Identity Confusion: Why Sin Struggles Don’t Define Us
Frenemies. Urban Dictionary defines a frenemy as:
a person you are friendly towards because the relationship brings benefits, but you harbor resentment or rivalry towards them as well.
Frenemies are people you’d never trust with your life, your children, or your future. Yet they hold that special place in your heart because the world doesn’t quite make sense without them. To live life without them would mean you lose a part of yourself — your identity.
We see frenemies in fiction with characters like Batman and The Joker, businessmen like Nikola Tesla and Thomas Edison, or politicians like Thomas Jefferson and John Adams, who established much of the two-party political landscape we still have!
Just look at Republicans and Democrats for a great picture of frenemies. If either of them stopped existing, they’d have to find completely new identities because they both ground their identity in not being the other guys! Why, they can hardly open their mouths without mentioning each other! As much as they villainize each other, they secretly thrive off of each other.
I think this quote from the Joker in the movie The Dark Knight sums up frenemies pretty well:
“This is what happens when an unstoppable force meets an immovable object. You truly are incorruptible, aren’t you? You won’t kill me out of some misplaced sense of self-righteousness. And I won’t kill you because you’re just too much fun. I think you and I are destined to do this forever”
I think it is always good for us to take an evaluating look at ourselves and ask; have we made our sin a frenemy? Do we have feelings of resentment and rivalry with it, but the benefits make it hard to let it go? Are we in this “friendly” struggle where our sin has too much fun running us ragged to let us go, and our self-righteous identity needs an object to battle against?
I think this is a healthy question because one deadly trap that Satan sends at us is that he loves to get Christians to begin tying our identity around a particular sin struggle — or perhaps even a particular way we’re suffering.
Now, to be sure! People most certainly have particular strains of sin that pull our affections away from Christ more. We must be aware of these and fight them. Yet these struggles must never become our source of identity.
Let’s do a mental exercise to see what I’m talking about. If I were to ask you to whether you’ve had a good or bad week, how would you answer that question? If you have a clear sin that you’re keenly aware of in your life, you’re likely cataloguing how you did in that area. Did I avoid getting angry this week? Did I avoid looking at sexually illicit images/videos online? Did I avoid gossiping? Was I productive at work this week?
Not all of us will do this, but many of us will leap to one, singular part of our lives and largely categorize the quality of our week based on that area more than anything else.
But is the Christian life really this simple? Can we just just find a great sin struggle and quantifiably measure a week based on one variable? Unforunately, I see this happen to Christians. It’s an easy tendency to get it into. If you’re not there right now, I’ll wager that you’ve either been there at some point or you’ll be there one day. We’re creatures who love to ground our identity in many things, so even our typical sin tendencies will do the trick if we let it!
There is a very insidious danger to tying the state of our weeks, days, and hours to a particular sin struggle. The danger is that, if we’re not careful, Satan takes what is a good desire — the desire to kill sin for Christ’s name — and seeks to make our hatred for sin into an all-consuming, all-defining feature for our life.
Before we’ve realized it our identity no longer rests around the person of Christ, but around our sin struggle. Satan takes a natural outflowing of being rooted in Christ — hating sin — and tries to convince us to hate sin for its own sake. This is an identity that often leads to despair and misery because if we’re measuring ourselves based on our hatred of sin and the success of that effort, then we start trying to earn our relationship with Christ and that’s crushing. It’s an awful lie we can embrace all while feeling like we’re being holy.
If this is a lie you have bought into, you may be able to identify it by the fact that it actually is the fuel, so to speak, for other acts of “righteousness.” What do I mean? Well, let’s say that instead of having certain spiritual habits fueled by Christ, you might instead have your spiritual habits fueld by your sin actually! Perhaps you pray passionately and fiercely over one particular thing but pray very little about anything else. Perhaps you run to Scripture that speaks about that topic, but have very little time or interest for God’s word on the other “small” things of Christianity.
