Affirming Ourselves to Death

Selfishness is nothing new, but it has grown to such enormous proportions that this generation is actually known as the “Entitlement Generation.” The saddest part is that we, the members of this generation, have been deceived into believing that there is nothing wrong with this and even seem to have redefined morality as personal happiness.

From birth, we have been spoon-fed on praise, sheltered from criticism, educated in self-love, and ultimately told that we deserve to be happy above all else. We become, over the course of our lives, convinced that we deserve our desires simply because we exist. Because we were told every day of our childhoods to “follow our hearts.” Because we continue to be conditioned to consider our feelings as the ultimate moral compass. We are brainwashed into believing that our personal happiness is equivalent to universal correctness.

In the wise words of Dwight Schrute: “FALSE.”

I cannot expect to convince anyone coming from a secular basis that we are wrong to continue this pursuit of our individual desires over (or, indeed, in place of) common morality; to anyone coming from a worldly foundation, there is not a solid case against such selfishness. From a secular perspective, selfishness is self-preservation and a higher law cannot be easily found. However, it is essential that this call is heard by those who claim a biblical worldview. It is vital that those of the Christian faith recognize this grave truth: total affirmation paves the way to hell.

I was raised in a Christian home and from my earliest days, was taught to follow Jesus. Only was I to follow my heart when my heart was resting on Christ. No amount of Disney songs, no matter how catchy, could overthrow this message and I was by grace restrained from an early age of trusting my heart to provide moral guidance. After all, “The heart is deceitful above all things and beyond cure” (Jeremiah 17:9).

I was not, of course, raised without encouragement. However, it was always tempered with truth. In a generation whose self-image was and continues to be falsely bolstered by participation ribbons and gold stars, truth-based encouragement is exceptionally rare and  all the more vital. When I expressed an interest in being a ballerina, my parents gently but honestly reminded me of my not-so-successful years in dance as a toddler. However, when I demonstrated a passion for music, there was no bound to their encouragement because I showed a strong inclination to excel in this area.

In the same way, when I acted upon wrongful desires, my parents were swift to correct me, rather than applaud and say they would support whatever path I chose. Had they done that, it would have been proof that they didn’t love me just as, had they falsely encouraged my dance career and I had gone on to embarrass myself by auditioning for “So You Think You Can Dance,” it would have been cruel on their part. For example, I used to struggle with some eating issues and, when confronted, I remember protesting that it was my choice and that I was happy with my situation. Clearly, it would have been unloving for my parents to have affirmed me in this and, though I was initially angry and uncomfortable, guiding me back to health and safety was the loving response. In correcting my wrong choices, they saved me from a fate much worse than public humiliation and their love for me, though tough, was more apparent. Only he who hates his son spares the rod and only he who hates someone affirms him in what is unwise and sinful (Proverbs 13:24).

Why does it matter if a father spares the rod? What does it matter if someone fails to correct sin or folly or, less directly, stand up for righteousness? In short,  that person runs the risk of affirming the other to death. Ezekiel 33:6 reads: “But if a watchman sees the sword coming and does not blow the trumpet to warn the people and the sword comes in and takes someone’s life, that person’s life will be taken because of their sin, but I will hold the watchman accountable for their blood.”

If we, Christians, fail to correct the sin of others, especially those who claim to be our brothers and sisters in the faith, fellow citizens of the City of God, we are failing as watchmen. We are allowing the danger of sin to sneak in, perhaps even to become accepted, and to corrupt our souls undetected. Not only does this kill others spiritually, it makes us guilty for having failed to fulfill our role as watchmen for Christ and righteousness. Could this be considered loving? Tell me, can anyone point to this example and say, in all honesty, “Yes, that watchman was loving. He did not make anyone within the city uncomfortable by shouting warnings. He was a nice chap.”

Of course not. The man who could say that without lying would be obviously insane. Not warning the people of encroaching danger from the outside is possibly the least-loving thing that the watchman could have done. How much worse would it be for the watchman to know of a danger within the city and neglect to warn people for fear of disturbing their  slumber, offending the lurking enemy, or of losing his reputation as a quiet and amiable guard?

