Ahab’s Tantrum and the Age of Rage

I have heard this passage, I Kings 21:1-28, mentioned once during a sermon, by way of illustration, though I don’t think that the entire sermon centered on it. I’ve had some remarks prepared for a while on why I think that this is an appropriate passage to preach on today, but the recent riots in London have given me more encouragement that this passage speaks to a real need in our age. After having heard recently several more preachers mention the common passages such as David’s adultery with Bathsheba, the woman ad the well in John 4, and now the rich young ruler, I’m suggesting that this one be given more consideration as one which speaks to a problem nowadays.

The passage is at least as notorious, though not as salacious, as David’s adultery with Bathsheba. Ahab, one of the wickedest kings, if not the wickedest king, that Israel ever knew, makes an offer to buy the vineyard of Naboth, a resident of the city of Jezreel, because it is conveniently located. Naboth refuses, so Ahab become angry and sulks. Ahab’s wife, the notoriously evil Jezebel, find out the reason, and takes action to have Naboth slandered and murdered by false accusation, and Ahab manages to get the vineyard after all. God then pronounces judgment on the life and family of Ahab through Elijah the prophet. For perhaps the only time in his life Ahab demonstrated a humbled, repentant attitude, so God postponed the judgment upon his family and dynasty for a few years.

The first thing to note in the passage is that Ahab makes a plausible offer for the vineyard to obtain it for his personal convenience, of the, “You do this for me, and I’ll do this for you.” This is the kind of offer that takes place many times in businesses and lives, and such negotiations are not in themselves wicked. Under the Old Testament Law family parcels could be ‘sold’, in terms which are more like land rental, and this would not have been wrong in itself, though by the Law the land would have reverted back to Naboth’s family in the year of jubilee. In the northern kingdom of Israel, it is probable, though, that the year of jubilee had never been celebrated, if it had ever actually been put into practice at all in the history of Israel. But in the Israel of Ahab, it is more probable that all land sales were permanent, as when his father purchased the hill of Shemer which became the citadel of the capital city of Samaria (I Kings 16:24).

This then forms the basis of the rebuff of Naboth. He realized that the land was not just his personally, but part of what God had given to his family, as part of their inheritance of the promised land. His refusal may seem abrupt or even rude to modern ears, but it seems to have come from a genuine faith in the God of Israel. For him to have made this assertion, it is well possible that Naboth may have been one of the seven thousand faithful remnant in Israel whom God mentioned to Elijah in 19:18. What is not said is that this would also have entailed his making a deal with Ahab. That Naboth may have also had his doubts about Ahab’s holding up his part of the bargain is not stated, though it is easily understandable that he might also have desired to avoid making a deal with an untrustworthy king. But the emphasis is that his refusal was entirely justified and also the statement of faith by a righteous man.

So then, the refusal of Naboth provoked the tantrum of Ahab, and this tantrum is noteworthy in its childishness. He apparently did not gibber in rage at Naboth – which I’ve seen some selfish and unscrupulous people do when faced with even a mild refusal entirely justified and perhaps even being based upon scripture – but went to his room and refused to eat. This reaction is an example of the type of depression that I’ve seen mentioned in some books by psychiatrists as repressed rage. And I think that there can be a lot of it, and it can actually become an obsession that rules the the lives of some people, when they find themselves faced with not receiving what they want from the church, from other people, from the circumstances of life, and even from God himself. Something or someone has said, “No,” to them, and they cannot stand it.

I think that the repressed rage like that of Ahab is around nowadays in two areas. The first area is that of narcissistic rage and narcissistic misery. This is the rage and disappointment of those who through their monstrous self conceit believe that they are entitled to something that goes along with and reinforces that self conceit. The second is the repressed rage of men in modern society. This has been reported by a number in the psychiatric profession, and it may be more prevalent than many realize, even among men in the church. Simply put, it may be that the unexpressive man of few words, or the man who needs alcohol to become talkative may be dealing with deep rage and disappointment with his wife, family, work and vocation, and other circumstances. And I wonder myself how much of this may become an emotional leakage that helps to fester the rage that erupts in verbal and physical abuse.

To go on with the passage, Jezebel came up with a cowardly and despicable scheme to appease her husband and get the vineyard from Naboth. It often seems that there’s a Jezebel to go with an Ahab, in a marriage where the two are not growing in godliness but partners in crime, so to speak. In the passage it’s clear that from the viewpoint of her pagan background she shared her husband’s sense of entitlement to the property of Naboth. So, through the holy pretense of a day of fasting, she arranges for the slander and murder of Naboth, and for the theft of his family inheritance – three of the ten commandments broken right there.

