rue faith in Christ demands a change of focus and orientation. The Scriptures envision a life that includes self-renunciation. The heart, and its ordering, is central to this. “Keep your heart with all vigilance,” says Proverbs 4:23, “for from it flow the springs of life” (ESV). The scriptural understanding of the heart’s “fallen” bent or orientation calls us to be careful in monitoring what it is that captivates and then captures our hearts.
As Ken Boa often points out, in line with Augustine long before him, the central call of Scripture is to love God supremely, to learn to love him correctly, and to love others practically. The Christian life is a love story, and the struggle of existence, if you will, is over who, what, and how we love (see Matt. 22:36–40; John 13:34–35). St. Paul reminds the young Timothy that the goal of his ministry is love “that issues from a pure heart and a good conscience and a sincere faith” (1 Tim. 1:5 ESV). In light of this, and other clear teachings of Scripture, the exhortation of the Proverbs to keep or guard our hearts is a serious warning and a vital, timeless concern.
Luke records Jesus’ central teaching in terms of self-denial. “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will save it” (Luke 9:23–24 ESV; see also Luke 14). As Dallas Willard has pointed out, self-denial is a key element of spiritual formation. With this in mind, let’s consider our cultural moment—its dominant mood and the difficulties it creates for such a vision of discipleship—in light of the Greek legend that tells the tragic story of Narcissus.
A Legendary Mind-Set
Known for his handsome features, Narcissus was oblivious to others; he scorned or ignored the people around him. When someone angrily lashed out, “May he who loves not others love himself,” something like a curse fell on Narcissus: he became fixated by his own reflection in a pool of water. Gazing in adoration at his own beauty and magnificence, he was unable to hear Echo’s call, until eventually he fell into the pool and drowned. Narcissus died a lonely, self-absorbed death, consumed in the end by his own self-infatuation.
As we move from ancient mythology to modern times, we note that the past two hundred years in Western cultures have shown an increasing focus on the place of the individual, the role of choice, and the “demand” to be personally happy at whatever cost. Moral and social restraints have been rejected, weakened, or targeted as instruments of oppression. Looking good and feeling good has replaced being good and doing good, and most people cannot tell the difference. We’re told that nothing should hinder the life we want. The endless cycles of “reality TV” shows invite us all to a feast of self-absorbed personalities who live to win no matter what. The outcomes, however, are somewhat suspect.
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