Perhaps the most asked and seemingly unanswerable question humans ask throughout life is “why?” How, what, where, and when are fairly easy given the necessary data and understanding, but the impetus behind the events of life and the existence of life itself have driven the core of society since the dawn of civilization. If you distill any philosophy, profession, lifestyle, or belief to its basic components, you will find them all attempting to answer the same basic question: why are we here? Motivating this most basic of questions, however, is a phenomenon far deeper within the human soul than our origin – the continuing, desperate quest for personal identity. The two questions are often symbiotic in nature. If I know why I’m here, I can find out who I am, and if I know who I am, I can find out why I’m here. Unfortunately, one question depends on the other to be answered, so it is rare that one can be answered without the other being satisfied as well.
Pursuing identity generates infinite methods of pursuit with varying degrees of value. Celebrities who crave attention debase and prostitute their careers and personalities for the fleeting nature of applause. Scientists explore the vastness of the cosmos or the building blocks of life hoping to find an elegant cohesion explaining the nature of existence. Psychologists look for the source of personality and identity within, while humanists look outside and around at the social melting pot and interpersonal experiences which contribute to our emotional, mental, and spiritual makeup. None, however, have yet to identify an inarguable answer to the question of life, and each would likely identify himself only tentatively. Who am I? I am a scientist. Why am I a scientist? To search for answers to the big questions. Why do you want to know those answers? It will tell us where we came from. And why do you wish to know that? To find out who I am.
None but the most self-absorbed could find identity within themselves. Our existence, on its own, is meaningless. If I was born, never performed any action of any consequence to any individual but myself, and died without anyone ever having known of my being, did I truly exist? One could not prove my existence without evidence of any kind, from the physical to the anecdotal. Yet assuming such a person existed, he would still think, feel, wonder, and ask the questions we all do. Is, therefore, our identity derived from the actions we perform? Many argue in the affirmative. Men in particular, who tend to be more objective oriented than women, derive a profound sense of identity from their professions and are often devastated at the loss of a job. Having done the same work for years – decades, even – leaves us with a sense of loss and desperation. If I lose my job, though, I am still me, and I do not cease to be me – I simply stop going to a certain geographic location where I perform certain mechanical tasks. Furthermore, what about the formative years of my life in which I had no job? Was I not “me” then? If my self remains intact through unemployment, it seems unlikely that a vocation can tell me who I am.
What about women, who generally tend toward relationships as a measure of success and identity? When a friendship between two women dissolves for whatever reason, both parties are distraught, not unlike the man losing his job. Having seen, spent time with, nurtured, and cared for the other individual across untold years of joy and sadness alike, how do I continue to be me without an individual who formed such a large part of my life, and consequently, my identity? Male or female, do we not all question ourselves when a friendship turns sour? Whether seeking to lay blame or simply understand the series of events that led to the present situation, it is hard to remove oneself from the equation and dispassionately evaluate the failed relationship. Again, though, without that friend, though I am lonely or feel incomplete, I am still me. Before I met that person I was who I am. Characteristics of my character may have changed, and they may have brought about some personal evolutions, but humans are temporary creatures, and no single aspect of our life, even one as impactful as a relationship, can last long enough to define our identities for a lifetime.
Where, then, does our source of identity derive? Basic religious tenets are not enough. Whether you believe in the Big Bang, Creation, Intelligent Design, Steady State, or any other theory of origin, the mere cascade of events from the beginning of time to this moment will not explain why they have happened. Historic hindsight, even, placing an individual in their proper context with a significant perspective of their contributions to humanity, cannot explain why he did what he did, or why he was the originator of the events in the first place. Consider a man like Oskar Schindler, the man featured in the book and movie “Schindler’s List.” His actions directly resulted in saving the lives of hundreds of Jewish workers who would otherwise have been exterminated during WWII. Such a man would seem to many to be driven by a deep calling, an unwavering will, or any of a thousand other fantasy-tale motivations. Instead, when asked about his motivations in an interview, Schindler merely replied, “I knew the people who worked for me… When you know people, you have to behave towards them like human beings.”
