Some find the talk of “self”, “identity” and “self worth” unspiritual. Phrases such as "self-help" and "self-confidence" blur the positive meaning of the ideas. After all, most Christians believe the self is to be defeated not celebrated. But there is a distinction between the self and the flesh. The human self is wondrous and full of potential in relationship to God. The flesh on the other hand refers to the unbridled sinful nature that without Christ destroys life and enslaves men and women to corruption. The self is the human being as created by God of worth and value because it is the product of a loving Creator.
Look for example at King David’s words from Psalm 139. Here the Psalmist celebrates God’s purpose in his creation and the distinct qualities bestowed upon him through the gracious hand of the Creator. The epitome of David’s joy in light of this realization is captured in verses 13 -14:
For you created my inmost being;
you knit me together in my mother's womb.
I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made;
your works are wonderful,
I know that full well. (NIV)
It’s obvious from the text that David knew who he was, celebrated who he was, and felt secure in those realities as understood in relationship to God. When we walk similarly, this understanding about self yields a deep awareness of the worth that we sense in our creation... the belief that we are not an accident, but rather the product of a loving Creator; that God has gifted us with unique traits and abilities; that fulfillment in life belongs to those who discover who they are as wonderfully designed by God; and that living consistently and confidently within that design is adequate for all of life.
From Psalm 139, we see three features that form a framework by which to understand identity and assess its work within us. These three facets are powerful and essential for leaders.
David’s knowledge of himself resulted from God’s intimate knowledge of David… “O Lord, you have searched me and you know me.” (Psalm 139:1). Understanding who we are in God’s mind is the key to truthful knowledge about ourselves.
Based upon an understanding of their creation by God, some people possess a robust and accurate estimate of who they are. They are self-aware individuals who both acknowledge and comprehend matters regarding family of origin, physical traits, innate gifts and abilities, natural motivations, personality and temperament characteristics, as well as personal weaknesses and limitations. They have a godly perspective about these things and believe they have been shaped in them by God.
Knowledge therefore is the cognitive component of Identity and involves the degree to which one accurately understands the content of who they are. The knowledge component of identity concerns the basic question: “Do I know who I am?”
God has equipped us with the wonderful ability to step away for ourselves and evaluate who we are. As we do, we tend to make moral judgments about ourselves that over time coalesce into a general attitude we possess. David concluded, “I am fearfully and wonderfully made. Your works are wonderful, I know that full well!” (Psalm 139:14)
The identity component called "worth" is the evaluative dimension of identity. It includes the degree to which one reflects upon self and subsequently believes in and celebrates his or her worth, or doesn’t. This component goes beyond the aspect of knowing oneself. Rather, based upon that knowledge, do we like what we see? Do we esteem, have respect for and celebrate who we are? Do we believe that by actualizing ourselves in the world we will contribute and matter? This component consists of the overarching emotional judgment one has about themselves to themselves. The worth component of identity asks the question, “Do I celebrate who I am?”
You get an overwhelming sense of the security that David felt in both the knowledge and worth of his self in relation to God. The Psalm reads as a song of praise regarding the firm foundation he feels in these realizations about his creation.
Security then is the motivational component of identity. Security results from the other two components because it concerns the impetus to act from our knowledge of self as well as from the value we place on that self. Security is defined by one’s ability to remain consistent in who they are across time and situation. It has to do with the degree of inner conviction and clarity one possesses about self that allows a person to prevail over temptations to compromise identity and to overcome diffidence. Security empowers the self to persist. It is the extent to which the contents of an individual’s knowledge about self and feelings regarding the value of self are positively and confidently felt, internally integrated, and emotionally stable. Security in identity leads to expressed continuity and self-consistency, and encompasses the conviction that the self (who I am) as designed by God is adequate for all of life. The security component of identity asks, “Am I sure of who I am?”
These three components form the structure of identity. They address the most basic framework of the self that includes the mind (knowledge), the heart (worth), and the will (security). Consequently, clues to one’s Identity may be assessed in asking these questions: Do I know who I am? Do I affirm and celebrate who I am? Am I sure of who I am? To the degree one can positively answer these questions is the degree to which healthy identity is founded. Conversely, a person who does not know who they are, does not value who they are, nor feel confidence in who they are is a person who lacks sound identity.
Knowledge Do I know who I am? (Goal: An accurate estimation of self)
Worth Do I celebrate who I am? (Goal: A value for and celebration of self)
Security Am I secure in who I am? (Goal: Stability to act upon notions of self)
When these questions regarding self are resolved positively, identity provides many benefits to human living. It results in continuity from one situation to the next. Identity supplies inner strength and the ability to remain true to one’s values despite challenges and critique. Healthy identity helps one to be at peace within; to have confidence in decisions; to positively reflect upon self; to integrate life choices; to be humble to listen and learn, and yet to have courage to take God-led risks; and to express one’s gifts and abilities in many spheres of living. It results in a sense of what we should do in life and the roles we should play that are consistent with who we perceive ourselves to be. Identity also allows us to understand who we are not, what we shouldn’t do (our limitations), and the roles we should not seek in life because they are inconsistent with our deepest self. Studies have shown positive correlations to identity in the form of decisiveness, personal courage, self-confidence, creativity, overcoming adversity, mature moral judgment, degrees of intimacy, achievement of long-term goals, and levels of greater perceived integrity.
But when the search for self is not resolved, leaders respond in inadequate and destructive ways. Some cloak the inner void by aggressively turning to matters of external achievement. Here, performance provides symbols that prop up some preferred idea of self. People use accomplishments, power, prestige, material gain, status symbols, physical appearances, etc. to demonstrate that they are good, successful, competent, right and adequate. Alternatively, others respond with internal withdrawal. These who lack identity may withdraw from life altogether out of a sense of inadequacy. They may become passive in nature, fundamentally fearful, and unconfident. They withhold true expressions of self since there is no clear knowledge or security of who they are. They are plagued with self-doubt and consequently retreat from more powerful, self-confident people and challenging circumstances. They are people who often seek assurances and approval from others.
The good news— regardless of our valuations about self and the degrees of healthy identity we possess, God is about transforming the human heart. Faith in Christ transforms our identity and allows us the ability to see ourselves as God sees and act upon those realities (2 Cor. 5:17).