Identity Formation and Human Flourishing

“You, do you!” A local casino in the Phoenix area has relentlessly been using this statement in commercials for the past number of years. One might think that they would have changed it to something new, but the casino keeps rolling it out, clearly satisfied with its effectiveness. To borrow an old line from the church, the statement is effective, because “they are preaching to the choir.” In this case, the choir is the culture. “You, do you!” is effective because it is not just a slogan for a casino, but because it is the slogan for twenty-first century, western-secular culture. In particular, the slogan sums up identity formation.

The importance of forming an identity in western-secular culture cannot be overstated. Having freed itself from any external absolutes, such as God, the culture encourages each individual person to be his or her own creator. Identity formation in the culture has become more and more connected to sexuality and gender in the past twenty years, but it really affects every aspect of a person’s life. Western-secular identity formation is in complete opposition to historic, orthodox Christian formation rooted in the Bible. Gospel formation centers on looking outward, seeing the goodness of God and His creation, acknowledging the inherent sinfulness of each human being and need for a redeemer, and receiving an identity from God in Christ that is life-giving and freeing.

Today, the starting place for identity formation in western-secular culture is the individual. Each person defines himself or herself. Philosopher Charles Taylor in A Secular Age, calls this “expressive individualism, which he described as:

the understanding of life…that each one of us has his/her own way of realizing our humanity, and that it is important to find and live out one’s own, as against surrendering to conformity with a model imposed on us from outside, by society, or the previous generation, or religious or political authority.[1]

How does a person “find and live out one’s own”? A person first looks within oneself to define who he or she might be. The important step here is for a person to find his or her deepest desires, longings, and dreams. These become the basis for defining oneself; that is, one’s identity. Having discovered who one is, the vital next step is to declare outwardly to the world this identity, often on social media. Then it is a matter of living out this self-discovered and now publicly proclaimed identity, finding allies who are supportive, and rejecting any who are not. Expressive individualism proclaims that this is how human beings flourish, using any number of popular slogans such as: “each person needs to be true to themselves,” “live an authentic life,” “be the best version of yourself,” and most of all, “be free.”

Western culture values personal freedom, maybe more than anything else. Pastor Timothy Keller states that, “Today as a culture we believe freedom is the highest good, that becoming free is the only heroic story we have left, and that giving individuals freedom is the main role of any institution and of society itself.”[2] Freedom is the necessary component in expressive individualism because a person needs freedom to live authentically who he self-discovered himself to be. This is the not surrendering to any external conformity that Taylor mentioned, whether it be the past, current society and certainly not any institution such as the church. Freedom from any constraints is the only way to live. The questions to be asked is, “is this working?” “Are human beings in western society happier, more fulfilled and satisfied with their lives?” The answer is a loud “no.”

The fruit from expressive individualism since the 1960’s has been, especially in the past decade, mostly negative. More people in society struggle with mental health issues, alcohol/drug addiction and overdoses have increased, as has the suicide rate. The increase is markedly seen in the younger generations who have been most formed by expressive individualism. In June 2019, Jamie Ducharme wrote an article in Time Magazine, “More Millennials are Dying Deaths of Despair as Overdose and Suicide Rates Climb.” The article cited a study put out by the Trust for America’s Health and said, “Drug, alcohol and suicide deaths have risen in nearly every age group over the last decade, but the increase has been especially pronounced for younger Americans.”[3]

Time is a publication that fits squarely in western secular culture and has been no friend of Christianity for a long time. Understanding that, Ducharme gives a couple of fascinating reasons for the increase in deaths of despair in younger generations. One is that they lack the social support provided by being a part of faith organizations, and another being that they have delayed marriage.[4] Both the church and marriage are institutions that run counter to the negative freedom narrative of expressive individualism. But rather than realizing the freedom promised by not submitting to the church and marriage, it has produced the opposite: more loneliness and unhappiness in people’s lives. The worldwide Covid pandemic has further increased all these issues. Additionally, the culture believes something about humanity that not only runs counter to what the Bible says but renders its whole identity formation process as futile.

The culture believes that human beings are inherently good. Believing that people are basically good is commonly held, which always begs the question as to why some people, such as serial killers, go bad? The culture does not have an answer for this. But this belief is critical to expressive individualism identity formation. If a person defines who she is by her inward desires, then those desires must be good for the purpose of declaring who she is, living by those desires and flourishing as a human being.

When applied to the area of sexuality, which is a dominate part of the culture’s identity formation, this has led to the affirmation of all kinds of sexual behaviors the culture once rejected. The prime example being same-sex activity. Built on a fundamental conviction that human beings and their desires are good, when a person in the culture looks inside and finds same-sex desire, the assumption is that this desire must be good and to the key to happiness is living out this desire as core to his or her identity. The Bible clearly states the opposite about human nature, that although originally good, it is now fallen. Being fallen, human beings cannot truly know their inward desires or even trust them (Jeremiah 17:9). The fundamental issue is that human beings cannot be their own creator.

The Bible tells the story that the triune God created human beings in his image and gave the work to do (Genesis 1-2). Being created beings means that a person cannot start by looking inside to discover who they are, they must first look outside towards the one who made them with intention and purpose. This is the counterculture, formation step number one. As Calvin wrote, “it is certain that man never achieves a clear knowledge of himself unless he has first looked upon God’s face, and then descends from contemplating him to scrutinize himself.”[5] If human beings are made in the image of someone else, seeking to know who that person is to understand oneself is the starting place.

