Some of life’s biggest questions revolve around our identity. What career will I have? What kind of person will I be remembered as? There’s a deep sense that we want to belong to our self in a deep and meaningful way. But as Christians, we actually don’t belong to ourselves. We belong to God. And when we walk in that mindset, we can experience an unprecedented amount of freedom.
This identity in Christ is a concept Alan Noble, author and professor, knows well. In new book, You Are Not Your Own, Noble explores how the idea that our identity belongs to God transforms our lives, our relationships and our path in life. Noble spoke with RELEVANT about the two opposing ideas and how Christians can change their mindset.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
RELEVANT: How did you choose to write about this topic?
Alan Noble: So there are two main things that connected that made the book fit for me.
The first was I have some academic training in modernity. In grad school, we studied a lot about the post-enlightenment world and how it changes. Several years ago, I was considering a number of hot topic, social issues that conservatives and Christians and evangelicals and progressives are all debating. And it struck me, at that moment, that the first question to answer in The Heidelberg Catechism really gets to the heart of it because it is: What is your only comfort in life and in death? That you are not your own.
And so, at that moment, I thought, “A lot of these contemporary debates really hinge on this question of who we belong to.”
But then there was the experiential aspect that motivated this. I mentor a lot of students. I talk to a lot of students, and as I’m encountering them, as I’m talking to them, as I’m working with them, I’m realizing these Christian students are overwhelmed, that they are burnt out. They are exhausted, depressed, highly anxious. A lot of their anxiety has to do with questions of career and achievement and all these questions that I would hope the faith would have at least given a framework to understand so that they weren’t burdened with this. It was an existential crisis for them. This was heavy on my heart because I end up talking to a lot of seniors, especially, going through the same basic existential crisis.
And then also, there was a period when my wife was staying home with our kids. And I was observing how other adults talked to her. Even the ones who were what you’d call conservative evangelical, when they’d ask her, “Hey, so good to meet you. What do you do?” And if my wife said, “Well, I stay at home,” they might say, “Oh, that’s wonderful. Good for you. So what does your husband do?” All right. So there’s this sense that just about everybody’s agreeing that my wife is not doing anything for a while.
So I’m connecting these pieces. And this is the experiential aspect that drove this book was that as I’m looking at lots of individual moments and experiences in my own life, my wife’s life, my student’s lives, I’m noticing a lot of people find life to be fairly unbearable. Contemporary life feels inhuman. It doesn’t feel like it’s right. And a lot of people are coping and self-medicating to get through the day.
So I’m thinking about this. And I’m thinking about this idea that popped into my head years ago, that maybe a lot of the debates about modernity hinge on this question of who we belong to.
You argue that the message we receive in America is that we belong to ourselves. How do you see that playing out? I wouldn’t say I hear it said explicitly very often.
Take the idea of meritocracy and the idea of success, the pressures that we put on young people starting in high school to be high-achieving students. The idea that we press upon students, we press upon young people, is that they have to achieve certain things so that they can get into the right college so that they can make something out of their lives. Underneath that is this idea that their life is not inherently good in and of itself. Your life, in fact, is actually a project and your job is to make the best thing out of that project that you possibly can. No one else can make anything out of this project. Only you can do it.
So, yeah, you’re right, it’s not very often that you’ll hear people say, “Hey, you are your own and you belong to yourself,” although I do think that there are places where that happens. But one way we do it is through careers and education. The implication is that their lives aren’t good as they are.
Related to that is the idea that we have to make up our identity. The life journey that every modern person takes is a journey of self-discovery, of throwing off the expectations and pressures of society, of culture, of our neighbors, and discovering our true, authentic self, and then actualizing that self in the world through some effort.
You can think of lots of Disney stories that tell this, but it’s not just them. Social media influencers, YouTubers, Instagrammers, I mean, it’s everywhere. In the book, I make the claim that that quest for self-becoming, discovering your identity is basically the contemporary hero story.
That Joseph Campbell idea of the Hero’s Journey obviously sounds very empowering on its face, which is why it’s replicated so much. Help me understand where you think it goes awry.
So let’s take a hypothetical example. It’s not uncommon for evangelicals in high school to believe that they have an experience of a calling. And I’m not saying that God doesn’t work like that, but I am saying that when young people feel a tremendous pressure to make something of their lives and church culture becomes the way they see success, sometimes you can start to think, “Well, becoming a pastor or a missionary is the highest ideal. That’s what it means to really live a life of meaning.”
What’s interesting about this is that sometimes these young people, because church culture has not given them the options, can’t imagine living a life where you just work a nine to five and maybe you volunteer to help young people. So what can happen is a young person starts to go to college, and realizes “I’m actually really not good at theology or biblical languages or… I really like history. I think I want to do that.” And what happens is it can be this crisis.
And then there’s some older people who say, “This lazy generation,” but that’s not the case. Actually, that student is deeply committed to excellence, but they’re so committed that they rest their existence on it and they’re depressed. They feel unable to move. And that’s a lot of the modern sense of anxiety or depression. This feeling that you can’t act, you can’t move, because the consequences and what’s at stake is too great.
How does this framework of “you are not your own,” change, at a fundamental level, how we think about these things?
It changes in two ways. One is a tremendous release of a burden that you were not made for and that you can’t tolerate. But the other half is that you are reminded that you already have obligations, which you may have been neglecting, and those obligations aren’t easy to bear.
For example, in the case of identity, if we are not our own, but belong to Christ, that means that in a very real and objective sense, we stand before God. And that means that there is a witness to our being in the world, and that witness is sure. That witness can see us, can see all our imperfections, can see all the contradictions that we’re living, but knows us truly.
We’re still going to feel those pressures. The market is still going to be telling us, “Hey, you’ve got to buy these things and dress this way so that you can establish your identity properly in the world so people respect you.” That’s not going to go away, but having the vocabulary to label that is very powerful.
So that’s one way it lifts that burden off of you. But as I said, if we are not our own, we also are reminded that we have some obligations that we may not like. I think belonging is one of them. If we are not our own, but belong to Christ, then that means that there are ways that we belong to the Church and to our families and to creation and to our neighbors that maybe we don’t want, because they’re going to mean that we’re going to have to give up some things. For example, the modern ideal is that you can move wherever you want so that you can pursue whatever kind of job you want. Well, if you belong to your community, then you really have to think twice before just getting up and moving, because you owe them things.