By Joel Ryan, Crosswalk.com
It’s no secret to say that we are living in an era of rampant narcissism and self-obsession. From books and podcasts on self-love and self-help to the endless barrage of social media content focused on all things I, me, and my, it seems we cannot get enough of ourselves these days. And yet, as much as we’d like to point the finger at social media, celebrities, and selfies, our narcissism is born, not from culture or technology, but from our inherently selfish, sinful nature.
Selfish, entitled, attention-seeking, and obsessed with image and identity, this generation may have made narcissism the norm, but the sin of pride, vanity, and self-indulgence have been the downfall of many since the fall of man. The apostle Paul warned that in the last days people would become, “lovers of self, lovers of money, boastful, arrogant… conceited, and lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God” (2 Timothy 3:2-5). Never has this been more evident than it is today.
But what does the Bible say about narcissism, and what Christians learn from Scripture to prevent the sin of pride, vanity, and narcissism from running our lives?
What Is Narcissism?
The term narcissism comes from Greek mythology and the legend of Narcissus. Known for his exquisite beauty, Narcissus was said to have fallen in love with himself after seeing his reflection in the river. Depending on which version of the tale is told, Narcissus either pined away in despair or killed himself, never finding anyone lovely enough to pull him away from his vanity.
Naturally, because the classic myth dealt so prominently with self-infatuation and vanity, we’ve since incorporated the term “narcissist” into our lexicon to describe someone who is obsessed with or in excessive admiration of themselves.
Today, psychologists have even created a classification of those controlled by extreme vanity and conceited thoughts and behavior known as Narcissistic Personality Disorder, or NPD.
Of course, very few people who read the newest self-help book, make an announcement on social media, or take a night off to unwind are suffering from some sort of mental disorder.
Biblically, we are called to celebrate and rejoice when good things happen in life (Psalms 70:4, Philippians 4:4-9). We are told to rest (Exodus 20:8-11, Matthew 11:28), take care of our earthly bodies (1 Corinthians 6:19-20), tell of the good things God has done (Psalms 71:15-24), and see ourselves as “fearfully and wonderfully made” (Psalms 134:14) and treasured creations “made in the image of God” (Genesis 1:27).
Narcissism, however, like many forms of pride and vanity, places the entire focus of one’s life on oneself, not God. It involves the worship of our bodies and image and desires and not the one who created us.
“You deserve it,” “you’re worth it,” and “have it your way” have become the mantras of a society ruled by this form of narcissism.
In the Greek tale, Narcissus looked in the water and became obsessed with his physical beauty. Many today have become equally preoccupied with their image, identity, and influence.
Narcissists may struggle with perfectionism and feel the need to always be in control, becoming discouraged or agitated when they face criticism or don’t receive the attention or recognition they feel they deserve.
According to many medical journals and health organizations like the Mayo Clinic, narcissism can also lead to a pervasive pattern of grandiosity and exaggerating one’s value, talent, and achievement. It pushes those with an inflated view of self to constantly seek attention, validation, praise, and admiration.
Narcissists may envy the success of others and devalue or demean those they perceive as inferior. For this reason, most narcissists struggle to maintain healthy relationships as they often lack empathy, take advantage of others, and hide their fears, failures, and insecurities under a mask of confidence and assertiveness.
What Does the Bible Say about Narcissism?
Obviously, there’s not much about narcissism that the Bible would ever support or encourage.
Though the Bible may not mention narcissism by name, other sins of similar ilk and weight are often condemned. As the Greek figure Narcissus pined away and met his end, so a narcissist who values himself above God and others is destined to fall. The Bible says that, “pride goes before destruction, and a haughty spirit before stumbling.” (Proverbs 16:18)
Solomon also wrote that there are six things the Lord hates, seven that are detestable to Him. Number one on that list is “haughty” (or proud, arrogant, and conceited) eyes (Proverbs 6:16-19).
Given the tendency of most narcissists to love, admire, and even idolize themselves, narcissism clearly aligns with the Bible’s description of haughtiness.
So why does God detest narcissism so much?
For one thing, God alone is sovereign, and He alone is God. In the Old Testament, God instructed the children of Israel to put Him first. “You shall have no other gods before me,” (Exodus 20:3) He commanded in the first of the Ten Commandments (Exodus 20:3). Naturally, we tend to think of “other gods” as foreign deities or the principal god of another religion, but what about the god of self? For many people, this kind of worship is more pervasive.
In the second commandment, God instructed His people to abstain from idol worship, which also factors into narcissistic thinking and behavior. With narcissism, the worship of God is replaced with a hyper preoccupation with one’s body, image, or identity.
