Right now, the concept of “identity” is extremely important in Western society. And when it comes to identity, you have two options: you can be either Queen Elsa of Arendelle or Martin Luther of Wittenberg. Let me explain what I mean.
If you’re not sure you know who Elsa is, you don’t have a daughter or you live in a cave. That’s okay; we need daughterless cavepeople in the Christian church, too. But let me quote Elsa’s most famous song, and let’s see if you haven’t at least heard her in the background at WalMart. And in this quote from her song, church history buffs, I encourage you to listen also for the famous words of Martin Luther of Wittenberg, the German Protestant Reformer to whom this church and all evangelicals owe so much. Here’s Elsa:
Let it go, let it go, / And I’ll rise like the break of dawn! / Let it go, let it go! / That perfect girl is gone / Here I stand in the light of day / Let the storm rage on / The cold never bothered me anyway.
That famous statement, those famous three words uttered by both Elsa and Luther are, of course, “Here I stand.”
Just in case you don’t know, Elsa sings these words in the super hit Disney film, Frozen, which I admit my own children have watched more times than there are frozen fractals all around here in the snow belt.
Elsa sings these words defiantly into empty space. Her search for her identity has led to her leaving her responsibilities as queen behind, cutting herself off from those who love her, and expressing who she believes to be her true self even if it means she lives by herself in an ice castle on a mountain. That same search for self-expression will very nearly lead to the death of her sister, Ana, the one person who loved Elsa with true love, a really heartwarming sisterly love. Elsa had tried to keep her “true identity” hidden. Her parents told her, “Don’t let them in, don’t let them see / Be the good girl you always have to be / Conceal, don’t feel, don’t let them know.” But, she says in her famous song, she “Couldn’t keep it in, heaven knows I’ve tried.”
Her big anthem, “Let it Go,” is her decision to express her identity. She “Can’t hold it back anymore.” And she says, “I don’t care what they’re going to say.” And, “No right, no wrong, no rules for me.”
On the lips of Elsa, at least at this point in her story, your identity is whatever your strongest desires are. And you should express that identity no matter what other people say. Even though, in the end of the story, Elsa comes to a somewhat better viewpoint, it’s interesting and instructive that this song became the movie’s mega-hit. It tells our culture what our culture tells itself, and what it wants to hear over and over. And even toddlers have gotten the message.
One more video clip, because I wouldn’t dare use an old Simpsons episode at my own church, but I just have to—and I’m flying out tomorrow and Pastor Joe said I could do this so blame him if you’re mad. I don’t watch the Simpsons anymore, to be clear, but certain clips from my teenage years do stick with me. You’re about to see Homer Simpson all ready to fight a bear in order to demonstrate his manhood. Don’t ask why. His wife Marge and his daughter Lisa tell him he can’t fight a bear. Just listen in.
Why is this funny?
Would this have been funny in 1851, when Moby Dick was published by Herman Melville? I think not.
Would this have been funny in 1922? Actually, I happen to know that back then, “Be yourself” meant “Go away and leave me alone.” I’m not kidding. Which means that I think this joke would have made the same sense to them that jokes in Spanish make to me: in Spanish, despite the fact that I can understand the words, the jokes all go completely over my head.
So why is this funny now? The Simpsons’ writers were picking up what oozes out onto the floor at the bottom of so many of our culture’s bookstore shelves, the baseline advice of so many television shows that my wife and I just can’t believe how often the message gets preached: be like Elsa—be yourself. Here you stand!
- So a huge sign in the art store window as you enter my little town says “Love is Love.” If anyone questions whether you should really be loving someone else’s wife, or someone of the same sex, or someone under the legal age—well, here you stand!
- So a decidedly white woman, born with blonde hair, identifies as black—this actually happened—and our culture lacks the will to really condemn this weird act. If she truly feels that’s who she is… well, who are we to judge how she identifies? Here she stands!
- So an Olympic men’s decathlon champion, 30 years after his triumphs, identifies as a woman, and our culture cheers harder for his wig and mascara than they did for his Olympic gold medals. Here he stands—or lounges, rather—on the cover of Vanity Fair!
