IDENTITY: Who am I? What role does this question have in counseling? Guest writer Pat Quinn explores the topic of identity and its role in counseling. This article first appeared here on the Biblical Counseling Coalition website and is used with permission.
An Identity Vignette
Our sense of identity is a bit like the old adage, “Women (or men); can’t live with ‘em; can’t live without ‘em.” We often can’t live comfortably with our distorted and painful sense of self, but realize we can’t live without it either. We know something is terribly wrong. But all our attempts to redefine ourselves self-destruct.
Let’s look at how identity issues played out in the life of a troubled teen-aged girl:
“As a young teenager, I constantly sought for ways to define myself. I wanted to be the popular girl, the smart girl, the funny girl. Any option worked for me, as long as I had a place to fit in. It seemed like I changed my identity drastically every year in order to define MY place in the world.
“During my freshman year, I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder. All throughout high school I struggled with that, along with drug and alcohol use and mostly sex. I ran after every guy I could in order to fix my emotional pain. I used men to define me.
“After forming fleeting relationships with men and having several one-night stands, I realized it was not the men with which I tried to find my identity. And I had found the one thing everyone in my high school would recognize me for. I was now the promiscuous girl.
“At first, it was empowering to know that I had a role in the world, and I would use it to my advantage. Everybody knew I would give them what they wanted. Therefore, I could get anybody I wanted, at least for one night. However, this lifestyle left me so empty, lost, and broken. I was nothing but a shell of a person.
“Society tries to tell little girls that sex is glamorous, and everyone does it. But here I was, empty and alone, because I had poured out my soul to everyone.”
Desires, Identity, Actions, Consequences
What do you see here? Notice the connections between this girl’s desires (“I wanted to be the popular girl…,” “as long as I had a place to fit in”), identity (“ways to define myself,” “a role in the world,” “the promiscuous girl”). Then onto her actions (“drug and alcohol use and mostly sex”), and the consequences (“empty, lost, and broken,” “a shell of a person”).
This sad tale strikingly illustrates the dynamic of fleshly desires leading through a distorted identity (i.e., what I want the most influences who I become) to fleshly actions in Galatians 5:17-21:
For the desires of the flesh are against the Spirit….Now the works of the flesh are evident: sexual immorality….
Finding Identity in Christ
Fortunately, this is not the end of her story. Let’s read on:
“At the age of 18, I started going to church and had found the answer to all of my problems. I have been slowly learning to let Jesus fill the emptiness in me like nothing else could. Instead of looking for a role to fill, I have finally found my identity in Jesus.
“Once I gave my life to God, my life has never been the same. From the very moment I asked Him to enter my life, I have found the meaning and purpose that I thought I would never have outside of sex and men.”
This girl’s attempts to discover or create her own identity apart from Christ led to disastrous results, as is always the case. In finding her identity in Christ, she was able to receive forgiveness, start over, and gradually grow into a whole new way of life.
Our true identity and radiant hope are always in Christ alone, as Paul proclaimed in Galatians 2:20:
I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.
The good news is Christ doesn’t merely give us a new identity, He becomes our new identity! Let’s consider two other important questions.
Why Is a Christ-Centered Identity Essential?
If we don’t live out our biblical identity as blood-bought beloved children of God:
- As Paul Tripp and others have pointed out, we will live out some other inferior identity–e.g. our roles (parent, spouse, class clown, oldest child), our vocation (teacher, construction worker, stay at home Mom, doctor), our past (victim of abuse, adopted, immigrant, privileged), or our problems (depression, single parent, unemployed, unmarried). This will cheat us out of fullness of life.
- We will not experience and enjoy the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, or the fellowship of the Holy Spirit (2 Corinthians 13:14).
- Also, we will not have the motivation to live lives of holiness and love (Ephesians 5:1-2).
- And we will rob God of the full honor he deserves (1 Peter 1:14-16).
- We may even jeopardize our promised future inheritance (2 Peter 1:3-11).
How Can We Help Counselees Grow Up Into their New Identity?
- Help counselees notice how biblical identity statements motivate obedience. E.g., “Put on then (command), as God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved (identity statements), compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience.”(Colossians 3:12).
- Help counselees understand and pray over and live out other biblical identity statements like:
Greater love has no one than this, that someone lays down his life for his friends…I have called you friends (John 15:13, 15).
For you did not receive the spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received the Spirit of adoption as sons, by whom we cry, “Abba! Father!” The Spirit himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God(Romans 8:15-16).
To the church of God that is in Corinth, to those sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be saints together with all those who in every place call upon the name of the Lord Jesus Christ, both their Lord and ours (1 Corinthians 1:2).
And because of him you are in Christ Jesus, who became to us wisdom from God, righteousness and sanctification and redemption, so that, as it is written, “Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord” (1 Corinthians 1:30-31).
Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come (2 Corinthians 5:17).
Therefore, be imitators of God, as beloved children” (Ephesians 5:1).
That is why he (Jesus) is not ashamed to call them brothers, saying, “I will tell of your name to my brothers.” (Hebrews 2:1-12).
Other Ways to Help Counselees Embrace Their New Identity
- Have counselees keep an “identity prayer journal.” After reflecting on Scripture and their life, the counselee can write journals that connect their new identity with their responses to life. Journals can include rejoicing, repenting, and requesting.
- Have counselees reflect on and write about how their new identity and potential is based on their union with Christ through faith. Tim Keller, in his book King’s Cross, writes about how God’s words to Jesus on the mountain in Mark 9:2-8 (“This is my beloved Son; listen to him.”) Also relate to those who are in Christ by faith, “You may know in your head that God loves you—but sometimes the Spirit makes it especially clear to you that that is the case. Sometimes you go to the mountain. Sometimes through the Spirit you can hear God make a statement of unconditional, permanent, intimate love. And sometimes you don’t just know about God’s love, but in your heart you actually hear God saying, ‘You’re my daughter, you’re my son, I love you. I would go to infinite cost and infinite depths not to lose you—and I have.’”
- Read and commend books that flesh out and encourage a Christ-centered biblical identity like Found In Him by Elyse Fitzpatrick and Who Am I? Identity In Christ by Jerry Bridges.
In Romans 8:29 Paul says,
For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son.
Being conformed to the image of Jesus is the same as growing up into our new identity. The radiant hope of this is that we and those we counsel can begin this transformation now and will never exhaust the riches of this new image/identity as we one day “behold the king in his beauty” (Isaiah 33:17) and (become) “like him because we shall see him as he is” (1 John 3:2).
Join the Conversation
What lesser identities have you lived out? What Scriptures do you use in helping others appreciate and grow into their new identity?