If you have your Bibles, please turn with me to Galatians chapter 6, verses 1 through 10. Paul says:
Brothers, if someone is caught in any wrongdoing, you who are spiritual should restore such a person with a gentle spirit, watching out for yourselves so you also won’t be tempted. 2 Carry one another’s burdens; in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ. 3 For if anyone considers himself to be something when he is nothing, he deceives himself. 4 But each person should examine his own work, and then he will have a reason for boasting in himself alone, and not in respect to someone else. 5 For each person will have to carry his own load.
6 The one who is taught the message must share all his good things with the teacher. 7 Don’t be deceived: God is not mocked. For whatever a man sows he will also reap, 8 because the one who sows to his flesh will reap corruption from the flesh, but the one who sows to the Spirit will reap eternal life from the Spirit. 9 So we must not get tired of doing good, for we will reap at the proper time if we don’t give up. 10 Therefore, as we have opportunity, we must work for the good of all, especially for those who belong to the household of faith.
So, we’re all about to go off to Thanksgiving. And what’s gonna happen at Thanksgiving? Our family members are gonna come over. And we’re gonna talk to them (hopefully?)
But there are two things you’re never supposed to talk about at the Thanksgiving table, right? Religion and politics. Which means that’s the only thing anybody’s actually gonna talk about at the Thanksgiving table.
And two things are gonna happen as we inevitably delve into religion and politics this Thanksgiving.
Somebody’s uncle is gonna complain about this or that political issue. Right? It’s coming. It never doesn’t happen. Maybe you are that uncle.
But this year, pay very close attention when it starts. Because when he starts complaining about politics, he won’t just be complaining about politics. What he’s doing is telling himself a story, whether he realizes it or not, and the story he tells is gonna reveal exactly how he sees himself.
The story that he tells might be that Everything Would Be Fine If The Liberals Would Just Leave Him Alone. Right? If they’d just stop coming for his guns. Or, if they’d stop trying to “tax him into oblivion.” Or if they’d stop “taking prayer out of schools” or “taking the Ten Commandments off state buildings,” and so on and so forth.
And you and I are probably on the same page as your uncle on most of those issues, but pay close attention to him because what he’s doing runs deeper than politics: He’s unconsciously crafting a story that makes it seem like his “real problems” are coming from the outside, not the inside. He’s crafting a story where his primary issues are “out there,” not “in here.” Where the primary obstacle he faces in life is “angry college students” who wanna empty out his pockets to clear their student debt, or something, not his own heart.
And you may agree or disagree with his politics, but notice what he’s doing, because he probably won’t: He’s positioning himself as the protagonist in the Story Of His Life, he’s positioning himself as The Underdog. The Villains are, very conveniently, somewhere else and someone else. He’s rewritten the story of his life into something very different than the story that the Bible tells.
But another thing is gonna happen at Thanksgiving: Your weird aunt is gonna show up in her Hillary 2016 shirt. Right? Her job was to bring dessert for everybody and so she went to Wal-Mart and had a cake done professionally that’s got “Impeach Emperor Trump” written in icing and a tastefully done portrait of the president dressed up like Darth Sidious from the Star Wars movies underneath it.
And you’ll be like, “Carol, can we not do this, this year?” And she’ll take that as a cue to bust out a well-rehearsed speech about moving to Canada in 2020 and taxing the rich, and so on and so forth, and maybe you’re more on board with your aunt, here, than your uncle, but notice that she’s doing the same thing.
Just like your uncle, she’s not just “mouthing off about politics,” she’s telling herself a very specific story about the world and her place in it.
In the story she’s telling herself, she’s not just Carol, a part time Library-clerk and full-time Grandmother who lives in Asheville, North Carolina. Without meaning to do anything, she’s crafted a story where she’s a brave member of the “resistance.” She’s the underdog, the protagonist. Just like before, the real villains are “out there,” not “in here.” She’s telling herself a story where her real problems boil down to “rich oil company executives,” or “Republican congressmen,” and so on and so forth, but her story is every bit as incomplete as your uncle’s story.
Don’t get me wrong. Politics matter. The point of that story is not that politics are bad and you should stay away from them. There’s gonna be a lot of truth to what both of them are saying, and yet all of those things will be woefully incomplete, because those are stories that they tell themselves because it replaces their own hearts as the Villains Of Their Story. The problem with these imaginary aunt and uncle figures we’ve been talking about is not that they’ve got politics, it’s that they’ve turned their politics into “false identities.
We can build false identities out of just about anything. Right? I can. I think most of us suffer from something you could call “False Identity Syndrome.” We build false identities out of anything and everything.
And I think that’s what Paul’s getting at when in the middle of today’s passage, Paul says that, “If anyone considers himself something when he is nothing, he deceives himself.” That sounds kinda like a playground insult, but he’s talking about everybody. We build false identities out of anything and everything.
