Life is a war for glory. Even those of us who have rested in Jesus to bring an end to our battle for glory still fight skirmishes in which we feel our reputations are at risk. We live on a battlefield where we strive to attain glory and put it on display. We measure ourselves against others to see how we are stacking up. Are we advancing in our careers fast enough? Is our romantic life lagging behind? Are our finances lagging behind? Are our gifted and talented children in all the right activities? Are we spiritual standouts? We become slaves to our image and the glory that comes from being extraordinary. With every victory the glory counter goes up, and with every failure and folly the glory counter is reset, and we strive to recapture that lost glory.
The gospel has the power to liberate us from that because Jesus won ultimate glory for us. In him we are given the unchanging status of justified and adopted children of God. We are fully known and fully loved. God’s image is being restored in us, and we will one day “shine like the sun” (Matt. 13:43). What people say about us, what we say about ourselves, and what people do to us is trumped by what God has said about us and done for us in the gospel. But the skirmishes rage on, and we still fight for the glory that comes from men.
The Problem of Narcissism
What we want more than anything is to have a sense of importance, significance, and worth, and it is possible that we treat Jesus and his gospel as a means to secure that idol for us. Jesus’s death and resurrection bestow on us glory and honor from the Father— absolutely. It is possible, though, that what we really want is not Jesus and God the Father but a sense of glory and honor that come to us from them in the gospel. Our hearts are so inclined to self that we can use the gospel of Jesus as an attempt to make ourselves indispensable to God.
The gospel says something wonderful about us, but it primarily says something wonderful about God. The cross is not primarily a shout-out to our worth but a shout-out to God’s worth and righteousness, that he might be exalted as the “just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus” (Rom. 3:26). The driving motivation of God’s saving activity is the praise of his glory, not ours (Eph. 1:6, 12, 14). A legitimate glory hunger rooted in our need for God’s love and acceptance can easily become warped and so remove God from the picture altogether and become a twisted and monstrous focus on self that uses the gospel to satisfy our obsession with our own significance and glory. Our legitimate glory hunger can easily get out of control and turn to narcissism.
Narcissus was a character in Greek mythology, a hunter well known for his beauty and vanity. One day his archrival led him to a pool where he stooped to drink. As he looked into the pool, he became transfixed by his reflection. Immobilized by his reflection but not knowing it was merely an image, he could not leave the reflection of his beauty, and he died beside the pool.
Narcissism lies at the core of our wrestling with glory hunger. While narcissism is a clinical issue, there is a functional narcissism that runs rampant in our culture. Narcissism is an excessive concern with and overinflated view of oneself, an inordinate self-love and preoccupation with one’s own image and reputation. It is an egocentrism rooted in an exaggerated self-esteem that in reality is self-absorption.
[Narcissism] is an egocentrism rooted in an exaggerated self-esteem that in reality is self-absorption.
In our culture, real emotional health begins with an unabashed love affair with oneself. The message you are being sold is that you are great, and you matter more than anyone else.
The Crushing Consequences of Narcissism
There is a temptation to say, “So what if our culture is narcissistic!” But there are some tragic and destructive consequences to functional narcissism. Proverbs warns us, “It is not good to eat much honey, nor is it glorious to seek one’s own glory” (Prov. 25:27). In other words, just as you can get sick eating too much honey, you can get sick on an appetite for personal glory. Eugene Peterson, in his book Where Your Treasure Is: Psalms That Summon You from Self to Community, writes, “Centering life in the insatiable demands of the ego is the sure path to doom.”1 We don’t have to read too far in the biblical narrative to see this. The great temptation with which Satan deceived Adam and Eve was to become their own gods, putting themselves at the center—what some have called the “de-godding” of God and the deification of self. When they bit on that temptation, sin and death entered this world, and the cosmos become chaos.
Narcissistic people rarely have deep friendships and usually don’t really desire them. They have fans but not friends. They have the admiration of others but not intimacy. They want to surround themselves with those who will approve and affirm them and assure them that they are okay but not with true friends who will lovingly wound them with the truth. They don’t typically give in relationships; they tend to take. Narcissists tend to use others to build up themselves but do not invest or give in relationships. So relationships for narcissists, whether personal or professional, have a short shelf life. Narcissism also induces anxiety. Constantly comparing oneself with others and feeling the pressure of keeping up are great burdens.
What matters most is what is real. If we are going to be whole and flourish, we must move in the direction of ultimate reality, which means we need to center our lives on the right thing. We must glorify most what is most glorious. We must love most what is most lovely. We must value supremely what is supremely valuable. The only way out of thinking too much about our glory, loveliness, and value is to be captured by a vision of the glorious, lovely, supremely valuable God. A vision of God’s greatness and a zeal for his clout and fame are the only things that will displace a zeal for personal clout and fame. It is this passion we see most fully in Jesus.
