We are who we are, and our identities are formed out of our nature, our experience, and our choices. Sometimes those choices are wrong, and we know they are wrong, but we make them anyway: that is sin. We see something we want, we know it is not ours to take, but we take it anyway because we want to. Or we see something we should do, we know it will come at a cost, so we do not do it because we do not want to pay that cost. That is sin. But why do we want, or don’t want, and then sin? Sometimes the wanting is a whim of the moment. But more often, it is because those wants come out of our identity as persons. Those are the sins that can define us, and they are the most difficult to overcome.
The very first sins, of Adam and Eve, are exactly of this sort. Recall the story of Genesis: Adam is created first, and placed in a garden. His first job is to name all the animals, but no suitable companion for him is found [Genesis 2:19-20]. Then Eve is created from Adam, to be a helper for him [Genesis 2:21-22]. God gives them both complete freedom in the garden where they are living, except for one thing: he commands them not to eat the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, which will kill them [Genesis 2:17]. Along comes the serpent, who approaches Eve. He tempts her to eat the forbidden fruit, using the lure of knowledge and the fear of missing out [Genesis 3:3-5], she who had herself missed out on knowing and naming all the creatures before her own entry into the story. She is swayed, she eats when she knows she should not, and so she sins.
Likewise, Adam’s formative experience comes from being the first human in the story. He is alone, and it is not good [Genesis 2:18]. He faces disappointment after disappointment when naming the beasts, because no suitable helper among them is found [Genesis 2:20]. Then Eve comes into the story, which makes Adam very glad [Genesis 2:21-23]. Now Eve approaches Adam, holding out to him the fruit that he knows he should not eat. Adam knows that if he refuses, there will be a new separation between himself and Eve, now that she has eaten. Perhaps he will even lose her as a helper? Not willing to pay the price of a new separation, he does what he knows is wrong: he eats too [Genesis 3:6]. His sin, like Eve’s, is a choice. But it is not a whim, a choice made randomly without thought on the spur of the moment, it is something deeper, driven by desires and fears that come out of personal identity and lived experience.
Another story about sin and identity in the Bible is that of King David and Bathsheba. One afternoon, David, the King of Israel, strolls on the roof of his palace overlooking the city. There he sees Bathsheba, the wife of Uriah, one of his soldiers, bathing in the privacy of her home. He finds out she is the wife of Uriah. But wanting her anyway, he arranges for her to be brought to him so he can sleep with her [2 Samuel 11:4]. As king, David feels entitled to take this woman that he wants, even though he knows it is wrong. He knows that she dares not and will not refuse him: he is the king. Bathsheba becomes pregnant, so she tells David about it [2 Samuel 11:5]. David, like any cuckold-er seeking to cover up his deed, tries to arrange for the husband to return home so that the pregnancy could be plausibly passed off as his. But Uriah, for pious reasons, unwittingly refuses [2 Samuel 11:6-13].
Then David commits an even greater sin. Because he is king, and engaged in a war where he needs the support of his soldiers, he feels entitled to manipulate events to avoid scandal. So he sacrifices Uriah, secretly arranging for him to be killed in battle [2 Samuel 11:14-17]. Then he marries Bathsheba, Uriah’s widow [2 Samuel 11:27]. In so doing, he hopes to project the image not of a cuckold-er king abusing the wife of a soldier, but of a generous king taking care of a soldier’s widow. But David’s sin is discovered, and he receives a great deal of trouble over it [2 Samuel 12:7-14]. To his credit, David repents [2 Samuel 12:13], but the damage has been done. David has sinned like Eve, wanting something he knew he should not have but taking it anyway: he took Bathsheba. David has also sinned like Adam, wanting not to lose something that he values, his reputation as king: to cover up his sin, he arranged for Uriah’s death. Both of these sins come out of David’s identity as king: he thinks he should have what he wants because he is king, he thinks he can manipulate events to prevent scandal because he is king, and so he sins, twice over.
Each one of us, like Adam, like Eve, like David, have our identities too, formed out of our nature, our lived experience, and our past choices. We may not be kings like David, but most of us have duties and roles that are part of our identities, roles that at times may make us feel entitled, empowered, or driven to take protective action. We may not, like Adam, be driven by our fear of losing our helper, but who has never experienced the fear of losing something they value? We may not, like Eve, be driven by the desire for knowledge and the feeling of having missed out, but who has not experienced at times these same desires and not been tempted to take steps to get what we really want? We are children of Adam and Eve, spiritual heirs of David too: we all have identities that give rise to wants and fears that sometimes move us to sin. Modern western culture tells us to find ourselves, to be true to ourselves, even to “make” ourselves. But what do we do when the very identity we are making and embracing is leading us to do wrong?
