Why “Be Who You Are” is Not Always Good Advice
The culture of youth is interesting to observe. As a youth pastor, I get to see it up close and personal. One of the things I see a lot is teenagers taking a stand against outside pressures. The world they are growing up in is overwhelmingly dominated by media and marketing. The constant message of “you don’t measure up” is enough to beat kids down. In response, teens have adopted slogans like “be who you are” or “just accept yourself”. I get what they are going for. It’s another way of saying, don’t change yourself to please other people. Don’t let other people judge you or make you feel down because you don’t line up with their standards. That is an attitude I heartily support!
Yet I wonder if the mantra “be who you are” has come to mean more than that. If “be who you are” means accepting your God-given talents, gifts, personality, and appearance, then I think we are saying something useful. But if “be who you are” means accepting every attitude, habit, way of thinking, or lifestyle, then I think we are on dangerous grounds.
The Bible gives us reason to not always be ourselves. In fact, it warns us against that very thing. Why else would Jesus tell his followers to “deny yourself”? The truth is that all people are sinners by nature and choice. In Genesis 8:21 God says that “the intention of man’s heart is evil from his youth.” Again, Galatians 5:17 states “For the desires of the flesh are against the Spirit, and the desires of the Spirit are against the flesh, for these are opposed to each other, to keep you from doing the things you want to do.” In other words, people are naturally sinners who are opposed to God. Our default mode is rebellion and evil.
So to say “be who you are” is something we need to be careful with. Each of us has a sinful nature that is part of us. The Biblical design is not that we should be ourselves, but that we should be born again by God and live a life in-tune with God’s Spirit. Those who are believers are made new people, and we are to live out of that new nature.
My concern is that young people (or older people for that matter) are not differentiating between their God-given makeup and their natural desire for sin. The former we should celebrate; the latter we should flee from. In the end, I agree that we should be ourselves with regard to our individual uniqueness. But I also believe that we should be anything but ourselves when it comes to our own natural desires, since they are wicked and against the will of God. We ought to be people who are being changed to live more like Christ.
Hey there! I absolutely dig this post. I’m happy you wrote it and am happy someone like you is working in Youth Ministry. These are great insights I will take with me when working with my teens. I love the differentiation you’re making here. I love how God is always working with us to become greater than we are without him. I know when I was a teenager, all I wanted was to fit in, but what if God wanted me to talk to that kid sitting alone across the cafeteria? It would take something that wasn’t in me at all, something that came from God to push me to do that loving act. I think your post gives an exciting challenge for youth. It starts a curiosity into God and seeks to inspire them! Keep up the great work!
-Tasha, The Bridge Chicago