Editor’s note: This two-part series looks at understanding ourselves and how our different roles and identities can either contradict or complement our Christian status. This first article focuses on managing our conflicting dual identities.
“Who am I?” is not a question we ask ourselves regularly. In contrast, “Who are you?” is more common, either sparked by curiosity or even uttered with disdain. But it is essential to turn the question on ourselves, to spur us to know our true selves better. In this quest for self-knowledge, the important questions to ask are:
Who am I after I shed my work positions and titles?
Who am I after I lose my wealth and abilities?
Who am I without health and mobility?
Who am I behind the outer facade?
Who am I when my soul leaves my physical body?
Much like a coin, human nature has two sides—golden on one side, rusty on the other. Human nature is golden and noble when it yields itself to the radiance of love. However, in its cruel willingness to destroy life, human nature is corroded and base.
All of us have dual identities. As an individual, I harbor two conflicting extremes. My visible physical body coexists with my invisible soul. I have a short and temporal physical life but also an eternal spiritual life.
I am also filled with contradictions. My actions often contradict my thoughts. Even as I take medication for hypertension because I fear death, I binge on my favorite fatty meat with little thought of the consequences! Although I have the Holy Spirit of God abiding in me, I think and behave like one who does not know God. While I know that I will die one day, I refuse to face up to this reality and make adequate preparation for this eventuality.
- Son and Sinner
The biblical example epitomizing the dual identity of son and sinner is the prodigal son. He was both scion and swineherd, both son and sinner. Since we also hold this dual identity as God’s children and sinners, we often find ourselves in conflict. The apostle Paul captures it succinctly:
I thank God—through Jesus Christ our Lord! So then, with the mind I myself serve the law of God, but with the flesh the law of sin. (Rom 7:25)
This is the conclusion to the passage in which Paul explains his struggle. He once lived as a sinner who incurred the wrath of God. But the Lord Jesus’ death on the cross paid the debt of his sin. Therefore, Paul’s mind desires to submit to God’s law, and his soul was revived after baptism, making him the son of God. However, his soul is still trapped in a fleshly body heading for death because the flesh submits to the law of sin.
The death of the fleshly body is the common end of all man, regardless of whether one believes in God. Through baptism, our souls are reborn. But the reborn soul within the physical body is like a free person who remains imprisoned. In his prison of sinful flesh, man cannot do good liberally by merely depending on the resolution of his heart. Worse, man often perceives himself as kind and just while blind to his sin!
If we recognize our transgressions and weaknesses, we will not be so blasé. Instead, we would immediately give thanks for God’s amazing grace. Who am I that the heavenly Father would choose me, out of the billions in the world, to be His son?
For whom He foreknew, He also predestined to be conformed to the image of His Son, that He might be the firstborn among many brethren. Moreover whom He predestined, these He also called; whom He called, these He also justified; and whom He justified, these He also glorified. (Rom 8:29–30)
Even more marvelously, the holy and Almighty God foreknew sinners such as us before we were formed in our mother’s wombs (Jer 1:5) and even before the creation of the world (Eph 1:4). From foreknowing to calling, when the time was ripe, God led us—the stiff-necked donkey—with gentle cords and bands of love (Hos 11:4). Through the blood of His only beloved Son, we were made righteous and could put on Christ. On the last day, He will raise us from death and allow us to enter His glory.
As sinners, we were worse than the prodigal son who lived with the unclean swine. Yet we became sons, not by our own righteousness, but by God’s grace.
What price did we have to “pay” to avail ourselves of such grace? We needed only to believe in Jesus to be fully and freely justified.
[B]eing justified freely by His grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus. (Rom 3:24)
But to him who does not work but believes on Him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is accounted for righteousness. (Rom 4:5)
What a contrast this is to the world where “there is no such thing as a free lunch!” Even if we have access to free products and services, this is only in exchange for our valuable personal data.
What price did Jesus have to pay to make a sinner a son? The glorious Son of God became as a sinner to suffer death on the cross. Every time the thought of His incomparable love and sacrifice comes to mind, my heart cries out, “Hallelujah,” as I thank Jesus from the bottom of my heart!
- Holy Spirit and Carnal Desires
Receiving the Holy Spirit is a joyous and unforgettable experience. But who would dare claim that all our fleshly desires ceased the moment we received the Holy Spirit? Even today, who can declare that we are no longer tempted and troubled by our carnal desires?
At the moment of receiving the Holy Spirit, we felt victorious and determined that sin would never again encroach into our lives. However, as time went by, our bad habits slowly returned. Despite having once been completely razed by “heavenly fire,” the weeds of these old habits began to sprout when the spring breeze (carnal desires) blew. Indeed, we may even be unsure whether we truly have the Holy Spirit because, apart from the evidence of tongue-speaking, we do not seem to possess any power to overcome these desires.
For the flesh lusts against the Spirit, and the Spirit against the flesh; and these are contrary to one another, so that you do not do the things that you wish. (Gal 5:17)
Our body is a battlefield where the Holy Spirit wars with our carnal desires; we will be hard-pressed between the two if we try to remain neutral. If we yield to our flesh, we grieve the Holy Spirit. If we yield to the Holy Spirit, our flesh cries out that it is suffering. For example, our flesh murmurs to us, “You are already so exhausted, just skip prayer this once,” or “You are already serving so zealously. Just relax a little today and have a beer. It’s just a beer; you are not committing a crime!”
