Free To Be You? The Great Myth Of Modern Identity

4 February 2020

3.4 MINS

There’s a great myth around modern identity.

It’s the idea that you must look inside yourself to discover your deepest desires and dreams, and to express them. You must do this yourself, the thinking goes: you mustn’t rely on anyone else to affirm and tell you who you are.

It’s what our culture means by being ‘authentic’. It’s what it means to be ‘you’. ‘You be you’ is the catch-cry of this worldview.

But there’s a problem with this understanding of identity:

It’s just not true.

Author Tim Keller explains this well, using two examples:

Imagine an Anglo-Saxon warrior in Britain in AD 800. He looks into his heart and sees two strong inner impulses and feelings. One is aggression. When people show him any disrespect, his natural response is to respond violently, either to harm or to kill. He enjoys battle. Now, living in a shame and honour culture with a warrior ethic, he will identify with that feeling. He will feel no shame or regret over it. He will say, “That’s me! That’s who I am! I will express that!”

Keller continues:

But let’s say that the other impulse he sees in his heart is same-sex attraction. He wishes that were not there. He will look at that feeling and say, “That’s not me. I will control and suppress that.”

Keller now brings in another example:

Now come forward to today. Imagine a young man walking around Manhattan. He has the same two impulses, both equally strong. What will he say to himself? He will look at the aggression and say, “This is not who I am,” and will go to therapy or some anger management programs. He will look at his same-sex desire, however, and conclude, “That is who I am. That’s me.” [1]

This illustration undercuts the great myths about modern identity, in the following ways:

1) Identity is Not Simply An Expression of Inward Desires and Feelings

No one identifies with all their strong inward desires.

We all have desires – many of them – and often they’re strong, yet contradictory. Yes, in one sense they are part of who we are, but that doesn’t mean we can or should express them all. No one identifies with all their strong inward desires.

Instead, as Keller points out, we use some kind of filter – a set of beliefs and values – to sift through our hearts and determine which emotions and sensibilities we’ll value and incorporate into our identity, and which we won’t.

Both the Saxon warrior, and the young Manhattanite, used such a filter to determine which desires they would express, and which they would repress.

They didn’t identify with all their inward desires.

And thus, it is this value-laden filter that forms our identity, rather than our feelings themselves. [2]

But where do we get this filter?

2) Our Desires are Filtered Through the Community We’re Part Of

We take on this value-laden filter from people around us whom we trust. Parents. Friends. Sporting groups. Mainstream media. Entertainment.

We don’t develop it ourselves, any more than the Saxon warrior, or the Manhattanite developed these filters themselves. [3]

3) Modern People Are No More Liberated Than Ancient People in Forming Their Own Identities

We moderns like to think we’re more liberated to ‘be who we are’, and to express ourselves, than ancient people.

But Keller argues against this. He asks:

Why [in the above example] does the contemporary person believe that his particular sexual feelings are “who he is,” whereas the Anglo-Saxon would think of them as more extraneous or even hostile to his identity?”

He concludes:

It is because in each case their society is telling them what to believe. We must get our beliefs from somewhere, and most are picked up unconsciously from our culture or community – whether ethnic or academic or professional or familial.” [4]

In other words, we’re not really free to make up our own identities. We’re coerced by the dominant beliefs of our own culture. As much as we want to think otherwise, taking on the values of our community is how human beings are wired.

Christians Face This Pressure, Too

Christians are commanded to be in this world, but not to be like this world (1 John 2:15-17; John 17:14-19). And yet, we face the same pressure to conform. The pressure is subtle. And yet it’s enormous.

Our identity is shaped and pressed upon by all sorts of cultural norms and expectations: from a ‘consumer’ mentality that erodes Christian community, to the view that our life consists of our achievements, looks and possessions.

We’re not immune.

Which is why God makes such a big deal of Christians meeting together as a church community (Hebrews 10:25). He knows us well: if we’re to resist the temptation to conform to our surrounding culture, we need to gather as a community that provides God-shaped encouragement.

This is how we’ll conform to our True Identity: an identity shaped not by what’s popular, but by what’s true.

That’s an identity worth having.


[1] Timothy Keller, Making Sense of God – An Invitation To The Skeptical (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 2016),126-127.

[2] Keller, Making Sense of God, 127.

[3] Keller, Making Sense of God, 127.

[4] Keller, Making Sense of God, 127.

Originally published at
Photo by Jill Wellington from Pexels.

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