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in Scripture, Psychology, & Real Life
Hi friends, holy kisses and sweet blessings.
Humans love to latch on to buzzwords and hot words percolating around them. To our Southern Baptist or Presbyterian or Church of Christ brothers, just about everyone is a "heretic". To our Pentecostal-Charismatic brothers, just about everyone is a "Jezebel" and everything is "Satan". To political drummerboys on both sides, just about everyone is "unAmerican" . To social media and internet culture struggling to heal from relational pain, just about everyone is a "narcissist". Daily, it seems, I hear the terms "narcissist" or "psychopath" or "sociopath" and the so-called signs someone is in one of these flowery categories.
Today's article seeks to bring Biblical wisdom and revelation, and behavioral science, to the narcissism confetti flying everywhere. My next article will do the same for even more intense subjects, psychopathy and sociopathy. Buckle up. Not for the faint of heart. Take your time.
Narcissism, stripped down to its rudimentary meaning, means the excessive love of oneself. The term is based on Ovid's mythical character, Narcissus, who loved himself so much that he died trying to become one with his own reflection in water (in one version of the story).
It was ancient Greece, though, that gifted Western civilization with the philosophical and intellectual precursor to narcissism. They understood the concept by another name, hubris. Hubris, to them, meant using violence to shame and degrade a person, sexual crimes, overstepping normal human or societal boundaries with presumptuous actions, acting godlike, thinking one was better than everyone else (Aristotle), or seeking honor obsessively.
In 1898, "Narcissus-like" as a therapeutic consideration germinated in the professional writings of English psychologist Havelock Ellis. In 1899, the actual term "narcissism" was introduced by German asylum director Paul Nacke, in the context of sexual deviancies. In 1911, Otto Rank wrote the first treatment of narcissism in terms more closely resembling ancient Greece. In 1914, Sigmund Freud wrote elaborately on narcissism as a multilevel construct (causes, positive adaptive aspects, negative maladaptive aspects, the self, self-love, others-love, etc.). Finally, with the constant dawning of new media technologies in the last hundred-plus years, the subject became a muddy mishmash. What is truly narcissism? What is simply prolific confidence and charisma? What is simply a marketing performance? What is simply someone living an interesting life worth documenting in pictures?
Narcissism in Scripture
In the Judeo-Christian worldview, the construct of narcissism began long before Freud, Ellis, Ovid, and the Greek sages. It began with Adam and Eve, and before them, a high-ranking archangel. Isaiah quotes Satan verbatim in the very first instance of excessive self-love the creation had ever experienced (14:13,14 ESV):
You said in your heart,
"I will ascend to heaven;
above the stars of God
I will set my throne on high;
I will sit on the mount of assembly
in the far reaches of the north
I will ascend above the heights of the clouds;
I will make myself like the Most High."
In the Garden, Satan invited Eve to enter the world of narcissism with him. Satan's temptation had multiple layers, but the narcissistic layer can be seen in one phrase (Gen 3:5 ESV): ...you will be like God...
The moment our anthropological parents joined the original narcissist, a sin nature entered humanity (Ro 5:12, Eph 2:1-3, Mk 7:21-23, Jas 1:14, Ps 51:5, 58:3), giving every one of us the itch to overlove ourselves, to daydream self-serving "I will" statements, to instrumentalize our environment for our own needs, to create (or go along with) zero-sum situations. Put simply, to be like Satan. Romans 3:9-19 say a general narcissism is humanity-wide. It can only be cured by a Savior outside ourselves.
"The Pride of Your Power"
The first time pride is used in all of Scripture, to refer to human pride, is Leviticus 26:19 (Hebrew ga'on). In this verse God says (NKJV), "I will break the pride of your power..." The context is the covenantal curses for refusing intimacy and obedience with Him. Herein we find the true center, the true engine, of all narcissism: choosing to be one's own god, to love oneself more than God, to control one's own life, to bulldoze ahead with decisions and relationships depending only on the self. The pride of Me-centered power.
