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Wednesday, September 2, 2015

Be Yourself: Romans 6

In my favorite young adult series, Janner Igiby, a simple son of a farmer, finds out that his real name is Janner Wingfeather, Throne Warden of the Shining Isle. Janner becomes the protector of his brother, the young King Kalmar, whose life circumstances eventually give him due cause to question his true identity as a king, a son, and even a human being. Numerous times throughout the book, Janner must remind his brother of his true identity by calling him by his real name. By reminding him who he really is, Janner is able to bring Kalmar back from the edge of insanity. It's that easy. And that impossibly difficult.

It's popular to hear the phrase, "be yourself." It's a phrase I always imagine being drawn with a colored pencil while flowers and unicorns and sparkles spew from the letters like on a commercial for a laser jet printer. But for all our encouraging each other to do it, few people seem to know how. We are expert turtles of soul skilled in strategies for hiding what we think is our true identity. Some people hide by being loud and hilarious to cover up their insecurities. Others hide by talking less and avoiding people or wearing lots of makeup or insisting on long dresses or making intellectual comments or devising blatant lies. But whatever our cover of choice, our propensity to shield ourselves from others is at least partly rooted in shame. We think we know who we are, and we're afraid of what people will think if they were to find out. We're bad people, after all. We know what we've done. What we used to do. And doesn't the Bible affirm this? We're sinners to the core, even if Jesus saved us. 

Or are we? 

I've been thinking about what my pastor said this past week. If we explain the gospel correctly, it will evoke the question, "Well, wait...doesn't that mean I can do whatever I want?" It's a paraphrase of Paul's "Shall we continue in sin that grace may abound?" Of course, Paul answers with the emphatic, "God forbid!" But the point here is that the question has to be asked and answered as a natural outflow of proper gospel focus. It's one of those necessary mistakes that has to be made in holding the tension of the gospel. And the gospel is dangerous, isn't it? It's so radically grace-based that a coworker of mine responded by saying, "I think it's a beautiful idea, but it can too easily be abused." 

I agree with my friend. It can be horribly abused. But that doesn't make it less true. And what's more, it's not the need for morality or ethics that makes it so. Paul's inspired reasons for tenaciously holding to the gospel are backed up, unbelievably, without laying down the law. He doesn't write a detailed instruction manual or a list of guidelines to prevent people from abusing grace. He does something entirely different and entirely consistent with the character of the God I am coming to know. Paul's imperatives in this chapter have nothing to do with avoiding specific sins or doing specific good works. They are in order: "know," "consider," and "present." What keeps us from sin? What keeps us from abusing this gift of grace? Apparently, it's as simple (but often excruciatingly difficult) as knowing who we are in Christ, believing that we are who He says we are, and living from that reality moment to moment. This is a holy "be yourself." Be who you really are. But not the you that you think you are, whether that's a sniveling sinner or a righteous pharisee. Rather, be who God says you are.
Remember your name.

This goes much deeper than creating a false reality in hopes of changing yourself. God is stating the reality of my identity, and I am agreeing with him that I'm no longer a sinner by identity. I am only a sinner by description when I fail to believe the truth about God and myself. In my innermost being, I am forgiven of all sin and covered in the righteousness of Christ. God sees me the same way He sees Jesus, the One who lived under the Law and died under the Law so that I could die to the flesh and live under grace. 

You can try to modify your behavior. The example one of my pastors mentioned is famous for its scathing mention in James 3: you can attempt to tame your tongue. But since your words, like all other actions, only reveal what's in the heart, you really need a new heart. A new you. And if you have a new you, why are you so afraid of being yourself? Your true self is the one Jesus gave you, so you can be that redeemed child of God in freedom and joy living in righteousness from the heart. That was the point all along, from the very beginning: People who want to be with God. Not people who follow a moral code out of duty. The goodness (misnamed "morality" sometimes) that comes out of this relationship with Him is a byproduct, but by no means the point. 

Practically speaking, we can stop trying to encourage each other with directives to "make Jesus happy" or "keep pursuing God" or anything else that implies a "try harder" mentality. Instead we can exhort each other, like Paul does, to remember our identity in Christ and live out of that grace. Sometimes, like King Kalmar of the Shining Isle, we forget that we are rescued royalty. We just need someone to remind us who we are.

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