Thrive Over Sin (1 of 4): Do Not Be Prideful
I'm a little ashamed to admit it, but, this past week, I almost got on a train without having a ticket.
I was heading to a meeting in the city and running just late enough that I was arriving at the station as the train pulled up. The thought occurred to me that I could buy a return ticket at the station that I was travelling to and no one would be the wiser. The moment was so intense that I had to head-butt a few elderly to get them out of the way —I'm only kidding; I said "excuse me" first.
While this is a common experience of Sydney-siders, herein lies the problem: I was forced to process the moment, and to make a decision, quite quickly because of the intensity of the moment. Was I worried about getting caught? No, but I was aware of the possibility. Was God a factor in my deliberations? Maybe; but I can't be sure.
I share this story with you, as an illustration, because these questions are relevant to the topics that I have been exploring, and will be exploring with you over the next couple of weeks.
Recently, I have spoken of the need for the disciples of Jesus to understand completely that we are alive in Christ; that is, we need to know that, as children of God, we are dead to sin and alive in and through Christ, who shares with us the power of God for abundant life, both now and into eternity. Knowing this, we must count on that power and life being available to us now and yield ourselves wholly to the Spirit of God, who offers to guide us throughout our life.
If we cannot do this, then we remain dead in sin. I have thus tried to encourage you to live as if you believe these things to be true, so that you may know that they are true. I believe that this point is so important because, as we fail to thrive spiritually, we actually become more prone to the temptations of sin, a point which then exacerbates our guilt and makes us even more prone to sin, and so on ... all the while we move further away —as if on a slippery slope— from the life that Jesus died to make possible for us, that life which was ours at our creation and which He now offers to us freely, once again.
Take my illustration with the train as an example: Let's say that, while being a disciple of Jesus, I decided to board the train anyway, knowing that I would have a pretty good chance of not getting caught, ignoring the fact that Jesus would certainly not have so willingly broken the rules. Success in such a small disregard for the rules will predispose me to do the same another time, even when the intensity is not as great. I may even then be encouraged, in my success, to break the rules of the land in another situation, and so on ... all the while on slide from which I may not recover wholly.
Being alive in Christ will be evident in our raison d’être, our reason for being. It will be evident in all circumstances, regardless of the felt significance of any given moment. Choosing to make small decisions —like whether to board the train without a ticket or not— in the power of and glory for the Spirit will predispose us in the opposite direction, towards trusting God with bigger and more important decisions, more consistently.
Let us then revisit the seven deadly sins, as a way of highlighting the nature and experience of the abundant life in Christ, of which I speak continually, beginning with pride, where it all begins anyway.
The Origin of the Sins
A good place to start on this topic is by describing the origin of the Seven Deadly Sins, as a way to put them into perspective and context. I'm not here referring to the origin of sin generally, which I will deal with in a later sermon, but to the historical and theological process that resulted in a list of seven sins being created in the first place and why these seven are described as "deadly".
Let us not be ignorant of the fact that we live in the midst of a great battle. It is a spiritual battle that has implications for our daily lives and has influence over the nature of this universe in which we live. This battle underlies, subversively, every thought, every action, every relationship, and every system that exists. It is a battle between God and those that oppose God and His authority. And we are caught in the middle.
Because we are caught in the middle, our welfare is actually at stake in this battle. The glory of God, our Creator, is demonstrated when we thrive —that is to say that when we enjoy life, and reach our potential, we bear witness to how "fearfully and wonderfully made" we are (Psalm 139:14). Those who oppose God don't want Him to look good, so they interfere with us and tempt us astray from the ways of life that our Creator has shown us (Genesis 3:1-7).
An inherent sense that we are not as we should be has persisted throughout human history. As a consequence, religious and philosophers have tried to express methods for achieving not just health, but wholeness. Towards this end, we naturally want to avoid painful experiences. Attempts to identify the causes of painful experiences, through the use of lists, can be seen in all cultures throughout history.
The grouping of virtues and vices into useful religious and legal codes has been found to have existed in ancient cultures spread from Iran and India to Egypt and the Mediterranean region. Perhaps the most famous early list belongs to Plato and his catalogue of four cardinal virtues, included in his work titled The Republic. Following in this traditon, this practice was certainly picked up by writers included in the Bible; most notably, in the New Testament, by the apostle Paul. Galatians 5:16-26 is his most clear catalogue comparing sin with the "fruits of the Spirit" (please note that the words "sin" and "vice" can be used relatively interchangeably).
