In a recent article, I described how modern parenting has been influenced by the prevailing culture of expressive individualism. Many parents enthrone their children in a “Kingdom of You,” where the purpose of life is to “follow your heart” and “be true to yourself,” no matter what anyone else says.
But the “Kingdom of You” is actually a miserable, suspicious and lonely place to grow up. Expressive individualism—where life revolves around you and your fleeting feelings—offers no firm basis for meaning, morality or community. These things can only be found by looking outside of ourselves to see our place in the bigger picture.
The Bible invites us and our children to belong to a much better Kingdom: the Kingdom of God. We were made not just for self-expression, but to honour our King and Creator; to steward his creation and to reflect his loving character to others. God gave up his only Son to set us free from the tyranny of self-rule and to enable us to serve him wholeheartedly. It is only when we know God our true King, and submit ourselves to his wise and loving rule, that we find our life’s true purpose.
We were made not just for self-expression, but to honour our King and Creator. It is only when we know God, our true King, and submit ourselves to his wise and loving rule, that we find our life’s true purpose.
Here are three key areas where we can help our children to look beyond the “Kingdom of You” and find their place in God’s Kingdom.
Finding Your Place at Work
Expressive individualism tells children that work is all about finding your passion and reaching your potential. You have a duty, but it’s a duty to yourself. If you don’t love your job then you should quit it and pursue your dreams.
When children are younger, this attitude sometimes comes out in our approach to extra-curricular activities. In some families, if a child wants to add yet another session of dance, sport, music or karate to their weekly schedule, then parents feel obliged to approve, even if it means running out of time for family dinners or kids’ chores.
The world constantly tells our children, “You can be anything you want to be!” This puts pressure on children to look inside themselves to work out what they really want. With so much choice and possibility, that can be an overwhelming decision. Expressive individualism provides children with no framework for evaluating whether it’s more meaningful to make houses or YouTube videos; perform heart surgery or cosmetic surgery.
In the Kingdom of God, work is about doing what the King created you to do: it’s about stewarding his creation and loving other people. It requires a certain level of self-reflection to discover where you are best-suited to serve. But overall, work is most satisfying when it’s not about you, but about the difference you can make in God’s world.
Instead of leaving our children with only their feelings to guide them towards a career, let’s take them out into the world to observe different kinds of meaningful work. Let’s show them how some occupations involve transforming and caring for the creation and others involve serving people. Let’s help our children to work out which occupation could help them—with their particular interests, skills, and experiences—to fulfil their God-given purpose on earth.
Instead of leaving our children with only their feelings to guide, let’s take them out into the world to observe different kinds of meaningful work. Let’s show them how some occupations involve transforming and caring for the creation and others involve serving people.
In the Kingdom of God, work is not just for adults: children can start doing meaningful work right now. Kids of any age can learn to garden, cook, create, tidy up, care for pets, and show concern for others. And, just like Thomas and friends, our kids will discover that being a “Really Useful Engine” in God’s world brings great satisfaction.
Finding Your Place in Marriage
Last year, for the first time, I attended a wedding that was officiated by a celebrant, rather than a Christian minister. It showed me just how much expressive individualism has altered our society’s view of marriage.
The entire wedding had been personalised: the venue was chosen because it was significant to the couple (even though its rural location prevented their grandparents from attending); the celebrant opened the ceremony by recounting the whole story of the couple’s relationship beginning with their first meeting; the wedding vows had been written by the bride and groom. Even the celebrant’s closing description of marriage had been tailored to the values of the couple.
According to expressive individualism, marriage is about two autonomous individuals choosing to express their love and make a contract with one another on their own terms.
This stands in stark contrast to a Christian marriage where we “enter into” an institution that is much bigger than ourselves. In the Kingdom of God, marriage is defined, not by us, but by the King. In a traditional Anglican wedding, the bride and groom “seek God’s blessing on their life together, that they may fulfil his purpose for them.”
Christian marriages are part of something bigger than themselves:
- First, the couple’s faithful love for one another reflects the spiritual reality of God’s unending love for his people.
- Second, Christian marriages promote the “good order of society” as the couple (ideally) welcomes and raises children together. Their marriage becomes a bridge that carries the legacy of previous generations—the things they owned, created, taught and believed—over to the next generation.
- Third, Christian couples recognise that they are part of a wider network of relationships—they rely on the support and accountability of their wider family and church.
In a “Kingdom of You” marriage, everything depends on your feelings. If the love fades, or if your spouse disappoints, then there are few external reasons to persevere. But in a Kingdom of God marriage, we have a sturdy scaffold to hold onto when things are tough: God’s enduring purposes for our marriage, our “for better or worse” vows, and the accountability of those who witnessed our marriage in the first place.
In a ‘Kingdom of You’ marriage, everything depends on your feelings. In a Kingdom of God marriage, we have a sturdy scaffold to hold onto when things are tough: God’s enduring purposes for our marriage
The world around us relentlessly portrays a “Kingdom of You” version of love and marriage. So let’s take every opportunity to paint for our children an even more beautiful and satisfying picture of faithful marriage in the Kingdom of God.
Finding Your Place at Church
Expressive individualism also creeps into our approach to church. People who have grown up in a “Kingdom of You” can begin to think that church is all about them. They look for a church that “feels right”—that meets their current needs, sensitivities and preferences. If things change, they move on to another one.
By contrast, a Kingdom of God mentality sees that when we join a church, we are participating in something much bigger than ourselves. Church is not a meeting of detached individuals—spiritual consumers seeking self-fulfilment—but a family, bound together by God’s covenant of adoption. When we meet together for worship, when we say the Lord’s Prayer or celebrate the Lord’s Supper, the church echoes with the voices of those before us and those beside us. Church is not about looking within ourselves, but about looking up to see our King, and looking out to see the needs and gifts of those around us.
Actually, it’s a great relief to know that church isn’t all about us and our feelings. God was already at work by his Word and his Spirit long before we arrived. We are nothing more than “jars of clay”—humble vessels for the gospel. The less we focus on ourselves, the more God can use us for his glory and the good of others. Looking outside of ourselves also helps us to persevere when our faith feels week: we can depend on the ancient promises of Scripture and the support of our spiritual family to carry us through uncertain times.
Let’s help our children to develop a Kingdom of God approach to church. Let’s remind them and ourselves that we are participating in something big and meaningful that stretches across space and time. When our kids find going to church difficult, tedious or unappealing, let’s help them to step back and see the ways that God is powerfully at work amongst his people—our spiritual family—no matter how it feels.
In a world that’s driven by expressive individualism and constantly places children in a “Kingdom of You,” we need to work hard to tell our children a better story of a better Kingdom. Life is not about being “true to yourself,” but about being true to your King and his purposes for you. Looking inside ourselves for meaning only leads to sadness, frustration and isolation. But looking outwards to see our place and purpose in the Kingdom of God is the secret to a truly satisfying life.
The words of the wise are like goads, and like nails firmly fixed are the collected sayings; they are given by one Shepherd. My son, beware of anything beyond these. Of making many books there is no end, and much study is a weariness of the flesh. The end of the matter; all has been heard. Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the whole duty of man. (Ecclesiastes 12:11-13)