So, the judgment pronounced by God through Elijah is explicit and terrible. Dogs – not a pet dog but the pariah dogs common to the ancient world —  would lick up Ahab’s blood and devour Jezebel, and the entire dynasty of Ahab would be destroyed. This is actually in addition to the judgment pronounced by another unnamed prophet in 20: 41-43, and also through Micaiah the prophet in 22:17-23. But because Ahab demonstrates repentance in 21:27-29, the full effect upon his own family is postponed. God had already told Elijah about Jehu as one of his instruments of judgment, but Jehu would not be actually anointed king and set about fulfilling the prophecies of judgment on the house of Ahab until II Kings 9. As an aside, this passage explained to me why the commands of God in I Kings 19:15-16 to Elijah to anoint Elisha as his successor, Hazael as king of Aram and Jehu as king of Israel were not completed until II Kings 8 and 9. In terms of geography, Elijah would been closest to Elisha on his return journey from Sinai, so he anoints him first. But the installments of judgment that would come with the anointing of Hazael and Jehu were postponed until later, and may have been delayed in anticipation of the demonstration of repentance by Ahab. If Ahab had not repented, it’s possible that Jehu may have been anointed king much sooner and commissioned to carry out the full judgment of God on the house of Ahab during the lifetime of Ahab.

This passage then shows a different kind of anger than much of what is found in the counsel on forgiveness and refraining from revenge, when one has been the target of the aggression and abuse of another person. Had Naboth lived, and had he lived with the full New Testament teaching on forgiveness, this kind of forgiveness would have been appropriate for him to give to Ahab. That would have been the same kind of forgiveness that Jesus gave to the soldiers who performed his crucifixion, that Stephen gave to his lynch mob in Acts 7 and Corrie ten Boom gave to the guards who had tormented and abused her sister Betsie. It’s very hard to call what Ahab would have justifiably owed to Naboth as forgiveness instead of anger, since Naboth had really done nothing wrong. Naboth had only given Ahab a fully justifiable, “No.” And this is the kind of rage that needs to be addressed much more: the outraged sense of privilege and entitlement. This is the kind of rage that comes from outraged pride and thwarted desires – ego wounds – where the angry person has actually not been wronged. That person may be frustrated, disappointed and outraged, and may disagree with the refusal of their self conceits and desires by either the legitimate no of another person or even of God through circumstances.

This passage also shows a common reaction of others to this kind of tantrum: appeasement. If Ahab had had a wife more like Abigail (I Samuel 25), she most likely would have tried to do something to deflect and assuage his anger, but Jezebel chose the alternative of appeasement that many spouses, parents, brothers, sisters, friends, and even fellow Christians and pastors may choose when they face a person filled with this kind of rage. They will try to get that person what that person wants to make that person feel better. And being entangled in appeasing someone else may well entangle someone in the same judgment of God as the person who is rushing towards judgment in his or her defiance of the explicit will of God.

If I were to preach on this passage, it would not be myself as a prophet of doom on those in the outraged sense of entitlement and privilege – though it would bear saying that the righteous judgment of God will come against those who engage in these kinds of wicked deeds in pursuit of what they feel they deserve from others, from circumstances and from God himself. Rather, I would contrast the conduct of Ahab and Jezebel and the choices that they made that doomed their dynasty with what the New Testament teaches on  humility, contentment, forbearance, and trusting God to supply one’s legitimate needs and desires.

The Diagnostic Problem at the Root of Self Esteem Teaching

Several episodes of the television series M*A*S*H dealt with the problems that the doctors had with treating the disease Korean Hemorrhagic Fever. It was a real disease that troops from the United States and other allied nations faced during the Korean War from 1950 to 1953. In one of the episodes, the doctors were faced with the problem of replenishing bodily fluids from patients during a phase of renal overdrive. They faced court-martial if they used what had proved to be a fatal treatment of administering hypertonic (high salt) intravenous saline solution during this phase. Instead, they found that the correct treatment was to administer isotonic intravenous saline solution – saline at the same concentration as human blood.

