Who Am I?


Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote a haunting poem called “Who Am I?” from his jail cell in war-time Nazi Germany.  In it he considers the difference between others’ observations of him, as brave and confident throughout his imprisonment, and the way he felt inside, like “a contemptible woebegone weakling.”  His confusion is familiar to me in this season of Lent when we are encouraged to remember our abiding sinfulness and to repent of all its unseemliness before our Most Holy God.  In the process of doing that good work of repentance, I can sometimes get lost in my own shame, scrabbling like a squirrel in a box to find the way back to courage and confidence.  Who am I?  A worthless sinner who even in her best moments can never escape her own failures?  Or the beloved daughter of the King of Everything, a courageous and powerful extension of her Father’s purpose in the world? 

 

Scripture tells me that I am a sinner before I sin, that my humanness is confined by my fallenness, that I will never in this life do anything which is pure or worthy of the great attention which God pours upon me by His grace alone.  When I clothe myself in my most shining achievement, it is, in comparison to God’s beauty, as though I had covered my nakedness with excrement (Is. 64:6, Zec. 3:3). There is a deep and enduring truth here which is dangerous to ignore – I cannot forget my sin nature or the way it works itself out in practical, cunning and consistent corruption.  If I do forget that, it will overtake me.  Even worse, when I devalue my own sinfulness, I devalue the price which was paid to free me. 

 

However, alongside my very real need for repentance and the truth of my depravity, there is also a danger in claiming the name, “Worthless.”  I count myself among those who have taken that name early in life, and we spend much of our emotional capital repeating it to ourselves (Stupid!  Failure!  Less-than!).  We also spend much of our time and energy trying to climb out of that pit, to earn our own freedom, to change our own name, to fill the hole in our hearts with affirmation or accomplishments that we have garnered for ourselves.  I carry a psychic tennis racquet to bat away the compliments I cannot accept, and yet I will work harder and longer the next time around to make sure someone keeps lobbing them my way.  When I live out of my Worthless identity, I am trying to fix my own problem by myself. Real repentance doesn’t try to take its own punishment or repair its own brokenness.  Real repentance throws us passionately, even joyfully, back into the arms of God where we belong.

 

While we take needed time during Lent to recognize and repent of the sinfulness which infects our cells like a virus, it is another part of worship to rejoice in the fact that have already swallowed the cure.  In fact, God sees us clothed in the righteousness of Christ and seated with Him in heaven (Eph. 2:6) because that’s our truest nature.  It has been accomplished FOR us.  It is still being accomplished IN us.  Our sin nature is falling away, being conquered in slow motion.  Let us not define ourselves by the part of us which is dying.  Let us answer the question, “Who am I?” the way God answers it for us.  It doesn’t matter how much you or I feel that we are putrid pond scum.  God says that we are His bride, His friend, His child, His “Beloved.”  That is who we are and who we are becoming.  At the same time, Beloved could not be our identity or our destiny if Christ had not come to save us from ourselves.  That immense and glorious salvation is what we celebrate with the heartfelt offering of our repentance.


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Beads on a String

It was an incongruous place to be stringing pearls. Her hair was a memory, and her face was puffy with swelling, but those beautiful, shapely fingers were quick and steady. One by one she picked out the beads, setting them aside to become an integral part of her latest creation. The others sitting nearby looked on curiously as a slow drip ran varicolored fluids into her chest beneath the collar bone. They, too, had bare metal trees flowing toxic sap, infusing hope. But they did not have the beads, the flashing silver spacers, the diamond-cut glass spheres, and the pearls that ran from her fingertips onto tiger-tail circlets.

 

Her smile was out-of-place, too, in the clinic. Most people tried to sleep the hours away while burning liquid invaded their tissues. But if a cocky beret and an inviting countenance were not enough to induce a conversation from her neighbors, there were always the beads. If you wanted to try, she would let you choose your colors from her box of surprises, show you how to handle the pliers, how to close the crimp beads to just the right tension. So that when you left you would have something to remember: a bracelet, a keepsake, a connection.

 

She gave them to all her friends in those days, a little bit of herself that sprang from the dark hours. A little bit of herself that glittered with life. She let me make my own one day, but I’ve never been very inventive, and she had to help me choose the colors. We picked a handful of blue beads in turquoise, powder and midnight, pearls in white and silver-gray. Some of them looked nearly black to me, dull and uninviting. Others were unusual, with bits of contrasting glass stuck on at odd angles. And several of them were my favorites. I would have made the whole circle of just those beautiful beads: creamy white with soft blue accents and elegant gold trim.