Whatever it may be, we can find an idolatrous sin actually ending up buckled in, driving the vehicle, everything else is thrown in the trunk, and we find ourselves helplessly stuck in the passenger seat wondering how to get rid of our sin without crashing the car and we’re paralyzed! Do you see the evil of this kind of trap?
This may be a place you’ve come from, a place you’re currently in, or a struggle you’ll face at some point. So it’s important to know that we can find a perverted sense of comfort and security from knowing what we struggle with.
Remember Who You Are!
How do we fight such an evil trap? How can we lay aside the sin that has become our very identity? The answer is rather simple: we remember who we are. We are not [insert problem… sex addicts, liars, gossips, thieves, depressed people, binge eaters, etc.] with a Christ problem. We are Christ addicts with a [insert your answer here] problem. Those are two radically different things and if you’ve never meditated on that, I encourage you to do so.
There’s so many passages of Scripture we could use to ground our identity in Christ, but today I want to do it by turning to Romans 8:12-17 where we are reminded of who we really are so that any comfort or refuge found in sin fades away and the deeds of the body may be put to death. My prayer is that, by doing this, we’ll find it easier to forsake all of our sin more easily because of the certainty of our inheritance in Christ.
My main point in this lesson is this; Our inheritance as sons (women: think “sons” as in “rightful heirs of an estate,” which is how the Bible uses it) frees us from slavery and sin.
Let’s read the passage:
“So then, brothers and sisters, we are not obligated to the flesh to live according to the flesh, because if you live according to the flesh, you are going to die. But if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live. For all those led by God’s Spirit are God’s sons. You did not receive a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear. Instead, you received the Spirit of adoption, by whom we cry out, “Abba, Father!” The Spirit himself testifies together with our spirit that we are God’s children, and if children, also heirs — heirs of God and co-heirs with Christ — if indeed we suffer with him so that we may also be glorified with him.”
Now, friends, there’s a lot to unpack there! First off, let’s remember how Paul got here. Paul established how terrible we are in the first 3 chapters of Romans and then turned a corner in 4 where he persistently began saying that we’re no longer debtors and slaves to our sin, but debtors and slaves to grace given to us in the sacrifice of Jesus Christ and the of the Holy Spirit given to those who have believed in his work on the cross.
Who Am I When Who I Am Is Confusing?
But chapter 7 ends with Paul struggling between the pulls of this old master of sin and this new master of righteousness. Paul essentially deals with a question we all wrestle with. If this is who I am in Christ, then why do I still do things I don’t want to do? Why don’t I do things I want to do? Which man am I? Am I the man who does these horrible things? Or am I the man who doesn’t do these things?
Paul is having an existential identity crisis that he can’t find the answer to within himself. So to answer this dilemma, Paul actually looks outside himself, turns another corner, and kicks his sermon into overdrive here in Romans 8 where his final identity is grounded in the surpassing person of Christ whom he is joined to by the Spirit!
Paul resoundingly declares that there is no more condemnation for anyone in Christ.
End of story!
But he continues on this theme and says this new identity means we have no more obligation to our flesh, so we can finally put to death the deeds of the flesh by the Spirit. To bring this home, let’s look at verses 15-17, and finish today by unpacking this:
“You did not receive a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear. Instead, you received the Spirit of adoption, by whom we cry out, “Abba, Father!” The Spirit himself testifies together with our spirit that we are God’s children, and if children, also heirs — heirs of God and coheirs with Christ.”
What Could Have Been Vs. What Really Is.
I want us to make sure that we see the full beauty of what Paul just said here! Paul is saying that while we could have received a mere spirit of slavery that left us in fear, God went above and beyond to do something more for us! He gave us not a spirit of slavery, but one of sonship, the sweetest blessing that comes by the Spirit!
