Yesterday, I wrote about how only three of eighteen Baylor seniors interviewed for our Baylor Faith and Character Study mentioned that they found their identity and worth in God. How did those students arrive at that conclusion?

Unfortunately, for one mixed-race student, it did not come from her family. Her mother and father divorced a decade earlier, and she had not seen her father in eight years, the primary one who usually helps young women discover who they are. Unfortunately, her mother was also emotionally abusive, so she had to live with her sister.  As I have found with virtually every student from divorced families when they write about their moral journey, the divorce and ensuing fall out led her to some dark places. She recalled, “It was pretty just hard and all I could really feel was anger, most the time.”

Yet, the beauty of her story is how she had someone step into her life to tell her who she was. As I find with most students, their most important questions revolve around “Who am I?”  In her case, it was a friend’s mom to whom she asked this question.  But the question was asked because she experienced something from this friend’s mother, “Her mom really just showed me the love of Christ in a way that-in a motherly way-that I hadn’t really experienced before.” From this experience of motherly, Christ-like love, she let down her guard and asked this friend’s mother, “Am I a sociopath because my mom always told me I was?” I cannot imagine a more heart-breaking lie delivered by Satan through a student’s own mother.  Relationally, she had been betrayed by her own parents.

Imagine growing up and not knowing a key part about who you really are: some part of your identity has been hidden from you your whole life. Actually, this should not be too hard to imagine. Our books and movies are full of these kinds of stories: Harry Potter, Rey (from the new Star Wars), Luke Skywalker (from the old Star Wars), among others. Usually, this hidden identity is something vitally important—it holds the key to understanding a person’s whole story

I once taught a Russian student who grew up his whole life thinking his father, Ivan, was a former KGB agent. His parents divorced when he was young, leaving him with an estranged relationship with his father. In fact, one time when he returned home after being a graduate student in America for many years, his father paid him little attention during his visit. When he told me about it, I could not imagine having that kind of neglectful father. My heart broke for this young man considering the toll that this broken relationship took on him

A few years after this odd visit, his father passed away. During this student’s next visit to Russia, his mother sat him down for a talk. She told him that the man who he thought had been his father all along was not actually his father. His real father was a poet who lived in another Eastern European country. In her youth, the mother had fallen in love with this man, but since this student’s Russian “father” and his family had powerful political connections, they pressured her into giving up the man she loved from another country to marry Ivan. It was only when Ivan, her husband, was dead, she felt free and safe to tell her son the truth about the identity of his true father. Suddenly, this young man’s whole life, and the fatherly love he had not experienced, started to make more sense in light of his new-found identity.

Fortunately, the female friend’s mother spoke also truth into this young lady’s life in answer to her question and help her understand her true identity, “She was like, ‘No, no, you’re not. Who would tell you that?’ And I just kind of just let it all break loose. And she made me realize that I’m not stupid I’m not worthless, that I’m loved. And, yeah, she just really showed me the love of Christ in a way, I’ve never experienced from another adult in my life besides my dad before he left.” Through this love, vulnerable sharing and the speaking of truth about her identity, this student carried her new theological identity into college.  Thus, when asked what made her feel valuable or worthwhile, she answered, “my relationship with the Lord.”

As the Scriptures attest, particularly in the Pauline epistles, knowing your true identity gives you the motivation to pursue a deeper and more faithful relationship with God. She noted “that was a turning point for me. She sent me on the right path. By giving me that experience and by giving me that love consistently. Yeah. So I go there whenever I needed to leave the house and stuff and they provided a safe place for me and high school really longer years.” She found loving Christians who directed her to her proper sense of worth.  Thus, unlike the many students I mentioned yesterday, she did not find her worth in the relationships or relational achievements. Instead, those relationships led her to understand who she is in Christ.

Perhaps trials are what led you to that recognition of your true identity. Interestingly, it is only by gazing upon the crucified Christ that we truly know who Christ is—“the son of God” (compare Peter’s partial understanding in Mark 8:27-33 to the proper understanding of the centurion in Mark 15:39).

Not surprisingly, then this student also shared another story of suffering that taught her not to place her worth in accomplishments: “I got a concussion. My second concussion, my senior year, right before in varsity basketball right before the season started in and I was basically out of school for the rest of the year, until graduation.” Having to stay home her whole senior year she admitted, “I was pretty depressed in the fact that I couldn’t work out I couldn’t, I couldn’t play basketball I couldn’t be with my friends, or at least with my team most the time.” Yet, through this difficult experience, she encountered God’s presence,

God really just reached out to me. And that time, and really opened my eyes to presence in my life. I can’t really, I mean, it’s kind of a gradual, but also sudden thing for me. Like I’ve given my life to the Lord in kindergarten.  I went to a classical Christian school. But being in a classical Christian school the culture really kind of made me be soft and lukewarm to it all. So, I know I didn’t take my relationship with him very seriously, and I didn’t really seek his face. Until that moment really. He made me realize how important it is to be in relationship with Him consistently.

As someone who spent a year in bed in 2017 and could not teach, father, be a good friend, or even steward my body, I asked the same question, “Who Am I?” and fortunately experienced the same God-given presence and comfort (see my article about this experience in CT). Thus, we need to remember that as our students experience mental health challenges like never before from all kinds of external circumstances, we must remind them of who they truly are. For them to open up to ask that question and be willing to hear that message, they also need to experience our Christ-like love and presence in the midst of their suffering.

For a reading about how to help students ground their worth in the triune God, see the first three chapters of my book, Identity in Action.

Perry L. Glanzer

Baylor University
Perry L. Glanzer, Ph.D., is Professor of Educational Foundations and a Resident Scholar with Baylor Institute for Studies of Religion.