How To Overcome the Modern Self
Understanding who our enemy is, its tactics, and how it operates is vital to our preparedness and ability to fight the enemy. As Christians, our enemy is a combination of the world, the flesh, and the devil, and in our time, they work to promote the self. In a sense, that is what they've done ever since Adam and Eve sinned. Sin vaunts the self against and above God, and in our time and western culture, there are three ways they do this: the immanent frame, psychological happiness, and expressive individualism.
The Immanent Frame
I want to begin unpacking these three phrases with the term "the immanent frame." The word "immanent" means the material world closest to us. "Frame" means worldview. So, in short, it means a worldview without reference to God (a worldview with reference to God would be "the transcendent frame"). Living without reference to God is the fundamental problem of our culture. Without God in view, who tells us what is right and wrong? Who helps and provides for us? Who do we turn to when our lives are a mess? Where do we find our hope?
It's all on us.
The immanent frame so many espouse today came packaged with the theory of evolution formulated by Charles Darwin in 1859. Before Darwin's theory became popular, living without reference to God in western society looked quite different. It was something belonging only to those on fringes. If you were not part of the church, you were disadvantaged socially, politically, and economically. But it wasn't only Darwin's theory that motivated the people to live without respect to God. It was also the promotion of materialism through one's hard work in the industrial revolution. People didn't need God as the creator of all things or God as the sustainer of everything. These, and a combination of other factors, shifted society from a transcendent frame toward an immanent one.
Psychological happiness is a fairly current phenomenon in society, though not as recent as expressive individualism. In my last year of high school, I remember being bombarded with the question, "What are you planning to do after school?" Wrapped up in that question, especially when I didn't know what I wanted to do, was the question, "What do you enjoy doing?" This idea was often expressed in the sentiment: "Find something you enjoy doing, and you'll never work a day in your life."
Ask my grandfather's generation if they found satisfaction in their work, and almost everyone would say they did. Ask my generation if they find satisfaction in their work, and that percentage would be much lower, maybe even under fifty percent. The difference is in the reason why they enjoy their work. My grandfather's generation worked much harder for less. Yet, they found more satisfaction in their work, not because it provided them more inner fulfilment, but because they could fulfill their obligations to their family and community. My generation seems to enjoy their work only if it brings some inner satisfaction.
Psychological happiness is a problem; it turns us inward, looking for happiness within ourselves, for ourselves.
Social media began as a good idea: connect people who otherwise couldn't connect. However, we have warped social media and society as a whole with it into one great expression of our individual selves. How we dress, how we act, where we go, and what we do are all opportunities to express who we are. But, something like changing our profile picture or avatar to match the latest cause or trend has not enhanced society. It has done the opposite; it has promoted the death of society.
Our social structure relies on each of us contributing something of value, but what we are doing at present is only taking from society. Our need for others to validate our individualistic expressions makes us vacuums sucking out every last ounce of value.
The Enemy Inside the Church
While Christians in large still have God as part of their worldview, many have adopted psychological happiness and expressive individualism into their understanding of God in the Bible. Many Christians base their status with God on how they feel their relationship with Him is at the moment instead of grounding it on the promises of His Word. They believe God doesn't care what their worship looks like as long as the worship is an authentic expression of themselves. They believe the only characteristic of God that matters is His love. And they rely on motivational self-help teachings to help them grow spiritually. As a result, their faith in God is not strong.
To combat the world, the flesh, and the devil, we must contend for a God-centred worldview, happiness rooted in the doctrine of the gospel, and a lifestyle marked by humility. Just as the effects of our enemy trickle down from a worldview without God to looking within for happiness to demanding others validate the expressions of self, the Christian life "trickles down" from a biblical worldview. Such a worldview produces unshakable happiness rooted in the joy of our salvation, and that causes humility. For, when God accepts us, we don't need any validation; our identity is secure in the reality of our standing before God.
These terms come from Carl Trueman’s latest book (Carl Trueman, The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self (Wheaton, Illinois: Crossway, 2020)). It explores how our society has come to politicize the sexual revolution. I highly recommend it.