The only real source of identity can be found in Christ, the “why” behind all of life. Adhering to an atheistic viewpoint would likely generate a passionate counterargument, but it is difficult to quantitatively deny (an atheistic necessity) that those who genuinely cling to faith are never lacking for a sense of identity, for it derives from something far grander than a mere human being. Just as a man cannot claim to be a soldier without being part of an army, nor a football player without a team, neither can a man call himself anything without knowledge of his Creator. That we exist is not enough – that we exist for a purpose is beyond measure.
Some say that faith is a crutch for the weak. I’m perfectly fine with that! In the darkness of our days, in the foxhole, in desperate times, who has an answer? The man who has faith to lean on or he who has reached the end of himself with nowhere to turn? Which is of more use – a laptop running on a battery or one plugged into a wall? The battery allows for portability, but ultimately, the charger must come out, the power cells restored. A battery alone cannot serve for a lifetime. Others say that faith is a cop-out. That it’s easy to sit back and simply accept the negative of life, hoping and believing that there is master plan, but these same individuals trust a great many master plans every day. The soldier trusts that his commander’s plan will get him off the battlefield alive. The football player trusts that the coach’s plan will bring the team to victory. I trust that my Lord and Savior’s plan will lead my to a fulfilled earthly life and an eternal one beyond.
Finally, the big question, for those who put their trust in Him and yet struggle with identity, is how do I find out who I am from who I believe in? Too often, that question better translates, “why am I not happy with who I am?” The answer comes in three parts, all of which are distasteful to humans: prayer, patience, and perseverance.
Prayer is not a shopping list of requests nor a litany of confession but an intimate dialogue with the Creator of the universe. It therefore is a means of divining a great many lessons about life, but I promise the answers will not come in hurried rushes before meals nor noisy supplications in rush hour traffic. In I Kings 19, Elijah is hiding from King Ahab in a wilderness cave. God tells him to go the entrance of the cave to meet. There is a mighty wind which rips the rocks from the mountain, but God’s voice is not in it, followed by an earthquake similarly absent of the Almighty’s calling. There is then a great fire which scorches the earth, but God is not in it either. Finally, there is a gentle whisper in which God revealed his presence to Elijah. We read of Christ’s miracles and see great examples of His compassion and power, but the majority of His lessons to the disciples were in quiet moments of teaching and personal reflection.
Patience is not about waiting until you feel it has been “long enough,” but rather waiting until you are certain. It is dangerous to think that the “heroes” of the Bible had it easy. Noah received a diving calling, as did Joseph and Abraham, so their purpose was abundantly clear, right? Sure, but Noah had to wait 500 years living a Godly life before that call came. Joseph was betrayed by his family, sold into slavery, betrayed by his employer, thrown in prison, betrayed by an inmate whom he helped, and only after all of these things did he receive the honorific position for which we remember him. What about Abraham? He was the father of the Hebrew nation, but he did not have his first child by his wife until he was 100 years old! Will we be asked to wait so long for calling from the Lord? Maybe. But is a college grad given control of a company or a mail room worker a corner office? No – these things seem illogical to us. We must all pay our dues and become understandably upset when young upstarts use family connections to jump the line. Why, then, do we feel we deserve to be a part of God’s plan right now? Our life span is the becoming, eternity is the revelation. Which leads me to the final component.
Perseverance. Waiting is not that hard. Waiting and laboring in faith is extremely difficult. It is one thing to wait for that promotion, hoping against hope it comes, but who will be elevated: the man who bides his time hoping that showing up and punching in are sufficient, or the man who excels, throws himself into his job, and makes the most of any task he is given? Of course we will promote the latter man. But if we view something like a job which, in the scheme of eternity, is paltry, why do we not labor in Christ’s name so as to receive His Heavenly promotion.
This, at last, is our identity. We exercise it in a manner unique to each of us, but when everything else is stripped away – job, relationships, possessions, even life itself – only Christ remains. It is in Him, therefore, that we must find ourselves, and I can say from experience that if we patiently persevere and pray, He will reveal to us our purpose and instill in us the identity we so desperately desire.
You didn’t think it would be easy, did you?
 David M. Crowe, Oskar Schindler: The Untold Account of His Life, Wartime Activities, and the True Story Behind The List. Philadelphia: Westview Press, 2004 (ISBN 0-8133-3375-X).