Summary: We have become captive to the idea that faith is a private matter. In effect, we have bought into society’s value of individualism. Individualism is leading life one’s own way with little to no regard or connection to others
Joshua 7: 2-12a
Imagine somebody courteously asking, “How is your family life?” or “How is your prayer life?” or “Is your thought life pure?” or “How wisely do you use your time?” or as John Wesley would ask Methodists in his day, “How goes it with your soul?” To most of us, this would be a blatant intrusion. We may think, “Who on earth do you think you are to question me? It’s personal, between me and God.” We have become captive to the idea that faith is a private matter. In effect, we have bought into society’s value of individualism. Individualism is leading life one’s own way with little to no regard or connection to others, but not necessarily to the harm of others. We live in a culture where the individual is king and there are few obligations to others.
Our society has become defined by a rampant commitment to ‘individualism’. What you believe, what you speak and how you live is personal. There is no sense of accountability, dependency and community. Folks believe “My life is my business and nobody has any right to get into my business.” What’s worse is that society’s value of individualism has seeped into our faith. Elyse Fitzpatrick tells of speaking at a conference that was well attended by women who were serious about their faith. But when she asked for a show of hands of those who were in a biblical relationship with others to whom they regularly confessed sin, expected accountability, and regularly confronted the sins of those same others, only a smattering of hands went up. And then she writes, “That’s not to say these dear sisters weren’t eager to follow the Lord. It was just that this kind of relationship, this depth of biblical fellowship, was way beyond their normal practice. This kind of fellowship…flies right in the face of our American individualism and desire for privacy. We don’t want anyone poking around in our affairs, and we certainly don’t want to be accused of poking about in anyone else’s. This idolatry of privacy and individualism is one of the greatest detriments to sanctification (or spiritual growing) in the church today. God has placed us in a family because we don’t grow very well on our own. It’s still not good to be alone. We need the encouragement, correction, and loving involvement of others….”
Individualism is nothing new. God said to the Israelites not many generations after they entered the Holy Land, "In those days there was no king in Israel; every man (and woman) did what was right in his own eyes.” In other words, rather than being the people of God and a community where one was for all and all were for one, they had become individuals doing what they wanted without any consideration of the whole. In our Scripture today, Joshua and the Israelites had easily defeated Jericho and then moved on to the city of Ai. But when they attacked, they were routed by the men of Ai, even though they outnumbered them. Joshua thought it was because he had sinned. But God said it was Israel. Now Achan, one of the Israelite soldiers, had gone against God’s command and kept some of the loot of Jericho for himself rather than destroying it as God commanded. As a result, Israel, not just Achan, had sinned and disobeyed God. The lesson is clear: if one sins, all sin. It’s not about the individual but about the communal. God knew that if the Hebrews were ever to become God’s chosen people to accomplish His will and become a light unto the nations, they were going to be One. Unity in faith, life and action were absolutely essential not only for the conquest of the Holy Land but their growth into a nation of God’s chosen and their relationship with God.
How did we as Americans get to this place of individualism in our society and culture? Four things. First is limited government intervention. For our Founding Fathers, the purpose of government was to protect life, liberty, and property but to otherwise to leave citizens alone. For first 150 years of our nation, the federal government remained relatively small and state and local governments provided only basic services, principally police protection and law courts, leaving us to rely on ourselves for most of what we need. Second is westward expansion. As pioneers settled the land to the West, they became a rugged, self-made group, who had to rely on themselves as many of them lived in isolation. Individualism was forged in the adversity of their life experience. Third is the “American dream.” Each generation of Americans hoped for a better quality of life than their parents. This led to a ‘pull yourself up by your boot straps’ mentality as each person had opportunity to attain a better life. It is all up to you. Fourth is the experience of millions of immigrants coming to these shores to escape the poverty and tyranny of their home countries and improve their own life and economic conditions. They worked tirelessly to achieve their goals, realizing that nothing in life is free and that whatever they attained would be by their own efforts. French Historian Alexis de Tocqueville in the 1830s wrote of the individualism of Americans when he said, " in most of the operations….each American appeals only to the individual effort…."