Whether it’s Disney, Hollywood, or Taylor Swift, the message they’re all communicating is the same: “Don’t let anyone tell you what to do!” This is me: take it or leave it. I don’t care what anyone else thinks. You’ve got no right to tell me what to do.” That’s the message of our entertainment industry, and it is fed to our kids, to our youth, and to us. The song “This is Me” was the soundtrack to one of my daughters’ dance item. My kids love doing “Shake it off” in carpool karaoke whenever that song is on the radio. And ‘Frozen’ parents or grandparents just cannot escape the song “Let it go”. And they all teach “Don’t let anyone tell you what to do!”
We’ve been working our way through what New York pastor Tim Keller notes are the three mantras or mottos that define and shape our Western culture today. They are “Happiness is the highest goal in life”, which we looked at last week. We will look at “Be true to yourself” next week. Today however we’re looking at slogan number two: “Don’t let anyone tell you what to do!” In 2019, the greatest commandment has become “Be yourself”. And the second commandment is just like it: “Affirm and applaud whatever your neighbour chooses to be”.
We live in a day and age where one of the greatest sins has become denying who you are. It’s now a sin not to express who you are. And not only that, how dare anyone question or judge the way someone expresses themselves! And whatever you do, don’t let anyone else tell you what you can and can’t do. Whether it’s a parent, teacher, boss, the government, society, or even the church, “Don’t let anyone tell you what to do”.
Now there’s actually a kernel of truth here. There are times where we should say without any hesitation, “Don’t let someone else tell you what to do!” Let me rattle some of these situations off for you. If you are the victim of bullying, or any sort of abuse at school, work, or home (be it emotional, physical, spiritual, or financial), you’ve got every right to say, “I’m not going to let you tell me what to do!” The person trapped in a cult or modern slavery, or caught in drug or sex trafficking, or the woman pressured to get an abortion, it is there right to say “I’m not going to let you tell me what to do!” Wherever there is controlling behaviour, manipulation, or a power imbalance: “Don’t let anyone tell you what to do.”
If you are a human being, you’ve thought, said, or acted this slogan out. That’s what teenage rebellion is all about. Yet, in order for us to function, we do need people to tell us what to do.
The voice on Google Maps tells us to turn left in 300 metres. A parent, counselor, mentor, or friend gives us a word of wisdom or advice to enable us to navigate a clear path. Indeed, we frequently pay people we barely know to boss us around and tell us to try harder and do better. I pay for that inside the four walls of the gym class up at the RSL.
Deep down at the heart of this slogan are two things: first, there’s a quest for identity, and second, there’s a fight for freedom.
The Quest for Identity
First, let’s look at the quest for identity. Identity is made up of two parts: a sense of self, which is what makes you ‘you’ and not ‘me’; and a sense of worth, which is what makes you significant and valuable. The slogan “don’t let anyone tell you what to do” implies that the sense of self and worth comes from you and you alone. At one level, this way of thinking is relatively new, but in actual fact it has been around since the very first humans Adam and Eve walked the face of this earth, Genesis 2:16-17:
And the LORD God commanded the man, “You are free to eat from any tree in the garden; but you must not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, for when you eat from it you will certainly die.” (NIV)
God says to Adam that everything in the garden is his, but there’s just one thing he can’t do. So Adam, rather than delighting, enjoying, and revelling in all that God has given him, effectively says, “God, you can’t tell me what to do. I’m going to choose for myself what makes me happy.” And that’s been the story ever since, repeated generation after generation right up until today. The very first humans want to build their own identities. They want to say, “I did it my way!”
But the reality is that our identity is received, not achieved. That’s super important. Most of us live life trying to make a name for ourselves and to stand out. You’ve probably heard people say things like, “This is how I am: take it or leave it!” or “I was born this way!” Everyone has a story: you’ve got yours; I’ve got mine. And we love to tell these stories about what we like and what we hate, what we will and won’t do, who we will and won’t be seen with, and what we avoid and what we hope and aim for. That is all part of constructing our own identities.
And then along comes a passage like 1 Corinthians 6, which says that our identities are received and not achieved. Our sense of self and of worth comes from outside of us not from within us. Let’s start at verse 9:
Don’t be deceived. Neither the sexually immoral nor idolaters nor adulterers nor men who have sex with men nor thieves nor the greedy nor drunkards nor slanderers nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God. (NIV)
Paul says in black and white that if someone wants to turn their back on God and not let him call the shots, then God won’t let them into his family. But that’s not the end of the story, for in the very next sentence comes one of my favourite verses in the Bible, verse 11:
And that is what some of you were [Note the past tense]. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God. (NIV)
Friends, do you see the incredible thing that Paul is saying here? He’s saying that the Corinthians once were this, but now they are something else. As Christians they have a new identity. The Christian has done nothing to earn it. It’s all been done for you. Can you believe it?
