The Christian Ego and How It Affects Our Witness

eGO

Have you heard about the two egotists fighting? It was an “I” for an “I”. (Corn alert!) I’ll have you know, any good egotist will want to hear the truth, no matter how flattering it is! No, really. There is but one good thing we can say for the egotist; you’ll never hear him talking about anyone… else.

We all know the egotistical type. He is one who has an inflated sense of self-esteem, and who thinks more highly or often of himself than he should. I want to enhance our understanding of the word ego for the purpose of using it to identify a problem that Christians can grapple with, more often unknowingly.  Our issue is the dreadful Christian ego.

(Click here to listen to the audio message: The Christian Ego and How It Affects Our Witness)

Sigmund Freud’s Id, Ego and Superego
In the science of psychology, the psyche or human consciousness is divided into three distinguishable parts: the id, ego and superego. These three are not actual locations in the human brain, but entirely separate functions of human consciousness. Here they are defined:

  • Id: The subconscious man, the realm of your innate urges and desires.
  • Ego: The conscious part of our psyche that moderates between our id (the inner man and his desires) and the outside world or reality. The ego is the realm of choices and decisions.
  • SUPERego: The super you, your conscience that holds to ideals, morals, convictions, standards, and to God. The SUPERego tells the ego what is right or morally acceptable, and attempts to hold back the base and sometimes animal desires of the id.

The ego barters between the id (subconscious desires) and the superego (or the moral you), to make choices about how you will engage the real world around you.

This I share simply to establish an etymology of the word ego, which is used more commonly in a different light. Ego… as it is understood in our modern culture, is a persona. There’s the real me – my inner man with all of my deepest desires, thoughts, and struggles. Then, there’s my ego (an extension of me) the persona that I create. This I project to buffer myself from the real world as well as protect the real world from myself. Crafted by my choice in dress, self-presentation, social choices and behaviors, it is my self-created identity – informed by how I wish to be perceived by others.

We all have an ego which is not a bad thing. Generally, it serves to protect the world from our unfiltered self! If we unleashed every thought and urge on our surroundings, imagine the mess we would create! Surely fewer would love and admire us. Our ego also serves to enhance our identity and to boost our self-esteem. Projecting the best possible version of ourselves to the world does not make us an egotist, but a self-aware and world-aware human being. That’s not a bad thing.

The EGO becomes problematic when:

  1. One spends too much effort on creating and maintaining his ego.
  2. One becomes angry because something or someone threatens the image he is trying to project.
  3. One chooses to hide behind the ego, rather than to be authentic in his real world interactions.

An overdeveloped sense of ego will always cause a disconnect in our relationships. One can use his ego as a surrogate to engage the world, opting to forgo intimacy with others. If so, people will constantly bump up against the ego (persona) feeling that they cannot deeply connect with the real person. Have you ever had a relationship with someone you felt did not allow you to draw close? You may have shared a laugh or great experiences, however, you never felt that he or she allowed you to see the real person behind the eyes? No doubt, you were bumping up against his or her ego/persona! People use their egos in relationships, (1) to keep others from hurting them, (2) to protect others from themselves (3) or to shamefully hide brokenness or inferiority from being discovered. Perhaps this explains the rarity of true emotional connectedness or intimacy among personal relationships. 

Enter the problem that the church is having in connecting with the world…

May I suggest that the church, (we the people called the church) are failing to make a meaningful, impactful connection with others (both within and without our organization) because our ego, our religious persona gets in the way?

Being a Christian, as our church culture defines “Christianity” places a certain set of expectations on us, or requirements for behaviors that help shape our identity. Over and above the commands of Christ to love and serve God and fellow-man… each religious group has its own set of written and unwritten rules of association. This is the mold each denomination or fellowship uses when crafting followers. Sit in any local steak house after a Sunday morning service, and no doubt, you’ll be able to identify what denomination or fellowship each Christian belongs to simply by their:

  • clothing,
  • hairstyle,
  • makeup or lack thereof,
  • demeanor,
  • conversation,
  • interactions with their kids, spouses,
  • the vehicle they arrive in

You know it’s true. Every group (religious or secular) has exterior tells that inform us as to the collective ego or collective persona that group wishes to project. More than just the exteriors, there is an ideological persona that comes with the packaging of a collective ego of a group or organization.

  • The ideas of that group or the collective ego, are set by the most vocal and influential members of the group.
  • At best, those ideas are motivated by devotion to God and the desire for goodness.
  • At worst, they can be motivated by a desire for influence and prestige within a human hierarchy of power.