When I was working in a tech repair shop way back in the dawn of man, there was a dude who got hired on who fits the profile Paul’s talking about, here, pretty well. He spent most of his time talking about how “there was an $100,000 a year job waiting for him as a welder,” but that he wanted to get his degree first so he could get a $250,000 a year job instead. And I was like, “So have you started your degree?” And he was like, “well, no.” And I was like, “Oh, okay. So your plan of action was to settle down at this $20,000 a year job in the meantime?”
And he kinda shook his head and then tried to sell me pot.
That same guy had a whole, kind of, treasure trove of stories that he told us, and they got increasingly ridiculous, until at one point, I’m pretty sure he told us he was patient zero in that Ebola outbreak back in 2015 or so.
And it’s easy to laugh at a guy like that because he’s clearly putting up a front. He’s clearly constructing an identity and then trying to convince himself that it’s what he really is by convincing us that it’s what he really is. Right? He “considers himself something when he is nothing,” and in his case that’s fairly obvious which makes him extremely easy to laugh at but Paul’s gonna press that idea further in ways that make us uncomfortable because Paul’s not trying to get us to laugh together at a delusional 25 year old who worked at a tech repair shop in Oklahoma, he’s trying to shove a mirror in our faces.
Because we build false identities out of anything and everything. Paul’s point, here, is that we are not what we think we are. You are not what you think you are.
Whatever it is you define yourself as, it’s half-right at best. Because you are not the things you choose, you are not the country you’re a citizen of, you are not your gender, you are not your race, you are not your politics, you’re not even your religion. All of those are important “pieces” of you, but there is exactly one thing that defines you, and that is the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
I need to explain that. What I mean is that, in Ephesians 2, Paul says that “We were dead in our trespasses and sins.” Not just “sick.” Dead. He doesn’t say that we were “disappointing in our trespasses and sins.” He says, “we were dead.” He doesn’t say that we were “in danger of not reaching our full potential in our trespasses and sins,” he says we were “dead.” The way Paul describes us in Ephesians 2, we sound almost like zombies. He says we “followed the ways of the world,” we followed the “cravings of our flesh,” and we followed the “prince of the power of the air,” that’s King-James for “the Devil.” So, depressing stuff. We were “dead in our trespasses and sins.” Our fundamental problem was not “rich oil company executives” or “young liberal college students,” it was this. It was us. Our problem was us. So much so that Paul says in that same passage that we were “by nature, children under wrath.”
But then, Paul takes a hard “right turn” and says “But God, who is rich in mercy,” and “because of his great love that he has for us even when we were dead in our sin, made us alive together with Christ.” We were dead, but God “raised us up” together with Jesus. That’s the story of our lives.
And what that means for us is that, Ephesians 2:5, “by grace we’ve been saved.” We were rightly banished from God’s presence, but now, Ephesians 2:6 we are “seated with him in the heavenly places.” You’re not just waiting out the rest of your life to be reunited with God, you’ve been reunited with God. That is the story of your life. That’s not just something about you, that’s what you are. The thing you are is a person who was shut out from God’s presence but now has been welcomed back through the blood of Jesus. That’s the story of your life.
And that tells us two things about you. It tells us that you are bad enough that God needed to give himself to be murdered in your place to redeem you. And it tells us that you are precious enough that God didn’t think twice about doing so. That’s the truth about you. That’s the true story of your life. And, listen: That’s true about you whether you believe it or not.
And the reason all of this matters is because when you build your identity around something other than the redemption God has poured out on you in Jesus Christ, your “false identity syndrome” is bound to work its way out into the rest of your life and wreak exactly the same damage always has. You know what I’m talking about?
And of course it does. Because a lot of what you do has to do with who you think you are. That sounded kinda like it could have come from a fortune cookie, but bear with me. A lot of what you do comes from who you think you are.
So if you think of yourself as somebody who’s got it all together – if you build your identity on the fact that you’ve been able to hold the same job for 10+ years while all the folks around you keep crashing and burning, you’ll have zero sympathy when you encounter the dude who can’t keep a job, because he can’t get to work, because he can’t afford a car, because he can’t keep a job, so he doesn’t have spare money, and so the cycle keeps going, and going, and going. You’ll have zero sympathy for that guy.
And then you’ll have absolutely no emotional resources to deal with it when you become that guy. When the factory folds and you’re the one in the unemployment line now, and nobody’s hiring folks like you ’cause you’re 55 years old and they want teenagers who are clueless and compliant and are willing to work for pocket change ’cause they’re just looking for spending money for the weekends, it’ll feel like death. You’ll feel useless. You’ll wonder what the point of existing is.
