“I cannot imagine anyone being in more pain in their life than me,” he told me through angry tears. Coming from most, this could seem dramatic. But coming from him, it was almost believable. Systemically abused from childhood, multiple failed relationships as an adult, estranged children, and chronic physical pain made this man’s suffering monumental. Yet even in cases such as these Hebrews 4:15–16 does not cease to be true:
For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin. Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.
No matter how much we suffer, there is no one who knows our suffering better than Christ. He’s more acquainted with them than we are. The man sitting in front of me had allowed one of the aspects of his identity as a Christian (sufferer) to take precedence and from precedence it became idolatry.
As Christians, we are all a combination of saint, sinner, and sufferer (CrossTalk, Mike Emlet). This is not to say that there are portions of us that are saved and portions that are unsaved. There are parts of us that emphasize one aspect of our identity, but all three are necessary for a balanced Christian walk.
Too Much a Saint?
We know that those who trust in Jesus Christ and him alone for salvation are described as saints (Ephesians 1:1; 1 Corinthians 1:2, 6:11) and are called to act like saints (1 Peter 1:15–16). It is the saintly aspect of our Christian identity that finds joy and peace in the holiness of our God and strives to be more like him in our words, thoughts, and deeds. It reminds us of the inexhaustible riches of God’s word and the safety of abiding in his law. Yet when this aspect is overemphasized, we lose sight of our need for grace or the fact that we are still sinners who hurt those around us with our sins.
We forget the need of repentance both to the Lord and to one another and we chafe at the suggestion that we need to ask for forgiveness. When this aspect of the Christian identity becomes one’s idol, statements like “I know I’m not perfect, but” become the norm, and contempt — rather than compassion — for fellow sinners becomes our practice.
Too Much a Sinner?
Likewise our identity as a sinner serves God’s purposes. Scripture confirms for us that every man, woman, and child, even those secure in the promises of God’s salvation, are still sinners (1 John 1:8; Romans 7:19–20). Yes, we are called to be those who doggedly kill sin day by day. Nevertheless, realizing that something of sin remains in us until glory is vitally important. It is that aspect of ourselves which helps us to run to the fountains of grace and feel so refreshed by them, knowing the depth of the filth that needs cleansing. It reminds us that we too are in great need of God’s mercy. Therefore, forgiveness should be something we’re quick to give others (Ephesians 4:32). Without seeing our own feet of clay, everyone else’s sin seems primarily like an offense against us and not against God.
We become frustrated, confounded, and too easily hurt by others’ shortcomings. However, just as some Christians idolize their sense of sainthood, some idolize their sinfulness. When the pursuit of personal piety gets labeled “legalism” or when trying to kill one’s own sin becomes synonymous with futility, there’s a good chance we are worshiping at the feet of our own sinful nature.
Too Much a Sufferer?
Not only are we saints and sinners, but we are also sufferers. Even Christ — the perfect Son of God, who knew no sin (Hebrews 4:15) and therefore deserved nothing but glory — had to suffer. Therefore, Christians are those who suffer too. This is one of Peter’s primary points in his first epistle:
For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you might follow in his steps. (1 Peter 2:21)
Suffering is normative for the Christian experience, not an oddity. And it’s not just physical or psychological suffering, but our very souls cry out in anguish, longing to be what they were designed to be rather than to be distorted by sin (Romans 8:22–23). Though we don’t long to suffer, it is this aspect of our Christian identity that enables us to understand the true cost of sin. It knows intimately the pain of being sinned against and the impact of sinning against others. Through our own anguish we are able to sympathize with others and offer Scriptural words of comfort just as Paul exhorts:
Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our affliction, so that we may be able to comfort those who are in any affliction, with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God. (2 Corinthians 1:3–4)
Yet this identity too can find itself on the throne of our affections. When our suffering becomes off-limits, unable to bear the scrutiny of Scripture, or when it becomes so overwhelming and unique that no one is able to understand us, there is a good chance that our suffering has made us its servant.
Striving for Harmony
Truth be told, none of us holds these three aspects of our Christian identity in perfect harmony. We all tend to prioritize one over the others or deny that one of them exists. But we must strive to have a well balanced view of our identity in Jesus. Saint, sinner, sufferer — all three must have their voice, all three must be ministered to, and all three must minister to others.