Individualism: the idea that freedom of thought and action for each person is the most important quality of a society, rather than shared effort and responsibility
I’ve got to say, I’m a little conflicted about this topic. Because I really love my freedom of thought and action. Really really.
It’s also clear to me that we’ve gone too far with it.
But it’s really hard to draw the line between personal freedom and shared responsibility, isn’t it?
Individualism is one of the greatest innovations in history. It has its roots in the Bible. It’s the foundation of our country, and of all Western society. I wouldn’t trade it.
But it also has a long list of downsides.
Individualism combines with our natural human arrogance in an insidious way. I don’t think it would be off-base to say that all of the major problems we’re facing in our society right now are all consequences of individualism. Our division, our suspicion of one another, our inability to talk about our values with people who don’t agree, the idea of a post-truth world, even the staggering wealth gap, and the disappearing middle class, all stem from individualism run amok.
But it’s still better than the alternatives, which on the extreme end politically would be communism and totalitarianism, and in the local church and community would be communal living, and I really like my privacy.
So I’m conflicted.
That’s why we’re looking at everything Jesus taught about the American Way. Because there are a lot of things about being an American that aren’t necessarily bad, that shape the way we see the world, and the way we approach God. But they sure aren’t Christian. And individualism is one of those things.
Individualism is all about each person doing things their own way.
That’s not the way the world always was, and there’s a whole history to that, but it’s kind of boring, so we’re not going to get into it.
Well maybe just a little. And really reductionistic…
So…why did the Pilgrims cross the ocean?
To get to the other side!
No, religious persecution.
In England, in the 17th century, it was illegal to not belong to the Church of England. And the Puritans were Calvinists, and we tend to be a pugnatious bunch, and so they left England, and went to the Netherlands, and then came to America.
Their individualism came out of protest against an oppressive government. And that’s why our Constitution is the way that it is when it comes to the freedom of religion, and speech, and assembly.
So there is individualism against government.
Fast forward a few hundred years, and America became the land of opportunity for new pilgrims all over the globe who wanted to follow their own path.
If you lived in Italy, and your family made shoes, and you didn’t want to make shoes, and you also didn’t want to join the military or become a priest, you came to America! Multiply that story by a few hundred million, and you see how there is individualism against family history.
Now fast forward again to the last century, on Madison Ave in New York, in the swanky offices of Advertising executives, and see them figure out that a sure fire way to get people to buy things they don’t need is to convince them that they can express their individuality with what they buy.
Now you’ve got individuality for it’s own sake.
And today, with social media, and with deregulated news, that’s what the heritage of pilgrims, and the founders, has become culturally. Individualism for its own sake.
The other stuff is in there too, when we need it.
But in our daily world, purposeful individualism has become expressive individualism. Individualism aimed at making a difference, has become individualism aimed at making money. The good part is always in there! But what we see at the surface isn’t always so good.
Especially for Christians.
Because as Christians, what should matter most to us isn’t the Constitution, or expressing our individuality, but following Jesus. What should matter most to us isn’t the desires and devices of our own hearts, but Jesus’ heart.
Just because something sounds good doesn’t make it Christian, and if something isn’t Christian, Christians shouldn’t believe it.
So what does Jesus have to say? Our teaching from Jesus isn’t necessarily about individualism, but it is about our identity.
It’s one of the many passages in the Bible where God refers to us as sheep, which was just as offensive then as it is now.
That’s the first lesson we need to take away from this passage before we even read it.
We are a lot like sheep. We are social animals. It is not good for us to be alone. And if we end up following the wrong leader, we will get in serious trouble.
On to John 10…
1 “Very truly, I tell you, anyone who does not enter the sheepfold by the gate but comes in another way is a thief and a bandit.
Jesus is warning us here that there will always be people who want our agreement and allegiance. But if they don’t enter by the gate, they’re coming in under false pretenses.
Jesus says a little further down that he is the gate, so I think Jesus is warning us here against false teachers. Against those who deny our need for salvation from sin, against those who tell us what part of us really wants to hear.
Maybe those who sneak in and tell us, You’re not a sheep. You’re smarter than the rest. You’re better. Leave these suckers, and come with me.
Actually, that really is one of the false teachings of individualism today. There are a lot of people making a lot of money telling people what their sinful self desperately wants to hear. To look out for number one. To do whatever it takes to get ahead. That there is no right or wrong, only power and money.
Another story that gets told by those that sneak over the fence isn’t always bad. Especially when it’s told by Disney. And that’s the story that who you are inside is all that matters. That’s actually a true story. Especially if you’re Moana. Or Martin Luther.
