As my children grow up and watch various movies and shows, I’m trying to gently train them to play “Spot the Lie.”
Sadly, it’s an easy game.
A couple years ago, my daughters were watching the DreamWorks animated film “Trolls,” featuring the voices of Justin Timberlake and Anna Kendrick. During it my five-year-old pitter-pattered up the stairs to ask a question: “Daddy, is happiness found inside of us?” That’s what the movie said, she explained, but it sounded wrong to her. “Isn’t happiness found in God?”
I can’t recall if I immediately took her to get ice cream, but I should have.
Like many modern works of art, “Trolls” is a sermon. It’s cultural catechesis. Even the film’s tagline is candid: “This is a story about happiness.” In one scene near the end, the troll princess, Poppy, is chatting with the resident curmudgeon, Branch.
Poppy: “Thank you!”
Branch: “No, thank you.”
Poppy: “For what?”
Branch: “For showing me how to be happy.”
Poppy: “Really? You’re finally happy? Now?”
Branch: “I think so. Happiness is inside of all of us, right? Sometimes, you just need someone to help you find it.”
The film’s theme song, Timberlake’s “Can’t Stop the Feeling,” is a fun tune, perfect for spontaneous dance parties in the kitchen. Find the animated version on YouTube and you’ll hear a few seconds of dialogue before the song begins. What’s this dialogue that has been played 588 million times as of this writing? Only two remarks:
King Gristle Sr.: “Do you really think I can be happy?”
Poppy: “Of course! It’s inside you! It’s inside of all of us! And I don’t think it; I feel it!
“I got this feeling, inside my bones . . .”
The exhausting burden of self-fulfillment
It wasn’t always like this. In fact, almost every previous culture in history would find the above dialogue nonsensical, perhaps even dangerous. The meaning of your life wasn’t something discovered within you; it was something delivered to you. You were born into a community, a heritage, and handed a set of responsibilities. No one encouraged you to discover your purpose; you were simply told it. Was your last name Baker? Light the stove. Smith? Sharpen the tools.
Life in the late-modern West could not be more different. If traditional cultures tended to reduce people to their duties, the modern world reduces people to their desires. Just listen to the soundtrack of our age:
“Follow your heart.”
“Be true to yourself.”
“Believe in yourself.”
We inhabit a secular age in which transcendence has been thinned out and trivialized — and the “sovereign self” thrust to the center of the stage. Nowadays, pilgrimages to find truth, beauty and goodness don’t require a plane ticket. Just a mirror.
This is an exhausting way to live. I don’t have the wisdom to define my destiny, nor the fortitude to fulfill it, without making a royal wreck of my life and inflicting untold pain on those I love most. I am underqualified to explore my heart and steer my life. I can barely reply to emails.
All the cultural mantras above are well-intentioned. Some contain elements of truth. Nevertheless, it must be said: The Bible simply doesn’t talk this way. In fact, it’s striking to me just how differently Scripture employs the same words.
World: “Follow your heart.”
Jesus: “Follow me” (Matt. 10:38).
World: “Love yourself.”
Jesus: “Love the Lord your God [and] love your neighbor” (Mark 12:30–31).
World: “Discover yourself.”
Jesus: “Deny yourself” (Luke 9:23).
World: “Believe in yourself.”
Jesus: “Believe in me” (John 6:35).
So what’s the solution? Do we just need to reject the modern view and get back to the good ol’ days? No. The Scriptures crash into and challenge the prevailing intuitions of every culture, old or new.
Though we tend to think of modern individualism as being opposed to community, Jonathan Leeman insightfully notes that it’s more fundamentally opposed to authority. Here’s how he begins his book “Don’t Fire Your Church Members”:
Individualism . . . is not rooted in being anti-community. Everyone loves the idea of community (except, maybe, the hermit). Rather, [individualism is rooted] in being anti-authority: I will gladly hang out with you, so long as you don’t tell me who I have to be or what I have to do.
Not all uses of authority are good; many are downright evil. Authoritarianism is all too common, even within the church. Nevertheless, authority itself is a good gift from a good God. He has knit authority structures into the fabric of the world for our good. No wonder King David’s last words commended the beauty of healthy authority:
The God of Israel has spoken;
the Rock of Israel has said to me:
When one rules justly over men,
ruling in the fear of God,
he dawns on them like the morning light,
like the sun shining forth on a cloudless morning,
like rain that makes grass to sprout from the earth. (2 Sam. 23:3–4)
Few things are as beautiful and life-giving as authority well exercised.
Imagine you’re drafted onto a professional sports team, and you report to the person in charge — the owner. What will he tell you? “Welcome to the team. Report to the coach.” The coach possesses delegated authority from the person who has ultimate organizational authority. So you honor the owner by submitting to the coach. Likewise, when you become a Christian and report to King Jesus, as it were, He says, “If you want to honor me, report to one of my embassies. Submit your life to me by submitting your life to a church. That’s the primary place where I mean for you to grow and thrive as a Christian.”
The church offers the community and the authority we need. While godly peers in your life are an important means of Christian growth, be sure to recognize your crucial need for godly pastors, as well. Spiritual leaders are gifts from God for your spiritual good (see Eph. 4:11–14). His design for the church includes pastors and elders who are meant, among other things, to help you better understand and apply His Word. Thabiti Anyabwile puts it pointedly: “If you don’t need your Bible at church, then the Bible says you don’t need that church.”
Pastors are also charged by God to help protect you from all sorts of heresy, damaging doctrine, and any corruption to the pure gospel. Among the qualifications for an elder, Paul writes: “He must hold firmly to the trustworthy message as it has been taught, so that he can encourage others by sound doctrine and refute those who oppose it” (Titus 1:9).
Friend, prioritize finding a healthy, Bible-saturated, gospel-centered church. And once you find it, join it. Commit. Submit your life to the oversight of its leaders and to the care and accountability of its members. God loves you deeply, and this is the pattern He set in motion with the early church to enhance your spiritual well-being.
If a traditional view of identity effectively says, “You are your duties,” and modern identity says, “You are your desires,” then gospel identity says, “You are your Savior’s.”
You belong to Him and to His people. Step off the treadmill of self-obsession and walk into the presence of a God who loved you before the beginning. The most important story in your life isn’t one you authored, and it isn’t one in which you play the starring role.
You exist to make Someone else look good. That’s not limiting; it’s liberating. And don’t be surprised if it makes you happy.
Copyright 2021 Matt Smethurst. All rights reserved.