Listen to this talk on TGC Podcast.
Trevin Wax, general editor of The Gospel Project and author of the book, Rethink Your Self, observes that today’s common wisdom says you’re free to create yourself, design yourself, and define yourself. Yet the way of Jesus, Wax argues, would have us realize we’re already created, designed, and defined. Jesus confronts a “me first” way of life with a “God first” world. The world says we should look inward; Jesus says to look upward.
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Trevin Wax: We’ve all been there. The graduation ceremony where young people stride across the platform, celebrate their achievements, and hear or feel good message about how to make the world a better place. You can probably sum up the commencement speech in slogans, follow your heart, chase your dreams, whatever you do, be true to yourself, you be you, no matter what anyone else says, never give up. All these speeches sound alike, don’t they? They’re inspirational versions of what passes for common sense these days. I mean, everybody knows the purpose of life is to look inside yourself to discover your deepest desires, and then express yourself to the world, right? common knowledge. At least, that’s what we assume. But what if we’re making really big decisions in life based on these kinds of slogans and phrases? And what if this is common sense that we’ve never questioned, never examined? And what if the path you’re on doesn’t lead to happiness, but to a dead end?
In the next few minutes, I’m going to describe what most people in our society assume is the purpose of life. And then I’m going to reveal some problems with this approach, things that you may not have considered before. And then we’ll look to some ancient wisdom that will give us better perspective. But first, how do most people in our culture, conceive of the purpose of life? How do you figure out who you are and how you should live? Well, for most people, it goes something like this, you look in, then around, and then up. In other words, we first look inside ourselves, then look around to others, and then look up to God or some higher power, look in, around and then up. I call this the look in approach to life. It takes questions like, Who are you? And what is your identity? And what is your purpose in life? And, and it says that only you can decide the answers? And how do you find these answers? By getting in touch with the deepest desires of your heart? Who do you want to be? What do you want to accomplish? What will it take for you to be happy, your desires determine your destiny. So first, you look in. And then next you look around you you surround yourself with, with people who will celebrate what it is that makes you unique. You gather friends who cheer you on in your quest to follow your heart. You look in you look around, and then if you’re still unsatisfied, if it feels like there’s something missing in your life, you look up to God or to a higher power or to, to spiritual practices, whatever gives you a feeling of, of transcendence, whatever adds a spiritual dimension to your life. So that’s it. Common Sense. The purpose of life is to look in to define yourself by your desires, look around for support, and affirmation, and then look up for inspiration. That’s how it works. But does it work? Truly?
Well, it doesn’t take long before some challenges arise. At first we say Oh, be true to yourself, but But who is the self? You are supposed to be true to yourself right now? Or the self that you want to be? To put it another way? Are you most truly yourself? In your best moments? When you are living up to an ideal version of yourself? Or are you most truly yourself? In your worst moments? When the real you that comes out in your words and actions disappoints you? Is the real you the person you want to become? Or is it the person you are right now.
A second challenge shows up when we look inside to discover our deepest desires. People usually think that that looking into your heart to to figure out your desires, that that’s the easy part. You know, it’s it’s the pursuit of happiness. It’s the it’s fulfilling your deepest desires. That’s what takes so much energy. But that’s simply not the case. The truth is, you don’t know what will make you happy. Surely you are aware of people who who chased long and hard after a dream, only to discover of a surprising sense of emptiness after they’d reached their goal.
Everyone may say that you should listen to your heart. But sometimes your heart lies. Sometimes you don’t know what you really want.
And what’s more, the deeper you dig into your heart, the more that you’ll find desires that that don’t align. Sometimes you want things that that come into conflict
with each other and and what happens when looking into your heart, you discover a desire that that is that is harmful to someone else. And what if that desire is bad for you to talk to someone who has struggled with addiction and, and they’ll tell you that some of the strongest desires you can feel are the worst desires to pursue. Sometimes the things you want contradict each other, in sometimes the things you want, would be harmful.
The third big challenge is loneliness.
In a society where everyone thinks the purpose of life is to find an express themselves, friendships become harder to sustain. So what why is this the case? Because we want friends? Who will affirm us just as we are, we don’t want friends who were who will challenge us or question us or question how we define ourselves know that, that but the problem is, though, that when our friends do tell us what we want to hear, from a distance, rarely committed to us in any meaningful way, all of their comments and thumbs up signs and cheers become less significant. When our friends don’t tell us the truth about ourselves when it hurts, we stop trusting that they’re telling the truth about us when it feels good. And then we keep people at arm’s length, because we, we don’t want the obligations of friendship to to impinge upon our freedom. And that isolation leads to loneliness.
But what if there’s another way?
What if, instead of starting by looking in, and then around, and then up? We start by looking up, then around? And then in?
How would reversing the order, change the way we live?
In contrast to the look in approach to life, there’s something called the look up approach. And it comes from the ancient wisdom we see, when we look at the way of Jesus.
