WARREN SMITH, HOST: I’m Warren Smith. And today you’ll be listening in on my conversation with Trevin Wax. His new book is ReThink Your Self: The Power of Looking Up Before Looking In.
Follow your heart. You do you. You are enough. Your best life now. You can be whoever you want to be.
We hear these slogans all the time, often even in the church. But my guest today, Trevin Wax, asks of these slogans – designed to point us toward personal happiness – might actually be leading us to a dead-end.
He says that instead of looking inward to discover our desires and passions, we should first look up – to God – in order to discern His design for our life, and letting that design order rightly our desires and direction.
Trevin Wax is senior vice president of Theology and Communications at Lifeway Christian Resources. He’s also a visiting professor at Wheaton College. A former missionary to Romania, Trevin hosts a blog at The Gospel Coalition and contributes regularly to The Washington Post, Religion News Service, WORLD, and Christianity Today.
Due to COVID restrictions, Trevin and I had this conversation thanks to a bit of digital magic. I was in my home office in Charlotte, NC, and he was in his home near Nashville.
Well, Trevin, welcome to the program. I want to thank you for your book ReThink Your Self: The Power of Looking Up Before Looking In. I found it to be really nourishing and of a piece with a lot of stuff that I’ve been thinking about related to social media and identity politics. I mean, it sort of spanned the waterfront from the very personal to the universal. So, thanks for the book.
TREVIN WAX, GUEST: Well, thank you, Warren. Thank you for having me on to talk about it.
SMITH: And, you know, Trevin, I knew early in the book that you were a good Southern Baptist because you were able to organize a lot of your book into four Ds. In fact, our friend John Stonestreet often says that if you can’t turn it into like an acronym or four Ds or four Cs, you can’t preach it in a Southern Baptist church.
WAX: That’s right. You’ve gotta have alliteration.
SMITH: You gotta have alliteration. So, I’m going to go ahead and read the four Ds, but let you kind of talk about each one. The four Ds that in some ways become an organizing principle for the book are definition, desires, display, and design. And I kind of want to take these one by one and let you kind of explain what you mean. So let’s start with definition. What do you mean by definition?
WAX: Well, this is a book about how people in our society, what passes for the common sense view of the purpose of life—what life is all about, what you’re meant to do. And one of the things I’m doing in the book is showing that most people believe that it’s their responsibility to define themselves, that you look inside your own heart and your own mind to come up with a definition of who you are. And so we are ultimately, in our society, the common view is that we are self-defined, that we are the ones who define ourselves and no one else can define you. You have to define yourself.
SMITH: And that kind of shows up in phrases that I’m sure we’ve all heard. Like you can be anything you want, any person can grow up and become president of the United States, that kind of stuff. You can have your best life now has even infiltrated the church with guys like Joel Ostein. Is that fair?
WAX: And. you know, you do you and you be true to yourself and you’re the one at the end of the day, the responsibility is yours and yours alone to define yourself and who you want to be. And so I think our culture starts with that understanding of definition. And then immediately turns inward when asked questions about how do you define yourself? Well, only you can decide that and you have to look inside in order to do so.
SMITH: Yeah. Well, let’s go to — I’m going to come back to some of these ideas later in our conversation, Trevin, but let’s go ahead and get the four Ds on the table. The second one is desires. What do you mean by that?
WAX: When you look inside to define yourself, well, how do you do that? And increasingly in our day and age, many people are doing so based on the desires, what they believe to be the deepest desires that they have found in their lives, in their hearts. So you have this, it’s your responsibility to define yourself. So how do you do that? Well, you look inside to find out what your deepest desires are. And surveys show that the majority of Americans and even the majority of American church-going Christians believe that in order to achieve success or achieve happiness, you are to find out what it is that you want the most, and then go after it. Pursue whatever it is you want the most. So, of course, your desires are a big part of that. What is it you want the most? And definition and desires are beginning to grow closer and closer in our day and age and in what’s happening in our society. So desires matter immensely for how people are defining themselves. And even today I mean, you can see this happening in regards to sexuality. More and more people are increasingly defining themselves by their sexual desires, but it’s not just sexuality. It’s in all sorts of other realms of life as well where desire and definition go hand in it.
