[This post is courtesy of Phillip Jensen, Dean of St Andrew’s Cathedral in Sydney.]
“Hello, my name is Bill, and I’m an alcoholic.”
So goes the usual opening of testimonies at Alcoholic’s Anonymous. The willingness of Bill, to accept and openly testify to the fact of his addiction to alcohol is a great step forward in addressing his problem. But is Bill telling the truth when he says “I’m an alcoholic”? Is that his true identity or should he be saying “I’m a human who is addicted to alcohol”.
Are there bad children or only children who do bad things? Are there liars or only people who tell lies? Are there thieves or only people who steal? Do we punish criminals or crimes? Does God love the sinner but hate the sin?
Personal identity—the “Who am I?” question—is one of the most difficult issues to resolve. Is my essence to be found in my self-awareness, or in my actions, or in my relationships, or in my creation, or…?
It’s possible to identify myself by some objective physical characteristics. I am a human, male, born in 1945, of Anglo-Celtic ethnicity, standing 182 centimetres tall, with green eyes, a small birth mark on left leg… etc. Yet strangely this is not what we mean by ‘who’ I am. It is a description of an organism—of what I am—but it fails to register who I am as a person. It fails to connect with my self-awareness of who I am.
One of the ways of understanding ‘who I am’ is by my actions. But it is not quite so simple as to say: “I am what I do’. Many things I do are unimportant, some I have only done once, others I used to do but have given up. I no longer play football, so I am not a footballer but a retired footballer. But a retired footballer does nothing—so he is not what he does but what he doesn’t (anymore). The things I’ve done and now regret, repudiate, repent of, and renounce cannot define me.
It’s no better to say: “I do what I am”. It is true that because I am a liar, I tell lies, or because I am a thief, I steal. Yet, I cannot be a thief who has not stolen anything or a liar without lying. Without an action we at best have only an inclination: like being a hero in our own imagination.
Maybe the actions that define me are the extraordinary moments of bravery or eccentricity or achievement. So winning a Victoria Cross is how a man is described for the rest of his life. Some behaviour may similarly define a person—‘I’m a test cricketer’, ‘I’m an adulterer’—but it raises that activity to the status of being the most important thing in a person’s life, even more important than the person themselves.
It makes more sense to find our identity in what we do continually rather than occasionally. A plumber will call himself a plumber because that is what he does most of the time—it is ‘his living’ or ‘livelihood’. Yet, do we want to be identified and defined by our occupation? Is not our family more important to us than our work?
In some ways the question of who I am, changes with the context. In Australia, I am a Sydney-sider but in America I’m an Australian. In my family I’m a father, grandfather, uncle and so on, but in the block of units I’m the man in number eleven. In different contexts I think of myself differently, though this is not so much my identity as simply what differentiates me from others.
This changing of identity with contexts indicates that ongoing personal identity is found in relationships—especially family relationships. I am, and always will be, my parents third son, and try as I may I can never actually de-brother my siblings. There is a permanency in these kinds of relationships that goes beyond time, place, achievements or activities. I am the child of my parents and grandchild of my grandparents and in this regard I am part ultimately of Adam—of the family of man.
For those who see the universe, including humans, as an accident, the question of ‘who I am’ is part of the meaninglessness of our existence. We’re here because we’re here not for any reason or purpose. So they make up their meaning and purpose (and so identity)—aiming to be ‘true to themselves’—or rather to their own fantasy.
However, God’s creation of humanity in his image—provides us with meaning, purpose and significance. Creating us in the relationship of marriage and family gives more force to the sense of our relational place in life. His dealing with sinful humanity revealed for us in Scripture adds even more detail to where we fit in the world. And the work of the Lord Jesus Christ, in dying for us and rising to pour out his Spirit to regenerate us as we await his return—makes even more sense of who I now am.
So I am fully a part of the humanity, made in God’s image to share in ruling and caring for God’s world. This is not accidental to me but essential to who I am. I am also part of the human family that rebelled against God and so became sinners living under the sentence of death. So, it is appropriate to say “I am a sinner”. For my sins come from my sinfulness, as Satan’s lies come from his deceitful nature (John 8:44). Similarly it’s appropriate for Christians to say “I am a Christian”, for to become a Christian requires rebirth by the Spirit of the risen Lord Jesus. Such a rebirth then reorients all of life and sets my personal identity in a completely new direction. (Colossians 3:1-4).
So the Christian alcoholic says: “Hello, my name is Bill and I’m a Christian who has an addiction to alcohol.”