- So… I wish I could get in on the act. I wish I could personally identify as the host of the top Christian YouTube channel. My tiny subscriber numbers would be an inconvenient “fact” put forward by people who doubt me and are trying to stop me. My haters might claim to be only following “science” and doing some things they call “math” and “counting,” things they clearly only invented because of their bias against me. But I know the true inner truth about myself as the host of the top channel. Who are they to question my self-definition? Be myself. All my desires are good. No right, no wrong, no rules for me. Here I stand!
This is our Western world. Elsa’s world.
Brief Elsa analysis
As one of the best recent Christian writers on identity, Carl Trueman, described Elsa’s world,
We all live in a world in which it is increasingly easy to imagine that reality is something we can manipulate according to our own wills and desires, and not something that we necessarily need to conform ourselves to or passively accept.
Now before we turn to Martin Luther’s version of “Here I stand,” I’ll note that I haven’t really done much other than describe Elsa’s world. I haven’t analyzed or critiqued it. And it’s possible someone here, maybe someone without any background in church or the Bible, might wonder why in the world I seem to be down on obvious and important truths of our world. Mocking “be yourself” is like being against Cheerios.
I’ll just stop, then, to observe that there’s some good in what Elsa says: it is possible to be a hypocrite, to be living a lie. If you are, that situation must be resolved. It is possible, also, to be living under the crushing weight of unfair or unrighteous expectations from other people—a mother, a father, a sibling. Given the rules of Elsa’s fictional world, where her powers were not sins, her parents should have showed her how to use her powers rather than forcing her to bottle them up—though, in their defense, they died when she was young.
But here I stand, ultimately, against Elsa’s view of the world in “Let it Go,” because expressing all your innermost desires with no right, no wrong, no rules for you is not the way to, in the Bible’s words, love life and see good days. Desire is fundamentally a good thing; we’re not Buddhists who blame the world’s problems on desires. God has desires. But right and wrong can’t be ignored, because this isn’t just a created world. It’s also a fallen one.
One insightful Christian writer I’ll mention later said that the problem with “appeals to authenticity” like that of Elsa in “Let it Go” is that they
can be just an excuse for questionable behavior. If I do something that is inconsiderate of others or even harmful to myself, I can just claim I am being true to myself. Virtues like patience, kindness, and faithfulness can take a back seat to following your heart. What if my self is selfish? After all, the abusive spouse, the dishonest friend, the greedy workaholic, and the malicious gossip can all claim to be true to themselves when they behave in character. The problem with being true to yourself is that too often the self abuses the privilege. (Rosner, A Biblical Theology of Identity)
Letting it go isn’t the right way to resolve tensions in your soul. It isn’t the way to flourish as our Creator intended us to do. And I want my neighbors in this world to flourish and find their true reward in that same Creator, because I love my neighbors.
I’m down on Elsa’s self-expression, her view of identity, because when you reject the idea that God’s creation is something to which you need to conform yourself, something you need to accept and even welcome, you will ultimately find hurt. A lot of human hurt occurs when people belt out Elsa’s song as they stride off toward their heart’s desire—and they run into walls that their creator placed there for their protection. People get sexually transmitted diseases. They have identity crises. They set up their wives to find porn on their phones. They create fatherless or motherless children. They kill their own children in the womb. It turns out that “no right, no wrong, no rules for me” is a poor ethical basis on which to run a life, let alone a society. We need to run all our desires through a grid of right and wrong to discover which can be part of our identity and which must be denied and even killed.
That’s why we must turn to the better “Here I stand” of Martin Luther.
Luther’s “Here I stand” is standing on an entirely different surface and therefore has an entirely different meaning. A Christian meaning. Luther, who quite likely wouldn’t have even understood our culture’s obsession with identity, nonetheless knew the secret to getting identity right.
In 2006 during a visit to Germany, I stood where Luther stood when he uttered those famous words. Luther stood there under very different circumstances, however. He was on trial for his life, in more ways than one.
