†This article is an adapted excerpt from Dr Rosner’s How to Find Yourself: Why looking inward is not the answer (Crossway, 2022). Republished by permission.
Knowing who you are and being true to yourself have never been more important than in the twenty-first century West. They are seen as signs of good mental health and wellbeing and the keys to authentic living and true happiness.
Ours is a time when the topic of personal identity is of unprecedented interest. The terms ‘personal identity’ and ‘identity formation’ were barely in use before 1960; they now appear frequently in a wide range of disciplines and literature. Whereas once the advice to ‘be yourself’ was rarely heard, now it is commonplace.
Of course, to be yourself, you have to know who you are. Most people today believe that there is only one place to look to find yourself and that is inwards. Personal identity is a do-it-yourself project. All forms of external authority are to be rejected and everyone’s quest for self-expression should be celebrated. This strategy of identity formation, sometimes labelled expressive individualism, is the view that you are who you feel yourself to be on the inside, and acting in accordance with this identity constitutes living authentically.
Yet, ironically, knowing who you are has also never been more difficult. Scores of people today feel anxious and uncertain about their identities. A myriad of factors weighs against having a stable and satisfying sense of self. Living our lives in the separate compartments of home, work, and leisure can produce superficial relationships. Multiple careers and relationship breakdowns can lead to confusion about some of the most basic answers to the question of who we are. Questions of gender and sexuality have sprung up like never before. And defining ourselves via social media is fraught with dangers and can even lead to projecting an inauthentic self. Ours is a day of identity angst.
Perhaps the most disturbing aspect of our cultural moment is that the current approach to finding yourself doesn’t appear to be working very well, either for individuals or for society as a whole. Many people in our day, including me, find questions of identity confusing and confronting. Anxiety, depression, narcissism, anger, and resentment are all on the rise. And happiness, by any measure, is actually in decline.
Expressive individualism can be summed up in two assertions:
1. To be yourself, you have to find yourself; and
2. You belong to yourself.
In our day, both statements seem self-evident and beyond dispute; they are hardly bold claims. The first is almost tautologous, needlessly saying the same thing in different words; how else are you going to be yourself other than by finding yourself? These days to be yourself is to find yourself and to find yourself is to be yourself.
The second could be a main point in a solemn declaration of human rights; what is the alternative to belonging to yourself? Being subject to some external authority is almost the definition of oppression.
Yet, as shocking as it might sound, the Bible is in fundamental disagreement with both of these cardinal principles of expressive individualism and recommends a different pathway to self-knowledge and a stable and satisfying sense of self. Two sayings of Jesus Christ and the Apostle Paul make the point, both sounding as if they were deliberately provocative rebuttals of expressive individualism.
In direct opposition to the imperative advice to find yourself, Jesus said: ‘Whoever finds themselves will lose themselves, but whoever loses themselves for my sake will find themselves’. And in a flat contradiction of the principle of personal autonomy Paul stated bluntly: ‘You are not your own’.
Let’s take them one by one.
The paradox of personal identity
As much as there is a growing consensus in our day that the way to find yourself is to look inwards, there are good reasons to think again. Not least of these is the incoherence of the strategy of expressive individualism in general terms and the way it is playing out. Modern identity formation is riddled with embarrassing ironies, with yawning gulfs opening up between what is asserted or appears to be the case and an unfortunate reality. In many ways expressive individualism is leading to outcomes that are the opposite of what we expect:
We are told to look inwards to find ourselves, but inevitably we still look to the approval of others to shore up our sense of self.
But there is one irony in connection with the subject of identity formation that dates back two thousand years: Jesus’s insistence that those who find themselves will lose themselves and those who lose themselves will find themselves. More accurately, it is a paradox, an assertion that is true even though at first glance it seems contradictory. A paradox is a profound irony.
Jesus’s advice against trying to find yourself is puzzling to say the least: ‘Whoever finds his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it’ (Matthew 10:39). When it comes to losing your life by finding it, and vice versa, the ‘life’ at stake here is the same one on both sides of the saying. It is not contrasting earthly and eternal life as other similar sayings of Jesus do (e.g. Matthew 16:25, John 12:25). ‘Life’ in Matthew 10:39, as in the other texts, translates the Greek word, psyche, from which we derive the English words ‘psyche’ and ‘psychology’. In this context it comes close to what we mean by personal identity, the subject of this book. Leon Morris writes that ‘life here [in Matthew 10:39] means very much what we mean by “self”’. Hence my translation: ‘Whoever finds themselves will lose themselves, but whoever loses themselves for my sake will find themselves’.
To find yourself in the first part of Matthew 10:39 is the equivalent of pursuing a self-made self. It is to find your own way, to seek your own personal happiness above all else, to focus on pursuing your life dreams, to follow relentlessly your own path, with little thought to those around you who might in fact get in your way. Jesus is not condemning ambition or achievement in and of itself. Rather, finding yourself in the first half of Jesus’s saying is about focused self-creation, the essence of expressive individualism. According to Jesus, in the ultimate tragic irony, seeking to establish your own identity results in losing your identity.
But also, according to Jesus, in order to find yourself, your true and lasting identity, you need to relinquish the quest for self-assertion and look in another direction. Jesus opposes the notion that to know yourself you need to find yourself. The paradox of personal identity is that those who gaze inwardly to find themselves will lose their identities and those who look elsewhere, to the interests of others, will find their true identity.
But Jesus doesn’t just warn those looking for themselves that their search will fail. Moving to the positive alternative to seeking to find your life and thereby losing it, the motivation he supplies for losing your life, not seeking to establish yourself, is that it is done ‘for my sake’. C. S. Lewis put it this way:
Give yourself up, and you will find your real self. Lose your life and you will save it. … Look for yourself and you will find in the long run only hatred, loneliness, despair, rage, ruin and decay. But look for Christ and you will find him, and with him everything else thrown in.
