What do Jesus & Hitler have in common?
Contemporary Christians too often lack the resources to resist or even name evil. I have learned from scripture, the desert fathers, and even the Harry Potter novels that evil must not be taken lightly. A classic resource that many people, myself included, have found helpful is M. Scott Peck’s People of the Lie.
In an especially helpful section of chapter 3, Peck differentiates between the normal, even healthy, narcissism of functional adults and the “malignant narcissism” of the evil. For the author the difference between these two kinds of narcissism is that the evil have “an unsubmitted will.”
He goes on to elaborate:
The reader will be struck by the extraordinary willfulness of evil people. They are men and women of obviously strong will, determined to have their own way. There is a remarkable power in the manner in which they attempt to control others […] Indeed, it is almost tempting to think that the problem of evil lies in the will itself. Perhaps the evil are born so inherently strong-willed that it is impossible for them ever to submit their will. Yet I think it is characteristic of all “great” people that they are extremely strong-willed – whether their greatness be for good or for evil. The strong will – the power and authority – of Jesus radiates from the Gospels, just as Hitler’s did from Mein Kampf. But Jesus’ will was that of his Father, and Hitler’s was that of his own. The crucial distinction is between “willingness and willfulness.” (78-79)
Jesus and Hitler: both people of conviction, of strong will. But ultimately Hitler’s will served nothing but his own maniacal ego, and Jesus’ will was forfeit to the Father. “Not my will, but yours be done,” as he prayed in Luke 22:42.
In mixed martial arts parlance – and much to the chagrin of many Macho Jesus types – Jesus “tapped.” That is, he surrendered his own will out of obedience to the Father. Though surely plagued by the desire to preserve himself from torment, as the heavily fictionalized Jesus of The Last Temptation of Christ so aptly demonstrated, the Son of God ultimately submitted.
The malignant narcissist’s “unsubmitted” will, however, is precisely the opposite. He or she desires the world to bend to their will. All who refuse to submit must be destroyed, one way or the other. This is evil unalloyed.
Submission is a nearly extinct virtue, not merely in today’s culture but even in the church who worships Christ as King and Lord. Thomas a’ Kempis, the devout monk who left us one of the great devotional classics of all time in The Imitation of Christ, devotes a whole chapter (9) to obedience and submission. Here we find this refreshingly counter-cultural wisdom:
There is greater security in living a life of submission than there is in exercising authority. Many live under obedience, more out of necessity than out of love of God, and they murmur and complain in their discontent. These will never achieve spiritual freedom until, for the love of God, they submit themselves with all their heart.
I can already hear the familiar litany of late-modern warnings against such archaic virtues. (Feel free to leave them in the comments section anyway.)
However unpopular in our day and untested in our experience, submission to God is the way of Christ, the narrow way that leads to life. All else is the way to death, even if it be a wide and easy path that passes through Vanity Fair on the way. In the end, there is only “Thy will be done” or “my will be done.” And while a baptized willfullness is a recipe for sainthood, Peck’s “unsubmitted will” is little more than embryonic evil.
A prayer from the heart of the Wesleyan tradition brings this home beautifully. I’ll close with this prayer, used in Covenant Renewal and Watch Night services for centuries, in hopes that the embers of long-dormant virtues might be kindled in me and in my fellow disciples today.
I am no longer my own, but thine.
Put me to what thou wilt, rank me with whom thou wilt.
Put me to doing, put me to suffering.
Let me be employed for thee or laid aside for thee,
exalted for thee or brought low for thee.
Let me be full, let me be empty.
Let me have all things, let me have nothing.
I freely and heartily yield all things to thy pleasure and disposal.
And now, O glorious and blessed God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit,
thou art mine, and I am thine.
So be it.
And the covenant which I have made on earth,
let it be ratified in heaven.