Think about what people are doing on Facebook today. They’re . . . building an image and identity for themselves, which in a sense is their brand. —Mark Zuckerberg
Who has deceived thee as oft as thyself? —Benjamin Franklin
There is plenty of security in a jail cell, but I have never heard of anybody beating down the doors to get in. —William S. Broomfield
Our hometown newspaper carried an article recently about a local teen named Rowan. The article read, “Each day his alarm went off at 6 a.m. and he would roll over in his twin bed, grab his iPhone and start looking for memes—viral images and videos—to share on Instagram. He would keep searching and posting until it was time to board the bus for school. Between classes, at lunch, and during study hall, he would keep his social media empire running with new images. His target was 100 posts a day.”
Upon returning home for the day, “Rowan would turn on his laptop and sit in front of the glowing screen for hours. . . . His Instagram feed flashed before him like a slot machine.” Rowan made decent money as well. Some months he made up to ten thousand dollars.
What was his goal? Was it fame? Was it money? In his own words, according to the article, Rowan said, “I want to have enough clout to be recognized for who I am. . . . I want to have connections everywhere and be financially secure.” His business continued to grow as did his notoriety. Rowan was being noticed by college recruiters and being offered internships as well as jobs.
Then on July 26, 2019, Rowan’s world turned upside down. His Instagram site was disabled—shut down without warning or reasoning.
Rowan’s response? “A lot of my friends think I’ve become depressed, and I think that’s right. I’ve been feeling insecure about a lot of things, like how I look and act and talk. I talk a lot less than I used to. I’m a lot less confident. . . . I kind of just feel—I feel lost.” Rowan’s mother added that her son was not in a healthy state. His parents are trying to encourage him to engage with life offline.
Rowan’s final comments about what happened to him and how he is now going to try another venue online is, “The more followers you have, the more voice you have. . . . The more clout you have, the more power you have.”
Without his online presence, Rowan’s identity was challenged to his core. When that disappeared, he did not know who he was and struggled deeply. Rowan’s voice, security, identity, relationships, “clout,” and personal “power” were lost overnight. He now scrambled to find where he would fit and find that identity once again.
Where Do I Find My Identity?
Henri Nouwen, in his book Who Are We?, shares five powerful lies of identity:
I am what I have.
I am what I do.
I am what other people say or think of me.
I am nothing more than my worst moment.
I am nothing less than my best moment.1
Is my identity found in my heritage or in my nationality or my ethnicity? Is it found in my political persuasion or my education? Can my identity be found in my sexuality or my gender? Is it found in my wealth, my work, my success, my abilities, or my possessions? Can I find my identity in who I know or in the approval of significant others? Is it found in my appearance or my family name?
Is my identity found in my past losses or successes? If I have a sordid past, how is my identity played out in my present life? Have I used men or women to define me? Have I used poverty or wealth to define me? Have I used sickness to describe who I am? Have I given in to multiple lies about myself and completely lost any sense of who I really am?
Teenagers regularly seek out ways to define themselves. It seems to be part of the teenage lifestyle. Am I one of the smart ones, one of the athletic ones, one of the funny ones or one of the stylish ones? they might ask themselves. Identity can seemingly change annually depending on one’s own self-perceptions and feedback from peers.
I read the story of a young lady who was on this search while in high school and finally landed her identity as being the “promiscuous girl.” She said it was initially empowering. She could use this role to her advantage by getting anyone she wanted, for at least one night.
She shared that the Hollywood culture portrayed this sexual lifestyle as glamorous; everyone was doing it. In the end, she found herself in loneliness, emptiness, and total despair, without any true or loving relationships.
Conformity versus Identity
Conforming to an identity due to our environment will not change our hearts or who we really are.
For eight years, my wife and I ran a foster group home for court-appointed teenage boys. In those eight years, we had many different placements (young men and a few young women). Some of them truly changed and became successful, and some of them conformed. What do I mean?
If a foster child simply conformed to the requested set of rules, they were not changing. They may have succeeded in meeting their court mandate, but they would be back. How do I know that? Conforming to something does not change one’s heart or one’s identity.
If you are convicted of a crime and sentenced to jail time, you will conform to a life of incarceration and be labeled a convict. It is up to you whether you make changes while in this new environment. The environment may provoke change, but it cannot demand heart change. From this incarceration, you can conform to the image of a convict and learn new ways of crime, or you can refuse to be labeled a convict and change your heart to embrace a different identity.
