on narcissism: Gal. 6

read Gal. 6.  One of my favorite things to do is read about extreme personality disorders. I always find helpful tips for the rest of us from acute cases. So watching shows on hoarders – you know, those people who can’t get to their front door because of all the stuff they’ve amassed – helped me bag up clothes we never wear for Goodwill. And guess what? Giving away stuff we didn’t need seems to have sapped my desire to shop. What an unexpected bonus!  Why buy stuff if you know that in a few months you will have to bag it, label it, add up its (unbelievably diminished) price, and drop it off at the Goodwill store?  It’s fantastic. Thank you, hoarders. You helped me stop being what I think I kind of sort of maybe was….

So recently I’ve been reading about narcissism. It’s a personality disorder that only 1% of the population actually suffers from. The rest of us are just selfish. 🙂 Actually, here’s the fascinating thing about narcissism. It stems from being deeply shamed as a child. The person was told that because they did something bad, they were bad. That kind of shame is too much for any human to handle, and so the narcissist put up a wall. On one side of the wall is the reality of who they are, warts and all. On the other side of the wall is an inflated image of themselves as perfect and therefore far superior to the rest of the human race.

Here are some more hallmarks of the narcissist. They are highly sensitive and flare up at the slightest insult. They belittle and put down anyone who has the misfortune to work for them. Waiters, cleaners, cooks, drivers, spouses – all get ripped apart. Everyone who tries to help them is an “idiot.” They feel entitled to the point of ridiculousness. They expect other people to serve them and literally cannot understand why they shouldn’t. They expect automatic compliance with their every wish. They have zero empathy for other people. They are highly manipulative and will try everything they can to get what they want. They have terrible interpersonal boundaries and feel entitled to ask highly personal questions and to walk into others’ homes, read their mail, and take their belongings and sometimes even their spouses. Their compulsive need for validation causes them to drone on about all the things they’ve done, even though they’re normal things the rest of us do all the time. They’re green with envy, but they have to deny it or claim others are jealous of them, because to admit their envy would be to suggest they were somehow lacking. They’re obsessed with getting ahead and achieving and fantasize constantly about anything they think proves their superiority, whether it’s power, success, beauty or being with someone who has those attributes.

The narcissist can be helped, but unfortunately one of the hallmarks of the disorder is such self-involvement that they don’t realize they’re self-involved. They think everything is everyone else’s fault. See e.g. Narcissistic Personality Disorder Symptons at Psychcentral.com.

When dealing with a narcissist it helps to understand the cause of these very off-putting behaviors. Instead of humility in the face of their imperfections, they feel a deep and intolerable sense of shame. The problem is that the narcissist has a monster behind the wall, waiting to emerge, and they have to feed everything they can into its maw to prevent it from devouring them. They don’t have any brain space for the viewpoints of others. They must see the other as rotten, so they can feed that to the insatiable monster within. But really, they’re feeding the monster their own flaws when they condemn and belittle others. It’s what’s known as projection, or “bypassed shame.”

So we can’t expect a narcissist to remember we told them we are busy. We can’t expect them to understand when we say no to them. We can’t expect them to stay calm. We can’t expect them to see reason. We can only set boundaries and keep them set. We must be kind but firm. And we must have empathy but not enable. The narcissist is a professional at sniffing out people whose boundaries were trampled on as a child, and they will walk on those same trespassed areas. To handle a narcissist requires learning that relationships are reciprocal, and that boundaries are good. It requires us to grow up. It requires us to stop being cowards. We must stop being addicted to the approval of others. The narcissist will never approve of us, so they are wonderful training ground in learning to love others as ourselves, not more than ourselves.

There are two kinds of narcissist: the grandiose and the vulnerable. The grandiose is the person who discusses themselves in epic terms completely divorced from any actual achievements. The vulnerable is the one who puts down everyone else. Both kinds tend to retreat into enclaves. They cannot survive in the real world, so they surround themselves with sycophants. Anyone who tells them the truth about themselves is banished, along with anyone who disappoints them. Many of them end up having to retreat into the four walls of their homes. Only there can they maintain the lie that they are superior to all others.