SMITH: Well, the third D is one that particularly was interesting to me, Trevin, because I’ve done a lot of work, a lot of writing myself and study of media today. I mean, as a journalist myself, I obviously have a personal interest in that. The third D is display, and one of the ways that that display D shows up in our lives is in the way we display ourselves to others and that often, you know, turns out to be on social media. Andy Warhol’s famous 15 minutes of fame has become, in some ways, a coming of age experience for almost every American right now. And so talk a little bit more about display
WAX: Again, this is following this pattern. This is the way many people in our society view the world and their purpose. You define yourself by looking deep inside yourself, to discover your deepest desires. And then once you understand who you are meant to be, who you want to be, your next step is to display that for the world. You bring that out and you put that on display, and we do this in a number of ways, but display is increasingly an important part of the conversation because of our ability to define and redefine ourselves and display and change our display online, which happens through social media. I mean, you just think of Facebook and Instagram and Twitter and Snapchat. And I mean, you can increase the number of social media platforms, but we are constantly on display now. To the point that even moments that we have in the world, we are immediately asking the question, how will I look with this? How would it look if I were to share what’s happening this way online? And it gives an often altered and distorted view of what actually is happening, but we feel this pressure to put ourselves on display in the world and increasingly through social media and online. And so the display is a big part of what this way of life is all about. You find yourself, you define yourself and then you display yourself to the world.
SMITH: Well, and then finally there is design. So, you know, after define, desire, and display, we come to this idea of design. What do you mean by that?
WAX: A lot of times it just doesn’t work out. You think you’ve defined yourself by your deepest desires. Your desires come into conflict. Things don’t work out the way you want. You put yourself on display. People may accept you, or they may not, depending on whatever it is that you put yourself on display. Even the people that accept you, you get a lot of affirmation perhaps, but it feels superficial and hollow because you don’t feel like it’s the true you that’s been displayed. And so what happens is it leads people to a question of design or, in this case, redesign to where they just want to start over. And social media, living online really makes it easier than ever to sort of reinvent yourself. We used to call this the midlife crisis or something that happens to teenagers and adolescents, but with the way the online world is working and the ease in which you can change your persona, so to speak, this design phase can happen multiple times in someone’s life. So it leads to a really fluid understanding of identity. It leads to a very ungrounded and unstable understanding of who it is that we are and can lead to a lot of pressure to continually be reinventing or redesigning, rethinking yourself.
SMITH: So, Trevin, those are the four Ds—definition, desire, display, and design. And when I read this model, if I could say it that way that you’ve kind of created in the early chapters, a couple of things occurred to me. Number one was that it was super helpful. That it was really helpful in kind of defining the pathologies that we see in our culture today. And also the pathologies that we see in ourselves. We live in a world where depression, deaths by despair, either by suicide or by drugs have gone up in recent years. And so this was kind of a helpful framework for that. But something else occurred to me and I want to know what you think about this. And it is the notion that in some ways, these four Ds are not bad, but they’ve been perverted. That God really did make us. He is a designer and he gave us a specific design. That we are in some ways on display before God. God knows us. And in fact, that’s one of the beautiful things about being a Christian and about being made in the image of God, is that we can both know and be known by our creator, that God did give us desires that he would love to fulfill in meaningful ways, and not meaningless ways. And that all of that does really define who we are as human beings made in the image of God. In other words, there’s a real biblical basis for this, but what the world has done—because the world can’t create, it can only corrupt—it has corrupted these things, hasn’t it?