No. The loving thing to do would be to shout. To spread a warning without caring whether it makes people uncomfortable or offends them. Their lives are more important than their feelings. Nobody would say it is wrong to shout a warning at a man in the way of a speeding bus simply because it might startle him. There is a greater cost at stake. His life, any life, is worth  more than the individual feeling of ease.

While it would be selfish of me to pursue sinful or foolish choices, it would have been equally if not more selfish for my loved ones to affirm me in these choices. As St. Augustine says in The City of God, “They are reluctant to [rebuke others], even though their rebukes might correct others, lest…their own wellbeing and reputation should encounter peril or destruction…It is, in short, because of certain ties of selfishness, and not the offices of love” (Augustine, 15).

To wrap this up, I will simply conclude that affirmation does not equal love and love does not require total affirmation. It is possible to correct or disagree with someone while continuing to show them genuine love. I have many friends who hold to different beliefs than I do, but I have never doubted that they love me and that I love them. At the same time, we never have pretended to agree in all things and I think our openness about this is evidence of a deeper affection, for it stems from a companionship that can work through issues. What kind of a deep relationship can exist when total affirmation is required? As soon as one party questions the other’s actions, their relationship will crumble because it was built on the facade of comfort. If we constantly are tip-toeing around each other, afraid to speak truth, the friendship is fragile and will shatter at the tiniest disruption.

Aristotle speaks of this in Nicomachean Ethics. He defines “pleasure friendships” as those built on comfort; each party is friends with the other because he or she derives good feelings from the other’s company. As soon as that other individual does something the one deems offensive, the friendship falls apart, proving it was not genuine. The same concept is true of “utility friendships”; as soon as one party fails to be useful- in this instance, affirming- the other abandons ship.

But then there is the third category: “complete friendship.” This is the friendship between equals; they are not with each other for the sake of pleasure or utility, but to balance each other. Affirmation is not withheld where it is due, but it is not necessary to this sort of relationship because it is built on something greater than surface-level selfishness. Yes, this friendship often leads to pleasure and usefulness, thus benefitting each person’s sense of self. However, these are results, not the foundation. Complete friends love without having to fear any disagreement; in fact, being able to challenge and correct each other is perhaps the most beautiful part of this type of loving relationship. And yes, I mean loving. Correction can be loving and disagreement can be loving.

Just as Aristotle explains, relationships built on pleasure and utility are fast to form and fast to fade because they are not built to withstand any trial. They are erected on a foundation of selfishness and, in this generation, these relationships are thus all the more rampant. We are so convinced that our happiness (pleasure) and plans (utility) are the ultimate good and standard that we are seduced into forming shallow relationships because they offer the affirmation we have equated to love. And I am begging you, reader, to stop this.

The more I love someone, the more hesitant I will be to affirm them in their selfishness. If I did not care, I would let them continue along their dangerous path. Granted, this would be wrong of me for as a Christian I am called to be a watchman even for those I do not consider friends. A Christian is called to love. This is one of the most commonly known facts of the faith. A Christian who fails to love, is failing as a follower of Christ, just as a watchman who fails to warn the city of danger is failing in his post. But we need to stop perverting love to mean affirmation. Rather, we need to recognize that, like complete friendship, complete love cannot be built on total affirmation or it is not love at all but hate, for it supports only shallow relationships and enduring selfishness. 

So my call to you, reader, is the same as you have heard many times before: love. But love truly, acting as watchman for each other and fearing the abandonment of truth and righteousness more than you fear loss of reputation, personal happiness, or the comfort of selfish living. Let us no longer pave the way to moral depravity by continuing to seek total affirmation in order to elevate our selfishness and expand the influence of the Entitlement Generation, but rather let us reform ourselves and our generation by seeking truth as our foundation, which we can only do if we set aside our worries and disagree respectfully but boldly. 

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