The design of the collective ego is to have a definite influence on the individual egos within the organization. Not always are collective and individual egos within that collective, identical. Depending on how “devout” the individual is, his ego may only in part resemble the collective. Hypocrisy can enter into our lives on one of two levels:

1. Hypocrisy develops whenever who we are collectively differs greatly from who we are individually.

  • Does my corporate life here at church correspond to that of my individual life and pursuits?
  • Does how I behave in the collective, mirror how I behave on my own?
  • Do I project the same persona when I’m among you all, as I do when I am alone?

2. Hypocrisy can also develop if my true self differs greatly from the individual ego I project. 

  • Does who I am closely align with who I project myself to be as an individual.
  • Does my inner man’s desires match the pursuits of my individual ego?
  • Do the values I live by, mirror the values I supposedly live by and suggest others should live by?

Hypocrisy is the layman’s term for the disconnect that happens between the real self and the projected self.
Hypocrisy is always tied to ego.

This inner conflict of hypocrisy causes such negative feelings that have a way of putrefying our existence. Hypocrisy’s rottenness (and the self-loathing it inspires) makes us unpalatable to others. Have you noticed there are some Christians who, the moment they start to share their faith, repulse others? Conversely, there are some Christians who can walk among any group of people, believing or unbelieving, and immediately be received and respected? It’s as though they have some wide appeal across cultural barriers, and are effective in communicating their beliefs with other reasonable human beings.

As a young woman involved in missions, I served on a team where one of our team leaders was this guy.. this Christian. William was a lawyer by trade who was passionate about communicating his faith with others. He took a short-term missions assignment with his personal vacation time, leading our student group. His example has remained with me after all these years.

William was funny, sometimes silly… and used words that weren’t in the mission manual to describe his connection to God and others. He was disarming and brought down your defenses, so that you felt safe to converse honestly with him. How did he accomplish this? First, his verbal skill set as a lawyer certainly came into play… but more importantly, he lived in a very non-religious world primarily. His vocabulary was less “Christian-ese” and more real-world centric. When he spoke of his faith, it was with terms that the non-believer could easily interpret. Above that… William was “real”. It seemed as though he had no ego or persona to hide behind. He enjoyed life and people, making himself available for us to enjoy. There were laughs, jokes as well as tearful and emotionally intimate moments. I had the feel when he spoke, that he wasn’t filtering or putting on a religious front. Genuine connection happened with him – and that made him one of the most remarkable people I have ever met. His effectiveness with the team spilled over into our outreach, where we watched him genuinely connect with perfect strangers on the corner of city streets.

And the most famous example of a Christian with ego in check, is Christ himself. He was popular. Multitudes sought him for his wisdom and his wonders. The disciples he mostly closely interacted with loved him more than those who followed from afar. This they proved by ultimately dying for him. There was no disconnect between his inner man, and the persona he maintained – thus securing the admiration and loyalty of many.

Interestingly, Jesus had no problem offending the collective ego, or the collective persona of the Israelite faith (as informed by the Pharisees). This he did whenever the collective persona came in conflict with his own personal identity. Jesus said in Matthew 11:29 KJV,

Take my yoke upon you, and learn of me; for I am meek and lowly in heart: and ye shall find rest unto your souls.”

Jesus was suggesting that his yoke was meek or humble, while the collective religious order was not. Humility of heart always produces an easy yoke while ego requires meticulous observation. Jesus promised that those who served alongside him, would not be enslaved by the same unrealistic expectations of the religious order. This freedom or rest of soul was attractive to the disenfranchised. One who embraced his yoke would live his life in the same joyous fellowship with God that Christ shared. Jesus’ ego, his identity, and persona was shaped by that inner life, rather than by a set of expectations put on him by the religious subset of his day.

As a result, the people who interacted with him felt like they were seeing and talking to the real Jesus, and not bumping up against some religious persona or ego, shaped by the religious status quo. They felt instantly connected to him.  Unlike the keepers of the system, he was willing to be personal with his disciples. Likely, Jesus was the realest encounter they had ever had.

The Apostle Paul also had his ego in check.
Paul knew how to preach the true gospel, the highest of ideals and yet relate personally as a flawed BUT hopeful human being. Remember his discourse in Romans Chapter 7 on what a wretched and sinful man that he was, longing for the freedom of the afterlife? Whenever we talk in high terms and ideals, and fail to acknowledge the reality of our flawed humanness, we come across as pretentious and condescending. Like the Apostle Paul, the most effective communicators are quite skillful in saying:

  • The deity of God and His ideals are high and lofty. His purposes are superior to our own.
  • Although I aspire to the ideal, I fall far below it.
  • The gospel or good news, is that Jesus (the only perfect and holy one) is letting me ride his coattails on this journey. While I’m riding, He is showing me a better way to live.
  • I don’t deserve Christ’s mercy, patience or righteousness… but He offers it to me and to all who will receive it, anyway.

