What Does the Bible Say About Narcissism?
Narcissism is used to describe self-absorbed people—from vain celebrities to abusers. What’s the biblical perspective on narcissism? Can it be overcome?
In recent years, the word narcissism has been used to characterize arrogant or prideful people. Many have taken on the mantle of armchair psychologists and unofficially diagnosed certain people as being narcissists, based on seeing certain undesirable traits in them.
Since I am not a psychologist, this post will not claim to offer treatment for narcissistic personality disorder. But here’s how the Mayo Clinic defines it:
“Narcissistic personality disorder is a mental health condition in which people have an unreasonably high sense of their own importance. They need and seek too much attention and want people to admire them. People with this disorder may lack the ability to understand or care about the feelings of others.”
Simply because someone exhibits narcissistic behavior in certain contexts does not prove that he or she has narcissistic personality disorder. As so often happens with mental health, people can easily form opinions. But those opinions may not be based on fact.
On the other hand, certain narcissistic traits can be found universally throughout the world. The problems of pride, arrogance and an unwillingness to handle criticism or correction can be found in almost everyone.
“I’m not narcissistic, you are!”
If we are honest with ourselves, we have most likely seen narcissistic traits in our own lives at various times and to various degrees. These traits of narcissism have long been explored and warned against in the pages of the Bible.
Traits of narcissism in the Bible
Let’s look at some of the most frequent narcissistic qualities and how they might affect (or, perhaps more accurately, infect) our lives.
1. Grandiosity (“I’m more important and am superior to you. I should be admired and praised.”)
We all have strengths and weaknesses. Yet when we begin to believe that we are more important or better than we are, we create a false reality.
Overcoming grandiosity requires acknowledging our weaknesses, mistakes and shortcomings, and knowing when we need to seek assistance from others. For example, we may believe we are great because we can debate the finer aspects of ancient history. We may consider ourselves to be superior to a plumber. But remember that if our toilet breaks, we will ultimately rely on the plumber’s skill to get it operating again. This should help us understand the absurdity of asserting universal superiority over others.
To justify our narcissism, we may think, Oh, I make more money than . . . or I benefit society more than . . . or I am more virtuous than . . .
But the truth is, comparing ourselves with others to convince ourselves that we are superior is nonsensical. The Bible warns against doing so (2 Corinthians 10:12).
Meanwhile, with our grandiose narcissism intact, we may continue to stare at that broken toilet or disastrously attempt to fix it ourselves, thinking, Plumbers, ha! I’m certainly better than them, and I can handle it myself.
Overcoming grandiosity requires acknowledging our weaknesses, mistakes and shortcomings, and knowing when we need to seek assistance from others.
2. Lack of empathy (“Everyone else should think like I think. They shouldn’t feel those feelings.”)
Another trait of narcissism is assuming that we know what others are feeling or that we can fully discern their motives. These assumptions can lead to a lack of empathy. A lack of empathy can cause us to mistreat others by making snap judgments, rash assumptions and self-serving justifications.
Empathy involves appreciating and trying to understand circumstances and situations alien to our personal experiences. Empathy is crucial to developing the patience and mercy necessary to bear with others in love (Ephesians 4:2).
Following the biblical duty to judge righteously—and not swiftly condemn others solely on appearance—requires sensitivity (John 7:24; Matthew 7:2-5). Christians fighting narcissism should endeavor to exhibit empathetic traits, such as mercy, compassion, patience and forgiveness.
3. Excessive self-focus (“What about my needs and interests? I’m going to get mine.”)
In Western culture, the myth of the self-made man has encouraged an excessive focus on the self. The reasoning goes, as long as everyone is focused on getting theirs (Isaiah 56:11), somehow society will prosper. Sometimes the idea of “self-love” can come before thinking about what is best for others.
We are all frequently tempted by greed and selfishness throughout life. We have to constantly remind ourselves that we are not the center of the universe.
Jesus Christ lived an example of humility and service to others. He spent His life teaching and serving—and then died so that those who despised Him could be rescued (John 3:16-17).
Satan was and is the worst example of narcissism ever in history. His narcissism didn’t stop with his rebellion against God. He has continued to actively spread his self-centered narcissism to all human beings (Ephesians 2:2).
In many ways, our world is the way it is because of his narcissistic influence.
Examples of how we can fall into Satan’s narcissism
Satan exemplifies all the horrific pitfalls of excessive self-focus and delusions.
Entitlement: “I deserve to have this. Others should be doing these things for me.”
Objectively, what do we really deserve? And should we always be the ones to determine what we deserve (Jeremiah 10:23)?
Arrogance: “I’m smarter. I’m more loved. I’m more spiritual. I’m better than you.”
A certain level of rational confidence is needed in life, but arrogance that pretends to be confidence only leads to negative consequences (Proverbs 16:18).
Exploitation: “Your entire purpose in life is to help me achieve what I want and need.”
Using other human beings as stepping stones, sexual objects or tools for our own gain is the antithesis of outgoing love and concern, which is what God is (1 John 4:8).
Envy: “They don’t deserve that success, that relationship or that break. I should have it.”
Wanting what we don’t have can easily make us forget and despise what we do have. Satan was beautiful and was given enormous responsibility over other angels, but that didn’t matter. It wasn’t enough, and he wanted more.
Though we may not be in therapy for a diagnosed personality disorder, we all battle narcissistic traits. When we clothe ourselves in humility and follow Christ’s example of selfless service, we are on the path to overcoming narcissistic tendencies (Luke 22:24-27; 1 Peter 5:5).
God has given us so much—from physical blessings to the gifts of talents and abilities. Don’t let it go straight to your head.