In 1964, Muhammad Ali made an announcement that shook the world of boxing. As his friend and Muslim minister Malcolm X cheered from the stands, Ali beat Sonny Liston and further established his name among the greats. Within two days of the fight, Ali threw off all inhibitions and called a news conference to announce that he had become a Muslim who opposed racial integration. He would now be living life on his terms and no one else’s. As cameras flashed, Ali delivered one of his most memorable quotes:
“I know where I’m going and I know the truth, and I don’t have to be what you want me to be. I’m free to be what I want.”
Haven’t we all felt that way at one time or another? We might not be a famous boxer who had suffered under the heavy hand of a racist society and turned to the Nation of Islam for “truth,” but we have all been in situations where we felt pressure to conform to someone else’s expectations and demands. No doubt, on more than one occasion, you’ve wanted to scream: “I’m free to be what I want!”
But are you free to be what you want? Was Muhammad Ali? Is anyone? The answer is complicated. Some might respond by saying, “Absolutely, not. You’re not free to be what you want. You have to conform to outside pressures, whether you like it or not.” Others might disagree, saying, “You are totally free to be what you want. The philosopher Soren Kierkegaard was right when he said, ‘Once you label me, you negate me.’ So, don’t let anyone label you, define you, or tell you the ‘truth’ about yourself. You determine that. No one else does.”
Both of these viewpoints are right—and also very wrong. While in some ways you are not free to be what you want, in other ways, you are. Wisdom knows the difference.
Who Am I?
Let’s begin with a brief discussion about identity and the nature of the self. The self is the answer to the question, “Who am I?” Answering this question honestly, realistically, and logically is foundational to human existence and our relationships with others. It’s why “Know Thyself” was the first among the Delphic maxims that communicated wisdom to the ancient Greeks. The playwright Aeschylus wrote about knowing yourself in the context of a person understanding his place in the “great order of things.” Socrates saw it as a source of wisdom in all of life and thought it foolish that so many people tried to understand profound mysteries and obscure realities before they had the slightest understanding of themselves. No wonder he concluded that “to know thyself is the beginning of wisdom.”
The Christian faith takes a different approach, but it’s not at odds with the Greeks. Solomon teaches in Proverbs that “The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom, and the knowledge of the Holy One is understanding” (v. 9:10). In Proverbs 30, he laments, “I have not learned wisdom, and I have no knowledge of the Holy One.”
The ancients say that wisdom begins with knowledge of the self, and the Scriptures say that wisdom begins with knowledge of God. As we already stated, this isn’t a contradiction but merely a matter of differentiation regarding presuppositions and application. As a practical matter, and to Aeschylus’ point, you need to know yourself to understand your place in the world as you relate to other people, not just God. Additionally, you have to be at least aware of your own existence to be aware of God’s. So, in a sense, knowledge of self is the beginning of understanding. But, once you are aware of God’s existence, you understand that your existence is dependent on and defined by His. Therefore, knowledge of God and a proper respect of His authority, which is the meaning of “fear” in this context, is the beginning of understanding and wisdom in all applications.
The Christian philosopher Kierkegaard bridges these two ideas nicely when he describes the epistemology of existence in his work, “The Sickness Unto Death.” In a very tangled way that’s difficult to grasp on a first or even fourth read, Kierkegaard explains that we know ourselves by reflecting on and relating to ourselves but only through the medium of God, the Creator of the self. Kierkegaard recognized that we can’t have a true understanding of ourselves without God, but that understanding must come through inward reflective thought about one’s self, God, and His revelation—not through outward impositions by others, whether that be our family or a church organization. The philosopher was very keen to protect the individual from being defined by fallen sinful people and to leave that “definition” with God and His communication of Himself to the individual—communication that comes through His revelation in nature, our own consciences, and His Word.
This brings us back to the question of “Who am I, and am I free to be what I want to be?” Clearly, when it comes to our relationship with our Creator who made us, the answer is we can only be what God has created us to be. The answer to “Who am I?” can’t be separated from “Who is God?” We could write a book on this topic alone, but let’s summarize for the sake of this article.
I am created. God is not. He is the Alpha and the Omega. The beginning and the end.
I am physical and spiritual. God is pure Spirit.
My body is mortal, but my soul is immortal. God is eternal.
I am made in the image of God. God is a moral being. He is holy and righteous, rational, creative, emotional, and relational. He has inherent dignity and value. As a being in His image, I have these characteristics as well, though I don’t share God’s incommunicable attributes—His divinity, omniscience, omnipresence, spiritual simplicity, purity, omnipotence, and eternality.
