The ancient Greeks told the story of Narcissus, a young man quite proud of himself and of his appearance, who had little care and love for those who loved him. One day he saw his reflection in the waters of a pool; he fell in love with the reflection, apparently not aware it was of himself, refused to turn his gaze away from it, and died there.
Narcissus’ story has been used ever since as a warning to people regarding falling so in love with themselves that others are entirely forgotten. Narcissus’ name is now used for an ever growing tendency in modern culture: narcissism.
Narcissism is best understood as an attempt to satisfy one’s vanity, continually displaying self-absorption and proclaiming one’s perceived superiority in various attributes. The ancient Greeks had an excellent word for this concept: hubris, arrogance gone to such seed that the person has committed insulting and degrading behavior that must receive divine punishment. Greek tragedy is full of persons who exhibit hubris, so self-absorbed that they do not notice how they have insolently offended their gods and fellow man; such a one is always humiliated in the end.
One could rightly consider modern Western culture as the “Age of Narcissism.” The philosophy of the day exalts the individual as the godlike determiner of what is right and what is wrong. Since self-promotion is the surest way to get noticed in a competitive job market and business environment, those with narcissistic inclinations seem to get further than those who display more humility. The cult of celebrity is all about the formation of narcissists; we see far too many young people grow up on television before our very eyes becoming ever more self-absorbed, immoral, and thus intolerable. Marketing promotes narcissism, knowing that the more you feel honored by a retailer or brand or entitled to a given product, the more likely you will buy. Social media invites everyone to participate in narcissistic behavior: your profile is your way of telling the world about you, giving you the opportunity to post what you think and what is going on in your life. We need look no further than the increased popularity of the “selfie”: “Narcissus” can now show the world everywhere he goes, everyone with whom he meets, and it is without a doubt because his face is always there.
Truly the “pride of life” is manifest today in narcissistic behavior (1 John 2:15-17); the easiest thing for us to do is to go with the flow of our world and our culture and become ever more enveloped in narcissism. But is narcissism ideal? Should we be excessively in love with ourselves?
The world has never lacked narcissists; some of them are even well-known in history. Yet there remains one Man whose life was exemplary and extraordinary without ever expressing narcissistic traits. He lived for around 35 years on this earth but never wrote a book, took a “selfie,” or left any physical evidence of His existence. He spent three years living in Judea, spending His time doing good, serving others, and was not served Himself. For all His trouble the authorities had Him arrested, abused, and killed, yet His followers testified that God raised Him from the dead on the third day and promised eternal life and glory for all who followed after Him. That Man was Jesus of Nazareth, and according to what is revealed in the New Testament, He is our Lord, God, and Savior (Matthew 20:25-28, Acts 2:14-36, Romans 5:6-11).
According to Jesus and the Apostles, the world is filled with arrogance and pride, but it would not be so among those who made up the Kingdom of God (Matthew 20:25-28, 23:12, 1 John 2:15-17). Jesus Himself would be the model and pattern for those who would follow Him, and He spent His life in service to others, even unto death (1 Peter 2:18-25, 1 John 2:1-6, 3:16-18, 4:7-21). As Jesus humbled Himself and God exalted Him, so it must be for those who follow Jesus (Philippians 2:5-11).
God does not call Christians to self-degradation, self-flagellation, or low self-esteem; Jesus never did any such thing and Jesus maintained confidence and composure in Himself rooted in His relationship with God His Father (e.g. John 8:12-32). Humility has never meant that we consider ourselves as less valuable or worse than other people; rather it means that we are no better than anyone else and but by the grace of God would be in their condition (Ephesians 2:1-18, Titus 3:3-8). We are still expected to give some consideration to our own interests (Philippians 2:4).
Nevertheless, we ought to recognize the vanity and futility of narcissism. We are not God; we all fall short, and when we push other people away from us in our narcissistic endeavors we feel ever more isolated, alone, and sad. As God is One in relational unity, so we are called to relational unity with God and with one another in God (Deuteronomy 6:4, John 17:20-23): that means we cannot think of ourselves more highly than we ought, but, like Jesus, to remain humble and seek to find ways to serve others and to consider their interests and needs as well (Romans 12:3, Philippians 2:1-11).
Narcissus proves to be a good warning to us: life cannot revolve around how awesome I am. Instead, Jesus provides the way forward: we ground our confidence, self-esteem, and understanding in God in Christ, and seek to serve others for God’s glory, and find ourselves far more satisfied than we ever could while wallowing in self-absorption. Let us resist narcissism and instead serve God in Christ!
Ethan R. Longhenry