Leon, Joseph, and Clyde all suffered from a messiah complex. It was not just a touch of narcissism or a dash of grandiosity. They were three chronic psychiatric patients at a hospital in Ypsilanti, Michigan, all diagnosed with psychotic delusional disorder, grandiose type. Each one maintained he was the reincarnation of Jesus Christ. Each one believed he was the central figure around whom the world revolved: the three little messiahs.

Psychologist Milton Rokeach wrote The Three Christs of Ypsilanti about his attempts to help these men come to grips with the truth about themselves and learn to be just Leon, Joseph, and Clyde.

Rokeach spent two years working with the men, but change came hard. It was as if they were not sure they could bear to live if they weren’t who they thought they were. They could be very rational in other aspects of life but, as Rokeach put it, they would hold onto messianic delusions “even though they are grotesque, ego-defensive distortions of reality.”

With little to lose, Rokeach decided to try an experiment. He put the three men into one small group. For two years the three delusional messiahs were assigned adjacent beds, ate every meal together, worked together at the same job, and met daily for group discussions. Rokeach wanted to see if rubbing up against other would-be messiahs might diminish their delusion—a kind of messianic twelve-step recovery group.

The experiment led to some interesting conversations. One of the men would claim, “I’m the messiah, the Son of God. I am on a mission. I was sent here to save the earth.”

“How do you know?” Rokeach would ask.

“God told me.”

And one of the other patients would counter, “I never told you any such thing.”

Aim for the Three Messiahs and you end up playing the Three Stooges—Larry, Moe, and Curly arguing over their place in the Trinity. As we read about this, we don’t know whether to laugh or cry.

The bitter irony is, the very delusion to which they clung so tenaciously is what cut them off from life. To stop being the messiah sounded terrifying. But it would have been their salvation, if they could only have tried. If Leon and Joseph and Clyde could have stopped competing to see who gets to be the messiah, they could have become Leon and Joseph and Clyde. (“Now, with God’s help, I shall become myself.”)

Every once in a while, one of the men would get a glimmer of reality. Leon eventually decided that he wasn’t actually married to the Virgin Mary after all—she was his sister-in-law. What little progress they made resulted from their togetherness. But that change was only a glimmer, and the light of reality never shone very bright or lasted very long.

To maintain the illusion that you are the messiah, you must shut out any evidence to the contrary. If you want to be your own god, you have to settle for living in a tiny universe where there is room for only one person. Your world could grow infinitely bigger if you were only willing to become, in the words of a friend of mine, “appropriately small.”

Ortberg, John. 2009. The Life You’ve Always Wanted: Spiritual Disciplines for Ordinary People. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.

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