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The Seven Deadly Sins: Pride

 

Proverbs 16:18

                                                   Daniel 5:20 -23                     James 4:1-6                         John 13:1-15

 

I: — Recently I walked into a major department store, looking for an article I was eager to purchase. I didn’t know where to find it. I asked a salesperson. I thought she would be eager to help for three reasons: one, I had money to spend; two, she had no other customers to wait upon; three, I was in a hurry. But she wasn’t eager to help. “Over there”, she waved in no direction at all, “it’s over there, somewhere.” Doesn’t she have any pride in her work?

Some hockey players are known as “floaters”. They have above-average ability. They work hard for part of the game. They work hard if the score is still tied early in the game, or they work hard if they haven’t scored yet themselves. But as soon as their team is two goals ahead or two goals behind they “float”. As soon as they’ve scored a goal or two themselves they skate at three-quarter speed and avoid heavy traffic. Their name is now in the scoring column and they are taking the rest of the night off. “Floaters”. Don’t they have any pride in what they’re doing? Shouldn’t they be ashamed of themselves for drawing a huge pay-cheque for so little effort?

Speaking of shame, our society assumes that shame is everywhere and always detrimental, and therefore we should all aim at becoming shame-free. In fact nothing could be worse. The person with no capacity for shame is like the person with no capacity for guilt: he’s to be pitied (since his condition is genuinely pitiable) and he’s to be avoided (since he really is dangerous – he’s a psychopath). It is false shame that is detrimental and is therefore to be eliminated. False shame is being shame-bound when we have nothing to be ashamed of. But to remain unashamed when we should rightly be ashamed is nothing less than pitiable.

Plainly there are two distinct meanings to “pride.” One we shall discuss soon. The other meaning, the one presupposed so far in the sermon, pertains to the pursuit of excellence. Pride in the sense of the pursuit of excellence has nothing to do with pride as sin. In fact, not to pursue excellence is sin.   Irving Layton, late Canadian poet, has penned the line, “The slow, steady triumph of mediocrity.” He’s captured it, hasn’t he. Mediocrity will triumph if only because the many purveyors of mediocrity, joining forces, can always outvote and outmanoeuvre and outmuscle the few who are committed to excellence. Mediocrity is threatened by excellence and longs to submerge it.

Pride isn’t sin when it’s simply the pursuit of excellence. Pride is sin when it’s a God-defying and neighbour-disdaining arrogance. The key is the distinction between excellence and arrogance.

Then why is pride in the sense of arrogance to be abhorred? If the consequences of arrogance were merely that we appeared somewhat snooty and snobby then pride would be a trifle. Yet our mediaeval foreparents named it one of the seven “deadly sins”, the deadly sin. And in fact the consequences of spiritual arrogance, so far from being trivial, are ruinous.

 

II:(i) — Think of how arrogance blinds us. Pride blinds us to our fragility, our frailty. Pride leads us to think we are Herculean, a “cut above” everyone else, impervious to all the things that collapse and crumble those whom we deem “lesser breeds”. The hymn writer cries, “Frail as summer’s flower we flourish; blows the wind, and it is gone.” “Not so”, we whisper to ourselves, “not so. We aren’t frail and it’ll take more than a puff of summer wind to scatter us.”

When arrogant people boast of physical invulnerability, thinking themselves to be beyond the reach of disease and debilitation, we pronounce them fools. We also stand back and wait a while, knowing that soon they will prove themselves helpless against the tiniest microbe.

Yet having learned our lesson so thoroughly with respect to physical health, we appear to learn nothing about our spiritual well-being. Having detected the pride that leaves people foolishly thinking themselves to be physically invulnerable, we appear unaware of the pride that leaves us on the edge of spiritual collapse.

The saints of every tradition have known, for instance, that there is no spiritual resilience without frequent, habitual, heart-searching prayer on behalf of oneself and the same frequent, habitual, self-forgetting intercession on behalf of others. But if we have concluded that we have no time for this, not so much as ten minutes per day, we are pride-blinded to our own vulnerability and to the world’s need.

If we were to appear in public with lipstick on our teeth or our slip showing by three inches; if we were to appear in public with our zipper undone or egg-yolk on our necktie we’d be annoyed at those who saw us like this but never took us aside and told us quietly what had to be done. Certainly we’d never thank those who failed to spare us embarrassment, let alone humiliation. Yet our pride blinds us to our spiritual need and blinds us yet again to the gratitude we owe those who point out our spiritual deficits in order to spare us public embarrassment. When people who know us well, even those we deem good friends, gently try to tell us that we are unknowingly flirting with something that is going to be our downfall, our pride suddenly sours us and we resent being told this. We don’t thank them. We tell them to mind their own business; we tell ourselves that we are invulnerable. Why, our discipleship could never be collapsed. What can be next except collapse?   The person who thinks he’s beyond disgracing himself is already on the edge of doing just that.

