I really liked the musical The Greatest Showman. Starring Hugh Jackman, it tells the story of circus entrepreneur P.T. Barnum and his collection of “oddities”; meaning, bearded ladies, the extremely tall, large or small, the heavily tattooed, and so on.
I also appreciated much of the message of one of its more popular songs, “This is Me” (you can watch the official lyric video HERE). It’s performed in response to the hatred the unique performers were receiving, taking a stand against prejudice. This is well and good, but read these words from the chorus:
When the sharpest words wanna cut me down
I’m gonna send a flood, gonna drown them out
I am brave, I am bruised
I am who I’m meant to be, this is me
Look out ’cause here I come
And I’m marching on to the beat I drum
I’m not scared to be seen
I make no apologies, this is me
This is more than an inspiring and rightful stand against prejudice. It’s a declaration that the goal of life is to be true to yourself. Translation? Accept who you are and, since that is who you are, declare it “good.” As Matt Schneider has recently written, this message about “being yourself” is the heart of almost every commencement address. “Follow your passions. Just be yourself. Look inside your heart and you’ll find the answers.” Even worse, if you don’t accept someone else as simply “who they are,” you’re labeled a hater. This is the “implicit theme song of so many of our lives.”
If this idea feels ubiquitous in movies today – particularly those oriented to children – it’s because it is. For example, here are some lyrics that most parents already know by heart (and just for fun, click HERE for the sing-a-long video version):
The wind is howling like this swirling storm inside
Couldn’t keep it in, heaven knows I’ve tried
Don’t let them in, don’t let them see
Be the good girl you always have to be
Conceal, don’t feel, don’t let them know
Well, now they know
Let it go, let it go
Can’t hold it back anymore
Let it go, let it go
Turn away and slam the door
I don’t care what they’re going to say
Let the storm rage on
The cold never bothered me anyway
Again, Frozen is one of my favorite movies, and I’m drawn to the twist at the end that elevates familial love. But let’s not be under any illusion as to the “accept yourself to find your freedom” motif that runs throughout. Again, Schneider:
“There is a double edge to all this because I like the aspects of these songs that are countering shame, hate and discrimination. But ultimately, I can’t shake the sense that their punchlines are stroking our collective egos and perpetuating a misleading myth that freedom is found in just accepting who we are. What if the authentic me that everyone is telling me to assert happens to be a selfish and manipulative person who uses others as a means to my own ends? Must you accept it because I’m being who I’m meant to be?”
The dilemma is that the Christian life is not about finding and then accepting yourself, but realizing who you are and then dying to yourself. Who I truly am is something deeply broken at the most foundational level due to sin. I don’t need to accept myself, but repent of myself. “Sorry, but I’m not who I’m meant to be,” concludes Schneider. “I do make apologies… Yeah, I’m here, but I’m a mess. I’m certainly bruised, but I’m not brave… I really wish I were more like who I was meant to be, but I’m not. At least, not yet… we find freedom and healing not by looking inside of ourselves, but by looking outside of ourselves at someone else; namely, Jesus Christ.”
So yes, accept who you are, but remember that the answer is “a sinner in need of a Savior.” And then also accept the gift that only that Savior can bring, which is the grace we all so desperately need. Only this will provide the relationship with the living God that will let you enter into something so much deeper and richer and fulfilling than accepting who you are.
You can begin to enter into who you can become.
James Emery White
Matt Schneider, “The Bad News of Just Being Yourself,” Mockingbird, September 4, 2018, read online.
About the Author
James Emery White is the founding and senior pastor of Mecklenburg Community Church in Charlotte, NC, and the ranked adjunctive professor of theology and culture at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, where he also served as their fourth president. His latest book, Meet Generation Z: Understanding and Reaching the New Post-Christian World, is available on Amazon. To enjoy a free subscription to the Church & Culture blog, visit ChurchAndCulture.org, where you can view past blogs in our archive and read the latest church and culture news from around the world. Follow Dr. White on Twitter and Instagram @JamesEmeryWhite.