'When You Feel Like a (Christian) Imposter'
What if you feel out of place among Christians or in church? What if we feel we don't belong?
This piece originally appeared on The Gospel Coalition on October 27.
It’s called Imposter Syndrome, and while the name might not be familiar to you, the concept behind it is sure to be. Imposter Syndrome is the haunting feeling that you can’t really do what everyone expects you to be able to do. It assumes any success you’ve experienced was an unrepeatable fluke. You’re a fraud, and any moment now everyone is going to realize that.
It’s common to experience this in our work contexts. I’m actually experiencing it right now. I’ve just been speaking at a conference where all the other speakers are people I deeply admire, people unusually gifted and able. So what am I doing here? Surely there must have been some mistake.
There’s a similar feeling that easily creeps into our Christian lives as well. We walk into church on Sunday and look around. Everyone else looks as though they belong here. They seem to have the Christian life figured out (or so we think). But Christianity doesn’t feel so natural to us. It feels far from second nature.
Holy Is Who You Are
Perhaps this applies most when we think of holiness. We hear the commands to “be holy, as your Father is holy.” We know we’re meant to live in a way that’s worthy of the gospel. Yet it feels so alien to do so. All our default settings seem lined up in the other direction. And in the fatigue we can start to think, There’s no point. This isn’t me. I’m just trying to be someone I’m not.
But natural though it might seem to think this way, it’s actually completely untrue. The Bible is, of course, deeply realistic about the continuing presence of sinful tendencies in our lives. We aren’t yet rid of our sinful nature. But that’s not all there is to say on this point. Yes, the sinful nature is still kicking around, but it’s not who we now truly are.
The key to all this is understanding our union with Christ. Being a Christian doesn’t just mean that we’ve decided to “vote Jesus” or that we admire him from afar. The most common way the New Testament describes believers is as those who are “in Christ.” We’re united to him, like a branch to a tree (John 15:1) or a body to its head (Eph. 4) or a husband to his wife (1 Cor. 6).
One of the glorious implications is that who we are now is who we are in Jesus. Listen to these startling words from Paul:
It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. The life I live I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me. (Gal. 2:20)
If anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. (2 Cor. 5:17)
This means our relationship to our old self, our sinful nature, has decisively and dramatically changed—forever. So Paul can say:
Consider yourselves dead to sin and alive in Christ. (Rom. 6:11)
Sin is no longer our master. This doesn’t mean it exerts no influence over us, but that it has no authority over us. We never have to do what it says. This doesn’t mean we won’t ever sin. But it does mean that every time we do, we didn’t have to.
This or that sin may well have defined our lives. Perhaps it was who we were. Even so, it’s no longer who we are.
Sin Is Not Who You Are
Grasping this point is life-changing. Most of us will have particular besetting sins that seem so established we can’t imagine them ever going away. So when temptation comes, it says, This is who you are. This is how we roll. Stop pretending to be something you’re not. It can sound so compelling, and we can easily give up.
But here the message of the gospel is wonderfully liberating. This or that sin may well have defined our lives. Perhaps it was who we were. Even so, it’s no longer who we are.
Paul makes this point to the Christians in Corinth:
Or do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: neither the sexually immoral, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor men who practice homosexuality, nor thieves, nor the greedy, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God. And such were some of you. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God. (1 Cor. 6:9–11, emphasis added)
When the New Testament calls us to holiness, it’s calling us to be who we now are. If I am who I am in Christ, then holiness—not sinfulness—is truest to who I am in the deepest core of my being. However deep sinful feelings may go, the new love and life I have in Christ goes deeper still. Sin goes against the grain of my true self; therefore, pursuing Christ is the most “true to self” I can ever be.
I write this as someone who has wrestled with homosexual temptation his whole Christian life. It defined my affections and feelings for so many years. At times it still exerts a powerful gravitational pull on my life. But while it may describe some of my temptations, it isn’t who I am. Indulging such feelings is never being true to myself as I now am in Christ.
Danger of Getting It Backward
What is most true of believers is never going to be an aspect of our sinful natures. If we get this backward, though, we’ll never feel that we have the power to live like Christ.
Attempting Christian ethics with an unchristian identity produces an unstable compound. We need to reform our identity in order to live out our ethics, or else we will give up the fight for holiness as we cling, well-meaning but deceived, to “who we really are.”