One of the most widely recognized characters of Greek mythology is Narcissus. Narcissus, the Greeks tell us, was strikingly handsome and drew the attention of many admirers, but arrogantly rejected them all. Concerned about her son, one version of the story relates, his mother inquired of a seer as to what would become of him. The seer assured her that Narcissus would live a long life “if he but fail to recognize himself.” These words proved accurate. Years later, while one day walking alongside a body of water, Narcissus stopped to get a drink and for the first time saw his countenance reflected back to him. Not realizing he was only looking at himself, he was immediately taken with the face before him. Captivated by his own reflection, Narcissus pined away at the water’s edge, neither eating nor drinking, until he finally died.
Narcissus has given us the term “narcissism,” designating a mindset and group of behaviors that have long been observed in various people in varying degrees. Narcissism is characterized by excessive self-love, manifests itself in selfishness, a bloated view of one’s own importance, self-centeredness, and diminished empathy. It is contrary to what God desires for His people: “Let nothing be done through selfish ambition or conceit, but in lowliness of mind let each esteem others better than himself” (Philippians 2:3).
Significantly, narcissism began to receive a great deal of attention from psychological professionals in the 1970s, eventually finding its way into the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders in 1980. The growing interest appears to have been prompted by a growing problem in the population, one that only magnified in the past three decades. A recent study of 16,000 university students (aged 18-19 years old) found that 30 percent were classified as “narcissistic” according to a widely used psychological test. This number was double that found in 1982 (15%). This finding confirmed what had been revealed in a previous study in which 35,000 people of varying ages were interviewed about their own experiences. When participants were asked if they had ever had symptoms of narcissism, three percent of those in their sixties said they had, compared to ten percent of those in their twenties. Add to this another study that found a 40 percent decline in empathy among young people since the 1980s, and a rather disturbing picture emerges.
It all reminds one of Paul’s words to Timothy: “But know this, that in the last days perilous times will come: for men will be lovers of themselves...” (2 Timothy 3:1-2a). Perilous times. Or as other translations render it: “difficult times” (NASB, ESV), “terrible times” (NIV), “distressing times” (NRSV). These are times that try men’s souls. Ours certainly isn’t the only age to see self-centeredness soar; other cultures have blazed that trail before us. But probably none of us has ever seen our own culture quite as self-absorbed as it now is. Times have changed. And in times like these, it behooves us not only to note what is transpiring around us (Matthew 16:3), but more importantly, to remember what ought to be transpiring within us.
On a scale of 1 to 5 (1 being “Almost Always,” 5 being “Almost Never”), how would you rate yourself on the following questions? 1) When making a decision, I consider how the decision will benefit me, rather than how it will benefit others or glorify God. 2) I think a great deal about how others don’t love or appreciate me. 3) When people hurt or offend me, I tend to just write them off and have little or nothing to do with them. 4) When others are blessed with things that I dearly want, I find it difficult to rejoice. 5) When I meet a new person, I spend more time thinking about how to impress him/her than how to serve him/her. 6) I long to be noticed more than I long to be godly. 7) I am excessively competitive. 8) I am a taker rather than a giver.
Questions like these help us see what’s going on in our hearts and reveal to what extent the spirit of the age has impacted our outlook.
God calls us to selflessness, to a love that is directed outward, not inward. “Love...does not seek its own” (1 Corinthians 13:4-5). He calls us to a love that is about giving, not getting. Jesus, who “did not come to be served, but to serve” (Matthew 20:28) showed us how this works. He “loved the church and gave Himself for her” (Ephesians 5:25). “Christ also has loved us and given Himself for us” (Ephesians 5:2). “[T]he Son of
God...loved me and gave Himself for me” (Galatians 5:20). Jesus was a giver, not a taker. Love is not love until it’s given away.
God calls us to give up self-seeking (Romans 2:8), and instead seek the good of others: “We then who are strong ought to bear with the scruples of the weak, and not to please ourselves” (Romans 15:1). “But I say to you, love your enemies, bless those who curse you, do good to those who hate you, and pray for those who spitefully use you and persecute you, that you may be sons of your Father in heaven...” (Matthew 5:44-45). The flesh balks at this approach to life, but we must let the Lord have His way with us. It’s the only way to enjoy His blessings.
God promises us that self-seeking will only bring trouble: “For where envy and self-seeking exist, confusion and every evil thing are there” (James 3:16). Family troubles, marital troubles, troubles in the church—all have self-seeking as their common denominator. The only solution is to “[l]et each of you look out not only for his own interests, but also for the interests of others” (Philippians 2:4). This is the mind of Christ. Let us make up our minds to think like Him.