November 1, 2001
 Faith and
Individuality

Does Following Christ Mean
I Should Deny My Personal
Distinctiveness--Or Express It?
    
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What does it means to be a new creation in Christ, yet still an individual? Does God want us to deny our individuality, so that it doesn't interfere with what Christ is doing in us? Or does he want us to focus on those factors that make us distinctive and nurture them?

Our confusion about this matter results in part from an unavoidable fact of our Christian culture. In so many Christian circles impressions prevail about the "ideal" Christian personality. While it's seldom taught explicitly that one personality type is more to God's liking than another, stereotypes persist nonetheless. Many assume that leaders, and other strong Christians whom they admire, are closer to having the perfect Christian personality than they are personally.

As a new Christian, I simply assumed that the extroverted leaders of our church college group, with their football-coach temperaments, were displaying God's personality standard. I disdained my own personality, which seemed too mild and reflective compared to theirs, and did what I could to emulate the personality style of these leaders whom I esteemed.

Our confusion about individuality results also from certain theological misconceptions about new life in Christ. Scripture teaches that Christians we are new creations as Christians. In light of this, we're urged to deny our old nature and die to ourselves, in order to be fully alive in Christ. It's an easy jump to thinking that we must deny what is unique about our own personality and individual potential.

Some Christians even conclude that because they possess a certain talent, they should ignore it, and devote themselves instead to areas where they are less naturally gifted. Taking this step seems necessary to ensure that they are dying to self and allowing Christ to be glorified through their weakness.

I fell into such disparaging of my gifts as a young Christian. I'll never forget the occasion when a church leader whom I respected suggested I use my musical talent to develop a Christian rock group. I nearly gagged. I had only been a believer for several months, and had already quit a popular band so that I could give my full attention to spiritual growth. It seemed inconceivable that God would want me to immerse myself in a creative activity I enjoyed so much--let alone that Christ might be glorified through it.

In time I discovered that it wasn't just a luxury to use talents I enjoy, but necessary if I'm to be faithful to Christ. Yet this matter was so confusing to me as a young Christian, that I remain forever sympathetic to those who struggle with it.

Personality Change vs. Character Change

There is no question that God is concerned with bringing change to our lives as Christians. And we're clearly expected to exercise plenty of self-denial. But what is it that needs to be changed? And what are we expected to deny?

It seems natural to assume that God wants us to change our personality, and to deny those personal traits that make us unique. Yet a close look at biblical teaching on personal transformation finds that he isn't concerned with changing our personality so much as our character. His desire is not to radically modify our personality but to redirect it. Few distinctions are more important to appreciate in the Christian life, and few contribute more to our being productive as Christians.

Here it's extremely helpful to understand how some Greek words are used in the New Testament in reference to areas of human life that Christ influences. The New Testament uses several terms to refer to the psychological dimensions of one's life: kardia (the heart, or seat of the emotions), nous (one's mind or will), suneidÍsis (conscience), psychÍ (an individual's soul, or life). These words appears numerous times throughout the New Testament, referring to both Christians and non-Christians alike. Every individual has these qualities, whether they are Christians or not.

What is interesting is that the New Testament never states that the Christian receives a new kardia, nous, suneidÍsis, or psychÍ. It speaks of the kardia being purified (Acts 15:9, Jas 4:8), the nous being renewed (Rom 12:2, Eph 4:17), the suneidÍsis becoming good (1 Pet 3:16, 21), and the psychÍ being saved (Heb 10:39, Jas 1:21, 1 Pet 1:9). But it is always my heart that is purified, my mind that is renewed, my conscience that becomes good, my life that is saved. There's no indication in the use of these terms that God implants a new psychic existence into one who becomes a believer.

The New Testament does describe the believer as having a new life. But here the word always used is zŰÍ, which refers not to the psychological life of an individual, but to quality of life. The Christian is one who has a new dimension of life, which Scripture often denotes as eternal life. The use of zŰÍ to denote this in no way implies a change in the individual's psychological uniqueness, but rather a change in morality, motivation, desires, priorities, behavior and so on.*

Paul the Christian Was Still an Individual

Thus, when the New Testament gives descriptions of someone both before and after becoming a Christian, we find that the person's personality remained intact. While considerable change occurred in the person's life, he or she still remained the same individual--only now bent toward doing God's will, rather than acting against it.

