I don’t understand my own behavior—I don’t do what I want to do; instead, I do the very thing I hate! … But if I am doing what “the real me” doesn’t want, it is no longer “the real me” doing it but the sin housed inside me.Romans 7: 15.20
Paul says something here we all understand almost too well: I do not understand myself. Is that not true?
The second verse sounds like an excuse: hey, it’s not me, it’s sin. Just the way it sounded during the phase of anti-authoritarian education? Johnny is good, only the environment is bad.
He is talking about something different, be assured.
But first an explanation of the word which is translated in the Bible as “sin”:
Hamartia first of all means “to deny life” or “have no share”, composed of a (not, no) and meros (proportion, measure, share). The Bible translates sin. Homer needs the word to – almost cynically – tell the archer that he has missed the target and thus has no share in the price.
So we can interpret the word in three ways, on three levels:
- I do not live up to the rules, so I sin in the basic sense. Like violating the 10 commandments.
- I miss the goal to become a better person, to mature. Like refusing to grow up.
- I negate the plan that God has for my life.
The Complete Jewish Bible I quoted from translates the verse beautifully.
The real me – our God-given being, our inmost, what God has planned for us. Some call it the true self, and I will use this phrase.
There seems to be another me that we have built over time, beginning with our birth, called the ego. That way we respond to the world, this is how we protect ourselves from the world, that is how we want the world to see us. Part of this ego is the false self, all the negative behaviours, habits, and beliefs we have about ourselves.
This false ego commits sin and misses the goal. The false self also negates the existence of the true self, and thus the plan of God with us.
It is also the false self that we often seek identity from. This is why we often define ourselves by our roles:
- My mother was just that – my mother. But as I grew up, she could not let go of that role and continued to define herself in and through it. She called me Ralphli (a diminutive of my first name) until her death. She had lost part of her identity with my departure from home, but could not let go.
- Others define themselves by their profession. Our first question to people we meet: And, what do you do? In German, it is even worse: we ask “what are you?” We expect an answer like: carpenter, programmer, pastor, unemployed.
- A child identifies with his or her toy. An infant first has to learn that its environment is not part of itself. If you take a toy away from a toddler, the child somewhat dies. At the same time it learns the concept of myself and the rest of the world – a good and necessary thing. It gets bad when adults hang on to their toys in the same way, be it a car or a pair of shoes, to try a few clichés.
- Not a few people identify with their chronic illness. Just note how I say that: their chronic illness, with a possessive pronoun. They are afraid to get well because they then do not know who they are anymore.
The true self knows that I am a son of God, a daughter of God. Exactly as it was pronounced about Jesus at his baptism. This is my son, whom I enjoy.
Incidentally, some people knew before Jesus that he is the Messiah: Mary, John the Baptist, Elizabeth, Joseph, the shepherds, Simeon, Hannah, the wise men from the East.
Jesus himself grew into this realisation. But for about 30 years he did nothing – in public.
At 30, sons were adopted in Israel. Their father proclaimed that the word of the son was now as valuable as his own. That is what God did with Jesus at his baptism.
I think what happened next is prototypical for all of us. Jesus went to the desert and his identity was questioned.
It was Satan questioning Jesus – and at the same time this is a wonderfully poetic metaphor of what is going on in ourselves in such times. For we often need nobody to doubt and question ourselves – the false self is perfectly capable of doing so.
We have moments – for example, a midlife crisis – when we realise that there is more than our false self concedes to us. We fathom the true self. And immediately our false self accuses us and questions this new identity.
It’s about our foundation: Who am I? This is about hamartia at the deepest, innermost level: the plan of God with our lives.
And how is our identity attacked? For Jesus, it was three questions (see Luke 4: 1ff):
- Turn stones into bread. What have you done up to now? Actually nothing. But you are what you do. (Keyword: profession)
- I give you power over the whole world, if you worship me. Because you are what you have. (Keyword: possession)
- Jump from the temple and the father will save you. Make something important that gives you instant fame. I know, you are afraid to be a nobody, you are only something when others acknowledge one. (Keyword: prominence)
Profession – possession – prominence
In contrast, the true self tells the truth: your identity lies in who you are, not what you do, have, or signify.
Your identity is that of a son, a daughter of God.
Is that enough? Yes.
Is it enough for me? Yes and no.
This identity is a wonderful foundation. Jesus himself used this new certainty as a springboard for his ministry in the next 3½ years. He now knew that he belonged, was a part, was not “hamartia”.
He now could work wonders, but that was his vocation, not his identity giving profession.
He now could own something, but it was now about stewardship instead of ownership.
He could be someone in the eyes of others, but now he had a share in God and God’s plan instead of prominence and significance.
God allows us to grow in vocation, stewardship, and participation before we truly understand what our identity is. In it, we grow and recognise ourselves and God more and more. But it means that we have to be careful that these things do not become our identity again.
Because the discovery of my true self is a life task.
Forgive me that I do not want to be or do not believe in how you made me.