Excessive self-focus is the root of pride, and pride produces a distorted view of the self. The Bible faults the proud on this very point: ‘For if anyone thinks he is something, when he is nothing, he deceives himself’ (Galatians 6:3). In Jeremiah 49:16 the prophet writes that the pride of your heart has deceived you (see also Obadiah 3). And in Isaiah 16:6 the problem with ‘Moab’s pride’ is that her boasts are empty. Even though the proud spend a lot of time thinking about themselves, they don’t actually know who they are.
However, contrary to much popular thinking, humility is not about thinking poorly of yourself. When Paul warns against pride, he does not say to think little of yourself: ‘I say to everyone among you not to think of himself more highly than he ought to think, but to think with sober judgment’ (Romans 12:3). The Bible nowhere recommends thinking about yourself in some exaggeratedly low way or ignoring your achievements. If pride involves self-promotion and elevation, humility is not about self-degradation and demotion. Rather than thinking less of yourself, humility leads to thinking less about yourself. The humble, although thinking less about themselves, know themselves more accurately than do those who are proud. Or as Jesus put it, those who risk losing themselves know themselves better than those who seek to find themselves.
The model for this way of finding yourself is Jesus’s own life-story. Jesus is the paradigm of the paradox of personal identity. He lost himself in the service of others and found his true identity as Lord of all in the process. Jesus is the ultimate illustration of Matthew 10:39: ‘Whoever finds his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it’. And he sets the pattern for all of us who want to find a stable and satisfying sense of self.
The rejection of personal autonomy
A second statement from the Bible that collides head on with expressive individualism is Paul’s claim in 1 Corinthians 6:19: ‘you are not your own’. In our day we pride ourselves on our independence and freedom from all external authorities. The notion that no one can tell you who you are has almost credal status. And true freedom is thought to be found in defining yourself for yourself. Postmodernism has made a living out of suspecting that anyone who seeks to impose their views on anyone else, does so in order to subjugate others.
Yet even in our day of insisting on the priority and benefits of personal autonomy, there are some contexts in which belonging to someone else is still seen in a positive light. A young child lost in a shopping mall makes no complaint when their parent turns up and claims them as their own. Likewise, while it is open to abuse, true romantic love has at its heart a mutual belonging. Countless love songs, starting with the Song of Songs in the Bible, contain refrains along the lines of ‘my beloved is mine, and I am his’ (2:16; 6:3). Indeed, social animals that we are, nothing gives us more of a sense of value and worth than being loved to such an extent that we belong to another. Far from distressing or oppressive, such an embrace reassures and liberates us.
Indeed, love is the context of Paul’s startling assertion that you are not your own. The words following Paul’s rejection of personal autonomy in 1 Corinthians 6:19-20 explain why you belong to another: ‘you were bought at a price’. You belong to another because you are loved beyond measure. That love was expressed in the high cost of your redemption: ‘you were ransomed from the futile ways … not with perishable things such as silver or gold, but with the precious blood of Christ’ (1 Peter 1:18–19); ‘God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us’ (Romans 5:8).
Just as the pattern of Christ’s humiliation and exaltation shows us the way to find yourself, the same cross of Christ proclaims that God has claimed you as his very own; you belong to him. But surrendering of yourself in this way does not lead to the eradication of your self or an oppressive subjugation. On the contrary, in losing yourself and belonging to one who loves you with an everlasting love, you will find your true self.
Living Christ’s story
We live the stories to which we subscribe. Alisdair MacIntyre said it well: ‘I can only answer the question “What am I to do?” if I can answer the prior question “Of what story or stories do I find myself a part.”’ The choice for all of us is between a starring role in our own short story, the genre of which could be a tragedy or a farce, or a bit part in the grand story of God and the redemption of the world.
But it’s not just about believing the storyline. It’s about inhabiting it. Stories have the power to inspire imagination and imitation. N. T. Wright notes the relevance of living Christ’s story for our world today:
We live in a world where, increasingly, people are clutching at straws, unable to glimpse a story which would lead the way into true peace, freedom and justice. The Christian gospel offers such a story. But to tell it truly, you have to be living it.
Living Christ’s story, as a child of God united to Christ, offers us a stable and satisfying sense of self. The shared memory of dying with Christ gives meaning to our suffering and instils in us a measure of comfort and hope. We have good grounds to be humble and consider others to be more important than ourselves, in imitation of Christ, who humbled himself to the point of death on a cross. Similarly, the weak and lowly we come across are to be respected and assisted, given that in the cross God chose human weakness as the means of saving the world; in identifying with Christ in his death we die to pure self-interest and are raised to live lives of sacrificial love. In contrast to outrage culture, the story of Jesus Christ calls on his disciples to turn the other cheek in imitation of his own extreme example. And, like Christ, we can endure hardship for the joy set before us in the future when we will be vindicated along with him when God puts the world to right.
Dr Brian Rosner is Principal of Ridley College in Melbourne, having lectured previously at Moore Theological College and the University of Aberdeen in Scotland. He is the author or editor of more than a dozen books, including The New Dictionary of Biblical Theology, Known by God: A biblical theology of personal identity, and most recently, How to Find Yourself: Why looking inward is not the answer.
 L. Morris, The Gospel according to Matthew (Eerdmans, 1992), pp268f.
 C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity (Font [Harper Collins], 1997), p187: ‘person as an individual’.
 Alasdair MacIntyre, After Virtue: A Study in Moral Theory (Notre Dame, 1981), p216.
 N.T. Wright God in Public: How the Bible Speaks Truth to Power Today (London: SPCK, 2016), p33.
Comments will be approved before showing up.