The fundamental attribute of God emphasized in Genesis 1 is that he is good. This is seen in that he calls his creation good seven times. The essential goodness of creation is derived from its maker, who is good. This is vital to gospel identity formation. God created out of his own goodness with the desire that human beings enjoy his goodness above all else. The Hebrew word “tob,” translated as “good,” has a range of meaning in the Old Testament: “good, beneficial, pleasant, favorable, happy, right.”[6] The connection between goodness and happiness cannot be minimized. The name of the Garden of Eden, which means delight, speaks to this understanding as it was in Eden that Adam and Eve walked with God and each other, enjoying a perfect relationship of love. This is the place in which the secular culture and gospel culture agree. Both see the goal of identity formation as human flourishing and happiness.

Here is where the vital step number two comes in. Having looked first outwardly towards God and seen his perfect goodness, now a person looks inwardly. This inward look should put a person in a place of humility as he gazes upon his own sin nature. The lack of goodness found within, which the culture denies, is intended to drive the person to look outwards again to his creator. This is where the gospel enters and offers each person who will receive by faith the goodness of the redeemer, Jesus Christ. Again, connecting goodness and happiness, both secular culture and biblical culture agree that human beings flourish in goodness. The difference being is the belief that humans will not find that goodness apart from their creator and knowing him as their redeemer. This is not just a one-time realization; it is a lifetime relationship of ongoing formation.

The Church has a vital role in counter-formation, which involves both a rejection of the world’s culture, and ongoing transformation in the truth of the gospel. The Church is the place where redeemed people are deformed from the thinking of the age, and now transformed by the Word and the Spirit in the context of the community. As Paul wrote to the Christians in Rome, “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of you mind” (Romans 12:2, ESV)[7]. The verses that follow, clearly paint a picture of the context for this deformation and transformation as community. In other words, just as society forms its members in expressive individualism, the Church forms its members the gospel. The Church is to the Christian, what the at large culture is to its members. The difference is that the Church has the true story.

The true story is God’s story and formation as the redeemed people of God is receiving an identity within his story, rather than creating one’s own identity in his or her own story. As Anglican minister and theologian Christopher Wright points out, God’s story “has often been presented as a four-point narrative: creation, fall, redemption and future hope.[8] The fullness of being formed in this story is essential to one’s identity. It is God’s creation and his purposes that matter. And seeing human beings as part of his creation, and the only part made in his image is not only the starting place, but the return point. Then accounting for the fall and the redemption with a future hope, the end in mind, informs how one is to live. This is receiving an identity from the creator rather than creating and achieving one’s own. What God has given his Church is the Word, and particularly for formation, the Psalms.

There is a reason that Archbishop Cranmer appointed the whole Psalter to be prayed through every month: it is formative. As Martin Luther said, “you may truly call the Book of Psalms a little Bible; for in it all things that are contained in the whole Bible are given to us in the most wonderfully brief and sweet manner.”[9] In praying the Psalms, one enters the whole four-point, biblical narrative morning and evening. Formation in the Word involves both the Spirit of God speaking and faith on the human end receiving. To take one example, the only Psalm out of the 150 that Cranmer appointed to be prayed daily: Psalm 95. Here the Spirit speaks the truth humans most need to hear. God is the creator, the maker of all creation, that redeemed people are his sheep that he cares for, to whom he still speaks today with a warning that this the only way to find rest (or human flourishing).

The Psalms are full of the declarations that freedom and happiness is found in God, because he is good (Psalm 16:11; 34:8; 119:68). As previously stated, the culture values freedom because it believes this leads to the greatest human happiness. The Bible agrees with this, but not in the definition of freedom. The culture holds the concept of negative freedom, but the Bible gives a different definition. Freedom is found in the truth and in serving the Lord (John 8:33). Here again the Church has a tool for formation: the daily Collect for Peace found in the Book of Common Prayer.

O God, who art the author of peace and lover of concord, in knowledge of whom standeth our eternal life, whose service is perfect freedom; Defend us thy humble servants in all assaults of our enemies; that we, surely trusting in thy defence, may not fear the power of any adversaries, through the might of Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.[10]

To pray in the Spirit and with faith the words that “service is perfect freedom” is to be formed in the gospel, rejecting the secular narrative of negative freedom, and embracing God’s narrative. This is how a binding covenant such as marriage leads to the deepest intimacy possible between two human beings here on earth. The constraint of a life-long, exclusive covenant frees a husband and wife towards the other in self-giving love. The same is true in the New Covenant Community. In the Church, redeemed people, having received an identity in Christ, as adopted children of the Father, in the Spirit, they now walk in God’s goodness and are freed to love other people in his name. This Christlike life is where true human flourishing and happiness are found.

[1] Charles Taylor, A Secular Age (Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2007), 487.

[2] Timothy Keller, Making Sense of God: An Invitation to the Skeptical (New York, NY: Viking, 2016), 99-100.

[3] Jamie Ducharme “More Millennials are Dying ‘Deaths of Despair,’ as Overdose and Suicide Rates Climb,” Time Magazine, 13 June 2019. Available from [23 August 2022].

[4] Ducharme, “More Millennials.”

[5] Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion vol. 1, John T. McNeill, ed., Ford Lewis Battles, trans.,(Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, Reissued 2006), 37.

[6] R. Laird Harris, Gleason L. Archer Jr., and Bruce K. Waltke, eds., Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament, Volume 1 (Chicago, IL: Moody Press, 1980), 793.

[7] The Holy Bible, English Standard Version (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2016 Text Edition, 2001).

[8] Christopher J.H. Wright, The Mission of God: Unlocking the Bible’s Grand Narrative (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2006), 64.

[9] Martin Luther, A Manual on the Book of Psalms, trans. Henry Cole (London: R.B. Seeley and W. Burnside, 1837/20022), 18,

[10] The 1662 Book of Common Prayer International Edition (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2021), 14. Note that this collect is appointed for Tuesdays in The Book of Common Prayer 2019, Anglican Church in North America (p. 23) but may be prayed daily as Cranmer’s original intention.