The Tightrope of Moral Identity
--Pastor Jamey Nichols
We humans are a people of extremes. So many seem to have a natural penchant for making categorizations that are all one thing or nothing but another. It shows up in politics (either liberal or conservative), sports (either an all-in Spartan fan or not a true fan), and relationships (either fully support me or completely reject me). To be fair, the either/or split isn’t entirely unreasonable. Either you have the money to pay your bill or you don’t. Either you are pregnant or you aren’t. Much of life is by nature either true or false.
One challenge we face in our Christian growth is learning when to stand hard and fast on the either/or split and when to search for balance. For example, consider sweets. Catering to a sweet tooth is something that can be done in balanced moderation or imbalanced excess. However, characterizing the eater of sweets (our appraisal) can end up sounding like either 1) the person is a healthy eater, or 2) the person is a terrible eater. There’s a big difference between a thing and our appraisal of someone’s relationship to the thing.
Having laid a quick foundation, let’s talk about sin. On our church sign for October and November was a message that includes the line, “hate your sin.” Additionally, in the first couple of Advent sermons in 2018, there was an emphasis on how insidious sin is thereby necessitating the need for a sacrificial Savior who came to earth to redeem us. In theology, sin is the thing that either is or isn’t. God never endorses a moderate indulgence in wickedness and there’s no such thing as a healthy balance between holiness and unholiness. Categorically, sin certainly fits the either/or split. How we appraise the person who sins is quite another matter.
In religion there is something called sanctification. Simply put, being sanctified means being set apart for God and his righteous purposes. As we grow in our faith we also grow in our personal sanctification. More and more over the years, the maturing Christian grows to view their entire selves—their skills , their time, their finances, their outlooks—increasingly devoted to God while increasingly less devoted to self. Ongoing sanctification is a hallmark of flourishing faith; and, a necessary element of sanctification is repentance.
Our tendency to appraise things in polarized extremes comes into play as we think about our sanctification. It often sounds like: Either we are wretched, worthless, debauched sinners (hate me, hate me) or we are wonderful people chosen, adopted, and precious to God (love me, love me). To augment this either/or split, consider people who occupy the polar ends of the sanctification spectrum. On the one hand are those religious sorts who engage in self-flagellation. They might crawl on their knees to church, whip themselves with belts, wear itchy undergarments (cilice), or undertake some other pain-oriented penitential gesture attempting to kill the evil deep within. On the other end of the spectrum are the religious sorts who bebop their way through life utterly guiltless. Introspection amounts to, “I am a wonderful human being—imperfect, sure. But who isn’t?” There exists little to no remorse for past wrongs, no sense of moral inadequacy vis-à-vis a Holy God, and no fear of Divine wrath—”if there even is such a thing,” they may say. Ethical dilemmas, if they exist are extremely rare and all life decisions are made according to personal advancement. Here then is the split. In the two extremes, the former category views humans as morally bankrupt, the latter as basically good; the former emphasizes God as a righteous judge, the latter as a benevolent deity; the former sees Jesus as the atoning sacrifice for sin, the latter as a social justice warrior who shouldn’t have died as he did . . . and on and on.
It is precisely here where the lopsidedness of an either/or split can ruin our moral identities as Christians. In many ways, both extremes are true. However, on their own, they are incomplete, representing merely a slice of reality. The either/or split appraisal of ourselves must strike a proper balance if our view of self is to be biblically sound. If your tendency is toward Bible verses about being a vile worm in whom nothing good lives, you may need to spend more time learning how much our Heavenly Father treasures you. On the other hand, if you presume that you and your loving God have always been copacetic and you live by the saying, “It’s all good,” you need to do some honest introspection and come to realize that, apart from the grace of God, you would still be dead in trespasses and sin. At the end of the day, our self-appraisal cannot live rightly in either of the extremes. We must come to realize that since God bothered to send Jesus, there must be something valuable in us worth redeeming. At the same time, to be forgiven and cleansed presumes a former condition of unacceptability. The old maxim goes like this: I am not what I ought to be; I am not who I will be; but thank God I’m not what I used to be. Absolutely, yes (!) God has loved us enough to lift us from despair (Ezekiel 16). And, absolutely, yes (!) God always honors a heart that is broken and contrite (Psalm 51). The truth of both together is well-rounded and most glorious.