‘Be true to yourself’ is such a common phrase nowadays that I feel a little nervous writing a criticism of it. Yet, as I hope to demonstrate, this phrase is actually a philosophy of life that is not only misguided but also dangerous.
The water we swim in
We live in a time that is obsessed with the self. We are told relentlessly to find yourself and then be true to yourself, no matter the cost or consequences. In December 2015 a father of seven reportedly left his wife and family and started a new life as a six year old girl. This was the only way he could be true to himself. But this is the precisely the sort of action we are being encouraged to take. Oprah Winfrey stated in the same year: ‘The fullness of our humanity can be expressed only when we are true to ourselves… anything less is a faked life.’1 While, in the hit movie The Greatest Showman, this same line of thinking is being celebrated. Two characters sing together: ‘It’s up to you and it’s up to me. No one can say what we get to be, why don’t we rewrite the stars? Changing the world to be ours.’
We are told to ignore all other voices and influences. They are not going to be useful and will end up enslaving us. We instead need to decide what our own internal voice is saying and then we need to do that. That is the way of freedom and joy.
We are told to ignore all other voices and...decide what our own internal voice is saying...That is the way of freedom and joy.
‘Be true to yourself’ is not simply a phrase but a philosophy. It has become a way of life. ‘Stop caring what others think.’ ‘Do your thing.’ ‘If it feels good, do it.’ It has become the war cry of many liberation movements and campaigns. But, ‘be true to yourself’ is the latest installment of an old philosophical idea that has been bubbling away for many years now. Its roots are in the enlightenment when Kant claimed that people need to break free of the traditions that enslave them and ‘dare to know.’2 (We need to follow our own path and think our own thoughts. Out of the Enlightenment, different movements have followed. Firstly Romanticism, which placed an emphasis on how an individual internally feels. Then secondly the Existentialists, who believed that no one is born with a fixed purpose, but each person is free to decide who they will be in the world. Thirdly Relativism, which claims that what is right for one person may be wrong for another, and that is all fine, because all is relative. Then lastly, Radical Individualism arrived and claimed that not only does everyone have the right to dictate their own lives free from external pressure, but they have the moral duty to do this. There is something helpful in this. We can become paralysed by other people’s expectations. Sometimes we do need to swim against the current. However, does this philosophy deliver all that it promises? Is this the way to freedom and joy?
All is not as it seems
‘Be true to yourself’ philosophy does not simply imply but assumes that truth is an internal and deeply personal affair. It assumes that everyone has their own ‘truth’ rather than that there is something external which is objectively true. This may be appealing because I get to do what I want, and you get to do what you want. But in the end it is deeply problematic for how should we relate to each other. What happens when our ‘truths’ collide? When a white supremacist and a BLM campaigner have an argument, which of them is right? If all truth is personal and equal, then you have to conclude that both of them are right. If this is our definition of truth then we live in a dark world. A world with no moral compass. No right and wrong. And if there is no right and wrong then there can be no justice. All that will follow is anarchy.
This leads us onto an important question, do we want all people to be true to themselves? Do we want dictators, murderers and rapists to be true to themselves? This philosophy assumes that all people are originally good. But is that really the reality of the world we live in? People raised in perfectly kind and loving homes can go on to do evil crimes.
What happens when our ‘truths’ collide?
It seems to me that this call to ‘be true to yourself’ is deeply inauthentic and hypocritical. I can be generous and kind, but I can also be selfish and greedy. If I claim that only the ‘good’ side of me is me, then I am denying a whole other side of my personality and character. But if I am ‘true to myself’ and do let both of these sides of my character be seen, then in the end all I am doing is justifying my negative actions. Can we really have a problem with Donald Trump if all he is doing is being ‘true to himself’?
In the end we do not live lives that assume everyone’s ‘truth’ is equal and valid. We assume that some things people do are right and some things they do are wrong. So how do we work out which is which?
Light at the end of the tunnel
Those who champion the ‘be true to yourself’ ideology seem to believe that each of us has the ability to establish our truth independent of all others. The philosopher Esther Meek disagrees. She argues that a key of part of ‘knowing’ is being guided into knowledge.3 Gandalf guides Frodo and enables him to see that this is no ordinary ring he is holding. Dumbledore guides Harry Potter and helps him understand his enemy Voldemort and how he can be destroyed. We all have guides. Whether by parents or teachers, we all were taught how to write, read, and count. We all had to be coached in how to play a sport or an instrument. We cannot know anything in isolation, we must be guided into it. Even scientists who have added understanding to a topic have been guided all through the process by previous research and past teachers. The question then is, who will we let guide us?
The options are clear. We either let other humans guide us, or we let God guide. If we let humans guide us, then our understanding will be as limited as theirs. But if we let God guide us, then we will be in a position of confidence. You see, humans have to learn things, but God already knows everything (Isaiah 40:27 – 28). And even when we have learnt things, we can either forget them or we can get them wrong. Yet God’s comprehension has no limits or boundary (Isaiah 49:15-16). He understands the cosmos, and he understands you and me, perfectly (Psalm 94:9-11, 139:1-3, Hebrews 4:13). But, God is not simply the wisest being there is, as the Creator of all that there is, he is the source of truth itself.
Truth does not have to be guessed at. When we know God, we know truth.
This is truly radical. It means that truth does not have to be guessed at. When we know God, we know truth. Jesus says: ‘I am the Way, the Truth and the Life. No one comes to the Father except through me’ (John 14:6). When we accept Jesus Christ as Lord, we are given personal access to the Father. We are in relationship with the source of truth. Thus, through Scripture and through prayer we can make confident decisions. Decisions based not on our limited understanding, but based on God’s complete and comprehensive knowledge.
What does this have to do with sexuality?
Society tells us to ‘be true to yourself.’ If you want to sleep with someone of the same sex as you, then do it! No voice matters but your own. Even if it does sound like everybody else’s in your social group. God, however, says wait. I know you intimately and deeply. I know what you really need. I know that you are made for more than just sex. I know the way that leads to fulfilment. Follow me and I will give you life to the full! So which voice will we listen to? The voice of society or the voice of God?
Glynn Harrison, A Better Story: God, Sex and Human Flourishing (IVP, 2017)
Kristi Mair, More Truth: Searching for Certainty in an Uncertain World (IVP, 2019)
Carl Trueman, The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self: Cultural Amnesia, Expressive Individualism, and the Road to Sexual Revolution (Crossway Books, 2020)