Puritan Hope for a Selfie Generation

Generation Z has been referred to as the Selfie Generation, a generation raised on the digital infrastructure of social media and the power of a computer in your pocket. The phrase “selfie generation” is not an abstract representation. The brave new world they inhabit utilizes selfies like currency. If a posted selfie does not receive the social capital of a certain amount of likes and reposts within its first moments, it is replaced with an image of greater potential worth. While those in older generations than Generation Z might find this behavior strange, we must all confess that no generation alive today has been left unaffected by these very same technologies. Social Media and instant access to a universe of opinions has had a dire impact on the very infrastructure of social and cognitive behavior, and society as a whole. The Selfie Generation is more “connected” than ever, yet at the same time far more lonely, far more depressed, far more suicidal, and fare more disconnected from the reality of God and His great love.

The current mood of self-obsession has us spiritually hunched over staring at our own feet and wondering why there is not more grandeur to life. The current mood of social justice has us believing that love is nothing more than a hashtag that requires no real sacrifice so long as we nod in the socially acceptable direction. The current mood of truth-fluidity has an entire culture believing that truth is nothing more than a social construct able to be torn down and rebuilt based on the feeling of the day.

Where can a shallow world turn to find an anchor for the soul and a properly set zeal for reality? Where can a world that has settled for quick fixes and cheap solutions turn when it is revealed that the world they have constructed is inconsistent and unsustainable? It is the Puritans that offer us a better direction, a deeper understanding of what it means to be alive, and a hunger for reality that can once again speak to our deepest affections.

H.L. Mencken, a well known cultural commentator from the early 1900’s, once defined Puritanism as, “the haunting fear that someone, somewhere, may be happy.” As witty as this comment may be, and as much as common sentiment believes it to be true, it is a patently false description of the Puritans. Actual Puritan history records a people much different than Mencken’s caricature. The Puritans were alive, in the fullest sense. Seeing life as a gift from God, they were committed to squeezing every last drop of life out of the fleeting moments they shared on this Earth.

“The Puritans were alive, in the fullest sense. Seeing life as a gift from God, they were committed to squeezing every last drop out of the fleeting moments they shared on this Earth.”

Their marriages were alive with love and passion. Their communities pursued deep friendships that knew how to have fun, play games, enjoy a good beer, and most importantly how to push each other towards greater pursuits of Christ with a zeal and discipline unparalleled (save a few movements) in human history.

Who were the Puritans?

Puritanism is rooted deeply in the Reformation. It was Reformers like Martin Luther, John Calvin, and John Knox (in the 1500’s) who split from the Roman Catholic Church with the aim to restore Christianity to its Biblical roots. In their view (which was correct!) the Catholic Church of their day had deeply veered off course (because of their insistence that Scripture is not the only source of authority) and had introduced all sorts of idolatrous practices and unbiblical beliefs such as penance, praying to dead saints, purgatory, the idolatry of Mary, the Vatican, among others.. The Reformers fought to build and restore Biblical Christianity by relying on Scripture alone. The shockwaves of the Reformation were felt all across Europe.

Eventually, the Reformation made its way to England where King Henry VIII, in a break from the Roman Catholic Church, formed the Church of England. By the 1560’s, many within the newly formed Church of England who were deeply fond of the great work of the Reformers in places like Geneva (with John Calvin) and Scotland (with John Knox), saw in the Church of England too great a similarity to Roman Catholicism. They felt Henry VIII had not gone far enough in his own split from Roman Catholicism, and that a far greater Reformation was needed. These dissenters were assigned nickname “Puritans” for their deep desire to pursue a “pure vision” for the Church. This nickname was originally a slanderous attack, but eventually stuck as a fitting description of these Christian saints.

As new leadership changed in England, these dissenting Puritans would experience seasons of deep persecution, where many would be put to death for their belief in the Christianity of the Reformation. This type of persecution was happening all throughout Europe which caused this ‘Puritan minority’ to begin to seek places of refuge for their families away from persecution, in order to live freely and joyfully. Many of them made their way to the shores of the New World (what is now America) where they built colonies, established schools, constructed Churches, and raised their children. As early American culture began to form, it was the Puritans who developed the underlying bedrock of the moral fabric of American society, the same moral fabric that (though embattled) has pervaded American history since its inauguration. The American values and freedoms that eventually became encoded in our Constitution were the first of their kind in human history, and they found their root cause in the Puritan values.

The Disciplined Life

The Puritans pursued a remarkably disciplined lifestyle. They considered each day an opportunity to pursue God, to enjoy God, and to develop the Kingdom of God. One of America’s most famous Puritan writers was Jonathan Edwards (1703-1758). God used the preaching of this man to stir on the Great Awakening of American History, a miraculous revival in which thousands upon thousands of people across the young forming American nation would be converted to faith in Christ in a short period of time.