So what can we all learn from this “personality disorder”? Well, read these words, and then read them again, from Sandy Hotchkiss’s excellent book Why Is It Always About You? The Seven Deadly Sins of Narcissism: “It is healthy narcissism that allows us to laugh at ourselves and our imperfections, to dig deep within ourselves to create something uniquely ours, and to leave a positive personal stamp on the world… [It] is the capacity to feel a full range of emotions and to share in the emotional life of others, the wisdom to separate truth from fantasy while still being able to dream, and the ability to assertively pursue and enjoy our own accomplishments without crippling self-doubt.”

I don’t know about you, but when I read those words about being able to laugh at myself and my imperfections, I embrace them. Great, I think. Handling my imperfections is the hallmark of a healthy person? Ha, ha! See me laugh???

But nervous laughter aside, how do we learn to have a healthy relationship with our faults? Because M. Scott Peck (remember him? Author of The Road Less Travelled?) says the same thing in his fascinating book People of the Lie. He claims that truly evil people are those who can’t see or admit their sins, faults and mistakes. St. Paul says here in Galatians 6 that every one of us must learn to carry the burden of our own imperfections: “For every person will have to bear (be equal to understanding and calmly receive) his own [little] load of oppressive faults.” Gal. 6:5.

Well then. Bring it on. Faults, we embrace you!  But how do we do that? How do we “calmly receive” our faults? How do we stop projecting our faults onto other people (the narcissist’s trick of ‘bypassed shame’)? How do we own our sins? How do we see our imperfections as the terrible, horrible, no good things they are, and yet not be crushed by the weight of them? How, in short, do we see our bad and yet not experience the narcissist’s crippling shame?

The first thing to note is that our imperfections and moral faults are called a burden here in Galatians 6. My husband was the one who called my attention to that. We were looking at this chapter in light of our discussion about how to be healthy, and I said, “but we don’t want to just shrug our faults off like they’re okay.”

He said, “look. They’re called ‘oppressive.'” I looked. He was right. It says we are supposed to carry the “burdens and troublesome moral faults” of other people but to “bear” the “load” of our own “oppressive” faults. I realized that the hallmark of a healthy person is to make peace with the fact that you have faults, not make peace with the faults themselves. Because in terms of our sins, oppressive is really the pivotal word here. The first thing to note is that we just feel awful when we do wrong. We are all made in God’s image. That means that no matter how much we tell ourselves that “everything is awesome” (to echo the Lego movie’s deeply sarcastic song) when we do wrong, we know deep down it’s not awesome. Sin is a burden. It weighs us down. It’s heavy.

And we know that instead of being weighted down, we were created for flight.

But how can we fly when we sin? How can we soar when we are burdened? Our load of oppressive faults causes us all constant anxiety, all day long. I really think that. I am starting to believe that we all live in a constant state of fear because every time we do a tiny thing wrong we feel vulnerable, naked and ashamed. We think that what is wrong with us is a whole host of other things, but these passages suggest that what’s really wrong with us is that we need saving from ourselves. We don’t want anyone to know the ways we fall short of perfect. We are all tempted to be like the narcissist and build a wall between ourselves and our behavior. We all want to stay on the sunny side of the wall and pretend there’s nothing behind it. “Oh that huge wall looming behind me? Ha, ha! That’s nothing. Don’t look there, please. That awful smell? Cough, cough. Must be my throat lozenge. Would you like one? Walk this way, please. No, not that way. No, no nooooo.”  Whatever is behind our wall of hypocrisy will always reveal itself. We’re all Oz, hiding behind a curtain, pretending to be the great and terrible.

But don’t worry. We are all great. And we’re also all terrible. It’s okay. It’s really okay.  Our God is so good and so loving and so generous, that He came down and lived a great life for us. He really was awesome. Jesus was the only perfect human who ever walked the earth. He lived the life on the sunny side of our walls. He really was that person we all try to pretend to be. But He died the death deserved by people who live the life of the dark side of our walls. Jesus experienced all the punishment for all our terribleness. He paid the price, lovingly, because He wanted to restore us to Himself and to ourselves. The cross can topple our every wall. The nails that were hammered into Christ’s hands were the very nails holding up our facades. Christ pulls the nails out of the walls that we erect to hide our sins from ourselves and others. He wants those walls to come tumbling down.

