Understanding who we are is integral to living a meaningful life. As human beings we strive to discover and live out our true identities. So when Christianity instructs us not to affirm our self but to deny our self, it initially seems to oppose the very goal of becoming the truest version of who we are. Upon closer examination of the Scriptures, however, we see that shifting our identity from being rooted within our self to being rooted outside of our self is exactly how we find the stable identity we’ve been craving all along. Watch this sermon as we consider how our identities are not repressed but rather fulfilled through our faith in Jesus.

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    I've been suggesting that in the past people may have struggled to believe, but they at least viewed Christianity as a positive benefit to society. That may no longer be the case because there's an increasing number of people who believe that Christianity is harmful, and therefore the first question that a skeptic might ask is not necessarily “Is Christianity true?” but “Is Christianity good?” Because if Christianity isn't good, there's no point in dealing with whether or not it's true, and that changes things a bit for someone like me, because now, in addition to trying to show you why Christianity is true and why you can believe it, I also have to try to show you why Christianity is good — so good that you should want it to be true. For that reason, we are engaging in a new sermon series in which we are addressing some of the common contemporary challenges to the Christian faith in order to show that Christianity is in fact good for you and good for the world. We've begun by considering questions like,” Is Christianity escapist?” “Is Christianity irrational?” “Is Christianity intolerant?”

    Today I'd like to take up the question, “Is Christianity repressive?” Is it repressive of our identity? The ancient Greeks inscribed the words “Know Thyself” at the top of the Temple of Apollo. “Know Thyself.” Easier said than done. Down through human history, there is one little question that has stumped poets and philosophers, psychologists and academics, artists and theologians. That one little question has formed the central theme of countless poems and songs and novels and films, and that one little question can be summed up in three words: Who am I? It's a question of identity. 

    We human beings understand that we can't live a meaningful life unless we know who we are. But many people assume that Christianity seems to stand in the way of becoming our true, authentic selves. That's a big problem, because if Christianity is repressive of our identity, then we will never become the fullest version of ourselves. 

    Here's what I'd like to do. Let's turn to a passage in which Jesus lays out what it means to commit oneself to him in order to determine whether or not Christianity does require us to repress the essence of who we are. As we come to Mark 8, I'd like us to consider three things: 1) The search for identity, 2) The struggle with identity, and 3) The secret to identity

    34And calling the crowd to him with his disciples, he said to them, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. 35For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake and the gospel's will save it. 36For what does it profit a man to gain the whole world and forfeit his soul? 37For what can a man give in return for his soul? 38For whoever is ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of him will the Son of Man also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels.”

    The Search For Identity

    First, let's consider the search for identity, the need to discover who we are. Perhaps I could illustrate the search for identity with a ridiculously stupid movie from 2001 called “Zoolander.” The comedian Ben Stiller plays the role of Derek Zoolander, a male model who's famous for his good looks and his signature poses, which, to be frank, are completely indistinguishable from one another. After Zoolander loses the competition for male model of the year, he's depressed and dejected, and he stares at his own reflection. Then he asked the question, “Who am I?” His reflection responds by saying, “I don't know.” But this is the question. “Who am I?”

    If we ask that seemingly simple question, we quickly discover that it's not so easy to answer. Are you talking about the person that you are right now, the person that you were five minutes ago, the person that you were five years ago, or the person that you will be 50 years from now? What makes you, you? Your physical body? We know from science that, on average, all the cells in our body completely replace themselves every seven to 10 years. What makes you, you? Your physical body, your thoughts and feelings, your words and actions, your relationships? Or is it based on the validation you receive from others? Are you only as good as your last performance? What makes you, you? 

    The word “identity” means sameness. It comes from the same root as the word identical, and that gives us a clue because what we need is a core sense of who we are that remains the same despite the differences in time or circumstance, despite whatever changes might occur. We all play different roles depending on the setting. You might be a family member at home. You might be a colleague at work. You are a friend, a neighbor, a community member. You are at times alone in your solitude. To have a sense of identity means that you need to have a sense of self that remains the same across all those various spheres. Otherwise, you're just wearing a mask depending on the role. That's part of the problem with social media. It makes it all too easy for us to pretend and to play different roles. 

