Do You Have a Napoleonic Complex (aka Small Man Syndrome)?

Time for a history lesson. Napoleon Bonaparte was born in 1769, had a penchant for posing with his hand in his shirt, was the man whose hunger for power plunged Europe into a devastating and lengthy war, and has nothing to do with Napoleon Dynamite.  He was also very short. The so-called “Napoleonic complex” is the idea that Napoleon tried to conquer Europe to compensate for being vertically challenged. (That seems a stretch to me; I know a lot of short guys, and so far none of them have invaded Russia.)

But we’re going to use the term “Napoleonic complex” differently. Listen to how one of Napoleon’s biographers, Paul Johnson, describes the general after he has just been crowned emperor of France: “Behind all the tinsel and glitter, he was only as secure as his last victory.” Napoleon won victory after victory in battle. He was a brilliant commander. But no matter how many victories he won, his reputation – perhaps we could even say his meaning in life – was no more secure than his most recent success. Now that’s a complex we can relate to.

If you invest your sense of meaning and worth in anything other than Jesus Christ, you will suffer from this kind of “Napoleonic complex:” perpetual insecurity and a need to prove yourself in a never-ending cycle. If the thing you look to for value is being a caring, merciful person (a good thing in itself!), you will never be able to rest. You will constantly be in need of another down-and-out case to pour yourself into, another underdog to support, another person to take under wing. Because your identity is only as secure as your last victory.

Do you see the pattern? If your worth comes from financial stability, every lost investment will devastate you and every gain will only drive you to pursue more security. If your worth is in being seen as a perfect spouse or perfect parent, you can never admit to marital strife or parenting struggles. I wrestle with this as a pastor when I preach: I feel good about myself if my last sermon was good. I feel insignificant if I preached a dud.

What’s the remedy for this cycle of insecurity and frantic driven-ness? Here’s the answer: you have meaning not because of what you do, but because of who you are. You are a Christian. You are united to Christ, indwelt by the Spirit of God, and adopted by God the Father. Listen to Jesus’ words in John 15:

I am the vine; you are the branches. Whoever abides in me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing…By this my Father is glorified, that you bear much fruit and so prove to be my disciples. As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you. Abide in my love….These things I have spoken to you, that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be full (John 15:5, 8-9, 11).

Many of the things we look to for meaning are good things, and may even be things Jesus intends for us to do. I can’t stop preaching because I’m tempted to find my worth in the quality of my sermons! But neither does God want me to be a Christian who is only as secure as my last victory. Our meaning and worth is guaranteed by our union with Christ. There are no insignificant Christians! But because our worth is found not in what we do, but in who we belong to, we can be secure when the fruit is absent.

Are you, like Napoleon, driven to establish your worth by your performance? If so, dear Christian, God calls you to rest. Yes, there are works God would have you do – but they are not your identity. Christ is. You belong to him. Abide in his love, and be secure.

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