Pride: the seven deadly sins
As many of you know, last Wednesday was Ash Wednesday. We received ashes on our foreheads to mark the beginning of the season of Lent, which will last until Easter. The ashes remind us of our own mortality, which drives us to reflect on our lives. It is a time of spring cleaning and renovation. It is very appropriate that our building will be undergoing renovations during Lent. Lent is a time to renovate our hearts. It is a time to re-evaluate what is truly important and to make decisions to align our lives with what is important. Lent is a time of prayer, fasting, study, and of dealing with outstanding sin in our lives. It is a time to renew our commitment to Christ.
This Lent we will be looking at the Seven Deadly Sins- Pride, Envy, Gluttony, Lust, Anger, Greed, and Sloth. Speaking about Sin isn’t very fashionable. Preaching on Sin brings to mind the unbecoming stereotype of the pulpit pounding preacher.
So why talk about sin? … The goal of the Christian life is a life infused with the life of Christ and therefore the presence of God. Our goal is union with Divinity- to be clothed with Christ- to have his Spirit in us and to have our minds renewed and brought into union with his- to transform our will and bring it into line with God’s will knowing that this is where we will find joy and peace. This isn’t to lose our individuality, it is actually to find out who we truly are. Sin is what stands in the way of this union. It is sin that leaves us estranged from God. It is the disease of the soul that prevents us from coming to full health. God grants the virtues as antidotes to counteract sin- humility cures pride; kindness cures envy; charity cures greed; diligence cures sloth, temperance cures gluttony; chastity cures lust; and forgiveness cures anger. Sin is a choice or the state of being against God and the world He has made. Sin is not primarily the bad actions we do, that is secondary. Sin starts in our heart and it results in actions. The problem is a heart turned away from God, and it comes down to the belief that God is not good.
The archetype of sin is the Fall of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. The serpent suggested to Eve that God is a liar and that eating the fruit of the tree would make her be like God. In effect she is tempted to decide for herself what is right and wrong- to replace God by making herself god over her own life. When Eve grabbed the fruit we read that in her eyes “the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise, she took of its fruit and ate” (Gen 3:6). When we sin we don’t do something wrong because we believe it is bad. We do what is wrong because we actually believe it is good. We come to believe (even if it is subconsciously) that God has lied to us and is trying to keep us from something good. We don’t disobey God because we want to do something evil. We disobey God because we believe what we are doing is good and it is wrong for us to be denied. This is tempting because the wrong we do is usually a good that is twisted and out of context. So stealing isn’t wrong because it is wrong to have the thing. Stealing is wrong because the way one got it is wrong. In committing adultery the person believes they have a "right" to pursue "love" that is being wrongly denied them by God's command against adultery. Love and sex are good things, but in adultery these are twisted.
Jesus in his wilderness temptation is essentially undergoing the same temptation as Adam and Eve. Jesus is being asked to take God off the throne. He is tempted to allow his human will (Jesus is said to have both a divine will and a human will) to decide what is good apart from God’s leading and guidance. Jesus, of course, resists these temptations.
The saints have taught that the root of all sin is Pride. St. Gregory the Great believed that pride was the source of all other sins. So it makes sense that we deal with pride as the first sin in the series.
Before we get into this we should say something about our culture’s view of pride. The Methodist bishop Will Willimon says, “pride has moved from being the chief of the Seven, the root of much evil, to being the root of all virtue, a positive good to be lovingly practiced and cultivated. … Our political life seems dominated now by the politics of self-assertion, and our therapies are mostly the relentless psychology of vaunted self-esteem. The great sin for us is not Pride, but low self-image”  Our culture has come to value high self-esteem and has called humility un-healthy. Pride has become admirable. Entitlement is common, and a person’s right to pursue self-fulfilled happiness leaves responsibility and relationships in the dust. The human potential movement that began in the 70’s has placed the fulfillment of the self at the center of a successful life. Pride has become a virtue.
So obviously we have some cultural obstacles to deal with as we try to define Pride. It is an obsession with the self. The theologian Peter Kreeft says that “[pride] is the first and greatest sin because it is in violation of the first and greatest commandment, ‘you shall have no other gods before me.’ Pride puts self before God. Pride loves your self with all your heart and soul and mind and strength rather than God”. Pride is an exaggerated love of our own ability or being. It is the pleasure we get when we feel we have no superiors. It is when we exaggerate our own importance. It is a lust for power- for my will to be done. Willimon says that pride is one of the “sins that make life together difficult. My pride usually poses no real problem to you, as long as we remain strangers. But if we should attempt to get together, to work on something in common, then Pride is a problem.” We can be Proud of our beauty, our strength, our abilities, our knowledge, our wealth, our position, or numerous other things.
