What does the Bible say to Christians in the age of self help?

An Interview with Trevin Wax about “Rethink Your Self”

January 13, 2021

Editor’s Note: This interview is part of a series engaging the authors of new or notable books. Because discipleship and spiritual formation go hand in hand, the goal of this series is to introduce you to beneficial and enriching works in order to better equip you to love God with your mind as well as your heart and strength. Find the entire series here.

You do you. Follow your heart. Be true. These are a few of our society’s favorite slogans when it comes to identity. All of them are connected because at their core each one is about seeing yourself as an individual. Each one, in other words, is about you as a me. And this kind of atomized outlook about identity and how to live is a defining aspect of our time. But what does the Bible have to say to Christians in the age of self help? Recently, we had the opportunity to interview Trevin Wax about his new book Rethink Your Self: The Power of Looking Up Before Looking In, which explores this very topic. 

You have spent a lot of time analyzing how cultural narratives impact Christians and the church. What prompted you to write Rethink Your Self, and what audiences were you hoping to engage?

I love asking questions about why people think the way they think and do the things they do. What are the hidden assumptions that people don’t question? 

In looking at what passes for “common sense” in our society, you can see one overarching message in music, TV shows, books, and movies: the purpose of life is to look inside and discover yourself and then express yourself to the world. I wanted to peel back the layers of some of our best-loved slogans like “Be true to yourself” or “Follow your heart” and interrogate them. Does this way of life work? Does it deliver what it promises? Why do other societies reject this way of thinking? 

I had three people in mind as I wrote:

  1. The 20-something college student at the start of their life and preparing for their career, who has some big life decisions ahead and doesn’t want to mess up,
  2. The 30-something Christian who wants to grow as a follower of Jesus, who wonders if they’re following the common sense of our society more than the countercultural way that Jesus lays out and
  3. The person who’s a little older and has experienced setbacks and disappointment in life, who wonders if all the talk about “chasing your dreams” and taking charge of your destiny is good advice after all and who is ready to rethink their assumptions.

Rethink Your Self explores a concept that you’ve written about extensively: expressive individualism. What is expressive individualism, and why is it vital for individuals in our culture to be aware of this belief?

Robert Bellah and the sociologists who wrote Habits of the Heart are the ones to first use this descriptor, and they trace the origins of expressive individualism back into the 1800s. 

The Catholic philosopher Charles Taylor calls it “the age of authenticity”—in a way that pits authenticity against conformity. Taylor describes it as the idea “that each one of us has his/her own way of realizing our humanity, and that it is important to find and live out one’s own, as against surrendering to conformity with a model imposed on us from outside, by society, or the previous generation, or religious or political authority.”

The key here is that the purpose of life is to find one’s deepest self and then express that to the world, forging that identity in ways that counter whatever family, friends, political affiliations, previous generations, or religious authorities might say. 

The book presents three elements to identity formation: “Look In,” “Look Around,” and “Look Up.” Can you explain these concepts? Why is the order in which we prioritize these impulses vital to how we form our sense of being? 

These three approaches to life are determined by what gets priority. How do you determine who you are and what your purpose in life is?

The “Look In” approach says to start with yourself. You do the hard work of looking in, to discover who you are and what you want to do with your life. You then look around for friends and colleagues who will support the version of yourself you choose. And then, if you feel like you need a spiritual dimension to your life, you may look up to God or a higher power in order to have something more transcendent to add to your life. This is the dominant way of thinking in our society today.

The “Look Around” approach says to start with the people around you. You look around to your community to tell you who you are and what your purpose of life is. Then, you look up to the sacred order that connects you to the people around you and the ancestors who have gone before you. Finally, you look inside as you come to terms with the person you are, in relation to the community you belong to. This is the dominant way of thinking in other parts of the world and has been dominant for most people throughout history.

The “Look Up” approach says to start with God. You look up first in order to see what God says about you and to better understand his divine design. Looking up prioritizes the transcendent. God is the one who defines you and your purpose, not you and not your community. Next, you look around to the community of faith that is called to cheer you on, to correct you, to love you as part of the family that looks up as its starting point, not ending point. Finally, you look inside and see how God loves you just as you are, while still planning to make you the best possible version of who you are, as he conforms you into the image of his Son. This is the biblical way of seeing life—God first, others second, yourself third.

What challenges does a culture that prioritizes “looking in” for identity formation pose to the church? What challenges does it pose to Christian leaders? 