WAX: That’s right. And so, you know, instead of looking in this book is about looking up first. And when you look up first, it changes the order. So we did those four Ds as definition desires, display, and then design. When you look up first and you look to scripture and you look to God’s word, and you look to who God says we are, then it changes everything. And you start with his design—his design for humanity. You know, the chief end of man is to glorify God and enjoy him forever. You know, as the old catechism question says. That means that the ultimate purpose we have in life is to know and to glorify and enjoy God. So it begins with design and then moves to display. We are meant to display, to be a display of his glory, to be a reflection of him, and that’s what it means for us to be made in his image. We display him in how we work, how we rest, how we relate to one another. We display him in our creativity and our cultivation and how we exercise authority. There are all these different ways in which we show that we bear the image of God. And then as we do that, as we’re in line with him and his plans and his design, our desires are to change. We are to see the discipline of our desires away from sinfulness and selfishness and those kinds of tendencies toward what it is that God desires for the world and are our desires lining up with God’s desires, which he can fulfill and he does fulfill in us. And then finally at the end, we come to definition because it’s not that you look in first to discover who you are, and then display that to the world. It’s you look up first, see the display that you are meant to be of Christ and being remade into his image. And at the end of that, your personhood and your personality is not obliterated, it’s actually fulfilled. You come into your own. And the way to be your truest self is when you are most like yourself and most like Christ. When you have your own unique way of bringing glory to the one who saved you. And so that’s ultimately the definition that we are aspiring to and moving to, defined by the God who made us and the God who redeemed us in Jesus.
SMITH: Welcome back. I’m Warren Smith and today you’re listening in on my interview with Trevin Wax. His new book is ReThink Your Self: The Power of Looking Up Before Looking In. Let’s get right back to that conversation.
Trevin, a lot of the stuff that we talked about in the first segment of our conversation related to these four Ds that you talked about. But there’s kind of an umbrella expression that I’ve heard psychologists and philosophers use and that is the phrase expressive individualism. Is that a fair label to put on a lot of the ideas that we’ve talked about so far? And can you say more about what that means?
WAX: Yeah, absolutely. I think that’s actually the label I was going for. When I first began to think about writing this book, it was after I had done a series of columns at The Gospel Coalition on expressive individualism and its effect on the church. And I had already gotten word that there were many pastors in staffs and church leaders who were printing those out and discussing them in their weekly meetings, because it is something of the context and the mission field that we find ourselves in right now in the West, in North America. The term itself comes from some sociologist who wrote a book called Habits of the Heart more than 30 years ago. And that resource, that book it’s been updated several times. It’s the way of life. The expressive individualism is the academic term for describing this way of life in which the purpose of life is to find yourself and then express yourself to the world. Or it’s this idea that there is only one way of realizing your humanity and you must discover what that unique essence is that you have deep down inside of you, no matter what your religious affiliation or what the previous generation, or what your friends or family, or anyone would tell you, you have to be yourself and that’s the purpose of life. And then, so you discover who you are, and then you display that to the world. Everything we’ve been talking about is a way of describing this, understanding this philosophy called expressive individualism, which, you know, my book I wanted to write for people who are not going to be well versed in academic language or whatnot. So a lot of that stuff I save for the end notes, just for people that want to go deeper into looking into that, and you know, there’s some good resources I hope that people will find in the end notes. But that was my goal, though, was to explain this in a way that anyone could understand and would be helpful for people to be able to spot this philosophy that passes for common sense whenever they see it in the world.
SMITH: Well, that book, Habits of the Heart, I read when I was in college and it had a big impact on me, Robert Bellah was the lead author on that book. And so I’m grateful that you introduced it to our listeners and also included it in your book. There’s another idea that I want to talk about, and I’m kind of moving in a direction here, Trevin, and I hope you and our listeners will be patient with me, but there’s another idea that was introduced by another sociologist, Christian Smith. And that is the idea of therapeutic moralistic deism. And I do wonder, you don’t really talk about this much in your book, but I do wonder if you’ll kind of go with me for a moment and see if there’s a bit of a relationship. In other words, that when we sort of accept this model that we define ourselves according to the world’s understanding, God then becomes a tool and instrument. We don’t exist to give glory to God. We don’t exist to, you know, as the first question and the Westminster catechism answers to glorify God and enjoy him forever. It’s the other way around. We look to be glorified and we hope to use God as a tool for that. So it seems to me that a consequence of, downstream from this idea of expressive individualism is the use of God as kind of a moralistic therapeutic tool. Is that a fair assessment?