You may be scratching your head at this a bit, but I’m convinced that Paul here has in mind teachings from Jesus like the parable he gave in Luke 15:11-24. Let’s go there with Paul to recall afresh that while we are legally indebted debtors, God decided he didn’t want slaves. He wanted sons to be co-heirs with Christ! Let’s read Luke 15:11-24 to see this:
“He also said: “A man had two sons. The younger of them said to his father, ‘Father, give me the share of the estate I have coming to me.’ So he distributed the assets to them. Not many days later, the younger son gathered together all he had and traveled to a distant country, where he squandered his estate in foolish living. After he had spent everything, a severe famine struck that country, and he had nothing. Then he went to work for one of the citizens of that country, who sent him into his fields to feed pigs. He longed to eat his fill from the pods that the pigs were eating, but no one would give him anything. When he came to his senses, he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired workers have more than enough food, and here I am dying of hunger! I’ll get up, go to my father, and say to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and in your sight. I’m no longer worthy to be called your son. Make me like one of your hired workers.”’ So he got up and went to his father. But while the son was still a long way off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion. He ran, threw his arms around his neck, and kissed him. The son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and in your sight. I’m no longer worthy to be called your son.’ “But the father told his servants, ‘Quick! Bring out the best robe and put it on him; put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. Then bring the fattened calf and slaughter it, and let’s celebrate with a feast, because this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found!’ So they began to celebrate.”
Riches To Rags: The Younger Son
Now let’s make sure we’ve understood the stage and players on it. This younger son, due ⅓ of the estate, comes to the father, still alive at this point, and says “I want my inheritance now.” He shouldn’t get his estate until his father dies, so he’s basically just said: “I want my money more than I want a father, so you may as well be dead to me.”
Now, the Father has every legal right to refuse this request, but he graciously gives the son his lot — and don’t miss that he actually divides his estate between them. We’ll circle back to the older son in a bit, but that’s an important word to pick up on in this story. The younger son packs up, goes to a foreign land, and spends his money partying excessively with beautiful women. These foreign gentiles welcome him with pleasure and hospitality. But then his money runs out and famine comes, and we see the deceitful treachery of sin.
The famine comes, he has no money and sin provides him with nothing but humiliation. It forces him to be employed by a pagan who gives him a job feeding pigs. He then longs to eat from the pods that the pigs eat and they won’t even let him eat that.
Just as a quick note, let us always remember that sin takes us in with the sweetest of promises and ends with us as an utterly humiliated slave. It is not your friend in any way.
But then this younger son comes to his senses!
Now, this is an odd statement. He’s been starving for a while and is just being completely humiliated by these people. What’s there to come to his senses about? Well, it’s this.
There’s actually a legal provision and ceremony in Jewish culture called the kezazah. It very specifically deals with Jewish men who lost their inheritance to a Gentile, where they’ll be taken to the the city gates, have a piece of pottery broken before them symbolically, and then declared shattered and cut off from all family and national ties.
As a sidenote, if you know things like this you’ll appreciate Jesus’ storytelling ability a great deal more. Because he sets up this story masterfully for his audience to be hanging on his every word!
But let’s not make any mistake. The son knows about this ritual! And so he’s been trying to work with these pigs in hopes that he can come back with his inheritance.
And. It’s. Not. Going. Well.
At some point, he gives up and falls down in a futile heap– or as the text says he, “…came to his senses.” He stops hoping for sonship at this point and drafts up a new plan instead. He effectively says, “I know! I can’t be a son, but I can at least get a warm meal and a bed as a slave of my father. Surely that’s a better fate than working with pigs in this God-forsaken land!”
And he’s right about that! Being a servant for his father is a fundamentally, objectively better fate. It’s a good plan. So he packs up and starts heading home. He’s going back consigned to a lifetime of being a slave to his Father.
Rags Back To Riches: The Gracious Father
But a long ways off, the Father, compassionately and shamefully — for men in that culture never ran because it exposed their legs and was considered as a shameful action — runs to the son and throws his arms around him, kissing him. This is also the point of the story where the Jews would have been scandalized.
You see, the sons in this story aren’t the shocking characters. The father is actually the scandalous one and the object of attention in this story. I actually wish this parable wasn’t know as the “Prodigal son” parable because it just makes us overlook the Father, whom I am fully convinced is the pivotal character in this parable.
