He was the most beautiful of all angels. He was referred to as the Day Star, and the son of Dawn. His name itself spoke of his brightness—Lucifer, angel of light. He dreamt of ascending the heavens and raising his throne above that of God's. But he was sent crashing down to the dark recesses of the pit for committing the greatest sin of all: Pride.
That is what pride, described by theologians as the father of all sins, does to us. We end up going down even as we try to go up. It is also the most common of all sins, though strangely enough, most of us don't even realize that we are proud. So how do we recognize it in us? Honest answers to these questions may provide some clues.
Do you think you are smarter than others?
Some of us take a lot of pride in our own opinions, judgments and thoughts. I used to have a friend like that. He used to think he knew it all, and would expound his theories about every single topic under the sun. Most bemusing were his "expert" commentaries during cricket matches, especially given the fact that he had never held a cricket bat in his hand in his entire life! My friend was generally considered a harmless buffoon, but such pride can have serious—even tragic—consequences.
Dave McPherson tells the story of a U.S. Air Force transport plane flying over Alaska in the mid-50s with its captain and five crew members when they entered an unusually fierce snowstorm. The navigator contacted an air base only to be told that he had veered several hundred miles off course. Correct coordinates were given to the navigator, who continued to insist that his own calculations could not be that far off. Soon the plane ran low on fuel. The six men decided to abandon the plane and parachute to safety, but because of the sub zero temperature and winds that gusted to 50 mph, they were all frozen within minutes of hitting the ground. As a result of the navigator's pride, five other people went to their deaths.
Proverbs 12:15 tells us that "fools think their own way is right, but the wise listen to advice." This advice is best taken when it comes from God, as Proverbs 3:5 says: "Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and do not rely on your own insight."
The key word here is "heart". Faith is a gift of the heart and not of the mind. Many of us know a lot about God, but unless that knowledge—a mind thing—goes down to the heart, we will never really know God. We see this exemplified in the arrogance of Saul before he turned Paul. He was a brilliant man, very highly educated, who knew the Scriptures. And because he knew the Scriptures, he thought he knew God. Only when he was thrown off his high horse and met Jesus on the way to Damascus did he realize that he didn't really know anything.
Do you think you are superior to others?
This is a pride which basically makes us think we are better than everybody else, and is often expressed by bragging. One of the greatest braggarts of all times was the boxer Mohammed Ali who immortalized the phrase, "I am the greatest."
There's a story reported about a conversation that took place between a flight attendant and Mohammed Ali, then at the start of his career. Ali was on a plane and as he didn't have his seat belt fastened, the stewardess came up to him and asked him buckle up. "Superman don't need no seat belt," he told her. She gave him a withering look and said, "Superman don't need no plane."
We might laugh at that but many of us are guilty of this type of pride. Have you ever said—or felt like saying—these words to somebody: "Don't you know who I am?" Or how about this: "Who do you think you are telling me what to do?"
I remember a highly educated professional came to me one day for counsel. His marriage was on the rocks and he seemed to want to save it, but as he spoke I realized that he didn't want any suggestions on how he could repair it, but wanted me to affirm the things that he was doing, which mainly consisted of a list of conditions he had laid down for his wife, if she wanted to get back to him. I told him that if he wanted to reconcile with her he needed to forgive her for all the wounds that she had caused him—real or imagined—but even as I spoke to him, I knew it was useless. I could almost hear him thinking, "Who do you think you are, preacher man?" He felt superior to me; possibly superior to everybody.
This kind of pride can make us think we are superior to God too. We saw this happen with Satan. We also know it happened with Adam and Eve. Why did they eat of the fruit? Because they wanted to be like God.
Pride builds very slowly and often so subtly that we don't even realize that somewhere along the line we have become proud. I remember when I started Holy Spirit Interactive, people started referring to me as "Brother Aneel" and it irritated me because I thought it was pompous. As the weeks went by, however, I discovered I started liking the title and getting annoyed when people didn't call me "Brother". God, fortunately, doesn't let me get away with any such nonsense, and told me to level the playing field by calling everybody else brother (and sister) as well.
Are you ambitious?
Do you want to be superior to others? Ever since we are little most of us are told we need to be first in everything — from studies to sports— and it is something that we carry forth through life. We want be the richest, the smartest, and like Ali, the greatest. Healthy ambition, where we want to do the best we can and succeed in what we do is not sinful; it becomes sinful when we believe it has to be at the expense of others.
