Cover Story

News of the Year

"News of the Year" Continued...

Issue: "News of the Year," Dec. 29, 2007

Yet lots of people, including many Christians, are. Why?

Yale Divinity School professor Miroslav Volf put forward a thoughtful suggestion at a conference in New Haven this fall: He said that the idea of what it means to flourish as a human being has shriveled in our society. The common goal now is to be a satisfied self. In an enormous world that is a petty goal, and because it is petty the self-absorbed live in perpetual shadow. Since God wants us to be more, of course we are dissatisfied when we settle for less. Self-absorbed is self-subverted.

"The idea of flourishing as a human being has shriveled to meaning no more than leading an experientially satisfying life," Volf said.

Whatever satisfies us most is right: clothes, sex, food, sports fandom, romance novels, whatever. As Volf notes, "What matters the most is not the source of satisfaction but the experience of it-my satisfaction. Our satisfied self is our best hope."

If that's our best hope we're in trouble, not only in the United States but around the world. Citizens of many countries both prize and fear American culture, which they see as promoting self-absorption: Join us and increase your ability to have an experientially satisfying life. You want possessions, sex, other things? Join us and you get what you want.

Many people don't buy that. Islam, for example, fights against self-absorption by saying, as communism said during the 20th century, "Give your life to something greater than you." That appeal is often effective because self-absorption does not satisfy, since God made us for more than that. But Muslims who leave self-absorption by trying to force everyone to bow to their god are still self-absorbed-although on a larger scale. Islam promises a flourishing life but surrounds its believers with flurries of lies.

Christianity, generally a horizon-watching faith rather than a naval-gazing one, has over the centuries helped people outgrow petty hopes and climb faster and higher toward God's greater challenges. But what if evangelicals sing self-absorbed hymns and songs, classing "personal peace and affluence"-to use Francis Schaeffer's term-as Job No. 1? The result could be spiritual heart attacks and an international laziness that allows Islam and other anti-Christian doctrines to spread without challenge.

A domestic danger is that we end up with both contentiousness and apathy, the worst of both worlds. When people are self-absorbed, politicians and pundits feel the need to scream louder to break through the mental fog. That often leads to more self-absorption as verbal violence makes the annoyed hunker down. The negative spiral continues: more self-absorption, more screaming, more self-absorption, and down we go.

The Bible shows us the way out of self-absorption by telling us to imitate Jesus, who was absorbed by the needs of others: We face nothing that He did not face. We are not satisfied as we see the ravages of sin, most notably in persecution and aggression in so many parts of the world, but when we think of Christ we are not discontent. Puritan Jeremiah Burroughs, in a wonderful little book first published about 360 years ago, The Rare Jewel of Christian Contentment, penned an intriguing line about what a Christian should be: "the most contented man in the world, and yet the most unsatisfied man in the world."

And that's the way many remain as this Year of Our Lord 2007 concludes. "Why are you cast down, O my soul, and why are you in turmoil within me? Hope in God" (Psalm 42:5). Thank you, God. How long, God?

Marvin Olasky
Marvin Olasky

Marvin is editor in chief of WORLD News Group and the author of more than 20 books, including The Tragedy of American Compassion. Follow Marvin on Twitter @MarvinOlasky.

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