The Christian Self for Troubled Times: From Random to Redeemed

Author:

Doug Groothuis

Article ID:

JCC0224DG1

Updated: 

Feb 6, 2024

Published:

Feb 7, 2024

This is an online  article from the Christian Research Journal. This is also the first in a new and ongoing column from Doug Groothius entitled, “Cultural Critique”.

​When you  support the Journalyou join the team and help provide the resources at equip.org that minister to people worldwide. These resources include our ever-growing database of over 2,000 articles, as well as our free Postmodern Realities podcast.

Another way you can support our online articles is by leaving us a tip. A tip is just a small amount, like $3, $5, or $10, which is the cost of a latte, lunch out, or coffee drink. To leave a tip, click here


It is increasingly and painfully evident that people today do not know who or what they are. We are alien to ourselves. The French scientist and philosopher Blaise Pascal (1623–1662) put this plight poignantly in a fragment in his masterpiece, Pensées (French for “thoughts”).

When I consider the brief span of my life absorbed into the eternity which comes before and after….the small space I occupy and which I see swallowed up in the infinite immensity of spaces of which I know nothing and which know nothing of me, I take fright and am amazed to see myself here rather than there: there is no reason for me to be here rather than there, now rather than then. Who put me here? By whose command and act were this time and place allotted to me?1

These thoughts are not presented as those of the celebrated polymath himself, but of a hypothetical unbeliever with whom Pascal would address with reasons to become a Christian. (Several of the passages in Pensées take this form.)

Alas, many today lack the kind of desperation expressed in Pascal’s quote. Instead of desiring answers to the questions, they sideline these queries and, instead, militantly assert a random self in the face of the abyss. The random self is unanchored in a reality beyond itself; nor does it appeal for its identity to anything grounded in history or tradition, let alone theology. Even biology is incidental, since gender ideology asserts that one’s erotic identity floats free of one’s given anatomy and physiology.

Historian and social critic Carl Trueman has captured what I am calling “the random self” in his magisterial work, The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self.2 From the French philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712–1778) through gender ideology, Trueman traces modern self’s emancipation from any norms rooted in God, nature, and history. What emerges is “expressive individualism,” the notion that the self should define itself through itself and for itself, according to its autonomous will and desires — especially erotic desires. This thinking is beyond the popular, pernicious, and puerile saying, “You do you and I’ll do me.”

The older moral relativism used to mean that one could choose one’s “lifestyle” (a term I dislike, since it makes one’s very way of life before God merely a “style,” as in fashion), whether straight or gay, religious or irreligious, and more. But this new relativism allows one to select not only how one will act out erotically but allows for the selection of one’s “gender identity,” even as that cuts against one’s own biological constitution as a male or as a female. The result is men and women (even minors) deciding they are members of the opposite sex, since this is how they “identify” (based on nothing but the untrammeled will asserting itself in a moral vacuum). This new identity can involve radical physical changes wrought by the most unnatural of means: puberty blockers, cross-sex hormones, mastectomy, and castration. Anyone half-awake in recent years has beheld the moral and spiritual carnage afoot given this sense of self. But there is a better way.

A Biblical View of the Self. The Bible asks and answers the question concerning who we are as human beings. We are not alone, and we need not define ourselves. The Psalmist tells us:  

[W]hat is mankind that you are mindful of them,
  human beings that you care for them? 

You have made them a little lower than the angels
  and crowned them with glory and honor.

You made them rulers over the works of your hands;
  you put everything under their feet:

 all flocks and herds,
  and the animals of the wild,

the birds in the sky,
  and the fish in the sea,
  all that swim the paths of the seas.

Lord, our Lord,
  how majestic is your name in all the earth! (Psalm 8:4–9)3

We first find that God is mindful of us and that He cares for us. We are not orphaned in a meaningless cosmos or lost in a value-free existence. God has “made us” and given us a special status of “glory and honor.” Our role is to rule over God’s works, to develop nature into culture by our dominion over the animals and the rest of creation. For these divinely bestowed endowments, the Psalmist praises the Lord’s majestic name.

Made in God’s Image and Likeness. All that Psalm 8 affirms about humanity is predicated on our status as being made in the image and likeness of God. God created human beings in His image and likeness as the pinnacle of His work (Genesis 1:26–27), and He blessed and commissioned them: “God blessed them and said to them, ‘Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky and over every living creature that moves on the ground’” (1:28). We then read that “God saw all that he had made, and it was very good” (1:31).

Thus, the first reality of the self is that we were created with the purpose of developing creation under the authority of God. We are unique among the living, but only because of our divine origin. “Know that the Lord is God. It is he who made us, and we are his; we are his people, the sheep of his pasture” (Psalm 100:3). While atheists can only look down at our supposed animal forebearers (Darwinian evolution) to find meaning, the Christian can look back to creation and look up to the Creator to find a solid basis of identity in the eternal God and in His “very good” creation.

Genesis further teaches us that God created His image-bearers either male or female and sanctioned only one sexual relationship for them — heterosexual marriage (Genesis 2). Jesus, of course, reaffirms this truth: “‘Haven’t you read,’ he replied, ‘that at the beginning the Creator “made them male and female,” and said, “For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh”? So they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate’” (Matthew 19:4–6).