Secular psychology, of course, will not give you the true center of all narcissism, which is why they cannot cure it. They can only manage and medicate it. The narcissist's driving center is, who will be God. Every time you or I or anyone act as our own god, love ourselves more than God, make our own decisions, pick our own alliances, depend on the pride of our own power, we are, in those times, a narcissist. We are, in those times, in the "I will, I will, I will" nature of Satan himself.
Leviathan, "King Over the Sons of Pride"
Job 41:34 says (ESV), He sees everything that is high; he is king over all the sons of pride. In context, God is referring to an actual animal, Leviathan, a large sea creature of some type (v1, Ps 104:26). He is personifying the superiority of Leviathan to all other creatures, describing it as a high and lofty being, a "king over all the sons of pride". Though God is poetically referring to an animal here, do not miss the multipurpose statement, "king over all the sons of pride". It is a double entendre.
Isaiah 27:1 says Satan is the spiritual Leviathan. That reveals an amazing new dimension to God's poetic comment about Leviathan, that he is "king over all the sons of pride". Every time we act as our own god--essentially viewing ourselves through Leviathan's eyes, with a superiority frame, even over God--we are, in those times, acting as a son of pride under the kingship of Leviathan. That should make us soul-search with trembling.
Nebuchadnezzar, Narcissism in Political Leadership
The spiritual engine of narcissism logically outworks into social dynamics. If we are our own god, the people around us are, at worst, subjects, at best, accomplices. People are no longer unique, valuable individuals in the image of God, but tools that exist for our own image. This is the aspect of narcissism most people are familiar with, the aspect that gets all the buzz and chatter. Surely you can see, however, that hubris does not begin with toxic social dynamics, but with a personal existential worldview as to who will be God.
Nebuchadnezzar and Diotrephes give us detailed portraits of the social aspect of advanced pride. Before his humbling, Nebuchadnezzar said (Daniel 4:30 ESV, underline mine):
"Is not this great Babylon, which I have built by my mighty power as a royal residence and for the glory of my majesty?"
Do you see Leviticus 26:19's "the pride of your power" in that boast? Do you see the Leviathan-esqe endgame, "for the glory of my majesty", in that boast?
The subtext and background of Nebuchadnezzar's boast is that he had to harm many people to accomplish what he did. He destroyed Jerusalem and Solomon's temple, stole all the riches (Isa 39:5,6), turned leading Hebrew men into castrated eunuchs (v7), and made slaves of the entire nation. He did the same to other peoples in the region. Many, if not most, of the ancient monarchs behaved in this destructive way towards fellow humans. While some historians chalk this up to the epistemology, sociology, and geopolitics of the ancient world, God does not see it that way. He judged Nebuchadnezzar severely for his people-harming hubris, as he did Pharaoh, the kings of Assyria, and others in political leadership with advanced pride.
Diotrephes, Narcissism in Church Leadership
Diotrephes, in a congregational setting, behaved no differently than old world monarchical godlings. John writes about the social fallout of his toxic pride (3John 1:9,10 NIV):
...Diotrephes, who loves to be first, will not welcome us. So when I come, I will call attention to what he is doing, spreading malicious nonsense about us. Not satisfied with that, he even refuses to welcome other believers. He also stops those who want to do so and puts them out of the church.
Sounds like a professional psychiatric referral. John said Diotrephes "loves to be first". And to safeguard all that attention, he would not welcome John's apostolic team (they would siphon away attention from him) and would kick contrarians out of the church. The ancient kings would just kill, Diotrephes would just stonewall and banish. Same idea. Eliminate any threats to continuous attention and environment control.
As if this were not socially destructive enough, Diotrephes also resorted to "malicious nonsense" about John's apostolic team. Anyone who has known an unrepentant narcissist knows they will say absolutely anything, no matter how laughably silly or disturbingly sinister, to safeguard their attention streams and stay in control of the environment. To them, attention and control is emotional survival in a way few people truly understand.
Paul's "Professional Psychiatric Description" of Narcissism
The most detailed and extensive description of lifestyle narcissism in all the Word of God is 2Timothy 3:2-5 (ESV). Like John's description of Diotrephes, Paul's words here sound like a contemporary psych evaluation.
For people will be lovers of self, lovers of money, proud, arrogant, abusive, disobedient to their parents, ungrateful, unholy, heartless, unappeasable, slanderous, without self-control, brutal, not loving good, treacherous, reckless, swollen with conceit, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God, having the appearance of godliness, but denying its power.
