“You do you”: recently, a friend of mine unwittingly tried to encourage me with this phrase. He had caught it in the common vernacular: “Be yourself” and “You do you” are some of many tautological phrases we use to reassure ourselves that we’re fine. It helps us “rise above it.” Similarly, one might say, “Haters gonna hate”. In a 2015 New York Times article, Colson Whitehead writes of these phrases,
Like black holes, they are inviolable. All criticism is destroyed when it hits the horizon of their circular logic, and not even light can escape their immense gravity. In a world where the selfie has become our dominant art form, tautological phrases like “You do you” and its tribe provide a philosophical scaffolding for our ever-evolving, ever more complicated narcissism.1
Narcissism may well be to blame, but I am not sure it is always as dramatic as a personality disorder. Culturally, we’ve long been on a hunt for some sure footing for morality. When we gave up any belief in God or a higher power ordering our world, we had to find a different foundation. However, this quest has failed miserably. Having nowhere stable to turn, we’ve turned in to ourselves, the most “stable” place of all.
We have highly individualised senses of morality and yet we desperately want something to agree on as a society and a community. So we’ve turned individual expression into a virtue: “You do you”. We’re told “one ought not to challenge another’s values. That is their concern, their life choice, and it ought to be respected.”2 Morality has become relativised. We’re all authorities unto ourselves, and no one is allowed to challenge us. If they do, we simply retort, “Haters gonna hate.” In other words, no one can tell me I’m wrong. In fact, if you do, shame on you!
A friend of mine shared how silly this was in a recent interaction he had: he was asked by one of his relatives if he would be getting the COVID vaccine. My friend said, “Yes, of course”. He then returned the question: “Will you?” His relative, who has no specialist medical expertise, replied, “No I don’t think so”. “Why not?” my friend asked. “I don’t trust it,” his relative answered. My friend then challenged him: “But leading scientists and medical experts around the world have been working tirelessly to find an effective and safe vaccine. They’ve put it through a number of tests and it has passed significant government regulations.” To which his relative replied, “Yeah, I still don’t think it’s good”. My friend then asked his relative, “Can I fix your lawnmower? I see it’s broken.” “No,” said his relative. “You don’t know what you’re doing.”
Selfishness and the dissolution of community
The thing is, being authorities unto ourselves is highly problematic for community. Typically we decide what we believe is right based on what we believe is good. But when we all have our own ideas about what is right, does this mean that there is no common good, except acceptance of everyone’s self-expression? This is a very atomised existence. Charles Taylor notes,
the dark side of individualism is a centring on the self, which both flattens and narrows our lives, [making] them poorer in meaning, and less concerned with others or society.3
I suspect many will question whether or not this is a problem “out there” and if it has any significant bearing on our discussions for church. But I believe Carl Trueman is correct when he writes, “expressive individualism is something that affects us all. It is the very essence of the culture of which we are all a part. To put it bluntly: we are all expressive individuals now.”4
So in many—if not most—of our churches, people decide what is good in a relativistic way. That is, what I want most is to “just be me”. Even worse, this sentiment gets baptised in gospel language: “You do you to the glory of God”. God becomes servant to our self-fulfilment and self-actualisation. God helps me become a better me.
But this sort of pop-evangelical message isn’t actually gospel. The embrace of society’s individualism works against true community, and is incongruent with gospel faith and practice. Remember, the call of the Christian life is to die to self: “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me” (Matt 16:24).
Sharing a common love
So in order for us to appreciate what we have as Christians and to participate properly in the community to which we belong, we must recapture a sense of what community actually is.
Augustine wrote that a community, or people, is
an assemblage of reasonable beings bound together by a common agreement as to the objects of their love … [And] in order to discover the character of any people, we have only to observe what they love. … it will be a superior people in proportion as it is bound together by higher interests, inferior as in proportion as it is bound together by lower.5
To put Augustine’s point simply, a community is a group of people united by a common love. This, of course, means that there is nothing particularly Christian about community.
But notice also that Augustine says the higher the interests, the more superior the community. So what is unique about Christian community is that it is bound together by a common love of God. Specifically, Christians together know and love the Father, through the Son, in the fellowship of the Holy Spirit. We share “one Lord, one faith, one baptism” (Eph 4:5). This means we have the highest form of community available to human beings!