We would not be the first to be placed in such a quandary. Even the father of faith faced difficult choices. In particular, Abraham had to choose between his sons. Keeping both Isaac—the son born of promise—as well as Ishmael—the son born of the flesh—would have been disastrous. There would have been no peace in Abraham’s household. Therefore, God instructed him to drive Ishmael out.
Today, driving out our carnal desires is the only way our body can rid itself of the harassment of our carnal desires. This is literally a battle of life and death. If we are defeated, death—not of our fleshly body, but of our eternal soul—is a certainty! Overcoming our carnal desires is the only way to enjoy the peace of both body and mind. If we fail to extricate ourselves, our daily lives will be a painful vicious cycle of weakness-sin-repentance-weakness.
For if you live according to the flesh you will die; but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live. (Rom 8:13)
True repentance is critical. We may pray for forgiveness each time we sin but are our hearts sincere in repentance? True repentance requires us to turn away from our transgressions. But often, we dare not promise God that we will not repeat the sin. In fact, we are keenly aware that our weakness will resurface, that we are unable to break free from the bondage of carnal desires. We were unbound, then bound again. Nevertheless, if we strive to improve, we can and will reach the honorable goal that God has set for our life. But if we yield to lust, we sink into degradation and end up in a depraved state.
For this is the will of God, your sanctification: that you should abstain from sexual immorality; that each of you should know how to possess his own vessel in sanctification and honor. (1 Thess 4:3–4)
In the parable of the prodigal son, the younger son ended up living with the swine and eating their food. It was not that the prodigal son had forgotten that the swine was an unclean animal according to his Jewish faith and that his actions were akin to committing a sin. Rather, he had forgotten his identity as his father’s son—that he could fall back on his father no matter what. Eventually, this man came to his senses and returned home to his father’s bosom. Had he remembered his identity earlier, he would not have had to live with the swine.
Who we are—this honorable identity as the son of the Almighty—must always be foremost in our minds. Remembering that God has redeemed our body and soul at a great price will help us maintain our holiness and keep us from yielding to our carnal desires and defiling our bodies.
- Body and Soul
When standards of living rise, we no longer worry about whether we have enough to eat. Instead, we are more concerned about eating and drinking to remain healthy. We consciously take health supplements and exercise. We do all these good things to maintain the bodies given to us by the heavenly Father. Those particular about their looks are willing to pay considerable amounts for cosmetic treatments to eliminate wrinkles.
And yet, regardless of how well we eat, how much we exercise, or how advanced medical science is, who can add one cubit to his stature? Who can avoid death? No one!
Those who only plan for their physical bodies are short-sighted. They forget that within the visible outer shell is an invisible soul—the “I.” Consider our smartphones. These comprise not just the visible hardware but also invisible software. The hardware is subject to wear and tear. Parts can be replaced, but we must also update the phone’s operating software to keep our phones functioning smoothly. Similarly, besides keeping our physical bodies healthy, we must also ensure that we are spiritually fit and healthy (1 Tim 4:8).
Why do people save or make long-term investments? It is because they have faith or hope in the days to come; they want to be prepared for the future. Conversely, those who do not think there are better days ahead would seek out instant gratification and enjoy themselves while they can. Similarly, Christians store up treasure in heaven because their hearts are in heaven, and they value the everlasting future much more than the temporal world they live in (Mt 6:21). To determine whether we are spiritual “savers” or “spendthrifts,” compare our earthly bank balances against our offerings to God. Do not merely store up treasure on earth. Otherwise, we will reach heaven as paupers, with our riches left behind on earth, if we are fortunate enough to make it to heaven. It would be tragic if we ended up in hell due to inadequate heavenly investments!
Do not become the rich fool (Lk 12). From the perspective of the temporal world, he was a successful man. He had a flourishing business and the foresight to increase his goods store. But in the eternal kingdom, he was foolish and ignorant. Although he appeared to be preparing his soul (he told his soul to take ease and enjoy), he was not making any preparation for his eternal life. What the soul needs is not the security brought by physical resources. Instead, it needs to return to God.
When should we start to prepare for the future of our soul? To borrow a phrase commonly used by insurance companies: “Start as soon as possible.” Do not be discouraged if we have neglected to do so. In John 3, Nicodemus—a Pharisee and a Jewish leader—came to learn from Jesus. The Lord did not think that this rabbi was over-age or too steeped in Judaism to be reborn and enter the kingdom of God. Jesus patiently explained to him the mystery of spiritual rebirth because, in Jesus’ eyes, it is never too late to prepare to enter the heavenly kingdom.
As we go through life, we have to manage our dual identities, lest we forget who we are. Who am I when I am stripped bare of the ephemera of worldly wealth, status, and physical facade? I was a sinner, but Jesus gave His life to redeem me and reconcile me to God. I am a human being who still yields to carnal desires, but Jesus sends His Spirit to dwell in me to help me become a victorious Christian. I used to chase material wealth foolishly but am now following Jesus’ exhortation to store my treasures in heaven.
Who am I? Many may not know me, but God does. Most preciously, although I was made from mere dust, the Almighty God knows me by my name. Just as He called His chosen prophets by name, He has recorded my name in the Book of Life. Moreover, if I diligently prepare for the future of my soul, when the roll is called up yonder, Jesus will call me by name.