Wednesday, May 30, 2007

How Sick Love Hurts

It is axiomatic that it is essential to love oneself in order to love others. The Bible teaches us to "... love our neighbor as thyself." The Bible does not call upon us to negate ourselves. However, when love does not move beyond the self it becomes sick love and will poison relationships.

There is a word for excessive self-love. It is narcissism.

In his last book before he died, Pastoral Psychotherapy, Dr. Carroll A. Wise (who taught and befriended me when I was a graduate student) addressed himself to the problem of narcissism. He speaks of this weakness, which "lies at the root of so many human problems," as "the human need to place self in the center of the universe" and "demand that the universe be revised according to my needs, regardless of the needs of others." It is a problem that appears in the earliest pages of the Bible, and it plays havoc in every life in which it finds cultivation and hospitality. The word "narcissism" comes to our language from a Greek myth, in which a young man by the name of Narcissus fell in love with his own reflection in a pool of water. Narcissism is essentially the habit of relating to others in terms of how they satisfy our needs, with little or no regard for how the relationship effects the welfare of others.

Children in early infancy are completely self-centered. Everyone in an infant’s constellation of relationships exists only in terms of how they relate to his needs. Some people never grow very far beyond infant narcissism. They are emotionally greedy. They relate to everyone out of their own needs. This human characteristic of early infancy, which is so essential to survival, will later destroy us if we are unable to grow beyond it. The opposite of narcissism is clearly pictured in the 13th chapter of I Corinthians which is the beautiful love chapter in the Bible. Thumb through your relationships and see to what degree they are characterized by narcissism. How selfish is your love? If a relationship has strong indications of selfishness in it, and it lacks many of the qualities of love set forth in I Corinthians 13, then it is not very healthy, and is likely hurtful to people who are in your constellation of relationships. When you read the 13th chapter of I Corinthians you will notice at once how very specific it is concerning the nature of love. "Love is patient and kind; love is not jealous or boastful; it is not arrogant or rude. Loves does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice at wrong, but rejoices in the right . . . " You cannot miss or misunderstand the characteristics of love.

Narcissism lies at the root of possessiveness, which is often offered in the name of love. In parent-child relationships it is often expressed in terms of preferential love for one child above other children. The Old Testament book of Genesis gives a classic example of the immediate and the long-term harm of parental possessiveness and preferential love of children. And, at each and every turn of the relationship, it was done in the name of love and under the guise of the child’s best interest; when all the while it was narcissistic selfishness.

The story begins with the birth of Isaac to aging parents, Abraham and Sarah. The harmful effect of the doting love of these two grandparents who became parents becomes evident early in Isaac’s life, but the full effect is not seen until Isaac marries Rebecca and they have twin children. It takes a generation for some problems to come into full bloom. Their names are Jacob and Esau. The Bible says that Rebecca loved Jacob more than Esau; and Isaac loved Esau more than Jacob. In chapters 27-28-29 of Genesis, preference and possessiveness act out their ugly lines in the life of this family of four. It splits the family and the individual persons in the family. Many people fail to see the sickness and harm because the people involved are among our biblical heroes. But the "sometime obedience to God" should not blind us to their failures to one another, and should not blind us to the long term damage it continued to do in the lives of persons in subsequent generations. There is a tendency for parental narcissism to move across generational lines unabated until some person or some experience puts a stop to it.

Most of us remember the continuation of the problems of possessiveness and preferential treatment in Jacob’s family. It was at the root of the problem between Joseph and his brothers. It almost cost Joseph his life – and it did deprive him of his family, and his family of him, for many years. We remember how sick love marred these three generations, but very few people remember (if they ever knew) how the strife between Jacob and Esau was perpetuated in their descendants for hundreds of years.

Hang on and I will give you some interesting biblical history.

The children of Edom, who sprang from Esau, carried on a constant hostility with the descendants of Jacob, who were the tribes of Israel. This quarrel was renewed in one of its bitterest forms many years later, when Moses was leading the children of Israel through the wilderness toward the Promised Land. As you can easily see by studying a map, they had to pass through the land of Edom before they could get to Palestine. Remember, the land of Edom is the land of the descendants of Esau, and the people of Israel are the descendants of Jacob. When Moses came to the edge of that land of Edom, (as recorded in the 20th chapter of Numbers) he sent messengers to the King of Edom, telling him how they had been in slavery, and how they had escaped, and they were on their way to the Promised Land. He begged permission to pass through Edom. He promised that they would not trespass on field or vineyard, nor drink from their wells, but would keep to the King’s highway. He implored them saying: "We are your brother Israel." What a gracious and brotherly appeal. You would have thought they would have forgotten by now, but the King of Edom said: "You shall not cross our land, and if you do we will march out and attack you" (Numbers 20:18). Moses sent a second message pleading and offering to pay for any damages they might do. But the descendants of Esau said to the descendants of Jacob: "You shall not pass through our land," and they put a large army in the field to enforce it. Can you imagine sick love being the source of all that? There is more!!

Hundreds of years later, when the Babylonians attacked Judea and Jerusalem, the Edomites were not involved, but they cheered for the Babylonians and urged them to destroy Jerusalem. There is that strange line in Psalm 137 where the Psalmist in exile in Babylonia wrote: "Remember, O Lord, against the people of Edom the day of Jerusalem’s fall, when they said ‘down with it, down with it, down to its very foundations’" (Psalm 137:7). It is all there in the Bible. The strife between Jacob and Esau was still going on a thousand years after it took place. They are the "Hatfields and the McCoys" of the Bible.

Sick love can have a long-term ripple effect that hurts for generations. Beware!

AN ENCOURAGING WORD for May 31, 2007 - written by Dr. Thomas Lane Butts, Pastor Emeritus, Monroeville First United Methodist Church

For more from Dr. Jim Savage:
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