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!  Worthless!).  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.


Limited, Fallible, Sinful. Which Is It?

Arguments.So often we heap blame on our own shoulders for a failure we did not intend and could not have prevented. If you’ve ever forgotten to pick up your child from school, given a less-than-stellar business presentation or executed a pratfall instead of a grand entrance, then you know what I mean. We fail (again and again) to live up to anyone’s standard of perfection, especially our own. When humanity fell in the Garden of Eden, we became broken creatures prone to failure, but how we view that failure determines how we will handle it. So let’s take a look at several different kinds of human imperfection.

 

Limited.  Being limited is part of being human. Even in Heaven, we probably won’t be able to transcend time, know others’ thoughts or interact with millions of people at once. One person can only know, do and care a limited amount, and there is nothing bad about that. God called us “very good” (Gen. 1:31) even with our limitations. When you have to say “no” to ministry because you are already taking care of your family, when you didn’t realize your boyfriend wanted you to be at his soccer practice and when you tried all day but couldn’t reach your mother on her birthday, you are experiencing your own limitations. Any guilt you might feel about that is not coming from God.

 

Fallible.  We make mistakes. Our brains, hands and hearts don’t work as well as God originally created them to. With the best of intentions, we still fall short. We use the wrong name, forget the anniversary, lose our cell phone. Brennan Manning said (I wish I could quote this) he wanted to learn to be open and amused about his own mistakes, seeing them as good reminders of the human condition and his constant need for God’s grace. Our world would be a much better place if we could all give that kind of grace to ourselves and others. Our mistakes are not outside God’s ability to use them, and they are not sinful. You probably wouldn’t feel too guilty about getting a math problem wrong. You’d acknowledge your condition (just not that good at math) and go find a calculator! That’s what we need to do with all our mistakes: acknowledge that we are just not that good at life (NO ONE is), and ask for the help we need. 

 

Sinful.  We tend to put everything in this category which is why we feel so guilty about so much. We should feel guilty about sin – that’s what guilt is for! Sin occurs when we know what we should do before God, and we do something else (see James 4:17, Rom. 14:23 and 1 John 3:4-6, for example). Sin is, in its essence, rebellion against God. Fortunately, there is a remedy for sin and its guilt. We can take them to the cross and drop them there, running free because we know Christ already paid our debt. While guilt can be one indicator of sin, it’s not foolproof. So the next time you feel guilty, ask yourself this question: “Did I sin?” Whenever you can say, “Yes,” run – do not walk – to the cross with your repentance. Afterward, any guilt you continue to feel is not coming from God. And if you answer, “No,” then you should really be thinking about one of the other categories above.

Angry Parent

Dear Christian Counselor,

I am a mother of 3, redeemed by Christ nine years ago, but every day I fail to live that promise. I have this temper that comes out and hurts my kids. Am I really saved? Then why do I keep repeating this sin with the littlest things, like spilt water, a loud voice etc.? After snapping I am disgusted by it, and I always repent to God and my kids. How I thank God for not giving me serenity in sin. His mercy is there, but I want to experience His victory. I pray each time that His sovereign power protects my kids from me.

I’ve read so many books about parenting, and I’ve been crying out to God each morning to experience His presence and the hope He has given me. Every day I fail in my greatest mission — to reflect Christ to my kids. How can I shepherd them if I always scare them away? Most times I feel that I don’t deserve to be a mother… Why can’t I take care of his gifts well, and why can’t I always be joyful with these? We are talking about being good stewards of what God has given us. And I’m failing big time. Please remember me in your prayers.

Mad Mama


Dear Mad Mama,

I want to answer your most important question first: I do believe you are saved. The Apostle Paul called himself “the chief of sinners” in one of his last letters (I Tim. 1:15). Conviction and remorse are signs of the Holy Spirit’s work. If God wanted to give you an instant victory, He could do that, but being saved doesn’t usually mean we stop grappling with sin – it means we have help for the struggle and forgiveness when we fail. If you can set this question at rest, and stop beating yourself up, it may help you find a bit more patience.

It seems you have taken some good, practical steps, such as reading parenting books and starting your day with reminders of God’s love. Because these things have not helped you substantially, I believe you need to find the root of your anger (see James 4:1-2a). You may be carrying a burden from the past which explodes at an inappropriate target. Finding peace within does not mean blaming others for your temper; it means leaving bitterness behind and redeeming your story. I would suggest finding a local, Christian counselor to help with that process. You might try calling Focus on the Family which has a phone counseling ministry as well as a counseling referral database:

To reach Focus on the Family’s counseling service by phone, call 1-800-A-Family (232-6459) weekdays 6:00 a.m. to 8:00 p.m. (Mountain Time). Please be prepared to leave your contact information for a counselor or chaplain to return a call to you as soon as possible. The consultation is available at no cost to you. You may also reach our counselors online by filling out our Counseling Request Form.

I want to add a few more hands-on suggestions:

  • First, offer your children an abundance of praise. If you give them plenty of intentional encouragement and loving kindness, it will help counteract your angry outbursts.
  • Second, you might try working through Carter and Minirth’s Anger Workbook noted on our resources page.
  • Finally, I would urge you to take very good care of yourself, finding rest in small ways throughout the day, reducing or eliminating activities which drain your reserves, asking for assistance when you need it. No one else will do this for you, and lowering your overall stress will help you when you encounter parenting challenges. Sometimes I find that Christians have a hard time saying “no” because they feel it would be selfish. You must learn to do this for the sake of your kids, so that you have the capacity to love them well over the long haul.

set of vector icons of religious christianityIn closing, I am asking everyone who reads this letter to say a prayer for you and your children. Perhaps that’s the real gift God has for you here.