When Nietzsche famously declared, “God is dead,” we often assume the atheist philosopher said it triumphantly. Yet Nietzsche didn’t really pronounce the death of God—by which he meant the idea of God and religion had died following the triumph of reason and science—as a wholesale victory.
While on the one hand, it was a triumph (as he understood it), on the other hand, Nietzsche saw the cost: “our entire European morality.” Nietzsche prophesied a dark time to follow, a process of crumbling and terror when there would be no reason to be “moral.” He predicted a post-God world would result not only in the loss of “Christian” morality but also in a descent into meaninglessness and the breakdown of a unified sense of self, identity, and purpose.
In the post-Christian West, we’re seeing Nietzsche’s predictions play out. Something else must take the place of God if there’s any hope of navigable meaning. God’s absence must be filled by some presence—and many candidates are vying to fill the void. In particular, we’ve noticed two maps of meaning that have grabbed the hearts of many: comfort culture and hustle ideology. In one sense, they’re opposites. In another, they’re fraternal twins: different features, same parents.
By comfort culture, we mean Netflix bingeing, online gaming, hours of Candy Crush, scrolling Instagram reels, fantasy sports, self-indulgent Amazon sprees, foodie culture addiction—all comfy couch consolations to fill the meaning gap. Essentially, this is consumerism in late modernity as a form of spiritual transcendence. It’s not that these activities are bad in themselves. But they can become a problem when they create a “comfort culture” that idolizes rest to the point of finding meaning in slothfulness, consumption to ameliorate ennui. It’s the mindset of working merely to make play possible.
Critics of comfort culture are right to point out that idolizing rest is poor stewardship of the time God gives us. While that’s true, the opposite extreme—a hyperproductive lifestyle of optimizing the self—can be just as erroneous and disappointing.
In our experience with young people, especially at the beginning of their professional lives—or perhaps seeking to rebound from years wasted in comfort culture—hustle ideology can feel like a more fulfilling path to finding meaning.
If you doubt the prevalence of hustle-and-grind ideology in today’s world, consider how many people listen to The Joe Rogan Experience. The show has over 13 million subscribers and billions of views. Billions. Although Rogan covers an extremely wide range of topics (from martial arts to alternative medicine to alien spacecraft), there’s a strong thread that runs through the show about working hard, challenging yourself, never giving up, and grinding until you win. Rogan’s massive influence (particularly among young men) speaks to the appeal of this increasingly popular map of meaning.
By hustle-and-grind ideology, we don’t simply mean hard-working lifestyles. Rather, it’s the ideology of pursuing a future version of the self—tougher, harder, more successful, more complete—through relentless self-improvement.
This sort of attitude is expressed, for example, in the proliferation of productivity books and, perhaps most viscerally, in the fitness world’s ubiquity of jujitsu studios and Crossfit boxes.
One example of hustle ideology is David Goggins, a former Navy SEAL. His book Can’t Hurt Me: Master Your Mind and Defy the Odds is a bestseller. Goggins offers inspirational quotes ranging from aphorisms such as “I don’t stop when I’m tired, I stop when I’m done” to “It’s so easy to be great nowadays, because everyone else is weak.” This mindset evokes the idea of apotheosis (the ascension to deity): be great and then be god. And there’s a sense that if the greatest end is the greatest version of you, then the greatest version of you, whoever that is, is divine. It’s idolizing the optimized self.
There’s a sense that if the greatest end is the greatest version of you, then the greatest version of you, whoever that is, is divine. It’s idolizing the optimized self.
Statements such as those above have become more culturally acceptable through the addition of a modernized Stoicism. This ancient philosophy as understood by modern thinkers like Ryan Holiday and donald robertson combines the credibility of the Greco-Roman worldview with the modern hustle mentality as a way to bridge the meaning gap. Stoicism provides a secular framework for processing experiences such as grief, pain, tragedy, failure, and even death—a difficult exercise in the absence of God.
Hustle culture idolizes work and gainz (let the reader understand). But comfort idolatry and work idolatry are both consolation prizes in a world seeking meaning apart from God. Christians must be aware of how these ubiquitous temptations might be gripping their hearts.
We recognize God’s good gifts in things like quality films and gaming, working hard and working out. And yet our daily patterns—if Christ hasn’t conquered our schedule—will naturally drift toward the norms of the subculture near us: for some, what’s easy (chasing comfort), and for others, what’s hard (optimizing the ideal self). Binge streaming and binge lifting might seem like opposites, but they’re both examples of how good gifts can become idols.
False religions are hard to pinpoint when they’re wrapped up in some of the most obvious common-grace gifts of God. That’s why Christians must be especially sensitive to the hold these idols can have on their hearts and those of their brothers and sisters in faith. Enjoy the common graces of God, but don’t idolize the entertained self or the optimized self. Both gods end in meaninglessness.
Binge streaming and binge lifting might seem like opposites, but they’re both examples of how good gifts can become idols.
In theory, Christians know Nietzsche was wrong to pronounce God “dead.” And yet when we live as though our comfort or self-optimization are the ultimate sources of meaning, we inadvertently prove Nietzsche’s point. Even if our secular neighbors seek to fill the meaning void in these unsatisfying places, Christians should double down on committing themselves to the truly satisfying sources of meaning: Scripture, church community, worship, prayer, and an outward-focused posture of loving God and neighbor—the rhythms of the Christian life.
When the false promises of consumer comfort leave our neighbors wanting and hustle culture leaves them weary, we should be ready to welcome them in. Let’s embrace the pilgrims of a Nietzschean world, pointing them to the One who offers freeing truth (John 8:31–32), lifted burdens (Matt. 11:28–30), and life everlasting (John 5:24).