“The rise of individualism has been going on for centuries.” -Jean Twenge
We may be living in one of the most individualistic cultures in the history of the world. For example, in Western society, consider some of the main narratives that are being preached: “Be true to yourself,” “Take charge and follow your dreams,” “It’s my body and I can do what I want with it,” or “Be who you are and say what you feel.” And these are just the start.
Perhaps I shouldn’t be surprised that these storylines are gaining traction. Are these not some of the ideals that we should expect to encounter in an ever growing secular society? Probably so. However, what I want to discuss is how these storylines should not be thriving within Christianity. So with that in mind, I would like to briefly examine why modern-day individualism has no home in Christian communities.
The Gethsemane Dilemma
I have spent a lot of time recently reading through the works of the philosopher Paul K. Moser. Through interacting with Moser’s penetrating ideas, I have come to see that all Christians enter into Gethsemane to face a dilemma. If you are familiar with the story of Jesus in Gethsemane in Matthew 26 then hopefully you recognize the predicament that he encountered. Read the text and see if you can find it.
36 Then Jesus went with them to a place called Gethsemane, and he said to his disciples, “Sit here, while I go over there and pray.” 37 And taking with him Peter and the two sons of Zebedee, he began to be sorrowful and troubled. 38 Then he said to them, “My soul is very sorrowful, even to death; remain here, and watch with me.” 39 And going a little farther he fell on his face and prayed, saying, “My Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me; nevertheless, not as I will, but as you will.” 40 And he came to the disciples and found them sleeping. And he said to Peter, “So, could you not watch with me one hour? 41 Watch and pray that you may not enter into temptation. The spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak.” 42 Again, for the second time, he went away and prayed, “My Father, if this cannot pass unless I drink it, your will be done.” 43 And again he came and found them sleeping, for their eyes were heavy. 44 So, leaving them again, he went away and prayed for the third time, saying the same words again. 45 Then he came to the disciples and said to them, “Sleep and take your rest later on. See, the hour is at hand, and the Son of Man is betrayed into the hands of sinners. 46 Rise, let us be going; see, my betrayer is at hand.” -Matthew 26:36-46
The options that Jesus faced looked like this:
- The Individualistic/Self-Centered Option: “My will, my way.”
- The Submissive Option: “Father, your will, your way.”
Let’s call this the Gethsemane dilemma. Of course, most of us know what option Jesus chose. He chose the submissive option. He chose the path that lead to his suffering and death (Matt. 27:32-56). Now I don’t think it takes an expert exegete to recognize that this was not exactly the easiest decision for Jesus. In his Gospel, Luke notes that Jesus was sweating blood and in great anguish during his time in Gethsemane (Lk. 22:44). When Jesus choose the submissive option in Gethsemane, he choose facing the greatest suffering that any human had ever faced. Definitely not an easy choice to make. In Jesus’ humanity, he experienced overwhelming anxiety and fear when looking at the road that he had to journey.
However, let’s not quickly skip over the fact (just because we know the end of the story) that Jesus did in fact have a choice in Gethsemane. He could have abandoned ship or aborted mission and chose a different path. He could have taken matters into his own hands and struck down Judas and all of those who came out to arrest him (an advantage of being fully God). And yet, he didn’t. He chose to submit to his Father’s will and walk that dark and lonely road. The Gethsemane dilemma presented Jesus with a choice, as it does for both you and I today.
Entering into Gethsemane
It would be foolish to assume that 21st century Christians face the exact dilemma that Jesus faced in Gethsemane. It’s not likely you will be crucified and die for the sins of the world. Nevertheless, we must assume that we must enter into our own Gethsemane and face the Gethsemane dilemma each and every day. Here’s how.
In Matthew 16:24 Jesus said to his disciples, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.” Is this not the Gethsemane dilemma simply restated in a different way? As followers of Jesus, we must enter into Gethsemane and choose either individualism or humble submission. There is no way around it and no loopholes.
Consider how the options might look today:
The Individualistic/Self-Centered Option
- “Be true to yourself.”
- “Take charge and follow your dreams.”
- “It’s my body and I can do what I want with it.”
- “Be who you are and say what you feel.”
The Submissive Option
- “My identity is founded in Christ and he is my solid rock.”
- “Father, lead me down the path that you would have me to go down and help me to bring you glory in all things.”
- “I belong both body and soul, both in life and in death, to my faithful Savior Jesus Christ. (Heidelberg Catechism)”
- “God, everything that I am and everything that I have is yours to control.”
I know I’m painting with broad strokes, but my hope is to show that we all must enter into our own type of Gethsemane-like situation and make a decision. The submissive option is not the easy choice to make in 21st century America. It’s counter-cultural. However, we must never forget that we have a perfect Savior who modeled Gethsemane for us. Not only did Jesus show us the right path to take (Heb. 12:2), but he also took the darkest path for us so that we could have fellowship with his Father in Heaven.
In the age of autonomy, submission might seem difficult. Nevertheless, the gospel of Jesus Christ calls us forth into Gethsemane and demands a decision to be made We can choose to submit or decide to make our own path. The choice is ours. May we be a people that follows the example of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.
Matt Manry is the Assistant Pastor at Life Bible Church in Canton, Georgia. He is a student at Reformed Theological Seminary and Knox Theological Seminary. He also works on the editorial team for Credo Magazine and Gospel-Centered Discipleship. He blogs regularly at matthewwmanry.com.