The science fiction BBC television series Doctor Who follows the adventures of an alien time traveler known as the Doctor. The Doctor is a Time Lord from the planet Gallifrey, and though he looks like a human, in his current incarnation the Doctor has already lived longer than Methuselah. He is over 900 years old.
Time Lords may live for centuries upon centuries, but their bodies do get worn out after a while. And so, at regular intervals, the Doctor regenerates, getting a new body and a slightly different personality each time. We’ll overlook the fact that this is convenient for the writers and producers of the show, who have only to find a new actor when the current one is ready to move on.
But the Doctor’s habit of regenerating presents an opportunity for one question to be asked again and again: “Who am I?” The first episodes with a new Doctor are full of funny and profound moments where the Doctor examines his teeth and hair, decides what his style of dress will be, and discovers quirks of speech and behavior that are new to him.
The newest Doctor just appeared in the current season of the show. Pretty quickly, he moves from more superficial identity markers and asks a much deeper question: “Am I a good man?” His traveling companion, Clara, knew and loved the previous Doctor. So when he asks her, “Am I a good man?”, she replies, “I don’t know.” And the Doctor has to admit, “Neither do I.”
Our text from Romans lays before us a simple but profound question: “Who am I?” Am I that person who wills what is good, or am I the person who does what I hate? To ask the underlying question about human nature: are we inherently good or inherently bad?
I would wager that all of us have had an experience of being divided within ourselves. We might do something that seems contrary to who we are and what we believe, and when we step back and look at ourselves, we feel as if there were someone else doing that thing.
We seem to be two different people, and it is easy to lose track of who we really are. Are we compassionate, honest, and faithful people? Then why do we walk past a homeless person without a second glance? Why do we tell white lies to our friends and family when it makes things easier? And why do so many things seem to come before God despite our insistence that we love and serve him?
Perhaps the best summary I’ve heard of this Romans passage was a description of what it feels like to be in the throes of drug addiction. It is like building yourself a prison and then watching yourself do things that you hate. This addict willed to stay clean, to be honest, and to honor those he loved, and yet he found himself doing the complete opposite. He could will what was right, but he could not do it.
We’ve all heard the old saying, “The road to hell is paved with good intentions.” We may have the best intentions and still do the wrong thing. Do we get credit for our intentions at all if our actions don’t align with them? What makes us who we are—our core beliefs or the actions and inactions that flow from or contrary to them?
Swiss theologian Karl Barth asks this question in his study of Romans 7. This is what he says: “Who then am I? I am he that wills and he that does not perform: I am intolerably both at once.”
Lutheran pastor Nadia Bolz-Weber leads a congregation called House for All Sinners and Saints. The name does not mean that both sinners and saints are welcome, as if you were one or the other. It points to what Nadia says about our nature: we are 100% sinner and 100% saint. We don’t get to pick which one we are and are not, and our saintliness does not make us any less sinners. We are “intolerably both at once.”
I recently went to a concert by singer-songwriter Sara Bareilles. At the show, she performed for the very first time a song she wrote for a new musical based on the movie Waitress. In the film, Keri Russell plays Jenna, a waitress unhappily married to a man who bullies and controls her. She is gifted at baking pies, but her talents are wasted on the shabby diner where she works and gives all her money to her husband.
Over the course of the move, Jenna discovers she is pregnant with an unwanted baby and begins an affair with her physician. And so we have this woman who seems to be a good person, yet curses her unborn child and cheats on her albeit abusive husband. For the musical, Sara Bareilles wrote a song that captures the loss and tension that Jenna feels when she looks at herself and her life:
She’s imperfect, but she tries
She is good, but she lies
She is hard on herself
She is broken but won’t ask for help
She is messy but she’s kind
She is lonely most of the time
She is all of this mixed up and baked in a beautiful pie
She is gone but she used to be mine
Are humans inherently good or inherently bad? Are we inescapably imperfect, or do we get credit for trying? Is our goodness canceled out by the lies we tell? Does our tendency to destroy the things we love overwhelm our capacity for kindness?
Maybe the answer is a little more complicated than that. Maybe we are “all of this mixed up and baked in a beautiful pie.” Maybe we are both/and, not either/or.
