When Labels Matter
Updated: May 7, 2019
“For our struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places” (Ephesians 6:12).
Like too many of us today, I make the wrong choice to name people or groups of people in the labeling of particular evils that threaten humankind. In so doing, I trigger a defensive reaction on the part of all whom I name as blood and flesh enemies here. Not the preferred consequence, of course, and especially not a means of loving my enemies. Instead, by naming blood and flesh enemies, I indicate my fear of them. And I cancel out my own preferred “loving influence” by means of what I name in my book as our primary human sin of “fearful control.”
I am not the first to have this problem. It was common among the early Christians of Ephesus and elsewhere. And it prompted Paul to write a line in his letter to the Ephesians that I, and perhaps others today, might find most instructive.
For this reason, I am using this space to do a re-labeling of our enemy today having to do only with the rulers, authorities, power of this present darkness. People themselves, whether individually or in groups, are not the problem. The problem is the problem. And the problem is “narcissism.” That’s a fancy word for what we used to call plain “selfishness,” but it carries with it a meaning far more problematic than mere selfishness. Narcissism is a way of thinking and acting that seeks to use and control other people to satisfy an overly inflated self-image. Selfish attitudes are not helpful as a rule, but narcissistic thoughts and behavior are most hurtful to others. And, I would contend, most evil in our world.
Narcissism is typically born of fear. An early psychiatrist in the psychoanalytic tradition named Alfred Adler (https://healthresearchfunding.org/alfred-adlers-personality-theory-explained/) believed our primary fear was that of inferiority. When comparing ourselves with others (Adler would say humans but I would say humans AND God) we feel the inevitable hurt of inferiority. Our greatest temptation to sin, in my own somewhat Adlerian viewpoint, is the temptation to assert our own desired superiority by taking control over others (I would include God in this equation).
It is this sin of "narcissism" that brings about wars and rumors of wars in, per statistical history, endless perpetuity. (If one is looking for an eternal hell of conscious torment, one need look no further than this world’s perpetual history of wars and rumors of wars.) Such a hell will prevail until a new heaven and a new earth under God’s Kingdom of “loving influence” rather than “fearful control” is realized. (Which is why we pray “Thy Kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven.”) And it is this sin that occupies the places of power and ruling authority in which we live today.
Does this label matter?
I think so. And here’s why.
It labels the problem in line with what Paul noted as a citizen of Rome’s evil rule. It was far more expedient for him to name the problem rather than the people, given that a goodly portion of the Ephesian Church were probably former Roman military people themselves. (Ephesus was regarded as a popular retirement mecca for Roman Army officers.) But more than this, it labels the problem in line with an available solution.
Here’s what I’m getting at.
Paul goes on to write about what he labeled (v. 15) the gospel of peace. The Greek word for peace, eirene, was used 11 times in Paul’s letter to the Romans and 7 times in his letter to the Ephesians (more than his other epistles combined). He mixes this gospel of "eirene” in with a few other trademarks of the Christian Gospel. And if we were to seek a one word summary for Paul’s solution statement of Ephesians 6:13-17 to follow his labeling of the problem (v. 12), I believe that word would be "altruism." The opposite of "narcissism."
Consider Merriam-Webster’s definition for our English word “altruism,” which is “unselfish regard for or devotion to the welfare of others.” While Webster devotes no space to a picture under this word, Jesus Christ crucified and risen would certainly satisfy at least my own understanding. Because Jesus modeled the way of God’s Kingdom of Heaven coming to earth through his own “unselfish regard for or devotion to the welfare of others.” His own altruism. The solution to the problem of narcissism. God’s salvation for our problem of sin.
You see labels do matter when it comes to problems that have solutions.
Many of us, including yours truly, waste great energy labeling people instead of problems. We too often choose to change people to no avail. Our consequence is we then lose time we could be using to solve problems. Problems like the ruling authorities and powers of darkness. Problems like narcissism. Which have solutions like altruism.
Which has a perfect model like Jesus. Altruism.
For when that label matters most.