A call to be who you aren’t
Every American has undoubtedly heard the phrase: “Be who you are.” Some of us heard it first from Dr. Seuss. Others from the Bee Gees. These days it seems to be the omnipresent mantra of Disney and even much of the church. But despite such endearing sources, I’m fairly certain its origins are far more sinister than we might imagine.
At first glance, the idea of being who we are seems to be a remedy for so many ills. It can be helpful, even freeing. For many it’s about authenticity and genuine personhood. Embracing a self-worth that doesn’t need to be enhanced by being fake. For teenagers, it’s an important message to reject the felt need to always ‘fit in.’ For Christians, it can represent our desire to be vulnerable and real with others in spite of our weaknesses or faults.
Those are certainly good, even biblical, motivations. Followers of Christ should never act a certain way to be seen and esteemed by others. We, as Paul instructs, should not be conformed to the mold of this world or by the evil expectations of those around us. But that would only be a slice of the biblical witness and only one side of what is conveyed by the idea of being who we are.
The Bible clearly says that we must also be transformed by the renewal of our mind—by the constant rearrangement of who we are and what we value and how we think. In other words, the positive opposite of external conformity is not to be who we are intrinsically and naturally. We must be who we aren’t. We must change and be transformed.
Be who you were created to be
There is actually truth to the idea of being who we are. That’s what makes it so attractive. In fact, Christian ethics is built to a certain degree on the truth that we should be who we are, acting in accordance with our new identity. But the modifier ‘new’ is key. We must act out who we are in Christ. To live our lives according to our new natures. To walk in newness of life. As Paul wrote to the confused Corinthians, we are now holy ones called to be holy.
This is ever so close to the world’s idea of “being who we are.” Yet it’s worlds apart. Instead of living out an authentic expression of who we sense ourselves to be and embracing how we naturally feel about ourselves, we are told to reject that so-called gospel and live out the reality of what God says about us.
First of all, God calls us sinners. Once we are changed by his grace, God calls us chosen and precious. We are also aliens and strangers. He says we are kings and sons, servants and stones. In fact, the Bible has a way of mashing those categories when it addresses us as elect exiles and precious stones. Such simple statements of our new identity help to orient us as to our new nature and purpose, transforming us into a new way of thinking and being.
The good of “fitting In”
The whole idea behind being called stones is that we fit in to a larger building, the temple that is God’s people. Here the church represents a healthy understanding of personhood and community. We are indeed individual stones with unique gifting, but the purpose of that individuality is the building up of the congregation through mutual service on the singular foundation of Christ. In other words, the church is a community of individuals who exercise (even sacrifice) their individuality for the sake of the unified whole. Our uniqueness thus brings worth and a purpose outside ourselves and within a larger body. We are one body but many members.
In such an understanding, fitting in is the best possible of all outcomes. In the church we can find our place, knowing that we were created and re-created with a divine purpose and inherent worth. And that individual value is experienced and expressed as we surrender it to the service of the other stones within the larger structure.
The good of social structures
Of course, not all structures are good. Society and culture, as Scripture tells us, can exert unhealthy pressure to fit in. But contrary to much current understanding, structures themselves are not inherently bad. In fact, the Bible reveals that certain structures are God-given and good. Governmental and societal structures can curb evil and shape community into life-giving patterns. Within the construct of the family, parental discipline instructs children for their good. Such corrective structures are often restrictive, even prohibitive, of our intrinsic and self-centered natures.
The reality is that social norms and cultures can have good and helpful limitations. But when our constant refrain is to be who you are, we dismantle the possibility of a cohesive society and we corrupt culture. You can never have a building or wall or school or home with only individual blocks expressing their individuality. There must be mortar and a cohesive pattern. Some rough edges must be chiseled away. Otherwise our rugged individualism results in a fractured society.
This is essentially what we see happening all around us today. When the primary role of the parent or the government becomes individual empowerment, we may open the doors of opportunity for our children to express their natures and live out their abilities. But we simultaneously destroy any hopes for genuine community and social flourishing.
I Am Who I Am
The only person who can be who he is is Yahweh. So for us to mindlessly preach the phrase “Be who you are” is not only potentially destructive for our families and society, it can be the newest form of blasphemy. When everyone is self-defined and self-sufficient, everyone is god. Not atheism, this is the anarchy of pantheism. And it’s now perhaps the dominant religion in America.
Certainly we as Christians wouldn’t actually claim deity for ourselves. We wouldn’t want our children engaging in false worship. But the oldest lie of the serpent was that we could be like God. By seeking to live out who we are, by trying to be authentic and true to ourselves, me may have fallen once again for the ancient lie that we too can be like God.
But he alone is good. He alone can embrace his self-worth and live out the perfections of his intrinsic nature. I am who I am is his name, an identity he alone can claim. To be who we are is to forget our own fallenness and proclaim our own self-sufficiency. I cannot imagine a greater affront to the One who is who he is.
Elliot Clark (M.Div., SBTS) lived in Central Asia for six years where he served as a cross-cultural church planter along with his wife and three children. He is currently working to train local church leaders overseas.