“You do you.” It’s a phrase that has gained popularity in recent years, especially among Generation Z (children born after 1999). One New York Times article explains it as a contemporary version of the encouragement, “Just be yourself.” However, unlike “Just be yourself,” “You do you” is not just a phrase a parent uses to encourage her child on the first day of school. “You do you” has become the slogan for a generation that prides itself on individual expression. It’s a statement of one’s individual right to judge what’s best for himself, regardless of what others say or think.
From the sexual revolution to gender identity to everyday life decisions, “You do you” is the message teenagers are sending to the world today in order to declare that no one can tell them what to do or who they should be.
The Good and the Bad
As narcissistic as the “You do you” phrase may sound, it has sometimes been put to good use, which reminds us that God’s common grace permeates various aspects of culture. The “You do you” ideology has given this generation of youth greater confidence to stand up for what they believe in; it has been used to speak up against injustice; it has encouraged them not to sit by passively watching the world. With the rise of social media and cyber-bullying, some students seem to be standing up for one another and guarding the rights of others. This is a good thing. I’m grateful for the students at my church who are taking a greater interest in what goes on in the world and who are standing up for the rights of others. However, I also worry that this generation has made individual expression an untouchable law.
Youth today may be more atheistic than ever before, but you will also find studies showing they are more open to religion than their Millennial and Gen X predecessors. They are seeking more of life’s answers in religion over science. They are thinking deeply about life, social issues, and the spiritual realm. Such openness poses great opportunities for the church to reach young people today. However, if you threaten their desire for individual expression, then be prepared for some backlash. Even among Christian teens, guarding one’s self-expression—whether it be sexual orientation, gender orientation, life paths, or what clothes to wear and music to listen to—is a non-negotiable. The “You do you” mentality has become their Savior: if only more people believed in themselves, expressed themselves, and did what they thought was best, then our world would be a better place.
Self at the Center
In light of this generation’s idolatry of self-expression, the church ought to point Gen Z towards the true gospel of Christ by teaching them why the gospel of self-expression is not the way to salvation, let alone happiness. At the heart of today’s message is the desire for freedom to be yourself, to be true and authentic to who you really are. Self-expression, self-love, and self-glory are the answers to freedom in life. Teenagers are told to think about themselves more, love themselves more, and express their own individuality.
The problem with furthering our self-glory is that, as we look within, we will only find more brokenness, which then pushes us to justify that brokenness in order to find “freedom” for one’s true self. (This may be one of the reasons our culture is beginning to justify sexual practices that were once forbidden by previous generations). Self-consumption only results in further self-absorption. The answer to the internal struggle in life is not to look further within, where brokenness and sin abound, but to look outward. Instead of being more captivated by ourselves, we must be more captivated by Another, by One Who is far greater and more glorious than we are.
When we are consumed not with our own fading glory, but the infinite glory of God, we will begin to understand what Paul meant when he said, “I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord” (Philippians 3:8).
Paul’s greatest self-expression was not found by being more true to himself or by declaring “You do you” to his disciples, but rather in submitting himself to Christ Who “humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death” (Philippians 2:8). Paul was willing to suffer “the loss of all things” in order to “gain Christ” (Philippians 3:8). The truly free person is not the one who is adamant about self-expression; the truly free person is the one who willingly submits to self-denial for the sake of gaining Christ. Of course, we can agree with our culture when it affirms the worth of each individual. However, self-expression is not the true path to freedom. The gospel points us to true freedom, and this freedom is found when we are consumed with worshipping God, not when we are so consumed with worshipping ourselves.
Although it sounds strange to the world, fulfillment is not found when we fully express who we are naturally according to our worldly, sinful, broken selves. Fulfillment comes when we realize that no amount of self-expression can cover up our brokenness and that this brokenness and sin is covered in Christ. Self-expression is most fulfilling, not when we live out our human freedoms in the world, but when we live out our heavenly freedoms in Christ (Philippians 3:20).
We may feel that we are not presently who we ought to be, but we know that upon our Savior’s return we will fully become who we ought to be (1 John 3:2). We will be changed in a moment’s notice (1 Corinthians 15:52) and obtain the full glory of who God intends us to be (Romans 8:18–19, 29–30).
Bruce Ashford, Theology and Practice of Mission (Nashville: Broadman &Holman, 2011), 111-12: “human culture [both as a work of human hands and a world in which humans live] is part of the physical and material world, which is part of God’s creation and therefore is not inherently bad.”