In their recent book Good Faith: Being a Christian When Society Thinks You’re Irrelevant and Extreme, David Kinnaman and Gabe Lyons document that 84 percent of Americans believe that “enjoying yourself is the highest goal of life.”
Further, 86 percent believe that to enjoy yourself you must “pursue the things you desire most.”
And 91 percent affirm this statement: “To find yourself, look within yourself.”
In our day, the Westminster Catechism answer has been inverted: “the chief end of man is to glorify and enjoy himself forever.” One could even make a case that self-worship is the world’s fastest-growing religion. It is certainly the world’s oldest (just read Gen. 3). Moreover, this religion lies beneath many of the most hot-button social and political issues of our day.
These are the sacred commandments of this ancient and still-trending world religion:
- Your mind is the source and standard of truth, so no matter what, trust yourself. #theanswersarewithin
- Your emotions are authoritative, so never question (or let anyone else question) your feelings. #followyourheart
- You are sovereign, so flex your omnipotence and bend the universe around your dreams and desires. #liveyourtruth
- You are supreme, so always act according to your chief end, to glorify and enjoy yourself forever. #yolo
- You are the summum bonum—the standard of goodness—so don’t let anyone oppress you with the antiquated notion of being a sinner who needs grace. #neverchange.
- You are the Creator, so use that limitless creative power to craft your identity and purpose. #authenticity.
What’s the Problem?
Here’s the problem with this cult of self-worship—besides the obvious problem of being a rebellion against God: When we try to be our own sources of truth, we slowly drive ourselves crazy. When we try to be our own sources of satisfaction, we become miserable wrecks. When we become our own standard of goodness and justice, we become obnoxiously self-righteous. When we seek self-glorification, we become more inglorious.
Why? It’s simple. We are not God. We were never meant to trust in or be defined by, satisfied in, and captivated by ourselves. We were made to revere someone infinitely more interesting and awesome than ourselves. We become most truly and freely ourselves in a state of self-forgetful reverence. As Albert Einstein put it, “A person first starts to live when he can live outside himself.”
More than 35,000 people a year make the inconvenient trek to Nepal’s Mount Everest, 4.5 million to the Grand Canyon, 3.5 million to Yosemite, and 30 million to Niagara Falls. Deep down, we crave awe. We were made for it, and science is slowly catching up to this ancient biblical truth.
Scientist Paul Piff of the University of California, Irvine, coined the term “small self” to describe this phenomenon. After exposing his subjects to several “elicitors of awe,” Piff reported, “we found the same sorts of effects—people felt smaller, less self-important, and behaved in a more prosocial fashion.” Awestruck people were more generous, more dialed into the needs of others, and more caring toward the natural world.
Arizona State behavioral scientist Michelle Lani Shiota has found that awe not only increases generous decision-making; it also drastically improves our cognition. Awe makes us less susceptible to bad arguments and more responsive to good ones. There’s a mountain of research from psychologists connecting experiences of awesomeness with a substantial decline in depression.
Do we want happier, fuller lives? The science is clear. Let us be awestruck by something, or rather someone, infinitely bigger than ourselves. If we’re going to have a lasting, countercultural effect on a society that has fallen for the cult of self-worship, then let’s recenter our lives on the “God greatly to be feared in the council of the holy ones, and awesome above all those who are around him” (Ps. 89:7).