Paul Prather

Egomania vs. humility: Finding spiritual balance in the examples of Peter and Paul


Last week I wrote about the spiritual dangers that befall us when our egos run amok. According to New Testament writers such as Saints Peter and Paul, hubris can make us our own worst enemies.

They argue it’s more productive if we instead humble ourselves and willingly submit to secular, religious and interpersonal authorities, even if we find those authorities imperfect or even wrongheaded.

But there’s another side to this same argument. That’s what I want to discuss here.

In my opinion, and with all respect to the New Testament, misguided submission and abject, blind humility are as bad as egomania.

If we see ourselves as unworthy of justice, for instance, or if we bow to every errant blowhard who crosses our path, then we’re as spiritually imbalanced as the worst narcissist.

Indeed, narcissism and self-loathing often are just mirror images of each other. Often one serves as fuel for the other. Scratch a narcissist and you’ll find an inferiority complex.

Put another way, self-loathing can be a thinly disguised form of egomania. They’re basically the same things.

There’s not an iota of difference between the guy who thinks he’s the greatest fellow in the world and that everybody ought to worship him and the one who thinks he’s the sorriest sinner in the world and that no one could ever forgive him.

In both cases, the guy’s eyes are fixed only on himself. It’s all about him, all the time.

There’s no room for others. There’s no room for God. The guy is the center of his own private universe.

Given what we’re told in Scripture about their lives and ministries, neither Peter nor Paul could remotely be described as mealy mouthed, subservient wimps.

Peter once whipped out his sword — yes, he apparently carried a weapon — and lopped the ear off Malchus, the high priest’s servant. Later, when officials warned him to quit preaching about Jesus, he told them to go take a flying leap and went right on spreading the good news. So much for submission.

Paul insisted on his civil rights as a Roman citizen, demanded that government officials publicly apologize when they’d wronged him and once rebuked Peter before an entire church assembly for acting hypocritically.

These guys weren’t shrinking violets. Instead, they were trying to direct us to find a healthy balance.

There’s no way of knowing for sure, but they probably talked more about the need for humility and willing submission precisely because they both struggled to control their own strong personalities more than they struggled with self-abasement.

I’m sure that if asked directly, they would have agreed that meekness and servitude have their limits, too. Their lives testify to that end.

It’s important to remember that, as somebody said, all spiritual truths are paradoxes. We’ve got to be able to hold onto one end of a truth without letting go of the other end.

Here, uncontrolled pride is a serious problem. But self-loathing is also problematic.

We’ve got to practice humility, selflessly bend our will and become servants to everyone.

But we should also recognize ourselves as priceless children of God, in whose divine image we are made, and believe we’re as important in his sight as anyone on earth, including the president of the United States, one of the Beatles or a Fortune 500 CEO.

That’s what enables us to bravely defend the gospel, ourselves or others when it’s necessary. Mainly we’re to submit to others, but there may come a time when submission is no longer possible, when, for instance, we’re ordered to do something that breaks God’s laws or harms innocents. Then we say no.

I’m not an expert on how other faiths solve this dilemma between being humbly submissive and standing up for what’s right.

In Christianity, we’re directed — as always — toward yet another paradox.

We’re warned repeatedly we should never become puffed up with pride, because we’re all basically big walking, preening, bragging balls of dust. From dust we sprang and to dust we’ll soon return. We’re prone to delusions and sins. We’re wrong about far more than we’re right about. Left to our own devices, we’d all be deservedly damned.

So much for narcissism.

The other end of this truth, though, is glorious.

God loves us anyway. He loves us unconditionally. He loves us so much that if we ask, he’ll come live in our hearts permanently. He’ll guide us, comfort us, empower us.

As St. Paul put it, “Not that we are adequate in ourselves to consider anything as coming from ourselves, but our adequacy is from God, who also made us adequate as servants of a new covenant.”

We can’t do much of anything good under our own auspices. We can’t even recognize good. We can’t trust ourselves. But God can do any good thing he wishes through us.

This can also create egomania and idiocy, of course. Nobody is as full of himself as the person who’s unalterably convinced he’s God’s personal mouthpiece.

Yet if we discern this paradox rightly and sensitively, with full awareness of our own foibles, it can help us find a balance between self-worship and self-hatred.

We’ll trust ourselves less than we used to, and trust the Lord more.