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Lessons We Can Learn from ‘You Only Live Once’

“You only live once!” This phrase has become so popular that it has its own website, hashtag and acronym (YOLO).
The first time I became aware of this phrase was when I shared a devotional message with a large group of middle school students.

“What is the meaning of life?” I said, asking them to respond in a sentence or two. Several students didn’t even need a full sentence. They answered my question with this 4-letter acronym, YOLO

For the next three weeks, we discussed the meaning of life from God’s perspective, but the conversation continually came back to this phrase. For many of my students, this phrase said it all – providing meaning for their identities and telling them all they needed to know about life.

Since then, I have continued to ponder this phrase and its potential for defining a generation and culture.

It has been my experience that YOLO is often critiqued from the Christian viewpoint as the very definition of narcissism. There is some validity to this perspective.

YOLO is often used as validation for following our desires without thinking about the consequences or how our actions might affect others.

Yet, I wonder if we have not missed a wonderful opportunity to engage in a rich theological dialogue about the positive aspects of YOLO

While often used as an excuse for narcissistic habits, I find YOLO refreshing because this mantra acknowledges a fact that was often missing from the prevailing ideology of my generation.

I grew up in the world of Nintendo video games where second chances were plentiful; Mario could always find another life with ease. I was taught to reach for the stars and not to worry about limits. The options in life were limitless. Or so we thought.

I grew up in a time where boundaries were often ignored, or at the very least put on the backburner. And as practical theologian Andrew Root notes, the church has often embraced this message as its own.

“Too often we have been told that, as Christians, we need not fear death,” Root stated. “These are words more for Hallmark cards than for reality; these are more the words of sentimentality than the words of Jesus crucified and dying.”

Before 9/11, many had come to see death as optional, and safety as a given. Another prevailing attitude was that in a few years technological developments would mean death was no longer an issue.

After 9/11, the U.S. was forced to acknowledge that our sense of safety and security within our borders was a myth, and that death was an inevitable reality.

Before 2008, the prevailing attitude was that if you needed extra cash you could just use credit, as you would easily pay it back later when you graduated from college and secured a well-paying job in our robust economy.

After the economic downturn, we were forced to face the fact that a college education may not guarantee the American Dream or even allow us to provide for our family.

YOLO embraces a quintessential necessity that I found lacking growing up: Life is finite, resources are limited, and death is a reality that cannot be ignored.

Spending time engaging in dialogue with my middle school youth over the past month has given me hope because YOLO doesn’t have to be the next cultural trend with which the church does battle. It need not be viewed in a purely negative light.

Instead, it can be the starting point for a dynamic theological dialogue over the meaning of life. It can lead to conversations about the Christian hope that death doesn’t have to have the final say while encouraging us to live our days from a sense of purpose and calling.

The “you only live once” concept can provide a starting point for Christian reflection on the meaning and significance of life, which can remind us that self-centered living is contrary to Jesus’ teachings and encourage us to advance the common good with our words and through our actions.

Seth M. Vopat is the associate pastor of youth and family at Louisburg First Baptist Church in Louisburg, Kan., and a graduate of Central Baptist Theological Seminary. You can follow him on Twitter @svopat.