But anyways, the son falls at his father’s feet and begins his clever speech in order to make his plan work. He says, “I have sinned.” Now pay very close to attention to what the father lets the son say — it’s crucial! Because the father hasn’t spoken yet. The father allows him to say this.
The younger son then says, “I’m no longer worthy to be a son.” The father also allows him to say this!
And then, the blessed, gracious news of the Gospel bursts forth from the father’s lips! Before the younger son can say his third statement, “Make me like a slave in your estate”– this is when the Father interrupts!
He will not hear this from the lips of his son!
He calls for his son to be robed, the fattened calf to be slaughtered, and the party invites sent out! Oh, don’t miss the pronouns sweetly rolling off the lips of this delighted father as he welcomes home a son!
Isn’t this exactly what Paul is getting at in Romans? If you are in Christ, you were not given a spirit of slavery by the Father. You were given the Spirit of sonship. Let’s say that again! You were not given a spirit of slavery by the Father — God. You were given the Spirit of sonship!
Yes, you are a sinner before your Father. Yes, you aren’t worthy to be a son of this Father. But the sweet news of the Gospel is that if you actually can accept your sin and that there is nothing about you that commends you to your father, you actually find something amazing happening to you! You can never merely be a slave, even though legally this is the only status you deserve before this Father! You can only find yourself as a son of God most high and heirs of His! That’s great news!
This is exactly how the story of the prodigal son plays out and it’s breathtaking!
An Inheritance Shared: The Elder Brother
Now, I hope to do something intriguing with the elder brother that will make Christ lovely. Because if you believe everything I’ve said, you should be going “How?! How can I become a son? How can I become even a slave when I’ve been so cruel and awful to the father? By what mechanism can the father welcome me back so warmly?”
You should be asking questions like this! That’s exactly the question that should be on your minds.
To help us answer that question, let’s see how Luke tells us about an elder brother who doesn’t want to share his rightful inheritance with this unworthy brother.
Now, don’t miss this. Remember how the father split up his estate between them earlier in the passage? That means that what the father is giving back to the younger son all belongs to the older son at this point.
He’s coming in from the fields because they’re his! He’s working them like a good steward.
When he hears about the robe, the ring, the sandals, and the calf, that’s his property — given to him by the father!
When the father comes out and talks to him and says, “You know all I have is yours,” this isn’t idle, futuristic talk. It’s the father literally saying, “I’ve already given you everything I have. But we had to celebrate the return of this younger son!”
In a certain light, can’t we understand the indignant anger of this elder brother? The Jews would have, and the Pharisees certainly would have been seething that this younger brother got off scotch free. And while this elder brother is left wondering whether he’ll be the slave — note how he has “slaved” away for the father — and alienated — note how he says “this son of yours.” While the elder son has to wonder if he’ll also accept the graciousness of his father’s abundance, I actually want to contrast this elder brother to Jesus Christ.
Christ: Lord, Savior, Redeemer… Brother.
I want to contrast this elder brother to Christ because Hebrews 2:11 says that Jesus is not ashamed to call us brothers and sisters.
“For the one who sanctifies and those who are sanctified all have one Father. That is why Jesus is not ashamed to call them brothers and sisters, saying: I will proclaim your name to my brothers and sisters; I will sing hymns to you in the congregation.”
Jesus Christ takes sibling status with us. Note how this should be shameful for him to condescend to such a position, but yet he is not ashamed to do so! Oh, how sweet this is!
Go back to Paul in Romans for a second where he says that we are co-heirs with Christ! It’s as if, along with the author of Hebrews, Paul wants to say that while Luke 15 doesn’t tell us what that elder brother is going to do, our elder brother is not left in doubt as to what he will do! Our elder brother is, as Romans boldly states, willing to condescend to share all of his inheritance with us!
Let’s see if we can break down the math here and show how Jesus completes the Gospel message.
