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Identity Language in Counseling

What does it mean to be "in Christ"?

Aug 30, 2018

More and more I hear Pastors and Christian counselors use the phrases “your identity is in Christ” and “your worth is in Christ.” Those are not the phrases I would use to describe what, I think, they are attempting to describe. The following post shares my thoughts on why I don’t think these phrases are the most helpful in biblical counseling.

First, the word “identity” is not in the Bible. If possible, it is best to use terms found in the Bible. Many people respond to this reasoning with, “Neither is the word Trinity in the Bible.” This is true, and I do use the word Trinity to describe the Godhead in counseling and in daily life. Even though “Trinity” is not in the Scriptures, it gloriously points to our God and who He is. On the other hand, the word “identity” often seems to subtly or pointedly focus on man, not God.

Additionally, our relationship with God is supernatural. It is a precious truth that we are a new creation and placed in Christ by God at the moment He saves us. I love thinking about it. It thrills my soul! I teach all of my counselees about the precious truth of what it means to be “in Christ.” At the moment that God saves us, we are supernaturally placed by God “in union with Christ.” When we think of that, the emphasis should be: “But God … made us alive together with Christ.” (Ephesians 2:4, emphasis mine) “Thanks be to God for His indescribable gift!” (2 Corinthians 9:15, emphasis mine)

Often times “your identity” is spoken of or implied along with “your worth.” It reminds me of the slogan, “God doesn’t make junk.” Several Christian psychologists build their model on psychologist Abraham Maslow’s significance (worth) needs or psychologist Eric Erickson’s identity needs. They likely would not be so crude as to say, “God doesn’t make junk;” but they would focus on man and how man feels and not God. Here are some examples:

“We can build our self-worth on our ability to please others, or on the love and forgiveness of Jesus Christ.”1Robert S. McGee, The Search for Significance” Rapha Publishing: Houston, Texas, front cover

“Despite our efforts, we will never find lasting fulfilling peace if we have to continually prove ourselves to others. Our desire to be loved and accepted is a symptom of a deeper need – the need that often governs our behavior and is the primary source of our emotional pain. Often unrecognized, this is our need for self-worth.”2McGee, p.11

“God has His own plan for you, and it alone will bring you a stable sense of self-worth. With a godly self-worth comes a new direction and purpose: to honor the One who has laid down His life to give you security and significance.”3McGee, p. 339

“The point of this chapter is to illustrate and clarify the two basic needs of people. We all need significance and security if we are to function effectively… Treatment must include correcting a person’s wrong basis for feeling significant and secure and helping him see what is the real route to personal worth.”4Larry Crabb; Effective Biblical Counseling: Zondervan Publishing House, Grand Rapids, Michigan, pages 68-69

“In my first book I developed the thought of how a Christian can rightly regard himself as worthwhile. Let me summarize briefly. Significance depends upon understanding who I am in Christ.”5Crabb, p.70

“In Christ” is used 22 times in the book of Ephesians. Paul repeatedly points to what Christ has done. That is his heart and emphasis, “… not as a result of works so that no one may boast.” (Ephesians 2:9)

Scriptures are clear, Christ alone is worthy:

“Worthy are you, our Lord and God, to receive glory and honor and power, for you created all things, and by your will they existed and were created.” Revelation 4:11

“Worthy is the Lamb who was slain, to receive power and wealth and wisdom and might and honor and glory and blessing!” Revelation 5:12

“The LORD is my rock, and my fortress and my deliverer, my God, my rock, in whom I take refuge, my shield, and the horn of my salvation, my stronghold and my refuge, my savior; you save me from violence. I call upon the LORD, who is worthy to be praised, and I am saved from my enemies.” 2 Samuel 22:3

Paul’s emphasis was on God who “makes us worthy of His calling” so that we can in turn “glorify the name of the Lord Jesus.”

“To this end we always pray for you, that our God may make you worthy of His calling and may fulfill every resolve for good and every work of faith by his power, so that the name of our Lord Jesus may be glorified in you, and you in him, according to the grace of our God and the Lord Jesus Christ.” (2 Thessalonians 1:11, emphasis mine)

“Walk in a manner worthy of the calling…” Ephesians 4:1

“… manner of life be worthy of the Gospel.” Philippians 1:27

When we say, then, “my identity is in Christ” or “my identity is in Christ and now I have worth,” it can mean many different things to different people. A Christian psychologist may be thinking, “Yes, our significance needs are being met. He or she won’t feel so worthless.” An individual person may be thinking, “Yes, now I am somebody special, somebody worthy.” It reminds me of the evangelistic phrase, “Ask Jesus into your heart.” It can be very confusing and for those people who have prayed that prayer; they may or may not be saved. It depends on what they were thinking and the intent of their heart. We as biblical counselors, of all people, should be clear. Is it possible for someone to misunderstand us even when we are clear? Certainly. But we need to strive for clarity and ask God to help us place the emphasis on Him and His glory.

So then, who are we?

We are creatures created by God in His image. We are fallen, dead in our trespasses and sins, and if God has saved us, we are now placed in union with Christ by God for His glory so that we may proclaim His excellencies. (1 Peter 2:9-10) God has made us a “new creation, the old things have passed away.” We are now and forever “in [union with] Christ.” To Him be the glory forever and ever amen!

May we say with the Psalmist,

“Not to us, O LORD, not to us, but to Your name give glory,
for the sake of Your steadfast love and Your faithfulness!”
Psalm 115:1