We are goldfish in a bowl. We swim in a world of values and beliefs, but like water through gills, we guzzle without knowing what we drink.
Modern Christians will never appreciate the degree to which our thinking and lifestyles are self-centred. If Christians 200 years ago could not see the injustice of a child working 14 hour days in a cotton mill, we cannot see the idolatry of pivoting life around the self.
One symptom of our self-centredness is life-planning. People today are accustomed to organising life as if it were a business plan. The social critic David Brooks outlines the process we undergo to bring control and focus to our lives. He says,
‘First you take an inventory of your gifts and passions. Then you set up goals and come up with some metrics to organise your progress toward those goals. Then you map out a strategy to achieve your purpose, which will help you distinguish those things that move you toward your goals from those things that seem urgent but are really just distractions. If you define a realistic purpose early on and execute your strategy flexibly, you will wind up leading a purposeful life.‘
The problem with this mode of thinking is that it’s atheistic. God doesn’t factor into the logic. The three basic assumptions of most life-planning – Christian or not – are (1) that the self is lord, (2) that the aim of life is happiness defined as self-fulfilment, and (3) that the glory of God is less important than personal achievement.
How do Christians break out of this pattern of thinking? Most importantly, we need to narrate our lives differently. Too many Christians have bought into the secular myth that life is an autobiography starring the self in the lead role. We imagine our lives to be a coming-to-age novel, a life journey that climaxes in a moment of self-awareness and fulfilment, a personalised quest to find the real me. If God is present in our thinking at all, He makes cameos now and again, like Yoda, to keep the inner Jedi on the right path.
Christians need to identify the idol in the plotline. The story we tell is not primarily about me or you, but about God, Jesus, the church, and the redemption of the cosmos. Our lives are not unimportant, but we are more like minor cast members in an epic production than a Kardashian sister starring in a self-titled show.
But with self-centred thinking downloaded like Windows into our psyche, how do we shift our thinking? A first step is working through a set of questions provided by Chris Wright at the end of his acclaimed book, The Mission of God. Warning: these questions sting if allowed to go anywhere near the heart.
1. We ask, ‘Where does God fit into the story of my life?’ when the real question is ‘Where does my life fit into the story of God’s mission?’
2. We want to be driven by a purpose that has been tailored just right for our own individual lives, when we should be seeing the purpose of all life, including our own, wrapped up in the great mission of God for the whole of creation.
3. We talk about ‘applying the Bible to our lives,’ which often means modifying the Bible to fit into the assumed ‘reality’ of the life we live ‘in the real world.’ What would it mean to apply our lives to the Bible instead, assuming the Bible to be the reality – the real story – to which we are called to conform ourselves?
4. I may wonder what kind of mission God has for me when I should be asking what kind of me God wants for his mission.
A sign of authentic faith is when a person stops asking the question, ‘what do I want from life?’ and begins to ask a different question, ‘what does God want from me?’ This shift is a sign that the idol of self has been dislodged and that there is room in the heart for Jesus to be Lord. Only then can life-planning become productive because only then is planning an act of obedience.
By Joe Barnard