    Not only do we need a core sense of who we are that is consistent and that endures from day to day and year to year and from relationship to relationship or from setting to setting, but we also need to know that we're valuable — that our self is valuable, that our lives are worthwhile and significant. And therefore to form an identity, we need a sense of self that doesn't change and that won't ever let us down. 

    The Struggle With Identity

    Consciously or unconsciously, we're all searching for an identity that will endure. But then here comes the struggle, because Jesus throws a monkey wrench into our search for identity. In Mark 8, Jesus addresses not only his disciples, but also any and all potential would-be followers. He says, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.” 

    He doesn't issue these words for just some but for all. These words are not reserved for the select few — what we might call the “spiritual or religious elite.” No, he issues this call to absolutely everyone. Notice that Jesus is not asking us to deny something to ourselves, but rather Jesus is calling us to deny our very selves if we are going to be his followers. For Jesus, the life to which we are called is not one necessarily of self-fulfillment, it appears to be one of self-denial. Many people would say that is precisely the problem with Christianity, because Christianity doesn't properly value the self. Rather than affirming our identity, Christianity asks us to repress or to deny our identity. Is that true? Are the critics right? Is Christianity repressive of our identity? Let's examine the struggle a little more closely.

    Let's consider what's different about the way in which people seek to gain a sense of self today compared to times in the past. In the past, when people lived in a more traditional society, a person's sense of self was defined and shaped not only by their internal desires, but also by their external social roles and relationships. People gained a sense of who they were and why they were valuable by seeing themselves as part of a larger order. They were trying to connect themselves to something bigger than themselves. 

    If you asked a person from a more traditional culture, “Who are you, and how do you know that your life is meaningful?” that person would probably respond by saying, “I'm the son or the daughter of so and so, and I belong to this family or this tribe. My life is meaningful to the extent that I commit myself, give myself, am true to my family, my nation, or my God. Maybe that requires taking on certain duties or responsibilities. Maybe that even requires sacrifice on my part, but that's how I know who I am. That's how I know that my life is meaningful, because I'm part of a larger order.” 

    If you ask someone today, “Who are you and what makes your life meaningful?” people today probably wouldn't emphasize where they belong or where they're committed but rather what they do. In the struggle to form an identity, we today do not necessarily look out to a larger order; rather, we look in. We look deep within ourselves to figure out who we are and why we matter. Rather than trying to connect with something outside of the self, we try to connect with something deep within ourselves. We see ourselves as beings with inner depths. We believe that the only way to be our true authentic self is to express whatever lies deep within us, even if that means detaching ourselves or distancing ourselves from our family, or our hometown, or our religious community, or our faith tradition. What makes you, you in the modern world is your individual desires and dreams. You have to be faithful to those inner desires and dreams no matter what other people might think. And you therefore have to bestow value upon yourself. You bestow your own value upon yourself by being true to your inner desires and dreams, regardless of what kind of opposition you might face. 

    This is what sociologists call “expressive individualism," but you don't need to know the label. We're all familiar with the concept because this is one of the animating narratives that drives our entire culture. I can illustrate it with another movie. How about the 2017 film “The Greatest Showman,” which is a biographical musical film that tells the story of P.T. Barnum and the famous circus that he built. The whole movie is about following your dreams and about being faithful to your inner desires no matter what others might think. Consider some of the lyrics from this movie. Consider these lines from the song “A Million Dreams”:

    “They can say it all sounds crazy; They can say I've lost my mind.

    I don't care, so call me crazy; We can live in a world that we design.”

    Or these are the words from the song “Rewrite the Stars”:

    “It's up to you, and it's up to me; No one can say what we get to be.

    So why don't we rewrite the stars?; Maybe the world could be ours.”

    Or think of Lettie Lutz, the name of the character for the bearded woman in the circus. She is unfairly shut out of a black tie event, and so she sings “This is Me,” and the lyrics go like this: 

    “I am not a stranger to the dark; Hide away, they say,

    'Cause we don't want your broken parts; I've learned to be ashamed of all my scars.

