How has the phrase "I'm a woman trapped in a man's body" become plausible not for a strange outlying niche in our culture but the culture at large? That's the question Church historian Carl Trueman answers in his recently published work entitled, The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self. His answer initially focuses on the way advancements in technology have clearly and perceptibly created a massive generational shift over the past 50 years.
Trueman found that advancements in technology tend to make us feel more in control of our lives than previous generations thought, and he uses the example of farming to show it. He points out that farmers saw the created order as authoritative not too long ago, requiring them to conform to it. He makes the obvious point that sowing in December and harvesting in March "were doomed to failure." Farmers were forced to conform to the created order. However, the development of advanced irrigation systems, an increase of soil science, applied knowledge of fertilizers and pesticides, and the development of genetically modified seeds have placed some of the created order's authority over the ability to grow a bountiful crop into the hands of the farmers. I hear this example loud and clear living on the prairies and attending a church where almost everyone is either a farmer or grew up on a farm, who have seen these technological advancements in real-time.
This shift has a broader impact on our daily lives, such as communication and transportation. Still, it has the same result: the created order looks less and less like an objective authority to which we conform, and more and more like a block of raw material "we can manipulate by our own power to our own purposes."
What happens when the world begins to look like something we can control? The most obvious and enduring consequence is we turn inward. What I mean by that is we no longer look outside ourselves to find meaning and purpose, but instead, we look inside ourselves. When humanity takes control of their destiny, their focus turns to inwardly their desires. This shift has also partly caused the generational divide. The older generation is predominantly defined by economics and industry (by their career and income), compared to the younger generation defined by psychology (by how they feel and think about themselves). Through technology the world has become more of a place to express yourself to create meaning and purpose and less of a place to perfect yourself and conform to what is meaningful and purposeful. We observe two negative effects as a result: the first having to do with our enjoyment of life and the other our enjoyment of God.
The first negative effect was observed and documented by Barry Schwartz in his book, The Paradox of Choice. He found our culture has increased its ability to choose by creating and presenting us with more choices, and we have welcomed it with open arms because we intrinsically believe more choices mean more control over our lives. This falls into the category produced by advancements in technology: the world looks like a place we can control and manipulate according to our will. Schwartz observed that more control does not make us happier (which we thought it would), but surprisingly makes us more miserable. Control is not the only consequence of more choices; increased choices also create higher expectations, which create anxiety and a greater chance of failure to make our lives the best they can be.
The ability to express ourselves in our choices—in our 'control' of the created order—decreases our overall enjoyment of life. When life is an undefined mass with which to mould life according to our desires, the control we feel brings anxiety and a greater chance of failure along with it. And when we can't control our lives, it gets even worse for us. We feel we are the biggest failure ever.
The other negative effect has to do with our enjoyment of God. If we take a step back and look at the Bible as a complete narrative, it becomes evident that God is the objective authority, and we must conform to His will.
The apostle Paul puts it in terms of glorifying God: "…all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God" (Romans 3:23). Our problem is not that we fail to make the right choices; that we fail to live the right way, but rather it is a failure at the core of who we are. We "fall short," and the remedy provided in the gospel is a complete change of nature. Paul goes on to lay out this change. First, we are justified by faith, meaning we are declared righteous by God through Christ, not by any work or merit of our own. By faith, we identify with Christ's death and resurrection, dying to the power (death) and guilt (the Law) of sin, and born again to hope (everlasting life) and joy (assurance of faith) in the Holy Spirit. In Romans 12, Paul applies these gospel realities to our lives without losing the idea of God as the objective authority to whom we must conform: "Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect" (Romans 12:2).
What if we don't conform? What if we, like many Christians today, respond with the argument that faith is personal in the sense that it's whatever we make it to be. What if we think God is an undefined mass, ready to be moulded according to our desires?
Jesus summarizes the answer thus, "I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me" (John 14:6). Unless we conform to Him, Jesus says, we cannot experience the joyous richness of God as our Father. That means what we have with an expressive individual faith is idolatry; we have an impotent god unable to care for us; we don't experience true communion with God, and we don't experience the joy communion with Him brings.
The answer to our quest for enjoyment in this life should be obvious by now: we must conform ourselves to God, the objective authority. We must move from an inwardly selfish and prideful way of living to live outside ourselves by submitting to God's will. No longer is our focus on expressing ourselves, but instead, we focus on perfecting ourselves, conforming to God's perfect will and living for Him.