God and Self-realization

In the recent articles “God and Culture” and “God and Psychotherapy,” we have been introduced to several important and helpful observations about dangers of life in our psycho-sexual, techno-therapeutic world—namely, the temptation to reduce the Christian mission to banal platitudes without any practical benefits and the expectation to treat the whole of humanity, including ourselves, as primarily material beings with mere mental deficiencies. These are perhaps the most contentious issues of our day. Francis Schaffer’s pesky question quickly follows: how then shall we live? If we are to avoid the double-pronged pitfall of cultural disengagement and psychotherapeutic dissociation (and we must!), what is the biblical alternative?

Some Christians believe that the alternative is Christianized knock-off of the secular vision, a counterfeit of the counterfeit, if you can believe it. We are often told that our deepest need as Christians is to “find our identity in Christ.” Those Christians who bought into the cultural phantasm of a primarily psychological self, thus, began syncretizing Scripture and psychology in a historically unprecedented way. In fact, a quick search of the Google Book metrics will show you that the phrase “identity in Christ,” absent from Christian literature for almost two thousand years, is perhaps the most wide-spread exhortation in popular theology after 1970.[1] Though historical novelty ought to be enough to make us at least suspicious of such language, Scripture gives us all the more reason to reject identity-in-Christ language. Indeed, the Christian alternative to engaging with our overly psychologized culture on its own terms is to return to the Scriptures own definition of what it means to be human. Yet, as our Father is fond of doing, we are called away from this sort of language not simply for truth’s sake but also to move toward a greater, more joyfully satisfying alternative. The biblical alternative is this: in union with Christ, Christians are called to inhabit an office rather than an identity.

Of course, thinking about our lives in terms of an office is not very commonplace. The only office that we’re used to inhabiting is that dreaded and hideously florescent one that you’ll have to return to Monday morning—that is, if you’re vaccinated. However, the word office historically referred not to a cubicled building but rather our duty, function, or role in society that we are to exercise for the benefit of our neighbors.[2] We know this already without having to think very hard about it: some in our church serve in the office of elder or the office of deacon; some in our government hold “high office”; a policeman is an officer of the law; some unfortunate human beings function as officials at sporting events, regulating the rules of the game to the benefit of players and fans—usually of the other team. But here’s the point: each Christian is also given an office—the office of the royal priesthood (1 Peter 2:9).

Since we have nothing that we did not receive from our Lord Jesus, just as his baptism was his coronation as Messiah-King (Ps. 2; John 1:29-34) and his investiture with the high priesthood of Melchizedek (Ps. 110; Heb. 7; Matt. 3), so too our baptism into Christ is a baptism into his dual office of priest and king. Christ did not die to merely take us to heaven. Then for what purpose, to what end, are we redeemed? Answer: “[Christ] loved us and has freed us from our sins by his blood and made us kings and priests to his God and Father, to him be glory and dominion forever and ever” (Rev. 1:5-6). Much like our sexual orientations, our identities are not found by investigating our subjective feelings but rather they are fixed in objective realities. We are royal priests in Christ by the will of the Father and sustaining grace of the Holy Spirit as objectively attested to week-in and week-out in the broken bread and the poured-out wine.[3] The entire goal of the Christian life then is to both realize and actualize our office in Christ—not “find our identity.”[4] We must constantly remind ourselves of our God-given duties as royal priests and do them. As Paul would say, we must be becoming by sight what we already are by faith (Col. 3:1-4; Gal. 5:1, 25; Eph. 5:8; Rom. 6:2-12).[5]

But what are the advantages, the counter-cultural payoffs, the cash value of viewing ourselves as inhabiting offices rather than dwelling in an identity? I suggest that there are at least three.

First, it fixes our attention outward. Identity-based language is not only unbiblical but also plainly unpractical. When what you are most deeply concerned with is your personal status or your supposed lack of conformity or (worse yet) your perfect conformity to a certain ideal, this can lead to unhelpful navel-gazing, endless hunting for the idols of the heart, and morbid introspection. While each of those things are not inherently sinful, a fixation on identity can lead us to be overly skeptical of ourselves, lacking confidence in the blood-bought promises of Scripture, or overly full of ourselves, lacking humility for the blood-drenched penalty of our sinfulness. However, taking note of our office as a royal priesthood inherently externalizes our vision. No one is a priest without a people; no one is a king without a kingdom.

