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A Transcription of Tim Keller's "Identity that can Handle Either Success or Failure"


Tonight I want to talk about identity. Identity is THE moral absolute, the only one in our culture today and that is, “you gotta be yourself”. That’s the only moral absolute there is. On the other hand it is kind of what it means to be a christian. Because Christians are not people who are just trying to be better people, Christians are people who got a new identity, as a gift, we are going to get back into that. So what I want to do, and by the way there are two things, identity is sort of at the heart of what makes our culture what it is now. Identity is kind of what the heart of the gospel is all about. I want to talk first about our late modern culture to identity and then the Christian alternative. But I’m going to spend much of my time on our culture’s approach to our identity, do you know why? Because most Christians are affected by it in a very deep way and don’t know it. They subscribe to the doctrines, they believe the bible and yet their operating out of the cultural narrative of identity that late modern cultures give and it’s one of the reasons why tomorrow when I talk about change, it’s one of the reasons why we don’t change. It’s one of the reasons we very often embrace the Christian faith but we don’t change because we are actually more conformed to the world’s understanding of identity than the Christian understanding. So I got to spend half my time on the culture’s understanding of identity and what’s wrong with it. Then I will spend the other half my time on the Christian alternative, the Christian understanding of human identity and the glories of it.

So first, just for like ninety seconds, what is an identity? Identity is a stable self understanding. It’s like, this is the core, this is who I am most fundamentally am. Yeah, I am a father, yes I’m a son, yes I work here, yes I do this, yes I have all these different things but what am I most fundamentally, what am I really about? Who am I really? That’s a stable core and then self regard, self understanding. Self regard is, how do I feel about that? Am I happy with that? Do I feel good about that? So identity is your self understanding, who you really think you are, most fundamentally and whether you feel good about it or not. Now let me give you the culture’s approach to identity and the Christian. First the culture’s approach. Look, every culture, without calling it this, gives you an identity information process. Every culture says, “this is how you can determine who you are and how well your self-worth, your self value, how well you feel about yourself.” Every culture does that. No culture uses the term. And every culture pushes an identity process on you, as the only one. In our culture, you’ll understand it better if you contrast it with other cultures. In traditional cultures, in ancient cultures, in non-western cultures today, basically your identity comes from the role in your family and in your clan and in your community that is assigned to you and then your self-worth and esteem depends on how well you fulfill that role. So in non-western, in traditional cultures, in ancient cultures, who are you? You’re a father or a mother, you’re a son or a daughter, you are a husband or a wife FIRST. Who you are in the group, who you are in the family, that’s who you are. And if you fulfilled that role, then you should feel good about yourself. Then the culture bestows honor on you, you’re an honorable person. You should feel very good about yourself, you have a high self-esteem because you are a good son, a good father, a good husband. Because you fulfilled your role in the clan, in the community. Modern culture reverses that. Listen carefully. Modern culture says, your identity and your self-worth is not based on sublimating your interests and your desires for the good of the family. No, identity happens, you become yourself when you assert, when you assert your desires, you assert your interests, you live the way you want to live in spite of what your family or anybody else tells you. It’s exactly the reverse. In ancient cultures, identity and self-worth is based on self-sacrifice and our culture is based on self-assertion. In ancient cultures with self-renunciation, deny yourself in favor of the greater good of the community. In our cultures you’re told, “No, no, no, you must never do that. You must be yourself. You have to look into your heart and you see what your desires and dreams and you must follow those dreams no matter what anybody says to you!” So you see the two cultures are utterly and absolutely different. So in modern culture, the way we talk is, no one has the right to tell me who I am. I look into myself, I see my deepest desires and my dreams, and I’m becoming myself as I realize those, no matter what anybody tells me. Now there’s lots of, to give you all kinds of both