Christian sins: misplaced identity and making enemies

If we are truly going to do our best to make a better society to live in, there are a whole lot of tough truths we are all going to have to face, and the largest one is likely this: we’ve been wrong about a lot of things.

No matter who you are or what you believe, in some way or another, you’ve been mistaken about an idea or belief.  Odds are really good that even right now, at least one thing you believe in is false.  That’s just part of being human, and in general, that’s OK.  What’s not OK is when we become too stubborn, pigheaded and hardhearted to admit the possibility that we are wrong, and unfortunately, it seems like that’s where most of us land with our opinions.

I find it hard to understand, as a Christian, how other Christians seemingly are not in the habit of analyzing their beliefs and actions.  Yet it does appear that most of us are not.  I think it’s inherent to being a Christian to constantly call every aspect of our lives into question and hold it up to God to judge its merit: are my thoughts, beliefs and actions truly reflecting God’s heart?  And we have to genuinely be willing to accept when they might not be and open enough to be able to see it.

Granted, this self-examination likely comes easier to me than most because I’ve been accustomed to over-analyzing every aspect of my life since panic attacks started ripping me apart in early childhood.  In that sense, I can be too exacting of myself.  Though if one is to err on one extreme or the other, I’ll take the unintended side effect of my personal history every time.  Better to be too conscious of the ramifications of my life than not aware at all.

Regardless, it’s endemic to the Christian life to strive to be more like Christ.  I should be, to the best of my ability, constantly trying to learn more about the Christian faith, about who Jesus is, about where my biases are skewing my perceptions, about how to more accurately look like Jesus.  And to do that, I have to be willing to admit I can be weak in areas I thought I was strong, and stupid in areas I thought I was wise.

For whatever reason, one of Jesus’ sayings above many others stays largely at the forefront of my mind, I think because it’s utterly humbling and because it means that, in theory, no matter who I’ve been, I could be missing the boat if I’m not willing to be corrected:

“Not everyone who says to me ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven.  Many will say to me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name and in your name drive out demons and in your name perform many miracles?’  Then I will tell them plainly, ‘I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers!’” (Matthew 7:21-23, NIV)

If you aren’t confronted with pause by that, I’m not sure what to tell you.  Jesus literally says not everyone who claims to follow him – who prophesies and even performs miracles in his name! – actually does.  That means that could apply to you and me.  “Only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven” is who Jesus says will enter his kingdom, and that says to me it’s not the people who claim they know Jesus and follow him, but who are actually actively trying to know and follow God for his sake.

Because the truth is, many people who identify themselves as Christian and, I think in good faith, believe themselves to be Christian, are actually following a god of their own making and calling him “Jesus.”  They think they truly follow Jesus, but they actually follow an idea of who Jesus is instead of Jesus himself.  Thank God, I’m not the one who has to make that judgment on who those people are – only God can – but I’m confident that they exist, primarily because Jesus said they would, but also because, based on observing behaviors and beliefs, it’s obvious that not everyone who calls themselves a Christian attributes the same characteristics and desires to God.

One of the Greek words often translated as “sin” in English is “hamartia,” which more literally translates as “to miss the mark.”  Insofar as a Christian misunderstands God’s character and will, he or she by this understanding sins: we miss the mark; we’re off our target.  I think a primary way this happens today in America is by confusing what our identity is.

I wrote a ton of stuff about properly defining identity at the beginning of this blog, so please refer to several of the early posts from 2013 if you’re interested, because I can’t rehash that entire journey in one entry, and it’s foundational to who we are as Christians.  But the gist of all that is ultimately this – for a Christian, identity alone is defined as a disciple of Christ: I am, at the most basic level, a child of God, a servant of Jesus.  Everything else – from my race, to my gender, to my nationality, to my opinions – secondarily adds flavor to that primary identity, but it is not that identity.

As a Christian, I lay everything else at the foot of the cross.  That means I absolutely have to be willing to sacrifice any other thing I’m tempted to label as my identity to God.

“Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth.  I have not come to bring peace, but a sword.  For I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law.  And a person’s enemies will be those of his own household.” (Matthew 10:34-36, ESV)

Does my family obstruct me from God?  If so, I have to be willing to sacrifice the relationships.  Does my nation obstruct me from God?  If so, I have to be willing to sacrifice the allegiance.  Do my beliefs obstruct me from God?  If so, I have to be willing to renounce them.

