In ancient Greek mythology, Narcissus was a character who was terribly proud and utterly disdainful of all others. One day he saw his own reflection in a pool and fell in love with it, not realizing it was his own image. Unable to leave his reflection, he died there by the water’s edge. From his name, we derive our modern words narcissism and narcissist, which describe extreme selfishness coupled with a craving for admiration and a grandiose view of one’s own talents. Gaston of Disney’s “Beauty and the Beast” is a poster-child for narcissism.
In diagnosing the root problem of our human condition, the theologian Augustine described us humans as incurvatus in se, a Latin metaphor meaning “curved in on itself.” Left to our own devices, we mortals drift along thinking the world is one giant backdrop for our selfies. In such a world, all the arrows point toward me. I am bent in upon myself. And this unhealthy self-focus gets at the heart of what sin is.
Surely our greatest temptation is our desire to be our own gods, the masters of our own destinies, the shapers of our own futures, the unmoved movers and uncaused causes of our world. Our desire to be in control, rather than to practice self-control, creates for us a tremendous idolatry. The drift of Western society over the past several centuries partakes heavily of this self-aggrandizing tendency.
Puritan preacher George Whitfield, aware of our inward curvature, urged Christians not only to repent of their sins but of their “righteousness” as well. You see, pride is a tricky problem for Christians who are making real progress in personal virtue and holiness. The more progress we make, the more we have for others to notice and admire, and the greater the temptation to be admired. Evagrius, a fourth century church leader noted, “It is difficult to escape pride, for what you do to rid yourself of it becomes for you a new source of pride!”
Jesus calls us as his followers to be anything but “curved in on ourselves.” We are called to humble dependence on God and to seek first his kingdom. We are called to remember that we are contingent creatures who rely upon God for our daily bread. We are called to serve one another in love, as Christ first served us. Johann Sebastian Bach, one of the greatest composers of all time, famously signed each manuscript he produced, “Soli Deo Gloria,” for God’s glory alone. May we live with such a spirit of joyful humility, pointing away from ourselves and toward the Source of all beauty, goodness, and truth.