This is why persons who lose weight, perhaps even one hundred pounds, can still see themselves as overweight. Even though their environment changed, their food intake changed, or their image in the mirror changed, their mind has not changed to receive the truth of a new identity.
Let’s take this thought a step deeper.
The Prison of Self
During my counseling years, I practiced an example that helped counselees identify a prison into which they may have been inserting themselves. I called it the prison of self. While I cannot guarantee the thought to be original with me, here is what it looked like.
Imagine a beautiful, grassy field with a comfortably warm, bright sun shining overhead. There were sheep in this field—happy, unobservant, grazing sheep. The sheep did not have a single care in the world. Right in the middle of this beautiful field was a cold, dark, gray concrete-constructed prison large enough for a single prisoner. There was a window with bars and a door with bars. Inside was a concrete slab for a bed with few further comforts of home.
It was inside this prison that you would find yourself counting the hours until the end of another day. All you did each and every day was to dream of being like those sheep who were grazing just outside your barred window without a worry in the world. It was a lonely place that caused you to feel like you were separated from the world. In that prison, you were left with only your quiet, self-generated thoughts.
But here is the interesting thing about this prison. The door is unlocked and open. You could leave anytime you desired to. The fact is, you are self-imprisoned. You can leave, but you choose not to. It is a prison of your own making. You can be like those sheep outside, but you remain inside. Why?
You stay in because “out there,” you will need to see yourself differently. You will need to live free, act free, and be free. Choosing to stay in your prison of self is choosing to be dependent upon those who will bring you a meal, those who will tell you what you can do and what you cannot do. In that prison, you are not free, but you have come to depend upon those walls, those rules, and those limitations. In some weird way, you feel more secure within that confined space.
Counselee after counselee could see themselves within that prison through one life circumstance or another. It represented security to them. It represented a bit of necessary identity and clarity to who they were even if they were confined to that small space. They knew what would happen from day to day. It was predictable. It represented normality and came without surprises.
The Man at the Pool
The prison of self relates to a story found in the Bible in John 5. In the city of Jerusalem, there was a pool called Bethesda. A great number of disabled people were there: the blind, the lame, and the paralyzed. There was a man who was an invalid for thirty-eight years at the pool. Jesus approached him one day. Jesus, knowing his history, asked him an interesting question: “Do you want to get well?” Jesus did not assume anything. He knew this man was a long-term resident of this place and perhaps received daily care with a meal or two. It wasn’t the greatest place, but it was a place to live, sleep, eat, have friends, and hang out.
According to the Bible, this pool, at times, would be visited by an angel of God who would stir the water. When people were able to reach the water and get into the pool, they would be healed. The invalid’s reply to Jesus was, “Sir, I have no one to help me into the pool when the water is stirred.” But remember, Jesus asked him if he wanted to be well. Why would He ask a question with such an obvious answer? Hold on: perhaps there is an answer to this question that you have not thought about.
If Jesus heals this man and makes him well, the man will have to pick up his mat and walk out of that place. You say, “That would be cool.” Yes, but there is far more to this story than healing. That same man who was provided for because of his condition will now have to provide for himself. He will have to find a job, leave his friends, cook for himself, and perhaps provide for his family. When Jesus asked the question “Do you want to be well?” He was really asking, “Do you want to leave this prison, provide for yourself by getting a job, and leave what you have come to know as a long-term life?”
It’s Our Choice
If I were God, I would give you no choice. You would have to leave. You would have to want to be well and provide for yourself. But Jesus was giving this man an opportunity to leave what he knew in order to live a totally different life with a totally different identity. For thirty-eight years this man lived one way. Now before him was the opportunity to live a very different life with an identity that was not connected to his illness or his environment. His hesitation or at least his excuse was, “While I am trying to get in, someone else goes down ahead of me.”
Aren’t we just like that man at the pool? We are not well yet we make excuses for ourselves to avoid change. “Trying” is not doing. Trying is saying, “I don’t think I can do it, but I am going to tell you that I am trying.” We imprison ourselves; all the while, the door is open. Change, living a different way, is scary to us even though being healed would be far better. Having to take full responsibility for where we are in life, what we believe, and what we claim as our identity is just too frightening for some. It reeks of insecurity. We would rather stay where we are and complain about our condition, blame it on others, or appease others by saying that we are “trying.”