I have read much of Edwards work. He clearly had both an intellect and a heart captivated by God. But of all his writings, what challenges me the most are his 72 Resolutions. I recall the first time I read through these resolutions and thinking, “I wish I had the discipline to live this kind of life.” These 72 “resolutions” were the fruit of Jonathan Edwards examining his life against the standard of Scripture, and determining in his heart and soul, to put proper personal disciplines in place in order to pursue Christ with greater effectiveness and passion. It would be well worth an hour of your time to slowly meditate one morning on all 72 resolutions. But in order to give you a taste of the faith of this man, examine the short sample below.

Resolved, to live with all my might, while I do live.

Resolved, never to do anything, which I should be afraid to do, if it were the last hour of my life.

Resolved, to act, in all respects, both speaking and doing, as if nobody had been so vile as I, and as if I had committed the same sins, or had the same infirmities or failings as others; and that I will let the knowledge of their failings promote nothing but shame in myself, and prove only an occasion of my confessing my own sins and misery to God.

Resolved, when I think of any theorem in divinity to be solved, immediately to do what I can towards solving it, if circumstances don’t hinder.

Resolved, to examine carefully, and constantly, what that one thing in me is, which causes me in the least to doubt of the love of God; and to direct all my forces against it.

Resolved, to endeavor to my utmost to act as I can think I should do, if I had already seen the happiness of heaven, and hell torments.

Resolved, very much to exercise myself in this all my life long, viz. with the greatest openness I am capable of, to declare my ways to God, and lay open my soul to him: all my sins, temptations, difficulties, sorrows, fears, hopes, desires, and every thing, and every circumstance; according to Dr. Manton’s 27th Sermon on Psalm 119.

Excerpt from Jonathan Edwards Resolutions.

Oh Christian — hear in these words a higher calling upon your life. Hear in these words a re-posturing of your time and your desires. What does it look like for a man to wholly love Christ and to yearn for the things of God in every area of his life? While no man alive today, or in the age of the Puritans, offers us the perfect image of this Godward life (for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God), the Puritans reached a height on that pursuit that is worthy of our reflection and imitation. Like master mountaineers, they have travelled the heights of the spiritual Himalayas and have left in their wake trails forged in spiritual sweat and toil for us to follow, in order to enjoy the same communion with God they so eagerly aspired to. They beckon us — come and follow.

Like master mountaineers, they have travelled the heights of the spiritual Himalayas and have left in their wake trails forged in spiritual sweat and toil for us to follow, in order to enjoy the same communion with God they so eagerly aspired to. They beckon us — come and follow.

Reviving the Puritan Spirit

We cannot go back in time, nor should we desire to. God has placed us here and now. The early Puritans faced their own trials and challenges. They were strangers and pilgrims on this Earth, yet knew they were beloved by God. They fought the good fight courageously even when put to the flames. They preached and prayed and lived and loved all for the glory of God. It is possible to live like a Puritan in our modern 21st century. It does not require that one purchase a new set of clothes, or move to an Amish settlement to do so. The Puritan spirit is one of inner conviction, devotion, and desire for God. The Puritan spirit is seen in the slow, focused, disciplined, daily pursuit of knowing God and enjoying our salvation. The Puritan spirit is one of seeking after truth and standing on God’s Word alone (sola Scriptura!) no matter the cost to personal gain or freedom. The Puritan spirit is other-worldly in the sense that it knows this world is not their final home. It strives for eternity, but lives today with the perspective that today matters deeply.

Oh Church — might we rediscover this hunger for God and for life lived for Christ that the Puritans of history so wonderfully held!

A Puritan Prayer for Today

O LORD,
I am a shell full of dust,
but animated with an invisible rational soul
and made anew by an unseen power of grace;
Yet l am no rare object of valuable price,
but one that has nothing and is nothing,
although chosen of thee from eternity,
given to Christ, and born again;
I am deeply convinced of the evil and misery of a sinful state,
of the vanity of creatures,
but also of the sufficiency of Christ.
When thou wouldst guide me I control myself,
When thou wouldst be sovereign I rule myself.
When thou wouldst take care of me I suffice myself.
When I should depend on thy providings I supply myself,
When I should submit to thy providence I follow my will,
When I should study, love, honour, trust thee, I serve myself;
I fault and correct thy laws to suit myself,
Instead of thee I look to man’s approbation,
and am by nature an idolater.
Lord, it is my chief design to bring my heart back to thee.
Convince me that I cannot be my own god, or make myself happy,
nor my own Christ to restore my joy,
nor my own Spirit to teach, guide, and rule me . . . .
Then take me to the cross and leave me there.

Arthur Bennett, ed., The Valley of Vision: A Collection of Puritan Prayers & Devotions

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