When asked, “what is the greatest command in the Law?” Jesus affirmed what the Old Testament had said about pride, vanity, and submission. He said, “love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the first and greatest commandment.” (Matthew 22:37-38)
As humans reject God as the lord and master of their lives, they often attempt to replace Him with someone or something else. For many, rejection of God inevitably leads them to them becoming the god of their own lives. Here, personal truth, lived experience, self-expression, and personal identity are elevated. God’s Word, God’s will, and even God’s definition of truth and design for humanity become secondary to human wisdom, expression, and desire.
Jesus said, however, that, “whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me. For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me will save it.” (Luke 2:23-24)
Solomon also wrote to, “trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding; in all your ways submit to him, and he will make your paths straight.” (Proverbs 3:5-6)
He went on to write, “do not be wise in your own eyes; fear the Lord and shun evil. This will bring health to your body and nourishment to your bones.” (Proverbs 3:7)
Clearly, humility, submission, and surrender are not inherent to narcissistic thinking.
Furthermore, narcissism establishes a misplaced trust in our works and abilities above God’s grace. This is pride in its truest form. It is the ego of our sinful nature that causes us to believe that we are inherently good and therefore capable of redeeming ourselves. Paul writes, however, that “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and all are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus.” (Romans 3:23-24)
There’s nothing wrong with working hard, developing life disciplines, or striving to do our best. It’s when we begin to focus on our works and the things we must do to help (or save) ourselves that we forget that it is by God’s grace and His grace alone that we are saved (Ephesians 2:8-9) and sanctified.
Lastly, an obsession with ourselves places us and our desires above others in direct contrast to the servant’s heart and sacrificial love of Jesus Christ. Jesus said that that second greatest command is to, “love your neighbor as yourself.” (Matthew 22:39)
When Jesus took the role of a servant and washed His disciples’ feet, He said that, “I have set you an example that you should do as I have done for you.” (John 13:15)
“For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” (Mark 10:45)
Likewise, Jesus said, “my command is this: Love each other as I have loved you. Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” (John 15:13)
Unfortunately, sacrificial love is not a priority for most narcissists.
Paul argued, however, that as believers we should, “do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others. In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus. Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage, rather, he made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness.” (Philippians 2:3-7)
Photo Credit: ©iStock/Getty Images Plus/Olivier Le Moal
What Are Biblical Ways to Deal with Narcissism?
As mentioned before, one of the greatest ways to combat narcissism is to adopt the servant’s heart of Jesus Christ.
Because of sin, we are selfish and narcissistic by nature. We worry about ourselves and like doing things our way. We would often rather rely on our wisdom than submit to God and His will for our lives. However, through the saving power of Jesus Christ and work of the Holy Spirit, our selfish, sinful nature can be redeemed and remade into a selfless heart that mirrors Christ’s own.
This is why Jesus talked about the need to be “born again” (John 3:1-21). Thankfully, those who are in Christ become “new creations.” (2 Corinthians 5:17) Our old self was put to death with Christ on the cross, and where we were once slaves to narcissism, selfishness, and vanity, through Christ, we become slaves to righteousness (John 8:34-38).
The greatest way, therefore, to overcome narcissism is to focus on the glory, power, and authority of Jesus Christ, not ourselves.
We must treasure the reviving, reforming power of God’s Word and place all trust in the sufficient authority of Scripture, not the wisdom of the world.
And in order to become selfless image bearers of Jesus Christ, we must also seek to become servants, modeling the compassion of our savior and placing the needs of others above our own.
As author Cindi McMenamin writes, “I don’t need reminders to love myself more, I need the Holy Spirit’s gentle conviction to love others more than myself.”
Like Narcissus, from whom we get the name, the way of the narcissist does not end in peace, fulfillment, or meaningful relationships. Narcissism only leads to envy, discontent, and isolation.
As Craig Groeschel writes in his book, Liking Jesus: Intimacy and Contentment in a Selfie-Centered World, “the more we focus on ourselves, the less satisfied we feel. And the more we consume the things of this earth, the more empty we feel.” (19)
Thankfully, there is an antidote to the sin of narcissism and sickness of self-obsession. In a world that promulgates self-fulfillment, self-love, self-expression, and self-help, we must instead learn to deny ourselves and submit to God’s authority. For the more He increases and we decrease, the more Christ is exalted and we are made new in His image, not our own (John 3:30).
Photo Credit: ©GettyImages/Khosrork
Joel Ryan is an LA-based children’s author, artist, professor, and speaker who is passionate about helping young writers unleash their creativity and discover the wonders of their Creator through storytelling and art. In his blog, Perspectives off the Page, he discusses all things story and the creative process.