If you’ve ever watched a Disney movie, viewed a TED Talk, or read a business book, you’ve heard this message loud and clear: “Be true to yourself.” Cultural messages like this have a tremendous impact on us. Because they make up our cultural water, it’s often hard to spot them until the water is already boiling. “Be true to yourself” is so ubiquitous, it’s nearly invisible.
In working with Christian teens for the last decade, I’m convinced this cultural value has a greater impact on both teens and their parents than either realizes. It’s not that anyone would declare, “I have to do whatever feels natural even if it contradicts God!” But in real life, I’ve too often seen that “be true to yourself” wins over the Bible. As Christian dads, we must be on guard and counter these invisible cultural assumptions with Bible truth.
What does it mean?
To be true to yourself is to do what feels natural or right. There are two subtle assumptions hidden inside of this cultural value:
- You’re only authentic if you pursue your gut desires. If you deviate from your gut reaction, you’re fake and inauthentic. How do you know what your gut desires are? They’re the desires that rise up spontaneously in you. So the best way to be sure that you’re authentic and real is to follow your spontaneous passions.1
- You’re morally obligated to pursue your gut desires. To be our true selves, we must pursue our gut desires (e.g., it would be wrong for someone with same-sex attraction not to pursue that desire). If you don’t pursue your gut desires, you’re not being “you,” and thus, you’re fake, phony, or pretending.2
In short, “be true to yourself” is the cultural value that says you’re the “real you” when you follow your spontaneous, gut feelings. Anything else is false, phony, and fake.
Truths worth pursuing
It’s important to note there are at least two biblical truths worth pursuing here.
First, the “be true to yourself” message does rightly try to sync our words/actions with our desires/values. That aim is noble. The problem with today’s ethic, though, is you’re not allowed to evaluate the morality of your desires; you must simply follow them.
An older concept corrects this modern deficiency: integrity. Integrity is the alignment of words/actions with virtuous desires. It has all the value of be-true-to-yourself-ism without its fatal flaw, since integrity demands the values themselves be virtuous. We want our words and actions to reflect our values, but only inasmuch as they’re God-shaped values. That is the promise of integrity.3
Be-true-to-yourself-ism is a reaction to another pitfall: seeking identity in other people. Whether you’re 16 or 60, it’s easy to derive your value from what other people think of you.
Be-true-to-yourself-ism seeks to avoid that unstable world. Rooting your value and identity in others’ opinions of you is like floating in an ocean anchored to driftwood. As people’s opinions move, so do you. Here’s the problem…being anchored to yourself is no better. And if your identity, value, or worth is self-made, then you’re floating in an ocean anchored to yourself.4
So what happens if you follow your heart? If you are anchored to yourself, everything is up to you. You write your own story. There’s no one else to praise or to blame. You’ve enslaved yourself to a new law: the whims of your own fickle heart. It’s law, law, and more law. And when the human heart faces law without Christ, it does one of two things:
- It becomes pharisaical.
- It despairs of hope.
You’ll either insulate yourself with pharisaical thoughts about the great person you are or you’ll despair, recognizing you are unable to live up to your own shifting standard. 5
How to parent in a world gone wrong
So what are we to do with these realities as dads? How do we counter this spirit of the age? Let me offer three suggestions.
1. Expose the human heart.
One of the best ways to expose a lie is to put it to the test. The lie at the root of be-true-to-yourself-ism is that we are naturally good. To counter this lie, ask probing questions to help your kids/teens see they are sinners.
Ask questions like (I’ve typically found third-person questions often go further with teens):
- “Why do you think people are so mean to each other?”
- “Why do people gossip about others?”
- “Why do people lie or cheat to make people like them more?”
- “Why doesn’t trying harder help you be a better person?”
The goal of these types of questions is to have your teen experientially understand that he cannot trust his heart (Jeremiah 17:9).
2. Use the law.
Let me encourage you to use the law as an X-ray, a wall, and a flare.
- X-ray: Use the law as an X-ray to expose the depth of sinfulness in your children. Most of us assume our sin is only skin deep, but the Bible says something different. We don’t simply sin, we are sinners. That is, we are wrong—not just our sin. The law is meant to expose and aggravate our sin (Romans 3:20; 4:15; 5:13; 7:7–11), rightly condemning us and exposing our need for righteousness from outside of ourselves (Galatians 3:19–24). Use the law like an x-ray to show sin’s depth.
- Wall: When we break God’s law, we don’t ultimately offend a standard or a rule. When we sin, we offend a Person (Psalm 51:4). Sin against God separates us from Him. Your child needs to feel the insurmountable wall his sin creates. Use the law to emphasize how sin places an immovable barrier (humanly-speaking) between your child and God.
- Flare: The law is not encouraging, but it is good. It turns us upward, not inward. It forces us to plead, “[God,] have mercy on me, a sinner” (Luke 18:13). The law is a flare, signaling we need rescue. When we realize we’re the problem and there’s nothing we can do about it, there is only the cry for help. “God, you must act, for I cannot.”
Without the X-ray, your child may be tempted to think he primarily needs to try harder, receive more instruction, or make some external adjustments. Without the wall, your child may think he needs to make amends himself by apologizing or feeling guilty enough. The wall shows there’s nothing we can do. And the law properly understood forces us to turn outside of ourselves for help, to look upward for a Deliverer.
3. Glory in the gospel.
The law clears the trees for the gospel. It’s now your joy to constantly build up the gospel to your children. With nothing to cling to but Jesus, your child is able to experience what grace is. Speak of Jesus’ work early and often.
It’s actually our sinfulness that qualifies us to receive the gospel. Jesus came for those who deserve eternal punishment.
“The sinner is the gospel’s reason for existence. You, my friend, to whom this word now comes, if you are undeserving, ill-deserving, hell-deserving, you are the sort of man for whom the gospel is ordained, and arranged, and proclaimed.” (Charles Spurgeon)
Only when our kids recognize the shortcomings of their own hearts will they be able to reject the world’s faulty values and embrace the gospel. Only when they spot the errors of be-true-to-yourself-ism will they listen to God over their gut and find deliverance instead of bondage.
When you follow your gut, you express your true self. And so it follows that the best and highest forms of virtue are the ones that are spontaneous. What is true love today? It’s love that comes out of you without any attempt on your part. You just fall into it. If you have to “force it,” it’s not real love. “He’s just real” is a compliment that means something like, “He says whatever he thinks and does whatever he feels.” ↩
Of course, no lie can be self-consistent, since lies are not based in reality. For that reason, there are some gut feelings our world does universally condemn, but it’s surprising how firmly people will stick to “be-true-to-yourself-ism.” Perhaps you’ve heard some of those interviews with college students struggling to condemn Hitler (…because “who’s to say what’s right for him?”). ↩
To put it another way, be-true-to-yourself-ism forbids you from altering your desires, while integrity requires you to shape virtuous ones. Be-true-to-yourself-ism morally obligates you to create “your truth” via your desires, while integrity morally obligates you to conform your desires to the truth. ↩
Of the two options—anchoring your identity in others or anchoring your identity in yourself—the first may even be a better option. If you seek your identity in others, you’ve at least recognized you should moor your identity to something/someone outside of you. That’s halfway there to localizing your identity in Jesus, the “sure and steadfast anchor of the soul” (Hebrews 6:19). ↩
Believe it or not, recognizing your failures and inadequacies puts you on the path to the gospel, for only those who are bankrupt in spirit can inherit the kingdom of heaven (Matthew 5:3). The despairing man has the right diagnosis, but lacks the balm that is Jesus. ↩