“Self-absorption defines the climate of contemporary society,” writes social critic Christopher Lasch. “Narcissism has become one of the central themes of American culture.”
Professor Lasch is one of several observers who believe Americans are pursuing a dangerous inner-directedness that ignores the future and the betterment of society. “Sin” has become simply “sickness” according to Lasch, because secular social science has abandoned the religious and moral absolutes which once influenced lawmaking and personal standards.
The social and psychological scientists consider spiritual values to be archaic and oppressive, and even a cause of social maladjustment and emotional disorders. In place of these values, government, business, and the “helping professions” have promoted self-perpetuating “treatments” in the form of social programs, self-pampering consumerism, and an unending variety of cultish “therapies.” Collectively, these works create a “bureaucratic dependence” which takes away the traditional values of self-discipline, initiative, objective thought, and moral integrity.
Self-discipline is gone because the “me” and “now” orientation of modern man has lost concern for others and the future, and has nothing to be disciplined for. Initiative is gone because modern man relies on the bureaucracy of “therapeutic specialists” to label and convert or to drug his anxieties and dissatisfactions. Objective thinking is gone because his social therapy feeds him stereotypes to love and hate. And moral integrity is gone because he is no longer responsible to tradition or posterity, but only to the expedience of the self-centered present.
Modern man has given up concern for others and for society as a whole. Even the political radicals of the Vietnam era are today living in a purely survivalist mode, preoccupied with cultish therapies which offer “psychic peace.” This “new paternalism,” Lasch asserts, “preaches not self-denial but self-fulfillment.”
Whether or not we agree with Lasch’s criticism, we must admit that the disappearing values he speaks of are not widely promoted in the media, public life, or higher education. And the danger for twentieth-century followers of Jesus is that we too might relax into subtle dependence on the bureaucracy Lasch describes—instead of relying totally upon God and denying self for the sake of Christ’s mission in the world. Already we are tempted to syncretize “self-fulfillment” and societal measures of success into our evangelism and discipleship. But the more we focus on self, the less we are available to God.
This danger is real for the people of God. If we lay aside differences of time and culture, we see that Israel engaged in a very similar “survivalist mode” in the days of the prophet Elisha. When Israel had separated from Judah, the people’s spiritual heritage had been cut away from their political leadership. This division is symbolized by Elisha’s terse rebuke to Israel’s King Joram in the Desert of Edom: “What have we to do with each other?” (2 Kings 3:13).
To understand the mood in Israel at the time, we must examine a piece of history behind the record’s statement that King Joram “clung to the sins of Jeroboam son of Nebat” (2 Kings 3:3). This Jeroboam had been a young man when aging King Solomon turned away from the Lord of his father David and built shrines for Chemosh and Molech, gods detestable to the Lord (2 Kings 11). In his anger, God swore he would tear ten of the twelve tribes away from the house of David and give them to Jeroboam. Only Judah and Benjamin would remain under Rehoboam, Solomon’s son.
God told Jeroboam: “If you do whatever I command you and walk in my ways and do what is right in my eyes by keeping my statutes and commands, as David my servant did, I will be with you” (1 Kings 11:38). But Jeroboam disregarded God’s words and resorted to an egocentrism which led Israel now into spiraling spiritual perversion.
Jeroboam thought to himself, “The kingdom will now likely revert to the house of David. If these people go up to offer sacrifices at the temple of the Lord in Jerusalem, they will again give their allegiance to their lord, Rehoboam king of Judah. They will kill me and return to King Rehoboam.”
After seeking advice, the king made two golden calves. He said to the people, “It is too much for you to go up to Jerusalem. Here are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of Egypt.” (1 Kings 12:26-28)
Jeroboam set up a “bureaucracy of therapeutic specialists” in Israel: He “built shrines on high places and appointed priests from all sorts of people, even though they were not Levites” (1 Kings 12:31). Immediate psychic gratification is what Jeroboam offered the people—no need to travel all the way to Jerusalem. It didn’t matter if the people believed a lie, because in a narcissistic society the object of worship is not important as long as the experience satisfies.
Such was the sinful heritage of Israel at the time of King Joram.
But among God’s people even then we those who stood against the prevailing values of the day. One of these was a woman in the town of Shunem. This Shunammite (2 Kings 4:8-37) recognized Elisha as a man of God and provided him with food and shelter. She expected nothing in return, and although Elisha offered to request favors for her from the king and the commander of the army, she said it was enough for her to live a simple life among her own people.
