The Freeing Alternative to Narcissism: Serving Jesus at Home and Work

On 22 July 2011, in the peaceful country of Norway, 32-year-old Anders Behring Breivik, posted online a 1500-page manifesto that outlined his hatred for Muslims, Liberals, Multiculturalists and Feminists. Evoking the spirit of his revered Knights Templar, he then went on a campaign to promote his message.

In a violent rampage that demonstrated his desire for Nordic purification, he exploded a car bomb at government buildings in Oslo, killing eight people. Then, armed with assault weapons, he went to the island of Utøya, to a Labour Party youth camp, and massacred another 69 people, mostly teenagers.

In her new book, The Life of I, Australian journalist and social philosopher Anne Manne exposes the rising culture of narcissism in Western culture and begins with this of i

Psychiatrists diagnosed Breivik as having an extreme narcissistic personality disorder, consistent with the major traits of narcissism: he lacked empathy, claiming that he himself felt disturbed having to watch the violence; he had an inflated sense of importance posting photos of himself as a modern Knight; he was obsessed with his personal appearance undergoing plastic surgery to look Aryan; and he had an outlandish sense of entitlement, demanding a better view from his prison cell. Breivik believed himself to be far superior to others, was self-aggrandising, and had a “destructive rage.”

Pathological narcissism is a disorder predominantly found in men: in particular, their ability to love is greatly restricted.

While narcissism might be a pathological disorder, its seed is in all of us. The Bible calls it ‘sin.’ From the earliest chapters of Genesis, man and woman declare that they want to be God.

Adam and Eve believed that, despite God’s clear instructions to the contrary, they were entitled to eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. Their son Cain, in a destructive rage, took the life of his brother Abel. And so the pattern of human self-obsession was set. By the time of Noah it had become an epidemic, and God responded in judgement.

What was evident in Noah’s day, is clearly still evident all around us today. Yet deep in our psyche we know self-obsession is wrong. In the opening chapter of Mere Christianity, C.S. Lewis calls our innate sense of morality ‘The Law of Nature.’ Lewis also points out, however, that none of us can keep the natural law. The dissonance between these two truths form the foundation for humanity’s need for redemption.

This redemption has come by way of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, so that Christians should be able to resist the narcissistic urge and say: “I am not the most important person in the world, rather I know that I am part of a bigger story. I am part of a community who submits to Jesus as Lord. When I sacrificially and humbly love and serve others and God – when I die to myself – I truly find life.”

In Colossians 3:18-4:1, the Apostle Paul offers a Christlike vision for human relationships. Paul has already told us earlier in 3:1-4 that we can keep our faith on track by keeping our hearts and minds focused on God. We have a new life as a Christian – a new life in the pattern of Jesus Christ.

We need to remove our ‘old clothes’ and put on the ‘new clothes’  (3:8-14). Here, then, is a practical application of what that looked like in the extended first-century Christian household which included family members and slaves.

We are Really Serving Jesus

In Colossians 3:23-24 Paul says:

23. Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for human masters, 24. since you know that you will receive an inheritance from the Lord as a reward. It is the Lord Christ you are serving.

This sets up the Gospel logic for a new way of relating. As we live in our ‘new clothes’ as children of God, we must remember that we only have one master: Jesus Christ.

This is going to be important because it’s going to help us when we are in hard situations at home and at work. It will also establish a pattern for human relating that is characterised by justice.

The reality in most human relating, whether it be at home or at work, is that there will always be power differences. But if we constantly remind ourselves that we ultimately serve Christ, then both the more powerful and the less ​powerful will relate in a sacrificial and humble way.

This is truly what it means to have spiritual freedom. There are three ways this makes us free:

  • We are set free from having to please people because ultimately we are geared towards pleasing God.
  • We are set free to work wholeheartedly instead of begrudgingly (because of who we serve).
  • We are set free from worrying about our reward because we have the ultimate reward of inheritance from God.

