Defining Ourselves: Personal Autonomy or a God-Given Responsibility

In the Old Testament, we are told that as a man “thinks in his heart, so is he.”[1] Flip forward to the New Testament and Paul tells us that Christians are to “take captive every thought” with the goal of making all of our thoughts “obedient to Christ.”[2] Similarly, Paul told the church at Rome that they were to “consider” themselves “dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus.”[3] Likewise, John the Baptist rebuked the Pharisees for thinking that they had “Abraham as [their] father”[4] and thus did not need to repent of their sins.

In all of these verses, the Bible is making an important assumption: The ways in which we understand ourselves are important. In other words, the definitions which we appropriate as our own—that is, the thoughts we think about ourselves and others—motivate us towards certain choices and decisions while repelling us from other actions and deeds. Since the ways we define ourselves are so important, we ought to be aware of our personal definitions and how these definitions are shaping our lives, whether for good or for evil.

It is my contention that personal definitions exist along two spectrums and within two categories. On the first spectrum are definitions that range from public to private. On the other spectrum are definitions that range from those bringing moral approval to those that bring moral disapproval. Sitting atop the two different spectrums is the distinction between objective and subjective definitions.

To help you get a grasp on this idea, think of all possible definitions as existing within a circle: In the first quadrant of the circle are those definitions that are public and morally good; in the second quadrant are those definitions that, while remaining public, are morally blameworthy; in the third quadrant are definitions that are private and blameworthy; finally, the fourth quadrant contains definitions that are private and morally good. Now, imagine that some of the definitions in each quadrant are red while others are blue: The red definitions are objective definitions, while the blue ones are subjective.

Objective vs. Subjective Definitions

Some definitions are objectively prescribed, while others are subjectively chosen. For example, I define myself as a southerner because I live in the southern region of the United State of America. I could perhaps define myself as a northerner; however, according to the standard definition of north and south within my American context, I would be objectively wrong. Reality thus demands that I define myself as a southerner.

Not all definitions are objective, however: Some definitions are subjective and are thus chosen by the individual. I enjoy playing Call of Duty; however, I do not choose to define myself as a Call of Duty player. This video game simply is not important enough for me to appropriate this label as a part of my identity; therefore, I choose to leave it out of my understanding of who I am. This is entirely subjective and predicated upon my personal choice.

Public vs. Private Definitions

Along the public/private spectrum are many different available definitions. We can choose from a buffet of definitions that include occupation, racial identity, familial relationships, geographic location, national origin, education level, socio-economic status, and a litany of other terms. Some of these definitions are objective, others are subjective; the common denominator here is that, of themselves, these definitions carry no morally significant meaning when applied correctly. The surgeon carries no moral blame for defining herself as a surgeon; similarly, the man living in Montreal cannot be blamed for identifying as a Canadian.

These definitions can be quite important to how we understand ourselves and are often foundational to our identity. When adopted as my own, I begin to believe that I am x, where x stands for any noun or adjective. For example, I define myself as a pastor, as an American, as a husband, as a follower of Jesus of Nazareth, as a seminarian, as a millennial, and so on and so forth. You, likewise, define yourself with similar, perhaps even overlapping, categories.

The location of the definitions along the public/private spectrum can sometimes be manipulated. For example, I define myself as a bibliophile because I love books: By typing the previous sentence, I moved the definition of “bibliophile” towards the public end of the public/private spectrum.

Moral Definitions: The Good and the Bad

The final class of definitions contains those definitions which bring blame and praise. Some definitions are evil. For example, if Jane Doe identifies as a Neo-Nazi, she has labeled herself as belonging to an evil group. Given that all forms of racism are inherently sinful, even to define yourself as belonging to a group predicated upon racism is inherently immoral. Thus, this definition carries a certain level of moral blame.

In contrast, some definitions are morally praiseworthy because they lead to good actions. If John Doe identifies as a disaster relief worker and, following his new definition, goes to help the survivors of a natural disaster, we would all agree that Mr. Doe’s personal definition contributed to a praiseworthy action.

Our Culture and Personal Definitions

The distinctions between these different definitions are important in modern American society—probably in all of western society: Our current cultural landscape is ablaze with debate over how to classify different definitions. Considered as a whole, secular, American culture would rather view more definitions as subjective, private, and morally good—or perhaps as morally ambiguous—than would those who adhere to traditional Christian values. In short, American culture generally wants to say that every person can choose who they want to be, that this choice is entirely their own, and that the individual ought not face any moral criticism for his or her choice.

Consider, for example, the case of Bruce Jenner. Bruce Jenner was once a man’s man; however, as the Chicago Tribune put it, he “look[ed] in the mirror and [saw]…the opposite”[5] of that for which society thought he stood. That is, Jenner, though outwardly the “definition of masculinity,”[6] internally defined himself as a woman. He then underwent surgery to make his physical body match the definition which he had appropriated as his own.

Jenner’s story is interesting on two fronts: First, Jenner’s story is a case study about how personal definitions in the present affect a person in the future. In short, when we appropriate a definition as our own, this definition shapes the choices we make later. When I, for example, first defined myself as a preacher, I set myself up for a future of working hard to prepare sermons. Second, Jenner’s story is interesting because it reveals how different groups respond differently to the same instance based on their divergent views regarding the proper place of personal definitions. American society had nearly ubiquitous praise for Jenner because according to society, the choice between being a man and a woman is not imposed upon the individual; rather, as a part of the general trend of American culture, the choice between genders is a subjective, private, and morally neutral affair

Christians, however, demur. For the Christian, there are definitions that should be left in the realms of the objective, the public, and the morally blameworthy, regardless of society’s opinions. Thus, in the case of Bruce Jenner, orthodox Christians stand back and say that when he chose to define himself as a woman—whether this choice was made consciously or subconsciously is irrelevant—he made a mistake; that is, he treated as subjective what should have been an objective definition.

Christians believe that the process of defining ourselves is a key element in our sanctification which we must take care to do correctly. To perform this responsibility correctly, we must appreciate the distinctions between objective and subjective, public and private, and morally acceptable and unacceptable definitions, even when our culture misunderstands these distinctions. Therefore, when Paul commands us to “consider [ourselves] dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus,”[7] we realize that we are being told that this is a definition which we must accept, even if it feels a bit awkward; nevertheless, we accept the biblical definitions of a Christian because we know that when we force our lives into a biblical understanding of who we are in Christ, the personal definitions which God prescribes for us lead us towards holiness.

There is the potential for great danger when defining ourselves: Do it incorrectly, and the definitions will lead you to serious errors. Christians cannot afford to yield to societal pressures on this topic: We must accept the definitions which God prescribes for us and for others—too much is at stake. However, if done correctly, our personal definitions can push us towards holiness in Christ. Therefore, we should take every personal definition captive and make it obedient to Christ.

Notes & Sources

[1] Proverbs 23.7, NKJV. This verse is a questionable translation. Many newer translations, such as the CSB, NIV, and ESV give the verse a different meaning. The principle I use this verse to support is well grounded by the rest of the Bible, however.

[2] 2 Corinthians 10.5, NIV.

[3] Romans 6.11, CSB.

[4] Matthew 3.9, CSB.

[5] “From Bruce to Caitlyn: When the ‘total man’ becomes a woman,” The Chicago Tribune, June 10, 2015, accessed August 15, 2017, http://www.chicagotribune.com/news/opinion/editorials/ct-jenner-caitlyn-bruce-transgender-understanding-20150610-story.html.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Romans 6.11, CSB.

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