet yourself and spend time with God.

So the first step towards living imago dei requires knowing God.

In healing our image of God, we heal our image of ourselves.

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“We have seen His glory, the glory of an only Son, filled with enduring love.” (John 1:14)

“May Christ grow in your heart by faith, and may love grow…that you will be able to grasp how wide, how long, how high and how deep is God’s love which is beyond all knowledge, that you may be filled with the fullness of God.” (Ephesians 3:17-19)

“Beloved, let us love one another, for love is from God…for God is love.  By this the love of God was manifested in us, that God sent His only begotten Son into the world so that we might live through Him.” (1 John 4:7-9)

God is love — and you are God’s beloved!

In healing our image of God, Jesus frees us from fear of the Father and dislike of ourselves.  If not, you still have not accepted the total sufficiency of His redeeming work.

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The problem: our image of God (how we see God) reflects more of our experience with humankind.

god-in-mans-image

In this short video, Greg Boyd explains why it is that many of us picture God as angry and vindictive, and how any conception of God that is other than what we find in Christ is a mischaracterization:

http://view.vzaar.com/1971665/flashplayer

(Or see it here: http://www.theworkofthepeople.com/making-god-in-our-own-image).

If we do not know God, then we cannot live fully imago dei.

Not only do we believe lies about who God is – but we believe lies about who we are and where we “should” be finding our identity.  These lies come from our society at large, the media, our families, our faith communities, etc.

Stop Shoulding Yourself

Lies make us feel as though we are less than, unworthy, freaks, frauds and failures.  While God loves us as we are and not as we should be, we get a different message from society.  We “should” find our worth in our accomplishments, appearance, education, gender, feminity or masculinity, occupation, race, sexuality, social networks, spirituality, wealth, etc.

The reason these lies are so ingrained in our psyches:  SOCIALIZATION.

We are socialized to believe certain lies about our identities through three processes:

1. Modeling (how we observe others behaving)
2. Overt Instruction (how we were instructed to behave)
3. Reinforcement (positive or negative responses to our behavior)

Our socialization results in cognitive lenses through which we understand the world and ourselves.

Socialization is POWERFUL.  Through our cognitive lenses, we learn to associate or assign meaning to words in a process that occurs in one-seventh-of-a-millionth second.

For example: when we hear “woman” we may associate that (in less than one- seventh-of-a-millionth second!) with “helper.”  This association comes from the most common translation of ezer from the Creation account.

Then the LORD God said, “It is not good for the man to be alone; I will make him a helper suitable (ezer kenegdo) for him.'” Genesis 2:18

Early translators viewed the Bible from a cognitive lens of gender hierarchy as God’s design (through the influence of St. Augustine’s writings, who describes Plato–a philosopher who saw educated, wealthy men as the pinnacle of society who ought to govern over the women, slaves and children–as the lens through which he understood the Bible).  So although other instances of ezer throughout the Old Testament show God swooping in as a warrior in battle to “help” turn the tide towards victory, the translation chosen denotes subjection and male authority.  A truer translation of ezer kenegdo would be “corresponding strength,” with Eve as co-warrior alongside Adam.  As women, we have valuable strength to contribute to our churches, families, and communities.

These are helpful questions to begin to peel away the onion-layers of lies that have influenced our identity formation:

What are my cultural lenses?
What has my role modeling been?
What has my instruction been?
What has my reinforcement been?
How has my socialization impacted my search for identity – the purpose, meaning and goal of my life?

Christian women in Western society have been socialized to believe that a feminine, nurturing and submissive homemaker is the ideal Christian woman.  Rather than finding our identity in God and living boldly and freely as ezer-warriors in authority over Creation, we are socialized to live small, inhibited lives, so as not to rock the boat or make waves.

Kathy Escobar shared these lists on her blog, comparing Good Christian Women to Ex-Good Christian Women.  Which list do you identify with more?

i know these are generalizations, but in my experience a lot of “good-christian-women”:

  • rarely engage in conflict
  • are terrible at saying “no” because it feels selfish
  • know how to say the right things, do the right things, to keep the peace
  • continually strive–and i do mean strive–to be a better wife, better mother, better christian
  • live with a feeling that God is disappointed with us somehow
  • feel a lot of shame for who we are and who we aren’t (but rarely say it out loud)
  • doubt our leadership, feelings, gifts, dreams
  • dwell on the things we should be doing differently or better 
  • view anger as sin
  • always seek permission 

here are some characteristics of those of us with the “ex” added.  “ex-good-christian-women”:

  • are learning to show up in relationship instead of hiding
  • engage in conflict instead of avoid it
  • say “no” with less-and-less guilt and say “yes” more freely, more honestly
  • tell the truth
  • respect anger
  • are honest about shame
  • live in the present 
  • are beginning to believe we are “enough”–here, now
  • open ourselves up to dreams & passions & living out what God is stirring up in us
  • lead & love & live in all kinds of new ways, with or without permission
  • are discovering that God is much bigger than we were ever taught & loves us more than we ever knew

Our sisters, both locally and globally, need us to step into our calling as ezer-warriors, living fully and abundantly as beloved and equal daughters of God, creating a ripple effect that erodes the lies from our neighborhoods and the world at large.

Living imago dei means finding your identity
“from Him and to Him and through Him.” 

God loves you as you are, not as you should be.
We all need to learn to live for an audience of One,
and “stop shoulding on ourselves.”

