We get the word “narcissism” from Greek mythology. Narcissus was an extremely handsome young man. Echo fell desperately in love with him. He ignored her and broke her heart, yet she continued to love him.
Their relationship was made nearly impossible because the gods had willed it that he could hear only the last two words of her conversation. Regularly he would misunderstand her. They had real problems “communicating with each other” — a quaintly modern thing seen in pastoral counseling. The end result was that Echo pined away to death. However, her “last two words” remain to this day as “echoes.”
This is not the end of the story, however. Nemesis, the goddess of retribution — who pays you back for your wrong doing — punished Narcissus for his neglect of Echo by causing him to fall in love with his own image which he saw mirrored in a pool of water. He could not attend to any of his needs other than the need to admire and love himself in the mirrored pool. As a result he dies and Nemesis turned him into the flower that we today call the narcissus! What a story! What a metaphor for you and me as preachers!
If we think of our congregations metaphorically as pools of living water, do we adore our own image — to our own and to their detriment — as we look into their faces when we preach? Does this narcissism cripple and confuse our authentic communication with them in and out of the pulpit? Are they so enraptured by our self-assurance and self-adoration that they waste away for a lack of authentic spiritual nutriment?
Worse than this, are neither we nor they aware of what is happening in this process? The Apostle Paul speaks of this kind of preacher-listener relationship when he says in II Corinthians 10-12: “What fools they are to measure themselves by themselves, to find in themselves their own standard of comparison!” (NEB).
Conversely, in your interaction with and care of your congregation do you have to deal with people who demand things of you in your preaching that reflect their own narcissistic need to have the preaching and worship revolve entirely around their self-assured demands? Do you feel that to capitulate to such demands would make an inauthentic crowd pleaser of you? It would not be you preaching, but you mimicking someone those making such demands upon you want you to be like — a former pastor, a special personal preacher friend of theirs, or one of the flamboyant television preachers? What grinds you away in such demands is these persons’ sense of being entitled to shape you into the image of their own imaginations. So narcissism works both ways and seems to be the continuing persistence of original sin, the desire to play God. As Nietzsche said, “There is no God. How could there be if I were not he?”
Some Characteristics of the Narcissistic Personality
Contemporary psychotherapists have with precision identified the following characteristics of persons with a narcissistic personality:
– They have a grandiose sense of self importance. They exaggerate achievements and talents and expect to be noticed as “special.”
– They take advantage of others to achieve their own ends. They are interpersonally exploitative.
– They have a sense of entitlement, i.e., they assume unreasonable expectations of especially favorable treatment and attention on all occasions: “After me, everyone else might be first!”
– They react to criticism with feelings of rage, shame, or humiliation.
– They routinely lack empathy for others. They have no ability to experience how others feel.
– They are preoccupied with feelings of envy.
As you can readily see, profound ethical implications pervade almost every one of these characteristics. Yet the religious arena is a prime context for these to express themselves. These people not only do these things, but they often feel that in doing so they are doing God a service. There is an adhesion between their self-concept and their concept of God. Their presumption is flabbergasting. They cause people’s mouths to fall open in disbelief!
Homiletical Narcissism
You or I as preachers can express all or some of these characteristics in the way we preach. As Soren Kierkegaard says, “Do not let yourself be deceived — or do not yourself be deceived. For as God and God’s Word are concerned we human beings are very cunning — even the most stupid of us are very cunning — yes, flesh and blood and self-love are most cunning!” (For Self Examination, Minneapolis: Augsburg Publishing House, 1940, p. 39).
Yet we can consecrate this cunning to God in Christ and put it to work identifying the self-love in our motives, thinking, and especially our preaching. As I attempt to focus our thinking on homiletical narcissism, bear in mind that I think of this as a guide for my own self-examination first, and then for your self-examination.
Let’s translate some of the above characteristics into our own lives as preachers. Homiletical narcissism, in the first place, means that the preacher is authoritarian rather than authentic. It is one thing to share your own struggles of the soul in empathy for your congregation in theirs; it is quite another to tear into them for their frailties as if you have none of your own.
The authoritarian preacher demands total conformity to his positions, interpretations, and beliefs. To him they are infallible and he becomes irate or manipulative when someone holds to a diverse spiritual experience from his own. To do so is to be added to his “enemies list.” The authoritarian personality divides and conquers, with “insiders” who kow-tow to his way of thinking and doing and “outsiders” as those who differ from him.
In the second place, the narcissistic preacher focuses the content of the sermon on himself. It is one thing to draw a metaphor or invent a parable from your or my observations of life and events around us. For example, I was entering the dry cleaning place one Saturday afternoon when three burly teenagers approached and said “Hey, mister!” I thought I was about to be mugged! I answered them, “Yes?” Then they said: “Our car won’t start. Could you help us by letting us ‘jump start’ it from your battery?” I was glad to do so, and it worked.
On a Sunday a week or two later, I was preaching on the subject of “The Ministry of Encouragement,” I told this story to illustrate that in the Christian community, with our energy and hope, we “jump start” each other; we share spiritual energy, i.e., encouragement, with each other.
This is qualitatively different from a more recent occasion in which I made my point by telling the story of how I had won an argument with a lay person about a particular biblical interpretation! I demonstrated for my audience what a clever debater I am. This was pure narcissism and one for which I cough with embarrassment as I think of how authoritarian I was. Self-adulation is a constant temptation for the preacher.
A third aspect of homiletical narcissism is the lack of empathy or sympathetic imagination. In the preaching situation this appears in the common habit of using illustrations of people that put them in the worst possible light, that is, making a “worst case scenario” of people and holding them up to ridicule to our audience.
