One of the anthems our culture sings louder and more often than any other is “you do you.” If you think about the meaning of that popular phrase, you can quickly start to identify some of its cousin expressions like “you only live once,” and “be the best version of you.” These are not harmless expressions; indeed, they reveal problematic thinking, bad theology, and — according to writer Alan Noble — faulty anthropology. They come from one of the fundamental lies of our modern age: the lie that we own ourselves.
Noble, an English professor at Oklahoma Baptist University and author of Disruptive Witness: Speaking Truth in a Distracted Age, argues that much of our cultural turmoil stems from our belief that we belong to ourselves alone and are responsible for every aspect of our existence. Noble addresses this lie of self-created identity and meaning in life in his newest book, You Are Not Your Own. The first half of You Are Not Your Own diagnoses and explains the problem with self-belonging, while the second half considers how to fight this lie. And Noble shows that while our culture is obsessed with who we are, what is most important is to whom we belong.
Modern society and self-belonging
Noble, who admits that he borrows heavily on the ideas of others, references poetry, novels, philosophy, and pop culture to illustrate his point. The most important idea he uses to examine the problems of modern culture is the first question and answer from Heidelberg Catechism:
Q: What is your only comfort in life and death?
A: That I am not my own, but belong with body and soul, both in life and in death, to my faithful Savior Jesus Christ.
This simple statement of our creatureliness provides an immense comfort. We are not responsible for defining ourselves. Rather, as finite and created beings, we are able to rest in the fact that we do not have to construct and sustain our value and and existence.
Modern society, however, has tried to convince us that each individual is responsible for his own existence. Our faulty anthropology comes with a cost: “the responsibility to justify our existence, to create an identity, to discover meaning, to choose values, and to belong” (35). Noble collectively calls these “The Responsibilities of Self-Belonging.” And even though they are obligations only to ourselves, they are burdens we weren’t meant to carry. As burdens we were meant to — and can’t — carry, they end up crushing us. What we think should be freeing, the ability to define ourselves in any way that we choose, actually ends up as a longing in our souls and searching in our activity that is futile.
Society perpetuates our belief in self-belonging. We’re told to find our true selves, and then we have to express it. Noble explains how society tries to give us meaning and values through art, community, and rituals. Society promises fulfillment if you accept that you are your own, work to discover and express yourself, and use the methods of society to improve your life (69). But because meaning and values are not universal, “there can be no substantial common good for us to work toward, politically or socially” (56).
Our efforts to define our identity and improve ourselves lead to endless competition rather than peace and fulfillment. People competing against each other are on a spectrum of affirmation and resignation, vacillating between self-confidence and despair. The demands of self-belonging have led us to self-medicate: “Contemporary people are obsessed with means for coping with life. We don’t self-medicate because our lives are wonderful, but because we need comfort to continue living” (121). Our efforts to be autonomous and self-sufficient are a way we sinfully deny the hand of God in our lives.
Realizing to Whom we belong
But Noble reminds us that there is good news! We are not responsible for creating our identity and defining meaning and values. We don’t have to live in an endless cycle of striving for and failing at self-improvement. We are not our own. Despite what the world says, who we are is not the most important thing. Instead, Noble tells readers that “Whom we belong to makes all the difference in the world” (117). Belonging to God and “knowing and abiding by His limits enables us to live as we were created to live, as the humans He designed us to be” (118). Believers must remember that their identity and meaning are not self-created; they are found in Christ. Only in Christ do we find belonging without harm; only in Christ do we find perfect acceptance and love.
I read You Are Not Your Own during a difficult season. As my family went from crisis to crisis, the first two lines of Andrew Peterson’s song “Is He Worthy?” were on repeat in my head: “Do you feel the world is broken? (We do) Do you feel the shadows deepen? (We do).” As sickness, grief, and pain shook my family and church family, what a comfort Noble offered me. How can I live in a broken world? What counsel can I offer those around me in their suffering? What hope do I have in life and death? That I am not my own.