Our Besetting Sin


I was watching the television interviews of some of the Occupy Wall Street young people. In this particular segment they seemed to only be able to find 22 year olds. That is, those just out of college who have not been able to find a job. The latter is understandable since the unemployment rate of 18-22 year olds is somewhere in the neighbor- hood of 25% or worse. They are angry. They feel they have been sold a bill of goods. They have been told, ‘get a good education and you will find your job and place in life’. Only that isn’t so much happening these days. There are a lot of unemployed college graduates, and the number of unemployed high school graduates who did not go on to college is astronomical. Your odds at least are better if you have a college degree. Looking around for someone to blame for this mess, the Occupy Wall Street crowd has fixed on Wall Street, on the Bernie Madoffs in our world (as in made off with our cash). And of course there is some truth to the rumor that greedy people on Wall Street caused the crash of 2008. But it is not the root of the problem. Nor is the root of the problem laziness. Nor is the root of the problem a lack of hard work. Americans still by and large are very hard workers, compared for example to the Greeks. No, none of this gets at the root of the problem. One of the wonderful old Pogo cartoons gets at the root of the problem.

We in general are the root of the problem.  Our culture is in the clutches of the most primal sin of all narcissism.   We have met the enemy, and the enemy is us.  The heart turned in upon itself leads to greed,  a strong sense of entitlement, selfishness, self-centeredness, ‘me first’. It’s all narcissism.  Narcissism is by definition a sick form of self-love.  Love that is focused on self, not God or others, but self.  Did you ever wonder why the great commandments (not suggestions) were love God with your whole heart and neighbor as self?  Because frankly that’s the hardest thing in the world for a self-centered narcissistic person to do.  They have to be continually reminded.  We are indeed our own worst enemies.   We don’t need to point fingers at others who are ‘more narcissistic than us’. We need to simply look in the mirror.   There is an old ditty which goes this way ‘The three persons I admire most are me, myself, and I.  Me, myself I know very well, but who’s that other guy?’

The sad truth about narcissism is that it comes from a deep well of ego weakness.  It comes from that place in the heart which urges— ‘you are uncertain about yourself,  over compensate!!’  Narcissism is the self picking up a megaphone and shouting at oneself—- ‘I matter,  I am important, I am somebody big’.   If you have ever read Ayn Rand’s little credo ‘The Virtues of Selfishness’ you will see writ large the attempt to justify, even provide a philosophical basis for the goodness of narcissism, and rampant self-centeredness.   It is frighting to me when a person like Paul Ryan hands out Ayn Rand’s novel Atlas Shrugged as if this provides us with a road map to get out of our dead end streets.    Here’s where I say that narcissism is a sickness.  It destroys human relationships.  It does just the opposite of what it intends— instead of making the person more secure, more satisfied, it simply aggravates that  voice inside that says ‘you need to do more, you need to acquire more, maybe then you will realize  what a big person you are’.

There was a telling interview with Donald Trump some years ago. He was at the apex of his net worth, which was billions, and the reporter asked him “How much is enough?’    The Donald instant;y replied  ‘A little bit more.”    Enough is never enough for the narcissist, because he is trying to solve a spiritual problem with material goods.   It never works.  You can’t fill a spiritual void with food, or possessions, or investments, or, or, or.    The God shaped vacuum in the human soul can only be filled with God, and when that happens then there is a possibility of becoming a ‘recovering narcissist’ who is actually able to love others, and even God after a fashion.

Have you ever really paid attention to that wise story of origins in Genesis 1-3?  One of the most revealing moments in the whole story is what happens once the apple has been bit.   Here is what it says–
“Then the eyes of both were opened and they realized they were naked, and they sewed fig leaves together, and made loin clothes for themselves. [the beginning of the clothing industry and shopping for material!]. They heard the sound of the Lord God walking in the garden at the time of the evening breeze, and the man and the wife hid themselves…” And why did they hide– “I was afraid, because I was naked; and I hid myself.” When God becomes an intruder in his own creation and to his own creature, there is something terribly wrong. And the rot started when Adam and Even became aware that they were naked, vulnerable humans and sought to hide the fact, sought to compensate for the fact. Here we have a tale of the beginning of self-centeredness, of self-consciousness, of self-protectiveness. It is the story of individual narcissism. It is the story of narcissism writ large in nationalism. Each one striving to protect themselves, each one trying to define themselves on their own terms, each one trying to over-compensate to prove their worth, prove that they are ‘better and bigger than’ others.