There are three descriptions of our new identity in verse 11. First, we who trust in Christ have been ‘washed’ clean from all the filth of our past. The muck of guilt and the stains of shame are all gone. Can it get any better? Second, we’ve been made holy. We’ve been plucked out of that mess of sin and set apart for better things. Third, we’ve also been justified. The verdict that God the judge of the universe gives us is ‘not guilty’, even though we rightly deserve punishment.
All of this was done and achieved by someone other than us. Yes, we got ourselves into this mess, but God has rescued us from it through his Son by his Spirit. He has done it! Your identity is received not achieved. It’s given to you by God, and as far as identities go, it doesn’t get any better.
I’ve tried to achieve my own way to identity. Let me share with you two ways I have tried. The first was during school. I was known as the basketball guy. I played a lot of it. I represented my school in it. I even managed to get a couple of awards in it. During school the popularity and acceptance was great. But in 2017 we had our 20 year reunion, and the question people asked me was, “So are you still playing basketball?” I was pigeon-holed in their thinking with the identity of ‘Dan the basketball guy’. The second was growing up as an Australian-born Chinese. I’ve had a foot in two worlds. And the chances are that if you’re from a migrant culture, you have had a foot in two worlds, too. And so when it came to deciding what to study at university, mum wanted me to do accounting, but I wanted to do human resources. The Chinese migrant mentality was to choose a secure course, where there are plenty of jobs that will pay well. My parents had made sacrifices for me and had hopes and expectations for their son. Well today I’m neither of those things. My identity is not found in what I excelled in at school, what I studied at university, nor what I did for work. It is found in Christ.
Western culture today says, “You’ve got to have a dream, and if you work hard enough, believe in yourself, don’t let anything or anyone tell you that you’re not good enough, not even your own parents, you will make your dreams and be true to yourself.”
In the movie, ‘The Pursuit of Happiness’, there’s a famous scene where the father, played by actor Will Smith, talks to his son about not letting anyone ever tell him that he can’t do something—not even him! Now did you know that the actor playing the son is his son in real life, Jaden Smith. Well a few years ago, Jaden, for his fifteenth birthday, told his parents, “Mum and Dad, I want to legally break free from you and live in a place all my own”. His mum was reported as being devastated and rightly so. But yet this is the spirit of our age.
We can work our fingers down to the bone trying to construct a better identity for ourselves, but we are only as good as the last thing we did: the last project, milestone, exam score, or in my case, the last sermon. If that is where our worth, meaning, and sense of self, then it is a dead end. It will eventually crush us. It just doesn’t work.
Instead why not take up the identity God’s offering you? What’s stopping you?
To those who respond to Jesus with repentance and faith, God gives a new identity. He says that you are a child of God, adopted into his family, no longer an outcast, and united with Christ. What happened to him will happen to you. You are a citizen of heaven: this is earth is not your home, heaven is. You are his people and no longer enemies. You are heir of God and co-heir with Christ: what’s been given to him will be given to you.
What more could you ask for? In Jesus, we have someone who knows us better than we know ourselves. In Jesus, we have he who gives us something better than anything we can get on our own.
The Fight for Freedom
We’ve looked at identity. Now let’s turn our attention to freedom. This motto screams loud and clear: “I’m free to do what I want and to be who what I want to be, no matter what anyone else says.”
The chances are that you’ve never heard of Emile Ratelband. He is a Dutchman who has been told by doctors that he has the body of a 45 year-old even though he’s 69. He is now arguing that he should be legally entitled to change his age on his birth certificate to 45. Not to do so, he claims, is discrimination. But the real motivation, according to Emile himself, is that he wants to change his birth date so he can achieve greater success at work and with women on the dating app ‘Tinder’. Here’s a quote from him: “When I’m on Tinder and it says I’m 69, I don’t get an answer. When I’m 49, with the face I have, I will be in a luxurious position.”
Emile thinks he should be free to legally change his birth certificate. But according to God, ‘freedom’ is not what Emile thinks it is. Paul in 1 Corinthians 6:12 is quoting the worldview of the church in Corinth, Greece, when they say, “I have the right to do anything”. But Paul responds, “not everything is beneficial”. The Corinthians think, “I have the right to do anything”, but Paul says, “I will not be mastered by anything.”
And it turns out that 2,000 years on, nothing has changed. The church of Corinth in Ancient Greece and the church of MBM in Rooty Hill are not that different. We think freedom is the right to do whatever we want with whoever we want whenever we want. But Paul here is driven by a different set of criteria. Is it beneficial? Does it help others? Must I exercise my rights at this particular point in time?
