Expressive individualism, the view that who you are is who you feel yourself to be on the inside, is the dominant approach to identity formation in our day. As David Brooks writes, “When you are figuring out how to lead your life, [people today believe that] the most important answers are found deep inside yourself.”
Charles Taylor contends that “modern freedom and autonomy centres us on ourselves, and the ideal of authenticity requires that we discover and articulate our own identity.” This approach to self-understanding is a challenge to a Christian view of the self at every level.
The outcomes of expressive individualism (seen in societal trends such as rises in cases of anxiety and depression, an increase in narcissism, our culture’s reflexive outrage, and our decline in happiness) have been devastating. How can we help Christians see the dangers of this philosophy? Where do we look for an antidote?
Prayer of the Authentic Self
A good way to sum up expressive individualism and to see how it works in practice is to imagine how its basic principles might be expressed in a prayer. In the Prayer of the Authentic Self (below), I’ve personified the inner essence to which the expressive individualists must look to find himself. This sacred self has, in our day, attained a hallowed or sacred status.
The view that who you are is who you feel yourself to be on the inside is the dominant approach to identity formation in our day.
Other tenets of expressive individualism evident in the prayer are a commitment to personal happiness as the highest goal in life, the unchallengeable status of personal desire, the rejection of all forms of external authority, the lauding of individual freedom, and the narrative of triumphant personal achievement and experience.
The self-made self looks around to others in the prayer, but only to defeat its perceived enemies. And it looks backward and forward, but only to its own individual life story, from birth to its own triumphant kingdom. It looks forward to the goal of fulfillment, seventh heaven—not meant metaphysically, but rather as the state of intense happiness or bliss. Certainly, the prayer of the authentic self doesn’t involve looking upward.
The prayer might say something like this:
My essence within,
Help me to find my true self,
my kingdom come,
my will be done,
from birth to seventh heaven.
Give me today my daily spread.
Forgive not my enemies
as I cancel those who sin against me.
Lead me not into self-doubt
but deliver me from all external authorities.
For the kingdom, the power, and the glory
are mine now and forever.
Of course, most Christians are unlikely to pray like this—at least not out loud! But strands of expressive individualism can creep into the prayers of even the most devout. There’s nothing wrong with praying for peace and safety or telling God how we feel—in fact, these are great privileges of prayer—but if these practices characterize most of our prayers, we may be more caught by the spirit of our age than we realize.
Thankfully, the Lord’s Prayer (Matt. 6:9–13) provides an antidote to both the overt philosophy of our age and the covert ways it may have snuck into our own hearts. It offers a critique of and substitute for expressive individualism in uncanny and prescient ways:
Our Father in heaven,
hallowed be your name.
Your kingdom come,
your will be done,
on earth as it is in heaven.
Give us this day our daily bread,
and forgive us our debts,
as we have also forgiven our debtors.
And lead us not into temptation,
but deliver us from evil.
For yours is the kingdom and the power
and the glory, forever.
The Lord’s Prayer reinforces our primary relational identity of Christians as children of God. This helps us to look not only inward but around to our relationships, backward and forward in the biblical story we inhabit, and upward to God, our Father.
The opening address of the Lord’s Prayer couldn’t be more different from the project of expressive individualism. The plural pronoun “our” moves the focus on you as an individual to you (plural) as part of a group. And the appeal to “our Father in heaven” looks beyond ourselves and helps us to enter a shared story of grand proportions. Having God as our Father reminds us of our final destiny as God’s fully-fledged children.
The Lord’s Prayer helps us to look not only inward but around to our relationships, backward and forward in the biblical story we inhabit, and upward to God, our Father.
Praying for God’s kingdom to come means pledging allegiance to his rule and locating our life in the narrative of his unfolding plan. To pray, “Your will be done, on earth as in heaven,” is to live now in the light of our defining destiny as part of his kingdom. This is an implicit renunciation of both self-assertion and the desire to build our own kingdom.
To ask God to “give us today our daily bread” is an admission that our lives are in God’s hands and a recognition that he knows how to give good gifts to his children. It’s a call to reject consumerism and materialism.
The petition to “forgive us our sins, as we forgive those who sin against us” brings both comfort and a challenge, reminding us of our status as forgiven sinners and calling us to reject taking revenge on those who have wronged us.
Finally, the request to “lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from the evil one” expresses our inherent weakness and vulnerability and the extent of our need to look up and be found by God.
The Lord’s Prayer closes by turning our gaze upward, confessing that the kingdom, power, and glory belong to God, not to us. The person who prays these words vows that he will not live for his own kingdom, in his own power, or for his own glory.
The key to an authentic, stable, and satisfying sense of self is inhabiting a narrative identity that’s worth living, one that acknowledges the evil in your heart, deals well with both life’s joys and sorrows, and responds appropriately to injustice. Praying the Lord’s Prayer affirms our identity is found in Jesus Christ and his coming kingdom. It reminds us who we belong to, what we’re committed to, what we need, and where we’re headed.