We see the apostles making this mistake too! Shortly after Jesus told them of the fate He was going to suffer, rather than be more concerned about what was going to happen to Him, they were more concerned about what was going to become of them! Two of them, James and John, went to Jesus and told Him, "Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory" (Mark 10:37). When the others heard about this they got mad. Why? Because they wanted to sit by Jesus' side! Jesus had to pull them all up. "Whoever wishes to become great among you," he said, "must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all" (cf Mark 10:35-45).
Good advice that, as a cure for pride of ambition, especially for those in leadership roles in the Church.
Do you have a spotty prayer life?
Not having a regular, disciplined prayer life usually suggests a high degree of pride because you believe that you can do things on your own steam. I saw this in my own life recently. For most of 2008 I shuttled across the world, traveling to ten countries across five continents and preaching to people by the thousands. Although I was encouraging them to build a good, solid relationship with God, my own relationship was at its worst ever since I got to know Him. I was spending more time talking about Him than with Him.
There were two direct consequences as a result of this negligence: One, I felt extremely tired most of the time, which was the result of working on my own steam rather than empowered by His Spirit. Two, I felt angry that God wasn't chipping in more in what was His work, which was the result of operating according to my own will rather than His. As I said earlier, God doesn't let me get away with any nonsense for too long, and He sat me down for a week in Omaha and showed me the error of my ways. I ceased all travel for three months after that, just restoring my relationship with Him again.
Maybe He is using my mistake to show you yours.
Are you vain?
Vanity is inflated pride in oneself or one's appearance. In his book A Love Worth Giving: Living in the Overflow of God's Love
Max Lucado illustrates this aspect of pride with a delightful set of questions almost guaranteed to make us squirm. "Suppose you are in a group photo. The first time you see the picture where do you look? And if you look good, do you like the picture? If you are the ONLY one who looks good, do you still like the picture? If some are cross-eyed and others have spinach in their teeth-but you still look good-do you like the picture? If that's what makes you like it even more, you've got a bad case of pride."
Do you seek positions of honor and recognition?
Jesus spoke about this kind of pride, which seeks positions of honor, recognition, and praise for ourselves, rather than others. One day He had gone to the house of a prominent pharisee and He noticed how the guests picked the places of honor at the table, so as was his habit He told them a parable.
"When you are invited by someone to a wedding banquet," He said, "do not sit down at the place of honour, in case someone more distinguished than you has been invited by your host; and the host who invited both of you may come and say to you, "Give this person your place", and then in disgrace you would start to take the lowest place. But when you are invited, go and sit down at the lowest place, so that when your host comes, he may say to you, "Friend, move up higher"; then you will be honoured in the presence of all who sit at the table with you. For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted" (Luke 14:8-11).
We have to be careful here, however, because in our desire to show others that we are not proud, we can engage in false humility. Mother Nadine describes a time in the cloister, where she had spent a great deal of life, when they had a superior from the provincial house come to visit. They were all getting in line for lunch, which was cafeteria style, and they asked their guest to go first. She, however, insisted that everybody else go before her and, as a result, held up the line for ten minutes!
Are you obstinate?
In the summer of 1986, two ships collided in the Black Sea off the coast of Russia. Hundreds of passengers died as they were hurled into the icy waters below. News of the disaster was further darkened when an investigation revealed the cause of the accident. It wasn't a technology problem like radar malfunction--or even thick fog. The cause was human stubbornness. Each captain was aware of the other ship's presence nearby. Both could have steered clear, but according to news reports, neither captain wanted to give way to the other. Each was too proud to yield first. By the time they came to their senses, it was too late.
Sometimes we hold on to our beliefs with the mistaken idea that we are taking principled stands, whereas we may be in error and in need of correction. This type of pride shuns correction, refuses to admit to wrongdoing, and often results in our blaming others for our own mistakes. Proverbs 29:1 says, "One who is often reproved, yet remains stubborn, will suddenly be broken beyond healing."
Are you complacent?
Pride of complacency arises when we compare ourselves to others rather than to Christ. Spiritually this is very dangerous, because we get a false sense of worth about ourselves. For example we can look at somebody else and think, "Hey, she hardly prays, but I say the rosary every day. I'm doing better than her." Or, "I go for daily mass while he doesn't even go on Sunday's. I am heavy on the ladder." Or, "I've been a preacher for 25 years. I know more than anybody else." It makes us feel proud.
Such pride handicaps our growth. When we compare ourselves to others, we are looking behind at where they are standing, rather than ahead at where Jesus stands calling us to be perfect like our heavenly Father is perfect (cf Matthew 5:48). Consequently, we stop growing, because we complacently believe that we have reached. In the Christian journey, if we believe we have reached somewhere, we are spiritually dead because this journey doesn't end until we are really dead.