Luther was a Catholic monk in a European world dominated by the Catholic church. “Catholic” was itself a claim to universality, to being the only church, to holding the keys to God’s kingdom. But Luther had begun to see in Scripture that certain practices of that church weren’t just wrong but damnable—like people paying money to get their loved ones into heaven and out of purgatory. He came to see, most importantly, that the Bible taught a different view of how to get to God than did his own church. He came to the wrenching realization that he had to work for deep reforms in that church.
The powers that be do not like deep reforms, and they pushed back hard. They called Luther to a special meeting in Worms, Germany, called a “diet”—which is actually related to our word “diet” because both mean a regular course of activity. A diet is a regular set of eating practices; the Diet of Worms was sort of like a government committee that also met regularly.
Luther was shown all his books and asked to recant all that he had written in them. This is the crushing weight of unfair or unrighteous expectations from other people—in this case, people with swords and guns, and people who were widely believed to hold the keys to heaven. This is like the principal and the whole school board, plus both state senators coming down hard on one lowly fourth grade teacher. This is like both parents and both sets of grandparents threatening a child with no Christmas presents. This is the whole weight of all the powers being dangled over one man. Recant, or else! And in one sense, this is asking Luther to totally reframe his identity, to go from being the monk who called the church to reform back to being the monk who didn’t cause the church any trouble.
How could Luther stand under such a crushing weight?
The question is not how, but where. And the answer is here [hold up Bible].
Listen to what Luther said:
My conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot and I will not retract anything, since it is neither safe nor right to go against conscience. Here I stand. I cannot do otherwise. God help me. Amen.
When you have an identity crisis, when inside you rage various confusing or conflicting desires, when other people are either trying to crush you or tempt you, this is the option our culture doesn’t offer: you can stand on the Word of God. Standing on the promises, my church used to sing. The word was not just a light to Luther’s path, though it was that; it was itself the path; it was the ground on which he stood. And here’s the wonderful thing: if you stand on this divine surface, you cannot be crushed, no matter the weight pressing down on you. This is a place to stand that pushes back up through you and against your problems.
I’m not saying you can’t be hurt. I’m not saying you can’t even die. I’m saying you can’t really die. Jesus conquered death and promised it wouldn’t really touch his own. The eternal life God gives to those who rest their lives on his word cannot be taken away, Jesus says. The top powers of Europe were arrayed against Luther from that moment till the rest of his life—and yet he died of old age, not from an assassin’s blade. His God protected him.
And during your life, if you build your life on the rock of God’s word, when the storms of life arise and beat against your life, it will not fall. Jesus promised this at the end of the Sermon on the Mount.
If your conscience is captive to God’s word, slave to God’s word, and if God helps you as Luther asked, if Christ has paid for your sins and given you his righteousness, then you and your identity are secure. You don’t face the same pressures Martin Luther did. But there are some weights in your life in this fallen world that are poised to crush you. Stand where Luther did, on the word!
- So you are tempted to believe that your past sin is what defines you: you are an adulterer, an embezzler, a druggie, a cheater, a lazy loser, a bad son, a disappointment. But the Bible tells you, as we’ll see in the morning service, that you are made in God’s image, and loved with an everlasting love. Your relative calls you and chews you out for the millionth time, and you deflate again. But no! You will believe what the Bible says about you! You have worth placed in you by the only source of worth, God himself! Here you stand!
- So you are tempted to believe that love is love, that your sexual desires are the true truth about you. But the rock on which you stand, God’s word, says that you are made male or female, and you are made for one spouse till death do you part. The Bible tells you you are made to glorify him with your body and spirit, which are God’s. The cultural powers array against you, telling you to follow your heart. But no, no! Here you stand!
- So you can’t live with your imperfections and failures, and you certainly won’t let others live with theirs. Anybody underneath you on the org chart at work or at home feels your wrath if they step out of line, and you feel your own wrath if you don’t toe the line you set for yourself. But the Bible teaches a kind of grace that you now see is right. It teaches that it’s a glory to a man to overlook a transgression, that love covers a multitude of sins, that God doesn’t mark every iniquity—or who would stand? So the next time your son fails to take out the trash, you don’t blow up. You stand on Scripture. Here you stand!