WAX: Oh, absolutely. One of the things that Christian Smith’s research brings out, and this is another good book that makes it into the end notes, but not into the main text of my book is his book Soul Searching really lays out that this is the — moralistic therapeutic deism is the dominant worldview of young people, regardless of religious tradition. And there are several tenets of that. That God is there. He’s not super involved in our lives, but he’s there if you need him. That the purpose of life is to be a good person. Most world religions teach. This idea that God is there to make me happy, right? And the truth is God does want to make us happy in him, right? God does want us to find our fullest fulfillment and satisfaction in him. But the way that the world takes that central truth and then it becomes twisted in an expressive individualist world, is that it moves God from the center of all things to the periphery. And it moves us at the center of all things. God is there for us, but it’s really our story and he’s a bit player rather than us being players in his overall story. And I think that’s one of the key things that we have to watch out for is that it’s really easy in our churches, just because of the cultural air breathe, for expressive individualism and moralistic therapeutic deism to kind of sweep in and colonize our churches so that many of the people who are actually attending church may be more bought into these philosophies and worldviews than they realize. And that’s something that we have to be on guard against if we want to have a truly God-centered, God-glorifying understanding of life and our purpose.
SMITH: Well, that makes so much sense to me, Trevin. And it also brings me to a third idea that I want to get you to respond to. And this one is pretty specifically explained in your book. Though I don’t know that you use this expression exactly, but the expression is that, given that what you’ve just said is true, given that we live in a world in which expressive individualism is sort of the reigning principle by which we order our world and that has manifested itself in this moralistic therapeutic deism that treats God as an instrument, then the question then becomes, for me, what’s the antidote to that disease? And obviously the antidote is the cross. It’s salvation. It’s redemption. It’s reconciliation with God. But before we can get there, we have to have a proper understanding of ourselves in relationship to God. We have to have a more robust understanding of who we are as humans and our sinfulness as well. Is that a fair statement?
WAX: That’s right. There’s one thing that when you see this one tendency that, you know, we, as evangelicals may have is simply to say, Oh, that’s false. It’s not true. The gospel is the answer. So we just kind of go at it, you know, head on and counter it to show the falsehood in it. And to instead, you know, bring the Bible’s teaching about our sinfulness, our selfishness, the restorative part of the gospel, as the answer. What I want to do, though, what I think is important for us to do as we’re in conversation with people, as we’re looking at this, I think it’s important for us to spot this philosophy when we see it, to recognize what it is appealing and true, because there is truth about our individuality, our uniqueness, our being specially made in the image of God. I mean, there is truth in there. Otherwise it wouldn’t be so appealing. Wouldn’t catch on with so many people if there were nothing true about it, but to dig deeper, to find out what the deeper longings are behind that, so that when we do then begin to show how that way of life doesn’t work. How it doesn’t actually account for the persistent feelings of guilt and shame that we have. That it doesn’t actually resolve our sin problem. That it doesn’t actually lead to the fulfillment we thought it would lead to. What do you want to do is you want to present some of the problems with that way of life, almost as if you’re putting a pebble in someone’s shoe that they’ll walk around with so that even if they haven’t completely come to faith yet, they’re beginning to doubt the understanding of life that they’ve always had, beginning to be open at least to another approach, which would have us look up to God first. So that when we see ourselves, we see ourselves in light of God, in light of his holiness. See our sinfulness, see our need for him. See the fact that Jesus counters this looking in approach to life when he says, you know, the way to find yourself as not to look inside yourself, the way to find yourself is to lose yourself. The way that you gain your life is by losing it. It’s on the other side of self denial that we find true and lasting fulfillment and joy, right? So, it’s very counterintuitive, but Jesus’ words of wisdom and truth here continue to have a powerful effect today, and people will be open to them when they begin to recognize that this way of life that passes for common sense has more problems than they may have ever anticipated.
SMITH: Welcome back. I’m Warren Smith. And you’re listening in on my conversation with Trevin Wax as we discuss his new book ReThink Your Self. Let’s get right back to that interview.
Trevin, I’d like to enlarge the scope of our conversation just a little bit from your book specifically, and talk about how you see some of the problems that you identify in your book in the larger culture, and also how we might apply the solutions that you propose—looking up rather than looking in, coming to a clearer understanding of sin and how it taints the world—how we can apply that to some of these pathologies. So, let me just begin with the church. I mean, how do you see some of these problems in the church? In what ways are we — I’m not even talking about the progressive church or, you know, folks that are on the fringes of biblical theology, but those of us who profess to be Bible-believing Christians. How are we manifesting some of the problems that you identify in your book? How are we looking in before we’re looking up?
