Becoming That Impossible PersonErwin W. Lutzer | September 21, 2014
Selected highlights from this sermon
Narcissists have a broken conscience—in their world, they are always right. They dismiss and minimize their faults. Their world and their reputation are consistently center-stage.
When we see ourselves as God does, our self-righteousness must be confessed as sin.
A year or two ago I told you this story, but I need to retell it because of its relevance to my sermon. There was a man who went to his pastor and said, “You know, my wife is trying to poison me.” The pastor said, “No, wait! I know your wife. She’s a nice woman. There’s no way she’d try to poison you.” He said, “Pastor, she’s trying to poison me. I can even see the poison next to my plate.” He said, “There’s a part of my wife that you don’t understand. I suggest you talk to her.” Well later on that afternoon the pastor came back and said to the man, “You know, I spent three and a half hours speaking with your wife this afternoon. I have a suggestion for you.” He said, “What is it?” The pastor said, “Just take the poison.” (laughter)
Now the reason I’m preaching this message today is so that you don’t have to take the poison. You know, of course, that the theme of this series of messages is found in 1 Timothy 1:5. I hope it’s a verse that you memorize. Paul says this: “The aim of our instruction is love that flows from a pure heart, a good conscience, and a sincere faith.” And I’d like to suggest to you today that those three words are related - to be able to have a pure heart, a good conscience and a sincere faith, because if you don’t have a good conscience, you have no confidence toward God.
Now today we’re going to talk about the conscience in a negative sense, that is to say that the Bible has much to say about people who have a hardened conscience, and we’re going to be talking about them. For example, the Scripture is very clear. It says in 1 Timothy 2 that there will be teachers who are liars, whose consciences are seared. The King James says: “as with a hot iron.” We’re talking about those whose consciences are cauterized. That’s the word that is used there. They are without feeling.
And then also the Bible says in the book of Timothy that there are those who have a defiled conscience. And there’s a whole list of sins that they commit because their conscience is defiled, and they no longer know the difference between right and wrong, and they are blind to their own huge need.
There’s another passage that doesn’t mention the word conscience but my, is it ever relevant to what I am speaking about today. This is 2 Timothy 3:1 and following. I’m going to read the first five verses. You’ll notice it says, “But understand this, that in the last days there will come times of difficulty. For people will be lovers of self (That’s what I’m going to speak on today – lovers of self. Notice that the Apostle Paul put it at the head of all of the other sins that he lists.), lovers of money, proud, arrogant, abusive, disobedient to their parents, ungrateful, unholy, heartless and (Wow!) unappeasable.” You know, I don’t know how other translations have that word, but this week I was thinking of unappeasable. What a description of some people! And then you’ll notice it says, “slanderous, without self-control, brutal, not loving good, treacherous, reckless, swollen with conceit, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God, having the appearance of godliness, but denying its power.” “From such people,” Paul says, “turn away. Avoid them if you can.”
Well, that’s quite a list of sins, and what we would like to do today is to take a tour of the human heart. It’s going to be a very painful tour because I’m going to speak to you about narcissism, which is self-love, which stands at the head of all of these other sins. One way to deal with this would be for me to go through and explain what every one of these words means. In a sense I’m going to be doing that but I’m going to be doing it from a different perspective.
So as we speak, I want you to know that to some extent, and I’ll define narcissism in a moment, all of us are narcissists. All of us love ourselves. But there are some people – about 10% of the population – who are actually diagnosed as narcissistic. And these people exist in churches. They are in Christian leadership oftentimes. They can be involved in every one of the vocations. Whether they are attorneys or doctors or factory workers, narcissism – love of self – can be at the bottom of it. One other word, and that is that I am often going to be speaking about he, but it could equally apply to she because whether or not it’s men or women, both can be very narcissistic, as we’ll explain in a moment.