What does it mean, to look up first to God before looking into ourselves? Well, to start, hit means that we get demoted. In terms of priority, you’re not at, you’re not at the center of the universe. God is not why start here. Why begin with God, because only God is strong enough to withstand the weight of all our hopes and dreams, our fears and anxieties. Start with yourself, and you’ll collapse. Start with community, and you’ll conform but start with God. And you’ll come into your own by finding your truest self in relation to him.
The common sense wisdom of today says that you’re free to create yourself to design yourself and define yourself. The way of Jesus would have us realize that we’re already created, designed and defined. Jesus confronts a me first way of life with a God first world, God first, others second, us last. The world says we should look inward, while Jesus says to look upward.
Unfortunately, there’s a selfish impulse in us that, that resists this message. I mean, we don’t want to be accountable to anyone higher than ourselves doing. And the idea that God made us and tells us what we are to be it may sound at first like like being captive to someone else’s vision for our lives. That sounds like slavery more than freedom, doesn’t it? But what if the freedom we think we experience in defining ourselves is actually another kind of slavery? And what if submitting to Jesus is planned for our life is actually the most freeing thing in the world. I mean, it’s a different freedom, a different kind of freedom, for sure. It’s something more like the freedom of a train as it speeds along the tracks that are laid for it, you know, following it’s, it’s it’s a designated path to a destination.
Surveys show that more than 90% of Americans claim that to find yourself, you must look inside yourself. But Jesus says, the way to find yourself is to lose it. And when you lose yourself, that’s how you’ll find it. Jesus asks, What good is it if you gain everything you want in the world, and yet lose your soul? And when he does speak of looking within ourselves, Jesus tells us that that evil is not just something that happens to us. But but something that bubbles up from inside us all our words and including the the the hurtful and untruthful ones. They’re all the overflow of our hearts, from our hearts come our actions. For this reason, Jesus tells
tells us that we must walk the way of self sacrifice, a road marked by dying daily to our old self, as we are transformed as his followers, True Life requires dying to our selfish impulses. finding yourself requires dying to yourself dying to all of the desires that are bad for you and bad for the world. Following Jesus means dying to the approach, where you are the maker of meaning the definer of your life.
And speaking of dying, we know from the historical records of his life that Jesus was crucified. Jesus’s followers claimed that, in his death, Jesus had accepted the blame and absorb the cost of all that’s wrong in the world. And what’s more, they said that on the third day after his crucifixion, Jesus was raised from the dead. They said, they saw him, they they touched him, they were convinced that something revolutionary had taken place, something that changed everything. And from that moment until now, for the past 2000 years, people from all over the world have been living in light of the cross and resurrection of Jesus. To live this way means that we start by looking up to who God is, and what he has done, and then around to the new community of followers of Jesus. And finally, we look in what God is doing in us, through us. And for us. This is the look up approach to life.
The letters of the early Christians describe the life of faith and in terms of your your old self, and your new self. When you trust in Jesus, you are accepted as you are, with all your failings and flaws and selfishness. But that trust, it represents a foundational and fundamental change in your orientation to life. You no longer look inside to find yourself and change yourself. You look up to God, to determine your destiny, you look up to to God in Independence and faith, you look up to God to see who you are meant to be.
And what about your desires, when they are in conflict, or when they don’t align? Well, when you trust in Jesus, your purpose in life, which was once all about pursuing whatever you desire the most, in order to find the happiness you believe you’re, you’re looking for, all of that now becomes about pursuing whatever God wants the most, because your desires begin to shift, and they now better align with his. And what about loneliness? Well, now, you look around to God’s people, not just for affirmation of all of your choices, but a different kind of support. The people who belong to God’s family cheer you on and your baby steps of obedience, they, they comfort you when you’re discouraged, they correct and guide you when you’re in error. And they they train you for the challenges ahead. And it’s here that we find that that beautiful combination of acceptance and aspiration, that true friendship requires, even as we are accepted because of what Jesus has done for us, we aspire to a new way of life and get this, God promises that in the world, he will remake at the end of time. Those who follow Jesus are going to be perfected, you will become the most glorious version of yourself imaginable. You will be more like Jesus than ever. And yet, you will still be you more than ever, the deepest possible version of you, that you that God always intended you to be. So whenever you hear the common sense wisdom of the world, telling you to chase your dreams and follow your heart, telling you that you are enough and should be true to yourself. Remember the greater adventure, to be true to your future self. To know that you aren’t enough, but Jesus is to follow the heart of God and to chase the dream that He has for the world.
Trevin Wax is vice president of research and resource development at the North American Mission Board and a visiting professor at Cedarville University. A former missionary to Romania, Trevin is a regular columnist at The Gospel Coalition and has contributed to The Washington Post, Religion News Service, World, and Christianity Today. He has taught courses on mission and ministry at Wheaton College and has lectured on Christianity and culture at Oxford University. He is a founding editor of The Gospel Project, has served as publisher for the Christian Standard Bible, and is the author of multiple books, including The Thrill of Orthodoxy, The Multi-Directional Leader, Rethink Your Self, This Is Our Time, and Gospel Centered Teaching. His podcast is Reconstructing Faith. He and his wife, Corina, have three children. You can follow him on Twitter or Facebook, or receive his columns via email.