At the core of so many messages our kids hear in the media, movies, music, politics and television resides a focus on individualism. The John 3:16 of the world is “be true to yourself,” and “you do you.” A life of individual autonomy (or “self-rule”) is the essence of all sin, which Adam and Eve believed in the Garden.
We want to do everything we can to deconstruct to our children the emptiness of living a life of individual autonomy—not to win an argument, but in order to deliver our kids from the inherent loneliness and anxiety that naturally result from living life on our own terms.
Jesus says that a life of individual self-determinism robs, kills and steals our joy. He says in John 10 that the most satisfying, abundant life a person can live is found in a sheep/shepherd relationship with him, where he governs our lives as we submit to him.
So how do we practically teach our children to recognize this fallacy of self-rule and instead submit to the gracious leadership of God?
Here are five strategies for going to war with the lie of individual autonomy.
1. You were made by God and, therefore, are accountable to God.
There is a reason that opponents of Christianity are so desperate to affirm a macroevolutionary worldview, where human origins are explained through non-divine, purely scientific explanations. At times, we see proponents of macroevolution argue in a manner that more resembles dogmatic religion than scientific investigation.
Macroevolution possesses such importance in the world’s mindset because if no God made you, then you are not accountable to a creator. If you are not accountable to a creator, then to whom do you answer? Yourself. Thus, individual autonomy becomes the most reasonable (or at least, desirable) worldview.
It’s important to make clear to students the direct link between their creation by God and the inherent accountability derived from this reality. Regardless of how God made the world, young people need to know that God is the author of their life and creation. This means they are accountable to him, and he desires for them to live under his authority.
2. Teach sin in theological terms (not just behavioral ones).
Too often, especially with kids, we teach sin purely in terms of behavioral mistakes. Sin equals lying, cheating, stealing, drinking, etc. Indeed, in one sense we define sin as a behavioral violation of God’s law. Simultaneously, we also understand sin in theological or spiritual terms as trying to live life independently from God.
As I mentioned in the previous article, the Bible depicts the essence of sin as unbridled human autonomy and trying to “be like God.” Conversely, Christian faithfulness fundamentally involves repenting from self-rule and following Jesus as the Lord of our lives.
When kids understand sin both in behavioral and spiritual terms, they have a greater ability to recognize the problematic messages of individualism, which are continually thrust upon them. When they hear mantras like “be true to yourself” and “you do you,” they will be able to discern that these messages directly contradict the way of Christ.
3. Teach salvation not just as forgiveness but also as lordship.
Evangelicals frequently present Christian conversion as asking Jesus to forgive your sins…period. You pray a prayer, God secures your soul for eternity, and that’s the end of the story. In reality, true Christian repentance begins with asking Jesus to forgive your sins AND—very importantly—to be both your Savior and your Lord.
True repentance involves an overhaul of authority within your own life. Before a person becomes a believer, they live as their own lord. However, when Jesus comes into their life, a person leaves a life of independence and now lives under the authority of God.
If a child conceives of Christian salvation as simply praying a prayer, then he or she will not recognize that exhortations to live a life of individual autonomy directly conflict with the essence of their salvation. Even when we talk to kids who have a relationship with Christ, we must continually remind them that their conversion means Jesus is the king of their life. Furthermore, we must tell them that both their own flesh and the world will encourage them to revert to a life of individual autonomy, which subverts the abundant life which Jesus promises his followers.
4. Incorporate this teaching into discipline in your house and ministry.
Is it really that big of a deal that your child did not clean up his or her room or failed to cut the grass? Do we need to make an issue of teenagers being out of their room 10 minutes after curfew? The answer to these questions calls for parents and youth pastors to rely on God’s wisdom for the individual child and situation. However, the reason we discipline kids for violating “little rules” and boundaries in our homes and churches is because they need to learn to submit to God-given authority.
Two wise parents in my church, Rita and Drew, always point back to undermining individual autonomy when they teach younger parents about discipline. When their children violated the rules and boundaries, the discipline always involved explaining to the child that they must live under God’s authority and rules. They would tell the child that living under one’s own rules and authority is dangerous and self-destructive. The bottom-line lesson when Rita and Drew disciplined their kids was to help them understand the need to submit to and rely on God and his word.
I would encourage parents and youth pastors to use situations that need discipline as opportunities to teach this core message of the Christian life. We don’t just correct our kids “because I said so.” We discipline them so that they will know that we cannot live a self-directed life; we must humbly rely on and follow Jesus. God wants this for us, because he knows it is our only means of true peace and satisfaction.
5. Illustrate the destruction and insanity that lie at the philosophical end of human autonomy.
Taken to its logical conclusion, human autonomy—most commonly played out as moral relativism (we all make our own rules)—is intellectually bankrupt and philosophically insane. How does a world function when billions of sets of rules and value systems try to coexist? What’s the moral and philosophical recourse when a girl stealing your wallet is just “being true to herself”? What’s the argument when a guy hooking up with your friend and never calling her again fits neatly within his personal moral framework?
Chaos and anarchy are the end result of unbridled individual autonomy. May we unabashedly condemn the stupidity and destructiveness of this belief system. At the same time, we must own that every human being—Christian and non-Christian alike—espouses human autonomy in our flesh. No person walks away from individual autonomy as their default mode, except by the grace of God. We all eat from the same tree of self-sufficiency as our ancestors, Adam and Eve. In other words, we clearly condemn the thought process behind individualism, while admitting that we Christians are equally guilty of embracing it whenever we do not walk in the Spirit. (Lord knows I am the worst.)
This article originally appeared here.