“But mark this: There will be terrible times in the last days. People will be lovers of themselves, lovers of money, boastful, proud, abusive, disobedient to their parents, ungrateful, unholy, without love, unforgiving, slanderous, without self-control, brutal, not lovers of the good, treacherous, rash, conceited, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God — having a form of godliness but denying its power. Have nothing to do with such people.” – II
Navel-gazing – it’s a common occurrence. No, I’m not talking about the lustful look I often have when browsing the produce section of H-E-B (that’s Texan for grocery
store) while passing by the overly-genetically-enhanced navel oranges that look
oh-so-good but actually taste kind of like extra pulpy Sunkist without the cardboard container.
Nor do I mean the vacant stares so many people have when practicing those annoying
Yoga postures and they really are gazing down at the their navels.
And I’m certainly not referring to the shifty eyes some of my guy friends have when
some young lady (or not-so-young, these days) walks past in a bare-midriff top
with one of those sparkly piercings winking out from the stub of what was
originally an umbilical cord.
Rather, I’m thinking of an entirely different kind of navel-gazing; the type usually
accompanying self-preoccupation, self-obsession, self-absorption.
I tend to read a lot. Some of my reading turns to online blogs, a veritable cornucopia when it comes to the self-absorbed. Any given day yields post after post of exhausting self-analysis and historical references to lost childhoods and failed marriages and abusive bosses and generally all the bad things that have kept the writer from being who they really should be, if only XYZ wouldn’t keep popping up in unexpected (although in reality perhaps completely predictable) ways.
The self-absorbed individual perpetually turns the focus of every conversation back
to their own trials and worries. In fact, some people have developed it to a high art form and to the uninitiated even seem witty in their hand-wringing.
There are many types of self-absorption. There’s the pity seeker who wants the world to know how challenging their lives are; the attention lover who talks incessantly
about how attractive or intelligent or desirable others seem to find them; the
reverse psychologist who rejects any form of flattery only to seek and expect more
(also known as the passive aggressive reverse maneuver).
And then there are the professionals – self-help gurus feeding off the popularization of self-love, self-esteem and the other obsessions of self so en vogue today with modern psychiatrists and psychologists. With such role models bombarding society from
every corner, is it any wonder we’re dealing with the most conceited,
dysfunctional, narcissistic, selfish, and rebellious generation in the history
of the world?
Scripture gives us a generous amount of guidance in the perils of self-absorption and self-love. Paul admonished in his letter to the Philippians “Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves.”
From my perspective, we see so much self-absorption in those around us because in
truth the world can be a harsh place to live. Sadly, many people live a “dog eat dog” existence. The way of this world is to put self first, love self and provide for self. Some folks do display genuine love and concern for their brothers and sisters, but in truth, most of us (I embarrassingly include myself in this category) are usually wrapped up in ourselves.
Consider how often you’ve heard or seen this: “I’m not pretty enough/smart enough/thin enough/tall enough/funny enough/(insert favorite term here) enough” – in every case, the person bemoaning their shortcomings is highlighting a perfect example of “me-centricity” as a reaction to the harsh reality that life, in a material sense, is tough. In simple terms, life sometimes sucks.
I know someone very much like this. My friend is brilliant, witty, attractive in all the worldly ways, and generally someone most people would be drawn to. Yet every time this person looks in a mirror, the face staring back is unrecognizable as worthy of love. And so the cycle of narcissism is fed. More validation is needed because they are unable to accept the completeness of God’s love for them.
The central failing here is a lack of understanding that when we put love of ourselves over the love for those around us, the results are inevitably a focus on how unlovable we are. Ironic, no? The more we look inward, the more we crave external validation.
Scripture is clear that the way of the Believer is vastly different from the way of the world. We are taught that genuine love for our brothers and sisters – not for ourselves – is our calling card. John 13:35 quotes Jesus telling us “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.” Notice he doesn’t mention anything about self-love. We are also taught in the well known passage from Matthew 22:37-40 that genuine love enables us to fulfill the commandments of God.
How can we avoid the trap of self-absorption? How do we look outward rather than
Reflecting on this question, I’m reminded of the 3rd Chapter of 1 John. John reveals in verse 11 that as believers we are to love not ourselves, but rather, those around us: “For this is the message you heard from the beginning: We should love one another.” He then goes further, reminding us that our love one for another is one of the strongest proofs that we are saved, (verses 14-15).
Many people, especially those with a high degree of self-preoccupation, appear to love
others. They lavish those around them with praise and compliments and gifts and attention, making a point to remind everyone how loving they are. Sadly, the
motivation for this type of outward display is often more about the giver rather than genuine love for the person receiving. And when their “love” is not reciprocated in
a manner meeting their expectations, the giver can feel betrayed and abandoned.
Yet when we step outside of self-reflection and self-love, when we turn our gaze from within and look instead at the world around us, if we allow our love to be God-like and all it should be, three very clear characteristics emerge.
First, God-like love is extensive. As early as Genesis 4:8, we read about the perils of self-love in the actions of Cain against his brother Abel. Cain did this out of jealousy and self-absorption. Contrast this with the standard set by Jesus, who loved as much as is possible, so much in fact that even as we were his enemies, he laid his life down for us (John 15:13; Romans 5:8).
This type of genuine, God-like love knows no boundaries and sets no limits. It is unconditional in the truest sense of the word. It expects no reciprocity, nothing in return.
Do you love others like this? Honestly, I’ve wrestled with the concept, often asking “Why should I love this person if they don’t love me?” It’s difficult giving love freely when
we know it won’t be returned. Think of a relationship where someone professes undying love for another … right up to the point where that person disappoints them.
When I find myself in need of a reminder, I always return to Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians, Chapter 13. Re-read his description of genuine love in the first 8 verses. There are few better descriptions of love.
The second characteristic of God-like love is that it’s expensive – there is a true cost to genuine love. No better example of this cost can be imagined than the sacrifice of Jesus at the cross of Calvary. Jesus held nothing back. He saw our need and met that need with every resource he had.
That’s what real love for others is about. What we have, what we can give – whether it be our time or money or material possessions – these things we should offer freely to those around us regardless of the cost.
Finally, God-like love is expressive. Genuine love doesn’t simply talk, it doesn’t build a world of words, it takes action. Without the cross, the promise of John 3:16 is meaningless.
How many of us know people who talk but don’t really do? You’ve seen this person, maybe you’ve even been them at times in your life (I know I have). Promises to help, best intentions, commitments to follow-through for someone in need of our time or attention – yet we don’t deliver.
I have a friend, an acquaintance whom I’ve actually never met in person. We share thoughts and ideas occasionally online but really don’t have any deeper relationship. Not long ago my friend told me he learned that another of our online acquaintances was experiencing a crushing run of bad luck and was at a crisis point. He asked me if we might pool our resources with one or two other friends and help this individual out. There would be nothing in return for this help, no tax-deductible receipt, no repayment of the money. It
was simply people with genuine love helping a brother. Without hesitation I said yes. My friend reminded me that love, real love, is about action, not about faux concern or empty words of “empathy.”
Over the next few days, have a conversation with yourself. How is your “love” life? Are you truly caring for others in a selfless and genuine manner? Do you give freely with no expectation of a return? Can you forgive and love even when someone repeatedly disappoints you?
Honest answers to these simple questions will be far more profound than all the self-help books ever written.
Copyright © 2011 Robin Green, All Rights Reserved