Who are you? What gives a man his identity? On what foundation are you building your sense of self? Your answer, whether true or false, defines your life.
Wrong ways of defining who we are arise naturally in our hearts, and the world around us preaches and models innumerable false identities. But Jesus maps out and walks out a counterintuitive and countercultural way to know who you are. Your true identity is a gift of God, a surprising discovery, and then a committed choice.
What are the ways men get identity wrong? Perhaps you construct a self by the roles and accomplishments listed on your résumé. You might identify yourself by your lineage or ethnicity, by your job history or the schools you attended, by your marital status or parental role. Perhaps you define who you are by your political leanings or the objects of your sexual longings. Maybe you consider yourself to be summed up in a Myers-Briggs category or a psychiatric diagnosis. Your sense of self might be based on money (or your lack thereof), on achievements (or failures), on the approval of others (or their rejection), on your self-esteem (or self-hatred). Perhaps you think that your sins define you: an angry man, an addict, an anxious people-pleaser. Perhaps afflictions define you: disability, cancer, divorce. Even your Christian identity might anchor in something that is not God: Bible knowledge, giftedness, or the church denomination to which you belong.
In each case, your sense of identity comes unglued from the God who actually defines you.
God’s way of sizing up a man goes against the grain of our instinctive opinions and strategies. Here are six basic realities to orient you:
Your true identity is who God says you are. You will never discover who you are by looking inside yourself or listening to what others say. The Lord gets the first word because he made you. He gets the daily word because you live before his face. He gets the last word because he will administer your final “comprehensive life review.”
Your true identity inseparably connects you to God. Everything you ever learn about who God is—his identity—correlates specifically to something about who you are. For example, “your Father knows your need” means you are always a dependent child. “Jesus Christ is your Lord” means you are always a servant.
Who God is also correlates with how you express your core identity as your various roles in life develop. For example, the Bible says that God’s compassion for you is like that of a father with his children (Ps. 103:13). You will always be a dependent child at your core, but as you grow up into God’s image, you become increasingly able to care for others in a fatherly way.
Your instinctive sense of identity is skewed. In the act of suppressing the knowledge of God (Rom. 1:18–23), a fallen heart suppresses true self-knowing. Whenever we forget God, we forget who we are.
A true and enduring identity is a complex gift of Christ’s grace. He gives a new identity in an act of mercy. Then his Spirit makes it a living reality over a lifetime. When you see him face to face, you will know him as he truly is, and you will fully know who you are (1 Cor. 13:12).
Your new and true identity connects you to God’s other children in a common calling. It is not individualistic. You are one member in the living body of Christ.
Now consider a few of the details. Don’t skim through. You will never be gripped by these truths if you treat them merely as an information download.
All good gifts, beginning with life itself, come from God. You will never be independent. The Lord sustains our lives physically. And every word from the mouth of God gives life. And, supremely, Jesus Christ is the bread of life. Faith knows and embraces this core identity: “I am his dependent.”
Our dependency as created beings is compounded, complicated, and intensified by sins and by sufferings. To know ourselves truly is to know our need for help. Faith knows and embraces this core identity: “I am poor and weak.”
The Lord is merciful to the wayward. He redeems the sinful, forgetful, and blind. Faith knows and embraces this core identity: “I am sinful—but I am forgiven.”
God is our Father. He adopts us in Christ, and by the power of the Spirit, he gives us a childlike heart. We need parenting every day. We need tender care, patient instruction, and constructive discipline. Faith knows and embraces this core identity: “I am God’s child.”
The Lord is our refuge. Our lives are beset by a variety of troubles, threats, and disappointments. We aren’t strong enough to stand up to what we face. God’s presence is the only safe place. Faith knows and embraces this core identity: “I am a refugee.”
The Lord is our shepherd. He laid down his life for the sheep. He watches over our going out and coming in. We need looking after and continual oversight. Faith knows and embraces this core identity: “I am a sheep in his flock.”
Christ is Lord and Master. He bought us with a price; we belong to him. We need someone to tell us what to do and how to do it. Faith knows and embraces this core identity: “I am a servant, indentured for life.”
The Lord is married to his people. He patiently nourishes and cherishes his wife, the living body of Christ. We need husbanding from someone faithful, kind, protective, and generous. Faith knows and embraces this core identity: “I submit to Jesus.”
God searches every man’s heart. We live before his eyes. Faith knows and embraces this core identity: “I am a God-fearing man.”
Our God is good, mighty, and glorious. He is worthy of our trust, esteem, gladness, and gratitude. Faith knows and embraces this core identity: “I am a worshiper.”
We could go on! The pattern is obvious. Every core aspect of a man’s identity expresses some form of humility, need, submission, and dependency before the Lord. Our culture and our hearts might claim that masculinity means being independent, self-confident, proud, strong, assertive, decisive, tough-minded, opinionated, and unemotional. But Jesus is the true man, and he is unafraid of weakness, lowliness, and submission. He came as a helpless and endangered child. He became dependent, poor, afflicted, homeless, submitted—an obedient servant entrusted with a job to do. He became a mere man and died in pain—committing his spirit into God’s hands, depending by faith on the power of the Spirit to raise him. He feels every emotion expressed in the Psalms.
Yet Jesus is also strong. He is leader, teacher, and Lord. He speaks with decisive authority. He helps the weak. He forgives the sinful. He has mercies to give away. He faces the hostility of men with courage and clarity. He lives purposefully. He goes out looking for his lost sheep. He does the things God does.
How did these two things fit together in Jesus’s life, and how do they fit together in ours? Here is the pattern: Core identity as a man leads to the calling to act like God. Weakness leads to strength. Serving leads to mastery. Deaths lead to resurrections. It never works the other way around. When your core identity is meek and lowly—like Jesus—then your calling develops into his image of purposeful, wise, courageous love. You become like God.
The order matters. You become generous and merciful to others by continually receiving generous mercies. You learn how to protect others by finding refuge in the Lord. You develop into a good father by living as a well-fathered child of your Father. You develop into a masterful leader by living as a well-mastered servant. You develop into a wise teacher by being a well-taught learner. You learn how to husband a wife in love by being well-husbanded by Christ. You develop into a caring pastor of others by living as a well-pastored sheep of your Shepherd. You become a surprisingly good counselor by being well-counseled by your Wonderful Counselor.
Of course, in much of life, we function in roles where others are over us, and we live in honorable dependency and submission. “Be subject for the Lord’s sake to every human institution” (1 Pet. 2:13). Leaders in one sphere submit in other spheres. The pastor of your church is subject to the church’s governing authorities. A father of children owes honor to his own mother and father. When your core identity is in Christ, you bear fruit whether he calls you to serve as a leader or to serve as a servant.
Finally, consider that all your present callings will someday come to an end. When you grow old, frail, and helpless, you will become someone else’s charge and responsibility. But your true identity is imperishable. You will still abide in Christ. And when he appears, you will appear with him in glory (Col. 3:4).
Editors’ note: This is an excerpt from the new ESV Men’s Devotional Bible (Crossway, 2015).
David Powlison is a faculty member at CCEF and a council member for The Gospel Coalition. David has been counseling for more than 30 years. His books include Speaking Truth in Love; Seeing with New Eyes; Power Encounters: Reclaiming Spiritual Warfare; and The Biblical Counseling Movement: History and Context.