'To thine others be true:'How the reformation redeems us from being 'liked'
Christopher J Wiles
writer | speaker | servant
I love sushi. So much so that I was delighted to discover the documentary Jiro Dreams of Sushi on my Netflix account. The focus of the film is none other than Jiro Ono, an 86-year-old sushi chef who operates a small sushi restaurant in a Tokyo subway station. If you want to swing by his restaurant, bring your credit card: his 20-course tasting menu will set you back 30,000 yen—that’s just under 281 American dollars.
Yet for Jiro, true success seems elusive. In his review of the film, Roger Ebert notes that what drives Jiro is not success as much as a kind of narrow perfectionism:
“While watching [the movie], I found myself drawn into the mystery of this man. Are there any unrealized wishes in his life? Secret diversions? Regrets?…He knows the history of that piece of seafood. He knows his staff has recently started massaging an octopus for 45 minutes and not half an hour, for example. Does he search a customer’s eyes for a signal that this change has been an improvement? Half an hour of massage was good enough to win three Michelin stars. You realize the tragedy of Jiro Ono’s life is that there are not, and will never be, four stars.”
Excellence will either be a virtue that drives us forward, or an idol that deludes us into thinking that our identity is something we etch into the surface of the world. We thrive on approval; we wither without it. Yet 500 years ago today, one man reminded us that true acceptance could never come from inside ourselves—though it was never beyond our reach.
The approval economy
The title of our discussion comes from a 2014 article by Bruce Feiler. While Shakespeare had stressed the need to be “true” to one’s “own self,” as Feiler explains, we live in a world where our identities rest on the approval of others. There’s an extent to which this has always been true, but today’s digital democracy has only accelerated this—and magnified it. Social media “likes” have turned approval into a commodity: we can literally measure success by the approving clicks of others.
Christopher J Wiles
writer | speaker | servant
Chris is a writer and speaker from the Charlottesville area. He regularly serves as a research writer for Docent Research Group in addition to doing some guest speaking.
But life in the “approval economy” is a harsh one: we live and die on how much we are “liked.” Feiler cites “a growing body of research” that “indicates how deeply our brains are wired to seek social approval.” He writes:
“A study out of Harvard in 2012 showed that humans devote up to 40 percent of our time to self-disclosure, and doing so is as pleasurable as having food or sex. Diana Tamir and Jason Mitchell gave people small cash rewards for answering factual questions and lower rewards for offering their own views about a subject. Despite the financial incentive, people preferred to talk about themselves and willingly gave up money to do so.”
For human beings, nothing is more valuable than approval. But there is also a dark side to this: that much of our desire for approval is just a way of avoiding rejection. Feiler writes of one study in which participants played a video game in which they tossed a ball with two digital “players.” When the other players stopped sharing the ball with the subjects, “the pain…at being cut out was devastating.” Our fear of “missing out” isn’t just born from a desire for enjoyment, it’s a desire for approval, for connection, for love.
The limits of approval
Approval feels good. But like any addiction, it comes with the cost of constant maintenance. Think about it for a second: what are some ways that you, personally, organize your life around your reputation? Is your social media picture a recent one, or is it one that presents you in the best light? Do you avoid class reunions because you’re ashamed of your few extra pounds or your bare ring finger? Does the thought of inviting guests into your home throw you into a frenzy of washing dishes and sweeping the rugs?
For all our outward talk of “authenticity,” it is approval that defines our inner worlds. But as Jonathan Franzen recently observed, “if you dedicate your existence to being likable…it suggests that you’ve despaired of being loved for who you really are.” The approval economy tutors us to lean on our “constructed” selves rather than our true selves, but this, says Franzen, “is why a world of liking is ultimately a lie.”
Displeased with themselves, many have sought refuge in the world of religion. Christianity in particular has emphasized the connection between man and God. But for a sixteenth-century monk named Martin Luther, the question of divine approval led to a neurotic world of inner-handwringing concerning his own sin. In his book The Holiness of God, R.C. Sproul explains that “confession was a regular part of monastic life.” But while other monks got by with a “small penance” through a “transaction that took only a few minutes,” Luther “was driving his Father Confessor to distraction. Luther was not satisfied with a brief recitation of his sins. He wanted to make sure that no sin in his life was left unconfessed. He entered the confessional and stayed for hours every day.”
Luther’s torment represents our approval addiction writ large. Rather than merely desiring the approval of his fellow man, Luther desperately sought the approval of God. But for Luther, the practices of his religious world—a world shaped by a corrupted version of the Roman Catholic Church—proved insufficient.
All humans, you see, lack the ability to merit God’s approval. The New Testament writers are unanimous on this point, not least of which is the apostle Paul, whose letter to the Romans tells us that “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23). The righteousness that God’s character demands is infinitely greater than our reputations can ever compare.
But it was while Luther was lecturing on Romans that the scales began to fall from his eyes. For it was here, in Romans, that Paul also emphasized the grace of God through Christ, and a righteousness that comes from union with him (Rom 3:28; Rom 5:1). Luther would later write: “I felt that I had been born anew and that the gates of heaven had been opened. The whole of scripture gained a new meaning. And from that point on the phrase ‘the justice of God’ no longer filled me with hatred, but rather became unspeakably sweet by virtue of a great love.”
One of Luther’s many contributions was the introduction of the concept of “alien righteousness,” referring, of course, to a righteousness that comes not from ourselves, but is applied to our lives by virtue of faith in Christ. It is Christ’s righteousness that forms the basis of our “justification”—that is, our legal standing before God. God approves of us not on the basis of what we do, but on what Christ has done for us.
Conclusion: Rest for weary bones
500 years ago today, Luther took his concerns regarding the Catholic Church and fixed them to the door of the church in Wittenberg. Little did he realize that every hammerfall was the echo of future revolution. But his revolution was not born from social concern or a personal grievance—though for Luther, his mission was deeply personal. Luther’s revolution was—in the words of one historian—nothing less than “a glorious rediscovery of the gospel.”
This same gospel is good news indeed for those weary of their addiction to approval. Writing on Paul’s letter to the Galatians, Luther reminds his students that grace and peace come through Christ alone:
“Grace remits sin, and peace quiets the conscience. Sin and conscience torment us, but Christ has overcome these fiends now and forever…Various holy orders have been launched for the purpose of securing peace of conscience through religious exercises, but they proved failures because such devices only increase doubt and despair. We find no rest for our weary bones unless we cling to the word of grace.”
Human approval has the power to seduce, never to satisfy. But if we have God’s approval in Christ, who else’s do we need? The approval economy rises and falls with every click of the “like button.” For God’s people, our lives are defined by Jesus’ immortal reminder: “It is finished.”
Luther reminded us of this. And he taught that while “many Christians are tired of hearing this teaching over and over,” we must never assume that we’ve fully mastered it. Instead, he says, “the people who truly understand that they receive God’s approval by faith and put this into practice don’t brag that they have fully mastered it. Rather, they think of it as a pleasant taste or aroma that they are always pursuing.”
At the foot of the cross, the greatest of our deeds are revealed for what they really are. But because of Christ’s work, we face not rejection, but reconciliation. The more we savor this truth, the less attractive the “like” button will seem. Let us grow weary of the things that bring us “likes,” and find renewed delight in the One who brings us Love.