Spiritual Narcissism and the Dark Side of Devotions

But be doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving yourselves. - James 1:22

While devotionals and Bible studies breed like rabbits in the Evangelical community, other personal "spiritual" products live large in the middle-class world as well. Yoga, aromatherapy, meditation classes, holistic medicine, etc., there is no end to a growing demand for things to make us feel more “in tune with ourselves” or “closer to God.” And let me confess right off-the-bat, I practice (or have) just about all of them. This is the confession of a spiritual narcissist.

A Church In My Head

In my “early years” of Christianity, I gobbled up just about every major devotional or Bible study there was. I am an introvert at heart, and the idea of living a rich spiritual life while confined to the safety of my room with a book was seductive indeed. I felt pretty good about my faith until a youth pastor came around who actually challenged me to do things like “socialize” and “form relationships.” To say he took me out of my comfort zone is an understatement, but it changed the course of my spiritual development.

The False Promise of “More”

What I learned about myself, and now sadly see all around me, is that the “product in demand” is still that same promise of more “God,” more fulfillment, more peace, all without any messy need for life changes. “Not feeling close to God? Here, take this workbook.”  “Not feeling like you are growing spiritually? Here, try this devotional.” However, since all these things have only a shadow of true spirituality, they are like drugs where you have to keep getting more to feel stimulated. Without the accountability and challenge of personal relationships, we are like hamsters spinning their wheels.

The Seductive Promise of Self-Contained Peace

So let’s get to the heart of spiritual narcissism. Life comes inherently with a level of pain, usually around the point of growing up. If you don’t have this pain yet, just wait, it’s coming. Once this pain hits, our first reaction is to find out how to get rid of it. For many, this is when addictions are picked up. For others, especially those who have the resources, we set up elaborate distractions and safeguards to keep as much “life” away as possible. Pop-spirituality, fad programs, and the devotional of the week are all selling the same thing: a promise of inner peace and less pain.

The True Price of Peace - Putting Others Before Ourselves

Jesus said, ‘If you wish to be perfect, go and sell your possessions and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.’ But when the young man heard these words he went away sad, for he was a man of great wealth. - Matthew 19:21-22

We all want to feel less stressed, less afraid, less anxious, and less troubled. The problem is that we take all the verses in the Bible about “be not afraid” and the overused Jeremiah 29:11 “for I know the plans I have for you…” to tell ourselves everything is going to turn out great. However, we leave out the actual context of all those passages. Those verses are promises to those who are making the hard choice to follow in Jesus’s footsteps, those who “pick up their cross daily.” They are NOT promises that our lives are going turn out just the way we want them to because we “believe hard enough.” (I am looking at you, Joel Osteen)

The price of peace is that we start “loving our neighbor” and putting the needs of others above our own. Christianity is about seeing Christ in the presence of others, and putting divine value on human life and dignity. To do this requires discomfort as we go places we wouldn’t normally go and gather with people we would normally avoid. It requires changing our lifestyles as we question our assumptions and prejudices. The promise of Jesus is that we only find our life, after we have learned to give it up (Luke 17:33).

Breath In, Breath Out: The Purpose of Inner Peace

Don’t misunderstand me, I am not saying we shouldn’t utilize devotionals, meditation, Bible studies, etc. As I pointed out, I use all those things. After all, most of my website is about mysticism and spiritual disciplines. This is a check, a reminder to myself and others of WHY we practice spiritual disciplines, prayer, and contemplation. It is to give us FUEL for living, and not to be used as a proxy for living.

The world is a harsh place, and showing love to others means you expose your heart and soul to even more pain. Without the love of Christ in our hearts, and without taking the time to center ourselves, the cares and doubts of the world could easily overwhelm us. To go out into the world, to face our fears and endure pain, is to BREATH OUT. To take time out and center ourselves in prayer, meditation, and study is to BREATH IN. To do either one without the other, is the spiritual equivalent of holding your breath, and soon you will be spiritually dead.

Untested Iron

Iron sharpens iron,  and one person sharpens another. - Proverbs 27:17

When we are isolated, there is nothing to reveal our own nature. It is only as we meet people and practice love that we discover our prejudices, our entitlements, and our fears. Also, if we only hang out with those "like us" we are still hiding from our true nature. Diversity is a mirror which shows us our own humanity. No blade is so dull as the one which only sharpens itself.

Avoiding Spiritual Narcissism

Spiritual narcissism is an attitude of wanting things that make YOUR life better, instead of wanting to practice things which make YOU better at living. It is filling our lives full of things to comfort ourselves, instead of things to challenge us. Yes, sometimes we need to “have faith” and wait on the Lord, but sometimes God is just waiting on us to get off our asses.

Related: Beware the Prophets of "More"