This illustrates one part of the problem of the self esteem teachings that have been part of the culture at large and some churches for the better part of a generation. It was based upon the study of abused children, who had been shamed and beaten down emotionally. The treatment was based upon the idea that they had something that was called self esteem that had been damaged. That this also falls under a logical error called the materialistic fallacy, in which an abstract construction of thought –self esteem or, in some works, self image — is treated as a material reality, does not seem to have occurred to them either. The idea is that something that they call self esteem or a self image is an entity which has been damaged, like an arm bruised and damaged from twisting. The remedy was, or so it was thought, to give them lots and lots of self affirmations and to have them learn how to give them back to themselves. Somehow this became trendy to do with children and even adults who had not been in an environment as severely abusive. The unintended consequence was to give many a false sense of self importance.

Instead, the Biblical answer seems to be not to give them or anyone lots and lots of self affirmations. I think that Solomon calls this kind of thing flattery throughout Proverbs, and treats it as a kind of deceit. For myself, I’ve generally preferred a realistic compliment for a job well done or extraordinary effort or a realistic correction for something on which I was mistaken or could have put in more effort. The honesty and respect this entails was always preferable to the often syrupy flattery that the other approach entails. For instance, I can remember a certain pastor who once or twice put his arm around my shoulders and tried to give me some ‘affirmations.’ Though I do not believe that he was malicious, I found this pretty creepy since he barely knew me at the time, and wondered if someone else had put him up to this in some way. I am very glad that within several years I had left that church and went to the Chapel Hill Christian and Missionary Alliance Church in Cuyahoga Falls, Ohio, where I have always felt treated like a respected, responsible adult and brother in Christ.

It’s been documented that these kinds of ‘affirmations’ offered to the abused do not help them but in some way do the opposite. I think that the idea was that abused needed to be provided not with heaping helpings of what others think that they have missed – like the doctors who were giving patients with Korean Hemorrhagic Fever in renal overdrive a hypertonic intravenous saline solution – high amounts of salts — to replace the salts in their blood that they thought needed to be replaced. Rather a more realistic and stable environment of love and respect with realistic doses of truth – like the isotonic saline solution with normal amounts of salts that proved to be the correct treatment – is also the correct treatment for those who have come through an abusive environment.

Certainly what we need to be providing others in our churches and families in our culture at large is realistic love with honest compliments and appreciation and honest corrections. I don’t think that piling it on thick with the ‘affirmations’ offered either to others or to oneself really helps anyone in the long run, and it feeds selfishness, conceit and an odd vulnerability to and craving for more and more flattery. The Bible is actually pretty clear about how the environment of Christian growth is, ‘ . . . speaking the truth in love . . . ‘ (Ephesians 4:15), and not any kind of exaggerated flattery.

Here are some more scriptures that talk about the kind of atmosphere that needs to be fostered. Some of these would make excellent subjects for sermons and teaching (of course as part of the larger context of the passages in which they are contained), and I do not believe that I have ever heard and preaching and teaching which dealt in depth with applying them to our lives.

“Love must be sincere. Hate what is evil; cling to what is good. . . Do not be proud . . . do not be conceited” (Romans 12:9, 16).

“If anyone thinks he is something when he is nothing, he deceives himself. Each one should test his own actions. Then he can take pride in himself, without comparing himself to others” (Galatians 6:2-3).

“Show proper respect to everyone; Love the brotherhood of believers, fear God, honor the king” (I Peter 3:17).

Finally, while an atmosphere of love and respect is something that brothers and sisters in Christ can provide for each other, and parents and siblings can provide within a family, believers in Christ ultimately need to find their satisfaction in their relationship with their heavenly Father through Jesus Christ, “ . . . who has blessed us in the heavenly realms with every spiritual blessing in Christ” (Ephesians 1:3). The knowledge of one’s identity in Christ, what it means to be in that relationship, and God’s goal of transforming us into the likeness of Christ (II Corinthians 3:18), will do more than all the human flattery and ‘affirmations’ that can ever be given within a lifetime. Knowing who you are in the light of the Word of God is reality.

All scripture references taken from the HOLY BIBLE, NEW INTERNATIONAL VERSION, copyright 1973, 1978 by the International Bible Society and used by permission of Zondervan Bible Publishers.

The Epidemic of Narcissism

A few days ago I saw Jean Twenge, author of the Epidemic of Narcissism and The Narcissism Blog on CSPAN/ BookTV. I haven’t read her book yet – it’s still out on loan at the local library.

