According to research from Gabe Lyons and David Kinnaman, 84 percent of Americans believe “enjoying yourself is the highest goal of life.”
How do you enjoy yourself and find fulfillment? According to 86 percent of Americans say, you have to “pursue the things you desire most.”
And 91 percent of Americans affirm the statement: “To find yourself, look within yourself.”
To sum up, most Americans believe that the purpose of life is enjoyment that comes from looking deep within to find your true self, while pursuing whatever brings you happiness. No wonder bestsellers like Gretchen Rubin’s The Happiness Project and Joel Osteen’s Your Best Life Now line our bookshelves.
The Church and Your Best Life Now
Many churches see an opportunity to fulfill this felt need, and so they present Christianity as a way to discover yourself and find happiness. In this atmosphere, the Christian faith (or any other religion) becomes an avenue for one’s personal pursuit of happiness.
But what if Christians who repackage their faith as a tool for self-discovery are missing the opportunity to provide an antidote to people in these anxious times?
The Millennial Generation: Guilt-ridden and Exhausted
In a recent issue of New York magazine, Heather Havrilesky, the columnist for “Ask Polly,” chastises readers for mislabeling the millennial generation as “spoiled,” “entitled,” and “overconfident.” The millennials she hears from “feel guilty and inadequate at every turn.” They “compare themselves relentlessly to others. They are turned inside out, day after day, by social media.”
Their testimonies are heart-wrenching. . . . “I often feel overwhelmingly middle ground or average in [my co-workers’] eyes,” one writer confesses.
Another asks: “When is he going to realize that I am an anxious mess who overthinks everything and hates herself, like, a lot of the time?”
“I think my primary emotion is guilt,” another writes. “When I am happy, it only takes moments before I feel guilty about it—I feel desperately unworthy of my happiness, guilty for receiving it out of the pure chaotic luck of the universe.”
Guilty. Unworthy. Anxious. Failing to meet society’s standards.
A Tangled Web of Angst
Philosopher and theologian James K. A. Smith says we live in a time when many feel like they are caught in “tangled web of angst.” He compares the home of a teenager today to that of previous generations:
“The home was a space to let down your guard, freed from the perpetual gaze of your peers. You could almost forget yourself. You could at least forget how gawky and pimpled and weird you were, freed from the competition that characterizes teenagedom. No longer. The space of the home has been punctured by the intrusion of social media such that the competitive world of self-display and self-consciousness is always with us…”
A secular generation may not talk much about sin and judgment, but guilt and anxiousness lurk in every human heart. And it’s not just because of social media, although our online interactions do magnify the problem. Feelings of unworthiness won’t go away.
The Gospel of the World
What should we do? The world says pursue happiness, whatever the cost, by becoming the best version of “you” possible. Look inside for salvation, and then look outside for affirmation.
The problem is, “the curated version of you that lives online also feels hopelessly polished and inaccurate,” Havrilesky writes, “and you feel, somehow, that you alone are the inauthentic one.” Show your true self and you’ll be shamed.
Another problem is that this pursuit of happiness—finding yourself and being true to whatever authentic person you decide to be—turns out to be rather exhausting.
“Merely muddling through, doing your best, seeing friends when you can, trying to enjoy yourself as much as possible, is, according to the reigning dictates of today’s culture, tantamount to failure. You must live your best life and be the best version of yourself, otherwise you’re nothing and no one.”
“Your best life now” is supposed to be an inspiring title that helps you reach your dreams. But in Havrilesky’s correspondence with millennials, “living your best life and being the best version of yourself” is just another standard to live up to, another benchmark of failure.
“If there’s a mass religion of global culture, it’s the belief . . . that by believing in yourself (without fail!) you can get everything you’ve ever dreamed of. Everything depends on your faith and your ability to squelch the doubts in your head that arise when yet another glamorous on-brand winner pops up in your Instagram feed.”
If you’re not happy, you’re to blame.
So what does Havrilesky suggest? Millennials should get over their feelings of guilt and shame by accepting themselves as they already are: “enjoy exactly who you are and what you have, right here, and right now.”
The Gospel of Rest
The Scriptural message is radically different.
The problem is not that you feel guilty, but that you are guilty.
The problem is not that you feel unworthy of happiness, but that you are unworthy of any good gift that comes from our Creator.
Scripture doesn’t brush off feelings of guilt, anxiousness, and unworthiness. It presses deeper into them. The feeling of being judged by our peers is a signpost toward the reality that we deserve to be judged by God.
Thankfully, the gospel has a fresh word for the weary and guilt-ridden. We don’t look inside ourselves for salvation, but up to God as the Savior.
“Our hearts are restless until they find themselves in You,” Augustine wrote. The gospel frees us from judgment—from God or from others. In Christ’s death on the cross, our guilt and sin are absolved. Our reception into His family, apart from any merit on our own, is a lavish display of grace that is amazing precisely because we are unworthy to receive it.
Christianity has a fresh message for an exhausted generation pursuing happiness: salvation doesn’t come from mustering up your willpower and making your mark on the world, but in recognizing your dependence on God and receiving the mark He made on the world in the person of Jesus Christ.
Let’s not trade in that message for the stale and exhausting advice of “finding yourself.”