Let me be clear that the problem is not material reality or material possessions for that matter. As Saint Paul said its all about what goes on in the human heart. Its all about sick love— ‘the love of money is the root of all kinds of evil’. Or as Jesus put it— “for it is from within,from the human heart, that evil intentions come–fornication,theft, murder,adultery, avarice, wickedness, deceit,licentiousness,envy, slander, pride, folly.’ (Mk. 7.21-22).

Yep that about sums it up. The root of the problem is not our lack of jobs. The root of the problem is not Wall Street. Those boys are just living out one form of the American Dream which produced the bumper sticker ‘the one who dies with the most toys wins’ or ‘I’m spending my grand children’s inheritance’. The root of the problem is the human heart, and the only solution is a heart transplant. The only solution is dying to that old Adamic self.

The only cure for narcissism is a real conversion. Not just a change of direction, or a change of a few ideas, a real conversion which allows one to give up the self-centeredness and actually love God and neighbor. And the interesting thing is, that when you actually do that, that little voice inside goading you into more selfish activities quiets down. Once you know you are a person of sacred worth whom God and others love, you don’t need to prove to yourself or others you are somebody big, someone of note. The real truth about the Donald Trumps of this world is that what drives them is the deep realization that something is missing, and they can’t quite silence that nagging voice deep within. And so they assume greed, more possessions will satisfy the voice within. But it never will.

A person who realizes life is a gift, all of it, is a person who can’t go around with a sense of entitlement. We are not entitled to life, liberty, and the pursuit of a good career. No we are not. Those are all gifts ultimately from God. We are not entitled to a certain standard of living. We are not entitled to a two car garage. We are not even entitled to a chance at ‘the good life’. It’s all gift. We did not create our own existence. We came into the world through the actions of others, chiefly God. And when we die, even if we are buried with our pink Cadillac, we cannot take it with us. Naked we came into the world, and we shall leave it without our stuff. The thing about nakedness is…. it reminds us we are not God. It reminds us we are vulnerable. It reminds us we need outside help. It reminds us we need love. And Adam and Eve became self-aware, self-centered, realized they were naked……. and the human race began its race down the slippery slope to malignant narcissism. Something only God can rescue us from now.

  • Katoikei

    Excellent topic choice, I’m off to have a good morning meditation on this, once I’ve dashed down to get some electricity on stick.

  • Katoikei

    I just got through a fairly interesting discussion with a friend about the idea that somehow God’s to blame for the pickle we’re in and as I was reading in the next chapter, chapter 4 of Genesis a single phrase lit up my whole room (metaphorically speaking) – ‘Its desire is for you, but you must rule over it.’ Obviously, there are problems for those who are in the grip of religion of Cain, but there is more than mastery over ourselves that is on offer. We’ve been offered a share in the victory over sin through Jesus Christ. I was searching for a rendition of Gary S. Paxton’s – Victory in Jesus but had to settle for ‘Lord, how’d I get to be such and old man, so fast’ – http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=omlOKMZPHTQ Blessings for your thoughts.

  • Ed

    Thanks for the excellent analysis Dr. Ben. As always you’re right on target.

  • Oscarspicks

    The stepbrother to Narcissism is Utopianism. When one thinks too much of oneself then that person begins to believe that their own ideas and actions can perfect the unperfectable by trying to either change the behavior of others OR by placing strictures and rules on others in order to make THEM more perfect.

    In politics we see this all the time, such as the attempt to make it easier for those at a financial disadvantage (read: minorities) to get loans to buy a first home. After all, it SOUNDS good and it makes us FEEL good, too! We now know how THAT shook out!

