Who do you say that I am?
Our Lord’s question to Peter in Matthew 16:15 is central to our Christian Faith. The question revolves around identity. Who is Jesus Christ, and how do we identify Him? Do we answer with St. Peter and say, “you are the Christ, the Son of the living God,” or do we deny the identity of our Lord Jesus as God and Savior (Matthew 16:16)? This question is central not only to our faith but also to our own identity as Christians. Because we follow Christ, and so bear the name of “Christian,” how we define ourselves reveals who we believe Jesus is. Such that, in asking “who do you say that I am?” Jesus also asks the Christian, “who are you?”
So, Then, Who Are We?
Today, many of us believe the world’s claims about identity. We live in a world that proclaims that we define ourselves. We are told that it is up to each of us to create who we are and that each of us is the final authority of our identity. We are told that we can be anything we want to be. So long as we have a creative imagination and the strength of will, we can even become the opposite sex, or some imaginative amalgamation thereof.
As a result, there are many who claim faith in Christ yet still believe as the world believes. Rather than understanding the consequences of our Lord’s identity, I see many brothers and sisters seeking to set themselves apart and so identify themselves in accordance with their own will and their own desire. But the world tells us a lie, and this lie is irreconcilable with our identity as Christians.
Who do men say that the Son of man is?
Must Christians Discover Our Identity?
The world asserts that we are responsible for own identities. The world tells us that we must discover who we really are, or embark on some search mission where we find our inner self. Despite the creative language invoked to encourage a person to invent their identity as something wholly new and unique, my own experience and observation reveal a process where the “search” often becomes the pursuit and gratification of every desire and whim. Perhaps one seeks their identity by means of power and so begins to identify themselves with political movements. Another may seek the indulgence of lustful appetites and so identify themselves in terms of their sexual preference. And yet someone else feeds their stomach and so prides themselves as a connoisseur of every delicacy and dish. This search for self-definition is often nothing more than the indulgence of carnal desire and self-will. In the end, it is a lie that is nothing more than that great sin of pride. It is the first lie told by the prince of lies which seduces us to “[prefer ourselves] to God,” in hopes that we may “‘be like God’ but ‘without God, before God, and not in accordance with God” (CCC 398).
Consider, for example, the woman who identifies herself as “feminist.” Convinced of her impotence, she seeks power and concludes that she must usurp that power from a man. She adopts feminist opinions which reinforce her desire for power. Until finally, after following the lies developed out that desire, she shuns her natural procreative potential and remakes herself with all the attributes commonly identified with a man.
Or consider the man who identifies himself as “gay.” Having first the inclination toward other men, he chooses to follow his desire and satiate it until finally, seduced and enamored with the particular sexual act, he elevates it to the center of his identity. And so his entire existence and even the movement of his soul is reordered and subjugated to this desire. That is to say, one who identifies himself as “gay” subjugates his entire person under this title—a title which refers exclusively to a specific sexual preference.
Lastly, we may consider the variety of identities founded upon dietary preference. There are “foodies,” “vegans,” “non-gluten,” and every sort of identity that reduces the human person to the mere sum total of what they eat. We could go on in our enumeration of ways that we identify ourselves and others based upon our passions and preferences; in our contemporary culture, everyone is reduced to being nothing more than drug addicts, republicans, divas, socialists, activists, environmentalists, anti-this, pro-that…
Self-definition is Deadly
This rampant self-definition that the world promotes today is deadly as it reduces the human person to an incidental attribute. The depth and dignity of each of us is denied in place of a rigid superficiality that arises out of defining and justifying our lives on the foundation of the particular things we want. Despite the fact that, whether naturally or by will, our desires change so easily and often. We become like the one who has built his house on quicksand. As a result, when we cling to such identities, we often fall into despair as we feel the shifts in our foundations and experience the starvation of the soul. Not to mention the numerous ways it permits us to commit violence against ourselves and others.
As Christians, especially, the world’s conclusions about personal identity have an even more dangerous consequence: it denies the reality of sin and the Divinity of Christ.
It is no longer I who lives, but Christ who lives in me
My Identity in Relation to God
I am a sinner. First and foremost, before anything else, this is my identity in relation to God. We are all sinners.