Sometimes it really is God’s will for people to buck the system and be different. To make one part of the outside world match your inner reality, or die trying.
But where it goes off the rails sometimes is when we believe that EVERYTHING should be like that. That everything in our lives should match how we feel inside. That our desires should always be our guide. That, ultimately, we don’t need a shepherd. That’s where it goes wrong.
Even just practically, it doesn’t work.
For a couple of reasons.
First, our deepest desires contradict each other. We want to have a fulfilling career that makes lots of money, AND we want to spend every evening with our family, AND we want to do meaningful volunteer work, AND we want time alone.
Francis Spufford puts it like this in Unapologetic:
“You are a being whose wants make no sense, don’t harmonize: whose desires, deep down, are discordantly arranged, so that you truly want to possess and you truly want not to, at the very same time. You’re equipped, you realize, for farce (or even tragedy) more than you are for happy endings.”
So there needs to be more guiding us than just our feelings. We are sheep. And we need a shepherd.
2 The one who enters by the gate is the shepherd of the sheep. 3 The gatekeeper opens the gate for him, and the sheep hear his voice. He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out.
He calls us by name. We are his own. And he leads us.
That’s the opposite of individualism today. Which would say “You do you” Name yourself. Own yourself. Lead yourself.
That’s supposed to be freeing, but it sounds like a lot of pressure to me. We tell our young people, “You’ve got to have a dream. And then YOU have to acheive it!”
But that’s not what Jesus says here. Jesus says that he names you. You belong to him. And he will lead you. Just purely practically speaking, that sounds better to me.
4 When he has brought out all his own, he goes ahead of them, and the sheep follow him because they know his voice.
Look at this word “all.” When he has brought out all his own. As in, together. In a group. Or technically, a flock. And that’s something that we need too.
It is part of our design to seek out community.
But we’re doing it all wrong today because of our individualism.
Jesus didn’t say, “Okay sheep, get into your affinity groups! Make sure that you agree with all the sheep around you before we head out.” No, he called them all out together. And he was in charge.
He brought out all his own, he leads them, and the sheep follow him because they know his voice.
11 “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.
See, this is why Jesus is qualified lead us. There was nothing in it for him. Everything that he did, he did selflessly.
And he died for you. He’s not just the good shepherd because he’s good at shepherding. He’s the good shepherd because he’s good. Jesus is good in a way that the world has never seen anywhere else. And he proved that by dying for us.
We follow our feelings, even though they are fleeting. We follow people because they said something we agree with. But Jesus calls us to follow him, and he knows our names, and he died for us.
12 The hired hand, who is not the shepherd and does not own the sheep, sees the wolf coming and leaves the sheep and runs away—and the wolf snatches them and scatters them. 13 The hired hand runs away because a hired hand does not care for the sheep.
Ultimately, this is what every other leader, or idea, or philosophy will do when trouble comes. Run away. Because they ultimately don’t care about you. They only care about themselves. When the wolves come, you find out that you were only a means to an end for them.
But for Jesus, you were the end itself.
14 I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me, 15 just as the Father knows me and I know the Father. And I lay down my life for the sheep.
So what do we do with individuality then as Christians?
We have seen that there are positives to individuality, to going your own way. If you look at people in the Bible, or Christian leaders in history, like the reformers, you know that simply going the direction of everyone else isn’t the answer. Without individuality we wouldn’t have a story of Noah building an ark, or John the Baptist in the desert, and we wouldn’t have Protestants, like Presbyterians. So individuality isn’t all bad.
There will be times when you look around at the other sheep and think “this isn’t what we should be doing at all! What are these other sheep thinking?” Because God has made each of us different, and there are moments when we have to be the one sheep who leaves the rest and goes in a different direction.
But like the other values of the American way, we have looked at these past few weeks, we can take it too far. Because while there are times when we need to hold on to our individuality against the movement of the crowds around us, we are never apart from God. Or, to use Jesus’ metaphor, we might not agree with the other sheep, but when the shepherd calls, we follow.
In your own life, it can be tempting to forget this. To let your individuality, your desire to do it my way, let you ignore God’s leading and call. You can become so committed to your own plans and perspective that when you hear God’s direction, you go running the other way.
This is the tension, for all of us, as Christians. God has made each of us unique and individual, and yet, calls us to follow Him.
And, in God’s great wisdom, we are called to do that, together.
About the Author
David Collins is the co-pastor of Maitland Presbyterian Church near Orlando, FL. Find him on Twitter @davidrcollins