WE ARE ALL WEARY
In the last 18 months, I continue to hear the current state of people’s mental, emotional, and spiritual health in one word: weary. For many, the realities of Covid-19 have only exposed what has been slowly boiling under the surface for years—we live in a culture that drives us to survive not to thrive. After a long day, we put our heads on the pillow and wonder, “Is everyone this tired?” Yes. Everyone is this tired. In his latest book, You Are Not Your Own, O. Alan Noble helpfully diagnoses some of the problems of Western culture, namely that we live in an inhuman culture that is slowly suffocating the life out of our souls.
The mantra of Western society is “I am my own and I belong to myself,” which means that “the most fundamental truth about existence is that you are responsible for your existence and everything it entails. I am responsible for living a life of purpose, of defining my identity, and interpreting meaningful events, of choosing my values, and electing where I belong” (4). While freedom brings about unlimited possibilities, carrying the weight of defining value, purpose, and identity is not only unrealistic and exhausting—it’s impossible and in the end, damaging. We were not designed to bear the weight of the world on our shoulders, let alone every decision, which in the end determines whether or not I lived a life of purpose and meaning.
The promise of Western culture without transcendent meaning is a flourishing and autonomous life. But, has culture sold us a bill of goods? If you work hard, build a platform, and eschew others’ expectations, you will find a life of happiness. But as most people know, the carrot keeps moving farther and farther the harder we run. Society has promised life in vessels that hold no water, and we wonder why we are always so thirsty. Perhaps we do not need another change in career, location, friend group, etc to find happiness—perhaps we need a directional change in life. In other words, perhaps rather than asking “What career should I pursue to find joy?” we should be asking, “What does it mean to live a life of flourishing?”
THE STRENGTHS OF THE BOOK
The strength of Noble’s lasted book is in diagnosing the current cultural woes that for many, lie far beneath the surface of their lives. Culture is like the air we breathe and many of us are unaware of its formational role in our lives. More than simply offering a cliche analysis of problems in Western society, Noble seeks to pinpoint the reasons behind the problems of society, such as expressive individualism. For example, Noble resists the temptation to merely critique social media as problematic for young adults but demonstrates how and why they are damaging.
If the cultural mantra is “you are your own and you belong to yourself,” is there a better alternative? If you resist the urge to be a chronological snob, you may find the answer buried deep in a 16th-century Reformed catechism. Rather than belonging to yourself, which includes all the responsibilities of belonging to yourself, the catechism challenges us, “You are not your own but belong to God.” The source of joy, value, and identity is not found internally but externally, in God and God alone.
THE CHALLENGES OF THE BOOK
The latter half of Noble’s book provides antidotes to an inhuman culture, namely, recognizing the limitation of humanity and finding one’s identity in God rather than in ourselves. At points, I wanted more from Noble in this section. Yet, upon further reflection, I realized that potentially the problem lies more with me than the book (which is, after all, what a good book should do). I wanted a quick fix, a five-step process to walk through so that I can come out the other side a whole and flourishing person. Ironically, I wanted the very thing that Noble diagnosed as the problem: an efficient solution. Rather, what God is doing in the world is slowly, patiently, and compassionately forming his people into his image, which leads ultimately to the restoration and renewal of all of the world. My disappointments about Noble’s solutions are not about Noble at all—I am more upset that God’s sanctifying work is slow and out of my control.
Overall, You Are Not Your Own was one of my favorite books of 2021. Every Christian should read this book and digest the wisdom that is contained in it. Perhaps you will be like me, finding challenging moments not only in the content of the book but in how it diagnoses my own unhealthy soul. Thankfully, my life is not dependent upon me but rather, to confess such a humbling and sobering truth, “I am not my own but I belong to God.”