Well this is a topical message actually. I mention that this morning because there are some guests present who are theologians, and so I want them to simply know that I know that this is a topical message. Next week I’m going to speak on the topic why Lady Macbeth didn’t have to commit suicide and why you don’t have to either, and at that point we’re going to be in the book of Hebrews. But today a topical message on self-love!
Narcissism comes to us from Greek mythology. Narcissus was the son of a god supposedly, and he was in love with himself, and he was greatly admired by people. And the story goes that he looked into a pool and saw his image and fell in love with himself so that he couldn’t even eat. He became almost anorexic because he was so enamored with how beautiful he looked, and so we have narcissism.
The other day as I was meditating, it dawned on me that when Satan said to Adam and Eve, “You shall be like God,” that, of course, was fulfilled in some sense that now man is his own god, and I asked myself this question: What is it that God does that the narcissist does? Well, first of all, whatever God does is right. The Bible says our God is in the heavens. He has done whatever He has pleased. By definition, whatever God does is right. The narcissist believes that he’s always right. You can’t teach him anything. He doesn’t learn anything. Because he has this air of superiority, he knows it all. He already has a better perspective than anyone else.
Another characteristic of God is that everything exists for Him. The Bible says in the book of Revelation that all things were created for God, and for His pleasure they were created. Now let me describe a narcissist. He is someone who processes all information through two important questions. How does this make me look? How does this make me feel? Feeling good about himself is incredibly important, and if you mention that someone else is successful he will become very, very envious and even angry that he is not recognized, because everyone else exists for what could be called narcissistic supply, namely to feed their ego. So they have a sense of entitlement. They really believe that the world owes them, and when the world doesn’t stand up and give them what they believe they deserve, what you’ll find is a great deal of anger, disappointment and depression because people aren’t just recognizing who they really are.
Another characteristic of God, of course, is that God’s glory is most important. There are many narcissists who are obsessed with their appearance – obsessed with it. They need a constant extensive program of affirmation and admiration. We’re looking now into the human heart because what they want is for people to recognize them. Sometimes they have fantasies of success, and over exaggerate their particular issues and the things that they have accomplished because everything basically exists for them.
And then they seek control because God controls everything. Are you recognizing anybody yet? You will in a little bit, I am sure. They want to control people and they often do it through chaos. Chaos is very important. The family has to be kept wondering what Dad thinks, and nobody really knows because his actions are unpredictable. And the minute you think you’ve found a way to please him, you discover that the goal posts have moved. It’s like kicking a field goal, and while the ball is in the air, the posts get moved farther back, so that you always lose. You are always criticized. You are always belittled because it is the narcissist who is the center of everything that is happening, and everything should come out good. And they are critical of everything because if they ever approve of anything that means that someone else has some good. And as a result of that, that’s the way in which they live.
If a narcissist walks into a room, he or she sees everyone else as competition, and what he has to do is to somehow diminish them, maybe through criticism of other people, maybe because of his presence, because remember a narcissist has to be the bride at every wedding, and the corpse at every funeral. (laughter) Everything needs to focus in on him. He has to be the center of attention.
And so they feel uncomfortable when there is peace. They certainly feel uncomfortable when someone else is honored because they think to themselves that that really should be me. After all, they are gods – maybe god with a small “g” but they are gods, aren’t they? Isn’t that the promise of Eden? You shall be your own god?
Well, I’ve been describing a narcissist, and I am going to continue on with this description because it seems to me that self-love, standing at the head of this catalog of sins reminds us that it is really is the seed of all conflict. It is the seed of everything else that follows. And, of course, as a result of that, these folks have a cauterized conscience. And that’s the point that I want to make.