I briefly mentioned earlier that Queen Elsa of Arendelle doesn’t end the movie with the same perspective she has during her hit song. The reason I let my kids watch the movie is that the story ends up showing the walls people hit when they Let it Go. They hit a wall of loneliness as their new identity drives those who love them far away. Their sinful self-expression is never just something that affects them as individuals; it also robs something good from those in relationship with them. And this happens to Elsa.
One of my favorite characters in all Disney films is, in fact, Ana, Elsa’s sister. She has Elsa robbed from her as a child by her parents’ inability to lead Elsa wisely. She has Elsa robbed from her again, right after rediscovering their sisterly love, when Elsa strides off and lets it go. But she has a love for Elsa that is literally redeeming, nothing short of Christ-like. And watching that love wasn’t like eating too much sugar. It wasn’t sickeningly sweet. To me, at least, it was very believable. Ana has a loyal love toward Elsa that is not at all unlike that of Ruth for Naomi in the Bible—or like David for Jonathan, or like Peter for Jesus. Or like Jesus for us. Ana’s love led her to major self-sacrifice on multiple occasions, up to and including her apparent death. Greater love has no one than this, that she lay down her life for a sister who tried to let it go.
I didn’t come here to preach Elsa or Ana. I came here to preach Jesus. And I find it so interesting and rewarding that even when our culture wants to tell itself to Let it Go, there is something about the beauty of self-sacrificial love, of Christ’s redemptive love, that makes a movie like Frozen talk out of both sides of its mouth. When you hear Elsa sing, “Here I stand,” you’re knocked over by the force our culture puts behind the song. But a story that ends with Elsa expressing what she feels is her true identity, at the expense of all who love her, would not be satisfying. Even Disney knows this. Elsa ends up unknowingly stepping back toward the stand taken by Martin Luther. The writers of her story were, by God’s common grace, falling back on their God-given consciences. They were made in the image of a God who is love, and they were putting it on a kind of display by the end of the movie.
Your identity is what God says it is, which may or may not be what you want it to be at the moment. And in the morning service, we’ll do a lot less examining of our culture and a lot more listening to what God says about your identity. What does the word you must stand on actually say about your and my identity?
Pastor Joe asked for this Sunday school to be a little bit more of a lecture, so as in a good lecture, I’m going to close with some book recommendations.
I’ve got one on the deep end, three in the middle of the pool, and three in the easier end of the pool. Surely one of these will be interesting and beneficial to you.
For those who want to dive into the deep end, I recommend Carl Trueman’s major, lengthy Christian exploration of our culture’s view of human identity. It came out last year, and I read every word. It was called The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self. And just listen to that title. It means that Trueman’s book tells a long story, the story of how the way our world looks at the self rose from historical roots and triumphed over other views, especially the Christian one. If you want to know how in the world we got from wherever we were when you were born to where we are now, take the time to read Trueman.
Middle of the pool
- Trueman has an easier and shorter version of this same book coming out in March with Crossway, and listen to its title: Strange New World: How Thinkers and Activists Redefined Identity and Sparked the Sexual Revolution.
- Also in the middle of the pool is a book by the wonderful Rosaria Butterfield, a pastor’s wife and former lesbian who wrote Openness Unhindered. Butterfield is an absolute gem, and a fantastic writer to boot.
- Lastly in this middle area of the pool, Brian Rosner’s Known by God: A Biblical Theology of Personal Identity. This book will sound a bit like a sermon series from Pastor Joe: rich and biblical, but also practical and warm-hearted.
The easier end of the pool
- Rosner also has a somewhat easier and shorter version of his book coming out in 2022 with Crossway, called How to Find Yourself: Why Looking Inward Is Not the Answer.
- If all you have time for is a chapter, read David Murray heart-warming and encouraging chapter on identity in his book Reset. I think it was Pastor Joe who recommended this to me, and it was great. Murray is super practical: he talks about being so super skinny in high school that he was embarrassed.
- And finally, my own Basics for a Biblical Worldview, a middle school textbook I wrote for BJU Press that is brand new in schools this year, has a whole unit on identity.