Identity: who are you really? And why it is such a big deal.


[notice]A monthly column that reflects on living in the Kingdom of God.[/notice]

Whatever happens between now and the rest of the year, the University of Cape Town has not had an ordinary year, if media publicity is anything to go by. I was recently invited by an evangelical, interdenominational Christian society, the Student Y, to speak at their events week. The first talk I gave was on the issue of Identity. This subject is not only highly relevant for the topic of transformation, but a vital issue to tackle as the basis for tackling a whole host of other issues, nationally and globally. The way we truly (not merely verbally) answer the question of identity will provide a foundation for heading into so many challenging issues of our day. While the Christian will often give the ‘correct’ answer to the question: ‘who am I?’, it is in challenging moments, like polarising race-based debates on campus, losing face on account of being a stay-at-home mom, or even ethnic-based genocide, that our true primary identity is revealed. Most often, we have not explored the radical implications of an identity based on being a child of God. As author Nancy Pearcey writes: If Christians do not consciously develop a biblical approach to the subject, then we will unconsciously absorb some other philosophical approach. It turns out then, that the way we define ourselves is not an issue of small importance. The implications are huge.

Thabo Mbeki: “I am an African”.

What are the primary alternative ways that we choose to define ourselves in South Africa and Africa? Here are some options I have witnessed: There is the political pan-Africanist definition. This person echoes the famous speech by former president Thabo Mbeki, declaring: I am an African. This is their primary identity about which all of their life revolves. There is also the classical traditional Africanist/Eastern who lives out the belief that I am a person because of others (be it the family, tribe or the wider community). Not surprisingly, the ultimate punishment was banishment from society in many cultures that have espoused this as our primary identity. Then there is of course the modern Western approach that lives out the following motto: I am what I do. Not surprisingly, this approach derives significance from what we do at work, and its perceived value within society. Not to be outdone, there is the post-modern Western option that declares:  I am what I feel like. This identity tries to avoid being bound to anything, focusing on self-expression and deriving a sense of meaning from whatever one feels is right at that time.

Biblical answer
The Bible answers this question totally differently to all of the above, declaring that everyone is wonderfully and deliberately made in the image of God by the personal, tri-une God of the Bible. As a result, we have inherent worth based on being created in the image of God, regardless of gender, age, talent, ethnicity, social status and even whether I accept or reject God. This is what makes cursing another human being, as well as racism, chauvinism, age-ism, tribalism, xenophobia etc all wrong: the truth that we are all created in the image of God. James 3:9-10 declares the following: With the tongue we praise our Lord and Father, and with it we curse human beings, WHO HAVE BEEN MADE IN GOD’S LIKENESS. 10 Out of the same mouth come praise and cursing. My brothers and sisters, THIS SHOULD NOT BE.

Florence Nightingale: moved by awareness that all humans are made in the image of God.

Theologians use the term IMAGO DEI (the image of God) to speak about the incredible privilege that man is made in the image of God, and therefore all of human life must be treated with respect and dignity. This is what informed the early church to adopt babies thrown into the street, this gave the foundation for Martin Luther King’s civil rights movement, for Lord Shaftesbury’s campaign for better working conditions in mines, for Florence Nightingale to give better treatment for the sick, the injured and the dying, for William Wilberforce to campaign tirelessly against slavery, for William Carey to campaign against the practice of sati (widow burning) In India, for the founding of organisations like the Red Cross, for Mary Slessor to fight for the saving of twins in Calabar, for the Church’s stance on euthanasia and abortion and many more humanitarian issues. The truth that we are made in the image of God means that we have incredible worth (beyond animals) before we do anything, when we can’t do anything, even if we don’t do anything, regardless of secondary factors such as ethnicity, gender and others.

Our primary identity as Christians
But for the Christian, our identity goes even deeper. Not only is the Christian created in the image of God, he/she is re-created in Christ as a child of God. Put differently, I am because He created me and sacrificed His life for me. This must be our primary identity. 2 Corinthians 5:16-18 (TLB) declares: So stop evaluating Christians by what the world thinks about them or by what they seem to be like on the outside. Once I mistakenly thought of Christ that way, merely as a human being like myself. How differently I feel now! When someone becomes a Christian, he becomes a brand new person inside. He is not the same anymore. A new life has begun! The Apostle Paul drives the point home further in Colossians 3:11, and the modern translation of the Living Bible also puts it like this: In this new life one’s nationality or race or education or social position is unimportant; such things mean nothing. Whether a person has Christ is what matters, and he is equally available to all. Comparing the Scriptures to how we really identify ourselves, it is quite apparent that most of us have just sipped enough of the gospel to get to heaven, without drinking deeply enough to allow the gospel to change the very fabric of our identity. In the context of transformation and other ethnic based debates, this Scripture implies that we have more in common with people who are in every other way different to us, but fellow believers in Christ, than we do with people of our own ethnicity, education level and social position but do not have Christ. Do we live as though this is true?

