The definition of who you are changes throughout life. As a young child you do not understand that your thoughts are different from those around you, this only comes around the age of four. This age is based upon simple facts such as gender, abilities and slowly over time, more upon social relationships.
If you have met an average western teenager you will likely found out, how much we can be defined by our relationships. Particularly at this age the defining relationships are with friends who consequently influence appearance, tastes in music, and behaviour. This is apparent in the increasing myriad of sub-cultures filled with people trying to be unique and trying to find an identity. People try-on different faces to see what fits. Obviously this identity is not permanent; you don't see many adult 'goths' or 'punks' because life situations force them to change.
As people get older their identity becomes increasingly based upon familial relationships, their employment and what they own. However, if this sense of identity was stable and valid we would not see the commonly encountered 'mid-life crisis'. I believe many people come to a point in life, where they recognise what their identity is based upon, is so changed that they no longer know who they are. Their accomplishments, family, and possessions aren't as fulfilling as they thought they would be. As a result, very much like teenagers they start purchasing and trying new things to find a face that will fit.
Basing life and identity on the external is easy. External things are tangible, easy to recognise and easy to assess. That's why it is so natural and why children do it this way. However, external things change. They can be taken away from you and throughout life, they are. Friends change, as does health and happiness. People die, age and circumstances change.
"Watch out! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; life does not consist in an abundance of possessions." Luke 12: 15
"Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat; or about your body, what you will wear. For life is more than food, and the body more than clothes." Luke 12:22-23
All external things can be stripped away. None of these things last or have any inherent meaning. What is really left, when you take it all away, the external basis of identity?
Is there identity once you have been imprisoned, your hair shaved and left in isolation? There is a reason that these things have been done to prisoners: it breaks people because they no longer know who they are. This of course only breaks people if they don't have more in their lives.
Recently I read a series of articles on Christian martyrs. These people have been tortured, mutilated, defamed and often lost everything that society tells us to hold dear. They lose their occupations, possessions, respectability, family and sometimes their mind. However these people can remain unbroken. Even though they lost so much there are two things that remain: Hope and Love.
Whenever we think about anything in our lives it should be in relation to the life of Jesus. Jesus' identity was based only upon one thing: his relationship with his and our Father. He is defined as the Son of God for a very important reason, his life revolved around his relationship with God and everything he did, including his death, was for the Father and under the command of the Father.
We are children of God, and at all stages of life we should base our sense of self on something internal, external and eternal, our heavenly Father. Unlike our earthly parents the character of God does not change, and neither does our relationship with him. We are naturally drawn into defining ourselves in relationships with others. But unlike our relationship with others, our relationship with God is eternal and need not change with age, feelings, wealth, friendship or time. Thus we never need to be in doubt of who we are: we are eternally loved children of God.
16 This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down his life for us. And we ought to lay down our lives for our brothers and sisters. 17 If anyone has material possessions and sees a brother or sister in need but has no pity on them, how can the love of God be that person? 18 Dear children, let us not love with words or speech but with actions and in truth. 1 John 3: 16-18.
Nathanael Yates is a Neuroscience Researcher from Perth, Western Australia. He is constantly inspired by his astonishingly wise and beautiful wife and his adorable daughter. Nathanael Yates' previous articles may be viewed at www.pressserviceinternational.org/nathanael-yates.html.