As St. Benedict states, “the good which is in [us] cannot come from [ourselves] and must be from the Lord” (Prologue, The Rule of St. Benedict). This is the result of concupiscence which each of us inherits through original sin. It is concupiscence which weakens our wills and inordinately drives our desire. It is that thing that drives us to follow our own passions at the risk of our own good and the good of others; it “is the movement of the sensitive appetites contrary to the operation of human reason” (CCC 2515). And it is this weakness that leads us to fall so easily into sin. As such we cannot trust our desires. And if we cannot trust our desires, how much less should we define ourselves by them.
However, our sinfulness is not the foundation of our Christian identity. Rather, our identity is founded in God, in whose image and likeness we were made (Genesis 1:26). And though our passions are turned inwardly to the self as a result of original sin, God’s love for us is such that He desires to cleanse us from our sins and create in us a new heart (Psalm 50).
For this reason God the Father sent His only son, Jesus Christ who “suffered death and was buried, and rose again on the third day,” not only that we might be washed and restored from original sin, but also that we might have new life “as His children through Jesus Christ” (Nicene Creed; Ephesians 1:5).
Only if Jesus Christ is the Son of the living God can we, through Baptism, become adopted children of God who form “the body of Christ,” and so become “partakers of the divine nature” of Christ (1 Corinthians 12:27; 2 Peter 1:4; CCC 1267). As Christians, this central doctrine of our faith becomes also the foundation of our identity. We are children of the living God precisely because Jesus is the Christ and Son of the living God. It is for this reason that St. Paul exclaims “it is no longer I who lives, but Christ who lives in me” (Galatians 2:20). Our lives find their fulfillment and definition in Christ such that we have no other identity than Christ and have no need for any other identity. Further, by our Baptism and participation in the Sacraments, we receive the necessary grace to act and desire in accordance with the Will of God and, thereby, find freedom from the former limitations of our carnal desires.
The Danger in Defining Ourselves
For this reason, is it particularly dangerous for the Christian who insists on defining themselves by their desires. “For all that is in the world–the lust of the flesh, and the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life–is not of the Father but of the world” (1 John 2:16) As a result, such an assertion creates a contradiction in the Christian identity. For example, to assert oneself as a “gay Christian” is ultimately a denial of God and Christ for in such a statement one has defined themselves by “the lust of the flesh” which “is not of the Father.” It would be no different for the Christian who insisted on identifying themselves as a “foodie Christian” or a “gossiping Christian.” In each example, the attempt to augment the Christian identity ultimately denies the reality of Christ and the freedom from carnal desire. In other words, when we chase such definitions we attempt to “serve two masters” (Matthew 6:24). Yet our Lord makes it clear, “You cannot serve two masters.” We must choose: our will or the will of God?
Not my will, but Thy will be done
Identifying as a Christian
As Christians, our identity arises out of our faith in Jesus as the Christ and Son of the living God. In coming to know the identity of our Lord, we cannot help but fall in love with God and seek after Him. As our faith grows, our love of God also grows such that we “give up every other love for this Beloved” (Book II, Ch. 7, Imitation of Christ). As a result, the faithful Christian soon discovers that this Charity subsumes and reorders all other carnal desires.
Yet, while our initial conversion may be full of passion for our Lord, we often find, after some time, that we fall into old habits forged by our concupiscence. Our Baptism and a new identity as children of God is not a ‘one-and-done’ event. Rather we must continually commit to turning away from the ways of the world and remain “like newborn infants [who] long for the pure spiritual milk,” in order that we might “grow up to salvation” (1 Peter 2:1-2). In other words, we must daily battle against our own desires and will and strive always to do the will of God. Daily, we must pray with our Lord and Savior, “Thy will be done, Thy kingdom come” (Matthew 6:10).
In identifying as Christians, we seek total cooperation with the will of God rather than the indulgence of our personal desires. In order to accomplish this, we must participate regularly in the Sacraments so that we might receive the necessary grace to avoid the pitfalls of sin and pride. Only through with the help of the Lord and regular participation in the sacramental life can we remain vigilant and so avoid the lies of the world such as that of identity.
My brothers and sisters, you are so much more than your passing emotions and desires. You are princes and princesses who shall inherit the Kingdom of God!