Substantial Living in a Surface Culture

Glitter. Glamor. Gossip. Air-brushed pictures. Filtered images. Showmanship. Our culture has taught us in a myriad of subtle and not-so-subtle ways to put our best foot forward, to show our good side, to put our best product, our best self out in the window front for all to see. Our flesh, always eager to make a good show, gladly obliges.

This is not a new phenomenon to humanity, as even ancient civilizations had their pageantry and shows of public prowess. However, our culture’s brazen push for all things flashy and surface, combined with technology’s ability to publicize what has for millennia been the mostly private parts of our lives and days, has taken surface living to a whole strata.

In her book Quiet, Susan Cain shares cultural historian Warren Susman’s thesis that at the turn of the century with the rise of the Industrial Revolution, America shifted from a culture of character to a culture of personality. She describes this monumental shift in the following quote.

“In the character of culture, the ideal self was serious, disciplined, and honorable. What counted was not so much the impression one made in public as how one behaved in private….but when they embraced the culture of personality, Americans started to focus on how others perceived them. They became captivated by people who were bold and entertaining.”

The culture of surface which crawled onto the scene a century ago, has matured and begun to run on the winds of the Technological revolution that has further flattened the world and invaded previously private spheres.

As Christians, we would be naive and foolish to believe that the epidemic of surface living only exists out there, outside the walls of our churches. As believers in this day and age, we are not impervious to the currents of culture.

We may not be standing on the street corner like the Pharisees that Christ rebuked, praying long prayers in public for the applause of men, to win honor for my religiosity; however, the modern form of this temptation is equally insidious and dangerous. I feel this pull toward externalism every time I am tempted to post a picture or a quote, heralding to the watching world that I have had my quiet time or displaying acts of family service for all to see.

One of my most urgent prayers for myself and my children is that we would be people of whom it could be said, “There is so much more to them than meets the eye.”

When he walked the earth, Christ, the pen-ultimate man of substance, fought for substantial living. He simultaneously exposed the surface-living externalism of the Pharisees and sought to cultivate His followers as men and women of substance.

Be careful not to practice your righteousness in front of others to be seen by them. If you do, you will have no reward from your Father in heaven. So when you give to the needy, do not announce it with trumpets, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and on the streets, to be honored by others. Truly, I tell you, they have received their reward in full. But when you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your hand is doing, so that your giving may be in secret. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you. Matthew 6:1-4. 

The key to living substantial lives in a surface culture may well be found in the word secret. 

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There is an immense need to bring back the inner prayer chamber, a secret place with the Lord, where intimacy is kindled for the sake of His presence, where we are formed into His likeness, shaped into His substance.

David, a man of substance who sometimes succumbed to the pull of the surface, often writes about the secret place of the Lord in the Psalms.  In his memorable Psalm of repentance, he utters a prayer that we would do well to adopt as our own. You desire truth in the inner place, wisdom in the inmost part. Psalm 51:6. 

Dallas Willard wisely says that the watchword of Christian spiritual formation is a phrase from Galatians 4:19, “that Christ be formed within you.”

The call is clear and the need even more so. May we be and become those who go regularly into the secret place and sit at the feet of Christ, the man of substance. May He, by His grace, make us into men and women of substance who bring the substantial into a culture starving on the surface.

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