THE EXCELLENT WAY, 9: “LOVE IS NOT ARROGANT”
Carl Wilton
Point Pleasant Presbyterian Church
October 16, 2016; non-lectionary sermon
Isaiah 2:10-22; 1 Peter 5:1-7

“And all of you must clothe yourselves with humility
in your dealings with one another, for ‘God opposes
the proud, but gives grace to the humble.’”
1 Peter 5:5b

Have you ever tried to define what love is?

It’s not the easiest thing to do. We all believe we know it when we see it, but putting it into words is quite another matter.

It’s almost easier to describe what love is not. That’s what Paul does in 1 Corinthians 13, especially the middle section we’ve been looking at for the past several weeks. Let me recall it for you:

“…love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth.”

*****

Today we come to “love is not arrogant.”

It’s a lot easier to define arrogance than love. Arrogance is pride: a big, hulking, obnoxious double-helping of pride. Arrogant people are not the sort of folks any of us like to be around. Arrogant people typically “rub others the wrong way.”

Who wants to be arrogant? Nobody. Walk up to a random stranger on the street and ask, “Are you arrogant?” If you don’t get slugged in the face, you’re likely to get an emphatic “no.”

If that’s true, though — and it is — then riddle me this: Why is it, if no one wants to be arrogant, that there are so many arrogant people in this world?

I’ve got a theological explanation. The explanation is: sin. Sometimes we do “the very thing we hate,” as Paul says.

*****

Arrogance comes in many shades: from mildly irritating to completely self-possessed. Another word for the completely self-possessed variety is narcissism.

The word, “narcissism,” comes from an ancient Greek myth. Narcissus was a young man — quite a good-looking young man — who had angered the gods. They punished him by causing him to fall madly, helplessly in love with his own image. Looking down at a pond one day, Narcissus happened to see his reflection: and truly it was love at first sight. The poor, besotted fool knelt down and gazed at the reflected image of his face. There Narcissus stayed, by the side of the pool — until he starved to death.

There’s wisdom in a great many of the Greek myths. What this one is trying to tell us, I think, is that narcissism isn’t just obnoxious: it can be deadly.

There are plenty of arrogant people out there — including, at one time or another, every one of us — but the psychologists caution that true narcissism (as a psychiatric disorder) is rare. No more than around 1% of the population can be classified as narcissists, according to the diagnostic code.

But that doesn’t make things any easier if you have to work for one — or, worse, live with one. Truly, they can have an outsized influence on those around them!

Narcissists tend to be charming people. They’re usually very adept at dispensing compliments. They do this not so much out of a desire to get closer to others, but rather to manipulate them into doing what they want. This warm, genial, complimenting behavior continues as long as it serves their purposes: but, as soon as it seems no longer to be working, they immediately drop that strategy and give the other person the cold shoulder. Narcissists hand out compliments because they hope to get even more praise back, in return.

If you don’t provide them with what they want, they’re done with you. Few social experiences are more painful than this sort of abrupt change in the wind: the narcissist goes, in a very short time, from being one of your best friends to one of your worst enemies.

Because they’re so good both at promoting their own virtues and dispensing praise, narcissists sometimes rise to the top of organizations. That can really be deadly. An organization with a narcissist at the top will end up being all about that person. The organization will also experience a high level of staff turnover — as the psychologically-healthy employees depart and the less-healthy ones stick around, hungry for the crumbs of affirmation that fall from the boss’s table.

Narcissists can be found most anywhere, but they especially gravitate to roles that keep them in the public eye: like the performing arts, politics and certain voluntary, nonprofit organizations. They can even end up, on occasion, as pastors of churches: especially churches that are eager to grow, whose pastor nominating committees mistake their glib words and narcissistic charm for leadership competence. Such calls to ministry rarely end well. If the church doesn’t explode in conflict, it will likely degenerate into a cult of personality. I’ve seen it happen.

*****

If you want to see an example of a narcissistic personality, look no further than the 1950 classic movie, Sunset Boulevard, starring William Holden and Gloria Swanson. Remember that old chestnut? You can still catch it on TV every once in a while.

Gloria Swanson plays Norma Desmond, an aging actress who grew wealthy as a silent-film star of the1920s. As soon as the talkies came along, though, no one wanted to see Norma anymore. She became yesterday’s news.

William Holden plays Joe Gillis, a screenwriter who gets trapped in Norma’s narcissistic gravity and starts orbiting her, helplessly, as she manipulates him with compliments.

“Wait a minute,” says Joe, upon first meeting her. “Haven’t I seen you before? I know your face.”

“Get out! Or, shall I call my servant?”

“You’re Norma Desmond,” says Joe. “You used to be in silent pictures. You used to be big.”

“I am big,” says Norma — who hasn’t had a role in 25 years. “It’s the pictures that got small.” And they’re off and running, those two.

Norma Desmond is arrogant, no doubt about it: but she’s also smooth. She knows how to use her arrogance to get what she wants, from an insecure younger man who’s hungry for love and affirmation.

It’s a real classic, Sunset Boulevard. And it captures the narcissistic personality to a “T.”

*****

The film manages to do that by spending a lot of time talking about love. Only it’s not real love. It’s more of a sick infatuation. Narcissists like Norma Desmond are incapable of real love, self-giving love. They can’t give themselves in love because, underneath that strong, carefully coiffed exterior, they’re desperately insecure. They cover it well, but the running emotional wound is still there. Deep inside them is a bottomless pit of emotional need, a ceaseless hunger for admiration.

In fact, that’s one definition of a narcissist: a person who can’t tell the difference between love and admiration. Love is hard to come by, for people like them: so, they accept admiration as a cheap substitute.

