The Saddest Phrase in the English Language

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.

resources-bookIn 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:

will smith

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!

8 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by Melanie McGaughey on December 4, 2013 at 9:18 pm

    Love this! So true! And the tie to the quote from Hitch?! So perfect! Will not soon forget that. Thanks for the reminder! 🙂


  2. “Like prison bars closing” – and I am so glad that Jesus came to set the prisoners free, including me, Kim.

    Great reflection on Hitch, too. That movie posited that we don’t have to be trapped in our self-imposed limitations, and I believe it. there are plenty of other limitations that I must deal it (I’m not as smart as Einstein and I’ll never swim as fast as Michael Phelps), so why should I add any more?

    Nicely done today, Kim.



  3. Posted by Sean on December 5, 2013 at 10:20 am

    A couple years ago at PBC our class lesson was on John 9 where Jesus opened the eyes of the man born blind. A couple of the teachers got together to talk about the lesson and Andrew Thompson stated something along the lines of “He was born that way but God didn’t leave him that way.” I began to think about how I excused behavior in my life b/c it’s “who I was” and “how I was made”. Andrew’s comments and the man’s healing in John 9 began to challenge how I looked at my behavior along with how I view people who I had been told “could never change” or “will always be that way”. I often fall back into that thought process as it was ingrained for so long, but thanks be to God that I’m moving away from that thought process and remembering God’s promises to change me and others into His glory!
    Thanks for the post!


    • That’s a great example from Scripture, Sean! Really, this isn’t a revolutionary concept–I mean, don’t we all want to grow and get better, even if we are not Christians? And yet, there’s this competing idea that we’re all okay the way we are. And I see the reasoning behind it and even where that could be a message of grace. But too often, that idea becomes an excuse and a prison, like I described in the post. I think the Christian message is grace-filled in that it acknowledges our own inability to perfect ourselves, instead putting ultimately responsibility for our transformation on God’s Spirit within us. We just have to pursue Him and let Him work in us!


  4. Good thoughts (this post and the last). This puts an interesting spin for me on some things I have been thinking about lately. Various recent/upcoming events in my life have got me pondering who I am, or, rather, who I am deciding that I want to be at this stage in my life. That encompasses (hopefully) figuring out who God wants me to be, as well as realizing who I am not. In the process of going through all of this in my mind, I have found myself saying things like “this is the way I am, and that’s not going to change” in reference to certain cultural traits, basically letting myself off the hook from trying to be just like the Nicaraguans I live and work with and accepting that, regardless of how much I want to fit in, I will always be an American. (“You can take the girl out of the USA, but you can’t take the USA out of the girl.”) I have been mulling over the spiritual ramifications of this and haven’t quite figured it out yet, but you make a good point about not letting this kind of thing become an excuse to continue sinful behavior. That’s something good to keep in mind while I think about all of this. (To what extent is my ingrained American culture sinful or otherwise? Hmm…)


    • It’s always interesting to ponder identity in terms of ministry, Becky. In the Bible, we definitely see an example of adaptability in ministry (Paul’s being “all things to all people,” for instance). If I went with “that’s just who I am,” I would never have people in my home, would never volunteer to help at big events, would never even TEACH, because “I’m such an introvert” and that type of thing is exhausting to me. At the same time, though, we have to be able to discern what it is that God wants us to do, and not EVERY opportunity is part of our “good works that He has prepared in advance for us to do.” And so, when looking at opportunities, I think you do have to ask, “Has God given me the internal and external resources for this?” And some of that has to do with the personality and cultural skill sets that He has given us.

      Culture is especially interesting to consider when, as with you, it sets you apart. We are friends with people from a lot of different cultures here in Nashville, and I’ve come to really appreciate that variety. No culture has the monopoly on truth, and I think there is a lot of insight and wisdom to be gained by observing and appreciating other cultures. One of our friends is Iranian, for instance, and she humbles me with her generosity, her constant giving of gifts, and her hospitality. I don’t know if it is necessarily an Iranian thing or not, but the way she acts is distinctly different from any American I know! Similarly, as an American, I think that you have some traits that could be beneficial to the Nicaraguan culture–you know better than I what they are, but I know they are there:). And yet, to the extent that your American-ness builds a barrier between the two cultures or prevents you from connecting with the Nicaraguans, I think it has to be adaptable.

      Haha–look at me, just jumping right into your situation without knowing anything about it:). I’m really just pondering out loud because, like I said, I find the idea of identity in ministry fascinating, and I’m working through it in my own life right now, albeit in a slightly different context. Thinking about your situation helps me to think about my own. Anyway, good luck with your pondering!


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