I am a sinner. God is holy. Though humanity was made to be righteous, mankind lost his original righteousness and the eternal life that accompanied it. All human beings, including me, are now totally corrupt in all our parts and dead in our sins. Every thought, desire, and impulse is tainted with selfish love and depravity. This doesn’t mean we can’t do some good in life—we just do the good very imperfectly.
I am social. God is social, beginning within the Trinity.
I am male or female. God is Spirit and has no outward manifestation of a particular sexuality. God is, however, the embodiment of the feminine and masculine, for we are made in His image—“male and female, He made them.”
We could probably broaden this list, but it’s enough to get a working knowledge of God and of ourselves in relation to God. This aspect of knowing ourselves is important to remember, because it is essential in knowing ourselves in relation to other people. We get to know ourselves better by seeing ourselves in relation to others. It’s in the mirror of another that we come to know aspects of ourselves. This is not the same as being defined by others, which Kierkegaard found so heinous. It is knowing ourselves in relation to someone else. When someone calls you a racist when you’re not a racist, then that is someone trying to label you in order to negate your true self. It’s false knowledge. But, for example, if you get to know someone who is devoted to God, walks with goodness and self-control, exhibiting the fruits of the Spirit, and you find that you don’t like that person, that they make you feel uncomfortable, you learn something about yourself. You learn that you’re not someone who is devoted to God or who walks with goodness and self-control.
In the same way, you can know someone who is living in all sorts of depravity. As you get to know them, you find that they make you uncomfortable, that you don’t quite fit in with their life. By relating to them, you discover something about yourself—that you hate sin, that you want to be a better person, that you have a conscience that follows God’s ways, not man’s.
These are just a few examples of “relational self-knowledge.” They are manifold. I meet someone who is musical. I find in knowing them that I’m musical too. I get to know someone in my family who manifests codependent traits. I see, in getting to know them, that I have those traits too. We discover aspects about ourselves in community, while not being defined by community. The point is, that we need to live within a social framework to gain a greater knowledge of ourselves, and the first “person” in that community of self-knowledge is, of course, God.
Know God, Know Yourself
Putting God first is essential. It’s foundational. This order of knowing is necessary because we need to be grounded in knowledge of ourselves in our Creator because we can easily be led astray about who we are by our own fallen imaginations, sin, and pathologies and by other people we connect with and want to please. We need the anchor of self-knowledge in God the Creator to hold us steady in an ocean of other views and opinions. We need to understand how He made us.
All the things we listed above are essential to self-knowledge. They are objective and true about each and every one of us. Let’s look at these as they each apply to our identity:
God made me, therefore, I can’t act as if I made myself, and I can’t recreate myself contrary to how He has designed me to be.
I am not just physical. I’m spiritual with a soul, so I can’t live materialistically, as if this world is all there is.
I am made in God’s image, not the image of the world, my tribe, my friends, my imaginations, my favorite fiction, my online group that reflects only one aspect of myself. This is true even for church affiliation. My identity is first and foremost in the image of God and a new creature in Christ. It’s not a particular sect or denomination. Being made in the image of God is a trait I share with every human being—and it’s a big one. This alone should cause each of us to build bridges with those who are different from us in more subjective ways, even though those differences (as we will see below) are meaningful and significant.
I am a sinner. This means that I need to be suspect of my motivations, inclinations, desires, and thoughts. Everything I think, want, or imagine isn’t necessarily who I ought to be. It might be “me” in the flesh, in the fallen state that I’m in, but it is not the “me” that I’m supposed to be. To err is certainly human, but it is humanity in a fallen state. It’s not humanity as originally designed. It is not the humanity of redemption. If anything about “me” is contrary to God’s holy will, His righteousness, then it is not the real “me” as I should be. It is an imposter called sin. And the only way to change that is to ask Christ to renew me and send me His Spirit to refashion all those inward parts into what God has designed me to be as a righteous person.
I am social. I’m made to be in community. This means that even though I’m an individual and am accountable only before God as an individual, I am a social creature. I’m not designed to be isolated. I need people, no matter how hard they can be to interact with and engage. Human beings are not made to be in collectives, but we are made to be in communities.
