The world tells us that our identity is found in what we desire. So to deny the fulfillment of what you desire is to deny your truest identity. We are all awash in what Carl Trueman calls “expressive individualism.”3 The idea is that you are what you feel, and don’t let anyone tell you otherwise. I’m sure you remember Elsa’s anthem “Let It Go” from Frozen. With its emphasis on testing the limits and breaking through, it’s no wonder the song and the character Elsa have become a favorite in the LGTBQ+ community. No right, no wrong, no rules for me I’m free.4 What could be more indicative of the spirit of the age?
Twenty years ago, Anna Quindlen—a writer for the New York Times, a Pulitzer Prize winner, and a recipient of prestigious honorary degrees—gave this advice to a group of graduating seniors:
Each of you is as different as your fingertips. Why should you march to any lockstep? Our love of lockstep is our greatest curse, the source of all that bedevils us. It is the source of homophobia, xenophobia, racism, sexism, terrorism, bigotry of every variety and hue because it tells us that there is one right way to do things, to look, to behave, to feel, when the only right way is to feel your heart hammering inside you and to listen to what its timpani is saying.1
That’s fairly typical commencement counsel: “Follow your dreams. March to the beat of your own drummer. Be true to yourself.”2
I’d like to offer different advice: “Do not follow your dreams. Do not march to the beat of your own drummer. And whatever you do, do not be true to yourself.”
If you think I’m being a little hyperbolic, you’re right. I’ll provide some nuance to this advice at the end. But I believe it’s important to state the matter provocatively because our world screams at us in thousands of commercials, movies, and songs that the best way to live, the only authentic way to live, is for you to be you, for you to live out your truth, for you to find your true self and then have the courage to live accordingly.
Deceived by Desires
The Bible, on the other hand, tells us, “There is a way that seems right to a man, but its end is the way of death” (Prov. 14:12). Think of the story of Esau who sold his birthright for a pot of stew. “Let me eat some of that red stew,” he said, “for I am exhausted. I am about to die; of what use is a birthright to me?” (Gen. 25:30, 32). Esau was consumed with his desires.
Esau was defined by his desires, and they deceived him. Esau is depicted as an animal. You can see this more clearly in the original Hebrew. All he can think of is the red stuff, the red stuff (ha-adom, ha-adom). He exaggerates the extent of his need. He wasn’t literally going to die. (Like kids saying when dinner is a half hour late, “I’m starving!”). Esau is emotional and impulsive. He is fainting, gasping, gulping. You can almost see him wiping off his mouth, throwing down a napkin, and letting out a loud belch as he walks away from his meal of stew. He was not made nobler for satisfying his desires. He was made lower. He became like an animal. That’s what the text wants us to see. Esau the skillful hunter was prey to his own appetites. He had a better identity as the firstborn of Isaac, but he gave that away. He became a profane man, treating what was sacred with irreverence and disrespect.