Here is the link to the Book TV program replay on the Epidemic of Narcissism:

Here is a link to the Google Books preview of the Epidemic of Narcissism. It has most the essential research summarized in the chapters which are quoted: http://books.google.com/books?id=m3YndShMSUUC&printsec=frontcover

Here’s what struck me from what she said:

  • In the World War II generation, there was a small percentage of clinically identified narcissists — about 1.5 to 1.75% identifiable narcissists. Now, if Jean Twenge’s stats are anywhere near accurate, and I believe they are, the proportion would be much larger in the twentysomethings — 10% narcissists.
  • Narcissism seems not to be biologically based. Rather, Twenge traces the rise of narcissism to parenting which is overly praising, under correcting and overly permissive — and the narcissistic behavioral patterns (thinking and acting) are therefore primarily learned. The self esteem movement had a large part to do with this, since it took an unvalidated remedy for low self esteem as a symptom of a small minority of abused and neglected children, and applied it to the population as a whole. It’s interesting that she notes that the usual self affirmations that are used as the remedy usually produce the opposite effect in this small minority.
  • According to Twenge, the bills for this epidemic should be coming due in 10 to 20 years, since that’s the age at which reality starts to hit most narcissists.

Here’s the definition of narcissism from Wikipedia:

Narcissism describes the trait of excessive self-love, based on self-image or ego.

The term is derived from the Greek mythology of Narcissus. Narcissus was a handsome Greek youth who rejected the desperate advances of the nymph Echo. As punishment, he was doomed to fall in love with his own reflection in a pool of water. Unable to consummate his love, Narcissus pined away and changed into a flower that bears his name, the narcissus.

In psychology and psychiatry, excessive narcissism is recognized as a severe personality dysfunction or personality disorder. The terms narcissism, narcissistic, and narcissist are often used as pejoratives, denoting vanity, conceit, egotism or simple selfishness.

Here is the definition of Narcissistic Personality Disorder from Wikipedia:

Narcissistic personality disorder (NPD) is a personality disorder defined by the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, the diagnostic classification system used in the United States, as “a pervasive pattern of grandiosity, need for admiration, and a lack of empathy.” [1]

The narcissist is described as turning inward for gratification rather than depending on others, and as being excessively preoccupied with issues of personal adequacy, power, and prestige.[2] Narcissistic personality disorder is closely linked to self-centeredness. It is also colloquially referred to as “the god complex“.

Here are the generally accepted criteria, also from Wikipedia:

“A pervasive pattern of grandiosity (in fantasy or behavior), need for admiration, and lack of empathy, beginning by early adulthood and present in a variety of contexts, as indicated by five (or more) of the following:[1]

  1. has a grandiose sense of self-importance
  2. is preoccupied with fantasies of unlimited success, power, brilliance, beauty, or ideal love
  3. believes that he or she is “special” and can only be understood by, or should associate with, people (or institutions) who are also “special” or of high status.
  4. requires excessive admiration
  5. has a sense of entitlement
  6. is interpersonally exploitative
  7. lacks empathy
  8. is often envious of others or believes others are envious of him or her
  9. shows arrogant, haughty behaviors or attitudes”

Here is a summary of what is in Sandy Hotchkiss, Why Is It Always about You? The Seven Deadly Sins of Narcissism.

The sins:

  • Shamelessness: The narcissist seems to have a cool indifference at times, and almost seems to be amoral, but in fact has an extreme shame sensitivity, and has extreme reactions to minor incidents.
  • Magical thinking: The narcissist keeps himself or herself pumped up inside with a great deal of distortion, illusion, projection (shame-dumping), and exploitative idealization of others.
  • Arrogance: The narcissist wears the mask of a superiority complex. He or she competes with and degrades and diminishes others to pump himself or herself up and gain the craved admiration from others. Nothing is acceptable about being ordinary or average.
  • Envy: Contempt and disdain for others is constant.
  • Entitlement: There is no mutuality and reciprocity in a relationship with a narcissist. For the narcissist, others exist to meet MY needs, to agree with, flatter, obey and comfort ME. Denial of this by others leads to resentment and rage. The narcissist  additionally harbors unreasonable expectations of favorable treatment and automatic compliance from others apart from any real demonstrations of competence and trustworthiness and actual accomplishments.
  • Exploitation: The narcissist demonstrates no empathy or compassion for others. There is no capacity to identify with or recognize the feelings and needs of others, and the narcissist deceives and manipulates others without regard to their feelings or interests.
  • Bad boundaries: The narcissist constantly violates the boundaries of others, and is extremely intrusive and interfering.

I’m a member of Mensa myself, and those who are Gifted and Talented (GTs) may seem to some to be equivalent to narcissists. Certainly some GTs may be narcissists as well. There are some strong differences, though.