Jesus knows what to do. He reaches out to everyone, of every identity, even those identities that at his time were not socially accepted. He associates with socially outcast “tax collectors and sinners” [Matthew 9:10] as well as the more socially acceptable scribes and pharisees. He receives harsh criticism from the pharisees for this, but he gives as good as he gets. Jesus saves his harshest criticism for those “pillars of society”, the scribes and pharisees [Matthew 23], pointing out that they, in making choices out of their identities, are sinning, and yet do not even realize it: they condemn the sins of others without acknowledging their own sins. For Jesus, the scribes and pharisees are worse off than the tax collectors and prostitutes, because the tax collectors know they are doing wrong, while the scribes and pharisees do wrong too, but refuse to recognize it, like blind people who have somehow deluded themselves into thinking they can see. [John 9:40-41]
But Jesus does not stop at simply reaching out. When Jesus calls, he does not just call, he asks for a big thing: for life-changing repentance. He calls us to deny ourselves, take up our cross daily, and follow him [Luke 9:23]. In calling us to deny ourselves, Jesus is targeting precisely the source of those wants and fears coming out of our own identities that drive the wrong choices that constitute sin. And Jesus is not mild or coy about what he is asking, he is severe. He uses amputation as a metaphor:
If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away; it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to be thrown into hell. And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away; it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to go into hell. [Matthew 5:29-30].
This is tough stuff. It means that when our identities drive the wants and fears that lead us to sin, if the only way to stop that sin is to amputate that part of who we are, we should amputate rather than sin, because it is better to live without part of our self-identity than to perish entire, identity intact.
Jesus explains how this radical choice to follow instead of to sin can be more difficult for people with some identities than for others: he describes at length how hard it is for rich people, for instance, to “enter the kingdom of heaven” [Matthew 19:23], i.e. to submit themselves to the rule of God, denying their identity the self-expression, empowered by wealth, that it would have had under self-rule. People whose identity is poor have it easier [Matthew 5:3]. That some identities can lead us to sin more than others is not hard to understand. If we consider work identities, for instance, a person whose job is that of a loan shark, sex worker or a gangster may have a harder time avoiding sin and following Jesus than someone whose job is something less problematic, such as a plumber, barista, or office worker. But in response to his followers asking “Who then can be saved?” Jesus replies, “nothing is impossible for God” [Matthew 19:26]. For this reason, it is not the place of the Church to exclude by definition persons with identities of any sort from God’s grace. All are called by Jesus to repentance, even those who seem most unlikely.
The fact is, every identity, even ones that seem easier, requires heroic self denial and carrying of the cross. Jesus uses the image of the cross, a horrific device of his time used for public execution, to make it clear the scope and nature of this self-denial. Just as a crucifixion is painful, protracted, and public, so, too, is the denial of self required to follow Jesus. It hurts to deny oneself, especially when it seems to strike at one’s own self-identity, it can feel like self-betrayal, a form of in-authenticity to who you are. Like a crucifixion, it is protracted: far from being over quickly, it needs to be kept up, hour after hour, day after day, year after year. Perhaps worst of all, like a crucifixion, it is public, it risks making us look bad to the communities we derive from our identities: from our peers and fellows. Self-denial, taking up one’s cross, to follow Jesus can indeed be excruciatingly difficult.
For this reason, it can be tempting to ask the Church to “ease up”, to let people live out their identities in Church in peace, to be welcoming, not demanding. But self-denial and cross-carrying is intrinsically demanding: we cannot follow Jesus without it. The Church is those who follow Jesus: it cannot “ease up” on what it takes to follow, without ceasing to be Church. Where the Church can “ease up” is not in its expectations of those inside, who are committed to following Jesus, but of those who are not yet there. Christians need to recognize and accept that not everyone of every identity may be willing or able at the moment to deny themselves and take up their cross to follow Jesus. The Church, then, cannot minister only to those inside, it ministers too, as Jesus did, to those who have not yet found their way in. Jesus shows the way: while the pharisees treated the extortionist tax collectors of that time with condemnation, superiority and exclusion, Jesus showed them love, compassion and openness. And while there were still tax collectors left in Palestine after Jesus, many of those tax collectors responded to Jesus as they never responded to the pharisees: one (Matthew) even became an apostle [Matthew 9:9]. Following Jesus’ example, the Church needs to leave open every way God might use to bring in someone of whatever identity they happen to be, to bring them to the point where they, too, can make the choice to deny themselves, take up their cross, and follow Jesus.
As for the Church in the modern world, the Church challenges the world’s claims about personal identity. The Church agrees with the secular western world that identity is important, and that all identities are worth engaging. But the Church disagrees with the world about what sort of engagement is worthwhile. The world would have personal identities be paramount, and the Church relax its teachings to avoid giving offense to those who are attached to their identities. The Church, on the other hand, echoing the voice of Jesus, says that it is the persons themselves that are paramount. Their identities are important too, but when identities are problematic, when they give rise to wants and fears that cause sin, they need to give way. The Church acknowledges this is difficult, yet it is worthwhile, and it is possible, with God’s help. In denying ourselves, taking up our cross and following Jesus, we can overcome sin and become the people we are truly meant to be.
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