Don’t Settle for the Gospel of Self-Fulfillment

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Elizabeth Gilbert traveled the world to find happiness, and then documented her journey of self-discovery in Eat, Pray, Love. Since her epiphany, she has divorced her husband and fallen in love with a woman.

Glennon Doyle Melton, a popular blogger and speaker at women’s conferences, recently finalized her own divorce and announced that she has a new partner, “my person”—a soccer player named Abby Wambach.

Kate Shellnut has done excellent reporting on this. I also encourage you to read Jen Pollock Michel’s insightful article on “the gospel of self-fulfillment,” and Bethany Jenkins’s reflection on what it means to be truly revolutionary.

My purpose here is to go beneath the surface in order to examine some of the foundational issues at work here. How does one come to believe that Jesus must be okay with a woman divorcing her husband and taking up with another woman— despite Jesus’s words about the permanence of marriage and its creational, male-female design?

Expressive Individualism

The foundational issue, as Jen Pollock Michel points out, is the “gospel of self-fulfillment,” which is also described as “expressive individualism.” That’s a term given to us by Robert Bellah and explored by other philosophers such as Charles Taylor.

According to this way of thinking, the goal of life is to discover and express your unique sense of self, no matter what others may say or do to challenge your freedom of personality. The narrative arc of your life is finding your personal route to happiness by following your heart, expressing your true self, and then fighting whoever would oppose you—your society, your family, your past, or your church.

This is one of the dominant narratives of our time. It shows up in movies and music, and increasingly, on the platforms of popular preachers and teachers—both male and female.

Christian Counterfeit 

The religious form of expressive individualism imagines the believer wrestling against the bondage of their past, or the expectations of their parents, or the legalistic regulations of their church. God’s rescue frees us from all these chains, and sets us on a journey to discover our true essence, which we then offer up as a gift to God and the world. Our goal is to become all that God has created us to be. Anything that gets in the way of this journey must be an evil barrier, overcome only through personal faith and reliance on Jesus.

Now, there are certainly some elements of Christian truth here. Like any good counterfeit gospel, it mimics the truth at key points.

Yes, God wants to free us from the sin and shame of our past, to rescue us from paralyzing guilt, to overcome the barriers that keep us from pursuing radical obedience to his command as we come to know him and his Word with increasing fervor. And yes, God wants us to lean into becoming all that he has created to be—conformed to the image of his Son. And yes, God wants us to be happy, not just joyful or blessed or holy. (See Randy Alcorn’s exhaustive work on Happiness in case you need biblical evidence or voices from church history.)

But note how this gospel of freedom redefines Christian teaching at key points.

  • Sin is failing to reach your potential.
  • Shame is a subjective feeling you bring upon yourself and must set aside, not a state that results from objective sin against a holy God.
  • Guilt is what happens when you fail to accept yourself, to love yourself, or to sense your own worthiness of happiness.
  • The barriers that stand in your way of pursuing your dreams must all come down, no matter where they are.

This is not Christianity. It’s a Christianized form of expressive individualism that you can find in just about any self-help book—an inspirational, feel-good message that makes perfect sense in Western cultures, but leaves traditional societies, many of them Eastern, aghast at its sanction of selfishness.

Cheer or Jeer? 

Not surprisingly, people who are expressive individualists can do nothing but cheer someone’s life choices.

“I know my Jesus,” Melton says, in defense of her decisions. Whichever Jesus she knows, it’s hard to imagine him corresponding to the Jesus of Nazareth who took the hard line on divorce, to the point he stunned even his disciples. The idea that Jesus would bless the dissolution of marriage vows still shocks Christians in most parts of the world, but not in the United States, where Jesus is appealed to as the coach who is helping you find your way forward to becoming a better you.

Strikingly, a number of women who have shared the platform with Melton either cheer her on or have nothing to say. Even if some Melton’s friends think it is inappropriate to celebrate a divorce or this newfound relationship, they cannot and will not speak up, because to do so would strike at the underpinnings of expressive individualism, which unites their platform. They cannot utter a word of judgment because their own expressive individualism leaves them no grounds on which to make any moral judgment regarding sexual expression. Once we abandon the historic teaching of the church, that God’s design for sexuality and marriage is intended for human flourishing, and that God’s “no” is always set against the backdrop of his glorious “yes,” we are left with nothing more than the gospel of self-fulfillment.

Look in the Mirror 

Now, before you readers who agree with me nod your heads too vigorously, let me hold up a mirror. It would be silly and irresponsible to speak about this expressive individualistic philosophy leading to sexual hedonism as if it were just a problem out there, with those people. And it would be the height of hypocrisy to think that this is an issue primarily for our LGBT friends and neighbors, but not for the rest of the church.

In fact, I would say that one of the primary reasons why so many in the LGBT community think that Christian opposition to same-sex relationships is motivated by fear, hate, or personal disdain is precisely because they see what we do not. They see just how expansive is our own dedication to expressive individualism, this idea that we are to cast off restraints, find ourselves, discover our path to happiness and be free.

When churches sanction expressive individualism everywhere else (money, marriage, sexuality, career path, and so on) but draw the line at same-sex relationships, it does indeed look like we are singling out homosexuality as “the sin above all sins.” You may be closer to the gospel of self-fulfillment than you think.

Our Challenge 

We have our work cut out for us in the days ahead. Christians who believe the gospel is more than just a word of self-fulfillment will need to be equipped to see the right and good longings at the heart of expressive individualism, the lies inherent in this philosophy, and then learn to tell a better story than that of the world.

We won’t succeed with shrill condemnations of people taking their philosophies to the logical end. We will need to take a good look at our own foundational worldviews and practices, recognize our complicity, and in repentance and faith, move forward with a gospel that says so much more than You are great.

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