I preached a version of this message this summer, and the very next day when I was having breakfast there were these couples eating at the table. And at one table randomly were two couples, both of whom had children who had married narcissists, both of whom divorced their mates. And so they found this message very, very interesting. They said, “We know exactly what it is that you are saying.” And I said to one couple, “Now didn’t your son know? Weren’t there some signs that this woman was narcissistic?” after they described her. And the woman said, “Yeah, the first night he came home after meeting her, he said, ‘You know, I met this real cute girl, but she believes that she is the center of the universe.’” What should have been his first clue that this isn’t going to go very well? (laughter) I know she was cute. She was probably bubbly. She was probably very engaging and lots of fun, as narcissists often are, but she believes she’s the center of the universe.
It’s like a T-shirt that a woman was wearing the other day that said, “It’s all about me,” or the T-shirt that I saw on Wells Street just across the way that said, “Just worship me and we’ll get along fine.” (laughter) That’s all you have to do because you exist for them. You are narcissistic supply.
So here’s what life is like if you’ve married a narcissist, and I have no doubt but that some of you have. Remember 10% of people are narcissists. How many people are sitting in your row here? Count 1-2-3-4-5-6-7-8-9-10. (laughter) Turn to somebody next to you and say, “You could be a narcissist.” (laughter)
Let me tell you what life is like, and this is not from experience because my dear wife, Rebecca, is one of the most selfless people one could possibly imagine. (applause) Yes, thank you. Praise God for that! Now the guy that she lives with – well that’s another story. (laughter) But I’ll tell you about narcissists because I know a little bit about them. And our daughter is a counselor, and she encounters them all the time. And she actually wrote a paper and some of my ideas are from her paper.
What is self-love like in a home? First of all they have their own reality. You see, truth to a narcissist is something he has to dispense of if it gets in the way of his ego and what he wants to do. He has his own reality. And sometimes you think that you have agreed with him about something and you have a meeting of the minds, and then you discover that he took the truth and turned it a half-turn and suddenly it comes out as something very different than you agreed on. And you begin to say to yourself, “Am I crazy or are they crazy? I thought that we agreed on this.” The narcissist is filled with self-justification. And so he has his own reality.
They have no feelings. This is what actually led me to preach this message. It’s because (remember) Paul says their consciences are cauterized. In chapter 4 of the old King James version of the book of Ephesians it says that they are past feeling. It also says now in my translation callous. You must remember that they have no feelings for those whom they hurt. If they are abusers, they don’t even hear the cry of this little boy saying, “No, Daddy, don’t beat me.” They don’t hear that.
And at the same time they feel their own pain very keenly – very keenly. I think one of the best examples of narcissism in the Bible is Cain. You know, Adam and Eve! They raised Cain. And Cain kills his brother, Abel, and God says, “You are going to be a fugitive in the land, but nobody will kill you. I’ll put a mark on you.” And Cain cried and said, “If anyone finds me they are going to kill me.” “Oh, pass the Kleenex, Cain. Let’s give them out at the door so that we can all cry. You just murdered your brother, Abel, and now you are complaining about the fact that somebody may kill you and that you have to be a fugitive.” There are people in this world that will stab you and leave you bleeding alongside of the road and walk away, feeling sorry for themselves. That’s narcissism. Why? It’s because they are past feeling, as the Bible says.
Occasionally a narcissist will admit to something but he’ll minimize it. “Okay, I messed up. I had an affair. So I’m sorry! Let’s move on!” There’s no sense of the depth of the pain that he caused. There’s no sense of the hurt, because all that he cares about is, “Let’s get this over with, and let me confess superficially because whatever I did isn’t that big of a deal.” So it’s always minimized.
There’s something else, and that is that they see people entirely as good or evil. Here’s what will happen. A narcissist will marry this woman and he will just adore her. You know, “You’re the greatest thing in the world. I can’t believe that I married you.” Yada yada yada! Then she will not meet his expectations. She will not supply what his ego needs. And now, instead of working through the difficulty, he demonizes her. She’s the worst possible person. Everything that she does is wrong.
