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~ Narcissistic Religion ~
Narcissus is a mythological figure who fell in obsessive love with his own reflection. A web site visitor kindly emailed us with provocative and thoughtful comments and questions regarding the prevalence, dangers and safeguards against narcissism in spiritual practice. How do we keep our egos and mental projections from masquerading as wisdom from the Holy Spirit? Are there guidelines to test what we feel may be God speaking to us or the claims of others who say their words or insights into Scripture are divinely given?
Our reader correctly observes how so many wrestle with this issue. The sin of pride and ambition that corrupted Lucifer into Satan is prevalent in the human family as the ego thrives on attention, recognition, applause and power. So long the ego thrives, the spirit cannot submit fully to the lordship, will and love of God, leading to the struggle between "the carnal and spiritual natures" well described by Paul in Romans 7:14-25.
Religion abused can certainly be deceptive and fatal to the spirit. Although a bold contention, I propose a church where everyone is smugly comfortable and prosperous, and the Gospel of the narrow way that Jesus assured is challenging, difficult, self-denying and involves suffering as well as joy is not taught, is no more spiritually nurturing than a cult meeting house where Satan is worshipped.
Jesus was clear on the crucial difference between religiousity and spirituality, frequently using the very religious Pharisees as His prime reference, telling them adulterers and prostitutes are entering heaven before they are. He even chided one sincere Pharisee inquirer who met Him secretly, Nicodemus: "You are Israel's teacher and do you not understand these things?... I have spoken to you of earthly things and you do not believe; how then will you believe if I speak of heavenly things?" (John 3:10, 12, NIV).
So how do we recognize and handle narcissistic religion? Are there tests and guidelines? There are, but these can be unreliable since the ego is doing the testing. That's like a drug company testing the effectiveness of its own product. That's why Jesus, well aware of our self-serving (and therefore idolatrous) egos, pointed to Pharisees as examples of religious show-offs. To counter narcissism, He said to not let people know you are fasting, to not say attention-drawing prayers in public but to pray secretly, and to drive home the point by exaggeration, Jesus told us to not even let our left hand know that our right hand is doing a good deed. If that is hard for us to do, we are religious narcissists.
This extends to the ego-strokes we get when we believe the Holy Spirit has privileged us with a personal message. Feeling proud and special is not a good sign, especially if we are anxious to tell others. When someone tells me, "God told me to tell you..." I think, "Why didn't He tell me Himself? Why does God need a middle man?" The greatest value of that is triggering self-reflection: Have I been too busy or distracted to enter that silence of prayerful presence to "be still and know I am God"?
Authentic whisperings of the Spirit in our hearts are not necessarily characterized by feelings of being special. Many times they are admonishments like Peter's vision in Acts 10 where God is teaching him that no creature is "unclean" and therefore the gospel was to include all nations.
Sometimes the dreams, revelations or visions will be ecstatic. But truly spiritual people will tend to keep them private, like their fasts and prayers, sharing them only with intimates who won't praise them as special, godly persons. They may write them down for others to read after their death, or reveal them for a special purpose, usually reluctantly.
Paul was given a magnificent glimpse of the third heaven six years after his conversion from persecutor to apostle. He didn't mention it in his letters to the Galatians or Thessalonians, his first letters. Paul waited fourteen years to mention it to the Corinthians (2 Corinthians 12) in a letter even though he wrote to the Thessalonian Christians from Corinth four years earlier and could have told the Corinthians in person! And he wouldn't have written about it at all if his apostolic commission wasn't being challenged. Even then, Paul started in the third person as though it happened to someone else but had to switch to the first person, "I," when he decided to tell them, "to keep me from becoming conceited because of these surpassingly great revelations, there was given me a thorn in my flesh, a messenger of Satan, to torment me" (v. 7). Spiritual visions may come with a cost to self-gloating… hard-hitting enough to beg God for relief, as Paul did three times ( v. 8).
Then we have situations when we may be speaking from the Holy Spirit without knowing it, although others may see it. After Peter declared, "You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God," Jesus told him, "Blessed are you... for this was not revealed to you by men, but by my Father in heaven" (Matthew 16:16-17). Perhaps, however, that went to Peter's inflated head because a little time later Peter actually contradicted what Jesus said about His future and even "began to rebuke him [Jesus]" (v. 22). Jesus really slammed back hard: "Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me; you do not have in mind the things of God, but the things of men" (v. 23). Immediately after that, Jesus proclaimed an ultimatum: "If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me" (v. 24). So much for narcissism and feeling special. Watch what you claim to be an insight from God.
