“Why did you sabotage me at the board meeting?!”
As I bundled up my family to depart from a church potluck, an angry member of our church leadership team confronted me. In full earshot of everyone leaving the building, he let me have it. His confrontation confounded me.
I convinced him we should move the conversation outside. Not to start a fistfight, but because he was accosting me about a private meeting in a public setting. When he cooled down, I assured him my comments and questions at the board meeting were not directed at him. I didn’t even understand how he thought they might be about him. But in his perspective, everything anyone did or said in his company was always and exclusively about him. It was my first run-in with a bonafide narcissist.
Sadly, we seem to be entering a golden age of narcissism. Whether in Washington D.C., Hollywood, or Silicon Valley, ego is king. If recent evangelical leaders’ moral failures should teach us one thing it is that the pervasiveness of unbridled self-pride isn’t just an issue outside the church–it’s a Christian problem too. These leadership crises create an opportunity for us to better understand narcissism and identify how we allow it to burgeon in our communities and within our hearts.
In Toughest People to Love, Dr. Chuck DeGroat writes, “While manifesting power, superiority, cynicism about failure, and a need to control, deep down narcissists cannot fail–in their work, relationships, or friendships. Underneath their powerful and impressive exteriors lies a deep insecurity”
Narcissists, DeGroat says–and, more acutely, people with a diagnosable narcissistic personality disorder–are often charmers. They can woo and wow themselves into positions of authority and leadership, particularly in the absence of strong, healthy leaders. Whether in politics, business, churches, or nonprofits, narcissists hunger for the spotlight–and often get it.
As I’ve read the analyses of recently defrocked megachurch pastors’ stories, it’s unsurprising the central role narcissism plays. Narcissism often hides behind false, albeit convincing, humility. If there is any connecting theme through these leaders’ collapses–from Noble to Driscoll to MacDonald to Hybels–it is pride, narcissist’s root vice.
As vices go, pride is perhaps the most infamous. C.S. Lewis described pride as the “utmost evil.” John Cassian, an original author of the list of Seven Deadly Sins, wrote early in the fifth century that pride “reigns over” the other vices as the “queen of sins.” South African minister, Andrew Murray, once wrote, pride is the “root of every sin and evil” and humility the “root of every virtue.” Pride is not a vice. It’s the vice.
Pride ensnares all of us in the belief that we sit at the center of our universe and narcissists give us a magnifying glass on pride. As David Brooks writes in The Road to Character:
“Psychologists have a thing called the narcissism test. They read people statements and ask if the statements apply to them. Statements such as “I like to be the center of attention… I show off if I get the chance because I am extraordinary… Somebody should write a biography about me.” The median narcissism score has risen 30 percent in the last two decades. Ninety-three percent of young people score higher than the middle score just twenty years ago.”
My millennial peers in the self-esteem generation grew up hearing how very special we are. The loudest messages we’ve heard are to look within yourself and follow your passion.
To fight pride, we must not only confront the lies we hold within, but also the lies all around us. Sixteen hundred years ago, Augustine wrote, “The top 3 most essential virtues for a Christian are: humility, humility, and humility.” Today, these words have perhaps never been more true. As followers of Jesus, we must grow in how we cultivate and celebrate this essential virtue in our lives and in our communities.
My church run-in diffused as quickly as it started. Confused, I drove home wishing I had better tools to respond to both the situation and the person. These difficult personalities create drama with ease. Given the ascent of narcissism in our culture, we should plan to experience a lot of it. To resist narcissism inside us and around us, DeGroat writes, two strategies give us a good starting point: Model vulnerability and cultivate honest community.
“Christians living as a cruciform community, shaped by Christ’s life and death, challenge the arrogant pride of the narcissist,” DeGroat writes. “For, in many respects, the narcissistic personality is antithetical to a cruciform Christian life.”
Only when we are both vulnerable and honest in the context of a Christ-honoring and trusted community, narcissism’s onslaught can be dulled.
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