I know that I’m throwing this in. We’re giving you some extra stuff, but if you ever are in a divorce with a narcissist, and you say to yourself, “Well, okay, I’ll give her the house. I’ll give her this just so we can have peace,” what you’ll discover is that that is not enough because what she wants is to destroy you. She wants to destroy you, and you must understand that. That’s why I was so interested in that word in 2 Timothy. I never saw it before this week. Unappeasable! And they begin to see the evil that is in them as belonging to you, so they lie, they manipulate, and they use their emotions to come up with truth, so they don’t need facts. They know who is against them. They know their paranoia, as to who it is who is after them. They know the evil that other people have done. You ask, “What are your facts?” and they say, “I don’t have any. I just know it.” What interesting people they are!
Well, you say, “Pastor Lutzer, enough of that. What are we to do about it?” Let me give you a prescription and then we’re going to turn to the Scriptures, of course, which has the answer to human need. And as always, God is the One who has the answer.
First of all, a couple of practical words! If you know anything about narcissism and you are living with a person like this, would you just take a deep breath and remember that they too have a story. They have a story, and you and I must have the patience to listen to their story. They were probably abused. There was probably a sense of abandonment when they were young. Probably – maybe – they were in an alcoholic home, and so this self-protection, this godhood that we’ve spoken about, begins to take over. And that may be the cause. And let us remember also that no matter how much evil they do, there’s more to them than simply the evil. They are human beings, and we need to minister to them and help them as such.
But also, I’m just being very practical here (having lived a little longer than some of you, though I wouldn’t even begin to think about me being as old as one person I see back there). (laughter) Don’t have high expectations. If you have company over and they are happy (that is to say, your spouse is happy and enjoying it), after the company leaves, they may suddenly and without reason turn into anger, control and criticism. And you say to yourself, “Whom did I really marry? Was it this person we were just having fun with, or is it the person who turned so violently angry after the company left?” because remember a narcissist doesn’t have to be good. That’s for sure, but they certainly have to look good. They have to look good at all costs but they don’t have to be good. So lower your expectations.
The other thing that I would suggest to you is that you need to be able to become a whole person in the midst of this. Paul says, “Avoid people like this,” but if you’re married to them that’s pretty hard to do. So what you need to do is to find community within the church. Find small groups. Find those who can pray with you and for you so that God will grant you the grace. And when sinned against, do not sin in return. Let me say that again. When sinned against, do not sin in return.
Now let me ask the question, “Can a narcissist change?” Well, I believe they can because I believe in grace, and nobody should be considered to be beyond the bounds of God’s saving grace. I think that there are moments of clarity that narcissists have. I already told you that this summer I preached a version of this message, and the next evening a woman said, “You know, that my husband (and obviously I wouldn’t know) is a narcissist.” I said, “Was he in the service last night?” She said, “Yes. In fact,” she said, “our kids were there too and they were all looking at me as if to say, ‘Guess what! Look at who he’s talking about.’” Now she said that her husband is a Bible teacher. Now don’t be surprised at that. There are many people, you see, who use the Bible in order to teach others truth, but they will not allow the truth of God to penetrate their own hearts. They are insulated from that but they enjoy Bible study. They enjoy the public platform because then they can communicate, and everybody can say, “Look at how much he knows.” So it’s very important to know that they may be in Christian ministry.
Now she went on to say, “My husband criticizes every sermon he hears.” Well, why wouldn’t he? I mean narcissists know better. They have insight that other people lack. Nothing can please them because their standards are so high because, after all, they are god (maybe with a small g), but you can understand. I said, “Well, that’s interesting.” I said, “What did he say about the message that I preached last night?” And she said that in her memory she could never remember a time like last night when they drove all the way home and he did not have one word to say about my message. I thought, “Well, maybe there was a shaft of light, and maybe he saw himself.” I mean we’re talking here about serious matters because narcissists don’t see themselves. That’s why everybody else needs counseling. Everybody is wrong, like the woman watching a parade. She says, “Everyone is out of step except my son.” (laughter) Right?