Take Paul's example. Before his conversion on the Damascus road, he is shown as an extraordinary man of action and a superb leader. He didn't simply think about persecuting Christians--he did something about it. He was also a man of exceptional intellectual capacity, who studied under Gamaliel--one of the chief Jewish scholars of the time (Acts 22:3). Neither of these qualities was annulled after he became a Christian; they were simply propelled in a new direction. He became the chief firebrand in the young church's outreach mission, and a prime spokesman on Christian doctrine.

Not that there wasn't immense change in Paul's life after his conversion. He went through extensive spiritual and moral transformation. He was no longer intent on murdering his religious enemies, for instance. The whole orientation of his life changed. But the character change which occurred didn't annihilate his personality so much as bring it into line with God's purposes.

Martha Was Still Martha after Coming to Faith

Among women in the New Testament, Martha is an example of someone who retained her individuality after she came to faith in Christ. Most of us have a negative impression of Martha. When we think of her, we recall the incident in Luke 10:38-42, where Jesus comes to her home for dinner. Martha busies herself with preparing the meal, while her sister, Mary, sits attentively at Jesus' feet listening to him. Finally Martha, exasperated that Mary isn't helping her, blurts out to Jesus, "Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to serve alone? Tell her then to help me."

Jesus replies, "Martha, Martha, you are anxious and troubled about many things; one thing is needful. Mary has chosen the good portion which shall not be taken away from her." We typically conclude that Jesus upbraids Martha for paying too much attention to practical detail, and neglecting more important personal matters. The lesson, we assume, is that Mary has the ideal Christian personality, and those of us who are like Martha should modify our personality to become more like Mary.

Yet the New Testament has more to say about Martha. Several days after her brother, Lazarus, dies, Jesus comes to console the family. Martha goes through a profound spiritual transformation through talking with Jesus, then witnesses his resurrecting Lazarus (John 11). Sometime after this, Jesus attends another dinner hosted by Martha (John 12:1-3). Since Martha's faith in Christ has grown considerably since the first meal, we might assume that her personality is markedly different now, especially at the point where she showed such rough edges before--her meticulous attention to detail. She will now be following Mary's pattern of relaxing socially with Jesus, and letting others take care of the food preparation.

Instead, John notes that "Martha served," while Mary again socializes with Jesus. Martha is still concentrating on preparing the meal. What's different now is that no mention is made of her being irritated with Mary for not helping. Hopefully, John's silence on this point means that Martha doesn't criticize Mary this time, and has grown more accepting of Mary for who she is. If so, then Martha's spiritual growth has brought about important character change in her. But her personality remains the same: she's still being Martha, focused on the details of hosting.

Being Yourself in Christ

The message in all of this, then, is one of both encouragement and challenge for each of us. It's remarkably encouraging to know that God doesn't expect any of us to be a clone of any other Christian. There is no ideal Christian personality type we are expected to emulate, nor are there particular talents that are more important for us to possess than certain others. God has given us each individuality which he wishes to be expressed and not repressed as we follow Christ. He has put within each of us a unique mix of potential and interests, that to a large extent remains consistent throughout our life-- present before we commit our life to Christ, and continuing afterward. As we come to understand the distinctiveness he has given us, we gain vital insight into how he wants us to live our life.

This is where the challenge comes. God does expect us to take our potential seriously. The pressure to conform in some Christian circles can keep us from giving appropriate attention to those gifts and interests that are most important in our own service for Christ. We each desperately need people around us who see us dynamically, and who help us come to grips with the best directions we should take with our life. We need to be willing to take courageous steps of faith as well.

Yet great incentive comes simply from knowing that God has created us to be individuals, and that we're contributing to the work of Christ, not detracting from it, by being the individual he has made us to be. We should reflect often on the fact that God has made each of us unique, and that he has work for us each to do whom no one else is as well-equipped to carry out. May we take heart from knowing this, and determine to take the best possible steps to realize our potential for Christ.

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Blaine discusses the role of individuality in following Christ more fully in his One of a Kind (InterVarsity Press, 1984), and some material from chapter two is included in this article.
   
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