When you find your identity in your self-sufficiency, what are you going to do when the universe reveals that you were never self-sufficient in the first place? That you always hung by a thread, you just recognize it now?
Or if you define yourself by your beauty, or your good looks, or whatever, you will devote an inordinate degree of time and money in effort into staying good-looking. You’ll spend 20 hours a week at the gym. And you’ll look great, but you’ll slowly lose your mind as you get older and your skin gets looser and your hair gets greyer or your hairline get thinner (if you’re me). And when you’re 40 years old and you start to grow horizontally at approximately the speed you used to grow vertically, it’ll feel like death. We build false identities out of anything and everything.
As extreme as it might sound, defining yourself through something other than the redemption God has given you in Jesus Christ will make you quietly crazy. Not “obvious crazy.” Not “Charlie-Sheen-Having-A-Meltdown-Talking-About-Tiger-Blood crazy. But quietly crazy.
And of course it will. Because the false identities we cling to aren’t just silly. They’re soul crushing. Like, it’s good to be a hard worker it’s good to put effort into your looks, and so on and so forth, but they cannot bear the weight of forming your identity. They can’t make up who you are. Clinging to our false identities will make us quietly crazy.
But look at what happens when you define yourself through Jesus instead.
In verse 1 of our passage, Paul says, “If anyone is caught in any transgression, you who are spiritual should restore him in a spirit of gentleness.” That’s not a mundane sentence. That says a lot. When the story of our lives is that “we were dead in our trespasses and sins” but Christ came down and took our punishment for us to “reconcile us to God” forever, that changes how you deal with other people who screw up, right?
Because if you believe, like Paul says, that you were “walking in darkness” in a way that brought “the wrath of God” rightly onto you but then the God that you offended had an inexplicable mercy on you, to the point that he put the full weight of his own wrath onto himself on the cross, what would your major malfunction have to be if you were still eager to cut people off the second they messed up?
Or, in verse 2, Paul says, “Bear one another’s burdens,” and the same thing’s at work here. When the story of your life is that you were struggling along, buried under the weight of the world, but Christ came and lifted that weight from you, picked you up, and carried you on his back into his Father’s house, set you down at his table, draped his robe over you, put a ring on your finger, and fed you, what would your major malfunction have to be if you saw your brothers and sisters in need and told yourself that there’s always gonna be “haves” and “have-nots,” and if the “have-nots” didn’t want to be “have-nots” they should’ve tried harder to have.
A lot of what you do has to do with who you think you are. And this is “who we are”: We are people who’ve been redeemed by Jesus with a redemption that we could not earn and God did not owe.
So when Paul talks about “boasting in yourself” in verse 4, he means the opposite of what it sounds like. He’s not talking about boasting in how great you are. He’s not talking about harboring a sense of smug moral superiority. He’s talking about lifting up the God who rescued us, not because we’re better than other people, but because we aren’t. Paul’s talking about celebrating the fact that, like Ephesians 1 says, God “chose us in Christ before the foundation of the world” not because we were awesome so he wanted us on his kickball team but because we were extremely not awesome and it pleased God to show us a radical mercy we had no right to.
That’s the story of our lives.
But Paul is also talking about celebrating the fact that when God rescues us he doesn’t just forgive us and then say, “Okay, I’ll see you in heaven.” Right? He changes us. He makes us something very different than we were. Think back to the Ephesians 2 passage from earlier: Paul starts out by saying that we were “dead in our trespasses and sins,” but he ends by saying that now we are newly created in Christ Jesus for good works that God set apart for us beforehand.”
That’s the opposite of “boasting.” At no point, here, are you comparing yourself to other people, at no point are you “competing” with somebody else. Instead you’re clinging to Christ as the Spirit he’s sent you heals everything that’s lacking in you.
Paul’s talking about resting in the way that God turns you away from your selfishness and instead towards a kind of radical generosity. Like Paul says in verse 10, we “work for the good of all,” because God has already worked everything together for our good. Right?
So, as a Christian, your non-Christian neighbors should say something like “The folks next door are regressive fundamentalists but they’re the best neighbors I’ll ever have. They keep inviting us over for dinner. They keep helping me change my oil. They co-signed on that loan we needed when we almost lost our house.” The list goes on.
That’s the reason God doesn’t beam you up to heaven after he saves you. It’s because today, as people indwelt by the Spirit of God because of the grace of God, the rest of our lives consist in “walking in” the “good works” that God has “set apart beforehand” for us.
That is the thing our lives are about, not our selfish desires, not our sense of safety and security, not our self-gratification, and not the false identities we try to carve out for ourselves. So put your hand to the plow, and plow forward. Give zero consideration to how you’re doing compared to other people. Devote yourself to “walking in” the “good works” that God has set apart for you day-in and day-out. That’s the whole thing.