In the years I’ve spent leading sessions about Third Culture Kids, I’ve referred to the traits we derive from growing up between worlds in the context of ministry as our “Identity.”
We tend to be geographically aware. Adaptable. Multiligual. Inclusive. Relational. Agents of change. That’s who we are—what defines us—right?
Not entirely. Yes, these fruits of an international life feel intimately linked to who we are and certainly impact how we function and interact with the world. They resonate in our core. Our MK-ness is central to our perspective on life and explains many of the traits that make us different, in subtle ways, from others. What we’ve gained from growing up between cultures is rich and empowering. It can also be toxic and diminishing.
Being TCKs is intricately woven into our complex identity, but our relationship to that background is constantly changing—dependent on context, community, stage of life…even emotions. This renders it at best a fragile foundation. Putting too much stock in a one-dimensional identity based solely on circumstances and traits can be a risky proposition, because as that foundation inevitably shifts, the support beams that frame our identity will too.
As MKs, we need to reconsider how we define ourselves.
Factors like travel, relationships, language skills and experiences may determine aspects of who we are and what we can become, but do not express who we are in our elemental core.
There is only one true source of stable, lasting Identity. A wise MK named Edric put it this way:
“I think we are called not to ignore the traits that God has blessed us with, but to take on Christ as our primary and core identity. Our other labels as TCKs or MKs can complement our primary identity, but should never replace it.”
I’ve seen MKs cling to that aspect of their identity with almost religious zeal, refusing to bend or merge or evolve. In those cases, it became a fragilizing thing—limiting and alienating, frustrating and frangible.
There is another option. It expands our self-perception, not delegitimizing the formative impact of “growing up MK,” but broadening our sense of self to include a more eternal perspective.
Rick Warren wrote, “The concrete, solid, gospel truth is that you are who God says you are, and no one else has a vote in the matter.” Neither location, nor relationship, nor role, nor location can erode that truth. Rather than defining ourselves by our experiential and cultural backgrounds, we must find our core value and meaning in the unchangeable vision of the One who created us.
We are so much more than our relationships, geographical savvy and adaptability, as valuable and empowering as those are. We are who God tells us we are—and that will not change. It is not affected by culture, stage of life or achievement. It was hardwired into the fabric of our souls before we first breathed, and nothing—nothing—can undo it.
There is power in founding our identity in Christ. Just as Jesus was able to fulfill his mission and endure the hardships, accusations and pain of his life because he knew who he was in God, we too can face the uncertainties and upheavals of our lives if we know our true identity and purpose.
[I can’t go on without stating that not all MKs have a relationship with God. Many of them either can’t seem to “access” him or have rejected him. In these cases, encouraging them to focus on “who they are in him” will do more to push them away from Christ than toward him. These unbelieving MKs must first be genuinely loved into a meaningful relationship from which conversations about faith can naturally flow.]
Stephen Leblanc compiled a beautiful list of just about everything the Bible says about who we are in Christ. These assertions and promises form an interwoven foundation that will not and cannot be swayed by the surprises, losses, confusions, challenges and accomplishments of a multi-cultural life. I’ve picked out my favorites for the following list, which is printable here.
You are His
In Christ you have been
Redeemed by blood
Set free from the kingdom of darkness
Forgiven of all your trespasses
Given the Holy Spirit
Justified freely by His grace
In Christ you have been given
All things pertaining to life
Great and precious promises
Ministry of reconciliation
Authority over the enemy
Wisdom for free
A candle in a dark place
A citizen of heaven
Sheltered by His wing
In Christ you can have
Access to the Father
An anchor to your soul
A hope sure and steadfast
Power to witness
Peace with God
In Christ you can
Do all things
Come boldly to His throne
Declare liberty to the captives
Defeat and overcome the enemy
We are everything listed above, vested in us by God and grounded in His love for us.
If we claim these Truths as our core identity, the fluctuations of relationships, fulfillment and locations will matter so much less.
If we claim these Truths as the foundation for our lives, we will be able to find sameness in places our multi-cultural backgrounds would normally exclude.
If we claim these truths as fundamental to our sense of self, they will release the white-knuckled grip we have on “being an MK” and allow for the fulfillment, healing, purpose and connection that can only be found in an identity grounded in Christ.
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Excellent, as always! Loved this quote:
“A wise MK named Edric wrote this: “I think we are called not to ignore the other identities that God has blessed us with, but to take on the righteousness of Christ as our primary and core identity. Our other identities as TCKs or MKs can complement our primary identity, but should never replace it.”
I was just talking to a colleague, not 30 minutes ago, that I was disturbed/afraid that we are making MK identity into a sort of pathology – a person or people who must constantly be shored up because of their experiences, while telling them how wonderful they are and how special, and at the same time “let me help you.” I don’t want to not help MKs, but I want them to be whole human beings, not weaker than anyone else, who are out there using those assets in the Kingdom.
I’m going to wonder out loud here–is it a particularly TCK/international thing to think that we can choose our identity? Does that change the whole concept of identity itself, or just reflect our experience of taking on and discarding “partial” identities that are ascribed to us in different contexts?
Or maybe our many contexts enlighten us to a reality that “identity” is often ascribed or assumed rather than inherent, a reality that people with more monolithic contexts may be slower to discover.
Perhaps someone younger or someone Hindu will relate this to the “avatars” that have become common in virtual contexts, the word itself drawing on the Hindu idea that a God cannot be contained in our world, but can assume some representative shape and substance.
I will add that I am not trying to lead you to some particular truth about this, but rather muse with you as these thoughts run through my own head, interacting with some of (Michele’s) and the few comments I’ve read so far. Steve
Thanks for this encouraging article, Michelle. This was especially meaningful to me, “There is power in founding our identity in Christ. Just as Jesus was able to fulfill his mission and endure the hardships, accusations and pain of his life because he knew who he was in God, we too can face the uncertainties and upheavals of our lives if we know our true identity and purpose.”