a woman looks mixed feeling

Am I Really My Sinful Self? Yes and No

Months ago, someone told me they had stumbled on a great new discipline strategy for their children. When this person caught their child doing something wrong, the child was stopped. The parent would then tell them, “That’s not who you are!”

I’ve thought and thought about this, and I can see how we could back this up biblically.

In one sense, for those of us who have accepted Jesus completely into our lives, God has exchanged our hearts of stone for hearts of flesh, remaking us from the inside. New creation, new life! Talking back to your mum or even leaving your wet towels on the floor is, in a sense, not who you are anymore.

And yet—another part of my friend’s philosophy leaves me unsettled. Because in another way, that is who my kids are. It’s actually who I am, too. It’s why we keep doing those things.

Matthew 5:34 says, “Out of the overflow of the heart, the mouth speaks.” I love the Irish missionary Amy Carmichael’s thought on this: “A cup brimful of sweet water cannot spill even one drop of bitter water, however suddenly jolted.”

Sometimes, my escape from a label–that’s not who I am–is just a thinly-veiled excuse. A way of saying to myself, “You’re better than that! You’re superior to that kind of behaviour!”

But am I? As much as I’d like to say that when I lie, I’m not really a liar, the truth is, my lying wasn’t a freak accident; it came from within me. “I didn’t mean that” is rarely fully true.

And though I’d like to tell you that when my kids steal something, they’re not thieves on some level—well, if someone who steals isn’t a thief, who is? Would it be the person who steals on a regular basis? How many occasions of stealing constitutes a thief?

The good and bad of labels

I see that there’s a healthy and unhealthy aspect to resisting a label. Within our own bodies is a swirl of both the image of God and the curse of sin.

On the healthy side, none of us is one way all the time. Those of us with a foul mouth aren’t cussing 100% of our days. The labels that fall in that 100% category are, say, I am a child of God 100% of the time. I am married 100% of the time.

On the unhealthy side, pride makes me resist the worst parts of myself. I remember as a teenager, when my parents would confront me on stretching the truth, I’d be aghast. “Are you saying I’m a liar? That’ I’m not trustworthy?”

When 1 John 1:9 reads, “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness”—confess translates the Greek word meaning to acknowledge. To say the truth.

Labels, or names, have the potential to be helpful, as long as we realise their limitations. To keep them constructive rather than destructive, we can

  • Use labels as a mental jumping-off point to ask questions and seek understanding, rather than sticking to a stereotype. That’s why many of us resist personality tests. We accurately think, I’m so much more than a label. Don’t put me in a box. Labels fail to be helpful when they fail to lead to true understanding.
  • Consider whether a label helps us acknowledge others in ways that “walk in love” (Ephesians 5:2). That nixes any labels that tear people down and keep them from getting to know Jesus: “Let no corrupting talk come out of your mouths, but only such as is good for building up” (Ephesians 4:29).

Our labelling/naming should lead to repentance and change for ourselves and compassion and restoration for others.

God’s naming gives us a choice

There is power in naming, whether it’s used for good or for evil.

I love the biblical pattern of God renaming people in light of His purpose for them—and one day, His new name for me (Revelation 2:17). You could say I have two names within me: the battling identities of sinner and redeemed (Paul communicated this beautifully in Romans 7:21-8:2).

God is the ultimate Name Giver, and He calls me, among many others—

  • Friend. (John 15:15)
  • New, and no longer a slave (Romans 6:6, 8:15, Galatians 4:7).
  • Daughter. Heir. (Luke 15:22-24, Romans 8:15)
  • Free. (Romans 8:2)
  • A saint. (1 Corinthians 1:2, Ephesians 1:1, Philippians 1:1, Colossians 1:2)
  • Chosen, holy, and blameless. (Ephesians 1:4)

Can you imagine receiving a name that finally encompasses all of who you were made to be?

I once read a parable that captured my mind on this:

An old grandfather told his grandson: “My son, there is a battle between two wolves inside us all. One is evil. It is anger, jealousy, greed, and resentment. The other is good. It is joy, love, hope, humility, kindness, empathy, and bravery.”

The boy thought about it, and asked, “Grandfather, which wolf wins?”

The old man quietly replied, “The one you feed.”

In naming us “new”, I see Jesus tugging us out of our old selves (Galatians 2:20), giving us the choice about which identity we’ll feed. We’re making micro and macro decisions about that identity, about what masters us, every day (Romans 6:16).

Part of my parenting strategy is to talk frequently and openly about my own sin and with my kids about their own. Not in a “You are a worm!” sort of way, but in a way that’s honest about who we are. And who we aren’t.

I want my kids to see the line down the middle of their heart, the wolves in them snapping, ravenous. And still, I want them to see that one of these forces is infinitely more powerful. To add a name: They can be Conquerors, even at the tender age of six.

I do this because if they walk away from my home with any lesson, it should be that WE NEED JESUS.

I struggle with hypocrisy; I’m sure the people who’ve lived with me can confirm for you. I think we all have an inner Pharisee with his beady, haughty little eyes staring out through our own and judging others, whether we’re Christians or not.

The bad news: It is who I am.

The good news: Because of who He is, it’s not who I’m staying. In the words of American pastor and author Tim Keller: “The gospel is this: We are more sinful and flawed in ourselves than we ever dared believe, yet at the very same time we are more loved and accepted in Jesus Christ than we ever dared hope.”

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