Messiah complexes & White Man’s Burdens

By Paul Louis Metzger

Multnomah University Professor
New Wine Skins Ministry

Have you ever met people with messiah complexes? Such individuals are scary. They often end up making a mess of things as they throw their good will around.

Unfortunately, I am often tempted to cultivate such a complex. I have to catch myself trying to help people who appear to be weaker and who seem to possess less resources than I, but yet who have not asked for my help. I am often blind to the fact that they are often relationally richer than I am and could help me in significant ways. Instead of trying to solve their problems for them, I need to share life with them, if they will take me.

No doubt you have heard stories of charitable endeavors where projects were started overseas but to no or negative effect. An African friend, Michael Badriaki, shared with me a story of how a European country provided genetically modified seed for African communities to use, even though they were told by the Africans that the seed would not grow, and it did not. Michael also shared with me how Westerners have built latrines in African communities, even though they were told the latrines would not be used because of uncertainties and fears regarding where the human waste would end up. The latrines have since gone to waste. The Westerners should have listened to the tribal peoples to see what they themselves claimed that they needed.

This overriding tendency on the part of the West is sometimes called “white man’s burden”: the propensity of many white Westerners to do good to people around the world by ruling over them. Such imperialism often parades with acts of charity. But the underlying motives are not charitable. As Michael says, many Westerners used to come with machine guns; now they come with briefcases—and with cell phones made with minerals they have mined in Africa at great profit to themselves.

I am so glad Jesus the Messiah did not have a messiah complex. If he did have such a complex, he would have fallen when tempted by the Devil and would not be able to save us. I believe Jesus’ time in the wilderness helped prepare him to listen and pray and wait on God rather than take matters into his own hands.

It is important that the Spirit led Jesus into the wilderness to be tempted by the Devil for forty days prior to his public ministry (See Luke 4:1-2). The temptation was not an obstacle, but an opportunity for strategic spiritual growth and development. I believe Jesus went through severe testing (Luke 4:3-12) to prepare him for the challenges that lay ahead. Jesus had to die to any presumed messiah complex in order to be the true Savior of the world; those with messiah complexes end up destroying others because they possess the grand ambition to rule over them rather than listen to them and serve them.

Although Jesus passed each test, Satan never gave up. He planned to reappear at an opportune time and try again (Luke 4:13). The tempter’s aim was to get Jesus to seize control rather than depend upon and obey his Father’s will disclosed in Scripture and listen and live among the people in the midst of their suffering. Jesus had to experience what they did. As the writer of Hebrews made clear, Jesus had to learn obedience through suffering (Hebrews 5:8). If Jesus were to be prepared as the Messiah to save the world, he needed to be delivered from various perks that reward strength and comfort over against weakness and suffering.

Those with messiah complexes come to save those around them; but like the religious leaders in Matthew 23, they end up making the beneficiaries of their good will twice the sons of hell that they are (Matthew 23:15).

Unlike messianic pretenders, Jesus has no delusions of grand military, economic or political conquest bound up with surpassing strength and a powerful personality. He operated far more robustly and strategically by holding firmly in humble dependence to God’s Word. In view of Jesus, humility, not hubris, is the mark of missional engagement.

It is striking how Jesus used Scripture to combat the Devil at every turn. Jesus did not depend on clever forms of argument or charisma and passion in his responses to the temptations, but Scripture. What do you and I resort to when we are under duress? Do we think we are invincible? Do we struggle with messiah complexes that favor ingenuity to the exclusion of prayerful and fast-filled dependence on God’s Word? Satan would have it that way.

In his testing of Jesus, Satan used various forms of temptation that address needs and desires such as the provision of food (Luke 4:3-4), ambition (Luke 4:5-8), and protection (Luke 4:9-12). It is recorded that in two of the temptations, the Devil challenged Jesus to prove he is God’s Son and perform miracles that will benefit him (Luke 4:3, 9): instead of trusting in God for his provision, Jesus was encouraged to turn stones into bread; he was also encouraged to throw himself down from the pinnacle of the temple so that God would deliver him.

What would have happened if Jesus had fallen for the tempter’s tactics? No doubt, he would have eaten well if he had turned the stones into bread (Luke 4:3-4). He would have received riches and honor and glory if he had bowed the knee to Satan (Luke 4:5-8). He might even have been protected, or at least would have protected himself, if he had thrown himself from a very high place (Luke 4:9-12). But Jesus would not have been able to save the world, only harm it, just like the various messianic pretenders; such autonomous acts aimed at saving the world have always led to the world needing further salvation. The only way to help is to depend on God, not oneself. Jesus demonstrated that he was the one and only Son of God, for he alone constantly depended on God, not himself.

All of the temptations in Luke 4 seem logical. After all, Jesus needed food to stay alive and accomplish his work and attain his goal. And wasn’t his goal to reign over the nations and kingdoms of the earth? Satan offered to get him to the top of the world by taking a shortcut—all Jesus had to do was bow the knee to him.

But what good would such actions of following the Devil’s advice ultimately do? Jesus would have disobeyed his Father, just like God’s son Adam in the Garden and God’s son Israel in the wilderness over forty years. No matter how many miracles Jesus could have performed, no matter how magnificent he could have revealed himself to be, it would all have been smoke and mirrors since he would not have been reflecting God’s character and obeying God’s will as God’s Son.

Jesus is God’s one and only Son. Even so, we are tempted to take matters into our own hands to try and prove we are God’s sons, too. Rather than respond to God’s call in obedience, we are prone to manipulate circumstances and seek to control our own destiny, and the destiny of others. In the short term, we may look as if we are doing all right when we are self-sufficient. But self-sufficiency does not reflect relational trust in God, but trust in one’s self. Such self-reliance does not save us, but puts us, and those around us, in greater jeopardy.

A colleague once told me that an unguarded strength is a glaring weakness. It is important that we submit all our strengths and talents and gifts to the Lord; otherwise, we will take matters into our own hands and try to save the world. Self-sufficiency is the bane of missional engagement. Self-sufficiency along with a sense of superiority lead us to provide solutions to people’s struggles that do not fit their situations or resonate with what they believe they really need. It only aggravates their problems as they bear the burden for our sin of self-sufficiency and pride.

Messiah complexes get us into so much trouble, as we take matters into our own hands. Whenever you are tempted to engage in such thinking and behaving, you should ask—who then will save the world from me?


Can you think of situations where you have fallen prey to pride and ended up with a messiah complex in your public missional engagement? What was the aftermath? How will you guard against such pride and arrogance in the future?

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