What Expressive Individualism Does to Sin

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In recent weeks, we’ve looked at various challenges facing the Christian church in the West, one of the biggest being expressive individualism—the be true to yourself mindset that finds self-fulfillment and expression as the highest goal of life.

In this type of society, isolation and loneliness become more common, in part because people resist relationships that include obligations that may infringe upon their understanding of personal freedom and autonomy. When the purpose of life is reconceived around finding one’s deepest self and expressing it to the world (as opposed to whatever constraints your family, church, society, or politics may put on you), then all of our most significant relationships become recast in light of personal self-development.

  • Marriage is about your “soul mate” completing you and making you happy as you pursue and become the best version of whatever makes you unique.
  • Friendship is an avenue for mutual self-fulfillment, where it is easy to take on new or leave behind old friendships, based on their success in offering personal benefits.
  • Churches are dispensers of religious goods and services, where congregants imagine themselves as consumers and expect the church’s teaching and activities to better their way of life.

To resist the expressive individualism of our day does not mean that we deny the beneficial aspects that come from these and other relationships. What we are to resist is the reframing of relationships around self-fulfillment as the goal. Once we recast our relationships in the light of expressive individualism, something changes in our interactions, our goals, and our orientation toward one another. The self takes center stage.

Nowhere do we see this redefining of relationship more clearly than in our understanding of God and humanity, particularly our view of what constitutes sin.

Radically Different Churchgoers 

In This Is Our Time, I point to research from Barna that shows the large percentage of churchgoing Christians (66 percent) who say “enjoying yourself is the highest goal of life.” That percentage is lower than the number for all Americans (84 percent), but it is still remarkably high, especially among churches that, on paper perhaps, would claim that the “chief end of man is to glorify Him and enjoy Him forever.”

What does this mean? Church people have radically different orientations when it comes to the purpose of life.

  • Imagine a woman standing during worship, singing to the Lord, hopeful and anxious to fulfill her purpose as someone made in God’s image and redeemed by Jesus’s sacrifice. Her frame of reference is biblical. God is at the center.
  • Next to her stands a man who sees this worship service as helping him fulfill his own personal mission: to enjoy himself as much as possible in this life by being the best version of himself he can be. His frame of reference is moralistic.
  • Beside them is a teenage girl who sees this worship service as absolving her of negative feelings and pointing her toward a higher calling. Her frame of reference is therapeutic.

These churchgoers sing the same songs and hear the same sermons, but the reasons they are in church diverge significantly.

The moralistic man sees church like this: The purpose of life is to be a good person, and I will be happier if I feel like I’m righteous. The church makes me a better person—able and willing to do the right thing.  

The therapeutic teenager sees church like this: The purpose of life is to feel happy, and I will feel happier if I can escape bad feelings of guilt and shame. The church helps me feel good about myself by putting me in touch with a higher destiny and empowering me to chase my dreams.

In both of these cases, the churchgoers see their community of faith as an aid in living whatever life they already intend.

Conflict and Sin

People may go to church with the moralistic or therapeutic framework for years without running into conflict—cheering for the worship team when there’s uplifting music, nodding along with the pastor who offers biblical teaching on various relationships, or finding comfort and solace in others when a life need arises or a tragedy occurs.

Until the question of sin comes into view. Suddenly there is conflict. It’s often here that the true nature of this churchgoer comes to the forefront.

Imagine that the man in this scenario has drifted toward an immoral relationship and has decided to divorce his spouse, but wants to remain in good standing in the congregation. When the church gets involved, the man is shocked (first) that anyone in the church would think his “personal life choices” are anyone else’s business, and (second) that anyone would be so judgmental as to call him to repentance. Then the tables get turned: the church is wrong to stand in the way of his self-fulfillment.

In biblical terms, sin refers to the transgression of God’s Word—the breaking of his commandments and the personal resistance toward God that stems from a rebellious heart. The solution is repentance, a change of heart toward God and away from sin.

But what happens to sin in a society where expressive individualism reigns? If the first and greatest commandment is to “be yourself,” then the unforgivable sin is to be false or to wilt before some external benchmark that others (like the church) might foist upon you. Sin is the failure to be true to yourself. Thus, the solution is not repentance, but reassertion. It’s to reestablish your claim to ultimate sovereignty over your life and to courageously resist the outside forces that would call you to any kind of “conformity.”

Do you see the distinction here? There’s still a notion of sin or wrongdoing, but the concept changes radically depending on whether the person has a God-centered biblical definition or lives within a moralistic therapeutic framework.

For a society awash in expressive individualism, the greatest commandment is to be yourself and the second is like it: to affirm and applaud whatever self your neighbor chooses to be. The greatest sins, then, are to deny yourself or to question or judge someone else’s self-expression.

This radical redefining of sin leads many people who still sense the need for a moral ballast or spiritual dimension to pull away from historic Christianity and toward a more generic kind of “inspiration.” More on that in the next column.

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