Individualism: Good or Bad?

By Jim Barringer

Western culture is highly individualistic in nature, and it is often taken for granted – with little to no explanation why it should be true – that people are the centers of their own universes, and that it is a Very Good Thing ™ for people to have nearly limitless ability to choose their own personalities and shape their own lives. Periodically, this will lead to criticism against the nature of Christianity, because our faith asserts that there is only one solution to what’s wrong with humanity, that certain behaviors are absolutely right and absolutely wrong, and that all humans everywhere have the obligation to conform to the will of Almighty God, who alone has authored life and alone has the ability to dictate the way people should live.

Broadly speaking, western philosophy believes that anything which tempers the expression or development of any individual’s uniqueness must be bad. This is the message spread, subtly or overtly, in the vast majority of western writing and cinema. “Just be yourself, don’t listen to the crowd, and don’t let anything stop you from being who you are.” The flaws in this idea are numerous. Are we to suggest that “who I am” should be immune from criticism? What if “who I am” is a bigot and a racist, as I was in the past before I met Christ? If “just be yourself” is an absolute truth, then no one has any grounds to criticize any other person’s behavior.

Yet we can plainly see that “just be yourself” is not an absolute, because we are more than willing to outlaw any behaviors that harm society. We establish that “just be yourself” is not valid for you if “yourself” is a murderer, a person who spreads hate speech, a wife-beater, or even just a person who drives too fast on the interstate. Indeed, laws against these things exist precisely because “yourself,” untempered, leads to anarchy and chaos. Simply by living in a country that has laws, you and I are voicing our agreement with the fact that unrestrained individualism is disastrous because, for whatever reason – Christians would say the sin nature inherent in all of us – individuals tend not to care very much about anything other than themselves. Look at what happens in a place like Haiti after the earthquake, New Orleans after the hurricane: looting, chaos, individualism carried to its logical conclusion where the laws of the land no longer apply. But I think the same would happen anywhere. If some calamity broke down society, I have a hard time believing that you or I would starve quietly instead of stealing food to feed our families.

But this is not to imply that individualism is bad. In fact, I think that God considers it a very good thing, and it is best when it is restrained not by the arbitrary law of a secular government, but by the individual himself, who understands that his individual character, behaviors, and temperament were given to him by God, and are beautiful as long as they are used to that end.

In fact, God celebrates diversity and individual differences. Speaking in the context of spiritual gifts, the apostle Paul wrote, “The body is not made up of one part but of many. You all have different abilities, but they all come from the same Spirit” (1 Cor 13:4,2). Church would be a pretty bland place if there was no individual difference between us, wouldn’t it? What if everyone in your church was a pastor? The preaching would be great, but the worship would be cringe-worthy. Yet God, to show off his majesty, made us all different, and then set us in one body where our gifts and skills complement each other. You’re an introvert? That’s fine; someone else is an extrovert, and would be happy to greet newcomers at the door. You play guitar? Great; that guy over there plays drums, and that lady sings, so let’s put you all together and make something more than the sum of your parts. There’s something in the church for everybody, because we understand that individual differences have both a source and a goal. The source is God; the goal is unity in him.

God loves diversity. In Revelation 7, he brags that heaven will be populated with people from “every tongue, and tribe, and nation.” Even eternity with God doesn’t mean all of us melting into blandness. He wants us to keep the things that made us unique: our language, our identity. Here on earth, diversity divides. Language separates people who don’t understand each other. Nations make war with each other. But there will be a coming day when individual differences can be celebrated, not quibbled over. It’s unity in diversity. All the people on earth, as different as they all are, united together for one common goal, which is worshiping God and celebrating life together for eternity.

But what about all the rules and such? How can God author one set of rules and expect them to apply to so many unique people? The answer is quite simple. Jesus tells us that the two most important rules are “Love God” and “Love your neighbor” unconditionally. Later, God gives us a set of benchmarks, called “the fruit of the Spirit:” love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, etcetera. Those behaviors are absolutely mandatory. Why? Because we can’t have meaningful community without them. Imagine a society where nobody was loving or joyful or patient; who would want to live there? This is why God says that, in order to have true community, we must have certain personality traits, the ones that help us take the focus off ourselves and let us see our part in the larger picture of God’s family. Just like secular society says that murder and hate speech are the opposites of healthy society, so God says that certain behaviors are simply necessary and others are simply impossible for his goal of unity in diversity.

This is what separates God’s individualism from its modern perversion. God’s has a source, that being God, and a goal, which is unity in diversity. Modern individualism has no source, other than the accidental genetics you got from your parents, and no goal, other than for you to be yourself, which as we’ve seen may or may not be beneficial to you personally or to society. If individual expression does not have a divine source, then there is no reason not to subjugate it to the whims of the state. Why should the state allow us freedom of expression or even freedom of thought, unless those things are rights granted to us by a source higher than the state?

We must understand that God is the author of all we have. Our individual differences are not bad, and are useful for glorifying him, as long as they are used for that purpose. If we make individualism the means and the end, rather than the means to the end of glorifying God, then it becomes selfish and unfocused, serving no purpose except to justify selfishness at the expense of other people. Only in Christ can we discover the true nature of our individual selves and find the purpose for which we were given individuality at all.

Jim Barringer is a 26-year-old writer, musician, and teacher serving at The Church of Life (.com) in Orlando, FL. More of his work can be found at facebook.com/jmbarringer and ExtantMagazine.com. This work may be reprinted for any purpose so long as this bio and statement of copyright is included.

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