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Editors’ note: 

This article is an adapted excerpt from Trevin Wax’s new book, Rethink Your Self: The Power of Looking Up Before Looking In (B&H Books).

For many in our society searching for fulfillment, you look in first in order to define who you are by discovering your deepest desires, then around at people who will support and affirm your choices in life, and then up to a higher power that adds a spiritual dimension to your journey.

The problem with these approaches is their starting points. Neither you nor others can bear the weight of your quest for happiness. When the community is the starting point, it can become oppressive in its demand for conformity. We seek the approval of others until we forget ourselves in the process. When you as an individual are the starting point, you find it hard not to collapse under the weight of all of the expectations for happiness and success that you’ve placed on yourself. We don’t know ourselves well enough to figure out what we really want, and even when we get what we thought we wanted, we find fulfillment to be elusive. What’s more, when suffering invades our lives, we don’t know how to handle it or how to respond. 

Neither the community nor the individual can withstand the pressure of our pursuit of happiness. Looking in isn’t the answer. Neither is looking around. 

Neither the community nor the individual can withstand the pressure of our pursuit of happiness. Looking in isn’t the answer. Neither is looking around.

But what if there’s another way? What if that way counters what our society imagines the purpose of life to be? What if, instead of starting by looking in, then around, then up, we start by looking up, then around, and in? What if we were to reverse the priorities and go at it from the other side? How would a “look up” approach change the way we define ourselves, and the way we determine our desires, and the way we display ourselves? How would reversing the order change the way we live?

Looking Up, First

Thankfully, this way exists. But it’s too often left untried. Not because it’s impossible, but because it’s a challenge in a world where the default mode is to “look in.” No matter how many problems you may see with the way of life we’ve considered in previous chapters, you will find it hard to resist it because so much of our culture draws us back toward that way of imagining the world. 

Even if you’re someone with strong family and community ties, you’re still likely to start looking in before looking around due to cultural expectations. Even if you’re spiritual or religious, with a strong sense of right and wrong, you’re still likely to look up last, only after looking in and around. A different approach requires us to radically rethink ourselves and our purpose in life. Not only will we have to rethink our identity, we’ll also need to develop practices and habits to reinforce the new direction—looking up, around, and then in. Reversing the priority will be difficult because the common-sense approach is so ingrained in our minds and hearts. 

The “look up” approach to life is what we see when we read the Bible. The wisdom contained in these ancient books that tell the story of the world from the beginning of time (Genesis) to the end (Revelation) reveals an approach to life that differs from what passes for common sense today. What’s more, the Bible’s wisdom, however counterintuitive it may seem to us, lays out a path that intends to lead us to everlasting happiness. The Bible is after your joy, not averse to it.

The Bible’s wisdom, however counterintuitive it may seem to us, lays out a path that intends to lead us to everlasting happiness. The Bible is after your joy, not averse to it.

Perhaps you’re familiar with the Bible, having read it as part of a literature class or having consulted it for some nuggets of inspiration or encouragement over the years. Maybe you’re a regular churchgoer and a frequent reader of the Bible because you believe it to be God’s Word and that it has all the answers you need to live. Maybe you grew up in a religious environment where it felt like all you got from the Bible was a stifling list of rules and regulations designed to press you into conformity. Or perhaps you’re not familiar with the Bible at all, and you remain open to its message just like you’d be open to any number of religious texts that have helped people over the centuries. 

Second Chance

Whatever the case, I hope you give the Bible a second chance with an open mind.

If your study of the Bible in the past has been primarily for inspiration, then you may be surprised by what you find there. (Frequent encounters with the Bible leave many people less with a feeling of inspiration and more with the impression that the Bible is what’s inspired.)

If you’re a regular reader of the Bible, then I hope it reveals areas of your heart and life that are more in line with “looking in” than “looking up.”

If your knowledge of the Bible has come through the context of a faith community where you felt oppressed and pushed down, as if the book was meant to shackle you and rob you of joy, then you may be surprised to find that the Bible challenges that kind of community and holds the keys to a different kind of freedom.

And if you’ve never encountered the Bible before, I hope you’ll be led to study some of the Bible for yourself; you might actually find wisdom and truth that you’ve been searching for all along.

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