Let’s face it – we are a culture of narcissists. We are in love with ourselves. How could it be otherwise? When you reject God as the centre of the universe and the proper object of love and devotion, you go fishing for a cheap substitute. And what better substitute than yourself?
In the West we now have an entire generation of narcissists – people who really think they are the centre of the universe, and are worthy of complete self-love, attention and devotion. We are in love with ourselves and expect everyone else to be as well.
Of course the term itself goes back to the Greek myth of Narcissus who was renowned for his beauty. He was in love with himself and his own beauty, and that did not help things much as he went out in search of someone to love. Obviously under such circumstances such a perfect mate would never be found – or even exist.
So one day he looked into a pool of water, and he of course instantly fell head over heels in love – with his own reflection. So besotted was he with his reflection, that Narcissus could not take away his gaze – so he died there. Thus narcissism is the unhealthy and even fatal fixation with oneself.
But tragically this psychological disorder has affected millions of Westerners. And it is not just the Paris Hiltons of the world, nor the appalling cast of Jersey Shore like Snooki that we are talking about here. Ordinary adults, teens and preteens are totally taken up with this psychological disease as well.
Although the problem may be as old as the ancient Greeks, it is especially a recent phenomenon. Modern pop culture, secularisation, unparalleled wealth and leisure time have all contributed to this mega-malady. Back in 1979 historian and social analyst Christopher Lasch wrote his very important and influential volume, The Culture of Narcissism.
In it he wrote, “To live for the moment is the prevailing passion – to live for yourself, not for your predecessors or posterity.” Yep, it’s all about self. Reject God and his rightful place in the cosmos and elevate yourself there instead. The wellbeing of self has replaced the glory of God.
Says Lasch, “The contemporary climate is therapeutic, not religious. People today hunger not for personal salvation, let alone for the restoration of an earlier golden age, but for the feeling, the momentary illusion, of personal well-being, health, and psychic security.”
Plenty of other authors have tackled this subject. For example Jean Twenge and W. Keith Campbell wrote the 2009 volume, The Narcissism Epidemic: Living in an Age of Entitlement. As they write, “Understanding the epidemic is important because its long-term consequences are destructive to society. American culture’s focus on self-admiration has caused a flight from reality to the land of grandiose fantasy.
They continue, “We have phony rich people (with interest-only mortgages and piles of debt), phony beauty (with plastic surgery and cosmetic procedures), phony athletes (with performance-enhancing drugs), phony celebrities (via reality TV and YouTube), phony genius students (with grade inflation), a phony national economy (with 11 trillion dollars of government debt), phony feelings of being special among children (with parenting and education focused on self-esteem), and phony friends (with the social networking explosion). All this fantasy might feel good, but, unfortunately, reality always wins. The mortgage meltdown and the resulting financial crisis are just one demonstration of how inflated desires eventually crash to earth.”
A recent article in the Sydney Morning Herald also addresses this matter, and ends this way: “So what does [Dr Helen] McGrath [of the School of Education at Deakin University] think can be done to protect children from these narcissistic tendencies? One approach, she says, is to place more emphasis on self-respect rather than self-esteem. ‘We can work with parents to change their focus slightly and identify self-respect as a more useful goal rather than self-esteem,’ she says.
“‘People who have self-respect have sound values that they use as a “moral map” they treat others respectfully. They consider themselves equal to other people (neither inferior or superior) and work hard to try and achieve their goals. They are resilient, accept themselves as imperfect and continue to be self-accepting in spite of mistakes or failures. Although they enjoy receiving positive feedback and they are not dependent on it to feel okay.’ In the meantime perhaps we can stop seeing celebrities as role models, take a break from Facebook and give our egos a well-deserved rest.”
These authors – all secular – see the dangers inherent in a culture of narcissists. But whether they can offer us the real solution is another matter. None of them address the core issue here (although Lasch is actually aware of it at least). We are not in need of more therapy or lessons on being better people.
We do not need to just try harder to focus on others or seek to treat everyone equally. The core problem is much deeper and that must first be addressed. In the biblical worldview, we are all sinners, fixated on self, just as much as Narcissus was on his own image.
We are sin-obsessed and naturally gravitate toward self. Only a radical break from this iron-clad fixation on self will do. And that is what Christ came to offer us – deliverance from sin and self, replaced by a genuine love – a God-based love – for God, for others, and for self.
