Friday, April 22, 2011

The 7 Deadly Sins: Pride

In our little church, our bishop once preached a Maundy Thursday sermon in which he noted how many churches were named after saints, or the titles of Christ, or various doctrines. But he had never heard of a church of the Sacred Towel and Basin. Yet Jesus made a point of how in the Kingdom of God, leadership is marked not by being served but by serving. God Incarnate washed the filthy feet of twelve men who had been squabbling over which of them was the greatest. We only commemorate that once a year. Keep that in mind as we discuss the deadliest of the 7 sins.

Originally there were 8 Deadly Sins. Greek theologian Evagrius of Pontos listed them in ascending order of seriousness as gluttony, lust, greed, despair, anger, apathy vainglory and pride. Pope Gregory the Great reduced them to 7 by combining vainglory with pride, despair with apathy and adding envy. Later despair was replaced by sloth. But the worst of the 7 was, from the beginning, pride. And that causes confusion. Because in this era of assertiveness, self-esteem, rights and roots, pride is a good thing. In the song, "We are One in the Spirit," we even sing, "we will guard each man's dignity and save each man's pride." In the Prayer Book we no longer call ourselves "miserable offenders." How can pride be a sin, much less the worst of them all?

First of all, what we mean by pride is a proper appreciation of something: an accomplishment, our racial or ethnic heritage, our status as a human being. What we call the sin of pride would be better translated as "arrogance." It might be defined as an overestimate of one's worth, power or centrality in the scheme of things. We see it most clearly in celebrities, politicians and bosses. Accustomed to having their whims catered to as well as the general fawning by those they meet, some of these leaders and entertainers come to believe they deserve special treatment. Others have always believed that they are superior. And in a limited sense they may be right. They may well be superior athletes, or actors, or leaders, or musicians, or physicians, or lawyers, or artists, or whatever. As Dorothy L. Sayers points out, the insidiousness of pride is that it attacks us not at our weak points but at our strengths.

But no one is superior in every category and no one is completely self-sufficient. For instance, Will Rogers observed that we are all ignorant--just on different subjects. The arrogant person rarely recognizes that he has any deficiencies. And that's the danger.

Historians debate whether Hitler was a genius. I think it is safe to say that he was at least a political genius. He went from being the leader of a tiny political party that never won the majority of votes to putting together a coalition that made him the dictator of one of the greatest countries of Europe. He wasn't even a German! A special law had to be passed to allow this Austrian to take over the chancellorship. He was definitely a master politician. Thank God he was no military genius. By overruling his brilliant generals, he made a number of major errors that allowed the Allies to win the war. And he brought a rich culture into ruins and disrepute.

That's a key characteristic of pride. It is competitive. It views all others as rivals and will impel someone to pursue a goal not because he wants it that badly but because he wants to best others in pursuit of the same goal. Pride is a superiority complex.

The Bible uses a whole list of words for pride: arrogance, insolence, haughtiness, boastfulness, presumption, and ostentation. Its emphasis on pride as a sin and humility as a virtue were unique among the cultures of the time. The Greeks reversed the values, seeing pride as a virtue and humility as despicable. They did recognize the dangers of overweening pride, though. They saw how it tripped up the mighty. They called it hubris and they thought it stirred up the envy of the gods who then destroyed the exalted. But in Christianity arrogance is not risky because God might feel insecure about his place in the universe. It is risky because it puts the self in God's place.

The essence of pride is usurping God, claiming that you are master of your own fate, the final authority on your own life. This goes right back to Genesis. In the story of the Fall, the serpent tells the woman that eating the forbidden fruit will make her like God. So the first thing she does is disobey God. She substitutes her judgment of right and wrong for God's. And we all suffer for that arrogance.

I know it's not popular or even politically correct to point this out but people bring much of their grief upon themselves. AIDS would never have become an epidemic if people simply abstained from indiscriminate sex and recreational drug use. What used to be called adult-onset diabetes would not be on the rise, even among the young, were it not for our gluttonous diets or slothful lifestyles. Powerful financial companies have gone bankrupt due to greed and reckless speculation. Teenage pregnancy leading to fatherless children and poverty, lung cancer brought on by smoking, car accidents caused by drinking, domestic violence triggered by substance abuse, rape as the result of accepting a ride from a stranger one just met in a bar…these are just a few of the calamities that are brought on by ignoring those repressive, unrealistic rules we were taught by our parents or in Sunday School. We thought we knew better. We ignored signs and doubts.

Pride hates doubts. Doubts are not cool. John Wayne never had doubts. Chuck Norris never had doubts. As David Crosby once sang about as movie hero, "he never wondered what was right or wrong; he just knew!" We want to be like that. But nobody is really like that. And, sadly, people who think they have that knack, who know in every instance the right thing to do, often cause the most destruction, even if their purpose was a noble one.

