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Biblical Grace Under Assault, pt. 2: The Ugly Face of Narcissism
Last year I wrote the first article focused on the growing misunderstanding and misapplication of God’s grace. In short, the first one dealt with the growing issue of many within the contemporary church of incorrectly perceiving grace as a license for doing what ever one desired to without any sense of consequences. It is false spirituality to claim to be a disciple of Christ with little regard for God’s desire that our lifestyle be conformed to that of Christ Jesus. The overall point in exploring the growing problem was summarized by the statement “God’s grace does not give us the freedom to do what we like and get away with it. Rather, it releases the power of God’s Word and Spirit to become individuals conformed to Christ.”
A year on I would like to help identify the core issue to the problem and the singular and simple cure.
Identifying Original Sin
The deception of Eve in the Garden, which resulted in her and Adam’s disobedience, was on several levels. The first lie was an attempt by satan to dissuade her from believing that God had really spoken to her. “Did God really say to you?” was the opening salvo. So it is today. One of satan’s biggest weapons utilized against those that know God is to sow seeds of doubt pertaining to the reality of one’s relationship with God. If the devil cannot keep one from Christ, he will do everything he can to minimize our priesthood in Christ. The second lie was the intimation that God was deliberately keeping His best from them. The manifestation of the orphan spirit provoked Eve to grab, rather than trust the fathering of God in her life.
While each of these two basic temptations are helpful to put into perspective they are not, in and of themselves, the core problem. The central issue is that which is pictured in the book of Ezekiel, chapter 28. The prophet gives us a glimpse of satan prior to his fall from God. Being perfect in wisdom and beauty, and adorned with all sorts of precious gems and gold, his chief job was to reflect the glory of God. Due to his gifting he may very well have been chief of the worshipping angels. (Isaiah 14.11) Essentially his fall (being cast away from God’s immediate Presence) was due to being more enamored with himself than God. (Ezekiel 28.17) He was more obsessed with his own image than he was in reflecting the image of God. We can correctly label his core sin pride, which resulted in him becoming the first narcissist!
Narcissism is essentially, a preoccupation with self due to being overly impressed with oneself. The majority of a narcissist’s thoughts, if not actions, are about oneself, one’s personal desires, feelings, and image. In the case of one with power and abilities narcissism will also manifest in striving to have others worship oneself. A true narcissist always wants others to center their lives on him, or herself.
To one who does not really know God the question will often arise “will isn’t that what God is all about- Narcissism, when He calls us to worship and obey Him?” It would be if it were not for the nature and core being of God. He is love and His whole reason for calling us to worship and obey Him is that we might be caught up in His goodness towards us to the point that we then reflect that love and selflessness to everyone we meet. In contrast to the empty vanity of preoccupation with oneself God is focused on blessing us more than we can even begin to think, or ask.
The spirit of Lawlessness
The apostle Paul wrote to the church of Thessalonica regarding the “mystery of lawlessness”. When one’s heart is governed by narcissism one’s lifestyle, thoughts, words, and actions will be governed by one’s own desires as much as one feels it is safe to do so. Today’s western world society is more and more resembling Paul’s prophetic words of 2 Thessalonians: “God will send upon them a deluding influence so that they will believe what is false, in order that they all may be judged who did not believe the truth, but took pleasure in wickedness.” (2 Thess.2.11-12).
In today’s culture it is now relatively safe to do and say what was unthinkable just a few years ago. For example in the recent “Occupy” protests which are, or were, taking place in many US cities things are being done and said which would be shocking if it were not for the numbing and dumming down taking place due to an onslaught of continually shocking lawless behavior. For example, the crude behavior of some (not all) of the protestors in New York and some other locations has been to urinate and defecate in the doorways of nearby business’s and apartment buildings. While that is somewhat shocking it does not compare to the even more shocking defense of such animalistic behavior. One spokesperson while recently addressing the problem said, “We have the right to go to the bathroom”. Well, yes, and no. They do have the right but not on another’s property. Their spirit of lawlessness demands the freedom to do what they desire to do with complete disregard and contempt for the landlords, business owners, and tenants who legally possess and occupy those properties.
This last summer saw parts of London, England fell prey to mob violence and looting. There were some individuals apprehended by the police even from well to do families who had committing both vandalism and thievery. Why? Simply because they wanted to and thought they could get away with it. Regard for both the law and common civility is increasingly being thrown under the bus in today’s society. Why? Simply because of the rise of lawlessness. In short, many are so preoccupied with themselves narcissism trumps the rights and regards for all others.
What of the church, however? God states that judgment starts first with the household of God!
I was recently asked a question concerning the message I sometimes speak on of God’s heart for sexual purity. The question was whether I also communicate the message to non-Christians. My answer was “no”. I’m quite appreciative of those who go into schools and other secular venues and teach the value of sexual abstinence outside of marriage. Sex saved for the context of marriage helps foster healthy marriages and families regardless of whether one is a Christian, or not. However, when it comes to Christians preaching sexual purity to the world, purely from a Biblical perspective, we must first be willing to deal with the spirit of lawlessness we have begun to tolerate among ourselves.
