Going Deeper: Preaching the Gospel & Your Identity

I posted an article in 2006 entitled, Preaching the Gospel to Yourself.  This article spoke about what I was learning regarding seeing the ‘sin beneath the sin’ and exposing the idols of our hearts.  This gospel preaching stated that often we can go after the symptoms of sin (eg. anxiety) but miss the powerful idol that causes these sins to surface in all sorts of ways (eg. the idol of seeking other people’s approval).  Since then (at least based on a Google search on preaching the ‘gospel to yourself’) tons of articles now appear that were written on this topic, including books being written. Preaching the Gospel to yourself has become a more common term used by Christians. In fact, in ours and many communities, ‘gospeling’ has become a verb that we remind one-another this freeing news of how Christ lived for us and allows us to ‘go up the slope of faith’ rather than be enslaved to idols.

But, what happens when after “preaching the gospel” to yourself, you find patterns of sin deeply embedded in your personality that causes you to feel frustrated that change is not happening?  In my journey, seeking to deal with these idols, I’ve felt I haven’t had the transformation I’d hoped.  Often some idols seem so deeply embedded that we think, “they are part of who I am”.

Why is this?  Based on recent experience, for some idols that drive our heart, often when we were young, identity-level formation takes place based on sin and becomes woven into us.  (Often it occurs between the ages of 5-8 when our belief systems are being established consciously and unconsciously.)   Typically, because of a sinful situation where we felt wounded, we make a vow that  becomes an idol that opens up a stronghold in our life.

Let me give you an example:

Let’s say you are raised in a home where your parents separate and while living with your mother a new man enters the home and abuses you emotionally.  These series of events create a turbulent environment and at this moment, in your heart you say, “I would never let my children experience something like this.”  Now, this wound is like a muscle knot in your back, as you grip onto this vow tightly, you lock-up and your whole body adjusts to this vow.  Even something ‘good’ as protection in your own hands becomes a powerful idol that enslaves you to “make sure you have control in your life to save you from chaos.”  As you grow up, you have children and become overprotective out of this ‘good’ desire for your children, but ultimately smother them with fear-based parenting.

As I’ve seen and heard others who’ve gone through this process of identifying these wounds/vows, it can take hours to navigate this discovery process in prayer asking the Holy Spirit to reveal to you where it came from and subsequently months to unpack.  In all circumstances (for me at least), it has led to a specific childhood memory (wound) that was a powerful shaping event in establishing this false identity and idol in your heart.  This requires seeing the wound beneath the idol, beneath the sin.

For example, let’s say you were wounded because you were put in a threatening situation and felt unprotected by your father (remarkable how most of the issues involve fathers) and so you make a vow in your heart to not let this happen again and seek control.  So because of this lack of control when you were a child you now have an idol of control that causes you to be angry when things aren’t in your control.

For these recurring idol struggles, I am suggesting we need to add a layer deeper to the earlier post I referenced.  I am also learning that things tend to get worse  before they get better.  It can feel like sin is happening more often when you began to realize these wounds. I believe this is because you will go from being unconscious to conscious in an area that once was ‘just part of who we were.’  So, from the example above, we go from unconsciously angry to consciously angry when we realize the wound and in this moment need to apply the gospel and re-form our identity in Christ.   All of this is very difficult work and requires a vulnerability with others that is scary.  I am learning as we seek to understand where our powerful idols form that they have caused me to live out of lies of who I am versus my true identity in Christ.  As we go through this and recall these wounds, a helpful question we are asking is; “where was Jesus in this moment?” when we were wounded.  In this we seek to see Christ and  re-consider these circumstances in light of who He is and who we are in Him.

  • THMoller

    June 5, 2012, 4:19 pm

    Hi Drew,

    In light of 1 Cor 1-5 Paul is specifically speaking on motives of his own heart then generalizing to other person’s hearts (v 5…and disclose the motives of men’s hearts…). When do you think this analysis becomes destructive? Or do you not think there is ever a time when this thought process can be destructive to the individual?