Bringing this tradition and its Christian considerations together, Evagrius Ponticus (ca. 346–99), a Greek Christian and ascetic, described a list of eight sins that most closely resembles the seven that we know of today. The only difference found in his list is that he separated "pride" into two: boasting and playing God.
Pope Gregory I, also known as Gregory the Great, (ca. 540–604), combined the two forms of pride described by Evagrius, and gave us our know famous list of seven, which were explained theologically and popularised by Thomas Aquinas (1225–1274).
I'm no expert in Thomas Aquinas, mostly because I'm unwilling to take the time to read his massive and seminal work, the Summa Theologica —although I am reconsidering that position. But, in his treatment of the seven deadly sins, it appears that he argued that the seven are deadly, not because they are necessarily worse than any other possible sins, but because they give rise to others sins and thus act as root sins of human nature.
Another important point to take note of, in relation to these seven deadly sins, is that these sins are nowhere mentioned all together in the Bible, particularly not as a pre-eminent "list" of any sort. They are certainly mentioned individually; they are brought together as a list, of which the disciples of Jesus should be particularly aware and defensive towards, by the process of historical reflection by both lay-persons and theologians alike. As such, our study of them will be, most definitely, quite profitable for living life abundantly.
Do Not Be Prideful
Pride as the Primary Sin
Pride finds itself worthy of the 'pride-of-position' by being almost unanimously listed as the first among sins on such lists as we are exploring. Indeed, pride is the first sin that seems ever to have been committed, being that of which even the angels found themselves prone: "How you are fallen from heaven, O [Lucifer], son of [the] Dawn! [...] You said in your heart, 'I will ascend to heaven; I will raise my throne above the stars of God [...]' " (Isaiah 14:12-14).
Let us consider also that pride was that sin which we call the original sin, as Eve, then Adam, were tempted to pride by the serpent in the Garden: "You will be like God", he told them (Genesis 3:1-6). Enticed by but a simple piece of fruit, Adam and Eve's pride desired that they themselves attain to the knowledge and power reserved only for God, thereby hoping to free themselves of His authority over them.
It has been wisely said that "the essence of sin is selfishness, and pride is the inordinate assertion of self; it would annihilate others, and it disdains to be prescribed to even by God" (James Stalker, The Seven Deadly Sins). Pride is the antithesis of the admonishment of the apostle Paul: "I say to everyone among you not to think of yourself more highly than you ought to think" (Romans 12:3). Pride is not an act of sober judgement, but always contains within itself an element of falsehood, because pride is the one imagining for himself more than is his due based on an inflated assessment of who he is or could ever be. Adam and Eve's pride led to their banishment from the Garden, the source of all joy and nourishment and life. They got what they desired, and the consequences that they could not foresee overwhelmed them and us.
Let us not confuse aiming for excellence as pride, as this form does not have to equate with the 'tall-poppy syndrome'. There will always be those who will condemn their superiors, but being superior is not a sin in itself. How one conducts oneself in that position may be, but who is the proper judge? It may even be the case that those who choose to act modestly or morally or even 'spiritual' end up as the ones being proud.
Many Kinds of Pride
There are many kinds of pride, and many ways of expressing it. Pride may arise from the heart as a thought, a word or an action. Prideful speech is probably the one form with which we are most familiar, as being in the presence of a person who cannot refrain from boasting is tiresome indeed.
James Stalker, in 1901, wrote a classic treatise on the seven deadly sins, aptly named The Seven Deadly Sins, and it is his categorisation of the sources of pride which I think may be most helpful to us as well. Stalker draws our attention to the fact that pride tends to arise in the areas of the gifts that we enjoy —those of nature, or fortune and of grace:
1. Among the gifts of nature that we enjoy, which are prone to become sources of pride, are intellect and beauty. Those who consider themselves to be smart or witty can also find themselves craving attention for such. Indeed, those with an artistic temperament seem very naturally to crave recognition and applause. Such craving, whether arising from intellect, humour or artistry must be held in check by good sense. We all receive recognition when it is due; and if not, then let us remember that ultimately God knows and is pleased by our accomplishments.
In our day and age, how easily we turn other people into objects, based on their beauty and physique —and what better example of this sin than the recent case of Maughan Wellam, aged 10, who was entered into a bodybuilding competition by her parents. Child psychologists and others agree that 10 years of age is too young to be flaunting one's body, as it sends out the wrong message to not only the bodybuilding child, but other increasingly image-conscious children.
It is certainly not wrong to take care in our dress and to augment those features worth displaying. Yet, "charm is deceptive, and beauty is fleeting"; so let us not presume that our best character trait is nothing more superficial than our physical appearance. Let us also not make judgments on others, whether positive or negative, based on the appeal of their appearance to our eyes.
