A Biblical Response to “You Do You”

One of the most curious effects that traveling to another country can have on us is the illumination the time away brings to deeply embedded cultural mindsets we’ve developed in our current country of residence without even realizing it. For example, some countries have shame-based cultures where it is extremely important not to say or do things that would cause another person to feel embarrassed or to “lose face” in front of their community. As a result, communication styles in these cultures tend to be non-confrontational and indirect. When I have spent more than a couple of weeks immersed in these cultures, I’ve found myself startled upon return to Los Angeles at the rather direct, confrontational communication style we practice here. I also realize how I, generally mild-mannered by nature and raised initially in a shame-based culture, have become increasingly confrontational and direct over time as I’ve assimilated more into Americanized values. This highlights how subtly we can grow accustomed to—and adopt—the messages and practices of our immediate culture without realizing it.

This brings me to some reflection on a very popular phrase and mindset frequently espoused in per-pandemic days, “You do you.” I’ve said it. You’ve likely said it. Perhaps we’ve said it to each other. It’s been used so commonly in so many contexts, I barely bat an eyelash when I hear it. But even in an unprecedented pandemic in our lifetime, when we have all been pushed to consider the greater good over personal preferences and some significant, valid personal needs, we still see ways in which this individualistic value still remains at the core of what drives our behavior. I have to pause and consider whether I’ve practiced enough spiritual critique on this phrase, or if I’ve settled too much into this world as my home.

I’d like to offer three thoughts to help us think through a more Biblical perspective on “You do you.”

1.     Be aware of the self-centered versus God-centered cultural backdrop which shapes and reinforces the use of this phrase.

There are obviously plenty of neutral, light-hearted situations where we use "You do you!", like talking about strange pizza topping preferences or wearing shorts in the middle of winter. But by and large, the intention behind “You do you” springs a great deal from our individualistic culture and the high value we place on indulgent self-expression and personal pursuits above all else  (2 Tim. 3:1-4). Certainly there may be nuances in which the intent in using this phrase may be a God-honoring desire to encourage someone in their God-honoring pursuits. But I think it’s safe to say in the majority of cases, we as a culture are simply encouraging individualism and self-seeking with little regard for God or others. In pandemic times, we see this play out in varying degrees as we witness intense debate about what safe social distancing actually looks like, to what degree we need to continue it, and why. We can see perhaps now more than ever how much we balk against our personal freedoms being taken away from us.

2.     Scripture tells us to view our uniqueness in light of worshiping God with our lives, and serving others well with our specific passions, giftings, and even our individual preferences.

Psalm 139 is one of the most well-known passages about our individual uniqueness in this world. But we see in verse 14 that this Biblical recognition of uniqueness begins with worshiping God and leads to more worship of Him, not of us.

“I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made. Wonderful are your works; my soul knows it very well.”

Romans 12:1-13 describes how God gives unique gifts to His children, setting each person apart from others in the Body of Christ. But again, the passage starts off in verse one with a command to worship God. “I appeal to you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship.” Paul goes on to exhort us towards humility when we consider our individual strengths and giftings (vs. 3), and then describes in verses 4-13 how we are to use our strengths and giftings to love and serve others. There is no rogue encouragement of “You do you” for the sake of self-seeking. Rather, individual uniqueness is identified as a venue for worshiping God and serving others.

When considering personal practices regarding what is honoring to the Lord, Paul exhorts us in Romans 14:13-19 to mindfully and selflessly consider one another when we adhere to our personal convictions over gray, non-essential spiritual questions such as appropriate foods. I would argue that this applies as well to debatable choices we make in terms of our pandemic lifestyle. In such matters, our personal convictions ought not to be dictated solely by a “You do you” mentality, but must be shaped by love and consideration of others who may be caused to stumble by the external display of our individual preferences.

“So then let us pursue what makes for peace and for mutual upbuilding” (vs. 19). 

3.     Look to Christ as the ultimate model for “You do you.”

Jesus shows us through His life and ministry how to say an appropriate “yes” and also an appropriate “no” to “You do you."

If we look closely at Jesus’s early ministry, we see how steadfast, focused and secure He is in identity and purpose. In the Gospels, He performs signs, wonders, and forgiveness of sins to show He is more than just another ordinary man. But He also at times exhorts people not to speak too broadly of His fame. He knows His purpose and identity are not to be a renowned earthly king, but rather the Heavenly King. During His life on earth, He uses His power to validate and hold fast to His identity and mission as the Lamb of God to be offered up for the sins of the world. Despite all the calls from the world to be the ruler they wanted, Jesus says a resounding “yes” to the phrase “You do you” as He faithfully obeys His Father's call to be Savior and the Sacrificial Redeemer.

But as He takes the road to the cross, He then lives out this fascinating denial of self, even as He remains true to His purpose and calling. “Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.” (Phil. 2:5-8) He says “no” to “You do you” when it comes to any God-dishonoring form of self-seeking, and goes with resolve to the cross. Here we see how Jesus’s refusal to use “You do you” as a means of self-preservation leads to the glorification of the Father and salvation for all who would believe. In other words, He says a resounding “no” to a self-centered “You do you” in order to love God the Father and serve others with His life. It is His selflessness that frees us from our sinful preoccupation with self, and empowers us to live unto Him.

Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.” (Phil. 2:9-11)

Jesus held to “You do you” only in that His identity and purpose remained solely fixed upon worshiping God and serving others. It is from Him, then, that we learn how to turn this popular phrase on its head and heed it as a call to glorify God and love others with all we are.