Months ago, someone told me they’d 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 told them, “That’s not who you are!”
I’ve thought and thought about this. I can see how we could back this up biblically. In one sense, for those of us who shove all of our chips on Jesus, God’s exchanged our hearts of stone for hearts of flesh (how’s that for a mixed metaphor?). Telling off your brother, or spouting off to your mom, or even leaving your wet towels on the floor is in a sense not who you are anymore. New creation, new life! I cherish this about how God’s remaking me from the inside.
And yet—another part of this rubs a spot raw in my mind. 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.
Think about Matthew 5:34: Out of the overflow of the heart, the mouth speaks. I love Amy Carmichael’s thought on this:
For 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.
Social psychology tells us when we mess up, we tend to attribute it to our circumstances. But when other people mess up, we tend to attribute it to their character. That’s just the kind of person she is.
As much as I’d like to say that when I lie, I’m not a liar…well, I am. My lying wasn’t a freak accident. It came from my heart. “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? The person who steals on a regular basis? How many occasions of stealing constitutes a thief? (My alternately delightful and conniving six-year-old might qualify. We are confronting an epidemic of swiping siblings’ gum, lollipops, and allowance with monthly regularity or so. Here’s to avoiding a future “Mr. 152 Felony Indictments.”)
I remember as a teenager employing this strategy against my parents. When they would confront me on stretching the truth, I’d be aghast. I’d be as ruffled up as a turkey, gobbling, “Are you saying I’m a liar? Aren’t I trustworthy?”
Even now, if my husband pointed a quavering finger at me–“Liar!”–after I hadn’t really been honest with myself, I would bristle. I would actually protest indignantly. Because that little jump to a label seems significant, noteworthy.
But if someone says, “You’re really a generous person!” I would feel really good inside. That label bears the power to call me upward, outward. Still: I am not always generous. Nor am I jealous or selfish always, though this I have been known to be.
There is power in naming–whether it’s used for good or for evil. God uses labels quite frequently. You could even say I have two names within me: the battling identities of sinner and redeemed. (Paul communicated this beautifully.)We even see new names throughout the Bible for people God calls to a new purpose. He is the ultimate Name Giver. One day I wait for is the one when I can receive the white stone, the one with the name only God and I will know.
Can you imagine receiving a name that finally encompasses all of who you were made to be?
Truth is, very few labels are true 100% of the time. (Those that fall in that category are, say, I am a child of God 100% of the time. I am married 100% of the time.) Yet, labels–names–have the potential to be helpful, as long as we realize their limitations–er, our limitations. And our quite limited understanding of the human heart.
For me at a restaurant the other night–looking over at a slightly overweight, middle-aged American guy with that young, beautiful Ugandan woman in a snug, revealing dress and stilettos–the words sugar daddy flitting through my mind has some basis in repetitive experience of many here in East Africa. But it has little understanding of their hearts. It might be true; God does not require that my discernment exit the building. But God needs to be the judge there (check out this post and this post on judgment vs. discernment). Not me. My labels are limited, sometimes unloving and superior, and often blind to my own junk.
Maybe it’s just semantics. But as Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn so poignantly wrote,
If only it were all so simple! If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?
I recently read a parable that captured my mind on this, too.
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.”
Part of my parenting strategy is simply 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 (not a constructive label, that), but in a way that’s honest about who we are. And who we aren’t. I do this because if they walk away from my home with any lesson, probably in my top two is WE NEED JESUS. (Top one: Our lives are about glorifying God and enjoying Him.)
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 struggle with hypocrisy in my own right; 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, whether we’re Christians or not. (Great post here: Are All Christians Hypocrites?)
The bad news: It is who I am. Who they are.
The good news: Because of who He is, it’s not who we’re staying.
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.