The words Paul used to describe lifestyle narcissism: lovers of self, proud, arrogant, ungrateful, unappeasable, swollen with conceit. The words he used to describe hedonism, a symptom and a cause of narcissism: lovers of money, unholy, unappeasable, without self-control, not loving good, reckless, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God. The words he used to describe a narcissist's seemingly nonexistent empathy: abusive, ungrateful, heartless, unappeasable, slanderous, brutal, treacherous, reckless. The words he used to describe a narcissist's rejection of authority and boundaries: abusive, disobedient to parents, unappeasable, without self-control. The words he used to describe a narcissist's dishonest use of godliness or morality, (which I cover in the next subsection, Covert Narcissism and "virtue signaling"): having the appearance of godliness.
Narcissism in Secular Psychology
While Secular Psychology and the behavioral sciences do not touch the truest, deepest cause of narcissism (who will be God), they are greatly helpful in researching, organizing, and articulating the psychological and social practicalities of it. For this I am grateful.
Narcissism in the DSM-5
The behavioral sciences' taxonomic and diagnostic authority is the Diagnostic & Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition (DSM-5). In the DSM-5, narcissism is cataloged as narcissistic personality disorder (NPD). I paraphrase, but retain their vocabulary: "significant impairments in self-functioning (identity and self-direction), interpersonal functioning (empathy and intimacy), and pathological traits (grandiosity and attention-seeking)."
No types or variations are given, however, research is growing and increasingly indicating two main types of narcissism. Do not get bogged down in persnickety models all over the internet suggesting four, five, seven, or even ten types exist. The types in those models often overlap redundantly, interpolate other ailments, or aggrandize peripheral symptoms.
Two Types of Narcissism: Overt & Covert
Research is increasingly revealing two main expressions of narcissism, overt and covert. The covert expression is missing in the DSM-5, only because the research is emergent. (I wouldn't be surprised if DSM-6 adds the covert variant and goes with a two-expression model.)
Overt narcissists are the ones most people are familiar with (and the one DSM-5 presents). Individuals with this particular expression of advanced pride are fixated on attention and admiration, need to be in control of the environment, form transactional relationships, and act entitled beyond what is healthy or legal. Their pride expression is direct, agentic, antagonistic, exhibitionistic, quick to charm and quick to harm. Think of self-worshiping aggressors like Nebuchadnezzar, Diotrephes, Kanye West, or Donald Trump. As for females, think of both Jezebels, Anna Sorokin, Jodi Arias, or the intentional sextape-leaking, headline-craving celebrity starlets. You do not need therapeutic or ministerial training to smell the reek of Isaiah 14:13,14 in their words and actions.
Covert narcissists are recognized far less (also called communal or vulnerable narcissists). Individuals with this expression of advanced pride are passive-aggressive in supplying their self-esteem. They, too, itch for attention and control, however, they use roundabout strategies to get it. Think overgiving, playing the oh-so-selfless caretaker, playing the martyr, staying in victimhood, dishonest sulking and crying, exaggerating legitimate needs, milking grievances or injustices, etc. They accept the passive role in relationships, realizing this can lead to attention and control if they work it right. Think about it: who has more control, the head or the neck?
Covert narcissism is being studied more and more in "virtue signaling", which means disingenuously expressing moral opinions, actions, or outrage that seem applause-worthy in the moment. It is identical to grandstanding, goody two-shoeing, and sanctimony. The Christian version of virtue signaling is legalism. Yes, legalism is covert narcissism. Think it through...who benefits from showy self-righteousness? The self! Read Matthew 23 and see narcissism all over Jesus' condemnation of the Pharisees. Virtue signaling, in all its forms, can attract attention, admiration, sometimes even control in the form of influence and position.
Tying It All Together
Let's tie all this together into a tidy bundle.
One, Satan was the original narcissist. His heart was filled with self-consumed "I will" statements (Isa 14:12-14), which became hubris actions, which became his damnation.
