The Self-Delusion of Self-Absorption

“But mark this:  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.” –  2 Timothy 3:1-5

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,” y’all) 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 annoying Yoga postures while 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 a young lady (or not-so-young, these days) walks past in a bare-midriff top sporting 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. For instance, the buffed and coiffed crowd from the recent Oscars kerfuffle who seem to believe their voices are somehow more poignant than the masses.

I 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  Any given day yields post after post of exhausting self-analysis and historical references to lost childhoods and failed marriages and abusive bosses and generally all the bad things that have kept the reader from being who they really should be, if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 into a high art form often 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”).

Is it any wonder we’re dealing with the most conceited, dysfunctional, narcissistic, selfish, and rebellious generation in the history of the world?

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 sometimes be a pretty sucky place to live. And while some folks do display genuine love and concern for others, in truth, most of us (I embarrassingly include myself in this category) are usually wrapped up in ourselves.

Our central failing 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’re taught that genuine love for our brothers and sisters rather than 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.”

How can we avoid the trap of self-absorption?  How do we look outward rather than inward?

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 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 Jesus, who loved so much that even as we were his enemies, he laid his life down for us (John 15:13Romans 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.

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 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.

Colossians 1:17

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