A few more questions
Are you often critical of others? A critical spirit is often found in proud people because their motive in bringing others down is often to lift themselves up. Are you disobedient? This is a sign that you think that you're above rules; that they don't apply to you. Are you timid or overly sensitive? Both come from a fear of other people's opinions of us, which highlights pride.
The Virtue: Humility
If we have been honest in answering the questions asked above, we have probably discovered that there is a lot of pride in us. That's ok, if we're willing to fix it. So what's the fix? Humility is the obvious antidote. But how do we attain this humility?
First, we need to understand what humility is and what it isn't. Some people believe that humility is putting ourselves down: saying that we aren't smart, or aren't pretty, or aren't anything good. This isn't true. We all need to have a healthy sense of self-esteem and be secure in what God made us and the gifts He has blessed us with. So humility is not thinking less of ourselves. Rather it is thinking less about ourselves. Take the focus off us and put it on somebody else, and we're on our way to being humble.
Another way towards humility is realizing our dependance on God. Without Him, we are nothing. Sometimes the best among us fail to realize this.
One day while Jesus was talking to a bunch of people He set a little child among them and said, "Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven" (Matthew 18:3). The people He was addressing were His apostles! And these words were in response to a question they asked Him: "Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?"
It was a shocking question, especially when you consider who these men were. They were uneducated, simple folk for the most part, who had been picked out of modest surroundings by Jesus because they were humble. Yet, within a few months they were squabbling among themselves over who was the greatest among them. What had happened to them? They had begun to think too highly of themselves; after all they were the "chosen." But they weren't content with being set apart from everybody else, they wanted to be recognized more than each other as well. As we saw earlier, they each wanted positions of glory on Jesus's right and left when they were in heaven. Jesus had to cut them down to size by telling them that leave aside positions of honor on his right and left, unless they changed and became like little children, they may not even get admittance into heaven!
What does it mean to be like little children? What are the characteristics of a child? There are many but the one common trait of a child is dependence. A child depends on an adult for all his/her needs, from food and clothing to shelter and protection. This dependence results in humility. As we grow older—physically, emotionally, spiritually—we shed this dependence, and become self-reliant. While this may have its advantages in the world we inhabit, it's a definite drawback in the spiritual world, where dependence—with its resultant humility—is the price of admission.
The Gift: Counsel
Of the seven gifts of the Spirit, the gift particularly suited to combat pride is the gift of counsel. Now this gift is not one that we use to counsel others; rather it is counsel that we ourselves receive from the Spirit. We cannot receive counsel unless we are prepared to submit to God, and submission requires humility, which is why it cuts straight through pride. We admit to ourselves that we cannot do anything without God: that we need Him, need his advice, need his guidance, need to know His will; and, consequently, seek Him and what He wants to say to us.
But having sought Him, we still need to discern that the voice we hear is truly His, so we need to counsel with our spiritual director, another move that helps build humility. St. Basil the Great encourages each of us to find a spiritual guide "who may serve you as a sure guide in the work of leading a holy life" and warns that "to be one that does not need counsel is great pride." But we need to seek God's counsel first.
Adam and Eve would never have made the mistake that they made in Eden if they had gone to God for counsel. Eve may not have been able to stop the dialog that she had with the serpent, but the simple act of going to God and asking Him what He thought about what the serpent said would have saved her a lot of grief. Ditto for Adam. And it wasn't like they didn't have access to Him. He walked in the garden of Eden with them!
The more we go to God for counsel the more humble we become. The humbler we get, the more child-like we become. Jesus said, "Enter through the narrow gate. For wide is the gate and broad the road that leads the destruction, and many enter through it. But small is the gate and narrow the path that leads to life, and only a few find it" (Matthew 7:13-14). Perhaps only children can find it; after all, if the gate is so small, then only they can get through.
As a final note on the subject, I'd like to relate a story that Craig Brian Larson tells of Jose Cubero, one of Spain's most brilliant matadors, who died when he was only 21 years old after having made a tragic mistake in a bullfight. He thrust his sword a final time into a bleeding, delirious bull, which then collapsed. Considering the struggle finished, Jose turned to the crowd to acknowledge the applause. The bull, however, was not dead. It rose and lunged at the unsuspecting matador, its horn piercing his back and puncturing his heart.
Pride is like that bull. Let us believe it dead only when we are.
May the Spirit be with you.
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