The Greek philosopher Socrates once said, “The unexamined life is not worth living.” The quote is recorded by Plato – Socrates’ student and Aristotle’s teacher – in his Apology.
However, even an examined life – when scrutinized without a biblical worldview – can lead to problematic and dark places.
Such is the case in a recent guest essay published in The New York Times entitled, “I Don’t Need to Be a ‘Good Person.’ Neither Do You.”
The author, Dr. Jamieson Webster, is a clinical psychologist and psychoanalyst who serves as a professor at the New School in New York City.
She argues that human beings constantly struggle with how to be a “good person,” and there is an endless array of advice given for how to do so.
But Webster’s argument quickly takes a turn for the worse, claiming that we should all – unencumbered by limits of “right and wrong” – pursue our individual desires and pleasures, regardless of whether they may be culturally acceptable.
Pursuing the abstract question of “right and wrong” ways to live will lead you into a cul-de-sac. It avoids the deeper question of desire, and desire is a compass…
The promised image of goodness skirts pleasures that — for obscure reasons — you aren’t sure you can want.
Webster concludes that we should follow our desires – even if they seem unjustified. Webster illustrates her point with an anecdote about her choice to have a second child, reflecting,
What I found, after much work in analysis, is that there is no justification possible, no matter how hard I tried to find it. I want what I want because I want it. You have to live with your choices which are more or less inexplicable to others (emphasis added).
So, how should we think about Dr. Webster’s essay? I propose the following four points.
Desire is Not Always a Compass
For Christians reading Dr. Webster’s essay from a biblical worldview, we should realize that many of the professor’s assumptions are faulty and wrong.
The professor refers to desire as a “compass.” It’s a prompting that we should use to make decisions and know how to act. If you desire something, go for it, Dr. Webster all but says.
But Christians know that our desires – because of mankind’s fallen human nature – are not always good. They can lead us astray.
I may desire to eat an entire chocolate cake, but that doesn’t mean I ought to do so. I may desire to curse at someone who cuts me off in traffic, but that doesn’t mean I ought to do so.
Scripture teaches this point.
The heart is deceitful above all things,
and desperately sick;
who can understand it? (Jeremiah 17:9, ESV).
Permitting our desires and appetites to rule our lives, unchecked by the use of our God-given faculty of reason, is a recipe for a disordered and troublesome life.
Right and Wrong are Real
Dr. Webster asserts that the concept of “right and wrong” actions is illusory and subjective. But such an assertion is unlivable.
In his book Mere Christianity, C.S. Lewis writes,
Whenever you find a man who says he does not believe in a real Right and Wrong, you will find the same man going back on this a moment later. He may break his promise to you, but if you try breaking one to him, he will be complaining, ‘It’s not fair’ before you can say Jack Robinson.
In fact, God has revealed what is right and what is wrong to mankind – and he has written this moral law on our hearts.
Paul writes in Romans 1:19-20,
For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse (ESV).
Happiness Does Not Always Come from Pleasures
Additionally, Christians know that true happiness – an abiding and joyful sense of peace – comes not from the fulfillment of all our desires for pleasure, but from a clean conscience and a right relationship with God.
By God’s grace, in saying “no” to sin, we can say “yes” to obeying and loving Jesus Christ. And in Him, we find true life.
The Gospel is paradoxical. But in our fallen world, it’s the only thing that causes life to make sense.
Contra materialism, it is the poor in spirit who are blessed (Matthew 5:3).
Contra hedonism, it is those who mourn who are blessed (Matthew 5:4).
Contra individualism, it is the humble and meek who are blessed (Matthew 5:5).
Only by forsaking our culture’s relentless pursuit for power, prestige, pleasure and possessions and choosing to follow Christ above all else can we truly find life and lasting happiness.
Our Sin Leaves Us as Slaves
Webster’s essay insinuates that only in pursuing our desire and pleasure can we find true freedom. But Christianity teaches the opposite.
Our desires can be disordered and lead us to sin.
But each person is tempted when he is lured and enticed by his own desire. Then desire when it has conceived gives birth to sin, and sin when it is fully grown brings forth death (James 1:14-15, ESV).
And to sin we can become slaves.
Do you not know that if you present yourselves to anyone as obedient slaves, you are slaves of the one whom you obey, either of sin, which leads to death, or of obedience, which leads to righteousness? (Romans 6:16, ESV).
True happiness is found in freedom from sin and the ability to live righteously. This is only empowered by the grace of Jesus Christ.
In conclusion, Dr. Webster’s essay is a disturbing mix of hedonism, subjectivism and individualism all wrapped up in one psychological theory: do what makes you happy. “Live and let live” as they say.
But Christians know that true happiness is found in doing hard things, in restraining our desires and impulses, in self-sacrifice and in the giving of ourselves to others. Happiness is found in charity. For we were made for love – to receive it and to give it.
Whoever finds his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it (Matthew 10:39, ESV).
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