Frail as summer’s flower we flourish? Not we. In no time our proud denial of our frailty publicly demonstrates our frailty. Pride blinds us to our frailty, our fragility, our spiritual vulnerability.

 

(ii) — Another reason that our foreparents, wise in matters of the Spirit, deemed pride to be the arch sin: pride is also the arch-corrupter. It corrupts everything good; it corrupts everything that the gospel struggles to bring to birth in us.

Think of courage. Courage is the work of Christ within us, the work of him whose most frequent word to his followers is, “Fear not.” As soon as we are proud of our courage, however, we become show-offs. Show-offs are soon reckless. Reckless people are dangerous, dangerous to themselves and dangerous to others.

Think of affection. Affection too is fostered by him who loves us more than he loves himself. Yet as soon as we are proud of the affection we pour upon others, they feel patronised by our affection. So far from exalting others, our affection (now corrupted) demeans them.

Think of both thrift and generosity. (Thrift and generosity have to be considered together, since only thrifty people have the wherewithal to be generous.) The gospel quickens generosity in us. (After all, we are rendered Christian by the self-giving of him who gave up everything for us). Yet as soon as pride appears it corrupts, since the person proud of his thrift becomes stingy, miserly even, while the person proud of his generosity uses his generosity to advertise himself.

There is nothing that pride doesn’t corrupt, and corrupt thoroughly.

 

(iii) Our theological and spiritual foreparents, however, were quick to attack pride chiefly because they knew that blindness to our vulnerability and the corruption of our graces, important as they are, are mere spin-offs of the ultimately hideous illusion that our pride visits upon us. I speak now of the illusion that we are not creatures in that we acknowledge no creator; we are not sinners in that we acknowledge no judge; we are not to be servants in that we acknowledge no master; we are not to spend ourselves for others in that we acknowledge no claim upon us; and we are not to submit ourselves to the Other in that we acknowledge no one to be our Lord. This is the ultimate illusion.

Psychiatrists tell us that people who live in a world of cognitive illusion are psychotic. The word “psychotic” means that someone’s ability to test what is actually “out there”; this ability is grossly impaired or has even been lost. Our society is horrified at the appearance of psychotic people; our society’s response is to move them off the scene as fast as possible. In our horror at psychosis (which is a giant, all-encompassing cognitive illusion) we blithely overlook that spiritual psychosis which is far more common; universal, in fact, apart from a miracle at God’s hand. Spiritual psychosis is the spiritual condition where someone’s ability to discern God’s presence, God’s truth, God’s way, God’s inescapability; someone’s ability here is broken down (or not so much broken down as never quickened). Are we horrified at this? Not at all. The ultimate evil of pride is that it destroys our capacity to perceive the truth about ourselves under God. It even destroys our awareness that we are under God. This is the ultimate illusion and, if we were sensible at all, the ultimate horror.

The book of Daniel tells us that when King Nebucchadnezzar became swollen with pride his spirit was hardened; he was deposed from this throne; his glory was taken away from him; he went mad and ate grass like an animal. His pride brought on “melt-down”. His pride blinded him, blunted him, dehumanised him. The text tells us that he remained in this state “until he knew that the Most High God rules the kingdom of men….”

 

III: — Since all of us are afflicted with a pride comparable to Nebucchadnezzar’s, all of us desperately need to be cured of it. What is the cure? Where does the cure begin?

 

(i) It begins with truth; the truth (i.e., the truth of God); the whole truth. The truth is, we are unrighteous people who have nothing to plead on our own behalf. Since we can plead nothing of ourselves, we can only plead God’s mercy, his forgiveness, his remission of our sin.

As long as we think there is anything in us that God can recognise and reward, we are pride-deluded. The fact that our only righteousness is God’s gift tells us that there is nothing in ourselves that we can call up or brandish or use as a bargaining chip with God. Several years ago I was counselling a woman, on her way to a divorce, when her husband — a Texan — dropped into my office to pay me for the service – many hours of counselling – I was rendering his wife. I told this Texan that there was no counselling fee; I was paid by the congregation, and I was paid adequately. He insisted on writing a small cheque ($25.00) to the congregation. “I may not have a great deal of money”, he told me vehemently, “but I’m no ‘field nigger’.” Plainly a field nigger is someone with no standing and no respectability. This man was telling me he had some. But the fact of God’s pardon, his forgiveness, his mercy, his remission; the fact of this means that you and I are beggars before God. To be sure, forgiveness means more than this, a great deal more; but it never means less. The fact that we can live before God only by his mercy means that we have nothing to call up or brandish or use as a bargaining chip with God.

