What is Narcissism?
Narcissism is a psychological term used to describe a personality trait. Psychologists view narcissism as a spectrum. Some people have extremely mild narcissistic tendencies. While a small group of others have acute symptoms described as Narcissistic Personality Disorder.
Someone with moderate to strong narcissistic tendencies struggles with several deficiencies such as:
- A grandiose sense of self-importance
- A lack of empathy for others
- A need for excessive admiration
- And the belief that one is unique and deserving of special treatment
Origins of Narcissism
The word “narcissist” originated with a character from the narrative poem Metamorphoses by the Roman poet, Ovid. The poem tells of an exceedingly handsome young man named Narcissus who spurned romantic advances out of his vanity.
“When Narcissus rejects the nymph Echo, who was cursed to only echo the sounds that others made, the gods punish Narcissus by making him fall in love with his own reflection in a pool of water.”
Narcissus lives the remainder of his days unable to pull himself away from his reflection, learning that the object of his love cannot love him back. A cautionary tale, the myth warns us against the dangers of fixating on oneself and of excessive selfishness.
Is Narcissism in the Bible?
Because it was a term coined in the 1800’s, you will not find the word narcissism in the Bible; but you will find warnings against:
- Pride and vanity
- A lack of empathy for others
Narcissism and Pride
The Bible has quite a lot to say about pride. The sin of pride elevates oneself above others. The definition of pride includes arrogance and conceit.
Proud people think of themselves as better than others; they look down on others. Proud people regard themselves as more intelligent, more beautiful or handsome, more skillful, or more talented than others.
A proud person tends to overlook God. A proud person does not see their admirable qualities as a gift from God. Proud people do not see their achievements or accomplishments as a part of God’s grace. Rather, proud people take credit for themselves and give no credit to God. In the Old Testament book of Daniel, King Nebuchadnezzar took credit for building the magnificent city of Babylon and did not credit God for His providence.
God Hates Pride
Because proud people forget God, God hates pride.
- “A proud look,” is among the seven things God hates (Proverbs 6:17).
- “The LORD will destroy the house of the proud…” (Proverbs 15:25)
- “Everyone proud in heart is an abomination to the LORD…” (Proverbs 16:5)
- “For all that is in the world—the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life—is not of the Father but is of the world.” (1 John 2:16).
Pride appears to be Satan’s first sin: in 1 Timothy 3:6, a bishop (or what the Bible also calls pastors or elders) should not be “a novice, lest being puffed up with pride he fall into the same condemnation as the devil.” Ordaining an elder who is young in the faith could lead to pride. And pride, Paul says, condemned the devil.
Narcissism and Selfishness
Like pride, the Bible condemns selfishness. In the New Testament, selfishness is roughly equivalent to “self-seeking.” It comes from a Greek word that has political implications. A self-seeking person serves the interest of a party, they show a party spirit. Such a person might procure office by illegal manipulation or influence others in one’s own interests.
Other connotations include feud, faction, or a contentious disposition. The one who is “self-seeking” seeks their own gain or advantage; they are busy in pursuing their own interests at the cost of what is best for others.
Selfishness is a Sin
Paul identifies self-seeking or selfish ambition as a sin in Galatians 5:20. He lists it alongside, “idolatry, sorcery, hatred, contentions, jealousies, outbursts of wrath…dissensions, heresies.” Selfishness is a work of the flesh.
Someone who practices selfishness will not go to heaven: Paul told the Galatians, “in time past, that those who practice such things will not inherit the kingdom of God” (Galatians 5:21).
Selfishness Causes Problems Between People
At the heart of many problems in interpersonal relationships lies selfishness. James asks in 4:1, “Where do wars and fights come from among you? Do they not come from your desires for pleasure that war in your members?” Why do people fight with one another? Because of their desire for pleasure. When I disagree with someone, it may very well be that what pleases me conflicts with what pleases them. Or to put it another way, selfishness causes interpersonal conflicts.
James confirms this five verses earlier: 3:14-16,
“But if you have bitter envy and self-seeking in your hearts, do not boast and lie against the truth.  This wisdom does not descend from above, but is earthly, sensual, demonic.  For where envy and self-seeking exist, confusion and every evil thing are there.”
