Who Do You Think You Are?

Our church’s LIVE series on identity has finished, and we’ve moved into “Life After LIVE.” Now that I’ve learned big truths about who I am and discussed some ways to apply those truths, what can I do to keep seeing those worked into my life?

Last week, I was researching personality disorders, and I came across two psychological terms that inform “identity” discussions in a really interesting way.

Egosyntonic describes thoughts, feelings, or behaviors that harmonize with our ego – our ultimate beliefs about who we are.

Egodystonic describes thoughts, feelings, or behaviors that clash with our beliefs about who we are.

Now, I don’t believe in an “ego” in the full Freudian-psychoanalytic sense; but if by “ego” we mean “the sum of the truths and principles that define who I think I am,” game on.

An example of egosyntonic action versus egodystonic action can be found in the following two cases:

1. A narcissist has no problem sinning against others – deceit, harm, whatever – because he genuinely believes himself to be more important than other people. Voldemort, say (who is much more than a narcissist, but not less so), willingly hurts his followers when it’s in his best interest to do so. Such are egosyntonic actions.

2. A person with obsessive-compulsive disorder may hate the anxiety that makes her wash her hands three times in a row, even though she still bows to that anxiety. She knows it’s wrong – it feels alien to her – although she still finds herself following it. This is an egodystonic pattern.

These words give us a really interesting vocabulary for talking about sin in the Christian’s life. Christians, we believe, still have a sin nature – a part of our spiritual-psychological makeup will go on secreting self-centered thoughts and desires. Before conversion, I lived to please and impress others: after conversion, that desire still rears up in me from time to time, in conflict with the holy nature imparted to me in my new birth.

But here’s the million-dollar question: If we could open the treasury of “Joseph Rhea’s ego” and lay out all the beliefs and principles inside, would people-pleaser still be in the chest? And, maybe more to the point, should it be?

If this seems like an exercise in sophistry, it isn’t – it’s terribly meaningful and terribly important. It’s meaningful, because the New Testament tells us that Christians have received, among other things, a new self-concept:

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, 10 nor thieves, nor the greedy, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God. 11 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 Corinthians 6:9-11

“Such were you.” Once, our sin defined us – it sat at the core of who we were, and who we thought we were. Our sinful thoughts and practices were in one sense egosyntonic: they harmonized with our self-concept. But though the Christian may still at times see him- or herself sin (see Romans 7:14-25), we should come to see all sin as egodystonic – not really grounded in who we are. I may still be tempted to drunkenness, but I am no longer a drunkard. I may still be tempted to please people, but I no longer live as a people-pleaser.

In one sense, Christians can still say with Paul, “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am chief.” But I’m no longer an idolater; in Jesus’ death, I died to that. I’m no longer a thief; I left that in the grave, and in Jesus I have a new life. My sin no longer defines me; it is an intruder, an insurgent.

For those of us struggling under a long-present, deep-trenched sin, this can bring comfort. If we’re in Christ, that’s no longer who we are. Christ is our life, and nothing else.

But this should also lead us to look long and hard at our deep, regular sin-patterns. We need to ask, “Where does this come from? Is this rooted in some false belief about who I am that needs to be cut like a tumor from my sense of self?” If adulterer or liar or bitter sits comfortably beside justified in Christ – if we find our sinful thoughts and actions and feelings egosyntonic – something is dangerously wrong.


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