The wisdom of our predecessors informs us that pride comes before a fall; we look ahead to every bigot’s comeuppance as both inevitable and deserved.
The Biblical proverb says that pride in fact “goes before destruction” (Prov. 16:18). For myself, I find the difference rather damning. A “fall” implies that you pick yourself up, partake of your humble pie, and move on. No; pride is called destructive.
Lately I’ve had to do a lot of thinking and soul-searching about my own pride. I turned back to C.S. Lewis who has been instrumental to the shaping of my ideas on this subject.
The Danger of Pride
The Screwtape Letters is a series of fictional letters written by a senior devil, Screwtape, instructing a junior devil in how best to tempt the human soul. Humility, therefore, is a most undesirable development in one’s “patient.” To this end, given the news of a patient’s humility, Screwtape compels his protégé to act quickly and decisively to reverse it:
I see only one thing to do at the moment [he says]. Your patient has become humble; have you drawn his attention to the fact? All virtues are less formidable to us [the tempters] once the man is aware that he has them, but this is specially true of humility. Catch him at the moment when he is really poor in spirit and smuggle into his mind the gratifying reflection, ‘By jove! I’m being humble’, and almost immediately pride—pride at his own humility—will appear. If he awakes to the danger and tries to smother this new form of pride, make him proud of his attempt – and so on, through as many stages as you please.
I have both laughed and blushed at how accurately Lewis describes me. Now, I am forced to admit again how closely self-congratulating pride and vanity follows every one of my actions.
He devotes an entire chapter to it in Mere Christianity, a chapter which he names “The Great Sin.” How much do I dislike pride in others? It is my absolute worst, I think. Then he tells me that the more pride we have, the more we dislike it in others. “It was through Pride that the devil became the devil: Pride leads to every other vice: it is the complete anti-God state of mind” (p. 122).
What the Vice of Pride Is
Pride is mentioned in Mark 7 as one of the “evil things” which “defile a person” (Mk. 7:23). Lewis describes the vice of pride saying “essentially [it] gets no pleasure out of having something, only out of having more of it than the next man.” Myself, I take no pleasure in having any wisdom, any artistic skill, any compassion, or any intelligence—unless I am told (or tell myself) that I am better at it, or the best. And have successfully deceived even close friends of my “humility.”
You begin to see the hazard of pride to personality and relationships. Pride is enmity, hostility, deceit. Between people, pride is the root of disdain, impatience, irritability, scorn, and deception. If I’m honest, this entirely characterizes certain of my relationships, and affects all the rest—from a slight to a near-critical degree: a supercilious manner—disparaging opinions and replacing them with my own; some friendships feed my vanity. Some friendships consist of long discussions about improving my vices. These deeply honest conversations are not wrong in themselves, but the absence of action afterwards exposed them for what they were: I became prouder of my perception to notice pride, my “humility” to point it out, and my admirable “holiness” to resolve to master it. (It’s no surprise that few of the issues discussed were ever actually addressed).
Lewis calls Pride “spiritual cancer” because “it eats up the very possibility of love, contentment, or even common sense” (p. 125). I think, Of course I am more righteous than you – I have studied the Bible longer, I attend church and midweek Bible studies more regularly, have even led them. Of course you would come to me for advice. I am, after all, quite wise in this area (that we both struggle in).
Pride, Proverbs tells us, comes with disgrace (Prov. 11:2), as it is inevitably exposed as an unsound basis for self-flattery.
“The Anti-God State of Mind”
So if pride can cause such compulsive comparisons between people, you see how it damages a relationship with God, Someone who “is in every respect immeasurably superior to yourself” (p. 124). Pride in myself means I am the authority on the subject, my talent and achievements make my opinions superior to yours, I am wisdom, I am in control – I am God. Isn’t this exactly the modern day crisis of religion? We cannot bear to accept anything which makes us think ourselves less wise, less important, less in control of our personhood—even to give way to Someone so demonstrably greater, omniscient, and wiser.
Or if we are religious, we flatter ourselves that God is really quite pleased with our efforts—more than those of our neighbours: the humble dish-washers, the welcoming committee, those who go to every church event—and early to help out. Lewis says that in doing so we “pay a pennyworth of imaginary humility to Him and get out of it a pound’s worth of Pride towards [our] fellow-men” (p. 124). As the “humblest” of the early-arrivers and quiet dish-washers, the most integrated and involved of any church, I am beginning to see just how much of imaginary humility I have successfully invested in an overflow of Pride. These dedications are good and honourable, but not at the cost of replacing your God-given joy in being useful with a smattering of self-congratulation and exaltation in yourself. (This is so compulsive an addiction, I am feeling it at work even now, making me proud of my honesty and humility to publicly confess it.)
Now don’t get me wrong: self-deprecation is not antithesis of pride. Modesty is not beauty trying valiantly to believe in its ugliness. It is merely the death of self-exaltation, self-flattery. It’s not about requiring a low opinion of ourselves. It’s about forgetting ourselves in the exaltation of a Someone far superior. We may even rejoice in God-given gifts and talents. After all, we are made in the image of God, fearfully and wonderfully made (Psalm 139:14).
“The First Step Is to Realize That One Is Proud. And a Biggish Step, Too.”
The Bible frequently encourages us to clothe ourselves in humility (1 Pet. 5:5, Col. 3:12, Acts 20:19), especially in service of God. It is the shedding my pride, that exaggerated feeling of worthiness and, better yet, to forget about myself entirely. Then I may rejoice in the fact I can sing His praises; it would be better that I forget myself entirely in the praise and service of Someone so much greater than I, who has invited me in—even in my miserably deluded state—and who is able to help me shed the crippling addiction to believing in the illusion of my self-importance.
We need to re-orient our self-importance. This is taking pride in the good deeds of others or delighting in pleasing God. That pride is right and natural. In 2 Thess. 2:4 says that “just as we have been approved by God to be entrusted with the gospel, so we speak, not to please man, but to please God who tests our hearts.” We do not need to compulsively compare ourselves to others, against our previous performance, or some legalistic code to impress God (see 1 Corinthians 1:31, any of our achievements are God-given grace). By His grace, His children have received salvation and Christ’s righteousness (see 1 Corinthians 1:30). This is far larger and far more effective than any of our efforts, even if we live in humble and daily gratitude for His grace. Taking pride in the Lord, boasting in what He has done for us, this is pride’s good vocation. Psalm 37:4 exhorts us to “Delight yourself in the Lord”—not in yourself or your worthiness, but Someone greater. This is as John Piper says in Desiring God, “the pleasure that is God Himself.”
Thus, interaction with the the Lord is a sure-fire way to reorder my worldview. Lewis describes it as “delightfully humble, feeling the infinite relief of having for once got rid of all the silly nonsense about your own dignity which has made you restless and unhappy all your life. He is trying to make you humble in order to make this moment possible: trying to take off a lot of silly, ugly, fancy-dress in which we have all got ourselves up and are strutting about like the little idiots we are” (p. 128). In this light, while I may feel rather despairing of my ability to break the habit, but I am encouraged by the end goal: if God wants to give me Himself, let my get myself out of the way.