Narcissist Traits – They Have A Tendency Toward “Legalism” (Pharisee Case Study)

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Matthew 23:23-28

23 “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint and dill and cummin, and have neglected the weightier provisions of the law: justice and mercy and faithfulness; but these are the things you should have done without neglecting the others. 24 You blind guides, who strain out a gnat and swallow a camel!

25 “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you clean the outside of the cup and of the dish, but inside they are full of robbery and self-indulgence. 26 You blind Pharisee, first clean the inside of the cup and of the dish, so that the outside of it may become clean also.

27 “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you are like whitewashed tombs which on the outside appear beautiful, but inside they are full of dead men’s bones and all uncleanness. 28 So you, too, outwardly appear righteous to men, but inwardly you are full of hypocrisy and lawlessness.

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See here and here on how we know that the scribes and Pharisees are a case study in narcissism

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Legalism is a focus on technical, outward conformance to a standard without regard for the spirit of the standard.  Legalistic people may adjust to comply with the external standard, while neglecting, ignoring, or outright rejecting any changes needed to their core heart attitutde.  The Pharisees were “legalistic” – they were focused on outward compliance with the rules (God’s law plus the ones they made up) rather than on being righteous on the inside.  But God had made it clear from the early days of their people that the focus should be on their hearts:

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Deuteronomy 6:4-6

“Hear, O Israel! The Lord is our God, the Lord is one! You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might.These words, which I am commanding you today, shall be on your heart…….

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The scribes and Pharisees knew that commandment, as shown by the lawyer’s response to Jesus’ question…..

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Luke 10:25-28

25 And a lawyer stood up and put Him to the test, saying, “Teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?” 26 And He said to him, “What is written in the Law? How does it read to you?” 27 And he answered, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself.” 28 And He said to him, “You have answered correctly; do this and you will live.”

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The Pharisees’ focus on hyper-compliance to the technicalities of the law allowed them (in their own minds) to ignore what was going on in their hearts.   But this hyper-compliance also allowed Legalists to argue that their technical compliance (“ie – their “righteousness”) was “good enough”.  This resulted in pride in the fact that they were compliant, judging others for their “lack of compliance”, with a total neglect about what the rule was all about – all at the expense of what God really wanted.

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As the Pharisees illustrated, narcissists tend toward legalism – focused on keeping a select set of rules (which they have chosen to be the “important ones”), and proudly looking down on others for not keeping those rules as well as they do.  They will aggressively argue with others why the rules they have created or selected are the important ones.  This is all to allow them to maintain their superiority to others, while ignoring the lack of love for God and for others in their hearts.

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More on the Pharisees’ legalism…..

From Stephen J Cole @ https://bible.org/seriespage/lesson-57-why-jesus-hates-legalism-luke-1137-54

So, what is legalism? Legalism is an attempt to gain favor with God or to impress our fellow man by doing certain things (or avoiding other things), without regard to the condition of our hearts before God. At the root of legalism is the sin of pride, because the legalist thinks that he is able to commend himself to God by his own good deeds. Invariably, he is only looking at externals, not at his heart. Also, the legalist’s pride motivates him to exalt himself in the sight of others by his outward behavior, again neglecting to see the corruption of his own heart. Thus legalism denies human depravity and exalts human ability. As such, it is opposed to the gospel of God’s grace. That’s why both Jesus and Paul clashed with the legalists.

Jesus hates legalism because it does not deal with the condition of our hearts before God.

Christianity is primarily a matter of the heart. Everything flows from a heart relationship with God, who transforms our hearts when He regenerates us. The Jewish religious leaders seemingly were seeking after God, but in reality they were self-seeking. They didn’t see themselves as sinners in need of a Savior. They saw themselves as good people because they kept the Law. But in reality, they didn’t keep the Law because they didn’t apply it on the heart level. Thus, Jesus in effect said that if they would be as careful about clean hearts as they were about clean hands, then they would be what they ought to be.

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For more on the gateway to knowing God personally (rather than just a focus on the rules of Christianity), see here

For more on grace versus legalism, see here

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  • Narcissism is the modern colloquial term for what the Bible calls “insolent pride” – see here

2 responses

  1. Just want to say a BIG thank you for all your research! I’ve been reading your website since last April when the lightbulb finally went on in my head after 62 years that I was dealing with a Narcissistic older sister. I’ve always known something was terribly wrong, but as Christians, we tend to go on naively thinking we’re not being loving enough, or forgiving enough, or whatever enough, until suddenly after being 1,000 miles away from her and not in close contact for 3 years, my husband and I saw behaviors that totally baffled us, especially coming from a professing Christian who teaches a woman’s Bible study and is involved in two intercessory prayer groups. When I confronted her, following teachings from a peacekeeping book, she blew up and then gave me a very hollow apology but insisted that I was the one with the problem, and has swept it under the rug, as if nothing ever happened. Thankfully, my husband was witness to it all and saw it clearly, as well. It helps so much to have people who believe the sufferers of the abuse. That’s why your website is SO needed, especially for Christians who are trying to come out of it and deal with it in a Scriptural way. Keep up the great work—I don’t think the Church realizes what a serious problem this is!!! Sincerely, CW

    • Thanks so much for your encouragement. I am currently working on the more difficult questions of why God allows this, and how N’s got that way. This study has been personally very helpful to myself as well.

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