But my discussion does not end here. This is not just about getting selfish and self-centred non-believers to get right with God through Christ. Sadly the church of today is also plagued with millions of narcissists. We have managed to convince ourselves that we are somehow real Christians while we continue to fixate all our time and attention on self.
Our churches are filled with narcissists who seem to think that God exists to meet their needs and serve them as some sort of celestial butler. Their obsession with self is just as strong as it was before they made a decision for Christ. And to all such people we must respectfully but firmly state: do not kid yourself – you are not really a true follower of Jesus Christ.
Jesus made the conditions of discipleship crystal clear. Consider just one passage: “If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me” (Matthew 16:24). Yet our churches are filled with folk who think they are doing God a favour by simply being there.
They think Jesus is basically their own personal Jeeves, ready to do their every bidding. They have not for a moment renounced their claim to sitting on the throne, and Jesus remains outside, hoping to get the occasional look in. Jesus is not lord for these people – self is.
Well did A. W. Tozer say, “We might well pray for God to invade and conquer us, for until he does, we remain in peril from a thousand foes. We bear within us the seeds of our own disintegration. Our moral imprudence puts us always in danger of accidental or reckless self-destruction. The strength of our flesh is an ever present danger to our souls. Deliverance can come to us only by the defeat of the old life. Safety and peace come only after we have been forced to our knees. God rescues us by breaking us, by shattering our strength and wiping out our resistance. Then he invades our natures with that ancient and eternal life which is from the beginning. So he conquers us and by that benign conquest saves us for himself.”
Narcissism – both within and without the churches – is all about the exaltation and glorification of self. Nothing could be further from reality for the true Christian. Sin and self have been renounced, seen for the frauds and destructive forces they are. God is the centre of attention for the true believer.
Until our churches today realise that the masses of narcissists who sit in the pews each week are an affront and an abomination to a righteous and pure God who demands total attention and total devotion, we will never achieve anything for the Kingdom.
And how can we? The world will never be changed by worldlings dressed up as Christians. Only by seeing the cross in its true light can we be delivered from the curse of narcissism. As Tozer reminds us: “If I see aright, the cross of popular evangelicalism is not the cross of the New Testament. It is, rather, a new bright ornament on the bosom of a self-assured and carnal Christianity… The old cross slew men, the new cross entertains them. The old cross condemned; the new cross amuses. The old cross destroyed confidence in the flesh; the new cross encourages it. The old cross brought tears and blood; the new cross brings laughter.”
Amen. The answer to our many problems today is not more self-esteem classes and books on how to become a better you. The answer is a return to the cross. It is only at the foot of the cross that any good thing can take place in our selfish and sin-soaked lives.
22 Replies to “Narcissism Overload”
Love the post. Good stuff.
Hi Bill –
The former Deputy Prime Minister was saying the exact same things at the WA Governor’s prayer breakfast and even used the Narcissus reference.
Listen online here: http://www.gpbwa.org/media
Love the article Bill and we miss you already in Perth.
Bill, right on the button.
I have wondered for a long time where in the Bible is the doctrine of self-esteem, but all I read is how we are sinners who have fallen short of the glory of God, how our righteousness is as filthy rags and how much we need Jesus.
Some balance is badly needed in church teaching.
Another name is Pride.
Yes, we live in a world of functional atheism, life that is lived in a way that divine existence is irrelevant to how one lives ones days and and years. But the absence of God does not mean the absence of gods: instead you get seven billion of them, each wanting to uplift and glorify his shrine. Oddly, this leads to moral, cultural and societal chaos. Ignore God, live with incoherence, the mother of many evils.
Sorry if I’m opening a can of worms, but a lot of contemporary, evangelical Christian worship strikes me as narcissistic. In trying to attract unbelievers to worship – as opposed to first evangelising and catechising them and turning them into true worshippers of God – the evangelical church has long since begun to reflect the wider narcissistic culture.
When we stop turning to the psychology of Freud’s SELF esteem and start trusting the theology of Jesus’ SOUL esteem, then we will be really happy & truly fulfilled.
The error of SELF esteem,based on a faulty humanistic world’s view of man, sets you up to fail, as you focus on and please yourself, feed self centeredness & spiritual blindness, and feel disappointed with both the initial process & the end product.
On the other hand, the truth of SOUL esteem, built on the Christian worldview of grace & peace, sets you free to enjoy life every day, as you please God and prefer others before yourself.