There’s a cost, though. In the words of the novelist John Updike:

“Celebrity is a mask that eats into the face. As soon as one is aware of being ‘somebody,’ to be watched and listened to with extra interest, input ceases, and the performer goes blind and deaf in his overanimation. One can either see or be seen.” [Memoirs, ch. 6 (1989)].

The Greek word Paul uses, here in 1 Corinthians 13 — when he says “love is not arrogant” — literally means “puffed up.” Love is not puffed up.

Think of a balloon, slowly being inflated with air. Picture how it begins as a small, insignificant thing: but how it swells and grows, appearing stronger and more substantial than it really is. Consider, too, what happens when you puncture it with a pin. “Here today, gone tomorrow” is that sort of imitation love.

Paul’s recommending a different sort of love: a far more robust emotion that’s truly self-giving and makes no room for arrogance.

*****

Take a look at our New Testament lesson for today, 1 Peter 5:1-7. It’s a different book, a different author, and even a different Greek word — but the underlying concept is the same. Rather than “arrogance,” this early Christian letter uses another word, translated here as “proud”:

“And all of you must clothe yourselves with humility in your dealings with one another, for ‘God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble.’” [v. 5b]

If it’s true, as Paul teaches, that “love is not arrogant,” then surely the opposite is what we’re looking for: love is humble. Humility is essential to the sort of love that builds up Christian community.

“Humility” is a fascinating word. Our English word comes from the Latin humus. If you’ve ever had anything to do with gardening, then you know what humus is: it’s topsoil. Specifically, it’s that dark, crumbly material within the soil that comes from decaying plant matter. Rake up the leaves from your yard into a compost pile, wait for the sun and rain to work their magic, and eventually what you’ll have left is humus.

A truly humble person is earthy in just that way. No pretension, no striving: just very honest, and real. What’s more, genuine humility causes good things to happen in the lives of others. Like the rich humus that fertilizes the soil, humility makes other human relationships fruitful. It brings out the best in those we love.

I’m not talking here about the self-deprecating, “aw shucks” insecurity that often trades under the name “humility.” (That, in its own way, can be just as phony and painfully self-conscious as narcissism.) When two people, though, in a loving relationship, have truly learned the grace of humility, what that means is they’re able to be themselves with each other. They’re comfortable in their own skin.

Another insight from this humus connection has to do with where the stuff comes from. Remember, humus comes from decaying vegetable matter. Ashes to ashes, dust to dust. In order to make humus, something has got to die, so the process of regeneration can begin. It’s a natural cycle: death leads to decay, which leads — in God’s time — to new life.

So what is it in us that has to die, in order for blessed humility to be born? All that is prideful and self-centered, all that neglects the good of others, rather than following our Lord’s commandment to love our neighbors as ourselves.

Paul puts it even more starkly in Romans, chapter 6:

“Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? Therefore we have been buried with him by baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life.” [3-4]

The old, prideful self must first die, in order for the glorious new self to be born.

This very life of ours is a long process of gradually being humbled — in the best sense of that word. It’s sometimes hard to comprehend that, in the years of our lives when we’re so occupied, even obsessed with the business of living: with education, with careers, with parenting (for those of us who have kids) — with all the important things that command our attention. As we grow older, though — and especially as we move through retirement — our lives start to look a lot less like a rapidly-growing tree and more like the gradual accumulation of humus.

When my mother was still living and in reasonably good health, we used to visit her at the Harrogate retirement community where she lived. Oftentimes we’d have dinner with her in the large dining hall. We got to know some of the other residents — all people who had done interesting things in their younger years, who had excelled at their careers and professions. Now, though — in retirement — they were just people. Their professional certifications, their position in the company hierarchy, even the work they’d once done raising children or keeping a house, didn’t matter so much anymore. Such occupations were cherished memories, but no longer an essential part of daily life. What mattered most now was relationships: friends and family and conversations around those dinner tables.

Dinner at Harrogate was often a long, extended affair. Nobody was in a hurry to get anywhere.

It’s going to happen to all of us, one day. The aspects of life we so greatly value today will become less so. New priorities will take their place, as the humus grows thicker on the forest floor.

*****

There’s an old story about a group of college friends who got together one day and visited their old campus. Together they arranged a visit with a favorite philosophy professor, now retired.

He invited them into his home. These college graduates — all of them highly successful — began talking with one another about the many stresses they were experiencing in their work and personal life.

The professor got up and went into his kitchen, where he’d set some coffee to brewing. A few moments later he came out with a tray that held a pot of coffee, along with an assortment of different cups.

The coffee cups were of all different types: some porcelain, some plastic, some glass. Some of the cups were chipped and plain-looking, others expensive bone china cups and saucers.

“Help yourselves to coffee,” said the professor.

Once everyone had a cup in hand, the professor said this: “I noticed all of you reached for the most elegant cup you could find — leaving the plain and cheap ones behind on the tray. This is no surprise: everyone wants the best for themselves. But consider this: such decisions are the source of the problems and stress you’ve all been complaining about.”

“What each of you most wanted was the coffee, not the cup — which is always the same, no matter what cup it’s in. But you reached for the best cups, anyway. Some of you were even eyeing each other’s cups. What I hope you will come to learn is that life is the coffee: and the jobs, money and social position are just the cups. They are but tools to hold and contain life. The choice of one cup over another does not change the quality of life. That is God’s gift, given to us to enjoy!”

*****

Always there is the temptation to introduce distinctions between one child of God and another, to draw comparisons, to arrogantly consider ourselves as better than others (or, on the flip side, to fear we are not so). Such is not God’s way. God’s way is love, that flourishes most where there is humility.

Copyright © 2016, by Carlos E. Wilton. All rights reserved.