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Review: Rethink Your Self by Trevin Wax

Human beings want help. They know something is wrong, even if they havent a clue what or why. Money, pleasure, and distractions cant fully smother what Thoreau famously called the quiet desperation of modern people. Even if every film, album, and miniseries told us this wasnt true, we would know our neighbors really do feel this way just by looking at one thing: the self-help section. The self-help genre is Western societys unwitting confession of its own brokenness.

But the overwhelming majority of self-help literature is hollow and escapist, like trying to illuminate a vast cavern with only a glow stick. Too much of it cashes out to helping comfortable middle-class Americans get more comfortable in their middle class. The self-help shelf is dominated by kitschy mantras, vain platitudes, and the religious equivalent of high-fructose corn syrup.

I think thats the reason Trevin Wax begins his new book, Rethink Your Self: The Power of Looking Up Before Looking In, by writing, This is not a self-help book. At first glance, Rethink Yourself might seem like yet another inward journey into becoming your best self. But looks are deceptive. Wax has taken the familiar packaging of therapeutic self-help and turned it on itself with a book that cuts through live, laugh, love claptrap with a plainspoken but incisive invitation to a truly good lifea life that requires us to die before we can live.

Rethink Yourself: The Power of Looking Up Before Looking In

Trevin Wax

Rethink Yourself: The Power of Looking Up Before Looking In

Trevin Wax

B&H. 224 pp.

Follow your heart. You do you. You are enough. We take these slogans for granted, but what if this path to personal happiness leads to a dead-end? InRethink Your Self, Trevin Wax encourages you to rethink some of our societys most common assumptions about identity and the road to happiness.

Most people define their identity and purpose by firstlooking in(to their desires), thenlooking around(to express their uniqueness), and finallymaybelooking up(to add a spiritual dimension to life).Rethink Your Self proposes a counter-intuitive approach: looking up before looking in. It’s only when we look up to learn who we were created to be that we discover our true purpose and become our truest selves.

B&H. 224 pp.

Look InLook Around

Wax describes the worlds value systems in two categories. Look in is the mantra of Western culture, which locates the meaning of a persons life and the deepest identity in individual desires and ambitions. By contrast, collectivist societies tell members to Look around, and inherit their sense of self and purpose from the surrounding community. While the latter worldview is still common around the world, especially in non-Western nations that are more tribal and family-centered, the Look in approachotherwise known as expressive individualismis the culturally ambient philosophy for the vast majority who would read this book.

The self-help genre is Western societys unwitting confession of its own brokenness.

The trouble, Wax writes, is that no matter how hard we look in, we cant actually wring happiness out of our own consciousness. Havent you heard of people who chased long and hard after a dream, who ran with a single-minded passion to fulfill a deep desire, Wax writes, only to discover a surprising sense of emptiness after theyd reached their goal? (41). The appeal of looking in is that it seems to validate our desire for happiness and to live authentically according to what we want. But the trouble, Wax observes, is that plumbing our desires to find out who we need to be doesnt do anything, for three reasons: we dont actually know what we want; our wants disagree with each other (43); and our desires dont tell us whether they are good or bad, for us or others (46).

To understand why expressive individualism is enticing but not ultimately satisfying, we need to go deeper into human nature than therapeutic self-help lit can go. Positivity gurus can and often do identify parts of our lives that are depressed, frustrating, and broken. Indeed, some secular self-help authors are bolder in forcing audiences to confront their problems than some pastors are. But mainstream self-help lit comes up short because it fails to recognize the human need for moral satisfaction and cosmic restoration. The human spirit needs more than affirmation; it needs justification. Our sense is not just that something could be better, but that something is severely and devastatingly wrong about us.

In a post-Christian society this sensation of lingering guilt is often repressed or explained away by Freudian psychology or the oppressed-oppressor dynamic. But unnamed sin can still be felt. In a brilliant essay titled The Strange Persistence of Guilt, Wilired McClay writes, The presence of vast amounts of unacknowledged sin in a culture, a culture full to the brim with its own hubristic sense of world-conquering power and agency but lacking any effectual means of achieving redemption for all the unacknowledged sin that accompanies such power: This is surely a moral crisis in the making. In other words, in the absence of the spiritual disciplines of confession, repentance, and forgiveness, human beings limp with a festering moral wound that frustrates their efforts to make sense of themselves and the world.

Look Up

We need an assurance of justice, a consciousness that not only can our everyday problems be fixed but we ourselves can somehow be made right. We find this, Wax writes, in the gospel, which calls us to look up at a personal Creator and Redeemer. The reason we look in before looking up is sin, and sin makes our efforts to authenticate ourselves so futile. We did not make ourselves, so we cannot determine who or why we truly are. God, in the person of Jesus Christ, can and has done that. In Jesus Christ, God shows us that to live we must die to ourselves, so that Christ can raise us with himself.

Our best death is now, and our best life is later.

The meaning of the cross was redemptive, Wax writes. Sin had been taken care of, the forces of evil had been defeated, and the selfish impulse of humanity had been overcome by a flood of self-giving love. . . . [Jesus] was both the ultimate display of what God always intended a human being to be (fulfilling Gods original design) and also the ultimate expression of Gods desire for the world (14243).

Wax poignantly puts his finger on a crucial distinction. Like positive self-help literature, the gospel promises to change us. But unlike it, the gospel doesnt promise that this change will be greater comfort and self-confidence. The pattern of death and resurrection points us toward the reality of life coming out of death. In the light of being born again in Christ, our habits and rhythms reflect a progressive dying to ourselves so that who we truly areas created by God in his image and for the sake of his Soncan come alive. Our best death is now, and our best life is later.

Theological intuitions often lead conservative evangelicals to be quite critical of self-help books. On the whole this is a right instinct. But we ought to realize that the message of the Bible isnt merely a theological proposition to accept, but a promise to cling to. Our tears really will be wiped away. Our relationships really will be completely restored. Our cancers and our traumas and our destructive desires really will be obliterated forever. The heart human gravitates toward promises of a better self because it really was made for one. Rethink Your Self is a valuable reminder of that.

Many Benefits

Who will benefit from Rethink Your Self? I can think of three distinct groups.

First, unbelievers with a penchant for self-help lit will feel that Wax is speaking to them. Its one thing to be able to use theology to criticize or oppose the errors of self-help lit. But its another thing to understand why Westerners rely so much on these kinds of books. This book isnt a polemical wrecking ball. Its a warmly written invitation to those burned out by the quest to define themselves. Like all false religions, expressive individualism creates refugees, and those refugees will be welcome and helped here.

Like all false religions, expressive individualism creates refugees, and those refugees will be welcome and helped here.

Second, Christians who feel that something is off with their current spiritual or emotional trajectory will benefit from Rethink Your Self. As Wax frequently notes, everything about Western culture is designed to make us look in. Looking up isnt a one-time event but a continuous act of gloriously satisfying resistance.

Last, pastors and church leaders who want a guidebook for speaking evangelistically and philosophically to the spirit of the age will richly benefit from Rethink Your Self. Expressive individualism isnt a passing fad or viral phenomenon. Its the dominant religious dogma of our age, and nearly every institution and apparatus that we encounter in public life shapes us in its image. And yet were tired, anxious, depressed, and frustrated. The idols have broken our hearts. The gospel has something to say about this. Let the whole world hear it, and hear it often.

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