Emerging Into Our Identity

windingroadEmerging Adulthood
I have always seemed to work with a lot of people in the midst of that life transition from college to young adult, or to what is often referred to as emerging adulthood.  So because of the extension of adolescence, and the pushing of adulthood and it’s responsibilities to later years (late 20’s to early and mid-30’s) people often find themselves wrestling with questions that have often been resolved, or at least grappled with in early developmental stages.

In my work as a college admission recruiter, college pastor and marriage and family therapist, I often work with people who come to me with questions that they can’t quite formulate themselves, but that touch at the core of who they are, and are very existential in nature in many ways.

They are questions of identity, or “Who am I”, “What am I to do”, “What do I believe.”

Fundamental Questions
Over the last 6 months my supervisor has helped me formulate some questions that touch at the heart of clients that I work with that are going through this life transition.

So I often tell my client that they are asking 3 very basic, very fundamental questions:

  1. Who am I?
  2. What am I to do with myself?
  3. How am I to be loved?

Questions that we have been asking for thousands of years, and in reality, each of the questions are components of one another, and sometimes one must be answered for the other to be answered as well.

Jesus’ Baptism as Model
As I think about those questions I often like to meditate on Mark 1:9-14.

9At that time Jesus came from Nazareth in Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. 10As Jesus was coming up out of the water, he saw heaven being torn open and the Spirit descending on him like a dove. 11And a voice came from heaven: “You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased.”

12At once the Spirit sent him out into the desert, 13and he was in the desert forty days, being tempted by Satan. He was with the wild animals, and angels attended him.

14After John was put in prison, Jesus went into Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God. 15“The time has come,” he said. “The kingdom of God is near. Repent and believe the good news!”

Who am I?
For 30 years Jesus did ministry as a carpenter with little attention from the outside world that we know of. He had not started his ministry. But this scene at the river is what allowed him to be able to answer that question, “Who am I?” because, before he had done anything in ministry, he heard the voice from his Father saying that he loved him and was well pleased with him. So his identity, his ability to answer that question did not rest on what he did, but rather on who he was.

I think we must fundamentally be able to answer that question from who we are, and not from what we do, if we are to ever answer “Who am I?”

What am I to do with myself?
Here is where things interconnect. It’s because Jesus knew who he was, and could answer that question based on that, rather than what he did, that allowed him the freedom to move into what he was called to do.

When we don’t know who we are, then often we don’t know what to do vocationally speaking. When we can’t answer “Who am I?” we can’t move into what we believe God has called us to do, because at that point it’s about attaching our identity to what we do, rather than who we are.

How am I to be loved?
And of course, everything seems to hinge together here.  Jesus was loved, and his father was well pleased with him…not because of what he did, but because of who he was. It was in the relationship with the Father that his identity rested, which allowed him the freedom to do what he was called to do…to go out and proclaim the gospel, and the freedom to be loved unconditionally, without conditions based on merit and good works.

And You?
Three fundamental questions, interconnected and beautifully modeled in the baptism and life of Jesus.

I wonder if you can answer these three questions?  Have you even begun to wrestle with them?  Are you answering these questions from what you do, rather than who you are?

Hopefully if you are not already on this journey, you soon will be…


  1. by AndyC on March 5, 2009  6:19 am Reply

    This is a great post, but you do a bit of a disservice to direct it only at those in emerging adulthood.

    I am far from that but these are questions I started asking myself again a few years ago, although I would grant you with a different focus than you are getting at here.

    Bob Buford wrote Halftime to chronicle what happens as people look to turn from a life of success to a life of significance. These three questions would clearly enter into that thought process as well.

    It is a journey to start at the point of emerging adulthood, I agree. But it is one that you may find yourself entering into again a little later in life as you look to find or restore meaning into life through a closer relationship to God.

  2. by Rhett Smith on March 5, 2009  8:19 am Reply


    You are so right. I was thinking about that as I wrote the post...I agree that these questions occur through one's lifetime and probably return with more vigor at various life transitions. I think I was just thinking about all the emerging adults I work with, so I have more experience with them.

