Several years before Steve Jobs succumbed to pancreatic cancer, he gave a graduation speech at Stanford in 2005. The speech itself is on YouTube and received a lot of attention at the time. And for good reason: Jobs had several great thoughts. In his final (and compelling) point about the clarifying effect that our mortality creates, he says, “Your time is limited, so don’t waste it living someone else’s life” (timestamp 12:31). This has become a popular meme. “You cannot find your wisdom In someone else’s story…” (‘Where Not To Look For Freedom,’ The Belle Brigade, 2011; also the title of a “One Tree Hill,” season 8, episode 19).
Living someone else’s life – what was Steve Jobs and the Belle Brigade talking about? Jobs’ comments echo an author, Parker Palmer, who wrote Let Your Life Speak (2000). In that work, Palmer comments, “Trying to live someone else’s life, or to live by an abstract norm, will invariably fail – and may even do great damage.” Both Jobs and Palmer are riffing on Thomas Merton’s insight into the True Self and the False Self. Our True self is who we are as God sees us; while our False Self is the imposition of someone else’s life as a standard, or as an expectation for our own life.
As Christians who are born again, or born from above (John 3:16), we must acknowledge that we were sinful people profoundly alienated from God who need the savior that only Jesus is. Then we forget The Next Thing. What is The Next Thing? That we have been re-born, that we are re-created, that we have had an Extreme Makeover. This is the often ignored Christian doctrine of “regeneration.” It is routinely ignored in the seats, as well as the pulpit, of our churches.
As Christians who are regenerate, we are no longer beings who cannot avoid sin. We are now new creatures (rooted in our original selves) who can (and do!) resist sin; who are empowered to do good; and who have a completely changed relationship with God, who we can now call, “Father.” Our True Selves are what God always wanted for us from the beginning.
While it seems unlikely that Steve Jobs had the Christian truth of regeneration in mind as he prepared and gave his speech; Thomas Merton and Parker Palmer most definitely did and they were calling Christians to live in their True – regenerate – Selves. Those are very important and significant insights.
Yet even common wisdom recognizes that part of our development as fully-functioning adults is to form our unique identity; to separate from our parents, experiences, and self-centeredness; and recognize who we are.
These notions are a strong thread throughout Christianity – especially in individualistic cultures such as the U.S. or Great Britain in the last half-century. Youth leaders encourage their students to make their faith their own; not the faith of their parents’ or hero’s. Rick Warren’s Purpose Drive Life encourages people to recognize the “S.H.A.P.E.” of their lives.
And I fully recognize that these thoughts do not have the same traction in strongly communal cultures. So, my trans-cultural friends: love y’guys; but don’t beat me up – I’m talking to my tribe, now. Still, the point to be made is that this notion to “Don’t live someone else’s life” is an application to a specific societal context, not a core Biblical truth. The notion is helpful and healing for those whose psychology, social context, and culture require them to work out their identity in strong individualistic contexts.
So, what is the core Biblical truth? If distinguishing between True Self and False Self is an application of a core truth – what is the core Biblical Truth?
Already we have touched on the theological concept of regeneration. But there are other Biblical inputs to consider.
In the Apostle Paul’s letter to his church buddies in the city of Colossae, he makes a statement that is easy to pass over because it … well, … it just doesn’t immediately make sense. Here it is: “If then you have been raised with Christ, … For you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God. When Christ who is your life appears, then you will also appear with him in glory” (Col 3:1-4). What does this mean, ‘I have been raised with Christ,’ ‘my life is hidden with Christ,’ ‘Christ who is my life?’ When did I ever die and then get raised from the dead?? Earlier in that letter: “And you, who were dead in your trespasses … God made alive together with him …” (Col 2:13). Here’s Paul again in another letter: “… even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ – by grace you have been saved – and raised us up with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus” (Eph 2:5-6).
Let me cut to the chase: theologically, God has worked such that Christians have the biography of Jesus incorporated into their own biography. When Paul says that Christians “died,” he means that they have recorded the same death that Jesus experienced: a punishment for their sin that Jesus actually experienced. When Jesus was raised from the dead, so too were Christians: raised into newness of life. This engrafting of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection is a deep truth that leads to great blessing. If it is true that we have died and been raised – as happened to Jesus – then it is also true that we can live our lives as Jesus did on this earth, in this world.
So, in this way, I’m pushing back on the notion that we shouldn’t live someone else’s life. I do this because, theologically, our life (as Christians) IS someone else’s – Jesus.
I will remind good Bible students of all of those references of believers being “in Christ,” or “in Jesus.” Here’s another – a verse that many of us memorized: “I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me” (Gal 2:20). The life I now live in the early 21st century is by my trust and confidence in Jesus who gave his life for, and to, me.
Our standing before God as Christians is because we have been crucified with Christ. In some way that is not clear to me now – a “mystery,” if you will – even though I have never experienced being crucified, according to God I was in fact being crucified with Jesus of Nazareth nearly 2,000 years ago. I have not yet experienced death; but according to God I not only have died, but been brought back from the dead … with Jesus when he was resurrected. Jesus’ story has become my story in a theological reality that I do not fully understand.
All this to say that, in the unique case of Jesus, it really is OK to “live someone else’s life.” I don’t need to live in the expectations of others, or to try and be someone who I am not. Instead, I get to life the life God always had for me by looking to Jesus.