How is Narcissism Defined?
Our word ‘narcissism’ originates from Narcissus of Greek mythology, who was so enamored with his own beauty, that he loved only himself and spent his days gazing at his own reflection in a pool (to his ultimate demise).
From this legend, we understand a narcissist as someone who is fixated on themselves, perhaps to extreme measures, at the expense—or neglect—of others.
Is Narcissism in the Bible?
Although scripture doesn’t use the term ‘narcissism’, it says much about behavior that we would describe as narcissistic, including such traits as:
Paul describes narcissistic behavior in great detail in his second letter to his protégé, Timothy:
Paul opens by calling such people ‘lovers of themselves’. And from this singular trait, all manner of vices, sins, and harmful behaviors emerge. Clearly, he wants us to understand how narcissism opens the door to a multitude of sins. But what does that tell us about narcissism itself?
Is Narcissism a Sin in the Bible?
Perhaps the clearest answer to this question is found in the first of the Ten Commandments:
We might think of this commandment in terms of idols or other religions, but anything that we place before God becomes our god. To the narcissist, the self is god, because the self is above all.
Paul reminds us that the selfish pursuits of pride were present in all of us before we came to salvation, writing ‘all of us also lived among them at one time, gratifying the cravings of our flesh and following its desires and thoughts. Like the rest, we were by nature deserving of wrath’ (Ephesians 2:3).
It was the prideful desire to be like God that appealed to Adam and enticed him to sin in the Garden of Eden. And it is the prideful desire to be sovereign over our own lives that causes people to reject God.
This is why Jesus teaches that ‘whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me’ (Luke 9:23). We cannot earn our salvation, but until we accept that God is God and we are not, we remain closed to the grace that Jesus freely offers.
Who was a Narcissist in the Bible?
The case could be made that Adam and Eve were the first narcissists since they rejected God’s instruction and pursued their own selfish desire to be like God.
Other individuals in scripture stand out as narcissists:
- Ahab and Jezebel: Ahab’s reign as king of Israel is recorded in 1 Kings, chapters 16–22. Ahab and his wife Jezebel rejected God and brutally opposed his servants while pursuing their own self-interests.
Ahab rounded up and killed prophets and had men murdered so that he could take their land. He was blinded by his own sin, even referring to God’s prophet, Elijah as a ‘troubler of Israel’ (1 Kings 18:17).
- Herod: The Herodian dynasty was a famously untrusting and self-serving family. Herod Agrippa, the grandson of Herod the Great, was struck dead by the Lord for having proclaimed himself a god to the people (Acts 12:21-23).
- The Unmerciful Servant: In Matthew 18, Jesus tells a parable about a servant who owed his master millions of dollars (v 24). And when he begged his master for mercy, the master canceled his debt (v 27).
This same servant then beat another servant who owed him only a few dollars (v 28). When the master learned of this, he threw the first servant in prison because he did not give the same mercy that he had received (v 32-34).
As Jesus reminds us, our own self-absorption will be our downfall as it distorts our capacity to see both ourselves and others as we should. Warning us against self-driven judgment, Jesus asks, ‘Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye?’ (Matthew 7:3).
What does the Bible Say about Dealing with Narcissists?
Our first responsibility is to recognize our own capacity for narcissism so that we may avoid it ourselves.
When we are relying on the power of Christ at work in us, instead of our own power we have a chance to overcome narcissism in others. Of course, this requires us to act in submission to Christ so that we may withstand the narcissist and not give in to fear, as Paul teaches:
While there is no guarantee that we will win over a narcissist through patience and kindness, we can be certain that fighting evil with evil is a losing proposition. As Paul teaches elsewhere:
“If your enemy is hungry, feed him;
if he is thirsty, give him something to drink.
In doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head.”
Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good. ” Romans 12:17-21
The narcissist knows no peace, so it is our responsibility, as ambassadors of the Prince of Peace, to share peace with others. When we do, we provide ‘burning coals’ that do not injure, but bring warmth and light to the otherwise cold and dark heart of the narcissist.
What about Being Married to a Narcissist?
Since the Bible does not speak directly to narcissism, we rely on its instructions about other dynamics in marriage. Having established that a narcissist is his or her own god, and not one who is submissive to the True God, we examine what the Bible says about marriage to an unbeliever:
But if the unbeliever leaves, let it be so. The brother or the sister is not bound in such circumstances; God has called us to live in peace. How do you know, wife, whether you will save your husband? Or, how do you know, husband, whether you will save your wife? ” 1 Corinthians 7:12-16
Narcissism is not, in and of itself, a Biblical basis for divorce. If the narcissist chooses to stay in a marriage (and chances are he or she probably does), then a Christian spouse ought to continue to honor the marriage and live in a Christ-like manner. Doing so may lead to salvation for the narcissistic unbeliever.
Setting Biblical Boundaries
As Christians, we are called to patiently endure the narcissists near us and among us for the sake of Christ. But that does not mean that we should fuel the narcissist’s behavior by engaging in arguments or returning evil for evil. Sometimes, we need to establish boundaries to ensure that we are not led down the wrong path by a narcissist.
Lastly, we trust God to open the eyes and warm the heart of the narcissist as we live as Christ would live and pray without ceasing.