If anyone could have rightfully been a narcissist, it was Jesus. He was God in the flesh. He was sinless and never lost an argument. But he came not to be served but to serve and give his life as a ransom for many (Matt. 20:28). Jesus was not consumed with a passion for his glory.
In John 12, before we hear the indictment on those who believed in Jesus but refused to confess him openly because they wanted the glory that comes from men, John records an audible conversation Jesus had with the Father:
Now is my soul troubled. And what shall I say? “Father, save me from this hour”? But for this purpose I have come to this hour. Father, glorify your name.” Then a voice came from heaven: “I have glorified it, and I will glorify it again.” (John 12:27–28)
On the brink of Jesus’s most horrific hour, his focus was on the Father’s name being glorified. His soul was deeply troubled. The word translated “troubled” carries the connotation of disturbed, frightened, even terrified. Jesus was unsettled and fearful over what he was about to face. He would be betrayed by a friend, denied by another, abandoned by the rest. He would be falsely accused of blaspheming his Father, whom he perfectly loved. He would be mocked, beaten, scourged, humiliated, and brutally crucified. The physical agonies would pale in comparison to the emotional and spiritual anguish he would undergo. He was to bear all the sins of those who would believe in him and take on the full fury of the wrath of God in their place. He would feel the crushing alienation of being forsaken by the Father, with whom he had lived in unbroken fellowship. Could anything be more terrifying? For Jesus, the answer was yes. The prospect of escaping that hour and failing to bring the Father glory and honor through full obedience was a more terrifying alternative.
Jesus’s passion was to glorify the Father’s name. The involuntary, spontaneous eruption of his heart in this soul-disturbing moment was, “Father, glorify your name.” That is why Jesus came. The cross is primarily about God’s glory. It is about God’s holiness and righteousness and justice being upheld and vindicated in the forgiveness of sinners, that he might be “just and the one who justifies the ungodly” (Rom. 3:26). The cross was Jesus’s finest hour because it was the hour when he preserved the Father’s glory and put it on display, which was the greatest longing of Jesus’s heart. Throughout John’s Gospel, we see that Jesus’s driving desire was to honor the Father:
If anyone’s will is to do God’s will, he will know whether the teaching is from God or whether I am speaking on my own authority. The one who speaks on his own authority seeks his own glory; but the one who seeks the glory of him who sent him is true, and in him there is no falsehood. (John 7:17–19)
Jesus did not live for his own agenda, seeking his own glory. He was fully yielded to the authority of his Father. Later Jesus says, “I do not seek my own glory” (John 8:50). It was not in his heart to compete with the Father for glory. He was here to do what the Father sent him to do. His glory and honor would be found in glorifying the Father.
I glorified you on earth, having accomplished the work that you gave me to do. And now, Father, glorify me in your own presence with the glory that I had with you before the world existed. (John 17:4–5)
Jesus was fixed in his passion for the Father’s glory. His whole life, from incarnation to exaltation, was about glorifying the Father. In the hour of his crucifixion, Jesus would indeed be glorified (John 12:23). He would be glorified as the fully obedient, suffering servant. He would have his preincarnate glory restored to him. The Father would make sure of that.
The Father raised him and exalted him and bestowed upon him the highest name. He has been glorified in heaven, seated at the right hand of the Father with the glory he had before his incarnation, and he is to be worshiped, exalted, and honored above all things. But Jesus did not seek this glory from the world. He sought glory from the Father, who bestowed it upon him, as he sought glory for the Father. What a contrast to our first parents and to our impulse as their descendants. Adam and Eve sought glory apart from the Father by disobeying the Father, and it resulted in their shame and humiliation. Jesus sought glory from the Father by fully submitting to the Father, and it resulted ultimately in his exaltation and honor.
In a world consumed with personal glory, Jesus shows us the way to life. His invitation is to lose our life—to renounce our obsessive concern with ourselves and make the glory of God our consuming desire. Life and freedom are found not in satisfying the insatiable demands of our ego but in centering our lives on something entirely outside of ourselves, bigger than ourselves. When we, like Jesus, love most what is most lovely, and value supremely what is supremely valuable, and glorify most what is most glorious, we will begin to experience freedom from the crippling concern of glorifying ourselves. We will be delivered from our obsession to be loved and honored when we are consumed with a greater desire—for the Father to be loved and honored. The ruling desire of our hearts must be to love the Father like Jesus loved the Father; to be less preoccupied with ourselves and more preoccupied with God.
This article is adapted from Glory Hunger: God, the Gospel, and Our Quest for Something More by JR Vassar.
1. Eugene Peterson, Where Your Treasure Is: Psalms That Summon You from Self to Community (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1993), 12.
It is impossible that our Divine Lord could have had fellowship with us unless He had given to us from His own abounding wealth and had become poor so as to make us rich.
We live in a world that has trivialized God, having reduced him to human proportions.
Without a doubt we could spend our lives searching the literature of the world for a story as beautiful as that of the nativity and never find it.