Individuality, irreconcilable differences and love for others

Few ideals, if any, are more valued in our current cultural climate than individuality.

The great pursuit of past eras was to find one’s place within society. Today, we place a premium on discerning and highlighting what sets us apart. We all want to be spectacularly different … just like everybody else.

Many have endeavored to discover where this shift in focus and drive took place. Most agree that the Renaissance, with its focus on developing the ideal man, was the starting point. But American culture has taken it to new heights. We’re less concerned with becoming ideal persons, as opinions on what that means are incredibly varied, and more concerned with becoming our “most authentic selves.”

Individuality is woven into the American ethos. While our initial declaration was intended to form a national identity, it does speak to individual rights and is in its very name all about independence. All men (and women) may be created equal, but their pursuits of their “unalienable rights” of “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” will lead to very different experiences and outworkings. It’s not hard to see how the elevation of independence naturally flowed both from and to us holding individuality near and dear to our hearts.

One benefit of our high regard for individuality is that it helps us to see the value of each individual life. It reveals to us that though each of us may be different in many ways, the world and life itself are richer because of the incredible diversity that surrounds us. The other side to that same coin, however, is that which makes us different will inevitably create deep divides in perspective and practice.

Consequently, this forces us to engage in the difficult task of attempting to understand and respect those whom are clearly not like us and with whom we do not and will not agree. Is this even possible? Are we able or even willing to learn to live in relationship with those who are not only different than us but who take great pride in highlighting those differences? Can we love and accept love from those who fundamentally and vehemently disagree with us?

My heart has been very heavy in recent months as I’ve watched people both within the church and in the broader community divide, dismiss and disfellowship with one another over differences of opinion, interpretation and personal choice. We demand the space to be our authentic selves, then take offense when others exercise those rights in ways with which we don’t agree. We claim others are being unloving when they are unable or unwilling to affirm every aspect of our lives.

It is possible to disagree with someone and still love them. It is possible to affirm a person’s humanity without affirming all of their actions. It’s possible to engage in loving and life-giving relationships with people who are irreconcilably different than us. If we can’t make space for grace, if we can’t learn to love those who are not like us, are independence and individuality really that important to us after all? Further, do we really know what love is?

1 John 4:10 reads, “This is love: Not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins.” In order for love to win in our world, it must be turned outward. Love is, by nature, self-giving and self- sacrificing. It requires uncomfortable measures of grace and mercy as we seek to draw close and care for those who are undeniably not us.

True love will acknowledge the differences, will make space for deep disagreements, but will refuse to dismiss or divide because of the discomfort it might cause.

Each individual has immense intrinsic value because each and every person is created in the image of God. And he loves each of us so much that he sent his son, Jesus, to make a way for us to be in relationship with him. If God went so far to make a way for us to be in relationship with him, ought we not put in the effort to be in relationship with each other? We will not always agree with or affirm all of the attitudes, actions and understandings of those around us. We can and must learn to love and respect each other.

Addendum: I confess that the church has not always done the best job of loving others as Jesus did. For that, I apologize. But there are many churches in this community and around the world that are doing their best to make space for everyone to seek Jesus and to experience his love together.

Requiring that we agree with or affirm every aspect of the lives of every person we encounter is an impossible ask. The expectation in Christianity is that all who journey with us will be changed and transformed by the love of Jesus. This requires we repent of revealed failures and acknowledge disagreements all while love each other nonetheless.

We join together in the shared struggle to live and love like Jesus a little more each day. So though we may have deep disagreement on a variety of issues, know that you are loved just as you are today, but understand that we were all created to be more.

The Rev. Jeremy Myers is the lead pastor of First Baptist Church in Seymour. Read his blog at Send comments to [email protected].