Lessons from Esther: Unhealthy Obsessions

Consider lessons from the book of Esther. Learn how and why to avoid unhealthy obsessions based on the life of Haman and his destructive obsessions.

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Until recently, I had never considered how obsessing over a wrong or a perceived wrong could stymie personal growth.

The dangerous path of letting anger become obsession occurred to me as I studied the book of Esther and considered the conflict between Mordecai (Esther’s cousin who also became her guardian and advisor) and Haman (a royal official who was temporarily elevated by King Xerxes until his plot to kill Mordecai was exposed).

What fascinates me most about this story is Haman’s ruthless pursuit to destroy Mordecai and how his obsession is ultimately self-destructive.

Background

You may be familiar with the story but, in case you aren’t, here’s a recap of the book and its plot twists:

Esther is plucked out of obscurity and becomes the queen; her cousin uncovers a conspiracy plot and saves the king

Esther is orphaned at a young age and is raised by Mordecai, a cousin who also serves as her mentor and advisor. Notably, they are God-fearing Jews residing in a godless land.

About the time Esther comes of age, the ruler of the land, King Xerxes, gets annoyed at his wife, Queen Vashti, when she disregards a command. Following advice from his officials, the king decides to replace her. A nationwide search ensues in which Esther is discovered and brought into the king’s harem. Largely because of her beauty and deferential style, she wins the heart of the king and becomes the new queen.

During her reign, Esther stays in contact with Mordecai, who hangs out by the king’s gates. When he overhears two guards discussing a plan to assassinate the king, he passes along this piece of intelligence to Esther. The conspiracy is investigated and found to be true. The men are executed and Mordecai is credited as the one who saved the king.

Haman becomes obsessed with destroying Mordecai

Shortly afterward, Haman enters the story as being elevated to a “seat of honor higher than that of all the other nobles” and the king issues a decree that everyone should honor him by kneeling in his presence. Mordecai refuses, presumably because he only worships and honors God.

Egged on by other royal officials, Haman becomes increasingly frustrated with Mordecai’s failure to comply. He concocts a scheme to kill Mordecai; specifically, he convinces the king to pass legislation to kill all Jews, including Mordecai (note that he doesn’t realize that Esther and Mordecai are related). Further, he builds a gallows outside of his house to execute Mordecai at the suggestion of his wife, who feeds his unhealthy obsession.

Esther exposes Haman and saves Mordecai, her people, and herself

Esther devises a strategy to thwart the attack on her people.

Before an important dinner, in what could be interpreted as a divine nudge, King Xerxes decides to study the chronicles of his kingship. After reading that Mordecai saved him from the assassination plot, he arranges a special recognition of Mordecai.

Later that day, Esther hosts a private banquet with the king and Haman, and exposes Haman’s plot to murder Mordecai. The timing is awkward as King Xerxes has just honored Haman’s enemy. He quickly orders the execution of Haman, who dies on the gallows built for Mordecai.

Uncontrolled obsession can be self-destructive and counter-productive to transformation

There are many lessons from Haman’s obsession. The main take-away is that obsession can harm us more than the object of our outrage. Such focused thinking and negativity can become an obstacle to coming to terms with reality and making healthy changes that lead us to live the life we want. Plus, there’s more to learn when considering this interpersonal conflict:

Enjoy your blessings instead of focusing on the one thing that is not going well

Haman had a nice life. He was wealthy, had a wife and many sons, and was held in high esteem by the king. But instead of enjoying himself, he seethed because one person didn’t honor him. Sure, his treatment by Mordecai was embarrassing. But instead of focusing on this one problem, he could have put his energy into more productive activities.

The significance of a small problem can be inflated and fuel destructive thoughts. Don’t let the one thing that isn’t going well, such as the person who seems to be the thorn in your side, rob you of joy and happiness.

Accept that you can’t change other people

Haman desperately wanted Mordecai to start kneeling down before him. But Mordecai refused to comply.

Trying to get other people to change for our purposes is useless. Sure, we may want them to change their behaviors and thought patterns for their own good or the greater good of the community. We can provide an environment and resources that promote change. But ultimately the decision to think and act a certain way is up to the other person.

I have found that changing my own actions is more likely to elicit change in other people than outside pressure. Seeing the change in me or experiencing a change in circumstances somehow frees them to act differently.

Caring too much about other people’s opinions can cloud decision-making abilities

A recurring theme in this story is how people can influence our decisions. Now I understand that for political reasons, King Xerxes and Haman needed to have a pulse on public opinion. Plus, they should seek counsel for decisions. But this approach can go too far, especially if your advisors are more concerned about their ambitions than your well-being.

Haman seemed to be controlled and wrongly influenced by the opinions of other people. Comments by his lower-level colleagues may have frustrated him more than his nemesis’s behavior. And, he too readily followed his wife’s recommendation to build the gallows.

Knowing what other people think can be helpful, especially if we are trying to win support for a new project. But being controlled by popular opinion leads to poor judgment. We should seek to know what God thinks and act consistently with His leading.

Recognize that you don’t know as much as you think you do

Haman’s obsession over Mordecai instigated his downward spiral. But his lack of information and insight led to his destruction. I doubt he realized that Mordecai had warned the king’s men of an assassination conspiracy or that Esther was not only a Jew but was also related to Mordecai. No matter how strategically he plotted, the odds were stacked against him. And in his last-ditch effort to win the favor and forgiveness of Esther, he further insulted the king.

We may think we know all about a person or situation. As a result, we may feel that we need to take stronger, more definitive action to get our point across and get a situation corrected.

Often, there is more going on behind the scenes than we realize. People may be connected in ways we don’t expect. A nondescript person may be a bigger contributor to an organization, a community, or a cause than we could ever imagine. And, we may not be aware of the ways that God is working in the lives of people we encounter (including those who we find offensive).

Sometimes, we are rightly motivated by our internal compass, guided to make decisions, take actions, and influence others for God-driven purposes. But other times, our obsession, even when rooted in righteousness, needs to be tempered: we can speak out without allowing a particular injustice to dominate our thoughts. In these instances, remembering that God controls the outcome can help us to move along and move forward.

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