WAX: That’s a great question. And I think that the church — there’s several ways. I think the dominant way is — one of the things I like to say is that expressive individualism or this idea that you look inside to find yourself and become your best version of yourself, that view of life doesn’t necessarily empty churches. Instead, it fills churches with people who think the purpose of religion is to help them do that, to find themselves, to be the best version of themselves, to be moral and good and upright citizens. And so one of the challenges we face is that many people in our churches are not necessarily working with the same understandings and categories of sin and repentance and faith and whatnot. They hear some of those words and they think, you know, I’ve often said if the first commandment of our society is you be true to yourself. Then the second commandment is like it. You have to affirm whatever self your neighbor says they will be true to. In that kind of world, if sin is redefined not as falling short of the glory of God, but as falling short of your full potential, of you being who you want to be. And then repentance is not necessarily a change of path, a change of direction based on your understanding of your sinfulness. Repentance gets recast as reassertion. If someone calls you out, or if someone challenges you on something, you reassert yourself, because that’s how you express your individuality. So, these are attitudes and things that do happen in our churches. And so that’s one of the big challenges that we face. But another one is just in the hyper-politicization of our society in this moment, many people identify themselves with their politics and their political views in ways that are becoming increasingly dangerous, I think, for civil society and for discourse. When there is a vacuum in society when it comes to identity, other things are going to rush in and fill that. And so a lot of people are beginning to identify themselves in tribal ways. And I don’t mean, you know, there is a place of course, for political parties, for partisanship, but when you begin to see the contours of your life as a battle of us versus them, where you see the narrative drama in your life playing out in the world of politics or whatnot, then you’ve really taken something that is good, that is important for loving our neighbor, and you’ve raised it to a level of self-definition that is actually unhealthy and leads us in dangerous directions. And so I see that there are different trends that we can see in our society that we have to be aware of that will lead us away from a God-centered way of life through various means. And we’ve got to be aware of these cultural influences on us, if we want to be faithful.
SMITH: You know, Trevin, what you just said, and you know, calls to mind so many thoughts, but I’m just gonna throw out a couple of them right now and get your reaction. Number one is that if we do what you’ve just described—and we are doing it, unfortunately—the two greatest commandments to love God and to love your neighbor, in many ways, get perverted. In other words, if we really want to love our neighbor, sometimes that requires us to confront our neighbor. It requires us to have tough conversations with our neighbor and with ourselves for that matter and with our family and others. And this kind of identity politics, which ultimately leads to an outcome that says only affirmation is an acceptable response to your neighbor. Only full acceptance and affirmation will do. Anything else is hate speech, really militates against loving our neighbor in a biblical sense of the word. Is that a fair assessment?
WAX: Yeah, this is one of the things that we dig into in the book is even the notion of friendship has changed in recent years. There used to be that a friend was the one who was yes with you through thick and thin, was with you, loved you in spite of your warts and your flaws and whatever it was, and would accept you no matter what. But also there was an aspirational side to friendship that wanted to prod you into being the best person you could be and would warn you if you were going down a wrong path because sin ultimately diminishes us. We’re not more ourselves when we sin. When we said we’re less ourselves. We’re less of the person that God has created us to be. In ancient times, there was this affirmational, yes, this acceptance side of friendship, but then there was also this aspirational side. Well, in our day, the aspirational side has fallen and the affirmational side is so high that we expect people now not only love us in spite of our flaws, but actually to love our flaws and to love our warts, to move acceptance to the level where we’re not actually being pushed, where we don’t have people drawing out what’s best in us. We actually had people affirming what’s worse in us. And that’s something that only the gospel really can change because, you know, Jesus is the friend who does accept us—we’re justified by grace, through faith alone—he’s also the friend who calls us, who beckons us to follow him, to grow and to come into our own, to be the person that God has made us to be. So there to aspire to a kind of life and a kind of destiny that should bring excitement and a thrill to our souls, as we know we’re being called out of ourselves, called us to something beyond ourselves, to be who God has called us to be. And the gospel brings both of those together. We’re accepted just as we are because of the cross. And yet, because of the resurrection power we have through the spirit, we are being beckoned into a new way of life and to becoming the person that God always intended us to be.
