Are you living your own life, or is it being lived for you by some other force? From where did you get the script for your life? Do you know who cast you in the role you are playing? Are the passions and thoughts and goals that drive you through life based on reality, or are they elements of fictional story-world? Most people never ask such questions. They just live as they are told to live. They seek what others seek, love and fear what others love and fear. They worry about what concerns others. Most of us are simply personifications of the values, loves, and dreams of the society in which we live. We are the hosts within which live society’s demons. There is nothing inside. There is no substance to us. Take away our masks, costumes, and memorized lines, and nothing remains. And this is not my pessimism speaking; it’s the clear-eyed teaching of Jesus and his apostles.
In the parable of the sower (Mark 4:1-20), Jesus warned his disciples that their mission to preach the good news would not meet with complete success. He speaks of four different reactions they will receive. The third one strikes me as highly relevant to our situation:
18 Still others, like seed sown among thorns, hear the word; 19 but the worries of this life, the deceitfulness of wealth and the desires for other things come in and choke the word, making it unfruitful.
The seed of God’s word can impart truth and authentic life. As it enlightens and enlivens us we become “fruitful,” that is to say, we begin to live the life we were meant to live and become what we were meant to be. But if we focus on “this life” we will grow anxious about what might harm us. We are deceived into a false sense of security by wealth. We are driven by our animal passions to seek immediate pleasure and by our human passions toward envy, jealously, anger, and hatred. With our minds full of other things, we can’t think about the life that exists in God.
And of course we must listen to John when he urges us:
15 Do not love the world or anything in the world. If anyone loves the world, love for the Father is not in them. 16 For everything in the world—the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life—comes not from the Father but from the world.
“Love” in this text does not mean “unselfish self-giving to another.” It means desire for something as if it were the source of life and joy. When we seek our true lives in the world, we lose them completely. The world is driven by the irrational desire for pleasure, unbridled curiosity, and overweening pride, which is a feeling of self-generated, comparative worth based on falsehood.
Let’s now ask an even deeper question: What would it mean to live your own life? Where does one find the script for the real world? How do we get out of the fictional story-world into light of reality?
Popular culture recognizes to some degree the problem I’ve been describing. Its solution sounds simple: write your own script, cast yourself in the role of your choice, in defiance, live your own life! The problem with this advice is that it is but one more subtle and deceptive way the world’s demons colonize our minds. From where do you get the storyline for your script, and on what basis do you choose your role? How can you live you own life, if you don’t know in what your own life consists? The “do your own thing” approach to life always ends up living according to the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life.” These things may feel like our true selves because they move us from within and are always with us, but this too is a deception. And when we live according to these feelings we are doing what everyone else is doing! The differences are superficial.
But Jesus said,
“I am the way, and the truth, and the life (John 14:6).
If you want to live your own life and not be colonized by the world and driven by irrational passions toward death and unhappiness, you must live according to truth. Authentic living is not about merely existing as a thing or in our automatic animal processes. It’s about acting to achieve goals, about becoming in actuality what we are potentially, and about embracing and enjoying good things. It’s about freedom. But apart from the truth about what goals are worth achieving, what we are meant to become, and what things are truly good, we cannot truly live. Apart from truth, freedom is an illusion.
Jesus is the truth, the truth about God and the truth about human life. We usually think of truth as a quality of an assertion; it is the perfect fit between how the assertion describes reality and reality itself. Jesus is the truth because he is the reality of God manifested in the reality of a human life. He is the truth not merely in the words of an assertion but in the reality of a life, and for that reason he is also the way to the Father.
If you want to live your own life, stop imitating others and give up attempting to write your own life script. Follow in the way of Jesus, let yourself be guided by the truth who is Jesus, and you will find yourself living your own life. Only the God the Creator knows the goal of human life, only God knows the way life must be lived, and only God can give us a life that is truly ours. And only in Jesus can we begin to live that life as our own free act.
I’m reminded of this truth every time Tori and I do something with our time, efforts, or funds that doesn’t fit very well with the so-called “American Dream.” At this moment, we are paring down our already minimalist household of possessions to be even *more* minimal. Societal scripts are dangerous precisely because they so easily go unnoticed. So many of my friends in their twenties who are buying houses seem to be doing so because it’s “just what you do” at this time and stage of life. Says who?
As Augustine said in Confessions, the toys change but the games do not. Unless we keep constantly in communication God and view our lives from the perspective of eternity, we are as vulnerable to the crowd as the weakest-willed middle schooler.
With all due respect, this is a false dilemma and it doesn’t make sense to me. From the perspective of radical individualism: if you live life “according to Jesus” you’re outsourcing your moral choices and responsibility to what may well be a “fictional dream world” created by a 1st century Messianic sect. It would absolutely be as much a role-playing game as anything our secular culture has to offer.
Nietzsche would say that to become a radical individual you become your own father so to speak. Reject the prepackaged morals and conventions of this society AND those of people and books claiming to speak for God. One does not become more “truly” an Ubermensch/individual by being someone’s follower. Those two things don’t agree.
I anticipated someone would reply along these lines. Clearly, if Christianity is wrong about the significance of Jesus, following him as the way, truth and life would be just another example of living a false life, of not living your own life. But your criticisms assume that Jesus was just another deluded messianic pretender. My piece was written with the assumption that Jesus is indeed what Christianity claims. Hence your criticisms target my presuppositions and not my argument. You were not in my target audience. I could have written something that began with different presuppositions and argued to the truth of Christianity’s view of Jesus. Or, I could have engaged in an argument that reduces the radical individualism you seem to espouse to absurdity. Since the individual is absolutely dependent on nature for existence and on other humans for their humanity, it is completely absurd to think that one could “become one’s own father.” Freedom is given with the particular form of existence we possess. We inherit freedom as a fate or a gift. Either way, it cannot circle back in time and create itself.