My Struggle Does Not Define Me

who“I am not defined by what happened to me!” It was said just like that, and it was a major breakthrough for this particular man. We had been meeting for several weeks when he began to realize that the scars of his past had defined who he was in the present. He carried around a suitcase full of labels: broken, damaged, unlovable, worthless. He wore shame like it was a set of chains around his neck. This statement was uttered like the first grasp of fresh air in his lungs, the chains began to fall off.

This friend is not unique. There are plenty of people whose struggles have come to define who they are. As a counselor one of my desires is to help people see that their struggles do not define them, or at least they don’t have to define them. For the believer in Christ, identity is bound up in relation to him.

It doesn’t matter the issue. I meet people all the time who identify themselves by what they’ve done, what they do, or what has been done to them. Alcoholic, addict, pervert, manic-depressive, angry, used, abandoned, widower, these are labels people wear. They can easily become defining features, not just of their circumstances, but of their personhood. They dictate who a person is. It defines how they see themselves, what they believe other people see, and shapes what they will do tomorrow. Identity labels like these can obfuscate hope, justify sin, create bondage, and manage relationships. It’s not that the situations from which these labels arise are not significant, or don’t impact individuals. They most assuredly do and that should never be downplayed. But the Bible tells us that who we are, if we are in Christ, is significantly different from what we experience. In his book Who Do You Think You Are? Pastor Mark Driscoll helpfully writes:

You aren’t what’s been done to you but what Jesus has done for you. You aren’t what you do but what Jesus has done. What you do doesn’t determine who you are. Rather, who you are in Christ determines what you do. (3)

It is crucial for us as believers to accept and continue to hold onto this truth: in Christ I am not defined by my experiences. There’s a tremendous amount of freedom in this realization.

The Bible teaches that we are not what we experience. So Paul argues that the sins of our past do not define us. He says this to the Corinthians:

Or do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: neither the sexually immoral, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor men who practice homosexuality, nor thieves, nor the greedy, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God. And such were some of you. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God. (1 Cor. 6:9-11)

Paul uses an important phrase here, “such were some of you.” This is a past identifier. Then he adds a key transition, “But.” There’s a contrast being painted now. “You were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God.” Your status now is different! You aren’t those things anymore. When you come to Christ you are a “new creation, the old is gone” (2 Cor. 5:17). It’s important to note too that the Corinthian church was a mess. They were full of sin and strife. These were not perfect people, and yet even in midst of their continuing struggle Paul says they are not defined by it. They are different people in Christ. Sin does not dictate who we are if we belong to the King. Our relationship with Him secures us a new identity, one grounded in and informed by that relationship.

The Bible also tells us that we are not defined by what has been brought upon us. Whether we are discussing abuse or physical malady these issues do not identify us. You are not your medical condition, friends, as serious as that may be. You are not what has been done to you – victim, damaged goods, abused, etc. Those events in your life certainly impact you, but they do not own you. Jesus demonstrate well the freedom people can have through an encounter with him.

I love the way Jesus heals the leper. In Matthew 8 verse 3 Jesus reaches out and touches the man to heal him. Jesus did not have to do this. In Luke 17:14 Jesus heals ten lepers from a distance. He did not have to touch the man, but he touches him to communicate something powerful to him. Leprosy in the Old Testament law was uncleanness and that required anyone with leprosy to walk around shouting out “unclean” as they came through a city. This was meant to deter people from coming near him and contracting the uncleanness themselves. The man with leprosy was a man defined by his condition. Isolated, alone, and “unclean” he was leprosy. But Jesus makes human contact with him. Jesus touches him, removing his shame, removing the stigma, reassuring him that he was not to be defined hence forth by his disease. It’s not the healing that gives this man a new identity, it’s the encounter with Jesus. It’s the same for us. Whether God takes away your illness or the consequences of the sin committed against you he nonetheless reaches out to touch you. You belong to him. That doesn’t make things “all better.” It doesn’t heal all the hurt and ache associated with wrongs and sorrows, but it promises you hope. What happened to you does not have to characterize your personhood.

Friends, whatever your experiences, if you are a believer you are new creation. You have a new name (Rev. 2:17). Let your identity in Christ fuel your current battle with sin and sorrow. Your struggle does not own you, Christ does. Your struggle does not dictate who you will become, Christ does (Phil. 1:6). You are not your experiences, you are a Christian.

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