I love asking questions about why people think the way they think and do the things they do. What are the hidden assumptions that people don’t question? In looking at what passes for “common sense” in our society, you can see one overarching message in music, TV shows, books and movies: the purpose of life is to look inside and discover yourself and then express yourself to the world. I wanted to peel back the layers of some of our best-loved slogans like “Be true to yourself” or “Follow your heart” and interrogate them. Does this way of life work? Does it deliver what it promises? Why do other societies reject this way of thinking? Then, I wanted to bring the ancient wisdom of the Bible to bear on this way of life, so that people would see just how countercultural Jesus is, in how he views the meaning and purpose of life.
I had three people in mind as I wrote:
- the twenty-something college student at the start of their life and preparing for their career, who has some big life decisions ahead and doesn’t want to mess up,
- the thirty-something Christian who wants to grow as a follower of Jesus, who wonders if they’re following the common sense of our society more than the countercultural way that Jesus lays out and
- the person who’s a little older and has experienced setbacks and disappointment in life, who wonders if all the talk about “chasing your dreams” and taking charge of your destiny is good advice after all and who is ready to rethink their assumptions.
We’re more formed by our society than we realize. We assume things to be true of the world simply because that’s what everyone else seems to think. We swim in cultural waters that are always flowing toward this “be true to yourself” perspective. We need to be more aware of how easy it is to go with the flow, and then be challenged to rethink ourselves and to have the courage to swim upstream as we seek to follow Jesus.
If the purpose of life is to discover who you are and then express your unique self to the world, then social media makes it easier than ever to put yourself “on display,” so to speak. Social media makes it easier for us to define and redefine ourselves and to craft the image we want others to see. It makes “identity” more permeable, subject to change and easily reinvented. The problem, of course, is that this display so often feels phony, and the acclamation we get online rings hollow, because we feel like we’re putting on a mask through our social media presence. Even worse, sometimes we can get lost in the social media vision of our identity, to the point we don’t even know who we truly are anymore. Social media exacerbates the problem we have of feeling like our identities aren’t centered or stable.
These three approaches to life are determined by what gets priority. How do you determine who you are and what your purpose in life is?
The “Look In” approach says to start with yourself. You do the hard work of looking in, to discover who you are and what you want to do with your life. You then look around for friends and colleagues who will support the version of yourself you choose. And then, if you feel like you need a spiritual dimension to your life, you may look up to God or a higher power in order to have something more transcendent to add to your life. This is the dominant way of thinking in our society today.
The “Look Around” approach says to start with the people around you. You look around to your community to tell you who you are and what your purpose of life is. Then, you look up to the sacred order that connects you to the people around you and the ancestors who have gone before you. Finally, you look inside as you come to terms with the person you are, in relation to the community you belong to. This is the dominant way of thinking in other parts of the world and has been dominant for most people throughout history.
The “Look Up” approach says to start with God. You look up first in order to see what God says about you and to better understand his divine design. Looking up prioritizes the transcendent. God is the one who defines you and your purpose, not you and not your community. Next, you look around to the community of faith that is called to cheer you on, to correct you, to love you as part of the family that looks up as its starting point, not ending point. Finally, you look inside and see how God loves you just as you are, while still planning to make you the best possible version of who you are, as he conforms you into the image of his Son. This is the biblical way of seeing life—God first, others second, yourself third.
You won’t get a biblical perspective without the Bible. The reason one of the later chapters in this book is focused on spiritual disciplines like Bible reading and prayer and churchgoing is because we will not be able to counter the “Look In” approach unless we are constantly bringing ourselves back in line with the “Look Up” approach. The problem is, even these spiritual disciplines can drift toward the “Look In” approach; you read the Bible merely for inspiration in your quest to define yourself, or you pray to God as just a helper when you need him or you go to church to be affirmed by others in whatever life you decide to pursue for yourself. What we need are disciplines that are intentionally directed toward keeping our primary focus and priority on God at the center of all things.
I hope they will begin to recognize the “be true to yourself” message in all sorts of media and entertainment and politics whenever they see it. I also hope they will better understand how the Bible challenges this perspective with something so much better and more soul-satisfying. I hope readers will see Jesus for who he is, come to love him for being so much better than what the world has to offer and follow him with increasing passion and devotion.