SMITH: Yeah. Wow. That’s so helpful. You know, Trevin, that was going to be the second part of this, this idea of friendship that I was going to ask you about, but you’ve already introduced us to that idea, which is very powerful in your book. A couple of years ago I was interviewing Stanley Hauerwas, who’s a pretty famous theologian at Duke University, and he’s also near the end of his career. And I said, you know, Dr. Hauerwas, is there any idea in scripture that has been sort of hiding in plain sight for you? Something that you’ve read over and over and over over the years, but now as an older man, you see the importance of it? And he singled out that idea of friendship. He said that friendship was the idea that is all throughout scripture, that he had failed to see. And he pointed to that passage in the gospels where Jesus near the end of his life said to his disciples, “Up until now, I’ve called you my servants, but now I call you my friends.” And in some ways this idea of friendship, but friendship defined in the way you just defined it, this friend, yes, who will stand with you through thick and thin, but will also call you to be your best self to that person that God has designed you to be, seems to be a very powerful notion in scripture that we’re missing in the church.
WAX: That’s right. And I think the only way that we get that back is through certain habits and disciplines that don’t come easy in the kind of society that we live in. Habits of life, spiritual disciplines that emphasize the community, that emphasize the community of faith that we belong to, that emphasize the importance of close relationships that are built over time that are stable, that are not superficial and fleeting and everything in our society is moving us, is designed really now to move us to more and superficial relationships. We will have to swim against the current in order to be able to see something different there.
SMITH: Yeah. Well, and Trevoi, I’d like to land this plane by talking a little bit more about that idea, because one of the things that you say at the end of the book is that we are really going to have to re-train ourselves, that we have been catechized by the culture to such an extent that we can’t just say, well, you know, okay, I get it and go forth from here transformed. We’re going to have to work at it. And you mentioned disciplines of prayer and fasting and Bible study and community, and being involved in a church community, all of that stuff in that final chapter of the book. But one of the things that you also talk about in that final chapter that I want you to say a little bit more about is the notion of committing to a place. Why did you include that in that chapter on re-training ourselves?
WAX: Well, this is one of the areas of the book that I’ve gotten a little bit of pushback on that from people because, you know, and I’m not saying that a commitment to a place, obviously we have the great commission, which tells us to go out, right? So this is not a situation in which wherever you’re born, that’s where you’re supposed to be until you die, that kind of a thing. But when I say commit to a place, what I mean is there is a rootlessness in our society that we will need to counter, because it itself, that sense of rootlessness, is counter to us is actually becoming the kinds of people that are that God would have us to be. People who are spiritually growing, who there’s a profundity, a deep sense of resources, deep wells to draw from. That happens in community and true communities, generally they take time. They take time. So when I say commit to a place what I mean is don’t think of your life as being, you know, and it may be that you’re committed to a place, for a certain amount of time for a certain amount of years. But as long as you are in that place that God has planted you, be planted. Commit yourself to that place in order to guard against this sort of rootless existence, where, you know, we’re just sort of floating here and there. And because of the online world, we have just as much in common with people on other parts of the world or other parts of the — it’s a challenge because many of us, “know”—I say no with quotation marks—people on Facebook, better than we actually know our real neighbors. And I say that as someone who’s guilty of that. There is a sense in which we have become more and more isolated even as we’ve grown more and more connected. And so committed to a place, putting down roots, thinking about the welfare and the goodness, the flourishing of a particular community is one of the ways we can fight against the shallowness of our age.
SMITH: Wow. Well, you know, Trevin, I travel a lot in my job, at least I did pre-COVID and I know you did, too. And so I’m always amazed when I talk to young people and ask them what kind of a job they’re looking for. And they said, they want a job where they can travel. And it always strikes me as interesting because they forget that when God wanted to punish Cain in the garden of Eden, he basically banished him from the garden and told him to travel to and fro about the whole earth. And this idea of rootlessness is, I think, so pervasive in our culture that we’ve turned it almost into a virtue. And that we forget that being fully present in a place with a community of people is more of the biblical norm.
WAX: That’s right. And I think that’s going to have to be something that we recapture if we want to stand out in the world that we’re called to serve.