example to show how it works. You know, for example, I remember some years ago I was watching an episode of Star Trek, the Next Generation, not that I watch many of those, there’s a place where Jean-Luc Picard is talking to a young guy who wants to go to Star Fleet academy and he says, I forget what the guy’s name is, but he says, “son, if you want to go to Star Fleet academy, if you aspire to that, great. But, don’t do it because I want you to do it, don’t do it because your mother wants you to do it, don’t do it because I’d be proud of you, don’t do it because your mother’d be proud of you, do it because YOU want to do it. Because you decide it’s a good thing. Only YOU can determine what is right or wrong for you, and only you can bestow honor on yourself.” That’s what he said. A completely different example to show that how overwhelmingly, how much consensus there is about this. In 1970, lot of you are too old to remember this. Gail Sheehy wrote a book called Passages in the 1970s, it was a major best-seller. And it was really one of the ways after World War II in which this approach to identity became popularized. And at one point for example she says this, “when you are moving away from institutional claims and other people’s agendas, when you are moving away external evaluations and accreditations, you are moving out of roles and into yourself.” Now her whole idea was, you hear that, don’t worry about what other people say about you, external evaluations. External accreditations. You move away from that and the way you become a self is you say, I accredit myself. I don’t care what you think, I don’t care what you say, I determine who I am. And this is the only heroic narrative practically we got left in popular culture. Watch the sitcoms, watch the Walt Disney movies, going back even to the 80s. Over, over and over again what you have is not quests, now if you have something like Lord of the Rings or something like that, that was based on a man’s, the author who understood stories from the ancient times, but by in large, most of the moral narratives, the heroic narratives, are some individuals saying I’m going to, I don’t care what my family wants me to do, I don’t care what my society wants me to do, I have to set out of my own course. Little Mermaid was an example of that, one of the first ones. But the most recent most perfect example of this is Frozen. Right, there’s that great song, and it’s a great song by the way. That Elsa sings and she says, what? She says, “you gotta let it go! Can’t hold it back, whatever is inside, don’t be the good girl they always want you to be, and I don’t care what they are going to say.” Robert Bellah wrote a book called the Habits of the Heart with a bunch of other people, 1980s, Habits of the Heart, extraordinarily important book, he says that the modern understanding of identity is based, he called it expressive individualism. You have to look in your heart, see what you most want to do and express that or you’re not becoming yourself. And you couldn’t possibly have a better theme song written of expressive individualism than Let It Go, because it’s all about the fact that I completely reject identity through self-sacrifice, I completely reject identity through renouncing my self interests and sacrificing for the greater good, I’m going to be who I want to be, I’m going to be who I am, I’m going to express what’s inside, expressive individualism. And that’s how modern cultures is telling you, you get an identity. How you figure out who you are. How you get self-worth, that’s how you do it. 1200 years ago, there was a poem written called The Battle of Maldon, it’s an old english Anglo-Saxon and it’s about warriors, I think it’s the Anglo-Saxons are fighting the Danes and they are losing. And the Anglo-Saxons instead of running away and saving their own skins, Byrhtnoth shakes his spear of ash and says to the remaining survivors, “here lies our king all slain, I will not away but I myself will die here beside my Lord so loved a man.” You know that’s the old approach, in other words, here’s how you get honor is you give your life for your people, for your king, for your family. More recently this poem. “Climb every mountain, ford every stream, follow every rainbow, till you find your dream.” And that’s sung to a woman who is leaving the convent, who took vows. Remember Maria from the Sound of Music, she’s taking vows and she’s renounced but now she is, “no, now I gotta go out into the world and find myself.” By the way, I like Sound of Music, I like Julie Andrews, and I like the movie. I’m not trying to, I like Frozen. Do you know why? I’ve got granddaughters, if you have granddaughters, you got to like Frozen. And you know that but the point is, the cultural narrative is incredibly strong. Now, is there any problem with this? Let me take 5 minutes to say, there are enormous amounts of problems with this. By the way, the narrative works itself into Christian’s