The Ego: Rival to or Servant of God?

Rabbi Howard Mandell

Congregation Beth Isral

A sermon preached at Trinitarian Congregational Church

I would like to begin, this morning, by offering my sincere thanks and appreciation both to Rev. Knight and to the Trinitarian church leadership and community for inviting me to participate in your Sabbath morning prayer service. Your invitation has even greater meaning to me, because of my warm friendship with Rev. Knight and his family, and because of the deep respect and admiration that I have for the U.C.C. denomination. One reason, among many, for this is the life changing experience that I had several years ago, when I participated in a year-long chaplaincy residency program at Yale university hospital in New Haven. The supervisor of my program, who as time went on became a friend, was a wonderful U.C.C. minister, who taught and helped me to not only hone my chaplaincy skills, but to also strengthen and improve my relationship both with God and with myself.

With Rev. Knight having graciously given me permission to speak on pretty much whatever subject I wanted, I would like to take a moment to explain why I selected the topic that I did: “The ego: rival to, or servant of, God?”

First of all, with each of us having an ego, I figured that this was a subject that would be relevant to all of us here today.  A second reason that I chose to talk about the ego is that Rev. Knight encouraged me to share with you a little about my own personal spiritual journey, and there have been times in my life, when my ego could well be described as “being on steroids.” As I look back, through a more mature and humble lens, I have come to realize that my formerly fragile and inflated ego significantly impaired my ability, on a number of occasions, to achieve something I so badly wanted– a personal and intimate relationship with God.

The following story will hopefully make more clear what I have just shared with you. Prior to my becoming a rabbi, I worked for over 20 years as a civil rights lawyer in Montgomery, Al. I also had the good fortune, as a lawyer, to represent several major league baseball players. With a number of my civil rights cases being high profile in nature, and with athletes and politicians being, for many of us today, the gods, with a small “g”, whom we worship,  my ego very much enjoyed reading about me in the newspaper and watching me being interviewed on television.

Fortunately, I was blessed to have a friend, mentor, and father figure, in Montgomery, who helped keep my ego somewhat grounded and in check. His name was Frank M. Johnson, Jr., and he was a highly respected federal judge, known nationally for his integrity and courage.

With my having clerked for him immediately upon graduating from law school, and with his wife and he serving as Godparents to my two children, I was able to develop a warm and close relationship with him, and he was someone, whose advice I trusted and usually heeded.

On this one particular occasion, I sought his advice about a disagreement that my wife and I were having. After carefully listening to what I had to say, Judge Johnson, who was one of those people, who seemed to have a story for every situation, responded: “Howard, you know that I was raised out in the country in north Alabama, and that my family didn’t have much in the way of money. With my family’s not being able to afford a tractor, my father and I, the two men in the household, had to plough the small plot of land we owned with a wooden plow and two old mules. My dad gave them the names “Fred” and “Phil.”

If Fred were pulling the plow, and I wanted him to turn [I imitated the way judge Johnson moved his hands on the plough], all I needed to do was call out either “left” or “right” and then gently turn the plow in that direction, and he would routinely follow my directions.”

“Phil, on the other hand, gave meaning to the metaphor, “stubborn as a mule”, for no matter how firmly I spoke, no matter how sharply I tried to turn the plow, Phil would fight me, with the ploughing often turning into a battle of the wills.”

“One day”, judge Johnson continued, “I got so frustrated with Phil that, when my father came home from work, I asked him how he was able to get Phil to do what he asked. My father said to me, ‘son, a mule, like Phil, is so stubborn that the only way that you’re going to get him to listen is to ‘hit him on the side of the head with a brick bat.’”  My father then went to the back porch and retrieved the switch that he used. “My father’s concluding words to me that evening were, “Frank, you should be able to understand and connect with Phil, since you’ve got a little of Phil’s stubbornness in you.”

Then, with a big grin on his face, Judge Johnson looked me in the eye and said, “Howard, I’m not the only one with a little “Phil” in him. Your and my egos can cause us to be a stubborn and full of ourselves at times. My advice to you is to go buy your lovely wife some flowers, apologize to her, and then do what she is asking, before someone has to take a brickbat to you!”

I thanked the judge, followed his advice, and the disagreement that seemed so important at the time was soon forgotten.

While the word, “ego”, is bantered around quite a bit in our modern day culture, I think that this would be a good time, before I proceed further, to define exactly how I will be using the word in my sermon this morning. I am going to be using a simple dictionary definition, that being, “ego is the idea or opinion that one has of her/himself, especially as it relates the person’s own importance, intelligence, and ability.”

The need for a one’s having a positive self-image and opinion of oneself cannot be disputed. It is needed, for example, for young adults to separate from their parents and become their own persons, establishing their own priorities and sets of values. And how would our teachers—I know this firsthand from my mother’s having been a 5th grade teacher and my own teaching experience at Merrimack college—be able to keep control and keep the interest of their students without their having a “strong ego”?

