The Image of God #3: In our culture desire is sovereign so I do what I want to do

In April I delivered a talk on the image of God to the Acts 29 Europe conference in Rome. In my previous post base don this talk we saw that in our culture reality is viewed as malleable. So I am who I want to be. Noe we move on to consider a related characteristic of our culture’s view to identity.

2. In our culture desire is sovereign (I do what I want to do)

Transgenderism is just one expression of a trend that pervades our culture in which we’re all complicit: the sovereignty of desire. I do what I want to do.

So we choose leisure instead of duty, anger instead of self-control, adultery instead of restraint, prolonged adolescence instead of responsibility, self-promotion instead of humility, debt instead of patience, back-biting instead of reconciliation. What they all have in common is the sovereignty of desire. I will do what I want do. I will be who I want be. None of this new. What’s new is that unrestrained desire is praised. It’s seen as a moral good.

Consider these four terms: self-fulfilment and self-expression, self-denial and self-restraint. A hundred years ago self-denial and self-restraint would have been seen as virtuous. People may not often have lived up to the ideal, but it was the ideal. Now it’s self-fulfilment and self-expression which are virtuous. More than that, self-denial and self-restraint are seen as repressive, harmful, evil. What Christianity considers virtues are now considered vices in our culture.

Professor Daniel Yankelovich of New York University has documented this shift in social attitudes (Daniel Yankelovich, New Rules: Searching for Self-Fulfilment in a World Turned Upside Down, Random House, 1981.). The old rules, Yankelovich says, stressed duty to others, particularly your family. Obviously people weren’t sacrificial all the time. But it was embarrassing to be seen to be selfish. The norm was self-denial. But all that’s changed. It’s been replaced with what Yankelovich calls ‘the duty to self ethic’ in which our primary responsibility is our own self-fulfilment. Everything else fits round that.

James Davison Hunter used Yankelovich’s questionnaire among evangelical students and discovered they were more committed to self-fulfilment than their secular friends.

If you don’t believe self-expression is a primary virtue, go into central Rome. The only thing being sold by the street-sellers are selfie sticks. The glories of ancient Rome are not enough. We have to be in the picture!

What are some of the results of a view of life focused on yourself?

  1. Self-expression has replaced self-restraint

This new world is all about me. So naturally what I want to talk about is me. I want opportunities to share, to talk about my feelings, to express myself, to ‘process’ everything, to be understood. This isn’t about gospel counsel in which we point one another to Christ. No, this is about pointing to me. This is ‘therapy’ by talking about my feelings. Any sense that you might control your emotions for the sake of others is seen in terms of ‘repression’.

  1. Excitement has replaced virtue

What’s good – or what constitutes a good life – is now defined in terms of experiences that bring self-fulfilment or enable self-expression. So we’re all chasing excitement. David Wells says:

By the 1980s … a large majority had begun to think that what was worthwhile in life had nothing to do with its normal routines such as getting up each day and going to work. Nor with the traditional responsibilities of marriage and the raising of children. Rather, life is about its more exotic moments. It is not about what happens on Monday through Friday, but what happens on the weekends. Its real meaning, and its real rewards, are found when the self, unencumbered by routine and responsibility, can be found, nurtured, and satisfied. (David Wells, The Courage to be Protestant, IVP, 2008, 136.)

This describes our world. We don’t value the routines of work. We don’t value jobs that are mundane. It is not enough that a job should serve other people. We want the job itself to be fulfilling. We want a job that serves us. Instead of a life of virtue – doing the right thing, self-denial, sacrificial love – we chase excitement.

  1. Self-promotion has replaced character

Think about the kind of life these two options create – self-denial verses self-fulfilment. After all, they’re what do in the moment. But what happens when they shape your life or becomes the pattern of our life? The answer is you develop ‘character’. And you can have a good character or bad character. Good character is the result of repeatedly doing the right thing. We develop a habit, an instinct, a taste for goodness.

But in a world focused on self-fulfilment our focus is not good character, but being an attractive person, magnetic, exciting. So our culture no longer has ‘heroes’ – people with the courage to do the right thing at personal cost. Instead we have ‘celebrities’ – people who are famous because of the way their express themselves. Heroes do self-denial. Celebrities do self-expression. So in a culture in which self-expression matters more than self-denial you get celebrities instead of heroes.


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