Thursday, April 27, 2023

The Christ-Shaped Empty Space

Regarding last week’s post about spiritual narcissism, one further thought has been with me lately.

The attraction to following a single, charismatic, spiritually-talented man is an interesting case of misdirected spiritual longing. As human beings, and especially as sons of God, we are constituted for the destiny of eternal relationship with a Man. He is our legitimate spiritual leader and source of spiritual food, the rightful head of every direction we’re going, and the source of all our future hopes and blessings. To be given over to serving him is our highest and best destiny, and even now we have a longing for that — a longing God gives us, and which we must have.

It’s a longing for our Shepherd … the Good Shepherd.

The Usurper Usurps

It’s that Christ-shaped empty space in our souls into which the spiritual narcissist, the Pastor of Disaster, inserts himself. The temptation to give to him the adulation and trust we’ve been waiting to bestow on our legitimate Leader is a product of our current separation from our rightful Lord. The spiritual narcissist is essentially a usurper, an exploiter of legitimate spiritual hunger that is intended by God to keep us seeking our eternal hope. Thus, the spiritual narcissist is a true “anti-Christ”, because the prefix “anti-” can mean more than merely “against”. It means “in the place of”. He’s standing in a place to which he has no right, and feasting on admiration that is not rightly his. But it’s a legitimate, spiritual desire he’s exploiting.

The legitimate longing for the Good Shepherd is misdirected into a satisfaction with a minor “shepherd”. Because that’s what the word “pastor” actually means. It’s not that the congregation starts to believe the spiritual narcissist IS Christ — they’re usually fully aware he’s not, and usually he’s quite happy to remind them he’s not — it’s rather that they come to feel that he is a useful stepping stone in that direction, a helper on the way to greater closeness and better service toward Christ, and to think that loyalty to him is a move in the direction of loyalty to the Lord.

One distinctive of the narcissist, though, is that he really cannot put up with rivals. He likes underlings, but he cannot stand superiors. And because he requires the focus of his followers, he quietly works to eliminate any equals. He needs to make himself unique, and to be the exclusive conduit through which things move forward. He needs to be indispensable. He needs to be loved, or feared, or both. He needs to be front-and-center.

However, real “pastors”, real under-shepherds, have two conditions the spiritual narcissist lacks: they’re always supposed to be under the authority of the Great Shepherd, and their influence is to be distributed among a plurality of such “shepherds” so that none becomes preeminent and takes a bigger role than he ought to have.

Tearing Up the Church

Since he’s sitting in a legitimate role (though he’s not the legitimate occupant), and since he seems to be helping us down a higher spiritual route, the fact that some of our longings are sublimated into following him starts to feel right. To go against the spiritual narcissist becomes all the more difficult, because it means reversing course on a road that has seemed, subjectively, to be “working” in finally taking us in the right direction. It can even feel like unfaithfulness to go back and admit it was all wrong from the start. So there’s bound to be a period of intense emotional conflict when some of the followers start to see that things are not right — they’re torn and conflicted, and they are put into conflict with those who haven’t seen it yet … with the latter mistaking the former for betrayers and for the unfaithful.

The whole gathering is then torn up; and even if, in the end, the narcissist is exposed and expelled, the congregation has been spiritually devastated by disappointment and the political fallout of the failure. Too much has happened in the back-and-forth that eventually exposed the falseness of the “pastor”, and the congregation no longer trusts each other anymore. They may not even want to see each other again, since to see each other only exacerbates the embarrassing and soul-emptying memories of failure.

Worst of all, the victims may thereafter become suspicious of the very spiritual impulse the narcissist exploited, and their longing for Christ may become tainted. They may become fearful of being exploited again, and lose the will to trust.

Now, how would you like to be the narcissistic ex-leader, and have to answer for doing that?

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