    I have found that those in the 40's, 50's, 60's have many of the same questions, but often take on a different tone, or trajectory to them. Sometimes I work with someone in their 60's who are wrestling with these questions, but since they approached them decades earlier, they also tend to have more of a peace or grace in the midst of them, then the typical young adult facing them for the first time.

    Exciting times...great opportunities for growth for all of us.

    Thanks for posting.


  3. by bob carlton on March 5, 2009  8:55 am Reply

    rhett, what a wonderful post - so many great insights

    two questions that I have also seen as central to the season of life that is emerging adulthood:

    who/what do I trust
    where do I draw meaning from

  4. by Scott on March 5, 2009  9:50 am Reply

    Immediately after our marriage my wife and I relocated over 1,500 miles so she could attend seminary. I had to find a job quickly and ended up as a barista at a local coffee shop. While it helped keep us afloat, working as a barista was not why I had obtained a college degree and I struggled with allowing "barista" to define who I was. Being in a new location only exacerbated this problem as every time I turned around I was meeting new people who were asking "what do you do?" as a way of getting to know me. My response usually involved stumbling through an awkward litany of background information and qualifications.

    It seems that culture has ingrained what we do as the de facto indicator of who we are such that, even despite my own experience, I find myself making judgements of other people using the same criteria.

    Any suggestions for a way out?

  5. by Michelle (Meesh) on March 5, 2009  12:21 pm Reply


    I gain so much understanding and comfort from your words. I guess you are becoming my one sided long distance counselor via the internet. Thanks for your inspiring, educational posts.

    : )

  6. by Rhett Smith on March 7, 2009  3:39 pm Reply


    Awesome. I love those thoughts, "who/what do I trust
    where do I draw meaning from"

    I appreciate your feedback. Are you still in Austin? We need to connect sometime. We were just there last weekend to visit some friends. Only takes us like 3 hrs to get down there.


    I love that story...I hear you on the thought of having to qualify ourselves. I was out of work for like 3 months before we moved here. I had resigned in June and didn't start work again till about September. It was hard to say that I was just in transition...or I was a stay at home dad, without qualifying it.

    As for suggestions. I don't have any quickfixes on that. I would say that it's just a life long process of being aware of that, which it sounds like you are, and slowly redefining what identity means to you. My favorite book on this topic of identity and vocation is Parker Palmer's, Let Your Life Speak: Listening for the Voice of Vocation. Brilliant.


    Thanks for the kind words. For sure, i love being a long distance counselor via the internet. Haaa. Anything I can do to help others I will try. Hoping everything is going well for you in your life transition right now.

    Thanks everyone for posting on this.


  7. by Derek on March 7, 2009  3:41 pm Reply

    I can't help but take issue with the "Who I Am" section. Well, actually 2 issues. First, it's Jesus' parent (GOD) who defines Jesus' identity. Sometimes that works out okay, but often it doesn't. Identity is formed in a variety of ways and certainly it is shaped by our culture, context and connections (for lack of a better "c" word); ultimately, identity must be defined by the person with most at stake lest that one's identity be misguided by a parent/friend/spouse/complete stranger with malicious/misguided intentions. I think the pivotal identity forming experience for Jesus in the baptismal scene is not the baptism itself, the descending dove, or the voice. The pivotal moment is Jesus' willingness to have been there, received the baptism, seen the dove and heard the voice. Without his willing participation, the rest might be deemed a rape of his body and spirit.
    Second, what is Jesus' identity at the end of this scene? A beloved child of God? A religious leader? One of the many people baptized that day? I don't think identity is formed in a moment (even such a significant moment as this). It's a series of moments and our willingness to participate in those moments that defines our identities over long periods of time. That's probably part of the reason that many people look back upon their lives 10 years ago and think, "Man, I was another person then." In fact, I kind of was.

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