  • Many GTs are unaware of being GT, and do not consider themselves to be superior to others, entitled to special treatment, etc.
  • Many, if not most GTs, can be extraordinarily compassionate, and are more the objects of envy than those who envy.
  • Many, if not most GTs, do not seek excessive admiration but may in fact be quite modest about their accomplishments and shun the limelight.
  • Narcissists often seek to exploit GTs as much as possible. They often seek to take credit for the accomplishments of the GTs, while disdaining and belittling the GTs and their accomplishments, and emulate them in a sickening fashion. They often seek to monitor everything the GTs say and do, and if in a position of authority, brutally micromanage them.
  • Many GTs are nevertheless targeted relentlessly by narcissists even while the narcissists are trying to exploit them, because they threaten the grandiose self assessment and sense of superiority of the narcissists. This targeting is even more relentless and brutal if the GTs either refuse to be exploited or expose the narcissist. The formula: GTs running, narcissists gunning.
  • GTs also tend to be in reality what narcissists believe they are in terms of abilities and accomplishments.
  • Being GT seems to have nothing to do with a parenting style, but rather GTs seem to be born to parents with all varieties of parenting styles.
  • As a proportion of the population, identifiable GTs seem to have remained constant at about 2%, while Jean Twenge’s statistics show about an eight fold increase in narcissists as a proportion of their age group.
  • Narcissists will try to claim to be or try to ‘fake’ being GT, but GTs can be reluctant to identify themselves as GT until after being identified as such on a standard intelligence test.

The implications for the preaching, teaching and counseling ministry of the church, though, are profound. It is surely no accident that this documented increase in clinically identified narcissists also coincides with the lack of preaching and teaching in the church on pride, envy, and arrogance as sins, and the preaching of self esteem by a number of prominent evangelical pastors and leaders.

Dealing with the Tactics of Emotional Abuse

These guidelines were distilled from a number of sources. The tactics of the manipulator are often found in the Bible in the behavior of characters such as Laban, Tobiah, Sanballat, Saul and others who certainly weren’t the ones wearing the ‘white hats.’

1. Note the tactics that the manipulator is using:

  • Denial (whitewashing aggressive actions)

  • Selective inattention (playing dumb or acting oblivious)

  • Rationalization (excuses for inappropriate or harmful behavior)

  • Diversion (changing the subject, dodging the issue, bringing up long past issues)

  • Lying (withholding information, distorting the truth, exaggeration)

  • Covert intimidation (veiled threats to intimidate or silence)

  • Guilt tripping (trying to make the other person feel guilty, playing on that person’s conscience)

  • Shaming (subtle sarcasm and putdowns to induce fear, self doubt in others)

  • Playing the victim role (portraying oneself as the innocent victim of circumstance)

  • Vilifying the victim (putting the victim on the defensive by pretending to be responding to or defending against the aggression of the victim)

  • Playing the servant role (cloaking self serving agenda in the guise of service to a more noble cause)

  • Seduction (charming, praising, flattering or overly supporting others to elicit trust and loyalty)

  • Blameshifting and scapegoating

  • Blindsiding

  • Traps and something for nothing pseudo-exchanges

  • Exaggerations and grandiose self promoting stories

  • Minimization of the pain and hurt to others from his or her behavior

2. Redefine the terms of engagement.

  • Describe what you think that the aggressor wants in this situation and why it may be inappropriate.

  • Describe your own needs and wants in this situation.

  • Describe what personal limits are acceptable to you: what behavior to tolerate and when to take action.

  • List your direct requests (“I want you to . . . “, and “I don’t want you to . . . anymore”), and your requests for direct responses to these requests.

  • List any possible responses (stonewalling or outright refusal, yelling, etc) and counterattacks and your own responses that the aggressor might and could do to avoid perception of losing.

  • List your personal support system.

  • Describe an appropriate win/win solution.

3. Prepare for confrontation:

  • Note any previous body language which signals a deceitful, disdainful and aggressive intent: icy smile, intimidating gestures, invasion of personal space, unnecessarily strident or intense voice demonstrating repressed hostility and/or fear. Plan on responses to these if you understand what they signal.

  • Make the inappropriate behavior the issue.

  • Keep the weight of responsibility on the aggressor for behavioral change.

  • Keep the aggressor aware that aggressive tactics will not work.

  • Avoid threats, sarcasm, hostility and putdowns.

  • Use assertive “I” statements to state what you want and need.

  • Stay with the present issue and avoid past issues.

  • Make appropriate, reliable, verifiable and enforceable agreements (win-win if possible).