    Run away, they say; No one'll love you as you are.

    But I won't let them break me down to dust.

    I know that there's a place for us; For we are glorious.

    When the sharpest words wanna cut me down,

    I'm gonna send a flood, gonna drown them out.

    I am brave, I am bruised; I am who I'm meant to be, this is me.

    Look out 'cause here I come; And I'm marching on to the beat I drum.

    I'm not scared to be seen; I make no apologies, this is me.”

    When we hear these songs, we resonate with the message. We say, “Yes, that's right. We shouldn't be ashamed of who we are. We should be true to ourselves. We should be true to our own desires and dreams.” And yet, even within the film itself, “The Greatest Showman” reveals that there is a problem with basing our identity on self expression. At the end of the film, Barnum actually apologizes to his wife because he realizes that he has brought not only hardship but heartache into his family because he was chasing fame. His wife says that she warned him but he didn't listen because he wanted to be more than he was. Now he realizes, through everything that he's experienced, that his single-minded pursuit of his own dream was really just a destructive form of self-worship. It's only through that heartache and that hardship that he realizes that there are other things that matter beyond self-expression. How should we assess the value that we place on self-expression in our modern world in light of Jesus' words here in Mark 8? 

    On the one hand, we have to realize that modern individualism is a good thing. It made gains on the past. Individualism emerged for a reason. Why is that? Because in the past, people were often locked into a particular role or station or place in life, and they could never break out, no matter how hard they tried. For example, if your father was a butcher or a baker but you wanted to be a candlestick maker, too bad. You're going to be a butcher or a baker. It was a very hierarchical structure within ancient and older societies, and that made social advancement, especially for the poor, almost impossible. If you didn't fit the social mold, then you were typically ostracized. The fact is individualism is a good thing. We don't want to go back to an earlier, more oppressive age. We should be free to determine the shape of our lives in ways that our ancestors would never have even dreamt of. 

    On the other hand, there are some problems with basing our identity on our inner desires. Let me suggest three problems with basing our identity on our inner desire: 1) It's unstable, 2) It's contradictory, and 3) It's impractical


    First of all, we said that we need a core sense of who we are that remains the same despite changes in time and circumstance. If that's true, then one problem with basing your identity on your inner desires and dreams is that they constantly change. They're not stable. You might feel one way today, but then you might feel completely different tomorrow. In addition to that, not all of your desires are the same. Some might be substantial and weighty; others might be rather trivial and inconsequential. Which of these desires forms the real you? 


    The problem is not only that they are unstable; they're also contradictory. Our dreams and desires often conflict with one another. Let's say that you have a deep desire to commit yourself to a particular career, so you throw yourself all in to the pursuit of this career. But then you fall in love head over heels for someone who lives on the opposite side of the globe, and it's not possible for you to pursue this particular career path and this love relationship. How do you choose? Which one forms the real you? Or perhaps you land your dream job, but then there are aspects of your dream job that are incompatible with your allegiance to some other higher cause? What are you supposed to do? How do you prioritize your desires? Are some desires deeper than others? 


    Finally, basing your identity on your inner feelings and desires is, at the end of the day, somewhat impractical. Part of the reason why is that you have realize that our surrounding culture is constantly shaping our desires and telling us what we should feel and what we should value. There are other people putting thoughts in our minds about what our desires should be, whether we realize that or not. Even more so, if you decide to base your identity on being true to the inner depths of who you are, how do you ultimately determine which of those desires is most important? The philosopher Charles Taylor says that self-expression only makes sense when you're choosing to express something that matters. Of course, there are all kinds of people who have given their lives to offbeat pursuits. But no matter how bizarre some of those pursuits may be, every pursuit requires at least some kind of explanation. We can't choose to express something unless we know that it matters. Taylor uses a sort of humorous example: If you said, “I'm gonna dedicate my whole life to wiggling my toes in warm mud,” someone's going to ask you, “Why?” Self-expression only makes sense against the backdrop of what is important. 

