Christ and the Narcissistic Soul

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If you are in Christ, God will not allow you to enter his reign with a kingdom-grasping pride. You will be stripped of every haughty look, every personal empire, in order that you might enter as a little child, looking for a Father’s inheritance. This will come either through personal repentance, learning to humble yourself, or by God humbling you through his working it out in your life to knock down your empire so you can be found in his.

The Spirit then applies the exact same “mind of Christ” from the desert to us in the now. Since that’s the case, the Bible commands us, “Do nothing from rivalry or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves” (Phil. 2:3). If future rule and future glory is there before us, then why would we settle to be the most acclaimed future corpse in our little corner of the world?

This counter-satanic humility can be seen, first, in Christians learning to give up the sense of desperation we feel when we lose “control”—of our lives, our expectations, our families, our churches, our country. I don’t know what your personal trap is for kingdom-building. For me, the satanic temptation was there in the having of children. When my wife and I first married, I was absolutely terrified of her getting pregnant “too early.” I had all kinds of plans for my schooling, for my ministry, and I didn’t think we could “afford” children for a while. The day finally arrived when I was “ready” to be a father. Maria and I made the “decision” and celebrated around the table. It was almost like an engagement. But nothing happened. Thank God.

That’s easy for me to say two adoptions, three births, and five children later. But if we had conceived right away, I would have been a miserably bad father. I would have seen those children as simply an extension of myself, and of my plans for the future. I know that because of the way I reacted to years of infertility and miscarriage. Although I never would have put it this way, I actually felt as though God were taking something away from me. He was taking away from me the “normal” life I’d mapped out for myself. In fact, he was taking away from me my god, the god of a self-directed future. And behind all that was a reptilian spirit. I don’t know what you’re being offered right now. But you’ll either surrender it, or you’ll collapse right along with it. Whatever you’re concerned about will lead you to what you’ll worship. And on what you worship hinges your destiny.

That kind of self-denying humility ought to show up in the way we worship together. Thankfully, we don’t hear as much these days about “worship wars” in Christian churches as we did just a few years ago, but they are still there. For years I thought this phenomenon was the bane of the “make it up as you go along” whirl of low-church evangelical Protestantism, and mostly it is. But, even with a more set traditional liturgy, Roman Catholics and other groups often experience the same kinds of tensions.

Maybe you’re like me, reared to have the worship music tastes of a seventy-five year-old woman. That’s because, I think, a seventy-five year-old woman was picking out the hymns and gospel songs in the church where I grew up. I tear up then to sing “Just As I Am” or “To God Be the Glory.” And I’m left cold by what some people call the “majestic old hymns.” They sound like what watercress sandwich-eating Episcopalians from Connecticut would listen to (not that there’s anything wrong with that). And so many of the contemporary songs sound as if they were written by commercial jingle-writers, trying desperately to find words to rhyme with “Jesus” (“Sees us?” “Never leave us?” “Diseases?”). I’m not saying aesthetics don’t matter in worship. Worship is, after all, commanded to be offered with “reverence and awe” (Heb. 12:28). I am saying our varying critiques of musical forms are often just simple narcissism disguised as concern for theological and liturgical downgrade.

We need more worship wars, not fewer. What if the war looked like this in your congregation: the young singles petitioning the church to play more of the old classics, for the sake of the elderly people, and the elderly people calling on the leadership to contemporize for the sake of the young new believers? This would signal a counting of others as more important than ourselves (Phil. 2:3), which comes from the Spirit of the humiliated, exalted King Christ (Phil. 2:5-11). When I insist that the rest of the congregation serve as backup singers in my own little nostalgic hit parade of back-home Mississippi hymns, I am worshipping in the spirit all right, but not the Holy Spirit. I am worshipping myself, in the spirit of self-exaltation. The church negates the power of the third temptation when we remind ourselves that we all have this devilish tendency, and we cast it aside whether in worship planning or missions or budget decisions.

The narcissistic soul has, we’re told by those who observe such things, a basic lack of empathy, an inability to feel what another is feeling or to even see the other except in terms of an extension of oneself. At the end of its malignancy, the self-exalting soul screams out the blasphemous words of Satan: “I am, and there is no one besides me” (Isa. 47:10; Zeph. 2:15). But Narcissus is drowned in the baptismal waters. When we give up our own craving for power and glory, we find new power and new glory, in Christ. We worship God, and let our kingdoms fall. In order for the Christocracy to come, the egocracies must be crucified.

This article was adapted from my book, Tempted and Tried: Temptation and the Triumph of Christ.

Only when we see how lost we are, we can find our way again. Only when we bury what’s dead can we experience life again. Only when we lose our religion can we be amazed by grace again.


About Russell Moore

Russell Moore is Editor in Chief of Christianity Today and is the author of the forthcoming book Losing Our Religion: An Altar Call for Evangelical America (Penguin Random House).