Two, because our anthropological parents joined Satan in a narcissist tunnel, a sin nature was passed down to every person from the womb (Ro 3:9-19, 5:12, Eph 2:1-3, Mk 7:21-23, Jas 1:14, Ps 51:5, 58:3). With that sin nature came a humanity-wide narcissistic potential. I like to call this general narcissism. This is why a man or woman, a child or parent, a celebrity or a blue-collar Mom and Pop, can have narcissistic moments, or have isolated narcissistic traits, or be a full-blown sociopathic narcissist. There is, however, a comprehensive and permanent cure: a Savior and Launderer outside of ourselves, the Lord Jesus Christ.
Three, advanced pride does not begin in the genes, brain, or environment. It begins with the sin nature nagging a person, at some time in their life, to decide who will be God of their reality. The lifestyle narcissist has decided--at some distinct moment or through an evolving self-centered process--that they are a godling.
Four, the behavioral sciences help us wonderfully by researching, organizing, and articulating the psychological and social practicalities of advanced pride. This can be a utilitarian tool for the Bible-believing Christian who already understands the true engine of narcissism.
Fifth, research is increasingly revealing two main expressions of advanced pride: overt and covert. Overt narcissism is direct, agentic, antagonistic, exhibitionistic, rambling, shameless, quick to charm and quick to harm. Covert narcissism is passive-aggressive and recognized far less. It uses indirect communal or vulnerability-based strategies, like overgiving, taking care of others with an agenda, playing the martyr, staying in victimhood, dishonest sulking and crying, exaggerating legitimate needs, milking grievances or injustices, accepting the passive role in relationships with a wink wink, and virtue signaling/goody two-shoeing/legalism.
Accessory Causes of Narcissism
What else causes advanced pride? We have already discussed the deepest foundation, so what accessory causes add structure and expression to that foundation? (The following is not exhaustive.)
Genetics, The Brain
A "narcissism gene" has never been discovered. Research aimed at uncovering genetic contributors have provided mixed, debatable results. For example, brain imaging studies have been done on the prefrontal and insular cortex of lifestyle narcissists. The results showed linkage to some narcissistic traits, but no linkage at all to other narcissistic traits.
In another example, some brain scans show less matter in areas associated with empathy. The challenge is, the brain is neuroplastic, meaning, it can change structurally based on a person's experiences and habits. The question is, therefore, do they have less matter in empathy areas of the brain because of genetics, or, because their brains developed that structure through traumatic experiences and/or narcissistic habits? The question remains unanswered.
In another example, the gene rs-4950 has been studied to be the "leadership gene" associated with taking charge. Many leaders and overt narcissists have this gene. The challenge, however, is that there are successful leaders and overt narcissists who do not have this gene.
See the mixed bag? Be discerning when someone, even a professional, quotes research studies entwined with their own personal opinion, professional opinion, or philosophical worldview. Genetics and the brain contribute in some way--not only to advanced pride, but all human expressions--but it is unclear how specific or how impactful that contribution is to narcissism.
On the other hand, it is concrete, in Scripture and in research, that having a narcissist parent(s) raises the possibility exponentially that the child will also assume lifestyle narcissism, at worst, isolated narcissist traits, at best. Notice the sad negative irony of Genesis 5:3 (ESV): When Adam had lived 130 years, he fathered a son in his own likeness, after his image...
Daniel writes, in prophet-psychologist fashion, how Nebuchadnezzar passed down his lifestyle narcissism to Belshazzar. Daniel 5:20,22,23 (ESV): But when his heart was lifted up and his spirit was hardened so that he dealt proudly, he was brought down from his kingly throne, and his glory was taken from him...And you his son, Belshazzar, have not humbled your heart, though you knew all this, but you have lifted up yourself against the Lord of heaven...
Low Self-Esteem Plus Status Injuries
Also concrete, in Scripture and in research, is how low self-esteem plus status injuries almost always precursor narcissism. Status injuries are important to understand: humiliation, consistent shame, ostracism, forms of rejection, consistent failure, forced isolation, etc. Now imagine these piled on top of an already fragile or broken self-image. Suddenly overt or covert narcissism becomes an attractive way to prove I am not a loser/failure/unlovable/unwanted.