In fact that is how pride creeps into religious people. They start out doing good and getting praised for it. There is nothing wrong with that. It is okay to receive pleasure from exercising God's gifts to you and it is okay to enjoy others' expressions of admiration for the gifts. The danger comes when you take the praise personally, forgetting that your gifts come from God and are meant to serve and glorify him. When you start to believe that you are better than others spiritually, when you start ranking yourself and others on a scale, when you feel morally superior to most, when you imagine how pleased God must be with you, then you have succumbed to pride.

But if pride breeds competition, if it is essentially anti-God, how can a proud person be religious? As C. S. Lewis says, these people are worshipping an imaginary god, one who agrees with them on everything and favors them in everything. He is a tame god, one who would never confront them with how sinful they are or how much they need his grace.

And make no mistake, these people can behave quite morally. Pride can be used to master other sins as beneath one's dignity. But the morality exhibited is done in service to the person and his own self-image, not for the love of God. As T. S. Eliot wrote, "The last temptation is the greatest treason: to do the right deed for the wrong reason." Remember that Jesus said, "Many will say to me on that day, 'Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and in your name drive out demons and perform many miracles?' Then I will tell them plainly, 'I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers!" How could he not know them? They were not dealing with him but a god created in their own image.

That is why we must continually read the Bible prayerfully, the whole Bible. Disciple is another word for student. When we study God's Word, we will find many parts we like, but we must also face the parts we don't. They remind us with our faults and secret sins. They challenge us to act in ways that appear foolish and undignified. We must wrestle with them as Jacob wrestled with the angel of the Lord until he blessed him. In the end we will see the face of the real God, the one before whom we realize just how small and unsuperior we are.

We must similarly strip ourselves naked in prayer, not always hiding behind the beautiful phrases of our Prayer Book, but putting our true feelings into our own words. Even our ugly feelings, in the same way you need to tell your doctor your most shameful or disgusting symptoms if you wish to get well. The psalmists sometimes express horrible thoughts, such as wanting God to crush their enemies and dash their infants against rocks. Better to express such thoughts to God than to let them fester or to act on them. Anyway, you will find it hard to maintain such thoughts in the piercing light of his righteousness.

And we must really learn to love others. True love casts out pride because it is hard to really care about someone else when you're all wrapped up in yourself. Love pulls you out of yourself. You cease to be the most important thing in your life. In fact, it was wise of Pope Gregory to drop that 8th deadly sin, vainglory or vanity, because it really isn't in the same league as pride. When you're vain, you at least still care what other people think and you want to please them. Pride doesn't give a damn what the rabble thinks. It only cares about itself.

True Christian love means we must also reach out to those who should be our allies but whom we often see as rivals and competitors. I am referring to our fellow Christians. A lot of the divisions in the church, regardless of the issues that created them, are maintained by pride. We are like a family torn apart by old quarrels. We love our arguments more than we love others. Those who don't recognize the obvious elegance, logic and superiority of our positions are either dumber or less moral than we are. We can't admit that they may have a point or two. We can't admit that the issues which loom so large to us are not as central to the faith as we think or that our traditions may not be superior to those held by our siblings in Christ.

The problem with pride is that, like other sins, it can act like a drug. In the beginning it gives pleasure but eventually you keep up the habit because you can't face withdrawal. As the evil Mordred sings in the play "Camelot," "I find humility means to be hurt; it's not the earth the meek inherit but the dirt!" He overstates it, of course, but that's how humility seems when you're coming off a pride high. Giving up pride means giving up an image of oneself as as always or almost always right. It means accepting that you are a sinner, not just in theory but in practice. It means forgiving others and seeking their forgiveness. It means acknowledging that others are just as precious to God as you and may even be superior to you in some ways. It means accepting that you are not the final arbiter of how you should live your life and whom you should associate with.

As C. S. Lewis points out the first step towards humility is to realize that you are proud. "If you think you are not conceited, it means you are very conceited indeed." The odd thing about humility is that, like happiness, you can't achieve it by aiming for it. It is a side effect of living a Christian life. So take the steps we discussed above: study the scriptures to see both God and yourself clearly, pray honestly, love and serve God through loving and serving others. If you ever succeed in becoming humble, you probably won't realize it. If I may resort to Lewis once again, he says of the humble person, "he will not be thinking about humility: he will not be thinking about himself at all."

That's because humility means dethroning oneself and surrendering the central place in one's life to God. It means seeing all things not in relation to ourselves but in relation to him who created all things and redeems all things and sustains all things. If this sounds foreign to you, then remember when you were happiest. It was probably some time when you were totally absorbed in something else, something outside you, an activity or an event or a person. For many of us it was when we first realized we were in love. Our thoughts were full of the other person and his or her qualities. Our conversation was full of that person's acts and words. We spontaneously sought out ways to please and honor the one we loved. We were so full of love for that person we felt as if we would burst.

We've all seen romantic comedies where one person disdains the other and resists his advances until she realizes what a fool she is, swallows her pride and accepts his love. God is our ardent suitor and we the haughty and blind object of his love. Whether there is a happy ending or not depends on our decision. Happiness is not found through self-regard, for our natural orientation is outward. Pride blocks happiness. Only when we get over ourselves, and lose ourselves in his love will we find our true selves.

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