Best case scenario, the sin of pride can make a fool out of you. The worst case is hell, thus its inclusion in the list of the Seven Deadly Sins. The other six deadly sins are wrath, sloth, greed, lust, envy and gluttony. It has always seemed to me that pride is the one that can sometimes be hard to pin down. We should work hard and take pride in our work yet not be prideful in it. Celebrate our gifts and talents, but never think we are better than anyone else. So then, how do we draw the line between pride and humility?
The Big Daddy of Sins
Pride is the sin that opened up hell and turned good angels bad. The Bible describes Lucifer as full of wisdom and beauty, but he refused to serve God. He opted out of heaven because it required humility.
It was also pride that did Adam and Eve in. The serpent appealed to Eve’s pride when he told her that by eating the apple, she would be like God; having her eyes opened and knowing good and evil. She foolishly believed it and convinced Adam of the same. Through pride, the devil infected us with his condemnation.
“Foolish” is an apt adjective to partner with pride. It’s what it does to us. How ironic that while getting puffed up with self importance, we essentially make a fool of ourselves. Pride clouds our spiritual vision, deluding us into thinking we are our own Gods–as if it is all our own doing that gives us success. It is a tempting thought. After all, if we work hard and receive our just reward, don’t we deserve the credit?
I once spoke with a man that made national news for accomplishing an amazing feat. Most anyone else would have died in his place but he survived against all odds. He was looking for someone to ghost write his book. We interviewed each other, assessing our compatibility. I brought up God. “What went through your mind when death seemed inevitable?” I asked. “Did you call out to God for help?”
I did not anticipate his answer. “I don’t believe in God,” he stated. Referring to his accomplishment he said, “Everything I did, I did myself. It’s like I’m my own God.” Well now, what could I say to that? Or rather what would he have listened to? Words escaped me. I prayed for him and someone else wrote his book.
Those with faith, live in union with God. This man did not see God but only saw himself. We are the ones that can put our gifts to good use, so yes, we have a part in our success, but we cannot give ourselves specific abilities. I can never be a famous singer or a top world athlete. I can put in the same amount of hours practicing as the top people do, but it will never have the same results. Determination can overcome many odds, but no one can completely control their destiny. Pride causes successful people to forget where it all came from and give full measure to their own contribution.
During a Lenten retreat last spring, Father Chad Gion spoke on humility. The title of one of his talks, “Holy Forgetfulness” intrigued me. What could be holy about forgetfulness?
Fr. Chad presented pride as not just thinking you are better than others, but the problem of thinking too much about yourselves at all. It is a preoccupation with self. Even the desire to be humble can become an all-about-you activity which negates the whole endeavor.
“Humility only comes in self-forgetting, when I am not at the center,” he explained. “Christ lowered himself for us because love requires self-emptying. His death is the model of humility because he did not do it for himself. Christ did not die in our place to show us how great he was but he did it to show us how great his love was for us and through it, he did show us his greatness.”
Fr. Chad described humility as elusive, as something that can only be achieved by abandoning it. “If we focus on it, praying: ‘Lord make me a humble man’ and then we serve others all the while looking inward, the more we focus on it the less likely we are achieving it. Inward concern about my humility contradicts the entire process.” He explained that in the end, “Doing everything you can to make yourself humble, makes it all about you.”
So even lowering yourself by saying, “Oh, I’m not so great,” or “they are better than me,” is still self-focused. The bottom line is to simply forget about yourself. Holy forgetfulness is when we think about others; loving and serving them out of love rather than doing it for ourselves.
The self-centeredness of pride has infected our culture in a big way. Humility is not the way of the modern world. More and more, it is the individual that counts at the expense of collective groups and communities. It is not just a sin of an individual but pride vs humility has far reaching ramifications. This issue struck me while reading the book Farmer Boy by Laura Ingals Wilder to my two youngest boys. The main character, a boy named Almonzo, put the needs of his family and others before himself. He had an enthusiastic and humble desire to work in order to help his family — he was other-centered. Even though becoming accomplished at ever-difficult tasks meant he would have more work to do, he delighted in it because it meant giving more help for his family. It struck me that this is a difficult trait to nurture among today’s children and requires humility.
Jerome Richter, religious studies chair and sociology teacher at St.Mary’s Central High School in Bismarck ND, was once a farmer boy himself. He was the eleventh of fourteen kids on a farm. During a recent conversation, he observed that when the family depends on every member’s contribution, kids are less focused on themselves and complain less about the work they have to do. They understand that the family needs them.
“At the age of about seven or eight, we were given the duty to help milk cows, feed calves, clean the barns, and any other task my Dad thought that needed to be done,” he said. “By the time I was ten years old, I had the full responsibility of milking cows, running tractors, and driving vehicle to and fro. I was an integral part of the farm and was depended on each day.”
Jerry explained that as a child he understood that his work was needed to help the family and the farm survive. “I was needed! There are few ten year-olds that wake up each day with thoughts that I am as important as everyone else in the family to survive.”
But the definition of importance in such a scenario is not self-focused, but other focused. Jerry went to work with the idea that he was needed to help feed his family. When we work for love of others, we are less inclined to complain or shirk responsibility. It is a pure act.
Humility does not just change our family life, but it changes everything in life. How often do athletes think more about the good of the team than their own egos? What about at work? Are people working as a unit and seeking to serve clients more than serve themselves? Extend that to our communities. Think about the times you went to a park or beach and found all kinds of litter around. It was a lack of humility–a self-focus rather than other-focus. Most people don’t litter in their back yards yet, those that do litter do so for their own convenience and don’t care about others. From families to boardrooms to beaches and communities, pride takes away. Fighting against pride and living humbly, reaches into every facet of our lives.
This is not to say that it’s wrong to take care of ourselves at all. When Jesus told us to love our neighbor as ourselves, it assumed we would love ourselves. No doubt there are people that struggle with loving themselves enough. Self-hatred is not humility. Remember, that too is self-centered thinking.
Humility is other-thinking, caring for others for no other reason than love of your brother and love of God. It is gratefully looking at our gifts and talents and seeing God, then doing our best to use those gifts to serve God and others. Jesus is our ultimate example. All that he did was for us. There was nothing in it for him. “Learn of me, because I am meek, and humble of heart: and you shall find rest to your souls” (Matthew 11:29).