Proverbs 21:24 is the most direct scripture in all the Bible on this particular cause of advanced pride. To get the full effect of the wording, read it in Young's Literal Translation: Proud, haughty, scorner [is] his name, who is working in the wrath of pride. The lifestyle narcissist ("proud, haughty, scorner is his name") is living with unresolved anger expressed as pride ("the wrath of pride"). That unresolved anger is almost always at cutting status injuries, which then becomes the wrath of pride--malignant narcissism.
King Saul was a malignant narcissist, meaning, someone who has reached an imminently dangerous (sociopathic) level of pride. We see his malignant pride expressing dangerously in many moments: his astoundingly self-centered decree that put an entire army at risk of starvation (1Sam 14:24), setting up a monument in his own honor at Carmel (15:12), his glib and dishonest greeting to Samuel (v13), begging Samuel to honor him publicly (v30), his maddening jealousy of David that led to ongoing attempted murder (18:8-11), expecting David to still show up at his table for meals even after multiple murder attempts (20:25-27), his odd self-consumed rage at Jonathan and his mother (v30,31).
What experiences precursored Saul's sociopathic level of pride? God's Word seems determined to point us to status injuries.
For whatever reason, Saul was already struggling with low self-esteem (10:22, 15:17), a major contributor to lifestyle narcissism in and of itself. Pile on a cutting status injury at his coronation and a monster was born. 1Samuel 10:27 records the moment (NASB): But certain useless men said, "How can this one save us?" And they despised him and did not bring him a gift. But he kept silent about it. Saul swallowed this status injury alive. But who wound up suffering for it? David. His successes and popularity triggered Saul relentlessly. And because Saul had the resources and position as king, this time he did not swallow. He unleashed all that low self-esteem, status wounds, and malignant narcissism on David.
For others scripture on malignant or sociopathic narcissism, see Psalm 10:2-11 and 73:3-12. Notice carefully the descriptors. God's Word and psychology parallel each other perfectly on this point.
Hedonism is loving pleasure in an unhealthy way. It refers to any form of pleasure-abuse, like overeating, uncontrolled sexual behavior, alcohol and substance abuse, even indulging in depictions of violence (in the ancient world, actual violence, like the gladiatorial games). In today's era it includes technological stimulation like virtual reality, social media, gaming, etc.
Hedonism is one of the least recognized accessories to narcissism, and yet, Paul focuses entirely on the hedonism-narcissism relationship in 2Timothy 3:2-4 (ESV): For people will be lovers of self, lovers of money, proud, arrogant, abusive, disobedient to their parents, ungrateful, unholy, heartless, unappeasable, slanderous, without self-control, brutal, not loving good, treacherous, reckless, swollen with conceit, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God.
Notice all the words Paul used to describe advanced pride, or narcissism: lovers of self, proud, arrogant, ungrateful, unappeasable, swollen with conceit. Notice the words he used to describe hedonism: lovers of money, unholy, unappeasable, without self-control, not loving good, reckless, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God. Well, which came first, the chicken or the egg...the hedonism or the narcissism? It is different for each person, however, the causative, cyclical relationship is certain. The more a person loves pleasure dysfunctionally the more they will love themselves dysfunctionally, and the more they are obsessed with themselves the more they will be obsessed with pleasure for themselves.
Narcissism a Central Feature of the Last Days
In 2Timothy 3:1-5, Paul tells us something eerily nuanced: lifestyle narcissism will be a central feature of the last days. Notice verse 1 and the beginning of verse 2 (ESV, underline mine): But understand this, that in the last days there will come times of difficulty. For people will be lovers of self...
Paul goes on to describe lifestyle narcissism in great detail, as we have already discussed.
We do not know the day or the hour our King will come to marry us, but He commanded us to know when the final period of human history has arrived. 80% of Bible prophecy (2,000 of 2,500 prophecies) has been fulfilled, with another 5-10% in the process of being fulfilled. One of the clearest fulfillments of last-days prophecy is 2Timothy 3:1-5. Ask yourself with simple common sense, are Paul's words on rampant narcissism being fulfilled in our day? Lovers of self, lovers of money, proud, arrogant, abusive, ungrateful, heartless, unappeasable, without self-control, brutal, reckless, swollen with conceit, lovers of pleasure.
