Twenty years ago, Anna Quindlen—a writer for the New York Times, a Pulitzer Prize winner, and a recipient of prestigious honorary degrees—gave this advice to a group of graduating seniors:
Each of you is as different as your fingertips. Why should you march to any lockstep? Our love of lockstep is our greatest curse, the source of all that bedevils us. It is the source of homophobia, xenophobia, racism, sexism, terrorism, bigotry of every variety and hue because it tells us that there is one right way to do things, to look, to behave, to feel, when the only right way is to feel your heart hammering inside you and to listen to what its timpani is saying.1
That’s fairly typical commencement counsel: “Follow your dreams. March to the beat of your own drummer. Be true to yourself.”2
I’d like to offer different advice: “Do not follow your dreams. Do not march to the beat of your own drummer. And whatever you do, do not be true to yourself.”
If you think I’m being a little hyperbolic, you’re right. I’ll provide some nuance to this advice at the end. But I believe it’s important to state the matter provocatively because our world screams at us in thousands of commercials, movies, and songs that the best way to live, the only authentic way to live, is for you to be you, for you to live out your truth, for you to find your true self and then have the courage to live accordingly.
Deceived by Desires
The Bible, on the other hand, tells us, “There is a way that seems right to a man, but its end is the way of death” (Prov. 14:12). Think of the story of Esau who sold his birthright for a pot of stew. “Let me eat some of that red stew,” he said, “for I am exhausted. I am about to die; of what use is a birthright to me?” (Gen. 25:30, 32). Esau was consumed with his desires.
Esau was defined by his desires, and they deceived him. Esau is depicted as an animal. You can see this more clearly in the original Hebrew. All he can think of is the red stuff, the red stuff (ha-adom, ha-adom). He exaggerates the extent of his need. He wasn’t literally going to die. (Like kids saying when dinner is a half hour late, “I’m starving!”). Esau is emotional and impulsive. He is fainting, gasping, gulping. You can almost see him wiping off his mouth, throwing down a napkin, and letting out a loud belch as he walks away from his meal of stew. He was not made nobler for satisfying his desires. He was made lower. He became like an animal. That’s what the text wants us to see. Esau the skillful hunter was prey to his own appetites. He had a better identity as the firstborn of Isaac, but he gave that away. He became a profane man, treating what was sacred with irreverence and disrespect.
The world tells us that our identity is found in what we desire. So to deny the fulfillment of what you desire is to deny your truest identity. We are all awash in what Carl Trueman calls “expressive individualism.”3 The idea is that you are what you feel, and don’t let anyone tell you otherwise. I’m sure you remember Elsa’s anthem “Let It Go” from Frozen. With its emphasis on testing the limits and breaking through, it’s no wonder the song and the character Elsa have become a favorite in the LGTBQ+ community.
No right, no wrong, no rules for me I’m free.4
What could be more indicative of the spirit of the age?
A Philosophy for Our Times
Throughout most of history, philosophers and theologians have distinguished between affections (which are motions of the will) and passions (which sweep over us unbidden). That’s why the Westminster Confession says God is without parts and passions. The Westminster divines were using “passion” not as we do to mean intense zeal. They were saying, God does not have an emotional life like we do. He is Pure Act; nothing happens to him. He is never rendered passive.
The salvation we all know we need is not to be found by looking within ourselves but by looking for grace outside ourselves.
Consequently, the Western tradition, especially in the Christian tradition, has insisted that the lower appetites must be constrained by reason and the grace of God working within us. In fact, the Reformed tradition goes one step further and reminds us that we can be misled by all our faculties. That’s what we mean by the phrase “totally depraved”—our passions are broken, our reason is not entirely reliable, and our wills, apart from Christ, are bound to sin.
Most people you will encounter in life—and maybe you, reading this today—operate with an unspoken assumption that shapes and defines every argument, every instinct, and the way you look at the world and look at yourself. The assumption is this: is equals ought. Importantly, the is here is no longer about your body. It’s not about some physical givenness. “My body tells me something true about myself even when I don’t feel that it is true.” That mindset is no longer assumed. Now it is assumed that what you feel about yourself, or believe about yourself, or perceive about yourself tells you who you are and how you should behave.
Is equals ought conditions us to believe: “This is what I feel like, so this is what I should do; and if you tell me I can’t do that, or that I should be something or someone other than I feel myself to be, you are attacking the very heart of my personhood.”
What’s wrong with this philosophical assumption? Besides being devoid of any objective, empirical, scientific facts, the assumption is entirely at odds with Christian anthropology. The only way is equals ought can work is if there is no doctrine of the fall—if our instincts are never self-deceived, if our desires are never self-centered, and if our dreams are never self-destructive.
The salvation we all know we need is not to be found by looking within ourselves but by looking for grace outside ourselves. G. K. Chesterton said it so well:
That Jones shall worship the god within him turns out ultimately to mean that Jones shall worship Jones. Let Jones worship the sun or moon, anything rather than the Inner Light; let Jones worship cats or crocodiles, if he can find any in his street, but not the god within. Christianity came into the world firstly in order to assert with violence that a man had not only to look inwards, but to look outwards, to behold with astonishment and enthusiasm a divine company and a divine captain. The only fun of being a Christian was that a man was not left alone with the Inner Light, but definitely recognized an outer light, fair as the sun, clear as the moon, terrible as an army with banners.5
Like most heresies, the is equals ought heresy is partially true. It grasps something we want to affirm; namely, that ethics must be rooted in ontology. That’s just a fancy way of saying identity does shape obligation. Is does equal ought, if you have a doctrine of sin, regeneration, union with Christ, and the indwelling of the Holy Spirit. The great theologian of our age, Lady Gaga, was right: you were born that way. The good news of Jesus Christ is that you can be born again another way.
Be Who You Are, but Die First
There is something right about our culture’s obsession with authenticity. One of the chief ethical motivations in the New Testament is: be who you are. Which is why my provocative statement (“do not be true to yourself”) at the beginning needs some qualification. You should not be true to yourself, unless you have died to your old self and your new self is raised with Christ and seated with him in the heavenly places. The real you is worth letting out if the real you is dead to sin and alive in Christ Jesus.
The world says you are what you feel. The world says your is equals ought. The world says you must find yourself, be true to yourself, and express yourself. Jesus gave us a different and better way to live.
Truly, truly, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit. Whoever loves his life loses it, and whoever hates his life in this world will keep it for eternal life. (John 12:24–25)
- Quindlen made these remarks at Sarah Lawrence College in 2002. They were then published in her book Loud and Clear (New York: Random House, 2004), 307.
- This chapter is adapted from a commencement address I gave: “Whatever You Do, Do Not Be True to Yourself” (Geneva College, Beaver Falls, PA, May 7, 2022), https://kevindeyoung.org.
- See Carl Trueman, The Rise and the Triumph of the Modern Self: Cultural Amnesia, Expressive Individualism, and the Road to the Sexual Revolution (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2020).
- Idina Menzel, “Let It Go” in Frozen, directed by Chris Buck and Jennifer Lee (Burbank, CA: Walt Disney Animation Studios, 2013).
- G. K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy (New York: Image, 1959), 75–76.
This article is adapted from Do Not Be True to Yourself: Countercultural Advice for the Rest of Your Life by Kevin DeYoung.
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