We’re not doing young people any favours, says David Brooks in his new book The Second Mountain. We’ve created an individualistic culture that tells people to be true to themselves. You must get in touch with yourself, find yourself, and live a life that’s authentically you. Live however you’d like as long as you don’t interfere with anyone else’s right to live as they please.
We hand young adults a box of freedom, but they put down that box because they’re drowning in freedom, Brooks writes. They need direction, and we give them possibility: you can do anything! But possibility doesn’t provide the direction they need. We then give them authenticity: “Look inside yourself! Find your true inner passion. You are amazing! Awaken the giant within! Live according to your own true way! You do you!” Yet they can’t look within because “the ‘you’ we tell them to consult for life’s answers is the very thing that hasn’t yet formed.” They ask, “What can I devote myself too?” It’s then that we offer them the emptiest box of all: autonomy. They get to choose.
“You will notice that our answers take all the difficulties of living in your twenties and make them worse,” writes Brooks. “The graduates are in limbo, and we give them uncertainty. They want to know why they should do this as opposed to that. And we have nothing to say except, Figure it out yourself based on no criteria outside yourself. They are floundering in a formless desert. Not only do we not give them a compass, we take a bucket of sand and throw it all over their heads!”
Brooks concludes that there’s a better way. “You have to lose yourself to find yourself, give yourself away to get everything back.”
The Surprising Path to Joy
“If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me,” said Jesus. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it” (Matthew 16:24-25).
Nobody would ever think that life works this way. We don’t get the good life by pursuing the good life. We get the good life by pursuing Jesus.
It costs everything. It’s not a casual pursuit for when we have extra time and money. Jesus says that we must take up our cross and lose our lives for his sake.
John Calvin got it right: “The sum of the Christian life is denial of ourselves.” It’s the very opposite of the message that the world tells us: instead of expressing ourselves, we’re to deny ourselves. Instead of defining what’s right to us, we submit to Jesus, believing he knows best. Instead of living autonomous lives, we give up any right to decide what we’re going to do, and follow Jesus even to the cross.
And yet the payback is huge. It’s the path to finding life, Jesus says. “Truly, I say to you, there is no one who has left house or wife or brothers or parents or children, for the sake of the kingdom of God, who will not receive many times more in this time, and in the age to come eternal life.” (Luke 18:29-30).
It’s the surprising path to the good life.
We don’t get the good life by pursuing the good life. We get the good life by pursuing Jesus.
Let Us Deny Ourselves
Every week I gather with God’s people. We enter into worship having been bombarded with messages from the culture all week: Look within. Be true to yourself. You decide what’s right. Live the good life.
Every week we open God’s Word. When we finish, we say, “This is God’s holy Word. Thanks be to God.” It’s a small way of reminding ourselves: we don’t get to decide what’s right. We humbly submit to God and his Word, trusting that he knows better than we do.
Every week, we sing. When we get it right we sing about the character and attributes of God, reorienting our lives to orbit around him instead of ourselves. Someone — usually me — gets up to preach the Word, centering in the good news of what Jesus has done for sinners. We finish by breaking bread, drinking from the cup, reminding ourselves that the path to our life is through the death of someone who didn’t deserve to die, but willingly offered his life for ours.
It barely seems like enough, but it’s a start. We gather each week to remind ourselves that the good life isn’t found by looking within or being true to ourselves. It’s found in denying ourselves and pursuing Jesus.
“I can say that I never knew what joy was like until I gave up pursuing happiness, or cared to live until I chose to die,” said Malcom Muggeridge. “For these two discoveries I am beholden to Jesus.”