Self-importance is an often-overlooked sin that breeds dissension. It fans the flames of controversy.

When James and John approached Jesus to ask for the seats of highest honor in his kingdom, the other ten disciples “became indignant” (Mark 10:41). This wasn’t the first time the topic came up. Earlier, on the way to Capernaum, the disciples had been “arguing with one another about who was the greatest” (Mark 9:33).

Indignation. Quarreling. Dissension. Self-importance is a subtle sin that leads to conflict.

A Check on Self-Importance

Strong agreement with the statement “I am an extraordinary person” almost always indicates narcissism. Of course, Christian anthropology holds that we human beings really are extraordinary—“remarkably and wondrously made” in the words of the psalmist (Psalm 139:14). But, as Theodore Dalrymple claims, Christianity “manages the difficult feat of assuring a man of his supreme importance without giving him a swollen head.” 

Every man was important in the eyes of God, and in that sense was at home in the universe because the universe was expressly created for a being such as he. . . . Yet, by comparison with the author of his being, he was infinitely small, as indeed was every other human being. However scholarly a man might be, God, being omniscient, was infinitely more knowledgeable; howsoever powerful a man might believe himself, it was finally God who disposed, so that all human power was both illusory and transitory. . . . In the midst of importance we are insignificant.

Christianity provides a check on our tendency to adopt a self-important attitude. We are important because we are made in the image of God. Yet in comparison with the God we reflect, we are not as strong or amazing as we think we are.

Self-Importance and Controversy

In a time when it’s never been easier to gain attention through online antics, we often see the sin of self-importance among people who gravitate toward a particular cause. We become spectators watching an online performance, in which actors cast themselves as the heroes in an unfolding drama.

There’s one thing that the loudest and most divisive voices on both the right and the left have in common: they see themselves as key players in the narrative. Whether they put on the armor of the stalwart defender of the faith, like Athanasius contra mundum (“against the world”), or suit up as the righteous warrior for justice, like William Wilberforce against slavery, the result is the same: they imagine themselves to be major characters in a drama with the highest possible stakes.

Big Cause Envy

Several years ago, the editor of First Things described the attitude of some activists on the left as an expression of “Selma envy.” In an era of declining religiosity, many Americans look to political activism to fill a God-shaped void. And since we no longer live in a society shot through by the same levels of systemic injustice as we saw in the days of slavery, or segregation and lynching, some young activists find themselves grasping for and inflating any remaining injustice because, deep down, they’re envious of previous generations (like the one that stood for equality on the bridge in Selma, Alabama) for having such a righteous and clear-cut cause to devote themselves to.

The sin of self-importance shows up in similar cases today, whether on the evangelical left or right. Ross Douthat and Yuval Levin, from different angles, point to the consistent rehashing of controversy (though with ever lessening stakes) as either a sign of “decadence” (Douthat) or a result of being “blinded by nostalgia” (Levin).

I’ve often wondered whether some of the challenges facing the Southern Baptist Convention stem from “Conservative Resurgence envy.” Young men who grew up in the post-Resurgence era and saw leaders receive adulation for shifting the SBC to the right several decades ago in response to significant doctrinal drift now yearn to devote their energies to a similar cause. The most important areas of compromise in those days involved the denial of Scriptural inerrancy and authority. Today, we could easily replace the drama of seeking to fulfill the Great Commission—stepping onto the spiritual battlefield with the desire to see lost people come to Jesus—with intramural disputes on issues much less clear-cut and less central to the faith than those that were at the center of controversy in a previous era.

Controversies appeal to our sense of self-importance. They can make us feel important in the grand scheme of things. We find significance in being foot soldiers (or usually, let’s admit, we see ourselves as generals). Controversy plays to our vanity. We have a love-hate relationship with feeling embattled.

It’s not that controversies are never necessary. Many times, they are. But too often, the indignation we see is less the result of spiritual seriousness and more the result of egotistical enthusiasm.

In the Image of One of No Importance 

The Apostle Paul instructed the early Christians to make sure that no one would “think of himself more highly than he should think.” Better to “think sensibly” (Rom. 12:3). It’s no surprise he would issue this command, considering that Jesus made himself of no importance (Phil. 2:7). And this same Jesus countered the disciples’ inflated sense of self-importance by exalting children, telling them the first would be last, pointing them to the cup of suffering, and then redefining greatness as servanthood.

Self-importance breeds conflict, just as it did when James and John had an inflated sense of their worth and value. It also breeds compromise, as it did when Peter believed he was the warrior who would defend the Savior, only to end the night in tears at the sound of the cock crowing.

If your temperament would lead you toward controversy (and you feel you are prone to being pugnacious), take some time to consider what role an inflated sense of self-importance may be playing in your attitude and actions. This should be a warning for us all. Let’s not forget: no matter how righteous our cause, the “proud heart is detestable to the Lord” (Prov. 16:5).

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