Paul is more concerned about the Colossian church’s relationship with God than their relationship with each other: he wants that to be set right first. His concern is also for their present situation rather than changing the future. Thus he applies his principle to slavery (rather than trying to abolish slavery). This message, if lived out, would bring the Colossians happiness no matter what context they found themselves in.

Serving Jesus in the Household Politic

Thus, verse 18 which says, “Wives, submit yourselves to your husbands, as is fitting in the Lord” should not seem so controversial to the postmodern mind. If you weren’t thinking clearly, you might come to believe that this passage is not about freedom, but it is about defending patriarchy and slavery. In truth, it offers freedom and hope for people living with both of those social problems.

Paul advises husbands to love their wives and not to be harsh with them (3:19); children should obey their parents (3:20); fathers should not discourage their children (3:21). The fact that he doesn’t mention ‘mothers’ is simply because of his cultural context — in this society, fathers ruled, and they needed to be told how to do that in a Christian way.

You might say: “shouldn’t Paul be setting up a new post-patriarchal framework for the family?” No, that’s not his purpose. His purpose is to work at a higher level than that and offer discipleship principles that can be applied — in any cultural context.

The big Kingdom of God principle Paul is presenting is: all human relationships have power differences –  so no matter where you are on that scale of power – you should treat the people around you as Jesus would, remembering that you are ultimately serving Jesus.

Everyone in an Ancient Near-Eastern household understood their place in the heirarchy: from Fathers down to children, and slaves down to the children of slaves. Nobody was challenging this social system. So Paul can say “wives submit to your husbands in a Godly way.” To the women in Colossae, the controversial part of that direction is “in a godly way” the word “submit” was a given.

The rule of the husband over the extended household was expected. What was unexpecteded, however, was Paul’s challenge for them to love their wives and not to be harsh with them. In Ephesians 5, Paul goes further by pointing to Jesus as the model for husbands: they must be willing to sacrifice everything for their wife.

But let’s think a bit more about our own context. The power dynamic between men and women is complex. It’s not always clear in a twenty-first century western household who is always actually more powerful and less powerful.

In my relationship with my wife, I am physically more powerful, that is clear. Also, at the moment I bring more money to the family, but this might not always be the case. We have different intellectual strengths. For some of the ‘intelligences’, she is stronger, for others, I am stronger. In the sphere of parenting, she has more power. These power structures are always shifting in our marriage. The point is, whether I have more power in a given context, or whether she has more power in a given context, we both need to remember that we are free because it is Christ who we ultimately serve.

That there is a complex power dynamic at play explains why both men and women find themselves being abused in unhealthy marriage relationships. While it is men who have the worse reputation for physical abuse, women also can be selfish and abusive in their relating; manipulating sexually and emotionally.

We are released from feeling like we need to constantly make each other happy by pleasing each other  – which sets up an unhealthy dynamic – because both of us ultimately live to please God. I please my wife because my love for God and God’s love for me makes me want to please her.

We are both free to serve each other wholeheartedly instead of begrudgingly, because ultimately we are serving Jesus. So, for example, I hate changing the sheets on the bed. But I should do that wholeheartedly, rather than begrudgingly, because my act of changing the sheets, is actually serving God. My wife and I both hate cleaning the kitchen. But we need to learn that our act of service is to bring honour to Jesus.

What if you are trying to live this gospel principle out but your partner, or other members of the household are not? Surely this is unfair? While I sympathise with your sense of domestic injustice, God calls to apply his gospel vision no matter what your context. You don’t want to give away your role as a disciple to anybody else.

If you are a martyr at home (and there are lots of us around!) confess this to God. Stop saying to yourself: “I am the only one who does any work around here. If I don’t do it nobody will.” Rather, see yourself as quietly serving Jesus. Stop worrying about your hard work being noticed by your family: “Did you see that I mopped the floor?” Stop moaning and groaning, and allow the Holy Spirit to soften your heart as you remember that you are serving Jesus. You have been set free. You will be rewarded. You will receive an inheritance of eternal life because of what Jesus has done for you.

