In a post several months ago, I wrote, “Our mission requires self-denial, but we cannot make self-denial be the mission.”
What do you think about this idea?
A friend commented wisely, saying he doesn’t believe American Christians place too much emphasis on self-denial. We pay lip service to self-denial, but we tend to struggle with self-indulgence.
I agree with his points completely. Surprisingly though, I believe the solution to American self-indulgence is not less Individualism, but more.
Allow me to explain.
I believe Americans will be able to give more generously and place their focus more on God’s mission and the needs of others if they first understand Christian Individualism.
Individualism is the view that it is proper and moral for a man to make choices based on the factual needs of his own life. The moral for a man is understood in reference to what is practical for the needs of his own life.
That understood, a Christian Individualist is a man who understands God’s commands as the means to his own (eventual) good.
The reader may raise many questions about Individualism as such, and about the Christian version. The following summary is helpful for understanding Individualism:
…there is no greater moral goal than achieving happiness. But one cannot achieve happiness by wish or whim. Fundamentally, it requires rational respect for the facts of reality, including the facts about our human nature and needs. Happiness requires that one live by objective principles, including moral integrity and respect for the rights of others.” (http://www.atlassociety.org/what_is_objectivism)
The Christian Individualist accepts these principles and chooses to follow God on the basis of them.
Now it should be more clear why I believe, “Our mission requires self-denial, but we cannot make self-denial be the mission.”
As an advocate of Christian Individualism, here is how I responded to my friend’s points about self-denial, or the lack thereof, in American Christians:
Thank you for the comment! Well said. But here’s why I think my maxim is important: if we recognize that the mission is the end and self-denial is the means, then it becomes clear just how valuable self-denial can be.
I have put a lot of thought into this issue. Unfortunately, many American Christians make the unspoken philosophical error of separating the moral from the practical. i.e., they suppose that it would be more moral to move to Cambodia, but for some reason they decide not to. Perhaps it doesn’t seem practical.
What is really going on here?
Often, God has not called the person to be a foreign missionary. He has called them to be a missionary in their current station in life. There are grave consequences for one who accepts a moral ideal that he doesn’t intend to practice: loss of self-respect, productive motivation, internal peace. Such a man lives a contradiction.
The problem is not that he did not move to another country; the problem is that he did not reconcile and order in his own mind what he considered to be competing priorities. When self-denial is taken out of context and treated as if it were itself the moral standard, all that men can do is pay it halfhearted lip service. Then the morality in the man dies.
The better way to live would be to make a principle of always doing the best and most moral thing, with morality defined by reference to what is possible. Then a man can hold himself to the standard that all his actions must be the best kinds of actions.
Does this principle lead to exhaustion and failure? No. It leads to a new conception of the moral. For it is usually not moral to deplete one’s own resources. It can be moral to laugh, to take a nap, to read for enjoyment, when the context warrants it.
We all know the practical necessity of caring for ourselves.
But I’m getting at something more:
I want people to realize self-interest is moral because it is practical.
This realization frees a person to respect himself in all his choices. He no longer needs to treat morality as an external obligation. He no longer needs to cheat a little on the side “for the sake of practical necessity.”
The cheating, corner-cutting mindset is in fact a cause of over-indulgence of the American church. For when morality is thought to be unattainable, there is nothing left but a steady slide into self-pity, self-absorption, sloth, gluttony, and apathy. Then the man fails in the mission God actually gave him in his own land.
I agree with you about the nature of the problem. Now, do you see why a morality of holy self-interest is part of the solution?