Christ wants us to be able to admit who we truly are – terrible, terrible sinners. We are selfish, self-centered, lazy, angry, impatient, ridiculous, prideful people. Christ wants us to own it. Because in addition to all that, we are also lovable, loved and worthwhile. We are God’s poem. We are adored. We are Christ’s masterpiece. We are wonderful.

How can this be? How can we stand the shame of having our walls toppled? How can we look our sins squarely in the face and be gentle and humble instead of terrified? The answer is, like the answer to every anxiety that haunts our days, the cross, the cross, and nothing but the cross. Jesus died to restore us to himself. When God looks at us, if we cling to the cross, God “sees” us as holy. He sees us covered in Christ’s perfection like a blanket. Only with that covering can we be a whole person. Only with the restoration of the cross, can we embrace the burden of our sins and faults, and yet feel embraced and loved and wonderful.

The moment we begin to grasp this, whether it’s the first time or the fiftieth, it’s the sort of thing that makes us want to leap in the air and click our heels together and sing our hearts out.  Really. You mean, um, are you saying, is it possible, you mean like,… a very poor Jewish man who died a long time ago already paid the price for my sin? Because He was God?  Yes! It’s possible. It’s more than possible. It happened. You are completely covered. It’s too good to be true, isn’t it? Hallelujah.

Exposing our sin to the glory of the cross enables us to be the kind of people God calls us to be here in Galatians 6. He wants us to “restore” other people who are doing wrong; not condemn, hate and criticize them but to bring them back. He wants us to be “gentle” with them. He wants us to do so without any sense of “superiority.” He wants us to stop thinking we’re too important to “shoulder another’s load.” He wants us to help others back on the right track, without getting tempted ourselves. But how? It’s so easy to look behind other people’s walls and condemn them. It’s so easy to forget what’s lurking on the other side of our own walls. We shake a finger at them, and that same finger points back at ourselves. It’s the finger of shame, and it’s our enemy.

Only when we understand the depth of our terribleness, can we truly be great. How did you feel when you were reading about the narcissist above? Did you feel superior? Don’t. You probably also felt uncomfortable, because you noticed a few of your own traits. So laugh at yourself. Instead of looking down at others, flip it: shake our heads at our natural tendency to look down at others. Instead of comparing ourselves to others to puff ourselves up, we can enjoy doing our own work.

If we focus on being the best we can be, we will have the “satisfaction” and “joy” of a job well done, without any need to compare ourselves to others. The Bible gives the best advice ever on this: “But let every person carefully scrutinize and examine and test his own conduct and his own work. He can then have the personal satisfaction and joy of doing something commendable [in itself alone] without [resorting to] boastful comparison with his neighbor. Gal. 6:4. This is the pathway to that healthy living Hotchkiss alludes to in her book on narcissism. We can fly with our own dreams by not comparing ourselves to others.

It’s all the cross and nothing but the cross that enables us to be the healthy person we all want to be. It’s the cross that enables us to laugh at ourselves. It’s the cross that enables us to open up and admit our faults. It’s the cross that allows us to be vulnerable to others in a way that will heal them. I don’t mean put ourselves down and talk about how awful we are. People do that sort of thing from false humility, and it’s a sick, inverted form of pride. I mean true humility – the kind that has to talk slowly, and haltingly, about something we just did that really, truly embarrasses us. We all have those things. And we all tend to hide them. But how do we know that that isn’t the very thing our neighbor has just done and is slowly and secretly bleeding to death internally from, because they thought they were alone in their shame. Our vulnerability can break the walls of their loneliness. Our shame is what unites us all.

We no longer have to pretend. Christ has set us free from the walls we erect to hide ourselves from our shame. Shame is Satan’s game. Freedom in the cross is what enables us to shoulder our burdens and soldier on. We can slowly free ourselves from the need to look good outwardly. We can know God. We can have a real relationship with the most loving presence we’ve ever met. We can experience the joy of knowing that God will bring good out of our every pain. We can forgive the people who shamed us, including, perhaps most of all, ourselves. We can stop beating ourselves up for messing up.

