Ellie Garcia was one of the nineteen children murdered at Robb Elementary School in Texas last week. She died about a week before her tenth birthday.
Her father shared a photo he took in January of his daughter praying. He wrote, “I love you baby girl and I love the way you pray.” He also posted a TikTok video she made recently, where she said, “Hey, guys. I just wanted to give you a little catch-up. Jesus. He died for us. So when we die, we’ll be up there with him. In my room, I have three pictures of him.”
Now Ellie sees her Savior face to face.
In stark contrast, a ten-year-old boy in Florida was arrested Saturday evening for threatening in a text message to attempt a mass shooting. Detectives interviewed the boy and developed probable cause for his arrest.
In such troubled times, how can we raise more Ellie Garcias?
Let’s consider this story as a cultural parable: a severe lifeguard shortage is delaying public pool openings from coast to coast. Philadelphia has enough lifeguards to open only eighteen of the city’s sixty-five available outdoor pools. Chicago needs hundreds more lifeguards. The shortage will likely cause a large decline in swim lessons, which could lead to increased drownings.
Clearly, we need spiritual lifeguards to keep us from spiritual drowning. As we will see today, we have a binary choice to make. The wrong choice imprisons us, while the right choice liberates us.
Option one: “We belong to ourselves”
Alan Noble is one of the most perceptive evangelical cultural analysts in America. He has written for the Atlantic, Vox, Christianity Today, the Gospel Coalition, and First Things.
His latest book, You Are Not Your Own: Belonging to God in an Inhuman World, has received praise from Tim Keller, Michael Wear, Karen Swallow Prior, and Tish Harrison Warren among other leading evangelical voices. I had not seen his explanation of our cultural moment anywhere else and found it both biblical and empowering.
Noble views our root problem as “a particular understanding of what it means to be human: we are each our own, we belong to ourselves.” He quotes the influential claim of John Rawls that “freedom consists in pursuing our own conception of the good life while respecting the rights of others to do the same.”
However, Noble warns that if “we belong to ourselves,” there can be no common good, only “billions of private goods.” Since we have no objective means of validating ourselves with reference to objective truth or morality, we are constantly chasing the validation of others.
Some have given up, according to Noble, choosing an “alternative space to pursue existential justification” through social media and video games. Some choose marijuana, psychiatric medications, or other drugs and substances. But the prevalence of “deaths of despair” (suicides, alcohol-related deaths, and drug overdoses) and the epidemic of depression driven by feelings of inadequacy illustrate the pain we cannot resolve through self-reliance.
Option two: “You are not your own”
Noble then pivots to the good news: you are not your own. As Paul noted, “Your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, whom you have from God” (1 Corinthians 6:19). As a result, “You are not your own, for you were bought with a price” (vv. 19–20).
When we submit our lives to the One who made us and knows what is best for us, we experience a significance we can find nowhere else from no one else. Jesus sets us free from bondage to sin and self, the constant quest to be enough and to do enough.
There is now no image for us to maintain because we were made in the image of God. There is no identity for us to discover or create because our identity is found in Jesus’ love for us.
Noble notes that we are then free to live in light of God’s existence, goodness, and providence, trusting that he will make of us what is for his highest glory and our greatest good. We serve others because we wish to serve them whether they serve us or not. We have no need to justify ourselves before others because we are justified by the God of the universe.
We extend grace to others because we have received grace. And we do our best in the power of God’s Spirit and trust the results to him. Noble quotes T. S. Eliot, “For us there is only the trying. The rest is not our business.”
(For more, please see my reflections on Dr. Noble’s brilliant book in my personal blog.)
The key to spiritual dynamite
Paul said of Jesus, “Him we proclaim, warning everyone and teaching everyone with all wisdom, that we may present everyone mature in Christ. For this I toil, struggling with all his energy that he powerfully works within me” (Colossians 1:28–29).
Struggling translates a Greek word meaning to “fight, compete, do everything possible.” While Paul is giving his very best to help people know Christ, he is not alone in this fight: with all his energy that he powerfully works within me could be translated “with all the supernatural energy of Christ that is right now powerfully [dunamis, from which we get “dynamite”] energizing me.”
A saying often attributed to St. Ignatius or St. Augustine captures Paul’s testimony: “I will work as if everything depended on me; I will pray as if everything depended on God.” Said more briefly: as I work, God works. As Oswald Chambers noted, “When we choose deliberately to obey him, then he will tax the remotest star and the last grain of sand to assist us.”
Consequently, here’s the simple but transforming question: To whom will you belong today?