    That is why we can never really escape the need for something outside of ourselves to tell us what is significant, what matters, what is valuable. As much as we might say, “I don't need anyone to validate my own choices; I'm going to do my own thing,” we still need someone from the outside to tell us that it counts. Imagine, perhaps you break free from the narrow confines of your family or your small town or your religious tradition or your faith community. Isn't that often why people move to New York — simply to break free from those confines, to find themselves? As soon as you break free, you realize that you still need the acceptance, the acclaim, the applause of someone. It's just a different audience. All you've done is really shifted audience. It's not really enough to say, “I'm going to be creative” or “I'm going to be beautiful” or “I'm going to be free” or “I'm going to be accomplished.” They have to think so, no matter who they may be. You see that in that film, “The Greatest Showman.” Oftentimes people are just shifting the audience in terms of who they're trying to please. The irony is that when you free yourself from the constraints of your family or your tribe, in a way you become even more dependent upon the opinions of others; it's just a different crowd. You need someone from the outside to say that you're valuable. The more significant that other person is, the more power they have to bestow value on your life. 

    The Secret To Identity

    Where does all this leave us? If we try to base our identity on being true to whatever lies deep within us, we either end up living for the approval of another audience or we end up worshiping ourselves. I want to illustrate this by reading an excerpt from a relatively well-known spiritual memoir. It doesn't matter who wrote it, but I want you to notice that as this woman writes in her journal, she's effectively praying to herself. This is what it looks like to worship at the feet of the God within. 

    “What I write in my journal tonight is that I am weak and full of fear. I explain that depression and loneliness have shown up, and I’m scared they will never leave … I’m terrified that I will never really pull my life together. In response, somewhere from within me, rises a now-familiar presence, offering me all the certainties I have always wished another person would say to me when I was troubled … Tonight, this strange interior gesture of friendship — the lending of a hand from me to myself when nobody else is around to offer solace — reminds me of something that happened to me once … I walked into an office building one afternoon in a hurry, dashed into the waiting elevator. As I rushed in, I caught an unexpected glimpse of myself in a security mirror’s reflection. In that moment my brain did an odd thing — it fired off this split-second message: ‘Hey! You know her! That’s a friend of yours!’ And I actually ran forward toward my own reflection with a smile, ready to welcome that girl whose name I had lost but whose face was so familiar. In a flash instant, of course, I realized my mistake and laughed in embarrassment at my almost doglike confusion over how a mirror works. But for some reason that incident comes to mind again tonight during my sadness … and I find myself writing this comforting reminder at the bottom of the page [of my journal]: Never forget that once upon a time, in an unguarded moment, you recognized yourself as a friend.”  

    Notice here she is praying to herself. Of course, there is a proper place for self-love. Jesus himself said “Love your neighbor as yourself,” which suggests that in order to love others, we must first love ourselves. There's a proper place for holding ourselves in high regard. But lending a hand from yourself to yourself, praying to yourself, worshiping yourself may help — at least superficially — for a little while, but it won't work over the long haul, because eventually it leads to a dead end. If you worship the God within, then there is nothing to ever check your ego or your pride. There's nothing to ever challenge your worst impulses. When you experience guilt or shame or fear or insecurity or despair, there is absolutely no one to forgive you, no one to console you, no one to restore you. When a real crisis hits, your own resources will not be enough, and no amount of positive thinking is ever going to work.

    What's the secret then to discovering your true identity? It's the opposite of what you would think. Jesus says in verse 35, “ For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake and the gospel's will save it.” Jesus suggests that the way you find yourself is by losing yourself. That sounds like a paradox, but it's not, because what Jesus is suggesting is that the more you find your life in Jesus, the more he frees you from the demands and the expectations of others, including the demands and expectations that you might impose upon yourself. 

    Very quickly, as we close, I'd like us to consider 1) the what, 2) the why, and 3) the how of Jesus' words here in Mark 8 with a little help from a section of “Mere Christianity” by C.S. Lewis. 

