You know those days when your Facebook and Twitter feeds are just so painfully, overwhelmingly negative? When every other post is a political rant, declarative missive about one’s consumer habits (“farewell, Chick Fil A”!), or esoteric theological brawl about terms (say, “complementarian” and “egalitarian”) that mean nothing to your non-Christian friends? Those days when every passing tweet sparks an idea or response in your mind, but you are just too exhausted and mentally drained to bother engaging? Those days that leave you embarrassed to be part of evangelicalism and tempted to just move to some corner of the globe where the only Christianity that exists is new and vibrant, rising from the ashes of a collapsed Christendom?
I know those days, and I bet many of you do too.
On those days, when the reports of Christianity’s slow death in America are clearly evidenced by the number of Christians screaming at each other instead of worshiping God together or proclaiming the gospel, sometimes I despair. But then I remind myself of an important fact: God and his purposes will carry on in spite of it all. In spite of me. In spite of you. In spite of our insufferable tendencies to poach Scripture to justify our own positions. In spite of the Westboro Baptist type crazies, the gay-embracing Episcopalians, the Reformed blog warriors, the angry Texas megachurch pastors, the “I need to pick a blog fight at least once a week” rabble-rousers, and every last sorry one of us. This whole thing is–thanks be to God–so much bigger than any one, two, or million of us.
I remind myself of the truism which my pride so often obscures: that the Christian life is not, after all, about me, and that my purpose on earth is not about maximizing my own happiness. Rather, it’s about joining in God’s mission, submitting my will to His, seeking first His kingdom. It’s about giving up my grip on my life, losing it to save it (Luke 17:33). It’s about remembering the call to deny myself (Matt 16:24), to be humble (Phil. 2-3-4, Romans 12:3), sacrificial (Romans 12:1, John 15:13), and always, out of love, putting the interests of others before our own.
At the core of it, I think, is the idea that to truly follow Christ is to be willing to subordinate one’s pride and will to the Other; to give up what we think we’re entitled to and subject ourselves to something transcendent and true–something that may not fit comfortably with what we think or desire or feel to be right. It’s to admit the feebleness of the “if it feels good, do it” philosophy, instead recognizing that we’re alive on earth for far bigger things than just “feeling good.” It’s to accept the fact that–because we are fallen and our desires are disordered–our Self is not a trustworthy guide (apart from an encounter with the gospel and the sanctifying power of the Holy Spirit) in the pursuit of the righteousness and flourishing for which we were designed.
Such an idea is revolutionary and absurd in our society today, of course, where the prevailing sentiment is “do what makes you happy” and the highest virtue is the assertion of each person’s absolute sovereignty over their identity and their own curated vision of the good life.
“Baby you were born this way” shouts Lady Gaga to anyone wrestling with non-normative gender or sexual identities. “Baby you should speak what’s on your mind, because your opinion is as valid as anyone else’s!” shouts the Internet to every would-be blogger or social media sharer. “Baby you are owed all sorts of things from the government, which exists to hold your hand every step of the way, because you deserve it!” shout the governments of countless nations in the world in the unfortunate position of having more and more entitled citizens and less and less means to support their dependencies.
In such a society, no wonder we’re all at each other’s throats. No wonder the discourse is so heated and (mostly) infantile. It’s a natural byproduct of the fetishizing of individualism and entitlement. Everyone wants to hear themselves opine. Everyone’s simply asserting their own rightness and right to be affirmed in whatever feels to them to be good and true and just, even if goodness and truth and justice aren’t really things they’ve honestly explored much. Naturally, arguments in such a society don’t often go anywhere productive.
It’s disheartening when I see Christians falling into these patterns just like everyone else. We of all people should recognize the folly of a “what’s right in his own eyes” approach to living. We of all people should recognize the existence of transcendent truths and ultimate authorities (namely: God’s self-revelation via Scripture) to which we must defer. We of all people should know that we’re entitled to absolutely nothing and that God is to be worshipped whether we have or have not.
Mostly, I lament that so many Christians seem to be missing the reality that life is much more fulfilling and liberating when it’s not just about me. This is not to say humanity is incapable of magnificent wonders which bring glory to God, gifts which should be cultivated and celebrated. Nor it is to say that spirited discussion and debate–even insisting on one’s own position being right–is out of place in the Christian life. All of it can glorify God.
It’s just that in everything we do in this Christian life, humility makes things better. Try it. Christ increases when we decrease. He becomes greater when we become lesser. The world opens up in glorious new ways when we diminish; when we relinquish our insistence on being at the center of it. The jasmine smells sweeter and the wine tastes smoother; the faces of strangers across from us in Starbucks–or behind the avatars to which we tweet–become more real and beloved. The cadences of Emily Dickinson poems and summer rainstorms take on greater beauty.
And we look at ourselves in the mirror and consider: This familiar face, ill-proportioned and sunburned; and this fleshly body, experiencer of such pleasure and pain, is far more than just a lonely, isolated mass tweeting its way through life. Through the mirror dimly all we see is the chronically disappointing person who never quite satisfies us: the blogger who is never quite popular enough, the billionaire superhero who still isn’t satisfied, the Facebook poster whose clever or provocative posts don’t ever change anyone’s minds.
But in Christ we see more clearly the truth about ourselves: that we are the beloved property of the God of all creation, Who invites us (if we are willing to give up our own sovereignty) to be used as a specific piece of a spectacular plan, far grander than those plans which our own minds conjure up. Is this something that should give us big heads? No. But it should give us hope.
Brett McCracken is a Los Angeles-based journalist. He is the author of Hipster Christianity (2010) and Gray Matters (2013), and has written for the Wall Street Journal, the Washington Post, CNN.com, the Princeton Theological Review, Mediascape, Books & Culture, Christianity Today, Relevant, IMAGE Journal, Q Ideas, and Conversantlife.com. A graduate of Wheaton College and UCLA, Brett currently works as managing editor for Biola Magazine and teaches at Biola University. Follow him on Twitter @brettmccracken.