Please correct me if I am wrong, but I have been burdened to pray daily for God to create his church in my home town. One which I call his church, the one Jesus said he would build.
I really believe and I may be wrong, but I don’t think we have a church in our town.
We have several religious organisations, none of which bears any resemblance to the New Testament Church. As far as I can see, they are all run by men. As far as I can see, they do the same thing every week with no tangible results other than to keep its members happy.
I want God to begin a church that is his church the same way that the NT Church began, with an upper room experience of prayer and power and until we have it we don’t do anything.
Lord, there must be someone out there who wants the same thing. If there is, let us meet to begin a his church experience, the church, in our home town as I have no interest in flogging a dead horse.
I feel the same.
Yes the church I attend for the last 6 months is a pleasant surprise to the rest of the dribble I’ve encountered in the last 10 years but. I’m just starting to know the people and already I’m discovering all sorts of power plays going on within the body. The people seem so broken, without life or joy and if there is a joyous person, it’s fake. Not joy for the Lord but maybe a new kitchen or worse still it’s a painted on smile, Robot.
My experience is there are some true believers in every church, maybe %10 of the congregation, and their praying and on their knees every night for God to break their hardened hearts.
Bill has helped me a lot, because at least I now know I’m not the only one.
I print articles from here all the time and leave them in the lunch room at my work-Laundromat-local swimming pool and I even have posted a few to churches.
I feel your pain Roger.
The last two posts I find rather disheartening. In this imperfect world you would be disillusioned to expect to find a perfect church, or even close to it. I attend a church very focused on the cross, biblical teaching, and evangelism. It is far from perfect though, because the people aren’t!! If you feel you have something to offer, then maybe you should join the 10% and persevere. I know I have my own ideas of how things should operate and I can be very judgmental of people and the way they are. These are big obstacles to overcome, even harder the more involved in the church and with the people I have become. In our secular lives, we encounter all kinds of personalities and it can be quite shocking, or at the very least, an eye opener, to see the way people behave, even in the church. With prayer, perseverance and willingness to be involved with people on a deeper level, you can be very blessed, grow spiritually and be a blessing to others. It’s not at all easy, and there may be many layers to uncover before we get to the real person. In my experience everyone has a ‘secret’, a problem, a stumbling block, and most of us spend our time trying to hide these from everyone else. It’s not until we lay ourselves bare that the truth, grace and mercy will come. I am glad I do have a church and fellow believers that I can worship God with, and experience this, even the ones I may not agree with 100% theologically!
Thank you Sharon
I don’t expect people to be perfect nor do I want people to agree with me. Of course we grow as we come across these obstacles in the world or church, but I think you may have missed the point. I’m sorry you’re disheartened; I would have thought the state of the church was a foregone conclusion.
Yes I meet people where they are, for example, I was invited to a men’s get together organised by our pastor and one of the church leaders. Great. I went along it was at a pub. I get there, 7 guys in attendance all drinking beer. So I continue to go to these get together, with my coffee in hand.
It’s time to address these issues Not talk up the church in some sort of positive affirmation attempt.
To Daniel and Roger, I think Sharon has written an excellent post, I think she brings up some very important things to consider in the overall picture of things theological. I will tell you a story from my Christian past, I used to know a Independent Baptist Pastor whose philosophy was – if you are in a church and you do not agree with what it is teaching then get out of it – now that is good advice where doctrine and Biblical truth are concerned – but past that point Sharon is right, you have a church full of fallible, sinful human beings and this is the way it will always be until Jesus returns. If you get into a rut of finding something wrong with every church you visit and taking the Independent Baptist pastor’s advice, you will be forever running around to churches. However, having said that, your observations are relevant but you need to put your heartfelt revelations into practice here and get involved in your churches to be a guiding light to those in the congregation around you, do not be afraid to speak up, I do, sometimes it gets me into hot water but I will not stay silent, regardless of what people think of you for speaking out, trust God to work in their hearts and get them thinking about your views and concerns, people can lift their game based on a strongly worded exhortation, think of your own Christian life when you have been exhorted to do something you know you needed to do – God used those words to convict you and get you back on track, I know it has happened to me on occasion! Take heart gentlemen, there is hope, the danger of feeling completely negative about a situation like this is are we setting ourselves up for the fall by inadvertently making ourselves the standard for everyone else in our respective churchesto follow? The flesh and human heart is incredibly deceitful. Oh, yes Bill, brilliant article as well!