Expressive individualism poses a challenge because we’ve been commissioned to proclaim a message that is radically God-centered. The gospel challenges the “Me” with “I Am”—the One who created and sustains us. Expressive individualism would have us look deep into our hearts to discover our inner essence and express that to the world. But the gospel shows how the depths of our hearts are steeped in sin; it claims that what we need most is not expression, but redemption.

The world says we should look inward, while the gospel says to look upward. In an expressive individualist society, that message is countercultural. 

Also, in a culture like ours, it’s not that suddenly all the sanctuaries are emptied and the church gets rejected. Instead, the people who continue to attend church do so because they believe the church can help them find and express themselves. Religiosity doesn’t disappear; it morphs into something adaptable, something you embrace on your own terms. Faith is no longer focused on reality or something true; it’s a therapeutic choice intended to aid you in your pursuit of self-exaltation and self-fulfillment.

The book posits that the optimal way to think about yourself is the “Look Up” approach. How did Jesus model this in his life?

Jesus constantly turned our attention upward. The primary thrust of all his preaching was that the kingdom of God has drawn near. The first three petitions in the prayer he gave his disciples are all oriented to God’s glory and God’s kingdom purposes. He relativizes the importance of “looking around” first in terms of priority when he calls for allegiance that supersedes love for family members. He demotes the importance of “looking in” first when he says that to find your life you must lose it, and that his path is one of self-denial. Jesus is constantly pointing up—to God’s design, to his ultimate purposes, and to our need to look up for redemption through him. 

You refer to sociologists like Robert Bellah and Charles Taylor in your book. For many readers, this may be their first encounter with these influential thinkers’ ideas. How can social theorists like Bellah and Taylor help Christian leaders understand trends in their churches and communities? 

I pushed almost all the sociological references to the endnotes because I wanted the book to be as accessible as possible, without academic terms and concepts. But for the church leader who picks up this book, I hope the books and thinkers quoted in the endnotes will be a resource for further reading and reflecting. It’s important for us to know something about the world we’re called to do ministry in. Social theorists can help us understand the context and culture, so that our evangelistic and discipleship strategies can become more effective. Good missionaries learn about the countries and communities they’re called to serve. Why should it be any different for those of us “on mission” here in the U.S.?

The book counsels that to “Rethink Your Self” you will need to go beyond thinking and reevaluate your habits and spiritual disciplines. What are some suggestions for spiritual formation you present in the book?

The reason one of the later chapters in this book is focused on spiritual disciplines like Bible reading and prayer and churchgoing is because we will not be able to counter the “Look In” approach unless we are constantly bringing ourselves back in line with the “Look Up” approach. The problem is, even these spiritual disciplines can drift toward the “Look In” approach; you read the Bible merely for inspiration in your quest to define yourself, or you pray to God as just a helper when you need him or you go to church to be affirmed by others in whatever life you decide to pursue for yourself. What we need are disciplines that are intentionally directed toward keeping our primary focus and priority on God at the center of all things. My goal with that chapter was to get us “rethinking our habits” so that we can reinforce biblical truth in a world that will often lead us to drift.

The conversation you begin about the struggle of identity formation transitions into a presentation of the gospel narrative. Was this book intended to be evangelistic? How can Christians enter into conversations about self-discovery to present the gospel to their neighbors?

I was careful not to use Christianese or to assume Bible knowledge on the part of the reader because I wanted people who are not believers to pick up the book and be able to understand it. So, yes, I wrote the book with non-Christians in mind. And one of my prayers throughout the writing process is that someone would come to faith after having read the book.

But I also was thinking about the Christian who may be a churchgoer and yet has fallen for the “be true to yourself” message because it’s so prevalent. My hope is that they will begin to recognize the “be true to yourself” message in all sorts of media and entertainment and politics whenever they see it. I also hope they will better understand how the Bible challenges this perspective with something so much better and more soul-satisfying. I hope readers will see Jesus for who he is, come to love him for being so much better than what the world has to offer, and follow him with increasing passion and devotion.

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B&H Publishing

Andrew Bertodatti

Andrew Bertodatti serves as an intern at the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission.  Andrew resides in New York City with his wife Karen and their child. Read More by this Author

Josh Wester

Joshua B. Wester serves as the Chair of Research in Christian Ethics at the ERLC. He is also pursuing a Th.M. in Public Theology at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary. Josh is married to McCaffity, and they have two children. Read More by this Author