You see, we younger brothers burned up our ⅓ of the estate. We were given a beautiful garden, abundance and plenty, companionship, and intimate communion with God and we wasted it. We couldn’t trust God and his goodness. We wanted to not only be like him, but really to become him because we didn’t trust him. We longed to rule and have our own estate, not merely be a son in his kingdom, his garden. So we destroyed everything. We sinned, brought death into the world. We started murdering each other, lying to each other, hating the opposite gender, oppressing each other. We blew it. Terribly! There’s never been a bigger choke job than when we humans first sinned. And it left us far off in a land among unclean things starving, destitute, and with no hope of earning back our inheritance and our relationship as a son to our dearly loved Father.
In fact, we so feared going back to him empty handed that going back empty handed doesn’t even really cross our minds.
But Christ in all of his glory has the other ⅔ of the Father’s inheritance! And Christ has earned that inheritance.
He earned it by coming and dwelling in the flesh.
Resisting every temptation to live perfectly for the Father’s will.
Dying such a pleasing sacrifice that he earned God’s resurrection through the Holy Spirit
He was deservedly glorified and ascended to the right hand of the Father.
Christ earned every reward He has, and I mean to tell you today that Jesus Christ has smiled down at us, his younger brothers and sisters, still reeking of our time in the squandered squalor of the mud pits and pigs that we’d willfully tried to work our way to God through, and he said, with joy in his heart, “Hey, brothers and sisters, I’ve got 2 shares of this inheritance and 1 share is more than enough of me. You want the second share? Stop working your way back into the family. You can’t do it. Instead, share in my abundant inheritance. It is yours if you will only come back to the Father and acknowledge that you have sinned and are not worthy of what we are willing to give!”
That’s right, you saints of the Lord, while the elder brother in Luke 15 had to consider what he’d do when he heard his younger brother came home, Jesus Christ doesn’t need any time to consider it at all.
When the Father says another lost sibling has come home, Christ laughs and rushes in. He gladly roars, “Father, all those goats I never used up, well the fattened calf isn’t enough for this feast! Get the goats and roast them too! Give them my clothes — those pure white linens so they can ride out behind me one day. Give them your ring of authority, so that the world may know that even though all authority in heaven and Earth is mine, I share my authority with them! And, Father, make sure that they don’t travel with bare feet, but, Father, wrap their feet in the Gospel of peace to make their footing forever firm! You give them that, Father!”
Oh, yes! This is the truth of the Gospel! That Christ bore the cost for our lost inheritance and now if we will trust in Him as the only way back to the father, His inheritance, His righteousness, His right standing before the Father can become ours. For out of His abundant love and inheritance He bore the burden, the separation, the death, the alienation from the Father that we deserved.
So you see, that elder brother in Luke 15 may be sitting waiting in the fields wandering what to do. But our elder brother is busy gathering in the harvest in order to share it all with his younger brothers!
Oh, how sweet it is to be loved by God!
I wrote this lesson to help us rediscover what Jesus, Paul, and whoever you happen to think wrote Hebrews have always told us!
You were not given slave status in God’s kingdom, even though that would have been more than you deserved. You see, our Father and elder brother — the firstborn Son, they were so pleased with the idea of bringing us home that they sent out the family lawyer, the Holy Spirit, that counselor of divine law whom no one has ever bested in the heavenly courts!
He came to us while we were a long, long way off and said, “The papers are signed, the documents are sealed, and the Father’s signet is on the scroll.” Are you tired of being homeless, destitute, and without hope? Are you weary of lonely, meaninglessness orphanages? Then good news of great joy, for you my brethren! The Lord of lords and King of kings has a room reserved for you and it’s right next to the eldest son’s suite!
That’s right, folks. While God could have declared us not guilty and then rightfully declared us his slaves. While he could have done that and it would still have been an objectively better state than what we had been in prior! When our best hope and strategy was some kind of indentured servitude to God hoping that maybe, just maybe we’d pull off the impossible and pay back our lost inheritance — God told us to put our hand over our mouth.