Selfishness is not from God: it is of the world, it is demonic. Selfishness creates chaos – messy relationships usually have selfishness as a root cause.And remember: those who practice selfishness will not inherit the kingdom of God.
Narcissism and Empathy
Empathy is another word that does not appear in the Bible. Among the Greeks, empathy meant “meanness” or “malevolence.” We use it in quite the opposite way: “the ability to identify with or understand another’s situation or feelings.” So for good reason, the New Testament not only does not use the word, it was not used among the Greeks in the way we use it.
Christians Should Suffer with Others
There are, however, some close equivalents to empathy. In 1 Corinthians 12:26, Paul exhorts, “And if one member suffers, all the members suffer with it…” When a brother or sister in Christ goes through a difficult time, I should do my best to identify with their experiences. “Rejoice with those who rejoice, and weep with those who weep,” from Romans 12:15 points to an empathetic spirit. Suffering alongside those who suffer is a close New Testament equivalent to empathy.
Romans 8:17 is another example:
“and if children, then heirs—heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ, if indeed we suffer with Him, that we may also be glorified together.”
The Roman Christians were facing the very real prospect of persecution. When that time arrived, they would be “suffer[ing] with (Jesus)”: they would be able to relate to or identify with what Jesus endured for our sake on the cross.
Christians Should be Compassionate
Compassion is another rough equivalent to empathy.
- Peter commands us to, “ be of one mind, having compassion for one another; love as brothers, be tenderhearted, be courteous,” (1 Peter 3:8).
- Jesus was, “moved with compassion,” when He saw the multitudes, “because they were weary and scattered, like sheep having no shepherd” (Matthew 9:36).
- Paul urges “the elect of God, holy and beloved, [to] put on tender mercies, kindness, humility, meekness, longsuffering” (Colossians 3:12).
All of these passages, while not mentioning the word empathy, describe a spirit of empathy.
A Lack of Empathy is a Sin
And a couple of New Testament passages imply a lack of empathy. John asks in 1 John 3:17,
“But whoever has this world’s goods, and sees his brother in need, and shuts up his heart from him, how does the love of God abide in him?”
James talks of a similar scenario in James 2:15-16,
“If a brother or sister is naked and destitute of daily food,  and one of you says to them, “Depart in peace, be warmed and filled,” but you do not give them the things which are needed for the body, what does it profit?”
Both James and John highlight a lack of compassion and concern for the plight of someone who could be helped, but help is refused out of a lack of love and faith. Refusing to help calls into question the authenticity of one’s Christianity. What we call empathy may well be lacking in both of these scenarios.
So what does the Bible say about narcissism?
While the word narcissism is not found in the Bible, the Bible does condemn elements of narcissism.
- God hates pride and vanity and condemns them in strong terms.
- The sin of selfishness excludes people from heaven.
- And those Christians who lack empathy may not be Christians at all.
Is there hope for a narcissist?
Philippians 2:1-4 addresses the core issues of narcissism:
“Therefore if there is any consolation in Christ, if any comfort of love, if any fellowship of the Spirit, if any affection and mercy, fulfill my joy by being like-minded, having the same love, being of one accord, of one mind. Let nothing be done through selfish ambition or conceit, but in lowliness of mind let each esteem others better than himself. Let each of you look out not only for his own interests, but also for the interests of others.”
To conquer narcissism, we must first consider those around us more significant than ourselves – we must empty ourselves of pride and learn humility. And if we consider others more significant than ourselves, we will naturally endeavor to place their interests first – humility leads us away from selfishness and towards selflessness. Emptied of pride and selfishness, we develop empathy – the love and affection and mercy and connection.
If you struggle with narcissistic tendencies, Jesus shows you the way out:
“Let this mind be in you which was also in Christ Jesus,  who, being in the form of God, did not consider it robbery to be equal with God,  but made Himself of no reputation, taking the form of a bondservant, and coming in the likeness of men.  And being found in appearance as a man, He humbled Himself and became obedient to the point of death, even the death of the cross” (Philippians 2:5-8).