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“We want to believe the promises of bohemian life—to live according to our own innermost selves—but we are surrounded by the sadness of disappointed hope. The transgressive heroism of our imagination now looks as tawdry as daytime television. Bohemianism becomes banal and disappointing as it becomes dominant. We suffer the failures of the counter-cultural project even as we surround ourselves with its music, its rhetorical postures, and its fashions. . . . [T]he antinomian shaman of the American imagination, achieves no beatitude and has no blessings to give” ~ R. R. Reno[1]


I remember the first time I got high smoking pot with my friends. At the time I was awash in a life of rebellion, assuming my life of (supposed) nonconformity would arouse applause from my peers. I didn’t care about school; and I didn’t care about my future. A Tupac Shakur tattoo summed up my philosophy of life: “Laugh now, cry later.” Working a traditional 9 to 5 seemed soul-deadening to me. My aim was to break free, reject parental authority, and find meaning in life through living by own rules.

All my plans collapsed after a weekend of hard partying. As I sat in a quiet hotel room while others slept, a wave of despair washed over me. I asked myself multiple times, “What am I doing with my life? Where can I find lasting peace?” While I was not able to answer those questions with any certainty, I at least knew that the life of the decadent voluptuary trumpeted so loudly by all the hip hop artists I listened to was not the path to equanimity. I left the hotel that morning sure of this: I do not know how to run my own life.


The local Unitarian Universalist meetinghouse near the church I serve has a sign on its property with these words: “As soon as you learn to trust yourself, you will know how to live.”

Every time I read those words two verses from the Book of Proverbs come to mind. The first is Proverbs 28:26—“Whoever trusts in his own mind is a fool, but he who walks in wisdom will be delivered” (Prov. 28:26). Then the words of Proverbs 26:12 come in to view—“Do you see a man who is wise in his own eyes? There is more hope for a fool than for him” (Prov. 26:12).

Following this, I can’t help but ask myself the same question Saint Augustine asked: “What am I to myself but a guide to my own self-destruction?”[2]

Neither Augustine nor I are suggesting that our senses always lie to us. For example, usually when I feel hungry, I am hungry. When I feel like I have plantar fasciitis, I do. But when it comes to theology and morality, I must give way to God’s inspired revelation. The prophet Jeremiah nailed it: “I know, O Lord, that the way of man is not in himself, that it is not in man who walks to direct his steps” (Jer. 10:23).

The goal of my life, therefore, is not to learn to trust myself, but instead to renounce myself. On a daily basis I seek to renew my mind with God’s Word (Rom. 12:1–2), take captive every thought and bring it into alignment with God’s revealed will (2 Cor. 10:3–5), and crucify my sinful desires while cultivating godly fruit (Eph. 4:17–32).

Hence, I’ve learned both from Scripture and life experience that I cannot and do not know how to run my own life. I’ve learned that meaning in life is not self-created. I’ve learned that making happiness my aim is a sure guide to missing it and that happiness isn’t found in self-indulgence but in self-forgetfulness.[3]


As I’ve written on many occasions, when people either refuse or repudiate belief in God they do not in that moment stop worshiping. When one abjures belief in God or transcendent reality, one immediately seeks to fill this void with God substitutes. And as classicist Anthony Esolen notes, the usual cast of characters are the self, sex, and the state.[4]

We enthrone ourselves as Lord of our own lives, assured that it’s the path to lasting peace and happiness. We express ourselves sexually, assured that it’s the path to genuine authenticity.[5] We “sacralize” individual autonomy even though it erodes liberty.[6] We embrace the American religion—the religion expressed by Elizabeth Gilbert in the movie Eat, Pray, Love: “God dwells within you as yourself, exactly the way you are.”[7]

The words placarded on the sign in front of the Universalist Unitarian meetinghouse differ quite significantly from the instruction one finds in the Bible. Whereas biblical fidelity requires one to affirm human depravity, Universalist Unitarians affirm no such notion.[8] Instead, they give a rather rosy picture of the human race.

The Bible gives not only the God’s-eye point of view, but also one that comports with our everyday experience: Humans are both “brilliantly creative” and “brilliantly destructive.”[9] Both “outward oppression” and “inward erosion” mark our humanity and manifest themselves in countless ways throughout our earthly journey.[10]

And so I circle back around to where I began: I’m convinced I don’t know how to run my own life, and my only hope is to abandon myself to God and receive his Word humbly, assume a posture of docility, and prayerfully live out his precepts. Along the way I’ve failed miserably more times than I care to count. Thus in contrast to the words emblazoned on the sign in front of the Universalist Unitarian meetinghouse, I’ll probably opt for the words of the Isaac Watts hymn to be inscribed on my tombstone: “A wretched, poor, and helpless worm/On Thy kinds arms I fall.”


[1] R. R. Reno, Fighting the Noonday Devil—and Other Essays Personal and Theological (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2011), 53, 55.

[2] Augustine, The Confessions of Saint Augustine (trans. John K. Ryan; New York: Doubleday, 1960), 4. 1 (p. 93).

[3] Thanks to Malcolm Muggeridge for teaching me this. See his essay, “Happiness,” in Seeing through the Eye: Malcolm Muggeridge on Faith, ed. Cecil Kuhne (San Francisco: Ignatius, 2005), 38–39.

[4] Anthony Esolen, Out of the Ashes: Rebuilding American Culture (Washington, D. C.: Regnery, 2017), 23.

[5] Simon May, Love: A History (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2011), 12. This quest, however, does not usually work or provide what it promises. See, e. g., Andrew Potter, The Authenticity Hoax: Why the “Real” Things We Seek Don’t Make Us Happy (New York: Harper Perennial, 2010).

[6] Timothy Keller, Making Sense of God: An Invitation to the Skeptical (New York: Viking, 2016), 106–107. See also Yuval Levin, The Fractured Republic: Renewing America’s Social Contract in an Age of Individualism (New York: Basic Books, 2016);

[7] See the analysis provided by Ross Douthat in his work Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics (New York: Free Press, 2012), Ch. 7.

[8] For some of the history, see Harry S. Stout, The New England Soul: Preaching and Religious Culture in Colonial New England (New York: Oxford University Press, 2012), 217–235.

[9] Language borrowed from Marilynne Robinson, Absence of Mind: The Dispelling of Inwardness from the Modern Myth of the Self (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2010), xi.

[10] Language borrowed from C. Frederick Barbee & Paul F. M. Zahl, The Collects of Thomas Cranmer (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1999), 23.