But Elisha’s servant Gehazi noticed that the woman had no son to take care of her and to inherit her aging husband’s property. So Elisha prayed to God and the woman gave birth to a son.
One morning the young son fell ill. His father sent him home from the fields, and that noon he died in his mother’s arms. The Shunammite woman laid her dead boy on Elisha’s guest bed, then rode a donkey twenty-five miles to the top of Mount Carmel to find Elisha. There she grabbed Elisha’s feet and would not let go until he agreed to return with her to Shunem. He went and miraculously brought the boy back to life.
This woman’s story is a stirring account of faith. But, more pertinent to our discussion, her story is a witness against the self-absorption of her day—and of ours.
The Shunammite apparently had wished for a child before she knew Elisha, and was bitterly disappointed while her hopes were unrealized. When Elisha later announces she will have a son, she begs him not to trifle with her. It is too painful to reopen that old wound: “No, my lord,” she objects. “Don’t mislead your servant, O man of God!”
Her objection is passionately genuine, yet it sadly hints of the narcissistic objection men and women often give to witnesses of God’s love: “Don’t mislead me by telling me there is a God who is good and who acts on my behalf. Much as I wished to believe it as a child, I have seen otherwise in the suffering and rejection of my life. Let me go my own way, for I have trained myself to invent reality and to seek the little consolations of this world.”
But God’s word to her proved true. We can imagine that, along with feeling joy over her son’s birth, she spent many hours reflecting on God’s faithfulness. This was a lesson she would not forget: The Promiser’ keeps his promises.
But if the Shunammite had truly wanted a son, we must ask why she handled his death as she did. The modern narcissist described I by Christopher Lasch would likely collapse in “profound despair and resignation.” Instead, the Shunammite calmly carried the dead boy upstairs to Elisha’s room. Then she arranged the trip to Carmel, brushing aside her husband’s puzzled inquiry with, “It’s all right”
Placing the boy on Elisha’s bed was actually a natural response to the reality in her heart. She knew this child was God’s. Like Hannah who conceived Samuel after long heartache and prayer, the Shunammite knew that God alone brought this child into the world. It was natural to acknowledge God’s ownership by placing the boy on the bed of the man of God.
But more than this, there is something she learned that the narcissist cannot grasp: This God of Israel, this “wholly Other,” is good!
This overwhelming thought urged the Shunammite to the top of Mount Carmel. At stake was an issue so consuming she could not allow herself to indulge her grief: Justice had been violated! And it was her anguished cry at the injustice of death—when God had willed life—that brought Elisha back with her to Shunem to minister God’s restoration.
Centuries later, another woman approached the Lord to lay claim to his justice. In Mark 7:25-30, a Syro-Phoenician woman asks Jesus to drive a demon out of her daughter. He replies at first that he has come at this time to help only the Jews. But the woman persists because she believes with all her heart that God’s goodness applies also to her. And Jesus heals her daughter.
Both the Shunammite and the Syro-Phoenician woman passed up the temptation to indulge their genuine hurt. Instead they risked rejection, embarrassment, and possibly even their lives for the sake of those they loved.
It is questionable whether either of these stories could happen in twentieth-century America. As Christopher Lasch points out, self-centered “therapy,” rather than faith, has become the religion of modern “psychological man.”
Even when therapists speak of the need for “meaning” and “love” they define love and meaning simply as the fulfillment of the patient’s emotional requirements. It hardly occurs to them—to encourage the subject to subordinate his needs and interests to those of others, to someone or to some cause or tradition outside himself.”
We must acknowledge the authentic, merciful help given individuals by government, business, and the helping professions. These have performed near miracles in raising the quality of life in western civilization. It is the spirit of the age Lasch deplores, the mindset that expects life to serve our every self-centered emotional need or whim.
Lasch may be warning us about the last days when “people will be lovers of themselves” (2 Timothy 3:2). But whatever the implications of Lasch’s criticism, the Christian knows the voice he is to follow. Jesus said, “Whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me will save it” (Luke 9:24).
Commenting on these words of Jesus, German theologian Jurgen Moltmann has written, “To give up one’s life means to go outside oneself, to love, to expose oneself, and to spend oneself. In this passionate renunciation one’s whole life becomes alive because it makes other life alive.”
In the ancient story of a woman of Shunem, God has given us an example of one who modeled this passionate renunciation. Let us too—as disciples of Jesus—go outside ourselves to make other life alive.