Given this identity, how should we then live? What should we do with ourselves? I am dismayed that the very image-bearers of God so often have no idea what to do with themselves. So, they often waste their beings in activities that neither serve people, help themselves, nor honor God. God instructed His prophet Ezekiel to say this to an erring people: “Son of man, say to the Israelites, ‘This is what you are saying: “Our offenses and sins weigh us down, and we are wasting away because of them. How then can we live?”’” (Ezekiel 33:10). We only have one life, so how should we live it?

Love and Its Betrayal, Sin. Love is the answer to how to live. When Jesus was asked about the greatest commandment, He did not hesitate: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments” (Matthew 22:37–40).

This is the highest standard, but none of us reaches it. Since “God is love” (1 John 4:8), all sin is a sin against love. The law of love is exacting and unrelenting. We all realize the goodness of love, but we all realize our inability to honor it adequately. As the apostle Paul wrote, “for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23). Moreover, “the wages of sin is death” (6:23). We are spiritually dead and subject to mortality because of sin against God and our neighbor.

Given our guilt, we have but a few options. First, try to take refuge in relativism by claiming that all morality is subjective, and we are not guilty before God. Second, admit guilt and try to work for our salvation by adding up good works. The second has the advantage of taking conscience seriously, but it fails theologically “because by the works of the law no one will be justified” (Galatians 2:16). Once we realize that we are under the moral law, we find ourselves implicated in its demands. As C. S. Lewis wrote in Mere Christianity: “The Moral Law does not give us any grounds for thinking that God is ‘good’ in the sense of being indulgent, or soft, or sympathetic. There is nothing indulgent about Moral Law. It is as hard as nails. It tells you to do the straight thing and it does not seem to care how painful, or dangerous, or difficult it is to do.”4

If we are honest with ourselves, we experience what Francis Schaeffer called “true moral guilt” before God. All men are separated from God because of their true moral guilt. God exists, God has a character, God is a holy God; and when men sin (and we all must acknowledge we have sinned not only by mistake but by intention), they have true moral guilt before the God who exists. That guilt is not just the modern concept of guilt-feelings, a psychological guilty feeling in man.5

Redeeming the Self. The gospel message was meant for sinners and applies only to sinners, which includes all of us, except Jesus Christ. As He said, “I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance” (Luke 5:32). While this may seem dispiriting (we are all sinners), it is really liberating, since it allows us to look into the mirror and see ourselves as we are — and as God sees us. We are thus freed from self-justification, self-deception, and all vain attempts at self-salvation. As such, we can now see Jesus for who He is, the Lord and Savior of sinners and Savior of the lost. As He said, “For the Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost” (19:10).

No one is wise who clings to their lostness instead of coming to the Savior, who offers forgiveness of sin, eternal life, and purpose for living and dying. It is through Jesus Himself that we find reconciliation with God and a fresh start in life, no matter how lost and confused we may have been. The answer is not to express the fallen self in novel ways, but in bringing oneself to the cross of Jesus Christ, recognizing that He died for us to pay a penalty we could not pay and take the wrath of God from us through His sacrificial suffering and death. As Paul wrote: “God presented Christ as a sacrifice of atonement, through the shedding of his blood — to be received by faith. He did this to demonstrate his righteousness, because in his forbearance he had left the sins committed beforehand unpunished — he did it to demonstrate his righteousness at the present time, so as to be just and the one who justifies those who have faith in Jesus” (Romans 3:25–26). The Christian self is justified before God, not because of any intrinsic goodness or because of good works rendered to God, but because of Christ’s “sacrifice of atonement, through the shedding of his blood.”

The Christian Self in Troubled Times. Those selves redeemed through Jesus Christ know that they are created beings who have sinned against God’s holy law. Yet they also know that they find their identity and purpose in being honest to God by repenting of their sin and by coming to Christ on His terms, not their own. Thus, in the midst of a riot of random selves who define and redefine their identities (gender or otherwise) apart from nature, Scripture, and God, the Christian can offer himself or herself to God and find objective meaning and purpose for all of life. As Paul wrote: “Therefore, I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God — this is your true and proper worship. Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is — his good, pleasing and perfect will” (Romans 12:1–2). By offering ourselves to God, we can escape conformity to the world. We can thus escape the seductions of the random self and find our true identity in God’s good, pleasing, and perfect will.

Douglas Groothuis is Professor of Philosophy at Denver Seminary. Among his many books are Fire in the Streets: How You Can Confidently Respond to Incendiary Cultural Topics (Salem Books, 2022) and Christian Apologetics: A Comprehensive Case for Biblical Faith, 2nd ed. (IVP Academic, 2022).

NOTES

  1. Blaise Pascal, Pensées, trans. A. J. Krailsheimer (New York: Penguin Classics, 1995), 19, Kindle Edition. For more on Pascal, see Douglas Groothuis, On Pascal (Wadsworth, 2003) and Douglas Groothuis, Beyond the Wager: The Christian Brilliance of Blaise Pascal (forthcoming: InterVarsity—Academic, 2024).
  2. Carl R. Trueman, The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self: Cultural Amnesia, Expressive Individualism, and the Road to Sexual Revolution (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2020).
  3. Bible quotations taken from NIV.
  4. C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity, rev. ed. (New York: HarperCollins, 2009), 30, Kindle Edition.
  5. Francis Schaeffer, True Spirituality (1971; Carol Stream, IL: Tyndale House Publishers, 2011), 3, Kindle Edition.
Loading
Share This