Who am I? Where do I come from? Where am I going? These fundamental, existential questions have always engaged the human mind. They relate to notions of identity, belonging and purpose. Over the centuries Socrates, Plato, Kant, Kierkegaard, Leibniz, Sartre, Ricœur and many others have tried to answer these questions. Their explorations, alas, were limited by the noetic effects of sin. Thus answers are hard to come by and typically dissatisfying.
Identity, Belonging and Purpose
Identity is defined as “who a person is, or the qualities of a person or group that make them different from others.” It is composed of several quantitative and qualitative aspects on several dimensions. For example, the personal, legal, social and cultural. All of us occasionally – explicitly or tacitly – ponder our identity. But when we do, we are not only tormented by the unending search for our individual particularities. For we also desire a collective belonging. We all want to be part of a group that we can call ours: a family, a community, a nation.
Injustice and Identity Politics
The riots and demonstrations following the murder of George Floyd in the United States, as well as the wind of turmoil that this has stirred internationally, including Africa, reveals something important. The coexistence of communities with perceptible differences is precarious and brittle. Yet the reactions also strengthened feelings of continental esteem. Pride of being African invades everyone’s hearts by association with the descendants of slaves living on American soil. We can empathise with those who declare that they suffer from stigma due to their difference in skin colour.
But the church must demonstrate that the gospel is the only valid response to the problem of racial prejudice, as well economic and social tensions. Our tangible unity and intentionality in seeking to love and understand our neighbours in spite of our ethnical diversity will prove that Jesus Christ abolished all barriers to reconciliation. Just as his work made harmony between God and men possible, so too does it move us towards reconciliation with different members of the human race.
Who(se) Am I?
A defining question is often overlooked in discussing the concept of identity. This crucial question is: “Whose am I?” In Matthew 22:21, Jesus answered those who sought to trap him with a now famous reply. “Then render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s; and to God the things that are God’s.” What we do flows from who we are. And, importantly, who we are flows from whose we are.
Any creature made in the image of God (Genesis 1:26), redeemed in both body and soul by his Son (1 Corinthians 6:19-20, 1 Peter 1:18-19), and in-dwelt by his Spirit (John 14:16-17), belongs to God. Entirely and essentially.
This has several implications for the discernment of our identity, belonging and purpose.
Whose I Am Determines Who I Am
The notion of identity outlines differences as much as it does shared traits. The philosopher and sociologist Michel de Certeau declared that: “A society is defined by what it excludes. It is constituted by differentiating itself. To form a group is to create strangers. There is a bi-polar structure essential to any society: it poses an ‘outside’ so that there would be a ‘between us’.” A clear division is inevitably made between those who are part of the group and those who are not.
In today’s society, we like to categorise people. We do it, both knowingly and unwittingly, all the time. For in our minds, we distinguish people by their nationality, race, geographical location, religion, or social status.
Is My Identity In Christ?
But the only classification that really matters is whether one is in Christ or not. All other distinctions are unimportant. Your reliance upon God (or lack thereof) determines how you will live your life now. And also where you will spend eternity.
In Christ, all those who repent of their sins and believe in him are given a new identity. This is attached to a collective entity, the Church (1 Corinthians 12:12-31). They become children of God (John 1:12-13; 1 John 3:1). Ephesians 2:19says, “So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints, and are of God’s household.”
God has made us one nation no matter where we come from.
A Citizen Of Heaven, Living On Earth
Ephesians 1:4-5 says this. “In love he predestined us to adoption as sons through Jesus Christ to himself, according to the kind intention of His will.” We are citizens of heaven and we are adopted into the family of God. As followers of Christ, we have been set apart and called to live a life separate from the world. 1 Peter 2:9 defines the people of God as “a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for God’s own possession.” What an amazing privilege and what an extraordinary gift of grace that God allows us to identify with him through his Son.
We can all be proud of our Malagasy, Congolese, or Javanese nationality. But there is an identity that we should delight in all the more. That of being a citizen of heaven (Philippians 3:20). When Paul writes to the church of Philippi, he defines them as “the saints in Jesus Christ who are in Philippi” (Philippians 1:1). Their celestial identity precedes their earthly identity. It is the same for us. We are Christians first and foremost.
