The Hierarchy of Self: From Alteration to Something New Altogether

by Lydia Schaible June 9, 2022

There is a famous thought experiment suggested by Heraclitus and Plato. It references the mythical king and founder of Athens, Theseus, and his ship, which the Athenian’s dutifully kept in seafaring condition. This Ship of Theseus paradox poses the questions: If every plank was systematically and eventually replaced with a new plank, is it the same ship, or an entirely new one? At what point have we moved from alteration to something new altogether?

In our modern quest for identity, whether we know it or not, we are inserting ourselves into this thought experiment. We wonder, if my interests, passions, gifts, body, or relationships change, am I still me? Our thought process leads us into such confusion we can come to believe we can lose ourselves if we are unable to pursue our long-held desires.

So, how do we solve the puzzle of identity over time and change? First, we stop operating from the materialist notion that we are only a physical being–we are not Theseus’ ship. We are physical beings, yes, but we are not only physical beings. Our physical reality is tied to a spiritual one. Secondly, we must stop trying to create our identity apart from the God who created us. We are humans, the imago dei, physical bodies with eternal souls. We are created as men and women, fallen, and offered redemption through Christ Jesus. We have an understanding of who we are then in a hierarchy of important factors. At the peak of this hierarchy are the necessary components that make us who we are, these necessary components are markers that are given to us by God and unchanging: we are created by God, in his image, we are redeemed through Christ, whether we are male or female. Much further down are the contingent factors, some of which are outside of our control, some that are chosen, but nonetheless these are subject to change or alteration.

Understanding this gives us fixed points of reality from which to navigate. We tend to put far too much emphasis on the lower level factors, and very little attention on those aspects of who we are that are of the most importance. We unnecessarily grapple with issues of identity because we have inverted these categories. At the peak of who we are is our union with Christ. If I am in Christ, that is the cornerstone of everything else about me.

There are many secondary realities that contribute to who I am. I am married, I have four children, I have brown hair, I enjoy reading and writing, and I am a member of a church in North Carolina. But these are all identity markers that are subject to change. I may move, my husband and children could die, my hair will gray, my eyes may be lost to glaucoma or my hands to arthritis–reading and writing may not always be how I occupy my time. Nonetheless, however these tertiary identity markers may change, I will still be in Christ. As I adjust within these shifting aspects of who I may be, the root of who I am is fixed. Recognizing these hierarchies of my identity is profoundly freeing.

Rightly ordering my identity this way makes it possible for me to experience any circumstance, and to meet challenges and the changes of time, without an existential crisis. I can simply and joyfully obey Christ’s call on my life. It means I am not subject to the finitude of my talents, rapidly decaying body, or my relationships. It means I am not a slave to my interests or desires, even the good ones. I do not have to lament over a sense of who I once was, because who I am is fixed, not in my circumstances, but in Christ.

As a result, I can throw myself fully into whatever calling God has placed upon my life in the moment he calls me. As a single woman, I could serve generously with all my time and effort in a myriad of ways. Instead of wringing my hands over my relational status, I simply and joyfully got to work using the time, resources, and gifts I had for the moment. As a married woman I don’t have to hold myself back in helping my husband build his career. I can manage our home, and be my husband’s wife, bringing him good and being the one in whom he has full confidence (Proverbs 31). As a mother I can throw myself fully into motherhood. I don’t have to be stingy as I spend my time, energy, and even my body, in service to my children. I don’t have to agonize over whether I will “lose myself” because the most important aspects of who I am cannot be lost. As a church member I don’t have to lament the lack of use of my gifts, or stress trying to discover them, and instead I can aim to be used wherever there are needs, trusting that the God in whom my identity lies, will provide the gifts for the commands he’s given. I cannot have an identity crisis when I keep firmly planted in the reality that I am in Christ, from whom neither height nor depth, nor anything else in creation, will be able to separate me (Romans 8:39).

In knowing this and resting in it, I can immerse myself in serving people, not based on my particular gifts, talents, or desires, but based on the needs that exist and the calling that’s been placed in front of me. I can be obedient to even the most challenging of Christ’s commands because I am glad to be conformed to his will. I can put to death sinful identity markers, and put on new ones that result through obedience as I seek to obey all that God commands. My passions may change, my talents may not be used as I expected, but in this way they are like planks on a ship, useful in their time, replaceable, changeable, decaying even. But the eternal reality of who I am rests firmly with the One who “emptied himself by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on the cross” (Philippians 2:7-8).