Generation Z is experiencing an unprecedented identity crisis.
Every time I ask a youth pastor or Christian leader what they think is the biggest struggle teens are facing today, the answer is the same: identity. It’s one of the most discussed topics amongst Christians and non-Christians alike, as everyone grapples for answers to questions like: Who am I? What defines me? Do I matter?
Gen Z is a generation of people desperate to know and express themselves. Gen Z is also the most accepting of all “identities” and the most fluid with the concept of identity. We can be whoever we want, regardless of gender, and we are whomever and whatever we feel, regardless of reality. You would assume in this environment of acceptance and encouragement of all identities, that identity crises would be nonexistent. Finally, everyone can be exactly who and what they want to be. But in truth, instead of the most secure and confident generation, much of Gen Z is often rootless, aimless, insecure, and desperate to discover who they really are.
And we have to ask: Why?
Boundaries = Security
Studies have shown that children play more freely when they know the boundaries of their playground. Without a fence, they keep their play confined to the center of the playground. But with a fence, they feel at liberty to roam every inch they are given. In a similar way, children without clear parental guidance and authority feel insecure, whereas children who have parents who discipline, direct, and set healthy boundaries feel safe in their parents’ care. It’s a seemingly contradictory truth: boundaries bring freedom.
It’s a seemingly contradictory truth: boundaries bring freedom
The word “boundaries” is the last word people want to hear when it comes to identity. Do a quick web search on “identity crisis” and it’s not hard to figure out the general consensus on how to fix one. We’re encouraged to “look inward and explore,” “go on a journey of self-discovery,” “do what makes you happy,” “ignore judgment,” and in short, turn our focus entirely toward ourselves. We’re told that our identity is something only we can define and our emotions get the ruling vote on who we are. The problem is that emotions are subjective and ever-changing. If emotions define identity, then our identity also becomes subjective and ever-changing. Have you ever heard of someone who was bigender? It means an individual who identifies with two distinct genders—perhaps they are more male one day, more female the next. Their confusion over their identity has reached a point where it shifts between two points. This is an example of what happens when objective standards of identity are torn away and relocated on the shaky, shifting ground of emotions. Growing up in the midst of such uncertainty, is it any wonder teens are struggling with who they are more than ever ?
To have a secure identity requires boundaries. The boundaries of reality, and most importantly, the boundaries of a truth that is greater than ourselves: God’s truth.
Reality Defines Identity
Let’s start with how reality defines our identity. Throughout the years, I’ve had many different identities. I’ve been a student, piano teacher, secretary, author, and editor. I’ve been a girlfriend and a fiancée. Many of these labels have only lasted a season. But underneath them all are foundational realities that define who I am in every season. I’m a human being who is created in God’s image. I’m also a woman. How do I know? My body tells me so. It’s an observable fact that has nothing to do with my feelings or my life situation. Everything in my life could change, but these core realties never will.
Underneath them all are foundational realities that define who I am in every season. I’m a human being who is created in God’s image
Countless fundamental human realities are under attack as individuals sample “alternate realities.” But the truth of reality is as intrinsic as the force of gravity in our atmosphere. You can’t shove it aside, and no matter what anyone says, it will always continue to exist. We are human beings. We are boys or girls. Our bodies tell us this is true, and regardless of what subjective emotions claim, these are facts that cannot be shoved aside and will always continue to exist.
Reality is unmovable because it is backed by an even greater truth: the God who created it. True identity begins first and foremost with God—not ourselves.
The Imago Dei Defines Identity
A solid understanding of identity requires more information than we can find by looking at ourselves. We need to know God—who he is, why he made us, how he made us, what his character is like, and who he created us to be. Much of this truth is found in the rich theology of the imago Dei—the image of God. Scripture tells us that “God created man in His own image; in the image of God He created him; male and female He created them” (Genesis 1:27 NKJV).
All of humanity is made in God’s image. We hold the stamp of his creation upon our lives. This stamp is one of authority and ownership. As created beings, we are defined primarily by our Creator. When we think of identity in this way, it becomes clear that in order to understand who we are, we need to look to the One whose image we bear. The imago Dei has radical implications upon identity that go beyond information about ourselves. After all, it’s about his image, not our own. We’re simply bearers—reflections and shadows—of that image. As the only creation who can boast this incredible distinction, the imago Dei reveals the depth of God’s character and creativity, outlines guidelines on how we should live, work, and use our bodies, and defines the ultimate goal of our lives—to glorify the One who made us.
The imago Dei has radical implications upon identity that go beyond information about ourselves. After all, it’s about his image, not our own
Gen Z’s identity problem began by leaving God out of the equation. Without knowing who God is and his intentional and intimate work in creating us, we’re left with a gaping hole in our understanding of identity. Identity is not a primary issue, but rather a secondary one. The only reason we, as a generation, are struggling with it, is because we have a weak or nonexistent understanding of the primary topic: God himself. Secular Gen Z has kicked God to the curb and chosen to follow their own way, embracing their own emotions and preferences as god. Much of Christian Gen Z lacks solid theology and a thorough understanding of God and his Word. Instead of being taught who God is, we’re taught more often about who we are.
Pastors and parents understand that identity is important and have sought to help teens recognize that their identity is in Christ. I’ve heard numerous sermons, read dozens of articles, and listened to countless songs that talk about who God says we are, or encourage that we are loved or valuable and worthy. Understanding who we are in Christ is critically important, but beginning a theology of identity with who we are leaves out the most important part of the story—who God is. Far too often, we open with the “You are,” “We are,” “I am,” story instead of the “He is” story.
Teens (and adults) do need to know who they are. But when our default responses to questions of identity focus more on us than on God, we settle for answers that mimic the world’s self-focused approach. “Identity in Christ” cannot be separated from Christ and all that comes within the message of the gospel—God’s holiness, mankind’s rebellion, and Christ’s sacrifice on the cross. If our teaching of identity glosses over these foundational truths, “identity in Christ” simply becomes a Christian catchphrase that leaves the hearers wondering how to find identity in God when all they’ve been told is more about themselves.
We Need More God-Discovery
In a nutshell, the true reason for today’s identity crisis is not that we have forgotten who we are, but that society has rejected the God who created them. Cut off from the source of all life and truth, humanity naturally flounders. Hardened hearts sink into confusion and despair as they refuse to grasp hold of the lifeline of truth extended to them—the knowledge of God and the saving blood of Jesus. It’s Romans 1 in action: Worshiping and serving the creature rather than the Creator and being given over to whatever lust is within our hearts (see Romans 1:21-32).
It’s just like those kids on the playground. When we look for ourselves in the wide, open field of our own emotions and in the culturally accepted lie that we can be whoever we want, we quickly become lost, confused, and disoriented. But when we seek the heart of God, we find within him truth that secures us, enlightens us, and gives us purpose and clarity.
As I say in my book Stand Up, Stand Strong: A Call To Bold Faith in a Confused Culture: “Understanding our identity begins with a greater understanding of God. While culture places secure identity within a journey of self-discovery, that journey is a dead-end road. We don’t need more self-discovery. We need more God-discovery” (p. 42).
There is a greater and more lasting standard of identity than what can be found on an internet search. To truly understand who we are requires that we look past ourselves, look to God’s Word, and go on a journey of knowing the God who created us. We cannot find within ourselves what can only be found within the heart of God. But within his heart, we find all we need and more besides.
Sara (Barratt) Starkey is the Editor-in-Chief of theRebelution.com and the author of Stand Up, Stand Strong: A Call to Bold Faith in a Confused Culture. She recently got married to her husband, Matthew, and together they make their home in Michigan. Connect with her on her website: SaraBarratt.com.