Unlike any other time in human history, we’ve got more rights than ever before. We have rights as employees, rights based on gender, on marital status, and, for the time being, based on religion. Children have rights. And yet we chase after freedom. We fight for freedom.
See if you can guess this movie based on the description: an adventurous teenager sails out on a daring mission to save her people. During her journey, she meets someone who guides her in her quest to become a master wayfinder. Together, they sail across the open ocean on an action-packed voyage, encountering enormous monsters and impossible odds. Along the way, she fulfills the ancient quest of her ancestors and discovers the one thing she always sought: her own identity.
What’s the movie? ‘Moana’. Take a look at the lyrics from one of its songs.
See the line where the sky meets the sea? It calls me,
And no one knows, how far it goes.
If the wind in my sail on the sea stays behind me,
One day I’ll know, if I go there’s just no telling how far I’ll go
What is Moana saying here? Essentially it is this: If I don’t let anyone else tell me what to do, if I keep that behind me like the wind in my sail, then there’s no telling how far I’ll go in life.
Moana is chasing ‘freedom from’. She seeks freedom from her family, from what her tribe tells her: that she’s too young, that she’s a girl, that it’s too dangerous and she should just accept who she is and stay on the island.
Of course, that’s not the only type of freedom we chase after. Maybe you are seeking freedom from the shackles of religion. Perhaps you think it is evil and outdated and that science has disproved God. Perhaps you desire freedom from massive debt, so you work, work, work. Maybe you long for freedom from that particular pain, and it so often leads to alcohol or drugs. Or perhaps you look for freedom from a difficult marriage: it is much easier to turn to porn, have an affair, or get divorced so you can marry someone else.
Well, come to the second half of 1 Corinthians 6:13, and Paul addresses the freedom to do whatever we want with our bodies.
The body, however, is not meant for sexual immorality but for the Lord, and the Lord for the body. (NIV)
God is saying that your body—the one he made and gave you—is special. To put it bluntly God cares about what you do with your genitals. He cares about who you share your body with, because he wants you to enjoy it in the best possible way!
And not only that, but did you know that your body is actually meant to house the true and living God himself. God is waiting to set up shop inside of you, and to dwell in you by his Spirit so that you can taste the freedom that awaits. Verse 19-20:
Do you not know that your bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit, who is in you, whom you have received from God? You are not your own; you were bought at a price. Therefore honour God with your bodies. (NIV)
Your body is so special to God, that even though he owned us anyway, when we fell into sin he decided to buy us back again. He not only took on flesh and bones but he faced every temptation we have faced. He tasted every emotion we have felt. And then he died in your place and mind, all so he could rescue and redeem us, and call us his own. You are freed to live forever, verse 14. By his power God raised the Lord from the dead, and he will raise us also. Death is not the end. Our bodies will be awakened and rise from the graves. We will have new bodies fit for the new creation.
Do you get the impression that God is more committed to your body than you are?
Lord Acton is the great historian of freedom. He puts it like this: “Freedom is not the permission to do what you like; it’s the power to do what you ought.” In other words, if we only think that freedom is ‘freedom from’ restrictions, expectations, and being told what to do, then that’s really only half the story. God has purchased us and we belong to him. And because we belong to him, he can do whatever he wants with us. God in his kindness has freed us for a much better life, in fact, the best life.
That means I’m genuinely free from having to prove myself. I don’t have to fight to get your approval. I’m no longer worried about my reputation. I’m free from having to express who I am. I’m free from the pressure to stand out. No longer do I have to put myself out there and live out all my desires and feelings. No wonder Jesus says in John 8:32, “Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free” (NIV).
Because I’ve been truly set free, I want to let him call the shots in my life. Rather than thinking that God is an evil tyrant, he is actually a loving Lord. Rather than thinking that his way of life is outdated or oppressive, it is actually outstanding and worth obeying. Instead of defiantly declaring, “This is me”, what matters more is letting God declare, “This is who I made you to be”. And instead of resisting conformity, I’m going to let him conform me to be more like Jesus. That is what I call freedom and liberating! This is freedom on God’s terms. And it doesn’t get any better than that!
And so back to the motto: “Don’t let anyone tell you what to do”. Siding with Jesus means that I can look at this motto and say, “When it comes to identity, I’ve already been given the best kind of identity, thank you very much. And when it comes to freedom, I’m truly free by virtue of being freed for a life lived for Jesus.”
We began by talking about songs. It’s only fitting we finish up by talking about the song we’re about to sing:
This life I live is not my own,
For my redeemer paid the price.
He took it to be his alone,
To be his treasure and his prize.
The things of earth I leave behind
To live in worship of my King.
His is the right to rule my life,
Mine is the joy to live for him.