Human beings want help. They know something is wrong, even if they haven’t a clue what or why. Money, pleasure, and distractions can’t fully smother what Thoreau famously called the “quiet desperation” of modern people. Even if every film, album, and miniseries told us this wasn’t true, we would know our neighbors really do feel this way just by looking at one thing: the self-help section. The self-help genre is Western society’s unwitting confession of its own brokenness.
But the overwhelming majority of self-help literature is hollow and escapist, like trying to illuminate a vast cavern with only a glow stick. Too much of it cashes out to helping comfortable middle-class Americans get more comfortable in their middle class. The self-help shelf is dominated by kitschy mantras, vain platitudes, and the religious equivalent of high-fructose corn syrup.
I think that’s the reason Trevin Wax begins his new book, Rethink Your Self: The Power of Looking Up Before Looking In, by writing, “This is not a self-help book.” At first glance, Rethink Yourself might seem like yet another inward journey into becoming your best self. But looks are deceptive. Wax has taken the familiar packaging of therapeutic self-help and turned it on itself with a book that cuts through “live, laugh, love” claptrap with a plainspoken but incisive invitation to a truly good life—a life that requires us to die before we can live.
Look In—Look Around
Wax describes the world’s value systems in two categories. “Look in” is the mantra of Western culture, which locates the meaning of a person’s life and the deepest identity in individual desires and ambitions. By contrast, collectivist societies tell members to “Look around,” and inherit their sense of self and purpose from the surrounding community. While the latter worldview is still common around the world, especially in non-Western nations that are more tribal and family-centered, the “Look in” approach—otherwise known as expressive individualism—is the culturally ambient philosophy for the vast majority who would read this book.
The self-help genre is Western society’s unwitting confession of its own brokenness.
The trouble, Wax writes, is that no matter how hard we look in, we can’t actually wring happiness out of our own consciousness. “Haven’t you heard of people who chased long and hard after a dream, who ran with a single-minded passion to fulfill a deep desire,” Wax writes, “only to discover a surprising sense of emptiness after they’d reached their goal?” (41). The appeal of looking in is that it seems to validate our desire for happiness and to live authentically according to what we want. But the trouble, Wax observes, is that plumbing our desires to find out who we need to be doesn’t do anything, for three reasons: we don’t actually know what we want; our wants disagree with each other (43); and our desires don’t tell us whether they are good or bad, for us or others (46).
To understand why expressive individualism is enticing but not ultimately satisfying, we need to go deeper into human nature than therapeutic self-help lit can go. Positivity gurus can and often do identify parts of our lives that are depressed, frustrating, and broken. Indeed, some secular self-help authors are bolder in forcing audiences to confront their problems than some pastors are. But mainstream self-help lit comes up short because it fails to recognize the human need for moral satisfaction and cosmic restoration. The human spirit needs more than affirmation; it needs justification. Our sense is not just that something could be better, but that something is severely and devastatingly wrong about us.
In a post-Christian society this sensation of lingering guilt is often repressed or explained away by Freudian psychology or the oppressed-oppressor dynamic. But unnamed sin can still be felt. In a brilliant essay titled “The Strange Persistence of Guilt,” Wilired McClay writes, “The presence of vast amounts of unacknowledged sin in a culture, a culture full to the brim with its own hubristic sense of world-conquering power and agency but lacking any effectual means of achieving redemption for all the unacknowledged sin that accompanies such power: This is surely a moral crisis in the making.” In other words, in the absence of the spiritual disciplines of confession, repentance, and forgiveness, human beings limp with a festering moral wound that frustrates their efforts to make sense of themselves and the world.
We need an assurance of justice, a consciousness that not only can our everyday problems be fixed but we ourselves can somehow be made right. We find this, Wax writes, in the gospel, which calls us to “look up” at a personal Creator and Redeemer. The reason we look in before looking up is sin, and sin makes our efforts to authenticate ourselves so futile. We did not make ourselves, so we cannot determine who or why we truly are. God, in the person of Jesus Christ, can and has done that. In Jesus Christ, God shows us that to live we must die to ourselves, so that Christ can raise us with himself.
Our best death is now, and our best life is later.
“The meaning of the cross was redemptive,” Wax writes. “Sin had been taken care of, the forces of evil had been defeated, and the selfish impulse of humanity had been overcome by a flood of self-giving love. . . . [Jesus] was both the ultimate display of what God always intended a human being to be (fulfilling God’s original design) and also the ultimate expression of God’s desire for the world” (142–43).
Wax poignantly puts his finger on a crucial distinction. Like positive self-help literature, the gospel promises to change us. But unlike it, the gospel doesn’t promise that this change will be greater comfort and self-confidence. The pattern of death and resurrection points us toward the reality of life coming out of death. In the light of being born again in Christ, our habits and rhythms reflect a progressive dying to ourselves so that who we truly are—as created by God in his image and for the sake of his Son—can come alive. Our best death is now, and our best life is later.
Theological intuitions often lead conservative evangelicals to be quite critical of self-help books. On the whole this is a right instinct. But we ought to realize that the message of the Bible isn’t merely a theological proposition to accept, but a promise to cling to. Our tears really will be wiped away. Our relationships really will be completely restored. Our cancers and our traumas and our destructive desires really will be obliterated forever. The heart human gravitates toward promises of a better self because it really was made for one. Rethink Your Self is a valuable reminder of that.
Who will benefit from Rethink Your Self? I can think of three distinct groups.
First, unbelievers with a penchant for self-help lit will feel that Wax is speaking to them. It’s one thing to be able to use theology to criticize or oppose the errors of self-help lit. But it’s another thing to understand why Westerners rely so much on these kinds of books. This book isn’t a polemical wrecking ball. It’s a warmly written invitation to those burned out by the quest to define themselves. Like all false religions, expressive individualism creates refugees, and those refugees will be welcome and helped here.
Like all false religions, expressive individualism creates refugees, and those refugees will be welcome and helped here.
Second, Christians who feel that something is “off” with their current spiritual or emotional trajectory will benefit from Rethink Your Self. As Wax frequently notes, everything about Western culture is designed to make us look in. Looking up isn’t a one-time event but a continuous act of gloriously satisfying resistance.
Last, pastors and church leaders who want a guidebook for speaking evangelistically and philosophically to the spirit of the age will richly benefit from Rethink Your Self. Expressive individualism isn’t a passing fad or viral phenomenon. It’s the dominant religious dogma of our age, and nearly every institution and apparatus that we encounter in public life shapes us in its image. And yet we’re tired, anxious, depressed, and frustrated. The idols have broken our hearts. The gospel has something to say about this. Let the whole world hear it, and hear it often.
The Gospel Coalition