The more self-consumed we become, the more our identity is inhibited. Being self-consumed within a prison of self provokes a self-centered focus. We will never find an identity within ourselves of our own making. It will be false and will not provide a basis for living. It will be like the teenager who changes from year to year, trying to find where they fit in life and where they fit among their peers.
What was handed down to you?
I Peter 1:18 tells us, “For you know that it was not with perishable things such as silver or gold that you were redeemed from the empty way of life handed down to you from your forefathers.” I am not here to blame anything on your parents or family line. What I desire to do is to cause you to think about what was “handed down” to you. What were some of those identity-forming beliefs handed down to you? What were those prisons that you readily accepted without question because they are all you know?
I had a friend who was fearful of meeting new people. He would literally quiver, get his words mixed up and shy away from any setting where this might happen. One day we were talking about his history and he revealed to me that his mother lived in a constant state of fear of strangers.
One example he shared occurred while he was growing up on a rural Pennsylvania farm. His father worked away from the farm during the day. That left his mother and siblings home alone. Regularly, a traveling salesperson, grain or feed truck operator would show up. My friend’s mother would lock the door and then hide herself with all the children in a small, dark closet. There they would stay quiet until the stranger would leave.
To this day, my friend is in a self-imposed prison when it comes to meeting new people. Each one represents something new to fear. It was a fear passed on to him by his “forefathers.”
We Are Given a Choice
It is important to ask ourselves a question: who determines or makes decisions for us? We should ask this about our past, present, and even our future. What part does God have in those decisions?
If we allow life circumstances to direct us, or if we empower someone else to speak over us and determine who we are, then we are allowing someone or something else to determine our identity. We are given a choice to become what life hands us or to be different.
Benjamin was born September 18, 1951, in Detroit, Michigan. Benjamin’s father was twenty-eight and his mother was thirteen when they married. They lived in a 733-square-foot home. Benjamin was educated in Detroit public schools. When he was five years old, his parents divorced. His mother suffered severe psychiatric issues, attempted suicide, and had several hospitalizations.
After the divorce and after discovering Benjamin was behind in his schooling, his mother required him to read two library books a week and complete a book report on each. When Benjamin finally graduated from high school, the Detroit Free Press ran an article that applauded him for receiving the highest SAT scores in twenty years of any student in Detroit public schools.
Ben wanted to apply to Harvard and Yale but only had enough money—ten dollars—for one college application. He was accepted by Yale and offered a full scholarship. Ben graduated from Yale and then graduated from the University of Michigan Medical School in 1973. He entered the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine neurosurgery program. In 1987 Benjamin Carson was the lead neurosurgeon of a 70-member team who would perform a dramatic surgical separation procedure on conjoined twins. He was also the first neurosurgeon to perform successful surgical procedures on a child while still in the womb of the mother. He was the youngest chief of pediatric neurosurgery in the country at age thirty-three.
I am unaware of what was handed down to you by your forefathers, but I do have some idea of what our heavenly Father desires to hand you. It can be beyond your wildest dreams. Dr. Carson could have easily considered his past and told himself there was no future. His mother, his faith, and his God told him otherwise.
Jesus expressed to us that we are to deny ourselves, pick up our cross, and follow Him. What an opposite piece of advice from what we hear on a daily basis from our modern-day culture. How could one “deny themselves” and yet feel better about themselves? Jesus never once said that what we do for Him is who we are. In fact, He continually told the Pharisees of His day that this was not the case. It was not their outward appearance, their position in the local synagogue, nor their memorization of the law that would determine their value or identity. In Matthew 23, Jesus spoke truth to the Pharisees and the Sadducees about finding their identity in all the wrong places.
1. Henri J. M. Nouwen, Who Are We? (Podcast Audio Course by Now You Know Media, 2017).
Taken from the NEW book Identity: the Distinctiveness of You by Steve Prokopchak. Check it out here!
About Steve Prokopchak
Steve serves on the DOVE International Apostolic Council and has been involved in the Christian counseling field for over 20 years. He earned a master of human services from Lincoln University. He is the author of several books, including Called Together, a premarital counseling workbook. He also travels throughout the world teaching and imparting to the lives of many, especially leaders. Read more about Steve or catch up on his blog.