And for those among us, whose primary job it is to care for the home and raise a family, how could you possibly be able to successfully carry out your myriad responsibilities, each day, without having a healthy sense of self?

With the ego playing such an important and salutary role in our lives, why is it, then, that most all faith traditions, including our own respective traditions, are highly suspicious of the human “ego”, feeling that it is often an impediment to our being able to connect with and be in a close relationship with God? In fact, in the mystical traditions, it is believed that one must first “annul” the ego and achieve a state of near “ego-lessness”—before one can enter into an intimate relationship with God.

The explanation, I believe, for this healthy distrust of the ego on the part of the Abrahamic religions is that one of the primary functions of the ego is to help us experience ourselves as separate and distinct entities both from our parents and from others. As long as one’s ego is “healthy”, and I will shortly define what I mean by “healthy”, that is, balanced and integrated in nature, the ego is generally not a major obstacle to our connecting to God and to others.

Just as religion has the potential to both great good and great harm, as we have recently seen with groups like “ISIS”, so does the ego. The harm occurs, when our opinion of ourselves and of our self-importance become skewed, leaving us with an inflated an unrealistic sense of self.

That this has become a major concern in our society is reflected in a recent Pew research poll, which found that many Americans, today, in great part because of the significant medical, scientific, and technological advances achieved over the past few decades, now believe that whatever we have achieved and acquired, individually and as a society, is a product solely of human genius, talent, and hard work and is in no way a result of God’s love and grace. What we have done, in effect, as a society, perhaps even without realizing it, has made ourselves “masters of the universe”, leaving little or no room for God.

And with us humans now having made us “the masters of the universe”, what incentive is there for us to want to enter into an intimate relationship with God?

Interestingly, this current “who needs God” phenomenon was anticipated, some 3200 years ago, in one of our scriptural readings for today: chapter 8, verses 11-18 of the book of Deuteronomy.

The speaker is Moses, who, having witnessed first hand how the children of Israel, time and time again, quickly forgot all that God had done for them on their 40 year trek, cautions them, thusly, as they enter the “promised land”:

“Take care lest you forget the lord your God and fail to keep God’s commandments….when you have eaten your fill, and have built fine houses to live in, and your herds and flocks have multiplied, and your silver and gold have increased, and everything you own has prospered, beware lest your heart grow haughty and you forget the Lord your God….and [instead] you say to yourselves, ‘my own power and the might of my own hand have won this wealth for me.’ remember that it is the Lord your God who gives you the power to get wealth, in fulfillment of the covenant that God made on oath with your fathers as is still the case.”

We can learn several important lessons from this scriptural passage. First, that narcissism and arrogance are not just recent phenomena, having been plaguing humankind likely since time immemorial. This passage also teaches, however, that there is nothing inevitable about our possessing these traits. With enough awareness and effort, each of us has the ability to keep our ego in check and make it a source of good and not harm, drawing us closer to and not farther away from God.

Definition of healthy ego. How do I define a “healthy ego”? My definition is derived from our sacred texts–a “healthy ego” is one that seeks to serve God and community, to do God’s will, and to be open to an intimate and loving relationship with God.  In contrast to this, an “unhealthy ego” prefers to freelance and be on its own, usually serving the highest bidder, whether that be power, fame, money, or the self!

As it is with many important goals and aspirations in life, I must concede that it is far easier to define what a “healthy ego” is than for me or any of us to actually develop one. Fortunately, our respective faith traditions provide for us the basic steps needed to reach our goal of achieving a “healthy ego”. For the sake of time this morning, I am going to limit my discussion to 3 of the most important of these steps.

Love of God.   The first and probably most important step that we can take is found in both the Jewish and Christian scriptural texts. In the Hebrew Bible, it is found in the book of Deuteronomy, chapter 6: verse 5, with Moses again being the speaker—“v’ahavtah et adonai elohechah, b’chol l’vav’cha; u’v’chol nafshecha; uv’chol m’oh’decha”. This same verse is found in the Christian Bible, in several of the synoptic gospels, with Jesus being the speaker. In Matthew 22: 36-37, for example, in response to his being asked, “which is the greatest commandment in the law,”, Jesus, quoting Moses, responds, “love the lord your God with all of your heart”—the heart 2,000 years ago was thought to be the center of the intellect, so therefore rationally—“with all of your soul”–that is spiritually—and “with all of your might”, that is, with all of your physical being.

What it means to “love God with all of your heart, soul, and might” is poignantly demonstrated in the following story from an ancient Jewish sacred text.  “One day, a first century rabbi was asked by one of his disciples, “Master, exactly what does it mean for one ‘to love God with all of one’s heart, soul, and might?’” the rabbi responded by sharing the following story about Rabbi Akiva with his student.  Rabbi Akiva was, one of the great first century rabbis in Israel, and, living at the same time as Jesus, I’ve often wondered whether the two of them may have been colleagues, in the same way that Rev. Knight and I are colleagues.