  • admin

    June 5, 2012, 5:38 pm

    Mr. Tom Moller. Long time no talk. Yes, it can disintegrate and become destructive. A simple answer would be, when it moves from being God-centered and seeking to treasure Him led by the Holy Spirit to becoming pragmatic or out of judgement.

    • THMoller

      June 5, 2012, 7:32 pm

      Hi Drew,

      Shoot, I forgot the 4 in 1 Cor 4:1-5. DOH!

      Let me ask the question again a little differently with the most important Chapter 4 guide. Without that guide my question was left uhh-dangling and your answer failed to address the question which is entirely my fault. Sorry about that.

      In light of 1 Cor 4:1-5, Paul’s counsel seems to preach against this because there is something destructive about it. What distinguishes Paul’s counsel from your post when both are centered about judging one’s heart or the motives that spring from the heart? Paul seeks to stop that in himself and counsel others to do so and you seem to encourage this. Paul is being accused of a sinful heart and he even says in essence, “I may have sinful motives” with the phrase “I am not thereby aquitted” but he still says “I do not even judge myself”. I think it goes without saying that Paul is “God-centered and seeking to treasure Him led by the Holy Spirit” but his counsel seems to contradict yours. How is this not the case?

      Thanks in advance,

  • admin

    June 5, 2012, 8:48 pm


    Do you know just yesterday I was thinking of you?! So funny the timing that after months I hear from you again. I begun praying for you and thinking fondly of you, your daughter and wife. I prayed that the Father’s love would be experienced by you and His joy would fill you. A prayer I prayed for myself as well! It was a sweet time.

    What I see you stating, is not what I hope comes across. So thank you for your warning, I definitely would encourage those who read this post to consider the potential danger you share if this is mis-communicated. And I heartily amen that we should not go after “judging one’s hearts or the motives that spring from the heart.” What a disgusting thought, and what a slavery we’d be under if we did. I never would have thought that based on what I wrote the reader could interpret it as you warn against versus addressing the vows/wounds we make. I’d hope they’d see it without a sense of accusation or judgement but see it as sweet freedom we have in Christ to remind each other who we are, seen blameless and pure through Him. I’d pray we’d be able to counsel one another in love for our mutual joy. I’ll let people who read this discern between my intent and what you’re warning.

    • THMoller

      June 6, 2012, 6:07 am

      Thank you so much for praying for me and my family Drew. Your prayer that we experience God’s love and for His joy to fill us is much appreciated for both of our families. I have to say that I am just bummed out over your answer to my question. I don’t think it is clarifying in light of 1 Cor 4:1-5. I do not advocate this type of introspective psychoanalysis as a substitute to simple repentance In Christ empowered by the Holy Spirit (Psalm 139:24-25; Rom 7:21-8:1; Phil 1:6; Titus 3:5). Cheap Grace this is not and transformative it is. There certainly is a time for a 2 Cor 13:5 type of examination but I don’t think you are addressing the false believer or unbeliever here. Thanks again for your gracious prayer towards me and my family and gracious answer Drew.

      Joyously In Him!

  • admin

    June 6, 2012, 4:29 pm

    Thanks Tom!

    What different perspectives we have based on what you see and I experience. I’d encourage you to not be bummed about the answers, but be of good cheer. The same God that made us right with Him is completing His work in us so we can be free to not be right all the time and not get all the answers we seek. As you reference, we don’t even need to judge or condemn ourselves or others. I love that we can starkly disagree, but agree to disagree with hope because we have Christ in common.

    I definitely will seek counsel from men I trust to examine any error in what I’m suggesting in light of your words.

    Grace and peace to you and yours!

  • Caesar

    June 6, 2012, 6:33 pm

    Good discussion!

