The Evolution of Self

Colson Whitehead of The New York Times Magazine recently wrote that,

“‘You do you’ and its tautological siblings – ‘Haters gonna hate,’ ‘It is what is’ – reflect our culture’s evolving narcissism.”

His statement drew from a pool of cultural explorations by William Safire who coined the word “tautophrases” in 2006. Think of the phrases, “It is what it is,” and “What’s done is done.” They are saying the same thing but in a different wording (hence “tautophrases”) and their objective is to end a conversation and to validate authority. We can even find this kind of language in Exodus as God responds to Moses’ faithlessness saying, “I Am what I Am.” That conversation was definitely over at that point!

Tautological language permeates the modern world. I do not doubt that if I were to ask you to recall the last time you heard someone say, “Just be yourself!” it would immediately come to you. The current culture trend is no more a trend as it is a bend and the bending is inward. The reason for such is the apparent desire for self-justification. The selfie “has become our dominate art form” and our “tautological phrases provide a philosophical scaffolding for our ever-evolving, ever more complicated narcissism,” Whitehead says. We no longer wish to stand on the shoulders of giants when the world is feeding us an opportunity to become giants. In a sense, this is the modern world’s self-salvation project. But if we believe the church is not guilty of having practiced a deep narcissism, as Whitehead describes, then we are not paying much attention.

Tautophrases exist in the Evangelical world. “What would Jesus do?” is probably the most popular. The essence of this phrase/question is that the individual who applies it is convinced of their ability to actually do something Jesus would do without failure. Not only this, it can be used to make one individual or culture superior to another when comparing the moral practices between the two. Another phrase is, “God helps those who help themselves.” In a similar manner, this phrase places an emphasis on the individual’s moral, spiritual and physical strength. “Let go and let God,” is a tricky one, but the deep implication is that we are to “give God permission” to do his will. I have actually heard pastors say that God is waiting for us to give him permission to do his will in our lives. Yes, even in the church, the snake is eating itself.

The end result for the “ever-evolving” narcissicm in the church would be a complete toss of biblical texts like Philippians 2:8, “And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.” “What would Jesus do” will eventually die as our world continues to advance in all of the “lly’s” (socially, economically, technologically etc). “You do you” is what we are living for. Our constitution supports the very idea in our pursuit of Happiness and meaning. Individualism is what we want and the idea of community is slowly fading into the background. A question I believe we should ask (especially if we are Christians) is where our narcissism comes from and how we can eliminate it. So let’s ask it: where does our narcissism come from and how can we eliminate it?

Paul Tripp writes in Whiter Than Snow that our sin isn’t the only thing that can separate us from God, but our righteousness does as well. The Pharisees were law-keeping gurus in Jesus’ time, and yet their legalism had become their rescue, making them into “white-washed tombs.” This reminds me of a local church sign I passed several weeks ago that read, “Christianity is not for wimps.” Both the Pharisees’ law-keeping fetish and the church sign’s false doctrine communicate to us that much of the Evangelical church believes that our salvation actually belongs to us and that we are responsible for our loving God and others. However, 1 John 4:19 says otherwise: “We love because he first loved us.”

For there to be true freedom inside and outside of our church walls, we must get back to basic truth that we are spiritually bankrupt and that our faith in Christ is a free gift of grace. Let it be known, though, that the grace of God in salvation never settles with the self-righteous but the unrighteous, and for the unrighteous to call upon the name of Jesus they must be well acquainted with the law they cannot keep: God’s law. The apostle Paul writes in Romans 3:31, “Do we then overthrow the law by this faith? By no means! On the contrary, we uphold the law.”

The Gospel tells us that our failure will bring us closer to Jesus than our obedience ever will. This does not negate the requirement for obedience post-salvation but the lie that our obedience can save us pre-salvation. Our Savior came to us while were still sinners and died in our place (Rom. 5:6-8). He didn’t count himself as an equal with God but a subject of his authority and eventual wrath (Phil. 2:6). Not an ounce of selfish desire could be found in him and his mouth was pure in his suffering (Isaiah 53). Jesus is the most selfless person who ever lived and he did his work on the Cross with joy (Heb. 12:1-2, Is. 53:11). This is the basis of our own pursuit of selflessness. Because of what Christ has done and who he is, we are no longer married to a life of slavish self-justification. We are free to be wrong and to have our life fall apart on us because our death is going to mean something. We can sing with gladness, “no guilt in life, no fear in death,” because of the grace that has been lavished on us (Eph. 1).

To conclude, we need to see that fear is the root issue behind all narcissism. It is a merciless slave master and his work is never finished. But the Good News of Jesus is that the fear we have about life and what people think about us has been slain by three words our fear can never say, “It is finished”.

Conversation over.

This article originally appeared at

Shelton Brown
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