Dear Sharon, neither of us mentioned wanting a perfect church. Apart from the fact your arguments are pretty standard for those wanting to justify a church that is not the church. FYI, I have done the join the other 10% bit many times and my experience is that if you are not ordained by man, you don’t have the right to minister in any meaningful way. You are here to do as you are told which in some cases meant doing things quite contrary to scripture.
I am too old and too tired to keep flogging dead horses, especially when in the past God has used me to bring revival to a church; been a member of a church that experienced revival for 30 years; started a key parachurch ministry for untouchables and prepared many for ministry themselves.
I admit that I am a person who prefers to stand on the promises rather than sit on the premises, probably because I believe in the very biblical priesthood of ALL believers, not just a select few who are paid to be good.
Sad to say, your arguments are the ones used so often to justify an apostate church and avoid letting the Holy Spirit run things. You may not be doing that but many do.
Thank you Daniel for your support.
And to Steve Davis, if the sum total of fellowship is doctrine, no thanks. Jesus said that people would know that we were his disciples because of our love for one another. Not because of our doctrine.
T.D. Jakes has correctly said that the church is a bunch of tribes. Unless you believe what I believe then you don’t qualify to be a member of my tribe.
In the church that I envisage which is ” His Church” it is built on prayer, power and relationship, not doctrine. The ministry team is everyone, not just a select few. Central is love, for God and for each other and where we don’t shoot the wounded.
All the so called churches in my town focus on keeping everyone happy, programmes and the status quo. Getting them to be involved in evangelism is like pulling teeth.
It sounds like to me that your approach is that a sales manager doesn’t mind if most of his sales staff are not selling anything as long as few are and the few that are gee up those that are not. Having been a sales manager, I can assure you that it doesn’t work that way.
Peter, I do love your comment about SOUL esteem. Right on the money.
As I try to imagine enjoying a moscato over my Presbyterian ladies’ bible study…..I am sorry you, Roger and Daniel, have had such disappointing church experiences. But there are faithful and more traditional churches out there, who don’t try to blend in with the modern culture.
And that church you envisage Roger, in your second last post, is exactly, if you read carefully, what I described in my previous post. Love for God, each other, real relationships, agreement on essential doctrine, agree to disagree on the other stuff, and the ability for everyone to minister in some way-from the preachers to the people who play music to the creche minders to the people rostered on the clean the church hall.
If nothing else, this conversation has brought over me a wave of thankfulness for my church family.
Roger, one thing I do not want do to here is to get into an electronic slanging match over this, but your last comment necessitates a reply. It would appear that you have not read my post properly, nowhere did I imply or state that the sum of total fellowship is doctrine, they are your words, not mine. What I was trying to do was to respectfully exhort you to look a bit deeper into the whole picture. Whether you like it or not, churches are full of fallible, sinful human beings, and that includes you as well! Your comment “His Church” it is built on prayer, power and relationship, not doctrine.” is incomplete, you cannot leave doctrine out of it, read 1 Timothy 4:16. That is not negotiable. I will also add that I thought your last sentence comparing me to a lackadaisical sales manager was tacky and in very poor taste, I would have expected a fellow Christian to have conducted himself with a little more decorum than that!
But the fact is Sharon that I am not out there, I am here and here there are only religious organisations. I am fully aware of what is out there as I was a member of church for 10 years that experienced revival for 30 years before I moved here. We had meetings that went for six hours because the Holy Spirit was moving in such a powerful way.
I have met with all the ministers in the town and implored them to work together in evangelism and their response was “go away, we run things around here.”
Perhaps you might like to tell me how you influence a mindset like that.
Some more comments have come in, and they are now getting to be more or less personal slanging matches. So if you don’t mind, I may wind up that particular thread, and urge us back on to the main topic at hand. But thanks for sharing your thoughts.
Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch
True, Bill, about narcissism – yet at the same time a large number of young people – growing number – confess to loathing their bodies, and themselves. They are starved of love, but something deeper, it has a spiritual dimension. How tragic it all is! The knowledge that God loves you immediately frees you, and makes any self-loathing, or poor self-image, fall away (as you will know). If the Creator of the universe loves you, one, individually and unconditionally, then no feeling of little self-worth is possible …
John Thomas, UK
Jean Twenge, psychologist and co-author of the Narcissism Epidemic, notes a remarkable number of people have turned naming their babies into opportunities to show off – a sign of our culture’s increasing vanity.