Leaving narcissistic Christianity to follow Christ

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:

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.

Narcissistic Christianity 

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.

Authentic Christianity

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)

* All emphasis added.
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About Mel Wild

God's favorite (and so are you), a son and a father, happily married to the same beautiful woman for 39 years. We have three incredible adult children. My passion is pursuing the Father's heart in Christ and giving it away to others. My favorite pastime is being iconoclastic and trailblazing the depths of God's grace. I'm also senior pastor of Cornerstone Church in Wisconsin.
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7 Responses to Leaving narcissistic Christianity to follow Christ

  1. jim- says:

    I know you and I seen things a bit differently, but I thought this quote was very much in line with your post.
    Atheism in the informal sense is a profoundly religious attitude. An attitude in life of total trust of letting go. When we form images of god they are all really exhibitions of our lack of faith—something to hold on to, something to grasp.
When we don’t grasp we have the attitude of faith. If you let go of all the idols of faith you will of course discover that what this unknown is precisely, the foundation of the universe, which is precisely you.
It is not the you you think you are (it is not your opinion of yourself) it is not your idea or image of yourself, it is not the chronic sense of muscular strain which we usually call “I” You can’t grasp it, of course not, why would you need to? Suppose you could, what would you do with it? You could never get at it!”. 
And so there is the profound central mystery of the attitude of faith—to stop chasing it, to stop grabbing it. Because if that happens the most amazing things follow. All these ideas of the spiritual, the godly as this attitude of “must”—”And we have laid down the laws which we are all bound to follow”. This is not the only way of being religious and relating to the inefable mystery that underlies ourselves in the world—you.
“If we cling to belief in God, we cannot likewise have faith, since faith is not clinging but letting go”—Alan Watts

      • jim- says:

        Haha. That’s ok, I know how effective that can be. I found all the unanswered prayers in the Hamilton Path problem of physics…waiting, but all the best to you Damon. Your a good friend.

    • Mel Wild says:

      Interesting, but Watts last point lost me. Unless he’s defining “clinging to belief” as certainty. Certainty and faith are not the same thing. Certainty may sound like faith but it’s just another form of control, which actually keeps us from living in the transcendent mystery of life (which I believe is much more liberating). If that’s what he meant, then I would agree with him. I just think he should’ve clarified his point there.

      But I definitely followed the first part about letting go. An atheist is letting go of “God” just as a believer is letting go of being “god.” 🙂 The atheist’s faith may be in naturalism or materialism, even though he or she cannot prove that the physical world is all there is. Certainly science is no help to us in that regard for methodological reasons. The believer has faith that there’s more to our reality than what science can tell us, even though he cannot prove that either. In the final analysis, we’re all letting go and trusting in something. I think Kierkegaard said something about that.

  2. hawk2017 says:

    Excellent.

  3. Lily Pierce says:

    I like how you explained this seemingly subtle yet life-changing distinction, Mel.

  4. lilmama113 says:

    I believe we should approach our relationship with the Lord no different than the one we have with our very best friend in the world! We can’t make it what anyone else says it should be, we have to make it “OUR” special bond with our Father, pure and simple! Google; Ronald Frye-“God can and God will” ( All you have to do is ask ) Read a few free sample chapters. As real as it get’s!

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