Pride is tricky. It is not one that we often see in ourselves. The author C.S. Lewis said, “There is one vice of which no man in the world is free; which everyone in the world loathes when he sees it in someone else; … There is no fault which makes a man more unpopular, and no fault which we are more unconscious of in ourselves. And the more we have it ourselves, the more we dislike it in others.”. Pride is elusive for us to spot in ourselves and it is especially dangerous because we can even become proud of our good deeds. We might even be proud of our humility. It is hard for us to hide from our lust, or anger, or greed, but Pride is illusive. It is the sin that convinces us that we are not sinful. It is pride we need to confess when we get to the confession and no sin comes to mind.
The Catholic Archbishop Fulton Sheen believed that the prideful were very difficult to get through to. He says, “I am sure that anyone who has had experience with the proud will bear witness to the truth of this statement: If my own eternal salvation were conditioned upon saving the soul of one self-wise man who prided himself on his learning, or one hundred of the most morally corrupt men and women of the streets, I should choose the easier task of converting the hundred. Nothing in all the world is more difficult to conquer in all the world than intellectual pride. If battleships could be lined with it instead of with armor, no shell could ever pierce them.”
Pride can sometimes be a cover-up for feelings of inadequacy or inferiority. The person over compensates and tries to convince themselves and everyone around them of their importance. Usually what people feel inferior about, however, has nothing to do with a sense of moral or spiritual lack. The Jewish Psychologist Solomon Schimmel says, “Although many people suffer from feelings of inferiority, it is not usually because of their sense of moral or spiritual inadequacy. They don’t typically ruminate about how unkind, dishonest, or insensitive they might be, but about how incompetent, ugly, or professionally unsuccessful they are. They do not aspire to greater virtue but to greater recognition. This sense of inferiority and self-deprecation is not what the moralists want to cultivate as the basis for humility. On the contrary, the person who feels inferior about his social status, wealth, or looks is accepting values which from the religious point of view are inappropriate as a criteria for evaluating true self-worth. What the moralists want us to feel inferior about are our ethical, moral, and spiritual faults.”
While pride is hard for us to pin down in our own souls we should be diligent to deal with this disease of the soul. We read in Psalm 34:19 that “The Lord is close to the brokenhearted, those crushed in spirit he delivers”; and in Proverbs 16:5 we read “Proud men, one and all, are abominable to the Lord”. Jesus’ sharpest words in the gospels were directed against the religious people who were full of pride. He spoke about the prideful Pharisee praying next to the sinful tax collector and declared the tax-collector forgiven (Luke 18:9-14). He said to them ‘Truly I tell you, the tax-collectors and the prostitutes are going into the kingdom of God ahead of you. (Matt 21:31). He called the religious proud hypocrites who like to been seen by others to be holy, but who are inwardly full of sin.
So what do we do with it? How do we deal with it? Something that might be helpful is applying the same standard we use on others to ourselves. We are usually quick to notice the faults of others, but fail to see our own faults. We might ignore them, or laugh them off, or make excuses for them, but we will dwell on another’s faults with more seriousness. We will see their fault as evidence of a serious character flaw, but when it comes to our faults we are more likely to call it a “whoops” and move on without giving the matter a second thought. We have a tendency to accentuate the faults of others and minimize our own, while at the same time accentuating our good. Sometimes we will evaluate a person’s entire being on how they have interacted with us and how they treated us, even though that might be an extremely brief part of their life. We would benefit from treating our own faults with the same seriousness we treat the fault of others.
This will make us open to receiving the grace of humility, which is the root grace of all virtue. Humility is not a tall man believing he is short. Humility is the recognition of truth. It recognizes gifts and talents as coming from God and as working for the good of God’s purposes. This also means seeing our faults clearly and with seriousness. Ultimately though, humility will lead us to not focus on ourselves. Kreeft says that “Pride has ingrown eyeballs. [but] Humility stares outward in self-forgetful ecstasy”. Genuine humility should lead to a kind of healthy self-forgetfulness where we act as God’s agents in the world. The humble recognize that “God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong” (1 Cor 1:27). God works through us, not because we are particularly better or special, but because He chooses to and he loves us and the world he wants to draw to himself. Genuine humility will imitate Jesus as he washes the feet of his disciples (John 13). Genuine humility will lead us to seek the mind of Christ, “who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death— even death on a cross” as the ancient hymn from Phil 2:5-8 states.So we come each week and we humble ourselves before God as those who are dust and who will return to dust. We come like little children opening our empty hands and begging them to be filled with God’s grace. But, God does not stand over us as a cruel dictator, no, he is eager to descend to us to give us his grace. Willimon says, “… Jesus tells us the truth about God. God is more than omnipotent, omniscient, and all those other non-biblical attributes that we would like to ascribe to God. God is lowest and the least, the little one, the wretched, the one who hangs in agony on a cross, the one who stoops down and washes our feet, the one who emptied himself in order to get down on our level, the one who rose and thereby shall raise us up as well.”