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.