Paul wrote in Romans 12:3 NIV (parentheses added for emphasis)  “For I say, through the grace given unto me, to every man that is among you, not to think of himself more highly than he ought to think; but to think soberly (moderately, honestly without being blinded by the deception of our ego), according as God hath dealt to every man the measure of faith.”

Exemplifying his sober estimation of self, Paul wrote in 1 Timothy 1:16 NIV “But for that very reason I was shown mercy so that in me, the worst of sinners, Christ Jesus might display his immense patience as an example for those who would believe in him and receive eternal life.”

And again in Ephesians 3:8 NIV “Although I am less than the least of all the Lord’s people, this grace was given me: to preach to the Gentiles the boundless riches of Christ.”

Talk about a sober and humble estimation of oneself! He was not feigning! Without the grace of God enlightening him and empowering him, Paul knew he was nothing. The only thing great about him was the grace of God at work through him. To this end, Paul was well received by many peoples and nations. His persuasive powers helped to establish churches in the gentile nations – and almost converted the unbelieving King Agrippa.

The Key to Success
The key to our success in connecting with our world lies in maintaining a balanced presentation of the ideal and the reality of who we are. We must take the mindset of the Apostle John who wrote to fellow believers in 1 John 1:8 NIV “If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness. The authentic believer is in need of acknowledging and confessing latent sin as it comes to light. The knowledge of ever-present sin challenges an inflated Christian ego.

How do we keep the Christian ego in check seeing it repels others? We keep several things in mind.

  1. Sin is always present. I have not arrived. In the words of Paul in Phil 3:12 NIV “Not that I have already obtained all this, or have already arrived at my goal, but I press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me.”
  2. I could be wrong. While there are nonnegotiables, there are many things that I may have a skewed understanding of. Even if I am theologically correct in my belief, I could still easily be wrong in my attitude about the thing.
  3. Connection is critical. It doesn’t matter how right, hip or cool I am. If I am unable to connect, emotionally unavailable or somehow unwilling to be transparent with someone, my ego is getting in the way and keeping me from being an impactful Christian.

The opposite of ego is humility. In light of this post’s definition of ego, I’d also like to add this. The opposite of ego is authenticity… or vulnerabilityOne definition of authenticity is that which faithfully resembles an original. When it comes to our ego, we have to ask “does it resemble the original me, the inner me?” Vulnerability simply means to be without defense. If the Christian ego is that buffer or defense between the real us and the outside world, it most certainly is the enemy of authenticity or connection.

May we press past the collective ego, past the inflated individual ego, to connect with our world in gloriously meaningful ways. Without this connection, we’ll never affect lasting and righteous change.

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9 thoughts on “The Christian Ego and How It Affects Our Witness

  1. You are so very wise to be able to understand how all this works in us. I know many are checking them self while reading this. I told our pastor when we were bouncing thoughts off each other. Well God knows who I am and how He can use me. I am willing. But I don’t want to be fake. It has taken all my life to be OK with who I am, so as long as I am growing and learning, then its all good. I thought maybe a music ministry would have been my calling but He had other plans. I Love God and I Love people. I don’t always love what people do, but I don’t always love what I do either. He’s Alive is a very special place where many lives find positive change.

  2. I don’t think you can separate this whole discussion from the road where we come to the end of ourselves. The mindset of “O wretched man that I am” precedes this authentic state of a Christian no longer trying to live by their own means. It’s really all related to not knowing how to live for God and dealing with our flesh. Personally I cannot understand anyone who claims to be a Christian and has never realized their wretchedness. All I’m saying is that there is a continuing process in the life of the believer to get us to rely on God. This includes seasons where we realize to some degree that we are wretched and still have a problem of relying on ourselves. This is really what eliminates the ego and control we try to maintain because were somewhat scared of an area of inferiority in our life.

    …and then again sometimes I just get tired of all the psychological stuff and agree with the mindset of Jimmy Swaggart. One time he said according to the world of modern psychology and all that gross stupidity, my wife and I should be basket cases! Were not because the Holy Ghost has kept us!

    • Well spoken Andrew! We have to come to an end of ourselves before we can truly live the life Christ died to give us. What did He say but, “He who loses his life for My sake shall find it”. I find that I become my worst enemy when I try to figure everything out with my mind, and I just have to let go and let God otherwise I will just drive myself nuts all the time.

    • Andrew,
      Your thoughts are well-communicated and received. The end of ourselves will never be exhausted until we ultimately check out of this world and into the next. Paul makes that case well. As for growing weary of the psychological stuff… I hear you. As a spirit-filled believer with some history in psychology, I find the fusion of psychology and faith quite illuminating. To me, it is not necessarily a secular science as any truth originates from God. In studying psychology, I see veins of thought that find their origin in the mind of God. Not all is redeemable, obviously. However, what is… is worthy of bringing to our attention.

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