    As the Spirit leads us to repentance, (repentance is granted by God) He often leads us to see aspects of our heart and life experiences that have led to sinful thoughts and actions.

    Tremble and do not sin; when you are on your beds, search your hearts and be silent. Psalm 4:4

  • admin

    June 7, 2012, 6:22 pm

    Warning: As I thought about this, I want to re-iterate, I tend to process things ‘out loud’ and as such, this is a blog post of ideas I’m thinking about. I recognize it may not be fully baked and as examined may have many holes and areas that need to be re-worked. Please read it as such.

    This was also helpful as I’m considering this subject: http://www.ccef.org/idols-heart-and-vanity-fair with subsequent (20 years later) follow-up: http://www.ccef.org/blog/fresh-idols

    In it it warns:

    Am I encouraging an inward hunt for ‘the idol’ in either my heart or yours? No….

    An ‘idol-hunt’ would turn me introspective and self-analytical. It would make me mistreat you. Faith makes me extraspective and God-relational. Love makes me extraspective and other-relational. Faith and love draw us out of sin’s enmeshing self-obsession (including enmeshment in obsessive introspection). So come forth. Our Savior gives us his own joy, and joy is an interpersonal emotion. He throws open the doors to the fresh air and bright light of a most kind grace. Bless the Lord, O my soul, and all that is within me bless his holy name!

  • Catherine Savard

    June 8, 2012, 2:11 pm

    Looks pretty well baked to me.

    I “tested out” how well done Drew’s original post was by trying to put the I Cor. 4:1-5 passage back in its longer context in Paul’s letter. I think that this resolves the disagreement above quite effectively. I think that the larger context of Paul’s letter to the Corinthians makes it clear that at the beginning of chapter 4 Paul is talking about something quite different. He’s not trying to deal with very personal stubborn sinful patterns in his own life. When he says that he does “not even judge (him)self” he is talking about quite a different problem and situation that what Drew appears to be talking about. I don’t think that the passage, rightly interpreted in context, is really about the mystery of exactly how the Spirit of God works in the life of the individual believer to convict and expose sin and liberate the individual in his understanding to experience the freedom of God’s grace in our salvation. He addresses that somewhere else, but that isn’t Paul’s main topic here.

    I was so blessed by the post that Drew wrote that I thought I would say something about it. I want other people to be free to stop and consider seriously what is being said here. I don’t want its impact to be blunted. I don’t think that the original post seeks to promote an unhealthy, overly speculative, man-centred introspection. This all depends on one’s point of view on some things.

    Allow me to say that an unhealthy fear of becoming overly introspective can backfire on us. It can shut down the work that God’s Spirit may be seeking to accomplish in us and cause us to become hardened in our sin, the very thing that we say that we wish to avoid.

    Besides, if you are a believer and you have Christian community around you where people really know you and love you, those people are perfectly capable of telling you to “stop that” unhealthy introspection(- If you are honest enough and in touch enough with other trustworthy Christians that is). God’s Spirit works through them too to help keep you on track when your thinking gets messed up and off track. Happily, it’s all meant to work together to keep us walking in freedom and growing in Jesus(the Bible, the Spirit, the Christian community, the individual believer).

  • THMoller

    June 9, 2012, 5:33 pm

    To those who are following, Drew and I exchanged some very encouraging letters between us and I am glad to say that in light of DG’s most recent post I am encouraged that my point is hopefully being used by the Holy Spirit to pique, uplift and enlighten. I certainly don’t want this exchange to uplift my own prideful besetting sins (approval from others would be one of MY “sin underneath the sins”). In one of those letters to Drew I do and have acknowledged the need for self-examination from time to time. Even understanding at some level when we break the last nine commandments we have already broken the first (the sin underneath the apparent sins). Therefore there does come a time when understanding what motivates my insecurities is grounded in “idolatry.” I think 1 Cor 9:24-27 would be a good text to look at in-depth on this point.