And yet these two affiliations can co-exist. Both should be affirmed. Although one takes precedence. We are Christians temporarily placed by God in Madagascar, DRC, or Zambia. We can – and must – sometimes feel like strangers in our country (1 Peter 2:11). Our life must be decidedly different from that of our fellow countrymen. This can lead to distancing and even persecution (2 Timothy 3:12). For we live like strangers, concerned with the interests of a better homeland than our present country or city (Hebrews 11:16; 13:14). Ethnocentrism must give way to a unity centred on our new eternal identity.
My Identity Will Determine What I Do
Kant articulates his self-cognitive reflections around 3 questions:
- What can I know?
- What should I do?
- And, what can I hope for?
He would have avoided himself many headaches by conforming his answers to the Bible. For it contains clear answers to these questions. Therefore we can use them to structure more thinking about identity, below.
1. What Can I Know?
First, salvation makes us worshipers of God, individually and collectively. The ultimate goal of our redemption is to glorify God. We become living instruments of celebration that are to represent God. The additional benefits – such as our forgiveness, adoption and eternal future in his presence – should not make us forget that God works primarily for His glory.
Each Christian contributes to building a “spiritual house” (1 Peter 2:5), resplendent and pleasant in the eyes of the Lord. And heaven will be filled of worshipers. In Revelation 5:9-10, God’s plan is fulfilled. He has assembled to himself a kingdom of priests. The contemporary Church is a foretaste of that which is to come. Therefore, it must display love and moral purity. For it represents the character of God and validates the gospel’s transforming power.
2. What Should I Do?
Second, salvation makes us witnesses for God, both individually and collectively. We were set apart to herald “the excellencies of him who has called you out of darkness into his marvellous light” (1 Peter 2:9). Indeed, we are meant make the presence of Christ in us tangible by our good conduct (1 Peter 2:12). Whether at our place of work, our school, or at the supermarket, our lives intersect the lives of non-believers. We are called to be image-bearers and message-bearers wherever God places us.
3. What Can I Hope For?
Our concerns reveal what really matters to us. It is now 213 years after the Slave Trade Act, 65 years after the discriminatory laws in the US, and less than 30 years after the end of the Apartheid regime in South Africa. Several analysts have weighed the progresses made towards racial equality. Perhaps we should also use this time to evaluate the evolution of the Christian faith on African soil? Given that we’ve had the Bible in our own languages since the mid-1800s.
Some of us may be worried about our political and economic future. Others actively work to contribute to their country’s economic development or to the establishment of social justice. And still others campaign for, or against, governmental action. All of these are laudable. Unless they take precedence over what God has called us to do. Our divergent identity from the world must lead us to act differently. Our priorities are dissimilar and peculiar, so are our goals.
Instead of operating to make our African countries a paradise, let us evangelise to take many of our fellow citizens to God’s heavenly Paradise. What questions must we raise regarding the concerns and priorities of the body of Christ in Africa? A tragic end is promised to those whose names are not part of God’s “Book of Life” (Revelation 20:15). This is what we should chiefly worry about for our loved ones, our friends, and our family.
Our God Promises A Brighter Future
I have a prayer. That the fireworks on the days we celebrate our independence from colonisers throughout the continent will remind us that there is a great celebration in heaven every time a lost soul takes refuge in the Lord (Luke 15:7). May this give us the zeal to proclaim to all we can that the real celebration is yet to come! When all the citizens of the kingdom of God will be in the presence of their Creator. “He who overcomes will inherit these things, and I will be his God and he will be My son.” (Revelation 21:7)
This Is Who We Are
Who are you? Have you repented from your sins and entrusted your life to Christ? Then you are a son or daughter of God. Whose are you? His. God’s. Where do you come from? You were created by God to glorify him. Where are you going? To the place where God dwells among men (Revelation 21: 3).
As such, we must be disciple-making disciples (Matthew 28:18-20). We are called to proclaim the sovereignty of Christ, exhorting others to worship and fear God. Everyone has their role to play in the great commission. Be it to send, train, go, support, or pray for those who are at the forefront. But there can be no spectators. We are all in the same boat. As the church, missions must be our passion and as individuals, we must seek that which glorifies God. That is who we are!
[This article was published on The Gospel Coalition Africa and is available here: https://africa.thegospelcoalition.org/article/from-is-to-ought-living-out-a-christian-identity/]