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The Martyr Complex

By July 7, 20083 Comments

Several years ago I got into one of those messy, girl versus girl situations in which I was intentionally excluded from my friend group. I won’t go into the details, but let’s just say it was ugly. I lost sleep, I lost weight, and I was depressed as a result. My self-esteem suffered horribly, and it took me a long time before I got over it. Even now, I sometimes think about those girls and feel angry, years later.

When I was going through all of that, I found a lot of solice in my relationship with Christ. I looked at his life and I saw that he was rejected too. Jesus had also been rejected by his friends, and at a time when he needed them most. Jesus knew how I was feeling, and that knowledge comforted me. In being rejected, I was actually in good company. In fact, my rejection made me even more like Christ, I thought.

That is one of the beautiful things about the Gospel. It provides us with light and hope when our circumstances are darkest. When we feel most alone, we remember that the savior of the world, God’s perfect son, was also scorned by those he cared for most. And when we remember this, we feel less lonely.

What a comfort in a world that frequently betrays us! Even our Christian friends will let us down and hurt us. Sometimes intentionally. And in those moments, the Gospel speaks a prophetic message of redemption and strength.

However, there are times when we twist this Gospel message to say something that it does not. Christians adopt a kind of martyr complex in which they will take any form of rejection as spiritual validation. If people hate me, then I must be doing something right because people hated Jesus. If my church disagrees with me, then my theology is probably correct since the religious rulers of Jesus’ day disagreed with him too. We see ourselves as a kind of valiant martyr that is resisting the powers that be in the name of Christ.

The problem with this thinking is that it easily allows us to deceive ourselves. Instead of examining the nature of our rejection, we immediately exalt ourselves as being all the more Christlike. Nevermind that your friends may be distancing themselves from you because you have an anger problem, and nevermind that your church asked you to leave because you were committing adultery–you were rejected, and you are therefore in the company of Christ!

This can happen when we confuse rejection with church discipline. If someone is preaching heresy, or engaging in unrepentant sin, then it is the church’s prerogative to exercise church discipline on behalf of the larger body. If the individual refuses to change, then Scripture is clear on this point–we are to remove the yeast from the dough before it ruins the entire batch. And assuming the discipline is handled in a loving, Scriptural way, this kind of “rejection” does not put the individual in the company of Christ. In fact, it’s somewhat the opposite.

That said, beware of Christians who are always talking about how they don’t fit in with other Christians and have been rejected by the church. While it is entirely possible that they’ve been treated unfairly, it’s also possible that they are consumed by a poisonous individualism that leads them to rebel against godly authority. Question why they have been rejected, and see if it holds up with Scripture. Rejection is never a virtue in and of itself.

And in your own life, don’t be so quick to make yourself a martyr. If someone treats you poorly or rejects you in some way, first consider if you have done anything to provoke it. Perhaps you were a bad friend, perhaps you were caught in a lie, or you have a reputation for gossiping. Or perhaps you are living or teaching in a way that undermines Scripture and sound doctrine. No matter the situation, remember that the Church is the Spirit-infused Body of Christ, placed on earth to discern and edify Jesus’ followers. Given that fact, I would not be so quick to consider my rejection from it as a badge of honor. At times, yes (Martin Luther can attest to that!) but frequently it is our pride that will not allow us to be wrong.

Some rejection is unscriptural, and we must name it as such, but those abuses should not disqualify all forms of “rejection” as being antithetical to Christ. Remember, Jesus himself told us that some will hear the un-inclusive words “Depart from me, I do not know you.” Will we have the humility to discern when rejection is wrong, and when we have earned it? What’s more, will we choose to bear the burden of reconciliation on our own shoulders, rather than pointing a finger of blame at someone else? That action on our own part, not rejection from others, is what puts us in the company of Christ.


  • Ike says:

    This, as I see it, gets to the heart of Paul Message to the Corinthians in I Cor. 8:1 “Knowledge puffs up, but Love builds up.” Obviously here, he is addressing the issue of eating meat sacrificed to Idols, but what stands behind it all is an issue of arrogance. “Unlike others who are of weaker faith, I have such great faith that I know I can eat this meat and it will be of no detriment to me.”

    When we are rejected we assume this same arrogance, “If only they KNEW what I KNOW!”

    What is problematic is that for the rejected individual, their focus has remained on themselves, they have been puffed up by their knowledge. The question is, When do we sacrifice ourselves for the community? I do not mean compromise; I mean do we offer ourselves in all humility to be evaluated by the body of Christ? In this way, the body of Christ will be BUILT up until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining the whole measure of the fullness of Christ. (Do not claim Christ’s rejection unless you have also humbly sacrificed yourself for his people)

    One other related comment: We have lost sight of the significance of Christ’s innocence. I would say that we cannot claim Christ’s rejection because we do not possess Christ’s innocence. Christ’s innocence mystified those who rejected him. They did not really know why he needed to be rejected, all they knew was that he MUST be rejected. He was rejected because of his innocence; there was no place for it in this world. Therefore, we can find comfort in knowing that Christ understands our rejection. We cannot find comfort in assuming that we are reliving Christ’s rejection, our sinfulness denies that.

  • Ike says:

    Correction: Paul’s* message

  • Anonymous says:

    Hmmmm, something to think about for sure.


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