In my former life as a high school English teacher, I enjoyed reading the Charles Dickens classic, A Tale of Two Cities, with my students. It is a work of literature rich with symbolism, allegory, and contrast, beginning with the famous line, “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness…” I believe that sentiment to be true today. We live in the best of times in terms of the wealth of information available to us. Anything we want to know more about is literally at our fingertips as we press a button and open up the World Wide Web. But this also puts us at serious risk of stumbling upon unhealthy and often dangerous information shared through the lenses of questionable worldviews.
If young people unwittingly consume this information before being taught to think critically about it, they are susceptible to skepticism and doubt, wondering which truth claim they now believe will later be debunked by some new revelation. C.S. Lewis says in The Abolition of Man, “The best defence against false sentiments is to inculcate just sentiments.” So what sentiments and values are we imparting to our children as we prepare them to interact with people whose worldviews may be different from their own?
I attended two graduation ceremonies this Spring, the first at a public high school and the second at a private Christian university. The high school commencement highlighted the theme of self-helpism, a philosophy that claims that we have within ourselves all we need to succeed in life. The salutatorian claimed that, ”We are makers of our own success.” The school board member who conferred the degrees encouraged the graduates to ”Embrace being the captain of your own ship.” While I understand the encouragement toward personal responsibility, this struck me as a very self-centered philosophy.
By contrast, the speaker at the second ceremony advised the graduates to demonstrate three qualities as they entered their chosen vocation: objectivity, humility, and civility. Cultivating these qualities leads to the acknowledgement that there is an objective source of truth against which we measure our accomplishments. It also leads to the realization that we can only be truly successful when we put others before ourselves and treat them with kindness. Examining these two worldviews through the lens of scripture reveals how to most effectively engage the culture around us and point others to Christ.
Worldview #1: Self-helpism
Self-helpism (making our own success) is an empty philosophy cloaked within the false promise of self-confidence. It casts a broad net under the banner of “the power of positive thinking” through books, podcasts, blogs, and celebrity personalities. The message sounds appealing and often reels us in unaware of the consequences of adopting this worldview. Self-helpism ultimately promotes insecurity by placing the responsibility for success or failure squarely upon the individual’s shoulders. Self-proclaimed success is fertile ground for pride, while failure whittles away at self-worth. Contrary to popular belief, the Bible never claims that “God helps those who help themselves.” God’s Word instead says that His power is perfected in my weakness (2 Corinthians 12:9.) A Biblical worldview promotes confidence when we teach our children that their strength comes from God, and that their success is not dependent on them after all. It removes the burden from them and places it on Him.
Worldview #2: Biblical Objectivity, Humility, and Civility
Jesus says in John 14:6, “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” If this is true, then there is only one source of objective truth. It is this source of truth by which we are to define success. By contrast, if we believe that we are makers of our own success and captains of our own ships, then objective truth loses its significance. We need no outside measure of truth, and are tempted to subjectively define truth in whatever way best suits us at the moment. We remake truth in our own image to fit our own purposes; however, when my truth doesn’t line up with your truth, we stand at odds with each other for lack of an objective standard. This naturally lends itself to chaos and conflict, while the acknowledgment of an objective source of truth points us in the same direction and leads to harmony.
Philippians 2:3 instructs us to, “Do nothing out of selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility consider others as more important than yourselves.” This is not a philosophy conducive with being the captain of my own ship. Any captain worth his salt puts the needs of his passengers and fellow travelers above his own. If we are to humbly travel through life, we must look around us and notice ways to build others up, rather than focusing on ways to make our own success. A self-centered attitude turns our focus inward and away from those traveling alongside us. This leads to a tunnel vision that blinds us to ways to follow the second greatest commandment, to love our neighbors as ourselves.
Paul says in Colossians 3:12, “Therefore, as God’s chosen ones, holy and dearly loved, put on compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience…” If we view ourselves as being makers of our own success, we tend toward an “end justifies the means” mentality, and civility is the farthest thing from our minds. After all, it’s a dog eat dog world out there, so we’d better look out for number one to ensure success. On the contrary, if we clothe ourselves with kindness, we recognize that true success is achieved by demonstrating love as we interact with others. Ordinary and consistent acts of grace point our fellow travelers to Christ, which is the ultimate goal in all we do during our journey through this earthly existence.
Looking to the Horizon
As our children embark on the journey of a new school year, will they be lighthouses built on a solid foundation of truth or battleships ready to plow down everyone in their paths? As we encourage them to engage the culture through Biblical objectivity, humility, and civility, the focus shifts away from them, and toward the one who has gifted them with all they need to succeed in life. God becomes the maker of their success and the captain of their ship. The one who spoke the oceans into existence is more than capable of guiding them through both the stormy seas and quiet waters of life. He sees every yesterday and every tomorrow as if it were today, and needs no compass to assist Him in guiding His children through the course of their lives. He only needs willing passengers who place their complete confidence in Him.