 

She knew better than I, however. Because when I had inexpertly strung all of them together and she had helped me finish off my bracelet, it was a little work of art. I stare at it now, examining each bead and the way they all meld into one eclectic whole. That was her wisdom. Each bead is unique, some dull, others wild, a few lovely. But when the artist has finished, they blend into a satisfying creation that can never be duplicated, a song from the heart of its maker.

 

As day upon day is strung on the cord that becomes a life, it is a gift to hold each one in our hands and notice without rancor whether they are troubling or luminous or ordinary, dull or wild or lovely. The uniqueness and delight of God’s work comes not from a bland sameness of beauty, but from His blending of the light and the dark in a pattern which can only be fully appreciated from afar. And thus the Creator is glorified, taking pleasure in each story which reflects His sovereign artistry. Year upon year, life upon life, like pearls on a string, our days are meant to reflect the heart of God – just as surely as my sparkling bracelet still reflects her love in a world she has long transcended.

 


I remember the days of old; I meditate on all Thy doings; I muse on the work of Thy hands.  Ps. 143:5

Grace: Living in the Tension

As Christians, we walk in the gray area between Biblical tensions all our lives long; e.g., Jesus’ humanity versus His divinity, God’s sovereignty versus our responsibility, etc. But when we stray outside the limits of a healthy tension, we can end up hurting ourselves and the people around us. Today, I want to consider the difference between two kinds of Christians who are “stuck” outside the tension between law and grace – those who don’t know they need grace, and those who don’t know they have it. I have been both of those unfortunates at various times myself.

 

argue picThose who don’t know they need grace come to the counseling room in righteous indignation. This may include the spouse who drags their partner along to get fixed, the partner who doesn’t think they need fixing, the person angry with God for failing to fulfill their dreams and the one who simply cannot forgive. These people are not malleable clay in the sculptor’s hands, bending to His will; they know they are right and deserving of recognition. They have forgotten that accepting Christ means acknowledging deep and abiding sin, deep and abiding need in all areas for a lifetime. They have forgotten that they have a King who desires to confront the blackness of their hearts, and that is a blessing. I have been this kind of prideful, self-sufficient person.

 

Feeling downThose who don’t know they have grace come to the counseling room in self-condemnation. This includes the addict who believes his sin is worse than anyone else’s, the victim of abuse who has assumed a garment of shame, the anxiety-ridden teen who knows she’ll never be beautiful and the unemployed father who doesn’t feel like a man. While generally acknowledging God’s unconditional love for others, they believe they have fallen too far for grace. These people have succumbed to an odd form of idolatry: their own opinion of themselves carries more authority than the words of Scripture or the blood of Christ. They have forgotten – or never understood – that they have a loving Savior who defines their worth, and that changes everything. I can be this kind of guilty, less-than person.

 

Scripture is, perhaps, the deepest paradox known to man, for it is both the standard of judgment and the conduit of mercy. The human heart is arrogant, prone to exalt and care for itself above all, prone to judge others, prone to demand fulfillment. It is also a needy vessel, incomplete and riddled with holes that can only be repaired by the original clay of a powerful and gracious love. Scripture offers the cure for both diseases.

 

First, we must deeply understand and truly own our brokenness. If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. (I John 1:8) The Bible doesn’t call us to judge others; even Jesus said this about Himself. But it calls us to a continual and humble recognition of our own weakness. Whatever righteousness we possess was hard-won by Christ Himself, and it must be His great grief when we use it as a weapon.

 

Only in weakness and humble repentance can we be repaired by the generous love of God who paid for our sins and donates His own holiness to our account. More than a dry, factual righteousness, Christ proclaims our infinite worth and His eternal love for us aside from any human standard, even our own. We will live forever in a community of equals – saints and sinners all, saved by grace. There is therefore now no condemnation for those in Christ Jesus. (Rom. 8:1) Our temporary imperfection is a quality which connects us to others rather than a secret shame which sets us apart.

 

I imagine that examples of people living outside a Biblical tension have popped into your mind as you read some of the descriptions above. (They popped into mine, anyway.) Take a few minutes right now and prayerfully consider your own posture before the Lord. If you know Jesus Christ as your Savior, then you’d best not stand too tall, but you need not cringe in shame.

 


 

  • Which kind of Christian (proud or ashamed) more closely reflects your heart-attitude today?
  • What part of Scripture (that you need grace or that you have it) do you want to remember and apply right now?
  • How will you ingest the remedy of Christ throughout this day and week?