I’ve been struck by how many conversations revolve around our labels. “I’m ADD, OCD, manic, depressed, disabled, handicapped, diabetic …” The list goes on and on. We throw out labels as if they clarify who we are, maybe even our most defining marks. We use these descriptors as a way of helping people keep their expectations of us in order. The problem is, when we use one of these labels to describe ourselves, they often give us our deepest sense of identity. We believe the lie that the label defines us. We shift from believing a particular label is something we face to believing it’s someone we are.
This sets up expectations of an indefinite future with a predetermined outcome. Yes, I know Cade’s cell division in my womb won’t un-divide when he turns eighteen, but cell division doesn’t determine Cade’s future. His life can be just as rewarding as anyone else’s: full of vision, education, positivity, love, and hope. And he can bring education, positivity, love, and hope to everyone he encounters.
Labels are powerful things we can misconstrue as our identities. But what if we came to understand that labels don’t define us? That, instead, they are an explanation to help the world understand things we’ve dealt with or come up against? When we don’t view our identity through a label, we’re able to find ways to thrive in spite of whatever label we are living under. This mindset helps us turn from despair to hope in action.
When I faced panic attacks eight years ago, I didn’t have a diagnosis for what was happening. Looking back, it was a grace because this kept me from giving myself a label that I could make part of my identity and give up thinking I could live any other way. Instead, I tried new approaches to try and overcome my fear of being trapped in tight spaces. Each day I prayed for a heavy dose of peace and courage, and then tried to push through my claustrophobia via exposure. I continued to approach subways, elevators, and crowds, scary as it was. Some days I was successful, and some days I’d retreat. But the game-changer was learning who Christ really made me to be and discovering my true identity.
Over time, the small spaces lost their scariness. I didn’t hesitate to hop on an elevator or a subway train. And although my panic attacks began years ago on an airplane, I now hop on an airplane on many Fridays in order to share the healing journey of these rhythms with people around the country. The irony is not lost on me. My pain became my purpose.
Today, 76 percent of us believe we best “define ourselves” by looking within. That is, if we stare deep into our psyches and evaluate our feelings, personalities, passions desires, and even addictions long enough, we will discover our true selves. But looking only at ourselves can bring disillusionment and lead us to an empty place. Why? Because though our internal realities are true, they don’t define us. They don’t always show us who we really are. After all, isn’t the self always growing? Isn’t the soul oriented toward God always changing on its journey to eternity? Staring into a mirror might show us what we look like in the moment, but it cannot show us who we are or where we’re going.
So how do we find our true identity, who we are and where we’re going? The Christian faith leads us beyond the trappings of ourselves and into an identity rooted in something more solid, more immovable—God himself. Identity in him is trustworthy and unchanging.
When our identity is found in who God says we are rather than in our highs and lows, our successes and failures, or our desires, affections, or shortcomings, we experience the freedom we were meant to enjoy. When I need to be reminded of this, I read this list of phrases that tell me the truth about who God says I am, and it always helps:
I am a child of God. (John 1:12)
I am a new creation. (2 Corinthians 5:17)
I am a friend of Jesus. (John 15: 15)
I am created by God to do good. (Ephesians 2:10)
I am free in Christ. (Galatians 5: 1)
I am chosen and loved. (1 Thessalonians 1:4)
I am the light of the world. (Matthew 5:14)
I am not ruled by fear. (2 Timothy 1:7)
I am forgiven. (Colossians 2:13)
I am God’s possession. (Titus 2: 14)
I am free from the desires of the flesh. (Galatians 5:24)
I am a light in the world. (Matthew 5: 14-15)
I am secure in him. (1 Peter 1:3-5)
I am loved by God. (1 John 4:10)
If you have worn your own identity label like a name tag, take a moment to ask God who you are in him. Root yourself deep in that identity. Then, with an identity rooted in the God who gives wisdom, strength, and love, go out into the world, secure and confident in who you really are.