I was talking to a woman once about a recent conflict she had had with another person. During this conflict, some hurtful words were said, including many by the woman herself. This woman understood that she had said many things that wounded the other person in the conflict. However, she excused herself from the hurt that she caused, saying something to the effect of, “I can’t help it. When I’m angry, you will know. I share what I feel. That’s just who I am.“
That’s just who I am.
Do you hear it? At the time, I thought of it as an excuse, and I think that’s how it was meant. “That’s just who I am.” In other words, “I can’t help that I hurt someone. I can’t help that I caused damage. It’s not my fault; that’s just how I am.” It sounded like a way to get around one’s negative behavior without facing the consequences.
Now, though, when I hear that phrase, it doesn’t sound like an excuse. It sounds like prison bars closing.
That’s just who I am.
I will never be different.
I will never grow.
I’m incapable of change.
I am a prisoner, a slave to my natural tendencies.
In our women’s class tonight at church, we talked about labels. Our class was roughly based on chapter 3 of the book, Unglued, by Lysa TerKeurst, and in that chapter, she discusses how labels imprison us. Often, these labels are put on us by other people: “You’re a wreck.” “You’re stupid.” “You’ll never get it together.” I could go on and on with examples of the ways we limit each other with our words, the ways we reduce each other to a dismissive phrase. In fact, as we discussed in class, even “good” labels, like “Smart,” or “Strong,” or “Mature” can imprison us because we then feel pressure to live up to that label, to the point when we doubt our identity when we fall short. So labels are bad, and it’s really sad when we feel labeled by others. But what’s even sadder is when we label ourselves.
Because when we say, “That’s just who I am,” that’s what we are doing: we are labeling ourselves as hurtful people, or brash people, or people with no self-control. And that is so sad to me. “That’s just who I am” has got to be one of the saddest phrases in the English language. It’s sad because it’s dehumanizing. Isn’t one of the beautiful things about being human our capacity to grow and adapt, to mature and evolve? And yet, when we say, “That’s just who I am,” we effectively deny our capability to grow and learn and change. Furthermore, for the Christian, it’s ultimately a faithless phrase. Because didn’t Paul proclaim that “If anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation: the old has gone; the new has come” (2 Cor. 5:17)? When we become Christians, God doesn’t leave us “just how we are.” He transforms us into a new creation!
He also tells us in 2 Corinthians 3:18 that, as Christians, “we all are being transformed into [God’s] image with ever increasing glory.” I like that verse because it draws a picture of continual growth. As we live and pursue Christ, be are being transformed into His image.
And that transformation will continue throughout our lives: in Galatians 1:6, Paul tells us that he is confident “that He who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus.”
You see it all throughout Scripture: the promise that we can be more than a collection of our natural tendencies. The idea that we are no longer slaves to sin and selfishness. The hope that we are continually being transformed into the likeness of the living God. There is no, “that’s just who I am” in the Bible. Instead, you find another idea:
Do you remember the movie, Hitch? It starred Will Smith as some sort of top secret dating guru (I have forgotten the finer details), and for most of the movie, he is trying to help a clueless Kevin James land a beautiful woman. At one point, he takes James’ character shoe shopping, and they buy some shoes he recommends. Upon trying on the shoes, James’ character says something like, “They’re just not me.” And Smith’s character responds with my favorite line from the movie: “‘You‘ is a very fluid concept right now. You bought the shoes. You look great in the shoes…”
I love that idea: “‘You’ is a very fluid concept.” That’s biblical, I think. The Bible tells me that I am God’s handiwork, created in Christ to do good works (Eph. 2:10). It tells me that I am continually being transformed by God’s Spirit at work within me. And it tells me that God Himself has begun a good work in me that will continue until it is complete. He certainly doesn’t leave me, “just who I am.” Thank heavens!
For the purposes of our class, we needed to identify the way that labels limit us and to talk about ways to overcome the labels that are put on us, both by others and ourselves. The point of Unglued is, as the subtitle states, to learn how to make “wise choices in the midst of raw emotions.” And so often, we hide behind labels to justify succumbing to those emotions. Thus, the first step in learning to deal with our strong emotions–our strong natural tendencies, in other words–is to embrace the idea that labels are a lie. We are more than the sum of our natural tendencies, and just because we feel something doesn’t mean that we must act on it.
Next week, we will take a closer look at some of those natural tendencies. But until then, the challenge is to consider–and reject–the labels that have been put on us.
Do you have any labels that you need to reject? Feel free to share them in the comments!