Second, it forces us to action. What does an identity, even a well-founded identity, do for the world? Arguably, it is only a means of self-satisfaction. As Caleb Morell notes, the dreaded irony is that those who often employ identity language in order to describe their idol-hunting are often themselves guilty of making identity their idol![6] It seems to be merely a selfish endeavor. Yet, taking ahold of your royal-priestly office is inherently a call to action. After all, what is a sitting priest but an assault on the very office? See the story of Eli in 1 Samuel 1-4, where Eli the Priest is rebuked by God for his laziness, which ultimately culminates in the death of his sons and capture of the Ark of the Covenant. What is a warless king except an opportunity for sin and scandal? Compare the story of David out in the field, crushing the heads of serpent-like giants in 1 Samuel 17 with the story of David inside the palace, seducing innocent women with serpent-like deception in 2 Samuel 11-12. Though one may fail at the task assigned to them in office of priest-king, there is at least a clear assignment that one can repent and return to (Ps. 51), unlike identity foraging.

Third, it focuses our mission. Identityhunting has no objective, no end. It is an endless ocean. “The heart is a labyrinth,” says Robert Altar’s translation of Jeremiah 17:9. It is a maze, a puzzle. To pretend that we understand our motivations and actions and heart-attitudes in the first place is a joke. Dostoyevsky: “man is mystery to himself.”[7] Indeed!—there is no end to identity searching because there can be no beginning. On the other hand, to be a royal priest lays out a clear path: Draw near to God. Strengthen the weak. Crush the dragon. Love your family. Offer the sacrifice of praise. Take dominion. Make war on sin. Mature in wisdom.

Realization of our office in Christ is a much stronger and more biblical antidote to chaos than resorting to fighting our battles with the world with the weapons of the world—namely, those psychologically charged ways of speaking about our Christian lives. To inhabit our God-given role as the royal priesthood is commanded of us, but it is a commandment with promise. When we live as we are called, God blesses and strengthens our endeavors by the Spirit’s presence (Gal. 5:16); and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom (2 Cor. 3:17), freedom to live as coheirs in the glory of the children of God (Rom. 8:12-17) and freedom from the self-centered piety of psychologizing our souls.

[1]Caleb Morell, “Stop Finding Your Identity in Christ,” American Reformer (February 9, 2022), https://americanreformer.org/stop-finding-your-identity-in-christ/. Morell’s article is helpful and extremely informative, but I still think that it misses the point ultimately, as it will be shown below.

[2]This definition is compiled from the various iterations of “office” entries in the Oxford English Dictionary, 2nd ed. (Oxford, ENG: Clarendon Press), X.729-734.

[3]As Jim Jordan notes, bread and wine are themselves the biblical symbols of participation in the priesthood and kingdom respectively. See James B. Jordan, From Bread to Wine: Creation, Worship, and Christian Maturity (West Monroe, LA: Athanasius Press, 2019), 23ff.  

[4]This language of self-realization is taken from Christian philosopher Cornelius Van Til. For more, see Cornelius Van Til, In Defense of Biblical Christianity, vol. 3, Christian Theistic Ethics (Phillipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Co., 1980), esp. 44-46.   

[5]Richard B. Gaffin, Jr., By Faith, Not by Sight: Paul and the Order of Salvation (Philipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 2013), 67-89. 

[6]Morell, “Stop Finding Your Identity in Christ.”

[7]Personal correspondence to his brother (1839), as quoted in Konstantin Mochulski, Dostoevsky: His Life and Work, trans. Michael A. Minihan (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1971), 17.

Gage Crowder teaches literature and Bible at Providence Classical School. In addition to his studies at Birmingham Theological Seminary, he is a contributing member of the Huntsville Literary Association and the Academy of Philosophy and Letters. His poetry and prose can be found in the The LegendPoem Magazine, the Birmingham Arts Journal, Panoply and elsewhere.