Instead, we have the gift of confession.  We can state our sins out loud to God, and to a safe Christian friend or counselor. We can look at the horror of our sins by looking at what Christ had to suffer for them. We can regret what Tim Keller called in his sermon on Sunday the “sin” of “sin.” As Tim so rightly pointed out, we won’t be changed if we just feel sorry we got caught, or sorry we’re embarrassed, or sorry for the consequences. What changes our hearts is regretting the iniquity of our sin. Telling ourselves that bad stuff isn’t “that bad” or that “everyone does it” will not help.

For as Paul says here, to do bad things is to “sow” seeds that will reap “decay and ruin and destruction.” We tend to hide from ourselves not just our sins, but the consequences of those sins. The truth is that bad stuff is really bad. It’s far worse than we want to admit. But I don’t think scare tactics work as well with ourselves as “joy tactics.” Paul goes on to say that God instead wants us to “sow” to the Spirit, and from the Spirit reap “eternal life.” For God has a law that we just can’t get around: “Whatever a man sows that and that only is what he will reap.” Gal. 6:7-8. Hiding inside our homes, erecting walls between ourselves and our sin – none of that will protect us from the consequences of our actions. Nothing can protect us from the sin of sin.

Instead, we can swallow our pride, the part of us that wants to punish ourselves to pay for our sins, and accept that we could never atone for ourselves. Instead, we become willing to look to our savior and say to him the most beautiful, healthy words a human can say:

I’m so sorry. Please forgive me. I mess up all the time. I hate my sin. But I’m so glad you love me. Thank you for forgiving me. I may not deserve it, but I sure do appreciate it. And I love you, too. Amen.

And then, glory opens.. We stop beating ourselves and other people up. We become more gentle. We turn into the people God created us to be, slowly, piece by piece, not by trying harder, but by being honest about who we are in Christ. We are sinners saved by grace alone. We are set free from anxiety by God’s forgiveness.

In addition to admitting the burden of sin and to confessing our sins, this chapter also makes clear that there are times when we all need to actively seek help in order to overcome our sins. There are times when we’re vulnerable and fall prey to addictions, bad choices, bad relationships or just plain evil. In those times, we are not supposed to shoulder our burdens alone. If we’re having an affair, embezzling, screaming at our kids – whatever it is, we know it when it strikes us. We’re supposed to humble ourselves enough to seek help and lots of it. We’re supposed to carry our own load, and get help when it’s too heavy.

And there’s one more really helpful piece of advice in this beautiful chapter. Paul reminds us not to “lose heart and grow weary and faint in acting nobly and doing right, for in due time and at the appointed season we shall reap if we do not loosen and relax our courage and faint.” Gal. 6:9. God knows we’re all tempted to lose heart in trying to do good. So we have to keep going back to the cross, and seeing how God brings life out of death. No matter what happens, no matter what we do, our glorious God can bring good out of it. That’s why Paul says here that the world has been “crucified” to him, and him to the world. Gal. 6:14. I think he means we no longer have to prove ourselves to any human, or even ourselves. The only person who has any right to judge us has set us free. He makes us a new creation in Him. He gives us a new birth, and a “new nature in Christ Jesus.” Gal. 6:15.

So just like we can thank hoarders, we can thank narcissists. We have met the enemy and he is us. A narcissist lurks inside all of us. We can glance over our shoulders at those silly walls we’ve erected and shake our heads and roll our eyes. We can wander over, rip them down, wince, confess, and receive the glory. And when we see those walls rising up again in our deluded brains tomorrow, we can shake our heads and go back to our Bibles and prayerfully rip the walls down all over again.

Because the one who made us sees everything about us and He adores us already. And I for one think that sounds amazing. Covered by Him, everything is awesome, even our worst. In Him, we are made whole. The good and bad, the lion and the lamb, can lie down together in peace.

posted by Caroline Coleman in A Chapter a Day on February 24, 2015