How do you answer the question: “Who am I?” It’s a simple question, but one that’s surprisingly difficult, since it forces you to ask yourself: where do I get my identity. It’s easy to go through life never consciously answering this question, yet at the same time, allowing your search for an identity to drive every area of your life.
This question, “Who am I?” causes each of us to stop and consider what we’re actually finding our identity. Henri Nouwen, a Dutch theologian, says that there are three main answers that we give to this question.
1. I am what I do
This first answer to the “Who am I?” question revolves around your work and accomplishments in life. For most young people, their career and work is their number one source of identity; that’s one reason we so quickly ask each other, “What do you do?” And whether you’re a lawyer, teacher, or stay at home mom, it’s so easy to use what you do to define who you are as a person.
The problem with answering “Who am I?” with what you do, is that you’ll be basing your identity on something that will fluctuate wildly. When you get the job or promotion or achievement you’ll feel great. But when you have the inevitable career setbacks, disappointments, and days where you don’t get much done, your self-worth will evaporate, causing you to question whether you have any value at all. On top of that, eventually you’re going to grow old, retire, and lose your ability to accomplish tasks. How will you define your life then?
2. I am what other people say about me.
The second way you can answer the “Who am I?” question is by basing your identity on other people’s opinions about you. Whether it’s how many likes you get on a post, who wants to date you, or how respected you are in your friend group, it’s so easy to base your identity on what other people say about you.
When you do this, you’ll be happy whenever people approve, encourage, and like you, but the moment you’re criticized, questioned, or disliked, your sense of self-worth will crumble, especially if it’s from a key person in your life. This will happen, because you’ll always have critics and won’t be able to make everyone like you. You’ll always have someone, whether it’s a coworker, “friend,” or an ex who doesn’t approve of you, which will cause lingering doubts about who you are.
3. I am what I have
The third way to answer the “Who am I?” question is by referring to your possession, both tangible and intangible. You may find your identity in your social class, ethnic background, relationship status, education, looks, clothes, or any other material possessions. You look to these markers to show others who you are and how much value you have.
When you base your identity on having all of the ‘right’ things, you may be happy for part of life, but eventually, one or more of them will slip away, whether through change, loss, or ultimately death. This will cause your self-worth to plummet, depending on the importance of the loss, and leave you feeling worthless and helpless in a life you can’t control.
The impact on life
All three of these areas, what you do, what people think of you, and what you have are all naturally good. But when you take them and make them your identity you’ll never find lasting peace. You’ll always be on emotional rollercoaster, trying to maintain some sense of value.
If you’re honest with yourself, you’ll recognize how much of your life goes towards securing identity through these three ways. Nouwen says we devote our lives to being “more, better, and different” than our peers, hoping this will make us feel good about ourselves.
And so you use your time, energy, and money trying to ensure that you’re doing a lot, that other people speak well of you, and that you have all the right things. But no matter how much you achieve in each of these areas, Nouwen warns, death will eliminate each identity: you won’t be able to accomplish more, people will forget about you, and you’ll lose all of your possessions. So how should you answer the question, “Who am I?”
The only answer
Jesus shows us a different way to answer this question. When Satan tempted Jesus, he tried to get Jesus to find his identity in one of these three ways. Satan tempted Jesus to:
Turn stones into bread, to show that he could do something amazing.
Jump from the temple and let the people catch you, to show how amazing he was, and to get people to think highly of him.
Become king of every nation, to show how much power and how many possessions you have.
But Jesus resisted each one of Satan’s temptations, refusing to find his identity through these three ways. So how did Jesus find the strength to do this?
We see the answer right before the temptations, when Jesus was baptized by John. As that happened, the sky opened up and God the Father proclaimed: “ “This is my beloved son, with whom I am well pleased.”
That’s the key. Jesus answered the question “Who am I?” with: “I am God’s beloved.” He found his identity in his Father’s love and complete acceptance. Because of that grounding belief, he didn’t need to achieve the most, make everyone like him, or have the most stuff.
Jesus had a hard life, one that most of us would consider a failure. He was a blue collar worker whose earthly ministry completely fell apart. His entire community rejected him and ridiculed his claims, eventually putting him to death at a young age. He never had any possessions or earthly position, and never lived in the right neighborhood or had the right friends. Yet Jesus was the ultimate success, because he knew his value was based on his Father’s love for him.
“I am God’s Beloved”
If you ever want to find peace, rest, and real fulfillment, you need to start answering “Who am I?” with “I am God’s beloved.” You’re not left alone, trying to prove your identity by yourself, but were chosen by God before eternity to be his daughter or son. You are deeply loved for who you already are, regardless of your achievements, status, or possessions.
All of these other identities will come and ultimately go, but it’s only in Jesus that you will have complete security in who you are. It won’t be easy, but when you live out of the finished and eternal identity that Jesus has given you, you can weather the ups and downs of life that will inevitably come.