Sure, you might have a case for feeling annoyed. It is true that many of us don’t do our fair share in the household duties. I have been reprimanded several times throughout my marriage for my laziness with the chores. There are constant surveys demonstrating that women still do a lot more household chores than men. Paul is not providing excuses for selfish men — he is, in fact, doing the exact opposite.

Moreover, I must emphasise that Paul’s teaching to the family does not endorse dysfunctional or abusive relating. If you are in a bad situation at home, you need to tell ​someone and get help. If you are being abused, physically, verbally, or psychologically, it is important that you ask for intervention. Children who are being abused by their parents need to be rescued from that situation.

Serving Jesus at Work

The second sphere to which Paul applies his principle of Christlike relating is slaves and masters. Colossians 3:22 says:

Slaves, obey your earthly masters in everything; and do it, not only when their eye is on you and to curry their favour, but with sincerity of heart and reverence for the Lord.

and 4:1 says:

Masters, provide your slaves with what is right and fair, because you know that you also have a Master in heaven.

Because of a misunderstanding of verses like these, some have confused the Bible as being pro-slavery. Recently on the ABC television program Q&A, one panelist defended the place of Christian education in the school curriculum because, in his opinion, Christianity has been a positive force in Western culture: “it brought about the abolition of slavery.” Just after he made his point, a tweet appeared on the screen: “Christianity invented slavery, just look at the Old Testament.” Which was wrong for several reasons that we don’t need to prove here.

The important point is that Paul lived in a context where slavery was a reality. He was bringing the Kingdom of God to that context and reinventing it, providing hope for the slaves and compassion in the masters. This new freedom given to both the master and the slave set culture on a trajectory that would one day make slavery illegal in the Christian world.

’12 Years a Slave’ directed by Steve McQueen

The gospel brought freedom for the slaves first, and for the masters second. The slaves got it first. If you have seen the incredible movie 12 Years a Slave, you can see that the slaves, who the masters treated like animals, used their faith in Jesus to give them a sense of freedom and hope inside the persecution. It didn’t mean that they did not suffer, they did, and many were killed in the process. But while still living, the Gospel gave them a sense of higher purpose. And so they could sing, “We shall overcome.”

The application today is straightforward. If you exercise power over someone at work – as a boss or a manager – create a context of justice because you know that you serve your master Jesus, and that is what he wants. Pay your workers equitably. Let them have their holidays. Honour the contractual arrangements with women when they return from maternity leave. Don’t speak harsh words to your staff or ask them to do anything illegal, immoral or unjust. Bring the Kingdom of God to your workplace.

For employees, you have three new freedoms at work. Firstly, you are set free from having to please the people in your office because you too ultimately report to Jesus and only have to please him. So don’t get caught up in office politics. Treat your boss or your manager with respect. This is what it means to be ‘heavenly minded’ and to ‘put on your new clothes’ as a disciple.

Secondly, you are set free to work wholeheartedly. Instead of going to work with a frown on your face, know that you ultimately serve Jesus, so be positive. If you hate your job, you can always look for another. Thank God that you are not a slave. But even if you were, Jesus still calls you to work wholeheartedly for him.

Thirdly, you are set free from worrying about your pay or status in the workplace. Whatever your income or position is in the organisation, you have the ultimate reward of your inheritance from God. You can still work hard, aim for promotions, ask for pay rises, but don’t put your self-worth or identity in these things. Know this freedom that you have.

Yes, there is a culture of narcissism going on in our world. But a narcissistic culture only brings destruction, injustice, and unhappiness. God is calling us away from the self-obsession of Adam and Eve to his Kingdom, where the pattern for life is Jesus and his self giving death on the cross. We live and work for him, and in doing so, we end up living and working in a just and positive way for others. This will transform our families, transform our work, and give us freedom.

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