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Do not think of yourself more highly than you ought… - Romans 12:3 (NIV)
If I say the word narcissism, you may have a person who immediately comes to mind like a neighbor, co-worker, or public figure. More than likely, you have an idea of what it means and what it looks like. The name itself stems from the ancient Greek myth “Echo and Narcissus” by Ovid, and just in the last 100 years has found its way into our vocabulary in psychiatric terms, officially coined as Narcissistic Personality Disorder by the American Psychiatric Association in 1968.
By the modern definition, narcissism is the pursuit of gratification from vanity or egotistic admiration of one's idealized self-image and attributes. As a disorder, it’s associated with traits like arrogance and entitlement, envy and exploitation. But even though narcissism should sound like an obvious “no-no,” we find ourselves in a uniquely 21st-century-American pickle:
We are obsessed with ourselves.
We just can’t stop talking about ourselves, taking pictures of ourselves, patting ourselves on the back for doing something noteworthy. I think the values of our secular culture actually align with the definition of narcissism above—the pursuit of self-gratification and our idealized self-image—but tend to reject the “toxic” attitudes characterized by the disorder. It’s a classic “can’t have your cake and eat it too” situation.
I don’t think any of us would ever wish to be seen as narcissists, but unfortunately, it’s not as simple as that. Since we live in the “selfie generation,” we all have to be willing to examine our hearts and view ourselves, as Paul says, with “sober judgment.” Thankfully, as followers of Jesus, we have the Holy Spirit to help us with that.
You do not belong to yourself, for God bought you with a high price. - 1 Corinthians 6:19-20 (NLT)
Yesterday, I alluded to the ancient Greek story of “Echo and Narcissus” because it introduces us our disorder’s namesake, Narcissus, who literally starves to death because he cannot stop admiring his own beauty reflected in a pool of water.
Narcissus’ fixation on his own self-love caused him to ignore more important things (like food) and, ultimately, was a path to death. This whole thing may not make sense to us if we keep talking about reflective pools of water, but if we consider that culture is a mirror of how we wish to see ourselves, then our phone screens and TV screens start to tie into the metaphor very easily. The images we seek are endless, and we could spend our whole lives staring into them, hoping to find some sense of authenticity.
Yet when we look into the cultural “waters,” hoping for a reflection that satisfies our souls, all we see in return is chaos. Buy this. Wear that. Subscribe to this. Listen to that. Be your own authentic self; don’t tell anyone what they can or can’t be; be kind to others and they’ll be kind to you; don’t let negative people into your life.
Like Narcissus, I sometimes find myself looking into the churning pool, hoping to be satisfied by my reflection. But amidst a thousand self-help solutions and pithy axioms, I suddenly remember that it’s a trap, a best-effort of the blind leading the blind toward something that looks like authenticity. And in that desperate moment as my eyes break free from the chaos, I notice another pool.
I lean over the side, honestly afraid that the reflection will scream condemnation of my failure. But the water is still, not a ripple in a sight, and instead, my eyes meet with Jesus… the one who created me, who knit me together while I was still in my mother’s womb, who breathed life into my lungs. “I know you. And I love you,” He says. By this pool, I know my identity is safe, and it's here that I can find rest.
…I relied only on the power of the Holy Spirit… so you would trust not in human wisdom but in the power of God. - 1 Corinthians 2:4-5 (NLT)
I can’t leave our new favorite Greek myth behind without mentioning Echo. Sadly, in the story, Echo is cursed by only being able to repeat back the words of other people. So when Narcissus gets lost in the woods and calls out for help, all he hears in Echo’s replies are his own words. The more that Narcissus calls out for help, the more of his own replies he receives, and the path toward self-destruction is paved.
These days, we have to be careful of closing ourselves into “echo chambers,” a phenomenon that has been intensified by social media algorithms. For instance, Facebook curates our news feeds based on our engagement with links and articles, ensuring that with each click, our preferences are updated. It’s a process of feeding our egos with affirmation and eliminating voices opposed to our worldview. There’s a term for this too, by the way: Cultural narcissism.
