Before I begin, I’m not using “narcissistic” here to refer to the personality disorder, but to living according to an image instead of authentically. In Greek mythology, Narcissus was cursed by Echo, making him so obsessed with his own image in a pool of water that it led to his demise. We all have a bit of narcissism in us; we desire to project a positive image of ourselves to the public mind (just peruse Facebook!)
Putting yourself in the best light is not necessarily a bad thing, but when it comes to following Jesus, this image mindset can be detrimental.
It seems to me that there’s two types of Christian paradigms. One is based on outward behavior, the other is based on the inner workings of the Spirit. And, as we will see, they are quite opposite, even though they may appear similar on the surface. I’ve talked a lot about the difference between having a transactional versus a transformational relationship with God in the past. These two types are evident in the difference in Eastern and Western Christian thought with regard to “eternal life.” The East emphasizes the quality of life with God (relational), the West emphasizes forgiveness of sins (transactional).
While forgiveness of sin is critically important, Jesus tells us that eternal life is relational and experiential, as He said in His prayer to the Father:
3 Eternal life means to know and experience you
as the only true God,
and to know and experience Jesus Christ,
as the Son whom you have sent. (John 17:3 TPT)
But these different types of Christianity also show up in how we relate to God in another way. And, in this case, one is effective and the other is not.
The first type is, by far, the most prevalent in Christian culture, and that’s what I’m calling narcissistic Christianity. It comes down to creating the “image” of being good or looking like a spiritually mature person. This version is all about outward appearance and controlling behavior. It focuses on Bible knowledge rather than Bible incarnation. We read a Bible passage that tells us to act in a certain way and then go about trying to mimic that behavior. What W.W.J.D. (What Would Jesus Do?) to this type of believer amounts to finding out what Jesus did and then trying to copy that behavior. On the surface, we may not see a problem with this, until we dig a little deeper.
The shortcoming of this version of Christianity is a bit like the difference between knowing a subject in school and cheating off of someone else’s paper in order to pass the test. The copier has no transformational “knowing.” Anyone, even an atheist, can copy Jesus this way if they set their minds to it. There’s essentially no difference between a believer and an unbeliever under this method. It’s nothing more than self-help behavior modification under the guise of Christianity.
This version also tends to be legalistic and judgmental. Those who have strong willpower and discipline (who would’ve probably overcome most bad habits without any help from the Spirit) tend to judge those who have weaker willpower and little or no self-discipline.
It’s this version of Christianity that leads to burnout and failure for many. After all, how long can you tread water? Even for those who don’t appear to fail, it rarely produces lasting joy, empowering grace, and overflowing love. If you’re frustrated and ready to quit as a believer, you’ve probably come to the end of where this path can only lead you.
The second version is what I would call authentic Christianity. This person doesn’t try to mimic Jesus, they embrace Jesus. They open their hearts to a continual interactive process with the Holy Spirit working in them. Rather than trying to control their behavior they focus on cooperating with the Spirit, which always produces the fruit of the Spirit.
22 But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, 23 gentleness, and self-control. Against such things there is no law. (Gal.5:22-23 NET)
With regard to behavior modification, there’s a huge difference between trying to control yourself and self-control.
The only way you know you’re following Jesus authentically is by the fruit of the Spirit manifesting in your life. For instance, if you’re not experiencing a continual refreshing of deep inner peace, love, and joy—not growing more gracious and kind and patient toward others—you can be sure you’ve gotten off of this path.
This second way is relational and transformational, and it’s exactly backwards from narcissistic Christianity. This follower of Jesus is not trying to create an image for themselves, rather, they’re being progressively changed by Christ’s image. We do this by opening our heart and letting Him heal what’s broken or lacking grace in us. When we do this, we begin to look like Him.
18 And we all, who with unveiled faces contemplate the Lord’s glory, are being transformed into his image with ever-increasing glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit. (2 Cor.3:18 NIV*)
In fact, the more freedom you experience, the less you feel the need for projecting some religious image of yourself. So much of our confidence and identity is found here.
Do you see now how these two types of Christians are trying to follow Christ by the opposite means? The first one is outside looking in, trying to change by imitation. The second one is being changed from the inside-out; they’re being transformed through incarnation. Again, it’s only the second way that produces the fruit of Spirit.
Furthermore, since we can only be transformed by cooperating with the Holy Spirit, it’s not available to those who won’t “participate in the divine nature“ (2 Pet.1:4). You cannot mimic or manufacture something divine by human willpower. In fact, those with a strong, stubborn will are actually at a disadvantage. It’s harder for them to surrender and be vulnerable enough to let true transformation take place.
What has continually amazed me over the last 40 years of following Christ is this: in my experience, most American Christians (I can’t speak for other countries) don’t seem that interested in this second way of life…and that explains a lot. Selah.
39 All who seek to live apart from me will lose it all. But those who let go of their lives for my sake and surrender it all to me will discover true life! (Matt.10:39 TPT)