lives all the time, all the time. Let me give you a couple reasons why this doesn’t work. I’ll give you three really big reasons why this approach of identity doesn’t work. Number one, it is incoherent. You know why? Because if you look into your heart of hearts and you find your dreams and you find your deepest desires, you’ll find they contradict. “I love to have this wonderful career, but I would also love to have this wonderful relationship, if I have this relationship, if I give myself to this person, I won’t have this career.” Well what is my deepest desire? Give me a break. What would make you think your deepest desires are in harmony? Francis Spufford wrote a great book called Unapologetic, he’s a great British Christian writer and he says this at one point, he says “you are a being that once make no sense. They don’t harmonize, your desires deep down are discordantly arranged so that they truly want to possess and you truly want not to at the very same time. Human beings are equipped, you’ll eventually realize far farce or even tragedy more than for happy endings.” In other words, if you look into your heart and you say “I want to find out who I am by looking at my desires”, they contradict! So which desire are you going to choose. I’ll get to that in a second. They are also unstable. The whole idea of an identity is you want a core, you know, when I’m a father or a husband, I’m a minister, when I’m a friend, I need a core that makes me the same, to have integrity. I don’t want to be completely different in every group of people, there’s got to be something that is most fundamental to me. Part of my identity is being a father, part of the my identity is being a minister, part of my identity is being all these different things but I’ve got to have a core. And if it’s my feelings, my feelings are going to change. In every one of those environments, there won’t be a me! It’s incoherent. Secondly, it’s an illusion. The idea, what Gail Sheehy says, what Elsa says, don’t care what other people say, you know what Jean-Luc Picard said, don’t care what other people say, you decide what is right or wrong for you and if you are happy with yourself then you can be happy with yourself. Don’t worry what other people say, you look inside. that’s an illusion! There is no way to live like that! Let me give you a quick example. 1200 years ago an Anglo-Saxon warrior is walking around Britain, he wouldn’t have walked around New York. And he looks at his heart and he sees two strong impulses, one of them is, he likes killing people. You know, if people gets in his way he likes smashing them. So aggression. And he looks in his heart he sees something else. He sees a sexual desire that doesn’t fit in with what the rest of the culture says is ok. So here’s what he is going to do, he’s going to look at his aggression and say “that’s me, that’s me!” It’s a shame and honor culture, it’s a warrior culture, it fits in fine. But he’s going to look at that sexual desire and he says, “that’s not me”, squats that. Scroll forward, 1200 years later, young man walking down the street in Manhattan. He looks into his heart and he sees two very strong impulses. One is aggression, he likes smashing people. What is he going to do with that? He is going to go to therapy. He’s going to go to anger management classes, or he’s going to go to jail. But the other thing that he looks and he sees a particular kind of sexual desire and says “that’s me! that’s not me!” Why? Because your culture 1200 years ago told you aggression is a good thing. In other words both the anglo-saxon warrior and the modern person is “oh, that sexual desire, that is truly me, any sexual desire is me.” You are not being yourself, you’re not liberated you are doing what the culture told you, by the way you are no more liberated than that anglo-saxon warrior 1200 years ago because each of those guys has received a grid, a value-laden moral grid that they laid down. A grid by that I mean a culture saying this is good, this is bad, this is who you should be, this is who you shouldn’t be. And you’re laying it down and you’re looking at your heart through it and the parts of the emotions and the impulses that you don’t like that don’t fit in with the grid, you say “that’s not me.” I have to do something about that and the impulses that the culture says, those are good, that’s me! You’re really not looking at your heart and being yourself, you’re doing what your culture tells you. And you’re no more liberated today than the anglo-saxon warrior 1200 years ago. You know why? You can’t bless yourself. You can’t validate yourself. Whenever I see people on social media say, “my parents said this, my church said this, these things, but this isn’t who I am, this is who I am, and I determine who I should be.” You’re not actually saying I’m going to bestow blessing and validation on myself, you know what you’re saying? You’re going and getting another group of cheerleader, a