We don't want to be included among those who speak in self-deceit or among those who don't recognize those who do: "For such men are false apostles, deceitful workmen, masquerading as apostles of Christ. And no wonder, for Satan himself masquerades as an angel of light. It is not surprising, then, if his servants masquerade as servants of righteousness. Their end will be what their actions deserve" (2 Corinthians 11:13-14, NIV).
There are guidelines for prophets (those who relate messages of God) in Deuteronomy 13, 18 and in other scriptural texts. Basically the words of a prophet are supported by predicted events or they provide insights or understandings that do not conflict with Scripture, the word of God. Despite the popular, politically correct push to embrace all religions as equally valid, or the inane contention that "my truth is different from your truth," the "New World Translation" of the Bible of Jehovah's Witnesses, Joseph Smith's Book of Mormon, or the Qu'ran are logically irreconcilable. The angel Gabriel who revealed to Mary she would give birth to the Redeemer of the world, the Incarnate God-with-us, cannot be the same angel Gabriel who revealed to Mohammed that Christ was only a prophet whose teachings were contaminated over the centuries and God chose Mohammed to get the world back on the path of truth that was lost. Even Paul's teachings, which the apostle said were not taught to him but revealed directly by Christ, were tested against scriptural texts: "Now the Bereans were of more noble character than the Thessalonians, for they received the message with great eagerness and examined the Scriptures every day to see if what Paul said was true" (Acts 17:11, NIV, emphasis added).
As mentioned earlier, objective tests for discerning the voice of God in our minds and hearts, I believe, are dangerously unreliable. I suggest discernment is matter of deep humility, ego-kill, and intimacy with God. Jesus used a very non-Jewish way to address God, equivalent to "Dad": Abba. Paul writes these wondrous words: "... you received the Spirit of sonship. And by him we cry, 'Abba, Father'. The Spirit himself testifies with our spirit that we are God's children" (Romans 8:15b-16, NIV).
Paul taught "Now to each one the manifestation of the Spirit is given for the common good" (1 Corinthians 12:7, NIV). That's why "we take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ" (2 Corinthians 10:5b, NIV). That is one way to prevent narcissism.
Spiritual understanding and insight from the Holy Spirit tend to come to us with some surprise on our part. Rather than confirm what our religious tenacity or egos decided is true, we feel this sense of awe, thinking "Now where did that come from?" We feel gratitude and humility. We may share them with others, but not as self-proclaimed prophets or messengers. We suggest, we propose, we offer. The Holy Spirit in others will perceive what we offer for consideration as divinely insightful or as off-the-wall and invalid.
In our newsletter introductions to those who receive these Weekly Reflections by email, I often remark "sent with prayer." My prayer is that the Spirit uses these words to trigger in others what the Spirit wants them to learn, not necessarily what I intended to pass on. The wonderful thing about that is the Spirit could render a reader more insight on the topic than the writer. Equally wonderful is the Spirit, in response to this prayer, could also have the reader conclude that what I write is garbage. Either way, the Spirit is the teacher, not me, and that is how it must be, so long we read and ponder in a state of prayer, not self-defensiveness.
Paul speaks of his own writing and preaching: "My message and preaching were not with wise and persuasive words, but with a demonstration of the Spirit's power, so that your faith might not rest on men's wisdom, but on God's power" (1 Corinthians 2:4-5, NIV). When someone speaks from the Holy Spirit, he or she doesn't have to say, "God revealed this to me." He or she just has to share, offer, suggest, and those who have an intimacy with God will know whether or not it comes from his or her Abba, dear, loving, beloved Father.
More important than biblical scholarship, more than tests or guidelines run by the mind, is divine intimacy. Jesus said His sheep recognize His voice. That's only possible in the intimacy between Shepherd and sheep. "The Spirit searches all things, even the deep things of God... We have not received the spirit of the world but the Spirit who is from God, that we may understand what God has freely given us... The man without the Spirit does not accept the things that come from the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him, and he cannot understand them, because they are spiritually discerned. The spiritual man makes judgements about all things, but he himself is not subject to any man's judgement: 'For who has known the mind of the Lord that he may instruct him?' But we have the mind of Christ" (1 Corinthians 2:10a, 12, 14-16, NIV).
Our minds cannot discern what comes from heaven,
earth or even the anti-Christ who is the master masquerader of truth and
light. Trust nothing but the mind of Christ. That mind is ours through
self-denial, total submission in love, and joyful, willing obedience. This
is not an insight from God through this writer. It's been "on the books,"
sacred Scripture, for the past 2000 years.
John S. Hilkevich, Ph.D
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