“Identity in Christ” is one of those catchphrases that gets tossed about in Christian rhetoric, but often people have different understandings of what identity in Christ means, and what healthy Christian identity looks like.
As a Christian counselor specializing in identity, the concept of our identity in Christ comes up often in therapy sessions with my clients. Over the years, I’ve observed an array of understandings of what people mean when they use this phrase. With that, I’ve seen people’s expression of Christian identity range from healthy to unhealthy depending on their perspective.
I am not a theologian or Biblical scholar, so I will leave questions in that realm to those qualified to address them. Instead, as a therapist my role is to help people understand how their choices, core beliefs, and worldview affect their wellbeing and mental health.
What does “Identity in Christ” Mean?
I’ll give the disclaimer again that I am no theologian, and depending on who you ask you’ll hear varying responses to this question. However, speaking from my own experience within Christian circles, there seems to be an understanding that “identity in Christ” is a reference to being free of any negative, harmful, or worldly identifiers, and instead we are identified in the ways Christ sees us – as good, beautiful, and loved. Furthermore, there is an understanding that all humanity has access to this identity, no matter who you are, where you come from, or what you’ve done.
There are often additional pieces to what people mean by this phrase, but there is usually some unifying sense of releasing our human baggage and taking on an identity of freedom that stays true through most Christian belief systems.
Relationships Impact Our Christian Identity
In my work as a counselor, I’ve observed over the years that we tend to interact with God in similar ways that we’ve interacted with other important people in our lives. When we view someone similarly to how we’ve viewed others, we refer to this as “transference” in psychological theory.
It follows then that if we see God similarly to how we’ve viewed others in our lives, then our sense of “identity in Christ” may transfer similar beliefs about ourselves that we’ve internalized from some of our loved ones.
For those who have had relatively safe and healthy relationships with their caregivers and other significant people in their lives, this often can translate into relatively healthy interactions with God and a healthy Christian identity. However, for those who haven’t experienced a sense of security in key relationships, it is sometimes difficult to have a healthy sense of Christian identity.
Examples of Unhealthy Christian Identity
There are endless ways an unhealthy Christian identity can manifest, but I’d like to highlight a couple that I see occur most often:
Self-Denigration. For those have been treated with disrespect by others, especially by some of their closest loved ones, it’s possible to assume that God similarly views them with disrespect. For those in this camp, they may view their Christian identity in a way that minimizes their sense of self in deference to the value they place on God.
To clarify, I’m not saying that elevating God in reverence is unhealthy. Rather, the dynamic becomes unhealthy when we devalue ourselves as less valuable than our inherent worth. For those in this camp, they may feel paralyzed from a sense of free will, feeling as though they may not be capable of making their own decisions and needing to defer to religious leaders or to God for advice on decisions. For individuals with this worldview, they are in a vulnerable position, and are at higher risk for being taken advantage of and even abused.
Self-Aggrandizement. Some people take the phrase “identity in Christ” in the opposite direction and use it as justification to elevate themselves as more valuable or powerful than others. The reasoning I’ve heard justifying this worldview is that though we are broken, when we follow Christ he makes us a new person, and therefore offers justification for how one might see themself as better than others.
Though this might sound nice if we were actually somehow better people making better choices once we decide to follow Christ, the reality is that no human is exempt from making poor choices, regardless of religious affiliation. The danger with this worldview is it enables people to make poor choices and believe they are doing so in the name of good, because they feel justified in their self-elevation due to their “identity in Christ.”
How to Move Towards Healthy Christian Identity
After saying all of this, I imagine some may be wondering if it’s even possible to have a healthy Christian identity. From my perspective, there is an opportunity to feel released into a deep sense of freedom through a Christian identity when someone reflects healthy relationship dynamics in relationship to their faith.
The magic lies in holding the tension between knowing that we are all broken people who are capable of the darkest of mistakes, yet our poor choices do not identify who we are. We are seen for who we and fully loved, despite even our worst mistakes.
If I had the ability to constantly hold this tension well, I would quit my day job and become some type of spiritual guru. This tension is not easy for any human to hold, and it is a daily practice. Most of us tend to lean one way or the other, either feeling shame or self-justification. I encourage you to notice which way you tend to lean (or maybe you can go to both extremes in the same day), and practice a sense of ongoing gentle self-correction (emphasis on gentle!).
This usually requires the help and support of other people who are able to love us well. Some Christian circles use the word accountability to reference the idea of holding each other to their commitments. Some of you may find it helpful to have someone keep you accountable, not in the sense of keeping track of your rights and wrongs, but to help guide you towards a healthier sense of identity in Christ.
I’ll circle back with a reminder that I am no theologian, so my thoughts here reflect my values of mental health care in the context of healthy faith practices. If you have questions about how faith and psychology overlap, you may find it helpful to read my article Is my Psychological Problem Spiritual?
Dr. Marie Fang is a licensed psychologist offering therapy and counseling services to individuals in the Silicon Valley. Her office is located in central San Jose. One of her primary specialties is working with those looking for support for their spiritual identity. Learn more about Dr. Marie Fang’s Faith Counseling Services.