What’s wrong with YOLO?

David Quinn —  November 26, 2012 — 2 Comments

yoloThis post is a response to one of the suggestions we’ve received on the blog. Here’s the question:

“How does a Christian respond to the popular YOLO (you only live once) philosophy? Do you only live once? How many times do you live, if not? One? Three? I’ve heard some funny things on the matter, from Christians and others alike.”

First, allow me to provide a little background for those of you over age 25. You’ve probably never heard the saying unless you work with high school or college students. You may want to begin by reading, “What is YOLO? Only teenagers know for sure” for some background. Urban Dictionary defines YOLO as “carpe diem for stupid people.” When I was younger, I received my healthiest dose of this maxim from Dead Poet’s Society, in which the unorthodox professor (Robin Williams) encourages his students to push beyond the boundaries of their youth and the status quo to seize the day. It’s so powerful I still cry every time I watch the [spoiler alert] final scene.

The idea behind carpe diem is to live life to its fullest and make your life count by doing something extraordinary because we all die eventually. It sounds similar to the desire of the Psalmist who says, “Teach us to number our days, that we may present to you a heart of wisdom” (Psalm 90:12). YOLO, however, is far less honorable. It’s more like saying, “your one life is short, so do whatever you want and don’t listen to what anyone else says.” The first is very intentional with a view to the future, while the second is short sighted and selfish. The rise of the YOLO philosophy is reflective of a youth culture that highly values new experiences. The experiences themselves do not need to have an aim or a goal in order for them to be worth trying out. YOLO fits perfectly in our culture because it’s all about having an experience without thinking about consequences.

There is a significant problem with a YOLO outlook on life. It reveals how easy it is for us to arrive at wrong conclusions about things based on limited facts. Is life short? Do you live only one time? Even if the answers are yes, they don’t tell us how we should live. Yes, we need to seriously ask the question of whether we live only one time. After finding the answer, we need to ask other questions as well. If I only live one time, how should I live? The answer to that question is where YOLO falls apart.

The letter written to the Hebrews says, “it is appointed for man to die once, and after that comes judgment” (Heb. 9:27). No matter how much you like the idea of reincarnation or zombies, each person lives once and dies once on this earth. But that doesn’t in any way tell us how we should live. We need to look elsewhere to answer that question. The Apostle Paul encourages you to “make the most of your time, because the days are evil” (Eph. 5:16). Or, as another writer says, “don’t waste your life.”

wonka_yoloHow you live during your one life will have a big impact on what happens later in your own life and after you die. It will also have a huge impact on the people who live with you or after you. If you don’t think this is true, then ask a mom with two kids how the man they depend on impacts their lives when he goes to prison for one bad decision. Ask a husband whose wife left him because she had a one-night stand. Talk to the guy dying of cancer because he drank and smoked incessantly in his youth. We all have the potential to do great good and great evil during our lifetimes—sometimes as a result of single decisions.

Far from inspiring you to waste your life, an understanding of life’s brevity should give you a desire to make the most of it. Knowing that you live one time should inspire you to pursue a meaningful life.

Maybe we should add one more question to this whole discussion. What is the purpose or meaning of my life, or what happens after I die? If you believe your life has no purpose other than experiencing everything imaginable, or that nothing happens after you die, YOLO will make a lot of sense as a philosophy. If you believe that God created people and will judge them, leading to two very different scenarios after death, then you should want to live with the intention of knowing God and living according to His purposes in your lifetime.

Consider Solomon’s advice to young people, which applies wisdom to the freedom that accompanies youth:

“Rejoice, O young man, in your youth, and let your heart cheer you in the days of your youth. Walk in the ways of your heart and the sight of your eyes. But know that for all these things God will bring you into judgment” (Eccl. 11:9).

Remember that judgment awaits us all. Consider your future judgment and submit every area of your life to Jesus. It will mean the difference between living a short ruinous life, and living an abundant life. We will all experience resurrection and judgment in the end, some to eternal life and some to eternal separation from God. The great tragedy would be to run around saying YOLO after every thoughtless thing you do in life, and lose your soul.

Finally, the Bible has a lot more to say about living for the moment with no thought to the future, which you can look up on your own. It has many creative ways to call you a “fool” if that’s the way you’re going to live. Read the book of Proverbs and you will see hundreds of examples. Your future (should you live to see it) will be full of regrets, pain, suffering, bad relationships, and a few stories you can tell people about the stupid things you did when you acted without thinking. At that point, you’ll probably be trying to tell some young person why he should not live the same way you did when you were young.

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David Quinn

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David is the Director of Institutional Assessment at Eternity Bible College. He started following Jesus when he was nine, grew up in the San Fernando Valley, and went to college with the plan of graduating and moving to a jungle somewhere. Instead, he started serving in high school ministry and worked for nine years at a Christian relief and development agency serving children in need. He gained experience traveling, teaching and learning from the global church in over fifteen countries, while developing strategic partnerships and evaluating the effectiveness of programs. He is passionate about organizing massive amounts of information and turning it into stories. David and his wife Anna live in Simi Valley and serve in various ministries at Cornerstone Church.
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  • Randy Drake

    I loved your post. After reading through it twice, I agree with everything that was said. I would add this as well:

    The term “YOLO” was made famous by the rapper Drake in his song “The Motto” from his sophomore album Take Care.

    I don’t suggest anyone listen to the song, but I did appreciate one thing about it that many people missed. The song comes out of a dyadic perspective. The term YOLO, as presented by Drake, is not simply to do whatever you want as an individual. It is about doing what is best for the culture or even the team. I think a lot gets lost in translation from black rappers to a white audience. There is a lot of history behind my previous sentence, but I think the frequent uses of the first-person pronoun “we” throughout the song make the message clear. This contrasts heavily against a largely individualistic American culture.