Here’s what happens when we try to turn our assessment of human nature into an either/or: if we say we are only and completely sinners, there is nothing for us to do except to sin. On the other hand, if we say we are only and completely saints, then we deny the reality of evil in ourselves and in this world, which we see clearly in our own hearts and all around us. We are “intolerably both at once.” We are 100% sinner and 100% saint.
But, as Karl Barth said, this state is “intolerable.” And Sara Bareilles names the deep sense of loss that comes from feeling that the person we have known is somehow gone. Sometimes, the answer to the question, “Who am I?” is intolerable in its complexity and tension.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer asked himself the question “Who am I?” under impossible circumstances. Bonhoeffer was a pastor and theologian who led an underground resistance to the Third Reich in Hitler’s Nazi Germany. A lifelong pacifist, Bonhoeffer made the drastic decision to participate in a plot to kill Hitler. He was arrested for this and placed in a concentration camp.
There in prison, Bonhoeffer wrote a poem where he questioned who he really was. Was he this calm, confident man his jailers encountered, or the man he felt himself to be—struggling, sleepless, weary, empty at praying? Was he the ethicist and pacifist or the man who helped plant a bomb with the intent to kill someone?
Bonhoeffer’s conclusion is not a conclusion at all but a surrender. Here are the last two lines of that poem:
Who am I? They mock me, these lonely questions of mine.
Whoever I am, [You know], O God, I am [yours]!
Julian of Norwich was a medieval English mystic who had a series of visions during a life-threatening illness. Her recounting of those visions, which she called “showings” or “revelations of divine love,” is the earliest English writing that we have by a woman.
In one vision, she saw a lord dressed in royal clothing whose face radiated kindness and wisdom. She saw near him a servant, eager and ready to do his master’s bidding. At the lord’s command, the servant raced off to do his will, but as he ran, he fell into a ditch and was severely injured. He lay in the ditch in great pain and agony. His body was broken and bruised, and he grew anxious and distressed as he realized his state would not allow him to fulfill the lord’s command. He could not get himself out of the ditch, and, unable to see his master from where he lay, he assumed the lord was angry with him for not completing the task before him.
But Julian, in her vision, could see the lord’s face though the servant could not. Instead of anger or disappointment, she saw only deep love and compassion.
Who is the servant, really? Is he defined by the joy and determination with which he first ran off to do his lord’s bidding, or by his fallen state, broken and unable to help himself or serve his master at all?
He is “intolerably both at once.” But Julian’s vision and Bonhoeffer’s poem show us that there is something far more important than the nature of the servant, and that is the nature of his lord.
The servant could will what was right—he could will to get out of the ditch and obey his lord’s command. Jenna the waitress could will what was right—she could will to be good and kind even in the face of adversity. The addict could will what was right—he could will to stay clean and be a person of integrity. But none of them could do it, because we cannot connect our will to our actions. But though our will and our actions all mixed together somehow make us who we are, they have nothing to do with whose we are.
God made us in God’s image. God made us good. We have fallen away from that and become as much sinner as we are saint, but there is still the hope of recovery and restoration. We might have to go back 5 years, or 10, or 20, or all the way back to Adam and Eve to find that person we used to be, that person we were created to be. But though the sin and brokenness of Adam and Eve has been passed down to each one of us, so, too, has the image of God, however tarnished and twisted and tattered it may be.
And the good news is that we do not have to wait until we are only 100% saint before we come to God—otherwise, we never would. We can come before God as exactly who we are, 100% sinner and 100% saint, good and dishonest and messy and kind, broken and well-intentioned and battered and bruised, and God loves all of it.
Jesuit priest Anthony de Mello wrote these words in part of a short but profound poem:
You do not
for your sins.
they are carriers
We do not have to change for God to love us, which is a relief, because we can’t change on our own. We can’t pull ourselves out of the ditch. But God’s love can change us, rescue us, and heal us. God’s grace can restore the image of God that has been obscured in us by sin and brokenness.
So before we receive this next song, I want to frame it in a particular way. If we cannot connect our will to right action, then it stands to reason that we cannot change by our own willpower. We change when we surrender our will to God’s and when we ask to be made into mirrors for the divine image.
“Who am I?” I am 100% sinner and 100% saint. I am “all of this mixed up and baked in a beautiful pie.” And whoever I am, O God, you know—I am yours.
Sarah S. Howell