I love saying this, because I find that this grates against our experience. I say to you, “You belong to the highest form of community at your church!” But you say to me, “You’ve not been to my church. We’ve got issues!” (Though maybe in our highly individualised society, you might instead say, “They’ve got issues!”)
But this is where the truth shines through so brightly.
The good for all
Christian community is founded on the ultimate good: we commonly love God. But we do so only because he first loved us (1 John 4:19). So our common possession—our common love—is established on a love that has first reached us. It is a love that has overcome every barrier, every individual’s issues, every sin. What is this love? 1 John 3:16 tells us, “By this we know love, that he laid down his life for us”. Jesus gave his life for us. That’s true love.
So in the gospel, our goodness is not in ourselves, but in another. The focal point of the church is not my personality or yours, or my wants or yours. Instead, we look at Christ together. We cherish him. We find our life in him. We find acceptance by our Father because of him.
Therefore, our community is based on participation in the Son. This means that there are real grounds for us to experience true goodness. The charge given to Christians in 1 John 4:7 is to love one another. In other communities, love is a competition—a giving for the sake of getting. But our love for one another flows from the place of ultimate satisfaction: we’ve been given all we need in Christ, and our love for one another is an extension of what God has given us.
So when our church communities fail, it is because we have failed to appreciate what we have in Christ. Instead of living out our faith, believing we have all we need in Christ, we act in fear, pursuing selfish gain. In these moments of failure, we turn from a pure enjoyment of what is there—Jesus and the people of God—to using people or, worse, using God for some other purpose. This is not true community, nor is it true Christianity.
Therefore, as a conclusion, I offer a litmus test: ask yourself, “What is the measure of your idea of a ‘good’ church?’” Is it about how well you get on with others or how much they are like you? Is it about how much others contribute to your sense of worth and purpose in life?
Furthermore, what is your measure of a good Sunday service? When you contemplate, “Hmm, how was church today?”, does your answer have to do with how well the sermon related to your experience? Or did the service fail you—perhaps, because the music wasn’t the kind you like, or because the person leading was a bit boring and didn’t keep your interest?
Notice that all of the answers I’ve just offered to these questions are self-referential: they all refer back to you and your preferences. The problem is, “You do you” simply doesn’t work in Christian community. Our measures are often so wrong for what is “good”, because our standards are our own.
Instead, we must fix our eyes on Christ. As contrary to our culture as it may be, the position of faith recognises that the more he is our treasure, the more “good” we will know. And the more we together treasure Christ, the better our community will be, because our love for one another will be in direct proportion to our love for him. This is the call of 1 John 4:7-12:
Beloved, let us love one another, for love is from God, and whoever loves has been born of God and knows God. Anyone who does not love does not know God, because God is love. In this the love of God was made manifest among us, that God sent his only Son into the world, so that we might live through him. In this is love, not that we have loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins. Beloved, if God so loved us, we also ought to love one another. No one has ever seen God; if we love one another, God abides in us and his love is perfected in us.
This is what’s good for us.
1 Colson Whitehead, ““How ‘You do you’ perfectly captures our narcissistic culture,” The New York Times, 31 March 2015: https://www.nytimes.com/2015/04/05/magazine/how-you-do-you-perfectly-captures-our-narcissistic-culture.html. Accessed 2 March 2021
2 Charles Taylor, The Ethics of Authenticity (London: Harvard University Press, 1991), 13-14. Taylor is not advocating this position, but taking stock of what has culminated in a societal moral relativism.
3 Charles Taylor, The Ethics of Authenticity, 4.
4 Carl R. Trueman, The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self: Cultural Amnesia, Expressive Individualism, and the Road to Sexual Revolution (Wheaton: Crossway, 2020), 24-25.
5 Augustine, The City of God, in Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, First Series, Volume 2, Augustine: City of God, Christian Doctrine, ed. Philip Schaff, trans. Marcus Dods (Peabody, Ma: Hendrickson, 1994), XIX.24, p. 418.