Take your Bibles and turn to Psalm 139. Here’s an answer for a narcissist, and if it’s an answer for a narcissist, it ought to do for you. I’m enjoying this message. I hope that you are too. I know how convicting it can be.
In Psalm 139 David says this: “Oh Lord, you have searched me and know me!” It’s a done deal. God knows everything – both actual and possible about us. He says, “You know when I sit down and when I rise up.” How many times did you sit down and get up yesterday? I have no idea. I couldn’t count them. God knows the number, and He does not know yesterday better than He knew 50 years ago. Accurate knowledge! “You discern my thoughts from afar.” What He means is, “Before I think a thought, You know what I’m going to think.” You see, He knows all of our thoughts. He knows those thoughts of how we deeply resent people who minimize us, how deeply we resent those people who are more successful than we are at our own game, somebody who is more beautiful, and somebody who is more gifted. God sees those thoughts too.
And God sees it when we hypocritically come to church and pretend that we love people and glad hand people because we want to be thought of as loving, when in our hearts we are despising them. God sees all of those thoughts. Wow! He sees the things that we watch on our computer that we erase. He sees all of these things. They are entirely present to Him.
He says, “Even before a word is on my tongue, behold, O Lord, you know it altogether.” He says, “Before I stand up to speak and the words are formed and I actually say them, You already know them.” Imagine that! “And not only do you know them but You know all the words that I wish I could speak, but because of various reasons, I don’t speak them publicly, but they are spoken in my heart.” And to a narcissist I would say that God knows the fears – how scary it is to think that you might be exposed, how difficult it would be and how much shame you want to hide, and that’s why you are all closed up. And you come to church with your arms crossed, intending to be critical of what’s happening because after all, you can’t let God get close to you and show you.
Not only does David say that God knows us exhaustively and completely. He also says that God knows us eternally. And by the way, you notice that most crime is committed at night. It says in verse 9, “If I take the wings of the morning and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea, even there your hand shall lead me, and your right hand shall hold me. If I say, ‘Surely the darkness shall cover me,’ the night is going to be light about me.” Everything that you do is in broad daylight to God.
Not only does God know us exhaustively; God knows us eternally. Verse 13 says, “For you formed my inward parts;
you knitted me together in my mother's womb.” You were there superintending the DNA that I would eventually have, and the confluence of genes that would produce me. It was You who didn’t make me as beautiful as the person next door, or it is You who gave me certain limitations. It is You who were there and You were supervising all of that. And by the way, because God doesn’t learn anything, has it ever dawned on you that nothing has ever dawned on God? Because of that, throughout all of eternity He knew you.
There’s no new knowledge. God doesn’t say, “Well, you know I know a lot, but I still have to do some studying once in a while.” No, He knows the whole thing.
Verse 15, “My frame was not hidden from you, when I was being made in secret, intricately woven in the depths of the earth.” What he means is, “When I was in my mother’s womb, You were there.” “Your eyes saw my unformed substance; in your book were written, every one of them,
the days that were formed for me, when as yet there was none of them.” Wow!
“How precious to me are your thoughts, O God!” “It is too much for me,” he says. The knowledge that God has blows your mind. Just go to Lake Michigan and watch the waves come in, and I think they always come in at about 22 times a minute no matter how fast the wind is blowing. It’s just that the waves are bigger. But every time a wave comes in I’ve noticed the juxtaposition of sand changes. And God knows the longitude and the latitude of every grain of sand on the seashores of the world, even as those grains of sand shift their position. Wow!
Now, David gets to the end of the Psalm and what does he say in verse 23? “Search me, O God, and know my heart!” Wait a moment! Is David contradicting himself? In verse one he says, “You have searched me and known me,” and now he comes and says, “Search me.” What’s going on in the text? David says, “I know that You know all of me, and now I’m asking You to show me what You see.” And my friend, today (and this is for all of us and not just for some group of people called narcissists), in the presence of God we can have total honesty because we’re not telling Him anything that He doesn’t know anyway. We can spill out our hearts and we can pray this prayer even as I did this week. “Oh God, show me what You see. Show me as much as I am able to handle of who I really am, and my deceitful heart. Show that to me. I want a conscience that is free of offense before God and before others, and I want a sensitive conscience. I don’t want to be hardened. I don’t want to be calloused. I don’t want to be past feeling.”