Do you see the danger? Each time I put my voice out there, all I hear in response is agreement—my own voice. My capacity for empathy wains because I forget, frankly, that there are people out there whose lives are vastly different from my own, and I fail to see them the way Jesus does.
The Holy Spirit is not our echo chamber. Jesus told his disciples, “When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all truth.” Scott Nickell says it this way: “The Holy Spirit always points us back to Jesus.” If we hope to be salt and light to a world in chaos, we have got to get out of our echo chambers before it leads us to a place where we no longer bear witness to the overflowing love of God and, instead, tune our hearts to the Spirit of Truth.
Pray and ask God, in His love and wisdom, to help you see the world the way He does. How are you letting your own voice drown out the Holy Spirit? In what ways are you stubbornly holding on to your opinions, perhaps to the detriment of reflecting the gospel for others?Share Tweet
Then his disciples began arguing about which of them was the greatest. - Luke 9:46 (NLT)
Pastor and author Tim Keller wrote a small but powerful book called “The Freedom of Self-Forgetfulness,” and it’s probably had the greatest effect on me out of anything I’ve read this year. Regarding the condition of the human heart, Keller observes that, “what we are all looking for is an ultimate verdict that we are important and valuable.” As far as God is concerned, the verdict is in—“there is no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” (Romans 8:1). We are truly free.
Still, we often decide to focus instead on boosting our self-esteem. The problem with self-esteem, however, is that every day, we have to step back into the courtroom to get a verdict on our performance, and everything we do is an attempt to build a case for our own self-worth. We present our case to others and to ourselves, we puff up our egos with pride and stay busy and draw attention to ourselves in the hopes that people will notice and judge us to be worthy.
So, how do we get out of the courtroom? With gospel-humility, Keller says. “[T]he essence of gospel-humility is not thinking more of myself or thinking less of myself, it is thinking of myself less.” He goes on to say, “True gospel-humility means I stop connecting every experience, every conversation, with myself” (p. 32). Because of that freedom, “I can help people to help people—not so I can feel better about myself, not so I can fill up the emptiness” (p. 40).
Because of the gospel of Jesus, we can finally stop obsessing over whether any of us have value or not. If you woke up this morning wondering if you are significant in the eyes of God, here is the answer: From now to eternity, unequivocally and written in blood—yes.
For the Lord is the Spirit, and wherever the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. - 2 Corinthians 3:17 (NLT)
Over the last two years, my wife and I have been blessed time and again by a couple from Southland who have since become dear friends. They are so fun to be around, and they serve like it’s second nature. They also have three small children, and often when our family is at their house to play, they will casually invite us to stay for dinner. Have I mentioned that we have four children? This couple is always prepared to feed more, and we never feel like a burden to them. They always give without expectation of receiving in return, and I’ve never once heard either of them brag.
I know what you’re thinking: These people are unicorns—they don’t exist. We learned on Monday that there are certain traits characterized by narcissism like arrogance and entitlement that are nearly impossible to avoid in an individualistic society like ours. By contrast, my friends exhibit generosity and gratitude, neither of which are commonplace in our world today.
But I promise you that my friends do exist, and the reason they’re different is because they are gospel-humble. They would tell you that they’re free because of Jesus, and so they don’t have to spend time trying to prove themselves to anyone—they just love God and love people, and they express it in a way that makes sense for their family. Just by being close to them, I have been inspired to be more mindful of others, more inviting, and more generous with my time and resources.
My friends, through Christ, are changing the world one meal at a time, by loving one neighbor at a time. They are doing so by being generous the same way that God is generous and by living in gratitude for all that God has given them. This is what freedom truly looks like, and as Christians, we will see God’s kingdom grow if we can really grab ahold of that freedom and fully live in it for the sake of others.
The world desperately needs us to.
What is just one way that you can become more others-focused? Is it someone next door, or a ministry in town that is in need of more volunteers? Try not to overthink it—think of something God has blessed you with, and take that same blessing to someone else!Share Tweet