One of literature’s ancient parables is the legend of Narcissus, who fell in love with his own image reflected in a perfect pool of water. Narcissus ultimately destroyed himself, undone by his obsession with self-admiration.
There’s a lesson there somewhere, not just for Christians, but for all of us. I was thinking about my responsibilities as a disciple and the nuances of narcissism today, as I listened to a rebroadcast of a show, Radio Smart Talk, from WITF fm, our local NPR station. The host was interviewing two psychology professors, co-authors of The Narcissism Epidemic: Living in the Age of Entitlement.
The co-authors were talking about America as an increasingly narcissistic society. Their dialogue started me thinking about the dichotomy between Christian discipleship and cultural influences that pull all of us in opposite directions.
Now I know a lot of narcissistic people, and even more narcissistic Christians! After all, we are who we are, and even the best of us have character flaws. But we serve a God who will work with anyone who shows up! No matter how flawed, how much of a narcissist or reprobate we are at the moment of our rebirth in Jesus, he works with whatever he has!
OK, so theoretically, once a narcissist comes to Jesus, and asks to be in relationship with Him, the person begins to function, learn, grow and develop in relationship with God and with His people, no matter how narcissistic at the onset. Amazing!
Now, I’m not fond of narcissists myself. It’s a cultural and family thing. My father came from a clan who worked really hard all their lives, and had no time for glory hounds, or people made a show of doing things for other people to get noticed, or to be seen as important or humane. No matter how flawed some of the family members were, they placed a high value on relationships, and getting along with each other in peace.
His family taught us that anyone who had real integrity never told anyone what he or she did for anyone else. I don’t know how they came to that understanding or to hold that value, but I do see that same sentiment reflected in the gospel.
Be especially careful when you are trying to be good so that you don’t make a performance out of it. It might be good theater, but the God who made you won’t be applauding. “When you do something for someone else, don’t call attention to yourself. You’ve seen them in action, I’m sure—’playactors’ I call them— treating prayer meeting and street corner alike as a stage, acting compassionate as long as someone is watching, playing to the crowds. They get applause, true, but that’s all they get. When you help someone out, don’t think about how it looks. Just do it—quietly and unobtrusively. That is the way your God, who conceived you in love, working behind the scenes, helps you out. (Matthew 6:1-4)
The dilemma, for pastors, teachers, preachers, and all the Body of Christ, is how to integrate a narcissistic society into Kingdom behavior. How do you involve narcissists and other Christians in meaningful Kingdom relationships? How do you encourage folks who are self-absorbed and indifferent toward or contemptuous of folks who are different, to relate in kind, collegial, and respectful ways?
The co-authors suggest that community volunteerism is a good first step. They distinguish between healing volunteerism that has volunteers doing hands on, down-and-dirty grunt work for other people, and volunteerism that sets up a power relationship between volunteer and recipient, where the volunteer is in a leadership position, helping folks he/she perceives as poor and unfortunate, and getting credit from the church or organization for his/her humanism. The first type is healing and helpful, but the second type feeds and fosters narcissism.
I enjoyed the discussion and may buy the book., But as I listened to the discussion, I realized that our Faith Community, Christian Life Assembly, has a good strategy for developing narcissists into real disciples. Their ‘Quid Pro Quo’ approach, (sort of a pragmatic, reciprocal trade agreement,) works really well for motivating the narcissists in the congregation. Our pastoral leadership engages folks where they are, involves them in adventure, service, training, and fellowship, at whatever level they want to participate, and then actively encourages folks to grow and develop the weaker areas of their characters together, in community and rewards those who fit their leadership profile with titles, pastoral roles, and leadership positions. Incentives in line with the narcissists’ political and ego goals work!
Narcissists make good workers. Their compulsion to be recognized and admired drives them to help out–a lot! Not all people who help do it for the glory and praise, but the opportunity for a leadership role and/or title motivates narcissistic believers to work really hard to establish their “creds”, gain popularity and political power, which leads inevitably to leadership positions.
So narcissism has a good function in society. Once narcissists’ ego needs are rewarded, they will work tirelessly–that’s a good thing!
Narcissists are sometimes seriously condescending and patronizing, so it’s easy to judge them harshly. But wisdom, insight, and real Love will both engage and forgive them, and use their gifts to aid the Body, while reigning in their obsessive need to be seen as ‘superior’. I bless my faith community’s leadership for taking the high road with all our personality issues and maintaining a loving benevolence toward narcissists and all of CLA’s flawed but being-transformed believers! It’s more difficult for me. For me, it’s definitely an “extra grace needed” situation. ; )
Love from the center of who you are; don’t fake it. Run for dear life from evil; hold on for dear life to good. Be good friends who love deeply; practice playing second fiddle.
Don’t burn out; keep yourselves fueled and aflame. Be alert servants of the Master, cheerfully expectant. Don’t quit in hard times; pray all the harder. Help needy Christians; be inventive in hospitality. (Romans 12:9-13)