If You Think the World Revolves Around You ...

December 01, 2004 | Fresh Start | Karl Haffner

They were often dubbed the Three Stooges. But if you talked to them, they would claim to be the Three Messiahs.

Leon, Joseph and Clyde were three psychiatric patients at a hospital in Ypsilanti, Michigan. Their clinical diagnosis was “psychotic delusional grandiose disorder.” Put more simply, each one thought of himself as God. Each one believed he was the central figure around whom the universe revolved.

Psychologist Milton Rokeach wrote the book, The Three Christs of Ypsilanti. In it he describes his attempt to rescue these men from their world of delusion, and to teach them to be just Leon, Joseph, and Clyde. For two years Rokeach labored with them. But it appeared that they couldn’t live without being the gods they claimed to be.

In desperation Rokeach tried an experiment. He cloistered the three men as one group. For two years they had to share a bedroom, eat together, work together, and meet daily for group therapy. Rokeach reasoned that if each of the three lived with other would-be messiahs, his self-deception would be diminished. The threesome would constitute a sort of messianic, self-directed 12-step recovery group.

Eavesdropping on their conversations, however, proved both sad and comical. “I’m the messiah, the son of God,” one of them would say. “I am on a mission. I was sent here to save this earth.”

“How do you know?” Rokeach would probe.

“God told me.”

Immediately one of the other patients would interrupt with “I never told you such a thing.”

Occasionally Leon would exhibit a flicker of reality. He even eventually conceded that he wasn’t married to the Virgin Mary after all, but that she was his sister-in-law. But all progress was marginal, and the light of reality never shone very bright or for very long.

While I don’t like to think about it, I believe we all suffer from a messiah complex. It may not be severe enough to land us in Ypsilanti, but it’s just as serious and irrational as was Leon's, Joseph's and Clyde’s condition. This delusion originated in the Garden of Eden, when the serpent tempted Eve: “When you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God” (Genesis 3:5). We’ve been clamoring to take God’s place ever since.

But Jesus gave us the perfect prescription for a messiah complex. When he was here on earth, He said, “Whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be your slave—just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Matthew 20:26-28).

Jesus calls you and me to serve. And service reminds us of our humanity.