Cam Hill, March 2022
Growing up, my brothers and I heard a common phrase in our home: “You’re a Hill. Act like it.” This reminder was my dad’s way of calling us to something higher. Sometimes it was a call away from passivity into intentionality. Other times, it was spoken out of a sense of frustration because we were acting like knuckleheads. In either case, the strategy was the same: my dad was recalibrating the way we saw ourselves in order to change the way we were behaving. And truthfully, it was very effective!
That familiar phrase was like a dog whistle to my soul, disrupting the cycle of destructive behavior I was caught in by appealing to my self-worth (a self-worth being dishonored by my destructive behavior). Rather than instilling a sense of shame over my behavior, it elevated what was true about my identity with a call to live more authentically in line with that. It was my dad’s way of saying, “Remember who you are … and act accordingly.”
I think my dad was on to something. All lasting life change begins with an appeal to the soul. I think this is why Jesus said we must be “born again.” We need more than instructions if we’re going to live like Jesus. We need a new last name. When you become God’s child, He can look at you and say, “Remember who you are… and act accordingly.” Identity precedes action.
The problem is, the enemy uses the same strategy – except the devil’s a liar. His lies are subtle – like whispers to your soul. The enemy says, “You are what you’ve done.” Like our heavenly Father, he appeals to our identity. The difference lies in the fact that the devil tries to define us by our behavior. That’s how we get stuck. Cycles of sin are set in motion when we do what is wrong and then define ourselves by that wrongdoing. We end up repeating that behavior because we believe the lie that we are the type of person who does that sort of thing.
The enemy loves to say things like:
You’re a liar … act accordingly.
You’re a failure … act accordingly.
You’re a criminal … act accordingly.
We’ve all been there.
Slavery to sin begins with an identity rooted in a lie.
Freedom from sin begins with an identity rooted in the love of God.
So here’s my question: Why are we so quick to define a person by the worst thing they’ve ever done? I’m speaking specifically of the ways we define formerly incarcerated people. When someone commits a sinful act, we rightly call them to repentance so they can be restored. We don’t define them by that act. But when someone commits a crime against the state, we call them to repentance, punish them, and then ask them to check a box every time they apply for a job (or housing, public benefits, insurance, loans, and other services). In essence, we identify someone as a convict and demand they act like a citizen. We haunt someone with their past and demand they live into a different future. If identity precedes actions, then we’re doing a damn good job of keeping returning citizens stuck in cycles of destructive behavior.
Forgive me for being so bold, but I believe that every time we make an “ex-convict” check that box that identifies them as a felon, we partner with the devil, adding our voice to his and whispering together, “You are what you’ve done.” The lie that reverberates in their soul is the all-to-common, “Remember, you’re a criminal … act accordingly.”
If it seems like we’re letting people off too easily or not taking their past crimes seriously enough, remember that our identity in Christ was secured by the costly grace of God. The identity that empowers our obedience wasn’t earned or deserved. It was given to us despite our sin, and while it was free to us, it cost God everything. Grace is a radical thing. That’s what makes it powerful. Obedience is the fruit of a secured identity, and our identity is afforded by grace.
My appeal is that we take what we know about the Gospel and apply it to every area of life. If it seems too radical to extend grace towards those who have committed crimes against the state, then I would suggest we haven’t taken seriously enough the crimes we’ve all committed against the most high God.
Renewed behavior springs from renewed identities. And renewed identities come through grace. Period. If we want to see cycles broken and people restored, it’s time we take a closer look at grace.