He told us we are sons and if the Father has spoken it, then whom in the world, be it angel, demon, man, or even yourself, can ever change that eternal decree? Praise God, he didn’t just justify us — he adopted us.
I pray this an encouragement and as you see what could have been, you also more clearly appreciate what is. When we sing about grace being a great debtor, we’re not offering up a clever phrase. We’re singing theological truth. But it’s not the end of the theological truth, it’s the mere beginning. It’s insane that the one whom we were indebted to, delighted to, through the adoption process enacted by the Holy Spirit, make us co-heirs with Christ.
With all that in mind, what is your identity this week? Do you feel that your worth and weeks are determined by the quality of your works this week? Was the prodigal son judged in such a way?
No, friends! You used to be dead and are now alive! You were once lost but are found! So why do you measure your worth based on the sin in your life? Kill it, yes! Deny yourself for Christ, yes! But never root yourself in something so ugly as the mud of the pig sty. Instead, look more upon the identity placed upon you in Christ — you are adopted!
If some particular sin is your identity as you read this, then lift up your eyes and see your sin through the identity given to you by the Father who called for you from eternity past, the Son, who made that calling effective, and the Holy Spirit, who secured that calling’s eternal destiny once and for all. I suspect if we see our sin through our identity in Christ rather than seeing Christ through our identity in sin, sin becomes less of a frenemy and simply our enemy in contrast to the one who loved us as enemies (Romans 5) and called us friends (John 15), sons, and heirs by the end!
Some Brief Application
I pray this is good news for all of us to hear. But as quick application, here’s 4 ways to play this out in your life.
One, Don’t let prayer be dominated by a particular sin struggle. Work to include more thanksgiving. One easy way to do this is that, even as you’re praying for strength to overcome sin, pray thankfully that the victory over that sin is already defeated. Pray thankfully that the one who starts works never leaves them unfinished.
Thank him that he defeated sin and death and we follow him there. Pray thankfully that the God of peace himself sanctifies us and he is faithful to the calling he gave us and he will see to it that it is securely finished. You can pray for your own strength and needs while still praying thankfully to our God. Seek to pray with this kind of thankfulness.
Two, take all sin in your life deadly seriously. Part of our problem is that we get these categories of big and small sins, and when we let one topic of sin dominate our prayers, our conversations, and our thoughts, we give it a disproportionate level of influence in our lives. Finding other sin that plagues us and treating it with the same intensity helps combat this.
If you can’t see what this sin is, ask your wife, friends, pastors. Someone knows what your other sins are. And once you take that sin seriously, you no longer are just someone who struggles with that sin. You just struggle with sin like any Christian and your identity in Christ speaks into that powerfully.
Three, stop judging weeks based on your performance in one particular sin struggle. In times of confession with other believes — and I hope you have patterns of confession built up — make those confessions more complete pictures of all that went on. Get better ideas of the different types of sin infecting your weeks so that your weeks aren’t defined by this disproportionate sin in your life. I’m not saying don’t talk about it, but I’m saying put it in its place as merely another aspect of your flesh that needs to be killed.
Four, put sin to death. Is sin lingering around? Why? What about it comforts you? If you don’t know the answer to that question, don’t settle for not knowing! Ask for wisdom on the matter and God will provide it. Seek counsel and don’t rest until you are more aware of what that sin is offering you that you are idolatrously craving.
Does your sin comfort you more than the Spirit of sonship given you in Christ and by the Spirit? Does sin provide you more joy and expectation than this Father and elder brother waiting for you to arrive home with the feast ready to go and just on the verge of getting started? No matter what it costs, let sin go. Remember, that we prove that this Spirit is ours by suffering with Christ and when we pick up our cross, deny ourselves, and follow him. Rejoice in your status and don’t do this to earn it, but rather as validation that you’ve arrived in a new home as sons of God the Father and co-heirs with Christ throught the adoption enacted by the Holy Spirit.