A while ago I spoke with a friend about our ministry and how we came to be there. He then dropped a sentence that kind of confused me: “… ah, it’s good to see that you are actualizing yourself”! In further conversations with him I learned how serious, important and central self-actualization was for his life. In this post, I’ll try to explain why that confused me.
First of all: what is self-actualization anyway? Some associate this word with the “hierarchy of needs” made known by the American psychologist Abraham Maslov. His theory was that when a person’s basic needs are met, like food, sleep, a safe home, good relationships etc … then they will “rise further” and pursue the ultimate goal: self-actualization. And this means developing your full potential and “becoming all that you can be”.
That sounds very plausible to us and seems like a very commendable goal. But it is also on the very same wavelength as the globalized culture that puts an individual and his personal preferences and freedoms above everything else. It fits well into the “Age of Authenticity” as the philosopher Charles Taylor calls it. Slogans like “be yourself”, “stay true to yourself”, “follow your heart” or “find yourself” characterize this worldview. Accordingly, the goal of life is to discover oneself and to express one’s unique “self” to the world, regardless of what others say or do to challenge this notion. Self-actualization is pursued with this motivation and becomes the core of one’s existence.
Self-Actualization sold as the “Good News”
The worldly values of our culture have an annoying tendency to creep into Christianity. Thus a very disguised Christian version of this mindset has become wide-spread and sounds like this: God “frees” us from the chains of conformity, the expectations of our parents and the legalistic pressures of the church. Our goal is “to become all that God created us to be”. Anything that stands in the way is a “wall of the enemy”, which we can only overcome through personal faith in Jesus.
There is a lot of truth in there: YES, God wants to free us, but from the chains of our sinful selves (Rom 6:6-7). YES, he wants us to become what he created us to be, in the image of his Son (Rom 8:28). And undoubtedly there are also walls that the devil puts in our way that we can only overcome with God’s help. But the writer and lecturer Trevin Wax highlights where this cultural “gospel of freedom” twists the biblical teaching at key places1:
- Sin is failing to reach your potential.
- Shame is a subjective feeling you bring upon yourself and must set aside, not a state that results from objective sin against a holy God.
- Guilt is what happens when you fail to accept yourself, to love yourself, or to sense your own worthiness of happiness.
- The barriers that stand in your way of pursuing your dreams must all come down, no matter where they are.
This is anything but the message of Jesus and the life he calls us to! It leaves the door open for all kinds of ungodly lifestyles void of accountability before God or other Christians. And there is the crux of the matter: It does not take into account the fact that our heart has the tendency to act against God’s purposes. Romans calls this our “sinful nature” (7:18). When personal freedom and flourishing are on the throne of our hearts, it creates a culture where you cannot express concern or a warning if someone lives in sin. The modern idea of tolerance and acceptance crops up here!
The “gospel of self-actualization” no longer differs from the numerous other self-help philosophies and religions that are supposed to help you to become a “better self”. Belief in God becomes a therapeutic option that affirms and strengthens your own values and goals. With this image of Christianity, it is no wonder that more and more people see it as “one way among many”. As followers of Jesus we can and should make a difference here.
Being Salt and Light in the Age of Authenticity
First we should look ourselves in the mirror: Have we submitted every area of life under God’s reign? Is the will of God as described in the Bible the basis for our decisions in life? Do we allow other believers to speak into our life and hold us accountable on this basis?
The road that Jesus walked all the way to the cross, forms like no other, the contrast to a life that revolves around self-actualization:
"Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage; rather, he made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to death - even death on a cross!" Philippians 2:6-8
Jesus gave his life for others. He gave up his rights for others. He had completely submitted himself and his needs to the will of the heavenly Father (Mt 26:42). That is why he can also tell us, “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me.” (Luke 9:23). For Paul, this means doing nothing out of “selfish ambition or vain conceit” (Phil 2:3). As a follower of Jesus, his kingdom and his will should be the focus of our lives. If we anchor on this, we are promised that our needs will be met (Mt 6:33).
On this basis, we should go into important life decisions such as dealing with money, career path, choice of partner, having children, or family members in need of care. This could mean putting back personal liberties, goals and needs, paying a price, or enduring suffering. Devotion instead of emotion. Self-denial instead of self-actualization. This is often not seen as success in the eyes of the world.
But what about our Potential?
At this point it must be mentioned that God indeed desires to see us thrive. This is where gifts or giftings come into play that God gives us and in which we should grow. But what should be our purpose in developing and using them!? I see the Bible giving a clear answer: It is about serving God and edifying people, equipping the church and displaying the fullness of God’s multi-faceted grace on earth. In short, it’s about God and his kingdom!
"Each of you should use whatever gift you have received to serve others, as faithful stewards of God’s grace in its various forms. If anyone speaks, they should do so as one who speaks the very words of God. If anyone serves, they should do so with the strength God provides, so that in all things God may be praised through Jesus Christ." 1 Peter 4:10-11
The development of our potential comes about when we let God use us to fulfill his intentions through us, to “actualize” his plans with our gifts and in his power. “Kingdom-of-God-actualization” instead of self-actualization. As we do this, we will neither miss out nor burn out. Rather, it will become the most fulfilling journey we can ever experience!