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.