When Richard Nixon was charged and convicted, Gerald Ford, his successor, granted him a “Presidential Pardon”. The fact of Nixon’s pardon meant there wasn’t one person who could think of one thing to excuse one offence. Since there wasn’t one person who could think of one thing to excuse one offence, either Richard Nixon was to be sentenced or he was to be pardoned. He was pardoned. His pardon, however, presupposed his guilt. We must be sure we understand this point: Nixon’s pardon meant he was indisputably guilty. What is excusable we excuse; the wholly inexcusable, the utterly guilty, can only be pardoned.

If we think no pride remains in us, then we need to ask ourselves if we understand what God’s forgiveness means: it means that our Father can’t think of one thing that would excuse anything about us. God’s gift of righteousness – his gift of right standing with him pressed upon those who cling in faith to the ever-righteous Son – means that of ourselves we have no standing with him and aren’t fit to appear before him.

 

(ii)   If the first truth about us is that the gospel unmasks us, exposes us, the second truth about us is that the gospel gloriously heals us and exalts us. The second truth is also a second test: are we willing to wrap the healing/exalting gospel around us despite the gospel’s bloodiness (say pseudo-sophisticates) and despite the gospel’s narrowness (say the supposedly broadminded) and despite the gospel’s Jewishness (say the anti-Semites among us)?

Naaman was commander of the Syrian army. He learned he had leprosy. He longed to be rid of it. A young Israelite woman, a prisoner of war, told Naaman’s wife that a man named Elisha, a prophet in Israel , could cure Naaman. Naaman swallowed his pride and called on Elisha. What a humiliation. He, a military commander, a cosmopolitan Gentile, appearing cap-in-hand before this scruffy enemy fellow who also belonged to that people the world loves to loathe. Naaman was so humiliated he knew there couldn’t be any pride left in him — until Elisha told him what he had to do to be cured. He would have to wash seven times in the Jordan River (the Jordan being then what the Don River is today). Naaman stormed off, shouting at Elisha, “Can’t you just wave your hand and make me better? And if I do have to wash, can’t I wash in a river of my choosing?” That was what Naaman really wanted: he wanted to wash in a river of his choosing. He hadn’t quite swallowed all his pride. Meanwhile, Elisha was adamant: the Jordan or no cure.

All of us want an easy cure for our pride. We’d all prefer a wave of the hand; or at least a cure of our choosing. We all want relief from symptoms; we all want deliverance from self-deception and corruption. At least we all want deliverance from self-deception and corruption at the same time that we want to cling to our own righteousness, the righteousness we think we have, lest we have to admit with the hymn writer, “Nothing in my hand I bring; nothing.”

Naaman went home and thought it over for a while. He thought it over until his loathsomeness was as loathsome to him as it had long been to everyone else. Then he did as the prophet had commanded: seven times in that river proud people didn’t go near.

Seven is the biblical symbol for completeness, for wholeness. Naaman, a Syrian, (today we’d call him an Arab); this Arab remained immersed in the river of Israel until he was completely cured, whole once more.

You and I must remain immersed in the gospel until our life’s end; we must remain immersed in the gospel until that day when faith gives way to sight and our arrogance is behind us forever.

 

(iii) The third truth about our pride-warped hearts and the cure we need is this: we need to wash feet. Jesus washed feet. It was the work of a servant, never the duty of the householder. Jesus knew it was the work of a lower-class servant – and he said it was pure privilege.

The next time we are asked to do something we instinctively feel to be beneath us, something that makes us feel small, we need to do it. We must come to see that footwashing is a privilege in a world that boasts of its self-importance but only displays a shrivelled heart. We must come to see that only a very small person is ever truly big.

 

(iv) The fourth truth about us and the cure for our deep-seated pride: we have to allow our own feet to be washed. In some respects it’s much harder to be washed than to wash, because at least when we are washing someone else’s feet we likely feel somewhat heroic and hugely generous. To admit that our own feet need washing, by anyone at all, is very difficult. Years ago I spoke with a university professor who was struggling desperately with a temptation whose details we needn’t discuss; the professor told me the only man who had been able to help him was a truck driver who had been delivered from the same addiction – and he needed this truck driver as he needed no one else.

Thomas Watson, my favourite 17th century Puritan thinker, has written, “All Christian growth is finally growth in humility.

                                                                                                Victor Shepherd                                         

 February 2006