Identity is the instinctive picture we carry around within ourselves and upon which we base our relationships. That identity or picture has been painted across our hearts by our family background, our culture, and our life experiences. Just as we wear clothing and as we interact with life, we have an identity or picture of ourselves that we wear in relationships.
This identity or self-picture could be completely different from how others see us. Others may see us as confident and successful while inside we are afraid and view ourselves as failures. That internal picture of ourselves controls how we relate to others and to God. Our identity is the ultimate controlling force behind our instincts. Instincts are those default beliefs we have about ourselves, God, and others that are emotionally powerful and create tension within Christians when they contradict God's truth.
Identity is something that is very well understood by modern psychologists but the Apostle Paul better understood it. Paul assumed we could change that internal picture, our identity, and the identity that we should change to is the one given to us by God. At a crucial transition in the Book of Ephesians where Paul has described what the Trinity has done for us, he then described how we should respond. As he described those responses at the very beginning of Ephesians, Paul said we should make sure we our living out of the correct identity. Change to the correct identity and we change our instincts.
20 But you did not learn Christ in this way,
21 if indeed you have heard Him and have been taught in Him, just as truth is in Jesus, is being corrupted in accordance with the lusts of deceit,
23 and that you be renewed in the spirit of your mind,
24 and put on the new man [identity], according to God has been created in righteousness and holiness of the truth.
Pay attention as you read the yellow portions of the text. Paul introduced these important truths by four repetitions that essentially said the same thing. Learn, heard, taught and truth all underscore the importance of what followed. The apostle typically would use repetition to underscore an important truth he was about to teach.
In verse 22, he stated the truth that conduct is controlled by identity. If you want to change your behavior, you have to change how you instinctively view yourself. When someone believes he or she is trash, he or she will live trashy lives. If they believe they are weak, they will live powerless lives. If they believe, they are worthless, they will not defend themselves. Change your instinctive picture and change your life!
Paul commanded that the believers should take the old man off as they would take off clothing. We take clothing off and we assume we will be seen another way. We wear clothing as we relate to people. The metaphor of clothing in the Bible is one of the great teaching devices in the text. How we are dressed determines how we are received. If we have the correct garment, we are accepted into relationship (Matthew 22:2-14; Luke 15:22).
The old man, or literally the old worn out person, needs to be put off. Why? Three reasons were given. These reasons are colored green. First, the old person is continually deteriorating. For example, when a divorced woman has a false identity, as an abandoned, rejected, betrayed person, she will experience anxiety, fear, and foreboding as she considers possible relationships. If that is how she dresses herself relationally, she will continually experience those deteriorating emotions. Secondly, she believes lies. Any person is much more than what he or she experiences in life. Divorce, disease, or failures are not what define a person. Sadly, for many the disasters of life become their clothing for life. Others make a perspective their clothing for life. Fear concerning living in poverty or never having enough can become a person's identity. In their minds, the world is a place of scarcity and threat, and they wear the clothing of poverty and need.
These lies are based on lusts: self-importance, greed, envy, bitterness, pride, sex, anger. All of those appetites are saying: you do not have what you need, and when you get what you need, you will be happy, safe, and well regarded. None of that is true; they are false instincts. Happiness comes out of being deeply loved and loving others.
This process of putting off and putting on needs a powerful change agent! Paul in verse 23 implies the change agent, and the change agent is the Holy Spirit who is changing the spirit of the individual's mind. No one can profoundly and positively change his or her identity without a work of God. We can make our identity much worse or we can sweeten it up, but to change deeply in a positive way is a work of God. Paul commanded that we allow the Spirit to change our spirit so this work of taking off and putting on can be effective.
Next, we are told to put on the qualitatively new person, which is "according to God." This means that the new person is inherently in harmony with God. To put on the new identity is to enter into a Trinitarian harmony. The place of effort is to put off the old and put on the new identity. With the new identity comes harmony and not as with a false identity of continual deterioration. This new harmonious identity has three aspects to it (those are the last three in the text colored purple). As opposed to deterioration, righteousness exists, as a right relationship with God and others. Instead of debased appetites comes holiness or a union with the Trinity. We are the property of God: holy as the temple was holy or holy as the golden altar was holy. This holiness is connected with truth rather than the lies of the false identity. This new identity fits reality as God created it. As the Trinity experiences truth we harmoniously experience the reality of who they are. This new identity will bring with it new instincts.
This is a created reality meaning it is new. We have been given a created identity in union with Christ, with God as a Father, and the Holy Spirit who is the agent of empowerment. We are a new humanity with Christ as our Head and not Adam.
This means that you have been called to a radically new vision of yourself. The old view is deteriorating and dying and the new one has to be put on. When we enter Christianity, we are invited to a life of profound differences. We embrace these differences, by first realizing we need to change our basic perception of who we are. As we change the perception, we change our instincts.