I very early had a remarkable professor of homiletics, J. B. Weatherspoon, who spoke of this as a real breach of ethics and admonished us to project ouselves into other people’s story with empathy and sympathetic imagination. We are to search for the elements of heroism and granduer even in the misery of human nature.
As Gelolo McHugh, professor of psychology at Duke University, once said: “To love means that we interpret another person’s behavior in the best possible light.” To do otherwise in preaching simply encourages us as preacher and our audience in simply thanking God that we are not as the publicans and sinners when in reality we are competing with each other to become the chief of sinners.
A fourth dimension of homiletical narcissism is to use the sermon as a tool for venting our own anger, disgust, and contempt. We do this when things are not going our way, which of course, to us at the heat of our rage is the only way. The ethical issue here is that we have a captive audience that cannot answer back. For a member of the congregation to do as people in the New Testament did Peter, Paul, Barnabas and others by speaking out and making a dialogue of the homiletical monologue would be presumptuous of them indeed.
In fact, if they responded to our anger in kind, they might even be considered somewhat mentally ill! However, having preached often to audiences of mental patients in state hospitals, such interruptions are the rule rather than the exception. To be challenged by their questions and comments — which were often sane and edifying — is a real exercise in humility and an antidote to narcissism for any preacher.
One more characteristic of homiletical narcissism is the flashy flamboyance of a preacher’s manner of dress and body language. The chief purpose of preaching is to focus the listener’s attention on the person of Jesus Christ and not on ourselves. Gaudy clothing that calls attention to itself at the same time focuses attention on the preacher. I was taught and still believe that if my manner of dress — whatever it is — is the main focus of people’s attention I am inappropriately dressed.
The trend since the sixties has been to dress so casually — blue jeans, open collar, bare chest and all — that a person becomes a breed apart from the “square” population. In the late seventies and eighties, television preachers have gone the other direction in costuming, makeup, and garishness. Michael Davis, in the May-June 1989 issue of Preaching, presents a sermon: “Did Jesus Wear a Rolex?” His final answer is: “No. Nothing gaudy and spectacular. He just took a towel and washed the feet of His disciples like an ordinary servant. He just took a cross and carried it to the place of death — for the sins of the whole world” (p. 41).
Authentic Preaching
In stark contrast, authentic preaching is permeated by the simplicity and directness of Jesus and Paul. Paul spoke of the cunningness which is a hallmark of narcissistic preaching when he said “we refuse to practice cunning” (2 Cor. 4:2). Jesus spoke of our being as wise as serpents, but in the same breath He spoke of our being innocent as doves as far as evil is concerned.
Authentic preaching is certainly not naive. Instead the preacher focuses cunning on the phoniness and unrealness of self-centered preaching. In doing so that preacher develops several dimensions of authentic, credible, and trustworthy preaching. A few of them are as follows:
Authentic preachers do not take themselves too seriously. They have a sense of humor about their own foibles and eccentricities. As Jack Benny’s humor used to illustrate, they themselves “pay the price” for their humor. If they catch themselves at it, they repent of it and, if need be, ask forgiveness of the person they may have offended. Their humor communicates wisdom and gentleness as they make the characters in their humor heroes and not villains.
Authentic preachers are self-emptying rather than self-centered. They pour themselves out in prayer before God and service before their people. They point away from themselves and glorify God and our Lord Jesus Christ. One form of self-emptying is the capacity for empathy and sympathetic imagination in putting themselves in their people’s places, even the most disagreeable among them.
A patient in a state hospital taught me this one Mother’s Day when I was preaching to an audience of about two hundred. I was speaking of parenthood as the gradual letting go of our children until they could leave us and follow the Lord Jesus Christ and be maturely related to a mate in marriage.
A mother in the audience stood up and addressed me: “Preacher, all that you say is well and good, but what if it just ain’t in you to do it?” I thought it was a very good question as to the capacity of a person to reach ideals held out by me as a preacher. I was not a parent at the time. I did not know what a difficult thing I was prescribing. She did.
I simply changed the course of the sermon, thanked her for the question and did my best to enter her world and ask where the strength to do this comes from. Only God can put it in us to do this. We cannot do this in our own strength. Having been a parent for forty-one years, I now know better what she meant. Her question has since then become a criterion for preaching for me: “Is it in these people’s capacity to do what I am urging them to do?” This enhances my empathy and sympathetic imagination.
Authentic preaching consists of the capacity for expressing gratitude to and for the congregation as well as giving them godly admonition about the edification of their thoughts, actions and ideals. The subtle inability of the self-centered preacher is the inability to express genuine gratitude.
Isaac Stern, the noted violinist, in a television interview said: “We spend the first half of our life learning how to be grateful.” As we learn the ability to be grateful, we become more authentic persons and, if we are preachers, we become more authentic preachers.
The grateful preacher listens carefully to his own voice and manner, regardless of the particular content, for tones of carping, griping, complaining, and wailing in voice and manner. These are rooted out and tones of understanding appreciation are planted to replace them.
Authentic preachers, finally, honestly admit that they know in part, prophesy in part, and see through any really serious and ambiguous issue darkly. This is the purest statement of the Apostle Paul’s authentic humility. To the self-centered preacher even the most ambiguous mysteries are not just clear, they are perfectly clear!
The authentic preacher attempts something that will not happen in this finite, self-interested, and confusing existence: searching out the Scriptures for the whole counsel of God in the whole Bible and declaring it with courage. We know in part, but speak we must because God is pleased when we do.

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