In a recent issue of New York magazine, Heather Havrilesky, the columnist for “Ask Polly,” says readers should not see 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.” Guilty. Unworthy. Anxious. Failing to meet society’s standards. 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.
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.” In other words, 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.” In other words, if they’re not happy with themselves, they need to look deeper within and become happy with themselves. This, to me, is like giving fatty foods as the medicine for someone who has high cholesterol. It’s compounding the problem by doubling down on what is actually causing the issue.
So, here is the question we as Christians should ask: do we have a better story than this? What if Jesus’ counterintuitive call to lose our lives, to deny ourselves, to pick up our crosses, is actually the invitation to happiness that goes far beyond anything we could conjure up in our own hearts?
If the gospel tells a better story of salvation, it’s only because it first tells a starker story of sin. First, we have to note the severity of our sinfulness. We have to take a stark look inside to discover the dark depths of our own hearts. The problem we have 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.
Secondly, we need to recognize that “following your heart” is more complicated than it sounds. Who really knows what the heart wants? As G. K. Chesterton wrote: “The self is more distant than any star. Thou shalt love the Lord thy God, but thou shalt not know thyself.” Figuring out what your heart wants is actually harder than pursuing what your heart wants. “The heart is more deceitful than anything else,” said the prophet Jeremiah,” and incurable – who can understand it?”
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. The gospel should come as a relief to people, not as a burdensome list of moral regulations we are now to fulfill. We are relieved that the pursuit of happiness is not something we must attain on our own, but that the God of all joy and love has pursued us, into the depths of our wicked hearts. We are relieved that we are not the center of the universe, but that God is at the center and we find our fullness in loving and enjoying Him. We are relieved that the gospel tells us of a Savior who cried out “It is Finished!” so that His accomplishment is where we find our peace.
To be authentic, as a Christian, means I am to be true to the person Christ has named me, not the person I think I am inside. I am to live according to what God says I am—His redeemed child, a person remade in the image of Christ— and I now act in line with that identity. As a Christian, saved by grace through faith, I am not authentic when I sin. I’m sinning against my newfound identity. I am being inauthentic when I choose to disobey God, when I give in to temptation. I’m rejecting the identity God has spoken over me. True authenticity is not accepting my own self-expression but accepting the self-expression of God through Jesus Christ.
To be a conformist, as a Christian, means we are seeking to have our minds renewed and our lives transformed. We want to be conformed into the image of Christ. But this conformity means we look like rebels to the rest of the world. The true rebellion is in the heart of the Christian who follows Jesus by swimming upstream against the currents of the world. That means, when everyone else is following their hearts, we will follow Jesus.
What is our ultimate goal in life? To glorify God and enjoy Him forever. The Christian’s hope is for our greatest desire to meet our greatest Delight. That’s what sets us out on our adventure.
Adapted with permission from Trevin Wax’s This Is Our Time: Everyday Myths in Light of the Gospel