2. When we find ourselves suddenly and unexpectedly fortunate, we may too easily forget that "every good and perfect gift is from above" (James 1:17; cf. Deuteronomy 32:15). James Stalker expresses this form of pride with an illustration: "Few have the steadiness of head and hand to carry a full cup, especially if it has been suddenly filled". Indeed, the newly rich and/or suddenly famous too often forget old friends, become ashamed of her poor relations and even flatter those above themselves, while all the while trying to appear equal to them. Fortune is fickle and we should never take it for granted.
3. Finally, let us consider spiritual gifts because even they can become a source of pride. We can be tempted to measure spirituality by its outward forms —being an easier criteria for measuring church growth— when, in fact, it is only the Spirit of God that knows the heart of a man (Acts 15:8). It is God alone who is our judge and it is to Him alone that we are accountable for the state of our souls. "God cannot save a man who is not aware that he needs to be saved" (Stalker). When our faith becomes consumed by spiritual pretension, our spiritual progress actually becomes nigh impossible.
The Remedy for Pride
Thus says the Lord: Do not let the wise boast in their wisdom, do not let the mighty boast in their might, do not let the wealthy boast in their wealth; but let those who boast boast in this, that they understand and know me, that I am the Lord; I act with steadfast love, justice, and righteousness in the earth, for in these things I delight, says the Lord. (Jeremiah 9:23-24)
Whether it be due to our intellect, our physical prowess, our fortune, our fame or any other traits that appear to set us above our peers, pride is always the act of thinking only of ourselves and ignoring the claims of our neighbour or of God upon us. To remedy pride then, one must think of God and of others first or, at the very least, with more vigour that selfishness. Anything that we do to this end is helpful. Even grudgingly giving a gold coin to a beggar is to set one's feet upon a path towards healthy and whole relationships with others, relationships that allow both parties to play their part and to express whatever gifts they can contribute to any given situation.
Also, celebrating instances of humility would do us good, as opposed to the celebration of greatness so prevalent in our modern day. For example, Mother Teresa's death passed with little notice compared to that of Princess Diana, even though they both died during the same week of 1997. Who contributed more to humanity in direct action and by example?
Finally, when one compares themself to Jesus —"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"— how can anyone possibly imagine having grounds for pride? (Phil 2:3-11; Matt 11:29) His life and lifestyle are the template for our own, not just the perfect example to which we may aspire. Anything that He did, we can do and more, at least according to Jesus anyway (Matthew 21:21).
On Making Excuses for Sin
While the remedy seems easy enough, it is perhaps easier to avoid by making excuses for our pride instead, because, as C.S. Lewis pointed out:
If you had a perfect excuse you would not need forgiveness: if the whole of your action needs forgiveness then there was no excuse for it. But the trouble is that what we call "asking God's forgiveness" very often really consists in asking God to accept our excuses. What leads us into this mistake is the fact that there usually is some amount of excuse, some "extenuating circumstances". We are so very anxious to point these out to God (and to ourselves) that we are apt to forget the really important thing; that is, the bit left over, the bit which the excuses don't cover, the bit which is inexcusable but not, thank God, unforgivable.
... What we have got to take to him is the inexcusable bit, the sin. We are only wasting time by talking about all the parts which can (we think) be excused. When you go to a doctor you show him the bit of you that is wrong —say, a broken arm. It would be a mere waste of time to keep on explaining that your legs and eyes and throat are all right. You may be mistaken in thinking so; and anyway, if they are really all right, the doctor will know that. (C. S. Lewis, "On Forgiveness", The Weight of Glory and Other Addresses)
May we not fall prey to avoiding acknowledging our pride by making excuses, which is to minimise the influence of pride —and those who peddle it— and the reason for avoiding it in the first place. Only then can we apply the remedies and begin to really live.
To be alive in Christ means to willingly submit yourself to the guidance of the Holy Spirit, who will fill you with all the power that you need to be able to do the things that you are unable to do. Do you find it hard to avoid pride? While it may seem hard, this vice can be overcome; it does not have to get in the way of your relationship with God nor your relationship with your neighbours. Everything we do, and the reasons for such, can be done with the inclusion of the Spirit's help.
Adam and Eve failed because they were tempted to think that they did not need God, that they could somehow 'go it alone'. Learning from their mistake, let us instead remember and place our trust in God:
Now to him who is able to keep you from falling, and to make you stand without blemish in the presence of his glory with rejoicing, to the only God our Saviour, through Jesus Christ our Lord, be glory, majesty, power, and authority, before all time and now and forever. Amen. (Jude 24-25)