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.
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.