different group. Because on social media you say, “wow, yay, heroic, you’re willing, you’re courageous.” In other words, I got another bunch of people over here who are telling me how to live. You can’t bless yourself. Listen, here’s how identity comes. The praise of the praiseworthy, is above all rewards. I need and you need somebody that you respect and adore to the skies, respecting and affirming you. And then and only then will I start to get a stable identity and a positive self-regard. I need to have somebody who is the praise of the praiseworthy, is what I need. I need someone who I respect and adore to the skies to come and say, I affirm you, I love you, I accept, I got to have that and everybody has to have that. And if you are saying “I’m giving it to myself”, don’t be ridiculous. You’re doing what your culture tells you and you are getting a new set of cheerleaders. And therefore, one last thing negative to say about the culture and turn to what Jesus said which Christianity gives as an alternative...One of the scary things to me about this whole approach is that the culture’s approach weirdly enough is supposed to be liberating but it's actually quite crushing. Because it can be suffocating, it definitely can be suffocating to live in a culture where you are told, “well, your self-worth is based on being a good family member or being a good son or daughter, husband or wife and all that”, that can be pretty suffocating. The expectations of your family, but I have to tell you, but in our culture where you have to define yourself, that means you look into your heart, you find your dreams than you have to go out and achieve it. You have to achieve it! So you know, work is a good thing in most culture, you know in every culture work is an important thing. Everybody making money, making a living is very important. But today in our modern culture, your work becomes your identity. How much money becomes your identity. It’s not just what you do but who you are! And that will crush you. Because if you are successful, it will go to your head. Because you have this inflated idea of your identity, it’s your identity so if I made a lot of money, I’m going to have this inflated idea, I am going to make all kind of bad moves because I’m going to think of myself as more able and wise than I really am. Frankly, if you made a lot of money, you know what that means, it just means that you made a lot of money. But not in our culture, what it means that you’re great, you’re wonderful, you’re brilliant! You know, you’re wise! And that’s what you think too. And then of course if you haven’t made a lot of money, you know what that means? It actually means that you haven’t made a lot of money but not in our culture! It means that you’re a failure. You’re not a man in many cases. You see there’s much more crushing pressure put on you and as a result we live at a time which is really weird. People don’t believe in sin, they don’t believe in hell, they don’t believe in judgement, and yet people walking around with a sense of condemnation in which they cannot shake. They hear a voice calling them fools, they hear a voice calling them stupid, cowards not living up. They feel stained and yet, Franz Kafka said that the modern predicament is this, Franz Kafka in his diary wrote this down that the modern problem is “we find ourselves sinful but independent of guilt.” And what he meant by that, and he is Franz Kafka, he needs a little bit of translation. We find ourselves sinful, what he says is even though we supposed to feel guilty, “you can’t make me feel guilty”, you know Rob Reiner, Bullets Over Broadway, that Woody Allen movie, there’s a great place where Rob Reiner character says, “guilt is petty bourgeois crap! A true artist creates his own moral universe.” That’s what he says and that is the essence of modern culture but here’s what’s so funny, Franz Kafka said, we don’t believe in guilt, why? Who’s to say whether that was right or that was wrong, you have to determine your own right and wrong, and yet we still feel sinful. We don’t have a definition for sin but we still...I’ll say it again, we don’t believe in hell, we don’t believe in sin, we don’t believe in judgement and yet we have a sense of condemnation we can’t shake. And there’s a voice telling us that we are fools, we are stained and we are bad. And so we really are in our modern culture, we really are stuck. What’s Christianity gives as an alternative? Oh my goodness, first of all as you’ve already heard, you know I’m going to say this, but think this out. I’m not going to say to people, who are struggling under the incoherent, illusory and crushing burden of the modern understanding of self, trying to have an identity in that, I would never say, “just get religious”. Do you know why? Traditional cultures where you got to live up to your family's expectations, modern culture where you have to achieve and perform and compete in order to feel