Everyone here this morning is familiar with the Roman punishment of crucifixion. Tragically, this was only one of the barbaric and inhumane ways that the Romans tortured and killed those, whom they feared. Rabbi Akiva continued to teach Judaism to his disciples, even after the Roman emperor made it illegal to do so. As a result, he was arrested by the Romans, and while tied to a stake, was fileted layer by layer by the Roman soldiers, inflicting on him the worst kind of pain imaginable.

As his disciples were standing around him to show their support, one of them asked, “Master, you continue to recite the “sh’ma” over and over again. [the “sh’ma” verse comes from the Hebrew Bible, “Hear O’ Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord is one!”, which verse, in upholding the then novel idea of monotheism, is considered to be a, if not the, basic tenet in Judaism].  “Why do you continue to recite this verse,” the student asked, “when you are slowly dying?”

Rabbi Akiva responded softly, “i have always wondered whether I would ever have the opportunity to truly ‘love God with all of my heart, soul, and might’, and now, as I am dying, I am finally being given the chance to fulfill this commandment’”.  Rabbi Akiva recited the “sh’ma” one last time, and then he died.”

Not only does this powerful story poignantly illustrate what it means to truly “love God”, it has helped me come to realize that there is no greater deterrence to arrogance and an inflated ego than “love of God”.

In my synagogue, the scriptural reading this past week, Leviticus, chapter 19, contained the following ethical teachings:

  1. A farmer should not eat from the crops that he has harvested, until after the choicest crops have first been sacrificed to God and given to the priests and Levites for food in the temple.
  2. “When you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap all the way to the edges of your field, or gather the gleanings of your harvest. You shall not pick your vineyard bare….you shall leave them for the poor and the stranger; I, the Lord, am your God.”

One important lesson taught by these two verses is that what we have and possess, even when it is derived from our own hard work, are gifts and blessings from God and thus do not belong only to us. This makes eminent sense, when one realizes that regardless of how much effort the farmer expends, his efforts would be for naught without the fertile soil, the appropriate amount of rain, the sun, the work of others, etc., all of which are created by God.

Love they neighbor.  A second antidote to an inflated ego is again found in both the Hebrew and the Christian Bibles. [Leviticus 19:18]. In the Hebrew Bible, Moses says—v’ahavtah l’ray’acha k’mocha–and in Matthew 22:39 in the Christian Bible, Jesus informs this same questioner that the second most important commandment is “to love thy neighbor as thyself.”

As we have noted before, while one of the salutary purposes of the ego is to help us shape our own independent identities, an inflated or otherwise unhealthy ego can cause a person to become selfish and self-centered, thus making it difficult, if not impossible, for the person to enter into caring and loving relationships with others and to “love thy neighbor as thyself”.

The verses that we just read together from the book of Leviticus, requiring the farmer to leave a portion of his crops for the poor, were also designed to teach farmers of their responsibility to “love their neighbors as themselves” by caring and providing for the less fortunate in their community.

The prophet Malachi [2:10], the last of the prophets, chronologically, in the Hebrew Bible, asks the following powerful question, “Have we not all one father? Did not one God create us all?” The healthy ego recognizes that, with our all being children created by the same God, we are all, metaphorically speaking, “brothers and sisters”, and for this reason, alone, all of our relationships should be grounded on mutual respect, love, and kindness, regardless of the person’s skin color, religion, nationality, sex, or gender.

Humility. A third salutary step we can take to transform an “inflated ego” into a “healthy one”, thus opening ourselves to being in a personal and intimate relationship with God, is ridding ourselves of the trait of arrogance and replacing it with humility, for as the Book of Proverbs makes clear [8:13]: “[God] hates pride and arrogance”.

It is humility, our sacred texts teach, which is the hallmark of a “healthy ego”, and the key to a personal relationship with God. Why do our respective religions hold humility in such high regard?  Because a humble heart and ego recognize that God, not us, is the center of the universe, and that all we have and all we are comes from God.

We read in the book of Micah, for example: “What does the lord require of you? To act justly; to love mercy; and to walk humbly with your God.” We find a very similar message in 1st Peter [5:5]: “All of you, clothe yourselves with humility toward one another, because God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble.”

And I believe that it is far more than a coincidence that both Moses and Jesus, the two central figures in our respective sacred scriptures, are described as being exceedingly humble. In the book of Numbers [12:3], Moses is described as “a very humble man, more so than any other man on earth.” And in the book of Mark [10:45], we read, “For even the Son of Man did not come to be served but to serve.”


By making a concerted effort (1) “to love God with all of our heart, soul, and might”; (2) “to love our neighbors as ourselves”; and (3) to be humble in our speech and actions, we have the ability to shift the focus of our egos from ourselves and our own selfish wants and needs to where our respective religions tell us the ego’s primary attention needs to be—on service to God and to others.  And by shifting the ego’s focus, we can begin to bring more intimacy to our relationships with God and with others.

I again thank you for the opportunity to be part of your Sunday morning prayer experience!

rabbi mandell1

Rabbi Mandell preaching