Faith Matters

Andrew Watson: Is our culture living through an identity crisis?

Contemporary culture places too much value on individual identity, argues Rev Andrew Watson

Is there a contemporary identity crisis in our culture?

FRANK Sinatra had a big hit in 1969 with My Way. It remains a popular anthem of individuality today.

Another song I really liked as a teenager was Billy Joel's My Life: "I don't care what you say anymore, this is my life... go ahead with your own life and leave me alone." (I confess I used to play it really loud and hope my parents were listening.)

More recently we had The Greatest Showman in which a group of colourful characters led by a bearded lady sing defiantly: "I am who I'm meant to be. This is me."

These are just a few examples of a culture that increasingly values, indeed almost idolises, individual identity.

The messages we seem to be constantly hearing say: 'Discover who you really are and celebrate it... Whatever team you support, whatever politics you vote for, whatever your tastes in music, fashion or sex, be yourself and don't apologise.'

However... What if I search for the hero inside and find a coward? What if I discover who I really am and don't like what I find? What if I assess my life and decide it's not worth living?

Could this obsession with ourselves actually be part of why so many people feel depressed or, in some cases, even suicidal?

What if we could discover another identity, not dependant on our earthly circumstances or efforts? What if we could be given an identity far greater than any we could imagine or achieve for ourselves?

What a relief of pressure it is to discover we can be recognised and valued not because of our own imperfect merits but because of the wisdom, grace, love and generosity of someone else.

I am not the latest mutation of a random process of evolution. I am the result of God's specific design and creation

I don't mind if people speak of me as a northern Irish Presbyterian church minister. I'm very happy to be identified as John and Dorothy's son, Stephen's brother, Hazel's husband or Mike, Josh, Sarah and Emily's dad.

I admit I feel quite chuffed if someone refers to me as a musician or a writer. All of these are the kind of authentic bits that make up a unique individual but there is something much more fundamental.

I am not the latest mutation of a random process of evolution. I am the result of God's specific design and creation, made in His image to please and glorify Him - and so are you, and so is every member of the human race. And there's more.

As a Christian, more than anything else I want to be identified as a child of God and a follower of the Lord Jesus - the one who is the winner over evil and malice, over human corruption, over prejudice and injustice and even death itself.

Nor do we have to wander bewildered in the heaving whirlpool of worldly culture, trying to figure out who we are and why we're here and what it's all about 

Paul writes in Romans 8: "Those who are led by the Spirit of God are sons of God. You did not receive a spirit that makes you a slave again to fear, but you received the Spirit of sonship.

"And by Him we cry, 'Abba, Father'. The Spirit Himself testifies with our spirit that we are God's children."

The good news here is that this is so much more than what I feel or desire. I might have a mixture of feelings, some of them conflicting and confusing.

But God the Spirit is at work leading me in a very clear direction of obedience to God as a disciple of Jesus.

And as I trust and follow he assures me of the identity God gives me. The Almighty Creator and Lord of heaven and earth owns me as His dear child.

An emphasis on individual identity can be unhealthy - 'What if I discover who I really am and don't like what I find?' asks Rev Andrew Watson

No longer under condemnation, assured of His love and delight and kind provision I'm encouraged to pray with gratitude: "Abba; Papa; Father - my almighty heavenly Father - hallowed be your name."

In Romans 8, against a backdrop of first century hardship and persecution, the Apostle Paul is encouraging His Christian readers to be confident in their Lord.

Of course this is challenging. It runs counter to the culture of the world we inhabit every day. It may very well make us unpopular.

We may suffer some of the same kind of opposition Jesus Himself faced. We will have to stand firm, holding to the standards and promises of the Bible. We'll have to pray for wisdom and courage and support one another in fellowship.

But with the challenge comes comfort, the promise of a future inheritance, a place in resurrection with our master, an eternity secure in the Father's generous love and the promise of his Spirit's presence and help in the here and now, whatever our circumstances.

Jesus bore our sins and our griefs on the cross. Sin no longer has control over us, neither do fear, worry or grief.

Of course, everyone has normal sorrow and concern, but Christians are no longer crushed or enslaved by such things for the Spirit is encouraging us to be confident in our faith.

This is actually tremendously liberating. We don't have to compete in the rat-race for material wealth.

Nor do we have to wander bewildered in the heaving whirlpool of worldly culture, trying to figure out who we are and why we're here and what it's all about.

Followers of Jesus have been reconciled to our maker and gifted with a heavenly identity.

We are God's dear children and as such we now live to know and please him. We delight in this relationship which gives us purpose and direction. We seek to find and play our part in his plan.

Whatever else is dear to us in the short term, above all we look for the coming of his kingdom and pledge ourselves to his cause.

The Rev Andrew Watson is minister of the Presbyterian congregation at Cairncastle, Co Antrim.

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