good about yourself and religions that say, “if you’re a good person then maybe God will take you up to heaven”, all of them are the same. In what way? What you’re saying is, your identity is achieved and not received. It’s achieved and not received. You have to do it, you have to perform. And so you can only say, whether you are religious or traditional or even a modern agnostic or secular person, you basically, your identity works like this, because I perform, because I obey, because I followed the rules, because I’ve achieved, then I could feel good about myself. I obey, therefore I’m accepted, but the Christian gospel is the only system in the world of thought that gives you a radically and totally different identity than what the secular world would give you, what any other religion would give you, what traditional cultures would give you. Because Christianity says your identity received not achieved. Every other systems says, if you follow the rules, if you compete, if you perform, then you’re accepted. Christianity says no, I’m accepted in Jesus Christ, therefore I perform. I perform, therefore I’m accepted, Christianity says no, I’m accepted therefore I perform or put it in another way. Every other systems says, if you follow the rules, whether the rules you created, whether the rules of the family or the rules of your religion, if you follow the rules then you can have a stable sense of self but Christians get a stable sense of self and then follow the rules because they already know who they are in Jesus. Do you know how radically how different that is? Let me count the ways, until my time runs out, let me count the ways. It means, number one, every other approach to identity means that you’re either going to be bold and confident or humble and understanding but you can be never be both at the same time. Right? In other words, let’s just say you’re just living up to your standards. You’re living up to your standards, ok? What does that mean? It means, I feel good about myself, I’m confident and bold but if I see somebody else who’s not living up to standards, I look down at them and say, “oh gee.” So if you get your identity from being a hard working person, you have to look down your nose at anyone who’s lazy. If you think of yourselves as being a liberal, open-minded person, you have to feel superior to someone you consider a narrow-minded bigot. See, whatever your identity factor is, in every other approach to identity, you have to feel very superior, condescending, disdainful to people who don’t have your identity factor. Because you have achieved your identity and anyone else who haven’t achieved are not worthy of honor. So you are either confident because you have lived up to your standards or maybe actually because you have failed your standards. See people who failed, they are trying to get their identity by living up to these standards but they have failed. Then they are humble and they are kind to people and then they are very open-minded and then they talk about, “hey you know what, I’m a failure too, you’re a failure too.” But they don’t have that incredible confidence. See, if you are a sinner saved by grace, if you have your identity in Jesus Christ, if it’s been given to you by grace, on the one hand you are humble into the dust because you’re such a sinner that Jesus had to die for you, and you weren’t able to achieve it. But at the same time you are able to affirm to the skies because he accepts you and loves you and that means you’re bold and humble at once. No other system of thought, no other culture, no other approach to identity create that kind of person. None! Now, where does that come from. How do you get it? Here’s how you get it. I’m going to give you two words but before I give you the words I want you to know the way a person changes is by changing what they worship. You see I believe that essentially the way you change, is not through thinking or feeling but by taking truth and bringing it into your heart. That’s what it means by worship. You may say, well I believe in Jesus Christ but if you love making money the most then that’s the basis of your identity. And if you know if you love making money too much and if you know your identity is too much in your this or that then the only way you’re going to change is not by saying “no, no, I’m a Christian”, you don’t just talk to yourself, you got to change what you worship. What does that mean? You got to take theological truths, gospel truths and you got to pray them, sing them, counsel them, worship, corporate worship, you have to meditate on them, you have to get them in your heart till they catch fire down there. Let me just give you two truths and show you how that works. One is substitution, one is justification. Two doctrinal words that meant the most for me and have been basically my life savers. First of all substitution. What I mean by substitution. 