“Identity” is a motif that runs through a lot of superhero stories. In most cases, the hero in question has a secret identity – Spiderman, Green Lantern, Wonderwoman – and then they have their walking around self which is usually some version of a mild-mannered something or other. But there is one superhero that brings the issue to another level. One of the key points of The Avengers involves the participation of the apparently introspective and philosophical mind of Bruce Banner, aka the Incredible Hulk.
The issue at hand is about the real self. The true you. The one at the core. For Bruce, the question was simple: Is it me, or is it the monster that lurks inside?
Not to be overly dramatic here, especially since we are talking about The Avengers for crying out loud, but the question should mean something to you, too. It certainly does to me. It’s one that I’ve wrestled with for a long time from the perspective of a Christian. To put it in those terms, it goes something like this:
Sometimes I sin. Sometimes I practice the acts of righteousness. But which one is the real me? Because it feels like there is a war inside of me between these two people.
Before we get to the answer, let’s first ask whether or not such matters are really worth our time. Is it really significant which one is the real you?
The answer is an unequivocal, absolute, yes. It matters deeply.
If the real you, the one at the core, is really the sinner, then it means that all this stuff you do – the daily battle of choosing good rather than evil, of seeking moral purity, of singing songs to the Lord – then all that is just a change in behavior. In the end, it’s only play acting. You know who the real you is. The evil down inside. And much as you want to behave better, you know you’ll always come back down to selfishness, greed, and all the rest.
But if indeed the real you, the one at the core, is really the saint, then it means that every time you choose godliness and the good that comes along with it, you are behaving in accordance with who you really are.
Yes, it matters. It matters very much.
There’s a good and a bad news answer to this question of what lies at the core. The bad news is that all of us, without exception, once were the sinner. And every time we chose to behave rightly, be it in big or small instance, we were choosing something wholly out of character for us. A plant with a damaged root might occasionally produce a flower, but in the end, it will need to be dug up because at its deepest level, it’s damaged. And at our deepest parts, we are damaged and broken.
That’s why the gospel of Jesus Christ is so much more than a prescription for better behavior. And that’s why, whenever you find Paul or James or whoever giving you behavioral instruction in Scripture it’s tied to something deeper.
The gospel doesn’t tell us to do better; the gospel makes us better. It is through the identity-altering gospel of Jesus Christ that the sinner is made into the saint. It is through the paradigm-shifting gospel of Jesus Christ that what was dead becomes alive. It is through this greatest of great news that we become new.
I don’t know the answer to Dr. Banner’s question, but I know the answer to mine. I once was lost but now I’m found. I once was alienated but now I have a seat at the table. I once was an enemy of God but now I am a chosen and privileged son.
It’s more than what I do. It’s who I am.