Identity Vs. Roles

difference between identity and roles bible

To all the saints in Christ Jesus who are at Philippi . . . –Philippians 1:1

What’s your calling?  Who are you? How would you define yourself? These are the questions we seek to answer about ourselves from a young age.

Everybody is born with a need to know what their specific identity and place in the world really is. This is why people don’t just play sports; rather, they describe themselves as a baseball player, a runner, or a golfer. People who engage in adventures don’t do adventures; rather, they find their identity in them, labeling themselves as a rock climber, a backpacker, a skier, or a kayaker. People who find their identity in their careers don’t practice law, work at a hospital, or write books; rather, they typically would say that they are a lawyer, a doctor, or a writer.

There’s no point to become legalistic in how we speak and in what labels we use to describe how we spend our time, but so often the way we describe ourselves reveals where we are truly finding our identity.

The danger in finding your identity in anything other than in Christ is that everything else eventually fails or fades away. When you find your validation as a person in your career as a counselor, for example, what happens when you retire from counseling? You lose your identity. If you find your ultimate place in life as a mother, what happens when your kids move out and move on, as healthy people should do? You either lose your direction in life and have a identity crisis, or you try to hold onto your identity as a mother and smother your grown up kids and become an overly intrusive grandparent.

In Paul’s opening remarks to the Philippians, he is careful to describe them as “the saints in Christ Jesus who are at Philippi.” Paul knows that a true Christian’s deepest identity is found only “in Christ Jesus.” Who we are is based in the finished and gracious work of our Savior, even though we will be “at” many places on earth.

This is profoundly helpful because the new life of Christ which is transferred to us through faith and by grace can never be taken away. When you know you are Christ’s saints, you will have a security and direction in life that will not crumble as all other eventually identities do.

In fact, our identity in Christ should actually fuel and support our missions on earth. To be the best at what God has called you to “do,” you must first know who he has already made you to “be.”

Your identity should dictate your roles in life; your roles in life should not dictate your identity. As I talk about in the article “How to Submit to Authority Without Feeling Devalued,” there are major differences between  roles and your identity:

Your identity is always found in your relationship to God; your role is found in your relationship to people. Your identity in Christ can never be taken away; your role in this world will always be taken away. Your identity is solely in Christ; you can have many different roles. Your identity will never change once you become a Christian; your roles are constantly in flux. You can never leave your identity behind; you can check your role at the door once you are no longer on the clock for that position. You’re identity should never be fueled by your role; your role should always be fueled by your identity. . . .

If you are still confused on what your identity is and what your roles are, ask yourself this question: When I die and go to heaven, will I still have this label?

When we go to heaven, we will not be married to our spouses (Matthew 22:30), we will not still be parents to our children (John 1:12-13), we will not be citizens of an earthly country (Philippians 3:20), and we will not still have our corporate titles (Luke 16:25). What will remain is the life of Christ uniquely expressed through our truest selves (which is why, along with Biblical evidence, many theologians believe our gender will remain in heaven as it is essential to our identity and image bearing of God).

We will fulfill many functions, offices, positions, relationships, and roles in this world, but we are called to have only one identity found in our belonging to God. If we are not secure in who we are to Christ, we will always feel threatened, devalued, and like a failure in our earthly roles.”

If we are finding who we are through our positions in life, then when these positions in life are not going well, our identity as a person will begin to crumble. But when we are secure in our identity in Christ, even as the roles we fulfill in this life begin to grow unstable, we will be able to operate without fear because our personhood is no longer tied to our earthly positions.

Therefore, next time your role as a spouse, parent, boss, employee, ministry leader, or one of the other thousands of roles you will fill on earth begins to grow unstable, remind yourself of your identity: you are a “saint in Christ Jesus” who is simply at “(you fill in the blank).” You don’t work for this church or that business or for this family, you work “at” those places.

We have many positions “on” earth, but even when these change our position “in Christ” always remains. To fulfill your earthly roles well with all their uncontrollable ups and downs, you must always know you work “for God” “in Christ” but “at ______________.”

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