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[Hebrews 12:1] & [Romans 13:14]
Christians frequently compare the long, winding divide between North and South Korea to a divide between “good” and “evil.” South of the border, we think, lies good; to the north, lies evil.
In the North, people are forced not only to obey the Kim family but also to bear the image of the Kim family. North Koreans must obey strict rules regarding hair and clothing. A Kim Il-Sung pin must be affixed to their shirt. Policies force them to sacrifice their own happiness for the sake of their government.
When we stand on the South Korean side of the border and peek into the North, our hearts are moved by pity.
“How terrible it must be to live in such an idolatrous nation!” We cry.
And yet, the north has no monopoly on idolatry.
Why? To figure out the answer, we’ll need to examine two scriptures.
First, let’s look at Hebrews 12:1. In this scripture, Paul instructs us to “throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles.” Like any good athletes, Christians are told to remove anything that “hinders” them from “running the good race” (2 Timothy 4:7). Before an event, for example, a professional swimmer will often shave and don a sleek swimsuit—anything to reduce their swim time. Just as a swimmer would never dream of swimming an event while wearing a t-shirt, a Christian should never dream of clinging to sin, as it will hinder our performance.
Our second scripture, however, reminds us that it isn’t just what we take off that is important. A professional swimmer knows this as well. To the professional, not all swimsuits are the same: A good swimsuit can make the difference between a gold medal and an empty hand. Companies compete to take NASA technology and apply it to swimsuits in an attempt to reduce drag. The lower a swimmer’s drag, the lower their swim time can become, and so professional swimmers are willing to fork over large sums of money for the right swimsuit. In the same way, the identity we put on can dramatically alter our performance in “the good race.” This is why Romans 13:14 commands us to “put on Jesus Christ.”
Of course, Jesus Christ is not the only identity that we can put on. North Korea, for example, forces its citizens to “take off” all foreign influence and to “put on” Kim Il-Sung. Islamic countries instruct citizens to “take off” immorality and “put on” Islam. People always become a slave to the identity they choose to “put on”—Christians can easily recognize this tendency in North Koreans and Islamic citizens. What we have a difficult time recognizing, however, is that the free world also enslaves us to an identity—and that identity isn’t Christ.
Freedom in the free world is the permission to be anyone or do anything that one wants. Any limit to this freedom is considered to be oppressive and unjust. Human beings, this ideology claims, are clay to be molded by their own hands. We should feel free to change our appearance with plastic surgery, to sleep with whomever we wish (without bothering to marry them), or to seek pleasure in whatever form we desire.
One of the troubles with putting on this “freedom” is that we will never be satisfied with the identity we take on. Companies in the free world try to keep us dissatisfied with our appearance and identities. Dentists will never be satisfied by the color or position of our teeth. Plastic surgeons will always have a new trend to suggest. Our clothes can only be in style for so long. Movies and television will always introduce us to new fashions, restaurants, lifestyles, and hairstyles that we wish to adopt. We will fall out of love with our lovers and our hearts will always be seeking someone to make us whole. Our identity, like our desires, will constantly be in flux.
Furthermore, we may feel a need to prove our identity to others. If our identity hinges on our intelligence, for example, our well-being may be tied up with our ability to maintain positive grades. On the other hand, an individual who bases their identity in their abilities may risk ill health by sacrificing rest and self-care for long hours and low pay. Shaping our own identity means that we must bear the full weight of that identity—an arduous and wearisome task.
While this freedom is certainly a coherent identity, it is not the garment which Christians have been commanded to put on.
Paul tells us that we are to “put on” Jesus Christ. Just like with any identity, once we do this, we will become slaves to him. However, Jesus is the only master who can give freedom to his servants.
“Come to me,” Jesus commands, “all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light” (Matthew 11:28-30).
Although Christ’s freedom looks nothing like the world’s freedom, his commands do not change. He does not demand whiter teeth or thinner cheekbones. Nor does he command us to be perfect. Instead, he asks only that we come to him in humility, knowing that only he can fix what is broken in us. Rather than demanding obedience, he asks us to stay with him regardless of how many times we fall.
Whatever identity we are currently wearing, Christ does not condemn us. All he asks is for us to be honest with him. If we are not wearing him, he invites us, in humility, to take off the identity which hinders us and try him on.
This is a request which is open to the South Korean peeking over the border and the North Korean looking back at him. It is a request which is open to all at any time.
It is never too late to “take off” your identity and “put on” Christ.
Are you weary? Are you laboring under a heavy load? Come to Christ. For his yoke is easy and his burden is light.