Maybe I’m wrong, but I don’t get that feeling explained in the above paragraph from many Christians I encounter.  I see what look like a lot of Christians equating the goals of America with the goals of God.  I see what look like a lot of Christians acting like every one of their opinions are the equivalent of the Gospel and being unwilling to fathom changing them.

As I became more serious about my faith in my late teens and early 20s, I realized that I had to set the beliefs I had accumulated about myself, my country, and even my beliefs about who God is to the side and begin to try to let the 2,000 year tradition of the Church inform everything about who I am.  Because it’s the Church – through tradition, which is ultimately what scripture is a part of – that mediates my understanding of who Christ is and what it is to be his disciple.  To believe anything else is to allow some semblance of my reasoning and thinking process to play God.

And it’s exactly by imperfectly setting all those things to the side and allowing the deep teachings and voices of so many saints – and God himself through scripture – to permeate my being that my opinions slowly began to change.  And a funny thing happened along the way as I realized there were subtle differences to my understanding of God accumulating that resulted in small tweaks to my worldview that nonetheless effectively seem quite distinct from my previous mindset: I hope that, overall, if you can look past my sins and shortcomings, I in general look more like Jesus than I did 20 years ago.  And the proof of that for any of us is I think best demonstrated in how best we follow his commands, and one command in particular: loving our enemies.

Other than misunderstanding our identity, the other sin I think that most damages Christians is Jesus’ command to love our enemies.  I see way too many Christians still acting like people have been for thousands of years and demonizing and attempting to destroy people they perceive as their enemies.  I’ve written about this once before and will say it again at length: Jesus’ command to love our enemies, when properly understood in the full context of what scripture and the Church teach, means that truly, we don’t have any human enemies anymore.  There is no “us” and “them” to theoretically break people up into groups over.  In fact, one of the large points of Jesus’ ministry is explicitly to get us to stop treating people as outsiders, as enemies.

Jesus said in his Sermon on the Mount, “You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’  But I tell you: Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you…” (Matt. 5:43-44, NIV)

Paul wrote to the Church in Ephesus, “For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms.” (Eph. 6:12, NIV)

What Jesus is clearly stating is that we do have enemies insofar as there are certainly people who may wish us harm or ill; that much is clear from most of our life experience, as well.  But there’s a lot more to what Jesus is saying about those perceived enemies, and Paul’s teaching expands on that teaching.

Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.

That’s not an idle, impotent suggestion, as if it’s an afterthought.  It’s a call to a different kind of lifestyle.  Because if we are to truly love our enemies in the full sense of the word “love,” how can we call them enemies any more?  In loving them, if we do really love them, we come to understand who they are and why they act the way they do.  We come to genuinely care about them, even if we may not actually “like” them.

When taken together with Paul’s admonition to the Ephesians, we better understand why people we label as “evil” act the way they do: our struggle is actually against the spiritual forces of evil, not flesh and blood.  People (including myself, surely, and you, too, from time to time) are subject to being influenced by our real Enemy – the only true source of evil in the universe, God’s ancient Adversary.

That is our only enemy, and we fight him with all we have in the spiritual realm and call him out when we see him or his emissaries moving people to do their will and not their own.  That isn’t to say that people don’t become compromised and willingly allow themselves to be carried by real evil, whether they consciously recognize it or not.  Of course they do.

It is to say that, regardless, people themselves are not our enemies.  There is no “us vs. them” – as far as people are concerned, we’re all “us.”  There is no “them.”  If you call yourself a Christian, it is your obligation to actively be about loving everyone.  That’s explicitly what Jesus’ commanded.

As you practice loving everyone – acknowledging that love doesn’t necessitate approval or affirmation of choices – watch as your perspectives begin to slowly shift.  You, Christian, are called to radical love.  There is no other way of understanding the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

That means no more lambasting those Democrats or Republicans, no more railing against those theologically conservative or liberal Christians, because that’s categorizing – that’s making “thems.”  Love your neighbor as yourself, which means learning to understand what it’s like to think like and live in their shoes.

By people’s fruit will you be able to know them, and the fruit of a healthily grounded Christian who really understands where his or her identity is rooted and truly shows love for his or her neighbors ought to be fairly obvious for those with eyes to see and ears to hear.

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