Gospel Relevance

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The False Gospel of Expressive Individualism 

There’s a newish gospel in town. Or at least some make it out to be. Have you heard of it? It’s called expressive individualism.

expressive individualism

What is Expressive Individualism?

To be sure, expressive individualism has been around for a while. But it seems to be more popular today than ever before.

Borrowing from the work of Charles Taylor, James K.A. Smith speaks about expressive individualism when he writes, “Emerging from the Romantic expressionism of the late eighteenth century, it is an understanding ‘that each one of us has his/her own way of realizing our humanity,’ and that we are called to live that out (‘express’ it) rather than conform to modes imposed by others (especially institutions).”

To say it another way, expressive individualism believes that each and every single person has the right to feel, believe, and think about themselves however they so choose. But even more, after you discover yourself (if you like the phrase), you’re free to express yourself. In fact, you must express yourself. Forget about what everyone else thinks. Forgot about any moral compass of right and wrong. Life is about you and your fulfillment. The goal of expressive individualism is to find yourself and express the desires you find.

In some circles, expressive individualism is being mixed with Christian thought. The logic goes a little something like this: “God is good. God made me. God gave me my desires. Since God is good and gave me my desires, then the desires I have from God must be good. And since God gave me these good desires, I have a right to express them.”

Why do I bring this up? Because it’s everywhere. In the music, the magazines, and other forms media — expressive individualism is being sold to many as some sort of religion, and many are buying into it.

There are multiple problems with expressive individualism  — especially when it’s mixed with Christianity. Here now I want to mention a few of them.

The Problems with Expressive Individualism

First, the point of the Christian life and the point of expressive individualism are not the same. Expressive individualism sees personal expression as the highest form of reality. The Christian life, however, is not about expressing yourself, but dying to yourself. The highest form of reality for the Christian is when we die to ourselves to magnify God for all of his worth. And in turn, paradoxically, we gain life. You might say that we get life by dying.

Discipleship is costly (Matthew 16:24). The footnote on this verse from the ESV Study Bible says, “Crucifixion is a shocking metaphor for discipleship. A disciple must deny himself (die to self-will), take up his cross (embrace God’s will, no matter the cost), and follow Christ.”

This is a far cry from this so-called expressive individualism. Life is about Christ and his glory. We exist to make him look good, not the other way around.

Second, let’s talk about desire. Expressive Individualism advocates desires — all of them. But the Bible doesn’t affirm every desire. Just the opposite, in fact: we are told over and over that our desires can be bad (James 1:14-15, Jer. 17:9). Desires can be good, though. Don’t get me wrong. There are certain desires that our hearts want and that’s fine. But not all of our desires are good. And not all of them should be expressed. The Bible is the Christian’s compass for morality, and if one of our desires doesn’t align with God’s will, we shouldn’t act on it regardless of how bad we want to.

Finally, expressive individualism is ambiguous about finding reality. The definition mentioned above says “each one of us has his/her own way of realizing our humanity.” If this is true, how? How do I know if and when I’ve found reality? And who’s to say what’s right and wrong?

In the end, weird, ambiguous ways of navigating to truth don’t help. It creates more confusion than clarity. All of the clarity that we need to know about humanity is in the Word. The Bible, as some say, doesn’t tell us everything we want to know, but it does tell us everything we need to know. In God’s Word, we discover the truth about ourselves and about him.

Be on the lookout for expressive individualism. And when you notice it, remember that it’s false and remember what God’s Word says is true.

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About David Qaoud

David Qaoud (MDiv, Covenant Theological Seminary) is associate pastor of Bethesda Evangelical Church in St. Louis, Missouri, and founder of gospelrelevance.com. His work has appeared on The Gospel Coalition, For the Church, and Banner of Truth. He lives in St. Louis with his wife and son. Learn more>