The readings for the Nineteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time should help us avoid crossing over from Christian self-confidence into narcissism and rampant self-importance.
For a long time, Elijah had such a high degree of self-confidence that, empowered by God, he could singlehandedly hold his ground against Ahab, the King of Israel and his most influential wife, Queen Jezebel. Against all odds, Elijah had foiled their evil schemes and served Yahweh God most faithfully. But when Jezebel swore that she would not rest until she had slit his throat just as he had done to her 450 false prophets of Baal, Elijah began to lose his self-confidence and reached the point of wanting to fold up and die. The self-confidence which had been anchored strongly in God left him little by little, until he had to take refuge in a cave in mental disarray and deep turmoil.
How did Elijah reach that point? He had slowly grown proud of all his heroics. Self-confidence grounded in God’s help had morphed into narcissism and self-importance. If we overlook God’s help and, consequently, experience loss of self-confidence, we, too, would take refuge in a “cave” of sort and hide because we would sense impending doom. At that awful point, even average, doable things would become too much, too daunting.
This could be called the “Savior Syndrome.” It is highly contagious especially among pious and well-dedicated believers. Officially, it is passed as a deep desire to do lots of good deeds for Jesus and his Kingdom. But successes and praise might convince one of being “indispensable,” of being a miniature savior.
Suffering from “Savior Syndrome,” it becomes hard to realize that Satan might have already sowed in these people’s mind the thought that they are good, effective leaders, certainly better than most other average disciples of Jesus. Due to such a flawed way of thinking, these pious and dedicated people begin to take credit for the good they do. If they experience a long streak of successes, their perception of being miniature saviors is reinforced and embedded. Priests, although nowhere near the caliber of Elijah but experiencing a lot of success and receiving frequent accolades, can wind up suffering from “Savior Syndrome.”
No one is exempt from this sinister delusion! In our misguided enthusiasm, we too can forget that Jesus said to every one of his disciples: “without me you can do nothing” (John 15:5).
In severe cases, sustained by the rich soil of hubris, the “Savior Syndrome” leads to personality cult. However, in his love and mercy, the Lord has, mainly, two ways of bringing these misguided servants to their senses:
First, he can send them the bitter taste of prolonged letdowns. This is the method used by Jesus in dealing with Peter’s overconfidence. Peter, who thought that he was more loyal than the rest of the disciples, (Cf. Luke 22: 31-34) was allowed to fall all the way down to denying three times being one of the Lord’s disciples!
Or the Lord can use a more direct, blunt method as he did with the prophet Elijah. To the prophet Elijah, who thought he had become indispensable to Yahweh God and, therefore, worthy of being protected from the wrath of Queen Jezebel, the Lord speaks in the tiny whispering sound the stark truth that, far from being indispensable, he was still expendable. His task would now be to take care of some political details and then to train Elisha to take his place as prophet. (Cf. 1 Kings 19: 14-21)
The cave in which disciples suffering from Savior Syndrome take refuge, is the place in which options proposed by narcissism and hubris engage in a fierce conflict with the pleasant memories of life lived close to the Lord and with the recollection of what was accomplished with divine help when the heart was docile, pliable, and humble.
Which method will the Lord use with us? Looking at the crucifix, we can be sure of his unfailing love for us, hence, in either case, the result will be a generous dose of genuine Christian self-confidence.
This is how St. Paul defines it: I have the strength for everything through him who empowers me. (Philippians 4:13)
If today we realize that we might have crossed over from Christian self-confidence into self-importance and narcissism, the Lord will call us out of our cave to stand before him. In these troubled times, outside our cave there might be a strong and heavy wind rending the mountains of reality and truth. We might be shaken by the ominous earthquake of insane trends and fads. We might feel the heat of the fire consuming common sense and decency. Or the fragile boat of our familiar world might be tossed about by the strongest winds we ever experienced.
In either setting, far from thoughts of being key and irreplaceable servants, we should quickly admit our precariousness and our total dependence on the Lord. With Elijah, we shall carry out, humbly, any unpleasant task the Lord commands us to execute. With Peter we shall ask the Lord’s permission to tackle what is clearly beyond our puny capabilities.
What is crucial is never to focus on the strong wind and on what rages around us but to keep our eyes fixed on Jesus. If he orders us to come to him, we must obey him and walk towards him with unwavering certainty that we are walking towards the Risen Lord, the conqueror of even the scariest evils threatening us.