I am a male or a female. That’s how God made me, and no genetic mutations or defects change that, just as a baby born without legs does not redefine the human body as now legless. Feelings, behaviors, desires, or attachments do not change the identity of my sex as assigned by God. We aren’t assigned sex by our parents or doctors at birth. We are designed as a particular sexual creature in the womb, in the beautiful act of creation, despite all of its flaws in this fallen world. We, therefore, as a male or female, a man or a woman, relate to others as a male or a female and build relationships within that designed sexual framework. If I feel like a man but I am actually a woman, the problem is with my feelings, not my actual identity as determined by God. If I want to have sexual relations with a man but I am a man, the problem is with my desires, not my actual identity as designed by God. God does not make creatures contrary to His will. He doesn’t design two men to have sex with each other and then tell them having sex between two men is sin. The fact is, our feelings are the result of sin, not God’s design of the self. It is not our identity as purposed by God. If I have had same-sex desires since I was born, it’s not because God made me that way. It’s because I am a fallen, sinful creature. God made me male or female with the purposes, designs, and responsibilities inherent in that identity.
As you can see, we are coming to a greater understanding of why we are not free to be whatever we want to be. We are free only to be what God has designed and purposed us to be—even in this fallen world with our sinful desires. We are not free to sin, to live forever, to fly like birds, to kill other people, to steal their stuff, to sleep with whomever we wish, to breathe under water without equipment, to cut up our bodies into pieces to try to reconstruct them into something we think will make us feel better, to worship self-made gods, or to live as if we’re the only person on this planet. Again, the list could go on. We know what we’re not free to do by looking to the God who created us. If it’s not according to His image, His design, His law, and His created order, then, no, we’re not free to be whatever we want to be. We are, however, very much free to be what He has made us to be. We are even free to become righteous and uncaged from the bondage of sin, if we put our faith in Christ.
Being What I Want to Be
This brings us to the other side of the coin. In what ways are we free to be whatever we want to be? We’ve already touched on this with Kierkegaard’s insightful adage that “if you label me, you negate me.” While we are defined by God—because we have been created and designed by Him—we are not defined by other people. They didn’t make us. They don’t know our hearts. They don’t know our lives from beginning to end. They are limited. They are human. They are not our gods. They are sinners just like us. They are made to live alongside us, not lord over us. In our relation to other people, we are definitely free to be what we want to be. But—and this is a very strong “but”—our “freedom” to be what we want is curbed by our responsibilities to others. We are not defined by others, but we are still responsible to them, connected to them, and tied to them within groups that carry their own weight and duties.
You are not an island unto yourself in this world. You might want to be, especially when the world has become a very dark place, but, as an image-bearer of God, you are not an isolated creature. Whenever we’re asking the question, “Who am I?” We always have to keep ourselves rooted in those first principles about who we are as God’s creatures. That objective God-designed identity will help us navigate the waters of our identity in relationship to others. It will show us our responsibilities to them and how our identity is socially tied to them, and it will save us from being oppressed by them as they seek to redefine us and remake us into their own image.
While we are free from the labels and selfish demands put on us by others, we are not separate from them. We are part of families, and we have responsibilities to our families. If we are married, we have responsibilities to our spouses. If we are parents, we have responsibilities to our children, and children have responsibilities to their parents. If we are members of a church, we have responsibilities to our church. If we are employed, we have responsibilities to our employers. In each of these scenarios, we are part of a group, and our freedom is contingent on what we owe them and ultimately to God. Sometimes we want to throw off those duties in our quest “to be free” and “to be who we want to be,” but this is not who we are as designed by God. We are designed to love others, to put others first, to keep our promises. Being responsible doesn’t redefine our identity. It expresses its truest form.
Our “identity,” therefore, is very much wrapped up in our relationships. “Who am I?” is a question that’s, in some ways, contingent on relationships. I’m a woman who wants to go skydiving every weekend with her friends. BUT, I am a woman who is married with children and my responsibilities mean I can’t go skydiving every weekend with my friends. Maybe I can do it once a month or twice a year. You get the point. Your identity, especially your “expressive” identity, is curbed by your duties.
Another example is the workplace: “I am a man who likes to wear red suits and dye my hair purple. I’m artistic and expressive. That’s me!” But, that me can’t be expressed at work because there are dress codes at the office. So, while I want to wear red suits and dye my hair, I have to wear blue and black suits and keep my hair its natural color. This is not a violation of my core identity. It is merely curbing my expressions relating to my core identity as an artistic person. If having purple hair and wearing red suits really means that much to me, then maybe I should look for a job where I can express that aspect of myself. But until I do, this expressive element within me must give way to my responsibilities to others. This doesn’t erase my identity. I’m just recognizing that my identity as a human being who needs to respect others because they too are made in God’s image is more important than my artistic expressionistic self. That, and they sign my paychecks, so I’m obligated to comply.