2 Cor. 5:21, God made him sin who knew no sin, that we might become the righteousness of God in Him. Think of that verse. God made Him sin. What does that mean when it says God made Jesus Christ sin? Does that mean he made him sinful? No. Was he up there in the cross snarling with self-centeredness? No. Then what does it mean when it says God made Him sin? It means that God made him legally sinful. That is to say that God treated Jesus as if He was a sinner on the cross. That’s what gotta mean. When it says God made him sin, it means that He is legally sinful even though He Himself is perfect. He was legally treated as a sinner and died on the cross for our sin which means, that we might become the righteousness of God in Him, what does that mean? It can’t mean, the minute you become a Christian, then you start to grow, and you start to become more and more righteous, that’s true and then some day God will love you more and more the righteous you get and at the end of your life if you are really righteous He will take you to heaven. No, no, no. If Jesus Christ became legally sinful on the cross then, when you say father accept me because of what Jesus Christ has done for me, at that moment you BECOME the righteousness of God in Him. In other words, that means right now God looks at me and he sees a beauty, His righteousness. You know there’s an old NCIS episode, in which Charles Durning played an old broken down eighty five year old world war 2 vet and he’s wanted for a crime. And this big snarling jag, these navy police officers are coming after him and they are looking down at him, they are snarling, they are about to take him into custody, and Charles Durning is sitting there like this, doesn’t know what to do, and his friend next to him opens his tie, pulls open his shirt, and shows that he’s wearing the congressional medal of honor, underneath. Now the way the story worked, he had the congressional medal of honor because of something he done, but the minute these snarling, enormous military police see the medal, they snap. That’s their job, why? They are saluting the medal, why? They don’t know what the guy is like, maybe he did do the crime, but they are saluting the medal. When it says, God made Him sin, who knew no sin that we might become the righteousness of God in Him, there’s a sense in which when I become a Christian, when I say father accept because of what Jesus did, that moment Jesus’ medals are pinned on me. Everything that Jesus accomplished. Richard Hooker, 17th century Anglican theologian writing about the doctrine of justification by faith says this, “let it be counted as folly or frenzy or fury or whatsoever, this is our comfort and wisdom, we care no knowledge in the world but this, that God has made Himself our sin, that we might be made His righteousness, we are in the sight of God the Father as the very son of God himself.” And John Bunyan, in his spiritual biography, Grace Abounding to the Chief of Sinners, he struggled a great deal of understanding the gospel of grace. He felt like a sinner but he couldn’t really grasp, “how in the world could God ever love Him?” And this is what he says in the autobiography, “one day as I was passing through the field, with dashes on my conscience, suddenly a sentence fell apart from my soul. Thy righteousness is in heaven and suddenly I saw with the eyes of my soul Jesus Christ at God’s right hand. There I thought was my righteousness so that whatever laws, or whatever things that I have broken, God could not say to me, John where is your righteousness today? Because it is ever before him in Jesus Christ. I saw moreover that it was not my good frame of heart that made my righteousness better nor could a bad frame of heart make it worse for my righteousness was Jesus Christ Himself! The same yesterday, today and forever. Then the chains fell off my legs indeed, I was loose from my affliction and irons and I went home rejoicing for the grace and love of God because now I saw that all the imperfect character of my heart was like the four pence half pennies of rich man carrying their purses when their gold is safe in their trunks at home. I saw that my gold was in my trunk at home in Jesus Christ my savior.” Substitution and justification changed my understanding of my identity and what it has meant was, freedom. And if you have an identity based in Jesus Christ, success bothers you a little bit because you say, “well I’ve got to be careful here, it might go to my head”, but it never does completely. Failure upsets you because you say, “this is going to discourage me”, but you know it’s just a job now, it’s just money, it’s not your righteousness, it’s not your identity and now you’re free, and now you’re free. Here’s how to get an identity that’s radically different than the identity that the culture gives you or any other culture that possibly can give you. It’s one of the most wonderful and unique things about the Christian gospel.


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