Only when we take up our cross and follow Jesus can we move through our identity crises and have any hope of helping others overcome theirs.

Personal interests, talents, looks, intelligence, race and economic levels are often factors that come into play as adolescents look for a group where they feel accepted and comfortable. In turn, these groups play a huge role in their identity-shaping process. Groups can solidify an image of self that is either positive or negative.

Though some people answer many existential questions during adolescence, others may be young adults or even older before they seriously grapple with them. Sooner or later, everyone must answer these questions. Depending on the circumstances, a crisis may develop as these important questions of identity are answered.

People who have settled the issue of identity are freed to sail the winds of change. Productivity and peace of mind are often their companions. Those who search aimlessly or without a clear understanding of their identity often have problems reaching their potential.

Many who search for identity make the mistake of believing the world revolves around them. Some will stay with one idea, one job, one relationship or one religion as long as it meets their needs. When the level of satisfaction decreases to an unacceptable level, many are off to search again for identity, immersing themselves in things like fashion, fads, hobbies, professions, relationships, ideology or religion. As each of these fails to live up to their promises, a confusing life cycle develops. People move aimlessly from one dead end to another desperately searching for meaning in life.

When people discover that identity isn’t found from within but is found in something larger than themselves, the end of this crisis is in sight.

I heard of a football coach who handed out T-shirts to his players that had “me” in small letters on the back and “TEAM” in big letters on the front. The game honors personal accomplishments but the game isn’t about one player. It’s about the team.

Soldiers go into battle with a desire to survive. However, the battle is much greater than one soldier or several. Soldiers learn their survival is not left up to their instincts alone, just as the reasons for the battle are not theirs alone. Soldiers are soldiers because they have found identity in something much larger than themselves, the men and women with whom they serve and in the country they vow to protect.

Christians find an identity outside ourselves. The cross serves as a marker that reaches out horizontally, representing our relationships with humankind, and points vertically, representing our relationship with God.

Paul told the Philippians that he found his identity in Christ and the power of his resurrection. He identified with a suffering Lord to the point of sharing in his sufferings. It’s worth noting that before Paul became a Christian, he found his identity in a religion. After he met Jesus, that changed. His new identity was not found in laws, but in a suffering and resurrected Lord.

Fifteen hundred years later, Martin Luther saw much of his identity wrapped up in his own baptism. When depressed or when feelings of anguish prowled around him, he would recall, in Latin, the words “Baptizatus sum” (I have been baptized). These words reminded him of who he was and to whom he belonged.

Regarding her personal identity, Mother Teresa once said, “By blood and origin, I am all Albanian. My citizenship is Indian. I am a Catholic nun. As to my calling, I belong to the whole world. As to my heart, I belong entirely to Jesus.”

The common denominator for the Apostle Paul, Martin Luther and Mother Theresa was that their lives revolved around God and others, not themselves. Each established important horizontal relationships with others and an important vertical relationship with God. All were willing to take up their cross and enter into suffering in the name of Jesus. Their identity was tied to Jesus, who gifted them for service.

When we find an identity in the cross, the selfish desires of life fade away and we are able to see ourselves as we were meant to be: “God’s workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do” (Eph 2:9-10).

Only when we take up our cross and follow Jesus can we move through our identity crises and have any hope of helping others overcome theirs.

Michael Helms is pastor of Trinity Baptist Church in Moultrie, Ga.

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