The sheer number of moral failings among church leaders over the last ten years is truly staggering. What’s really indicative of the extensiveness of the issue is that all too often those fallen leaders are all too soon reinstated quickly back into their ministries. The common justification for short changing the restoration process is the claim that the church needs their gifting. Unfortunately, if we would take the time to discern true motivation we might see beyond the gifting into the heart. We might just see the spirit of lawlessness dominating some despite their gifting and calling.
Jesus stated there will be those cast outside the kingdom who will offer in their defense “‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in Your name, and in Your name cast out demons, and in Your name perform many miracles?’ “And then I will declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from Me those of you who practice lawlessness.’” (Matthew 7.23 & 24) What is not in contention is their ministry to man. It is the stronghold of lawlessness that Jesus will find unacceptable.
Spiritual Homosexuality: Recreating God in our Image
The root causes of homosexuality, as noted by many who take a Biblical view that homosexuality is, indeed, sin, are varied. Often the background of a domineering mother alongside a father of little influence is cited. As well, there appears to be a certain percentage of homosexuals who were sexually abused by a male during their formative years. Whatever the root cause(s) may be homosexuality is the desiring of one’s likeness. It is not that dissimilar from the story of Narcissus staring into the pool at his own reflection. Again, the roots go all the way back to the mountain of the Lord where Satan began to be more focused on his own image than God.
The false notion that because God is love He is accommodating of all people despite their life style smacks of desiring a God who we can mold to our image, with our desires and perspectives. (And no, I am not jumping into the controversy surrounding Rob Bell’s recent book concerning whether anyone is, or isn’t, going to hell) God’s word quite clearly points out huge essential distinctions between God and each of us. For one, His ways are higher than our ways because He, Himself, is beyond our perspective and comprehension. This is why it is essential that the church be Bible based, as well as the Spirit led. We must allow the “I AM” to define Himself and lean not to our own understanding otherwise we are falling into the trap of attempting to recreate God in our image. William Cowper penned it well, in one of his famous poems, “God is His own interpreter, and He will make it plain”.
We can truly say, “God is good” and “God is love”. But when we preach, sing, and pray into God’s goodness and love we must do so with the Biblical perspective that His goodness goes way beyond our understanding of goodness. In the goodness of His Lordship, then, it stands to reason there may be many things He allows and disallows that we might not be able to fully grasp the reasons why at the time. For example why did God take Ananias and Sapphira before their time simply because they lied regarding the sale of their property? Why did God forbid Moses to enter the Promised Land simply because he hit the rock instead of merely speaking to it? (Numbers 20.8-12) There are clear reasons we can surmise today due to Biblically basedl hindsight. For the people at that time it most likely would have seemed harsh beyond measure for the God of compassion and grace to do what He did.
When God took Ananias & Sapphira the immediate fruit was the rise of a reverential fear of the Lord. We read nothing of the apostles offering a humanistic based false comfort along the lines of “There, there, it will be okay. God loves you just the way you are”. Somehow the feel good best seller of the ‘60s “I’m Okay, Your Okay” has become the unspoken mantra among many churches today. Certainly God does love us just the way we are, but He also loves us way too much to leave us the way we are! His kind intentions for us are nothing less than to mold us into living, breathing reflections of Christ. That does demand our willing and complete participation, however!
Today, as discussed in the first installment of “Biblical Grace Under Assault”, there is a serious problem with unsanctified compassion. To insist that a fallen leader take a couple of years, or more, out of ministry until equity is restored in their own souls, their marriage, with their family, and within the church, is often seen as heartless and punishing. Yet, the real danger lies not in merely tolerating lawlessness. We may be in real danger of facilitating a cancerous state of the heart with in the church by tacitly agreeing with lawlessness. All because we cannot perceive of a God Almighty whose ways may be quite different from ours. God is rich in mercy to forgive but He is also powerful in grace to empower change if we choose to usurp the monstrous demands of narcissism. As the psalmist prayed, in Psalm 119.133: “do not let any iniquity have dominion over me”!
First Things First
The patterns God has displayed in both the Old and New Testament are vital to understand. God is quite particular in not only how He does things, but the order in which He does things.
The predominant message of the Gospels is the message of the nearness of the Kingdom of God. The Greek word “basileia”, which translates as “kingdom” is used some 109 times in the Gospels, but only 31 times in the following Apostolic letters and the Book of Acts. The word “ecclesia”, which translates as “church” is only mentioned 3 times in the Gospel of Matthew and not at all in the other 3 gospel accounts. However, it is used some 108 times in the Book of Acts and the remaining books of the New Testament. In believing that God is intentional in the order of what He does and says we can safely say there is a pattern here that must not be lost in the contemporary church.