The best summary I can come up with is this Love letter from Jesus:

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With much love,

                   Jesus


This post is adapted from a talk I did at a women’s retreat earlier this month.  I shared the books, sermons and articles I referenced in this post, Imago Dei Resources.

On the retreat, it was much more of a conversation with dialogue about lies that we struggle with.  Please feel free to join that conversation in our Comments section!  What lies have you been trying to peel away, that keep you from living fully imago dei?

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Imago Dei Resources

This past weekend, Becky and I (and our fabulous co-horts, Lisa Wells and Amy St. John) were privileged to lead our church’s women’s retreat.  The vision for the retreat came to Becky last year and through much prayer and many, many hours of planning, coordinating, etc., she saw her vision come to fruition in a beautiful way.

Becky chose the topic of living imago dei (as image bearers of God), and early in the summer in one of our leaders meetings, I was chosen to teach a session Saturday morning and preach Sunday morning.  So I started the absorption phase of teaching and wanted to share the resources with you that were helpful to me this summer as I prepared.  I’ll share my Saturday morning in another post soon.  There is a link to purchase these books on Amazon if you click on the pictures.

made for more

The first book I came across was “Made for More: An Invitation to Live in God’s Image” by Hannah Anderson, which happened to turn up on my Facebook newsfeed the day before I was heading off on vacation, so I purchased it on my Kindle.  It was providential, because I actually had time to read it!  In this interview, Hannah explains that she wrote the book because she observed the struggle that many Christian women were having “to find fulfillment in their roles and family structures alone,” and the sheer majority of women’s Bible studies are framed entirely around gender so that essentially, we are being taught “that sanctification means becoming a certain type of woman, not being conformed to Christ’s image.”  The book explores how living imago dei means finding our supreme source of identity and existence “from Him and through Him and to Him” (Acts 17).  Hannah includes an excellent study guide in the indexes that could be used for group study or individuals.  I highly recommend this book.

designed for dignity

When I finished “Made for More,” Becky loaned Richard Pratt’s “Designed for Dignity” to me with the promise that it would be one of those rare, life-changing books.  Pratt is Professor of Old Testament at Reformed Theological Seminary, but he writes deep theological truths “with great humility, simplicity, and honesty” (Steve Brown quote on the back of the book).  The book is essentially about realizing your full potential to live out God’s image by living with dignity, and by bringing glory to God.  Each chapter develops a different aspect of living with dignity, as the Bible reveals what it is to be human, and there is a concluding paragraph with study questions for each chapter, enhancing personal or group study.  Unlike Hannah Anderson’s book, this one was not geared specifically to women and it was helpful to frame the dialogue on living imago dei apart from gender.  Another high recommendation.

mans search for meaning

I came across this book on the used bookstore porch and picked it up for a whopping 25 cents.  I vaguely remember hearing a reference to Frankl’s writing in a Tim Keller sermon, so I was curious.  The first half of this short book describes Frankl’s horrifying experiences as a Jewish prisoner in four concentration camps, including Auschwitz and Dachau (two profoundly moving stops my brother and I made during our backpacking tour in 2002).  As a doctor of psychiatry, Frankl was able to study the mental condition of his fellow prisoners, as well as his own stages of shock, distress, numbness, etc.  He observed that man could live with dignity despite his circumstances if he had a meaning to cling to, and post-war, he developed a new school of psychiatry called logotherapy, which the American Journal of Psychiatry called “the most significant thinking since Freud and Adler.”  On the back of book, it reads “A profound revelation born out of Dr. Frankl’s years as a prisoner in Auschwitz and other concentration camps, logotherapy is a modern and positive approach to the mentally or spiritually disturbed personality.  Stressing man’s freedom to transcend suffering and find a meaning to his life regardless of his circumstances, it is a theory which, since its conception, has exercised a tremendous influence upon the entire field of psychiatry and psychology.”

I couldn’t put “Man’s Search for Meaning” down!  Frankl’s description of suffering in concentration camps was so riveting, and the shorter second part describing logotherapy was equally fascinating.  Towards the end, Frankl says, “As logotherapy teaches, there are three main avenues on which one arrives at meaning in life.  The first is by creating a work or by doing a deed.  The second is by experiencing something or encountering someone; in orther words, meaning can be found not only in work but also in love….Most important, however, is the third avenue to meaning in life:  even the helpless victim of a hopeless situation, facing a fate he cannot change, may rise above himself, may grow beyond himself, and by so doing, change himself.  He may turn a personal tragedy into a triumph.”

In addition to those books, I also found the following sermons and articles helpful in thinking through living imago dei.  This sermon, “Healing Our Image of God and Ourselves,” by Brennan Manning, was probably more influential than any other resource I turned to, as it crystalized the message of living in the image of God with the emphasis on God’s love for us:

And also Henri Nouwen’s beautiful sermon series on The Life of the Beloved (please pardon the long intro and breaks in between his 8 short sermons):

Finally, “Ex Good Christian Women” is a fantastic article by Pastor Kathy Escobar that discusses how women are hurt and enslaved by the cultural constraints on what it means to be a “good Christian woman.”  Her descriptions of “good Christian women” and “ex-good Christian women” struck a nerve with the retreat ladies.

I’ll share how these resources came together into a talk on living imago dei soon. 🙂


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