    The What

    What exactly does Jesus mean? What Jesus is not saying is that your self does not have value. We might think that if Jesus is calling us to deny ourselves, he's implying that our self is valueless or worthless. But no, remember, Jesus said, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.” We can never forget that Jesus goes before us along the way of the cross. Why does Jesus go to the cross? Jesus willingly submits himself to death, willingly sacrifices himself on a cross in order to forgive you, to redeem you, to restore you, to renew you. No one would ever give up their life for someone or something else if they thought that person or thing was worthless. No, the fact that Jesus willingly gave himself up for you means that you are of infinite value to him. Jesus is not suggesting that your self does not have value. No, Jesus loves you. He cares for you. He values you so much that he was willing to give his life up for you. He's not saying yourself doesn't have value or that you must give up your individuality or your personhood in order to follow him. Rather, he's saying that you only find your true life by losing your life in him. 

    The Why

    Why is that? God not only loves you, he knows you. He is the Creator God. He made you. He designed you. He knows how you work best. He knows what makes you unique and special. He sees the full potential in you, and only he can help you become the greatest version of yourself. But he also knows those aspects of your personality and your character that do more harm than good. That's why he calls you to find your true identity in him. In “Mere Christianity” Lewis writes, 

    “The more we get what we now call “ourselves” out of the way and let Him take us over, the more truly ourselves we become.

    It is no good trying to “be myself” without Him. The more I resist Him and try to live on my own, the more I become dominated by my own heredity and upbringing and surroundings and natural desires. In fact what I so proudly call “Myself” becomes merely the meeting place for trains of events which I never started and which I cannot stop. What I call “My wishes” become merely the desires thrown up by my physical organism or pumped into me by other men’s thoughts or even suggested to me by devils...

    Until you have given up yourself to Him you will not have a real self.”

    The Scriptures tell us that God knows you better than you know yourself. And therefore you only discover who you really are and who you're meant to be in light of who God is. Whatever God loves, whatever God desires, whatever God affirms, that forms the real you. But whatever runs counter to God's intentions for you will only serve to distort you and to misshape you in the long run, whether you realize it at first or not. The way in which you find your true, authentic self is by losing yourself in Christ. 

    The How

    If that's the what and the why, the third and final question is, how? How do we actually do that? How do you lose yourself? It sounds rather abstract. How do you lose yourself in order to find yourself in Christ? Put simply, the way in which you lose yourself is by forgetting about yourself. Take the focus off of yourself. Put your focus on Jesus. Then and only then will you discover who you really are. Lewis again writes, 

    “The very first step is to try to forget about the self altogether. Your real, new self (which is Christ’s and also yours, and yours just because it is His) will not come as long as you are looking for it. It will come when you are looking at Him. Does that sound strange? The same principle holds, you know, for more everyday matters.

    Even in social life, you will never make a good impression on other people until you stop thinking about what sort of impression you are making. Even in literature and art, no man who bothers about originality will ever be original: whereas if you simply try to tell the truth (without caring two pence how often it has been told before) you will, nine times out of ten, become original without ever having noticed it. The principle runs through all life from top to bottom.” 

    Is Christianity repressive of our identity? Does it prevent you from becoming your true self? To the contrary, the only way you discover your true self is by losing yourself in Jesus. It doesn't matter what anyone else says. It doesn't even matter what you say about yourself. All that matters is what he says. For Jesus, the way to self-fulfillment is through self-denial. You have to take the focus off of yourself and put the focus on Jesus, and then and only then will you be able to answer the question, “Who am I?” I belong to Christ. I am a child of God. I am who he says I am. If you want to become the fullest, most authentic version of yourself, 

    “Give up your self, and you will find your real self. Lose your life and you will save it. Submit to death, death of your ambitions and favorite wishes every day and death of your whole body in the end: submit with every fiber of your being, and you will find eternal life. Keep back nothing. Nothing that you have not given away will ever be really yours. Nothing in you that has not died will ever be raised from the dead. 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.”

    Let's pray together. 

    Father, we acknowledge that as human beings, we need to have a core sense of self that remains the same despite change in time and circumstance and setting in order to live a meaningful life. Help us to discover and to experience this paradoxical truth, that the way to self-fulfillment is through self-denial. Help us to lose ourselves in Christ so that we might find our true selves in you, and enable us to do that by taking the focus off of ourselves and putting it all on Christ, so that we might become the one who you say we are. We ask in Jesus' name. Amen.