    Hi Catherine, You are wholly correct in your reading that the “larger context of Paul’s letter to the Corinthians makes it clear that at the beginning of chapter 4 Paul is talking about something quite different.” Paul is of course speaking about ungodly factions in the church of which we are not. Thank you for engaging the text here! Given that, I don’t think we can so quickly dismiss Paul’s response as irrelevant to the current discussion due to the situation of that response being different than the situation here. I think more questions need to be asked such as “What were some of the more vocal members of the First Church of Corinth most likely accusing Paul of?” How did Paul’s personality, propensities and principles lend itself to the charges that the church was accusing him of? What does Paul mean by “apparent”? Why does he speak of Christ judging men’s hearts? More questions could be asked of the text and given what we know of the situation and of the person of Paul, we can arrive at some type of reasonable position to determine if the response of Paul can be used as a guide for our response in the current issue. And of course I think the text CAN teach us something regarding the current post.

    Catherine I think your last paragraph unintentionally really nailed the dangers of what I am saying here. We are assuming a LOT when we assume every Christian has what you say. If I may break down your sentence:

    1. IF I am a (healthy, mature) believer, THEN we can introspect.
    2. IF we have a Christian Community, THEN we can introspect.
    3. IF we have Christian Community that LOVES me (and not their self- interests), THEN we can introspect.
    4. If this Christian Community is wise (perfectly capable…perfectly!), THEN we can introspect.
    5. If I realize I am doing unhealthy introspection (let’s not even talk about being honest here but wise) I would tell my Christian Community, THEN we can introspect.
    6. If we are honest enough, THEN we can intropect.
    7. If we are “in-touch” enough THEN we can introspect.

    I would pose a question here. What if we are not (pick one of the seven) and how would I know we are not?

    I’m afraid I’ve actually said too much here. I really don’t want to hijack Drew’s post, but I do believe there is a need to inject some type of push-back on an issue where some type of warning had to be given to those who see this as a good way to “dig idols”. Joyfully, I see that at some level Drew as concurred. Thank you my brother for this time and your gracious hosting!

    In love,

  • admin

    June 12, 2012, 4:55 pm

    Tom – No worries about hijacking the post, it’s a comment thread so interaction is to be expected.

    One thought: I’d assume we will fail in 1-7 BUT just because we are sinners doesn’t mean we should not endeavor in this direction. Particularly because our hope isn’t in our ability to seek ‘self-examination’ but in the finished work of Christ and the guidance of the Holy Spirit. Personally, I’ll let you all continue as there are a few things I’m still learning and hope to be trained more in this. Also, coincidentally I’ve been sitting under the teaching of James 3 and felt inclined to listen more. I pray this has been fruitful for those who read and hope that the online comments don’t move into too much dissecting of intent and seeking to pointing out each nuance of ‘what if’ outside of relationship, which I believe can have a diminishing return.

  • Jenni HO-Huan

    August 28, 2012, 3:15 am

    What a lively exchange. I tend to introspection and once my keen professor of Old Testament said wisely to me, “dont over-introspect”
    OVER is the key word here!
    Yet i am prone to introspection and in my pastoral experience realise others are not as much so…and i can only leave them, trsuting God to have a custom plan for their transfomration (which includes deeply loved ones like spouse and kids yo) – not easy!
    But in both my reading and experience, it is clear some amount of reflection/evaluation/examination/introspection is critical. It is the ground for confession and repentance.
    ANd like Drew, i realised that quite often, the SPirit has led me to the heart of issues: idolatry. it is amazing how deep our fallen bent is and what a civil war rages on upped with lots of help from the enemy!
    I msut say too that i beleive God wants me to be both whole and holy – a framework i use for reflection..and i let the Spirit point things out to me. He has! THose backroads and dark alleys are not paths we can find for ourselves but when the searchlight of Truth comes on..it comes to the surface and we have the choice of seeing it as it is and repenting.

    Blessings all!