As you can see there are various aspects to who we are, but these various external elements of identity must always take a back seat to the core identity of being made in God’s image. All those unchanging, fixed attributes of the self that we listed above can’t be tossed out the window in the name of free expression. We are a cohesive whole and a fully integrated self. This means that various aspects of ourselves can’t turn and destroy other aspects—particularly core attributes. Individual expression doesn’t trump morality. Creativity doesn’t eradicate responsibility. Human diversity doesn’t destroy Divine Unity. This is true in our relationship with God and with others.
An Identity in Balance
We are individuals made in God’s image who live in relationship with other individuals. Our identity is a compilation of many factors. In some ways, we are the exact same as every other person on the planet. In those ways, we are NOT unique. We share the same HUMAN qualities as all other HUMANs. But this doesn’t mean we’re cookie-cutter look-a-likes. We are, in very significant and meaningful ways, unique. There is diversity in God’s creation. He made some of us brown, others white. Some of us introverts, others extroverts. Some of us beautiful, others plain. Some of us musical, others tone deaf. Some of us smart, others average. Some of us riddled with challenges others unencumbered.
Again, we live in a fallen world and all of creation groans with the effects of that Fall. We all have our advantages and disadvantages. We can’t equalize everyone and make us all the same. We each share the same dignity and value of being image-bearers of God—and we share common traits—but we are all so very different, and we can’t impose our individual preferences on others to make ourselves comfortable or to meet our agendas. The varied subjective differences among individuals are truly something to celebrate, though that celebration should never be at the cost of negating our objective identity rooted in God’s design. That objective identity is determined by God—not us. Conformity should always be pressed into God’s frame, not our own. The rest, all of those manifold divergences from one person to another that are often trivial in the scheme of things, is truly a matter of liberty.
These differences allow for us, at times, to say with legitimate exuberance, “I’m free to be who I want to be.” Your father demands that you be a doctor, but you have zero ability to be a doctor. You’re an engineer. He only wants you to be a doctor because of his ego. In this case, you’re free to be who you want to be. Your wife wants you to earn a million dollars to make her life easy. But you have little capacity to earn a million dollars. In this case as well, you’re free to be who you want to be—to be the salesman at the local car dealership. Others don’t define you. How God made you does. This doesn’t mean that you won’t have to, on occasion, do things that aren’t quite “natural” to you. Again, we have responsibilities. But when it comes to who you are—that’s between you and God, not sinful “others” who want to negate you.
When it comes to freedom of any sort, you’re free from the oppression of others, bound only by God’s created order and the nature of the self as He fashioned it. You’re free from others because you are “enslaved” to God. But that “slavery” isn’t slavery at all. It’s freedom because the freest person ever to exist is the one who lives, not as he wants according to his fallen desires or as other people demand, but as he truly is—as he is designed to be by His loving Creator. The bird is happiest—his truest self—when he flies, not when he swims. Oddly, as fallen humans, we are often birds who want to swim, failing to realize that we’re designed to fly. We harm ourselves, our own sense of true identity, with our silly, fallen, and depraved desires. As sinners, we constantly feel the tension between what we want and who we truly are and are meant to be. Our only hope to ease that tension is in Christ. Only those who are growing in Him see the gap closing, as “what we want” bends to align with “who we are” as designed by God.
Regarding our identity and being whatever we want to be, we must remember that it is God who made all creation out of nothing, including us. Job understood this when in the face of loss, difficulties, and doubt, he said, “The Spirit of God has made me, and the breath of the Almighty gives me life.” And David, with humility, repeated several times that we are to know who God is and that He “has made us, and not we ourselves,” that He knit us together in our mothers’ wombs and knows us better than we know ourselves. God has made everything for its own purpose. That includes you, if only you put aside pride and accept it and embrace your true identity.
We are to live according to God’s purpose for us, not our own desires for ourselves or for one another. Our identity is in Him. When we know Him, we know ourselves. We have no power to make ourselves more than what we are. We also can’t make ourselves less, for we are fearfully and wonderfully made. “Wonderful are your works,” David wrote, “and my soul knows it very well.” May we all know it as we get to know ourselves and the God who made us.
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