That pattern has to do with the necessity of first things first. Before the church can correctly be built up the foundation of the kingship (Lordship) of God must be reckoned with. Before healthy church life (Christ centered relationships) can be realized the message of Christ’s lordship must be realized on a personal basis.
So, if God’s firsts must come first in our lives then what is the essential foundational message of the kingdom? It was (and is) as John, the forerunner proclaimed, and then as Jesus, Himself, preached: “Repent, the Kingdom of God is at hand”. (Matthew 3.2 & 4.17 respectively) The word “repent” means to change one’s ways of thinking. We use the word penthouse to identify a high up place. In other words, to repent means to perceive things from a higher perspective. Our lifestyles should be changed simply because we view God, life, and ourselves differently than the rest of humanity. It should also go without saying that as our understanding of God and His ways continues to grow our lifestyles continue to change. As the Apostle Paul put it: “do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, so that you may prove what the will of God is, that which is good and acceptable and perfect”. (Romans 12.2)
Because first things come first and act as a foundation for that which is to come I believe we can make a simple, yet important, deduction. that is that the full potential of church (family) life will not be realized without first embracing change in thinking about life and the ways of life. In short, it will be impossible for us to “prove the will of God” to ourselves and the world without losing the constant focus on the unholy, narcissistic, trinity of “me, myself, and I” and learn to honor and obey the true trinity of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit”.
The essential Kingdom message has not changed. It is to pick up my cross and die to self. It is to die daily and seek with all of one’s heart God’s ways and will. Even the structure of how Jesus taught us to pray places personal needs last. It begins with the worship of God and the prayer for His kingdom (Lordship) to come prior to supplication for our needs. If true fellowship with one another is going to be established and prove fruitful then the setting aside of personal demands and desires must be realized. There is no room for narcissism in either the Kingdom, or the church (the people of the Kingdom).
Real Living is in the Reality of Giving
A friend recently pointed out something in the Gospels that I had never really taken note of before; There is absolutely not one time in the four gospel accounts where Jesus ever said “I love you”. What He did say, though, was “I have loved you”. Jesus did not equate love with mere words, but with real action. How did He love the disciples and the multitudes? He loved them by what He did! He fed the hungry. He healed the sick. He befriended the outcasts. His love was never a mere vibe, emotion, or even a statement. God’s love is action, serving, and giving.
He stated in John 13.34: “A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another, even as I have loved you, that you also love one another”. In other words, He calls us to take our eyes off our selves and do two things: obey Him and to prefer others. He stated in John 14.15 that if we truly loved Him we would then obey Him. 1 John 3.18 reads: “let us not love with word or with tongue, but in deed and truth”. Kingdom love is always measured by action, never by mere theology, or sentiment.
As stated earlier, the essential Kingdom message has not changed. It is still better to give than to receive”. Why? Because it’s in the dying to self that true Christian love manifests. A lifestyle not embedded in the ethos of preferring others as much as one self essentially is lawlessness. Life practiced as less than the golden rule of loving others, as you would like to be loved, will prove toxic. A church filled with people practicing lawlessness will always fail to realize Kingdom fruitfulness to it’s full potential. This is true simply because without the ways of the King being lived out the fruit of the kingdom cannot be produced.
There will be some who, no doubt, will read this and say, “Aha, your calling us back into the legalism of performance”. No, that would be religion, which is always the counterfeit to true grace-based relationship. When one’s mind is renewed to think the thoughts of Christ and one is filled with God’s Spirit the joy of Christ like obedience and service becomes it’s own reward. We dare not forget that because God so loved, He then both gave and forgave. If a lifestyle of sacrificial giving is not, at least somewhat, in evidence then one must wonder if the heart has truly been born again as a child of God. If love is truly a verb and not merely a noun then the church must model Christ “by our love for one another”.
True fulfillment is being lost in God’s love. That is to say it is losing narcissistic sight of self and realizing fulfillment in Kingdom relationships and purpose. And while charitable giving via a check, or credit card can be helpful to others it is really in the ‘hands on’ relationships where a consistent preferring and giving can be lived. Narcissus’s all encompassing self-love proved to be his undoing. He was lured by an enemy into looking into a pool of water that reflected his beauty back to him. Like satan’s original sin, Narcissus’ own reflection proved to be fatal.
We need times of personal devotion to God. As well, we need times gathered as a church family worshipping God. The act of taking the eyes of our hearts off of oneself is to usurp the narcissist within. We need the ongoing practice of the “one another’s” of the sermon of the mount. We need to allow preachers of God’s Word to continually encourage and challenge us with the foundational message of the way of the cross. Without a consistent “higher place” perspective challenging us the age-old spirit of lawlessness will rear it’s ugly head. Unless our lives are shaped by the selfless love of God, practiced within the context of relationship, we will continually be bound by the all-consuming smallness of tyranny to self.
Marc A. Dupont
Mantle of Praise Ministries, Inc.