One of the movies that stuck with me for a long time was the 2001 film “Life as a House.” Kevin Kline stars in it as George, a down-on-his-luck architect. A disdainful local character who draws disapproval from the community, he sets out to change his life after suddenly losing his longtime job and discovering he’s terminally ill with cancer. Hayden Christiansen plays his estranged and troubled son, and I thought it was an amazing performance (this was his precursor to becoming Anakin Skywalker lol). George chooses not to let his son know that he is dying, and instead embarks on a summer journey to rebuild his dilapidated home. Christiansen is an unwilling participant, but slowly he warms up to the idea of a collaborative project with his father. The beat up house ends up becoming a symbol throughout the movie – first, of the ruin and brokenness of George’s life, and finally, a symbol for hope, restoration and healing. I’m doing a blog series on identity and transformation, and I’ve found this same symbolism to be a helpful.
When the Apostle Paul teaches on this topic in Ephesians 4.17-24 he first says that we need to “Learn Christ.” This was unusual and unique language, and was certainly intended to prick our interest. Transformation lies in more than just ideas and doctrines – we need to have a personal and interactive connection with Jesus Christ.
Realizing that the command to “Learn Christ” would need further explanation, the Apostle Paul then connects it to the realm of identity. Transformation, according to Paul, requires that we “put off” our old self, and that we correspondingly “put on” our new self. When you put it all together, the vision comes across as both compelling and a bit confusing.
Questions like this quickly arise: What does it mean to “learn Christ” in the context of identity transformation? How is it that Jesus leads us in a way that we put off our old self? How is it that Jesus leads us into our new self? How do I know when it is the old, and when it is the new? What part of that is up to me, and what part of that is in the hands of Jesus?
I am going to share some of how I understand the answers to those questions in the next post, but I will first introduce the metaphor that has helped me to wrap my mind around this teaching. Much like the movie referenced above, I might call it “Identity as a House.”
When I search to understand my own personal process of identity transformation, it matches the arc of this movie in many ways. I think of my “old self” as something like a house that has fallen into disrepair, or maybe a house boarded up before it was completed. I don’t see who I am now as something fundamentally different than who I was before I followed Christ. I believe the same to be true about others. It’s not that faith turns us into somebody completely different than who we were without him. I believe the shape and shell of our identity was always there.
But like a house that is boarded up and in disrepair, our identity is badly in need of some serious transformation. That is why we really need to “Learn Christ.” We need far more than an inspirational coach who barks just the right command to get us in shape. When we are honest, most of us don’t even know what has to stay and what has to go. We intuitively sense that our identity is nowhere close to where it needs to be, but it feels like a guessing game how to properly move forward. There wouldn’t be a thousand best selling books on finding your best life if that weren’t the case.
That is where Paul’s language of the old and the new becomes very powerful for me. What does it mean to put off the old, in the context of identity transformation? I think of the old as something like the beat up house that is in disrepair. The potential was always there for it to be so much more. But the process can’t even begin until boards start getting ripped off the windows and light starts to shine in. It is only then that Jesus can even begin to reveal to us what of the old needs to stay, and what of the new is to come.
The beginning stages of putting off the old rarely are fun. It’s never fun to discover the level of trash, dirt, and vermin that has accumulated over the years. We are marked by so many mistakes. So many hurtful experiences. So many failures. So many broken relationships. Even the good things that happened became props that we tried to use to hold up our fragile identity.
Yet there is something strangely encouraging about the process, because we know we are not alone. It’s not on us to bring in the light, and its not on us to usher in the transformation. All that is required of us is to learn Christ. We need to let him lead us into the process of putting off the old and putting on the new. We need to follow him as he reveals the master blueprint, one step at a time.
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