I close with two takeaway cautions on the subject of narcissism, or hubris, or advanced pride.
Be fair. Carefully distinguish between the various species of narcissism. General narcissism is the intrinsic potential of every human being to be excessively self-loving (the idea of passages like Romans 3:9-19 and Job 33:17). A narcissistic moment is when a person temporarily gives in to that potential and does/says something astoundingly selfish, but is humble and godly in general (like David's moment of horrifying narcissism in the Bathsheba and Uriah incident, or Peter's virtue-signaling pride that he would neeevvveeerrr deny Jesus). Isolated narcissistic traits are remarkably selfish behavior patterns in isolated contexts, but the person is otherwise decent and relatable. Christians who are not infants in Christ anymore, but not quite mature yet either, often fall into this paradoxical category. Malignant narcissism (also called sociopathic narcissism) describes unrestrained narcissists who are imminently dangerous.
Carefully distinguish between the various species of narcissism. Remember Philippians 1:9, our love needs to grow in knowledge and wisdom, not sloppy agape fluffsugar with no critical thinking.
A lifestyle narcissist will slow-drip distinct microbehaviors, threats, and creepy-feeling jokes. Treat them with a 911 seriousness. A lifestyle narcissist (malignant narcissist, sociopathic narcissist) will reveal himself/herself through distinct microbehaviors, threats, and hair-raising jokes. Naive sloppy agape Christians want to "believe the best about people", and thus, rationalize away these slow drips, and thus, lie to themselves, "Oh he/she would never do that!", and thus, get exploited or captured or even killed by these types.
Time to leave discernment kindergarten. There is no Bible verse, not one, that says "believe the best about people". That is a cultural colloquialism. The Word commands us over and over and over to believe what is true about people. Paul says, And this is my prayer: that your love may abound more and more in knowledge and depth of insight (Php 1:9 NIV). Paul said to love smarter, with "knowledge and depth of insight". He did not say believe the best about people, he said believe what is true about them, which requires knowledge and insight.
If a malignant narcissist was in your environment, would you be lulled to sleep by their exterior diversions and defenses, or would you see the interior red wrath of pride?
A lifestyle narcissist will reveal themselves through slow-drip microbehaviors, threats, and hair-raising jokes. Wake up when a person treats a restaurant server like crap, never really pays attention in conversation, gives occasional "If you ever..." threats, jokes about harming others, consistently disrespects boundaries, rules, and laws, lacks honesty and humility about bad behavior (see the Narcissist's Prayer at the very top), has a forceful overt or covert appetite for attention, gets jealous quickly and sharply, and other behaviors that smell like dangerously advanced pride.
An example of this happening right now is the scary drama unfolding between Kanye West, Kim Kardashian, and Pete Davidson. (Context: Pete is dating Kim, Kanye's ex-wife.) It is not funny, it is not entertainment, it is an awful tragedy waiting to happen. Kanye West needs immediate intervention by the authorities, civil or medical. He is doing exactly, word for word, what I have described in this subsection: malignant narcissists reveal themselves through distinct microbehaviors, threats, and hair-raising jokes. He has consistently joked, sang, and tweeted about killing Pete Davidson in a variety of ways, released an animation video of him actually doing it, and has continued this line of language for months. While naive Christians are brainlessly claiming "Oh he'd never do that!", I'm telling you as a counseling professional that violence is (1) mentally rehearsed, then (2) verbally vomited or slow-dripped, then (3) carried out. The evolution may take days, months, or years, but unless it is stopped cold through a forceful intervention--whether by God or strong friends or mentors or the police or medical authorities--it often reaches Stage 3.
After you read this, say a heartfelt prayer for Kanye, Kim, and Pete, especially Kanye, who claimed to have a dramatic born-again experience a few years ago. While the American Christian system was drooling at his highly publicized conversion, I had visceral reservations for this very reason. Instead of discipling him, or admonishing him strongly to be discipled by a mature godly man, Christians everywhere just slobbered over him and asked him to speak or sing. See why we do discipleship? See why you need discipleship? That narcissistic itch inside every human cannot be transformed by the Lord Jesus Christ without a diligent, daily discipleship process.
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