How Individualism Destroys the Pursuit of Wisdom and Ruins Everything

Recently our pastor preached an excellent sermon from Proverbs 4 entitled “Get Wisdom.” Together we looked at some of the ways we get wisdom: praying, reading the Bible, listening carefully to the Holy Spirit—that Inner Voice and Light that leads us. I was okay with all those, but the next two I was not enthusiastic about: tradition and wise counsel.

Emotionally I share my culture’s assumption that what is old is wrong and what is new, good. On cue I can trot out examples of church traditions that have been wrong, even unbiblical. Also, I am of that generation that declared we shouldn’t trust anyone over thirty. My graying generation still worships the youth culture no matter how silly or profane it becomes, and regrets we don’t have the energy to stay hip. We break with tradition; we don’t look to it for wisdom.

Here in Myrtle Point we also have a lot of good-ol’-boy individualism—western rugged individualism. We are quick to help, but often too proud and independent to ask for help. We make our own decisions and take responsibility for them no matter how stupid. We stubbornly insist on going it alone—without considering what wisdom, tradition, or others can offer. It is rebellion rooted in pride.

Cowboy individualism and Sixties rebellion are now a permanent part of our culture—even church culture. It may be most virulent in congregations that seek to engage our culture by making Jesus relevant. To a postmodern hipster generation, we preach Jesus as rebel—one who justifies our individualism and rejection of authority. We spiritualize this individualism as a refusal to conform to the world.  One of the great ironies of American culture is that non-conformity is now a mainstream value. The posture of the religious rebel and nonconformist is just another way we seek the world’s approval.

To the redneck or cowboy, we may preach a salvation that is just about them and God—and fail to mention that they were baptized into the church and are now part of the Body of Christ. The call to be dependent on other believers and receive from others is not a message we westerners want to hear. We rebel.

True rebellion against the world means valuing tradition and forsaking the tyranny of the temporary. Looking to tradition for wisdom runs counter to both the practice and spirit of our culture. We are a people who color outside the lines, march to our own drummer, and believe rules are made to be broken. Worldly individualism and rebellion blind us to the corporate character of biblical Christianity.  Many Christians can’t imagine submission and obedience as spiritual virtues.

Regarding tradition (the wisdom of the past), many of us are spiritually illiterate. We approach every problem or spiritual issue as though we are the first believers to ever be in this situation. We ignore the truths thousands of believers from the past have discovered. Attention to tradition gives the past a vote regarding what is wise and good, but too often this is one group whose voting rights we don’t defened.

Obviously, we can’t truly be Christians and completely avoid the disciplines of obedience, but we often stipulate that it is only Jesus or God’s Word that we will obey. We are each our own denomination. We can even elevate this into something spiritual: “I only listen to Jesus” or “I just read my Bible and do what God says to do.” We baptize our individualism and pass it off as single-minded devotion to God. Too often, however, the spirit behind this is simple rebellion and willfulness.

Again and again, I have seen people withdraw from church when they are about to make an unwise life decision. Or if they keep coming, they do not bring up or ask anyone in the church about the decision they face: getting married, taking a job, moving, etc. Others are told about the decision only after it is irreversible. Foolish decisions can devastate the lives of believers and thereby cripple our outreach to the community.

People sometimes withdraw from the church and avoid wise counsel because they already know what they want to do is foolish or even sinful. It is also possible that they have had negative experiences with meddling and controlling believers. Pastors and elders have sometimes sought to go beyond wise counsel into outright control and manipulation. So let me be clear, I am not advocating any type of control by the elders of the church, but simple take-or-leave-it advice that skillfully applies God’s Word to specific situations and decisions.

We shoiuld seek wise counsel because we can all have blind spots. Our own desires or the voices of our culture can blind us to what God’s Word says is right and good. When I strongly desire something, I can easily mistake my desire for God’s leading. I can’t always trust my heart. My emotions are a tangle of dreams of the future and nightmares of the past. In this clamor, I often need that victory that comes from many counselors (Proverbs 11:14).

But it is hard to admit I don’t have all the answers and all the wisdom. Actively seeking the wisdom of others not only requires that we forsake the idol of self-sufficiency and individualism, it means we must embrace something rare in our culture: humility.

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About Mark

I live in Myrtle Point, Oregon with my wife Teckla and am the father of four boys. Currently I teach writing and literature at Southwest Oregon Community College. I am a graduate of Myrtle Point High School, Northwest Nazarene College, and have a Masters in English from Washington State University.
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