In recent years, culture has shown that the chief end of every person ought to be finding one's self. This theme has been reflected in coming of age stories where the protagonist triumphantly breaks away from the shackles put on by parents, peers, or social expectations. It comes out in pop music that promotes a “being who you are, regardless of what others think” message, and it it is seen in advertisements that draw the spectator into an image of the good life where one can finally find their self with the help of the product being sold.
With this rising cultural importance, it seems that one of the most offensive passages in scripture would be where Jesus tells his followers, “if anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me.”(Luke 9:23). This statement from Christ requires a necessarily counter-cultural way of life. Instead of being yourself, Christ requires that His people do the exact opposite.
Many may see that verse and reject it immediately. Doesn’t this kind of requirement demonstrate God’s oppressive behavior on His people? If He is supposed to be loving, shouldn’t He want me to be who He created me to be? Isn’t He a God who loves people where they are at?
These questions are valid and incredibly important. In light of culture, one could easily push them away by answering “yes,” and assume that the God of the Bible does not actually want His people to flourish. But maybe that kind of reaction misses something important. Maybe, in fact, culture is wrong, and this statement from Jesus leads to something far greater than finding yourself.
THE PRESSURE OF FINDING A SELF
Culture tells us you can be whoever you want to be; the options are endless. On the surface, this feels like great news, but too many choices stress us out. Think about going to a burger place where they have tons of options. You can add mushrooms, jalapeños, bacon, fig, pickles, mayonnaise, mustard, BBQ sauce, American cheese, Swiss Cheese, no cheese, lettuce, kale, onions, grilled onions, and the list goes on. Simply looking at the menu can be overwhelming, and every decision you make limits your ability to choose something else. If you choose a wheat bun, you choose not to get a white bun.
The same overwhelming feeling comes at us when we are presented with endless possibilities to define ourselves. Each of us at some point naturally asks, “Who am I?” and we are now told the answer is “Whoever you want to be!”
This means that you have the option to be an athlete or a musician or a sports broadcaster or a plumber or a business owner or an accountant. Beyond your career, you can be a city dweller, a homeowner, a family-person, a single-person, a person with a fireplace, a person who hates fireplaces, a hip-hop lover, a country music fan, a bike rider, a truck driver, or any other possibility.
These choices go beyond personality and character traits. With the idea that your self is decided by you, each choice makes you who you are. Your choices define your identity.
THE EFFECTS OF THIS PRESSURE
Just like the overwhelming feeling you’d get at the burger place, these options leave people feeling stressed out and anxious. One of the most common effects of this problem is the rise of FOMOS, or the Fear of Missing Out.
FOMOs show up in a variety of places. When one group of friends invites you to a dinner and a different group asks if you want to go to a concert, you have entered into FOMO territory. If you go to the concert, you will miss out on dinner, but what if the lead singer is having a bad day and the show sucks and all your other friends have the best meal they’ve ever had and you missed it?
Maybe it'd be easy for you to just pick something when confronted with small decisions, but the stress builds as the options become more important. If you major in music, you do not get to explore your love for graphic design. If you become an accountant, you will never get to be a doctor.
FOMOs happen when the reality of choice sits in. Every time you choose one thing, you make a choice against everything else. When we recognize this, we fear that whatever choice we make may be a wrong one, and this fear produces anxiety and stress.
THE BIGGEST PROBLEM
If this was just a simple issue involving minor decisions, it would not keep us awake at night, but we are an anxious, restless culture collective tossing and turning. So what is causing our lack of sleep?
The biggest problem at hand is that every person is presented with the choice to build their identity, and each choice she makes shapes her identity in some way. The FOMO then is not just a matter of missing an opportunity for something fun. It is missing an opportunity to better build and understand your identity. If you miss out on that, or worse, you get something wrong, you are failing at the one thing that the world says will bring you happiness: finding yourself.
Since our self-identities are so wrapped up in every decision we make: our careers, our relationships, our education, our political involvement, our style choices, or our taste in music/food/movies/books/ etc., these choices define what it means to “be yourself,” and each choice is a stressful undertaking that eliminates all other potential versions of a self-identity.
Who is to say which one is right? While the world may tell you that finding yourself will bring ultimate happiness, it overlooks the pain and anxiety caused by the process. Beyond that, we must look at the fact that finding yourself is an ongoing process, one that does not ever truly end with a eureka moment that says “aha! I did it!” but instead fills life up with endless decision making, trying to find a better way to be your best you.
THE BEST SOLUTION
Here we take a second look at the command of Christ. When telling His followers to deny themselves, He does not oppress them, He frees them. Instead of an endless, anxiety-ridden search for identity, He offers a finished identity, one that people can securely rest in. This is why the Apostle Paul can write “if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away, behold the new has come”(2 Corinthians 6:17).
At a time when we crave identity more than anything, and we tirelessly search to be better versions of ourselves, another request from Christ comes to my mind. “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest”(Matthew 11:28).
Denying yourself is not a matter of losing everything that makes you who you are. It is discovering who you are in Christ, a new creation full of rest, a true identity.
Joseph is a writer, editor, husband, and perpetual student. He is passionate about telling the world how the Gospel meets the needs of culture. He is the co-founder of Grounds and currently serves as the editorial director.