How we identify ourselves affects how we live.

Here’s why our identity matters so much: your identity will determine what you truly value and live for. With this level of honesty, we discover that we often live more for the values of our society (such as the middle class dream of living the fast life in Jo’burg to retire as quickly as possible, with as many toys as possible, in Knysna). Like the Apostle Peter who was hypocritically acting more Jewish than Christian, we often are ‘not acting in line with the Gospel’ (GAL 2:11-14). Depending on how we identity ourselves, people of another ethnicity are not our concern, because we often identify only with the interests of a political party or other such group much more than the interests of Christ. Xenophobic attacks are just as tragic if a Bangladeshi was the victim (as opposed to an African who came from a country that supported the fight against apartheid), because ethnicity is not the defining issue of worth, the image of God is. 

How could the Rwanda genocide of 1994 occur with neighbour against neighbour in a country where over 90% of its population claimed to be Christians? How could some of the worst atrocities have been committed by church leaders across the denominational spectrum, from Catholic nuns to Pentecostal preachers? Could it have been that underlying the veneer of Christian belief was a stronger one…that I am Hutu before anything else, and ‘the Hutu cause’ is what I primarily value? On an individual level, why are stay-at-home moms often increasingly viewed as a disappointment and an embarrassment? (Couldn’t they be doing something more with their lives we ask?) Is it not because they make the upwardly mobile middle class uncomfortable, as they cause us to think seriously about what we truly value, and where our identity is truly derived? 

True freedom
What we find therefore, is that we are not truly free without a God-given identity. A friend of mine earnestly wanted to become a veterinarian. However, the family decided that she must become a lawyer. Since her primary identity was derived from what the family said (as opposed to an honest search for what God has for her life), she went with the dictates of the family. (After all, we say, I can’t decide against what the family dictates, if we truly subscribe to the classical Africanist/Eastern position.) Extrapolate that over an entire culture and nation, and you can see why we are not truly free. Florence Nightingale on the other hand rejected the comforts of her landed-gentry background and status that looked down upon work, and instead served God and the world in the area of nursing. What a difference that kind of freedom would make in South Africa and Africa. With a solid ‘in-Christ’ identity, we are free to be what God has created us to be and to do, we are free to serve others even when it is ‘step down’ in the world’s eyes, we are free from the baggage of status and expectations, and importantly for our current situation, we are free to bring godly change into our cultures without feeling insecure and defensive. That is freedom, and it all begins with what we decide is our primary identity.


  1. Thanks Tends for a well articulated article on a very important topic.

  2. Prof Johan Malan of said on 8.6.2015:- Al wat vir ons ter sake is, is om te weet dat God die mens geskape het en dat Hy sekere reëls bepaal het hoe die mens as individu, in gesinsverband, in breër familieverband én ook in volksverband moet leef. Die feit dat dat daar verskillende volke is, impliseer tog sekerlik dat elkeen ‘n basiese reg het om ‘n selfbeskikkende geo-politieke eenheid te vorm, vandaar die grense wat die Here tussen die nasies gestel het. In Romeine 13 word daar verder oor die godgegewenheid van staatsgesag as ‘n instelling uitgewei, met die oog daarop om wet en orde onder sy onderdane te handhaaf.
    Hierdie sosiale en geo-politieke eenhede sal tot aan die einde van tyd bly voortbestaan, want eendag voor die Here se troon sal daar mense uit elke volk en taal en stam en nasie staan om geoordeel te word.
    As Christen is dit my taak om my verpligtinge as individu, as gesinsman, as familieman en as lid van ‘n bepaalde volk na te kom. Die basiese boustene van sosiale groepe, en uiteindelik ook van volke en nasies, is die gesin, en dit is deur die Here ingestel.

  3. Peter McGregor

    Dear Tendai, Once again you “hit the nail on the head.” I truly pray that the LORD Himself will encourage many readers to take a serious look at their own personal walk with Christ. GOD Bless,….Peter.

  4. Thanks for your encouraging feedback friends! Much appreciated!