    In the microcosm, we see the parent constantly hovering over their child, from birth through college, in order to “help” them make the right decisions for their life/career while, unwittingly, preventing that 20 year old “child” to develop into a responsible adult.

    The people making these decisions may not THINK that they esteem their own judgment too much, but they DO. Narcissism!

    It doesn’t just mean “I’m way too cool!” but, as you said Ben, it is at its base a raging insecurity about oneself, hence, leading one to try to perfect the world around them without thinking of what the consequences may be. It’s also called “stage one thinking”.

    This, also, is what the “Occupy” movement is doing. They are not going to the actual source of the problem, they are trying to make everyone else look at things through THEIR own prism because, gosh darn it, they are MAD!

    That leads us to look at ourselves as the first test for narcissism. Paul said Gal 6:3 “If anyone thinks he is something when he is nothing, he deceives himself.”

    All those who think “Its all about ME” are right…it IS.

  • Aaj7383

    Very good. But the cure is tough.

  • Jerry Wiltz


    For an additional take on our besetting sin. We have stone aged brains evolved very well for hunting and gathering in small bands of 10 to 100 people but not set up that well for modern high density populations.

    We are still hunter gatherers of some sort. But there is greater unease as we live and work in large groups. Part of what Christianity could is recognize this and develop activities in light of this.


  • William Meitzen

    Thank you for this commentary: it’s exactly what Americans need to hear.
    That’s what’s bringing down what was a wonderful coountry: greed,excess,opulence, extravagence, waste, bribing and bribe-taking by our public
    employees; our failure to take care of the poor, the needy. Jesus’ parable of the man who built bigger barns and lost his soul, as did the rich man who ignored the beggar. It’s a failure among people who call themselves Christians and ignoring
    what it takes to be a follower of Jesus. A Methodist preacher in Ohio says: “live
    simply, so that we can help others simply live.”

  • http://www.recycleforce.org/ David

    We can certainly see the sinfulness of our culture – we can see ourselves as we hear Amos criticize the beds of ivory when he was sent north to prophesy against Israel.

    But there is another side of this that gives some substance to the protests. Did this cultural rot come to a peak among all of us in 2008 when this financial collapse began? Or was there a culmination of a series of policies and practices that led to the financial meltdown. Is there a telling story eerily connected to Amos’s message in the continuing shift of the income distribution toward a small elite – that was exacerbated by tax policies in government and compensation policies in business.

    Some think that while a market outcomes tend toward efficiency (in certain circumstances) that a market also automagically produces “just” income allocation. The former point has some basis in economics but the latter does not! The allocation of incomes is conditional on private and public policies. They can only be evaluated by some other standard drawn from ethical or religious values. Nobody complained as this shift was taking place and the income distribution became skewed. But the suddenly the complaints now arise when it is proposed to readjust the distribution back toward a more egalitarian shape that obtained shortly after WWII.

    Those who maintained they “need a bit more” concocted means to get a few more nickles from shady mortgage practices, they bundled bad mortgages up with phoney risk ratings and sold the risk up the financial feeding chain. Banks who would have been forbidden to invest in these poisoned financial instruments were now permitted to because the provisions of the Glass Steagall act had been repealed in 1999. So the poison put large hunks of the banking sector in the hole.

    My point is that the general avarice was concentrated in a few powerful hands at the same time as wealth was more concentrated. This analysis led to financial reform – but now in the continuing aftermath some say, inexplicably, that the new regulations need to be repealed because such regulation is stifling the workings of the market! So the financially powerful want more freedom to do it again.

    It is true that some of the protests are misguided. I am not surprised given the contorted analysis of the some of the reasons for our troubles. There is general sinfulness, but there are specific wicked acts that we can do something about. It takes some wisdom to know the difference.

  • http://www.friartucksfleetingthoughts.blogspot.com Friar_Tuck

    I love that you got opinionated in your post. Not all of your posts are editorial, so when you get editorial my ears perk up to hear your unique point of view. Thanks.

  • Mike Taylor

    Well said. My only difference would be that self-interest never seems to be squelched much in me. I have to fight it every minute. Thank the Lord for His help an mercy.