And so we pray to God, “Reveal to us so that we can confess it and have the security to know that we can confess to others too.” We can admit (and this is why again small groups and interaction in church is so important) who we are without fear of being rejected or thrown away because, “God, You know everything anyway.”
Why is it so hard for narcissists to change, or for that matter, all of us? I’ll tell you why. It’s because in their hardened state they would rather destroy everyone around them, including their family. They’d rather do that than let God change them. They really would.
You know, Jesus told a very interesting parable. He said that two people went into a temple to pray. You know this whole story. And he said, “Two men went into the temple, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee, standing by himself, prayed, ‘Look, God I thank you that I’m not like other men. They are extortionist, unjust, adulterers, even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week. I give my tithes of all that I get. (In other words, I have nothing really to repent of.) It’s this tax collector. He has something to repent of, but I don’t. I just hold myself up as an example of prudence and discipline and righteousness.’ But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even lift up his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner.’” And Jesus said, “I tell you that this man went home justified.”
“God be propitious. God grant me the grace of your forgiveness,” and that, of course, is why Jesus died. He died on the cross as a sacrifice so that all people who believe on Him may be saved.
Now hear me carefully. There are some people who have to repent of their sins. They are like the tax collector. He had to repent of his sins, which I’m sure were many. But hear me now. There are some people who have to repent of their righteousness. That’s what they have to repent of. This Pharisee had to repent of his righteousness, of his self-righteousness.
And today I am speaking to some of you who know that you are sinners. There is hope for you because Jesus died for sinners, but I am speaking to those of you who see yourself as righteous and above these things. For you it is very difficult because you have to repent of your righteousness. Jesus said, “I came not to save the righteous, but sinners to repentance,” and whether you are a narcissist or not, and my, how I have prayed that if you are, you’ll hear this message, we all have to repent of our righteousness, and say, “Oh God, I don’t care how much I give, I don’t care how much I am honored, I don’t care about my faithfulness. I stand before You as a sinner in need of grace, in need of the forgiveness and the transformation that You intend to bring about in my life.” (applause)
Paul says they profess to know God (You know, you list all these things. They profess to know God.) but they deny His power, and they’ve never been transformed. And if they are transformed, their hard hearts need to be broken in the presence of the Spirit. And then after that, of course, they are healed through community, through connections, through healthy relationships. That’s what a narcissist needs, but most of the time they think they don’t need anything, and so they live their isolated life in their own little world. And this world becomes their world. It’s a warped world, but to them, it is reality.
What has God talked to you about today? Whether or not you are in the balcony or here, or you are listening by radio or the internet (There are so many ways nowadays to listen to a message.), would you stop right now and tell God that you are willing to do whatever He wants you to do to break out of self-righteousness, and to come as a sinner in need of renewing your conscience, so that it could be said of you that you have a love from a pure heart, a good conscience, and a sincere faith?
I wish I could pray with all of you. I wish it would be feasible for us to get on our knees today and seek God. It’s probably logistically not feasible, but that’s what we need to do as a church. We need to seek Him. Would you do that at home with or without someone? Walk yourself into a room and say to God, “Search my heart. I want to deal with issues that I have neglected.”
Father, help us because we are sinners. And we thank you for the love of Jesus, which is deep. We thank You that the One who knows us the best loves us the most, and therefore we can be secure in sharing our own need, sharing who we are, letting the mask drop so that in the midst of that reality we may see the power of God. Do that at The Moody Church, and for all who are listening. How desperately we need it! In Jesus’ name we pray, Amen.