A Brief Introduction
The Seven Deadly Sins owe their origin to John Cassian (360-435), who put together a list of eight principal vices. These were later amended to the seven sins we know today: lust, gluttony, greed, sloth, anger, envy, and pride. Each has a counter-balancing set of values that we should espouse and adopt. In parallel order to the sins they oppose, the seven virtues are chastity, temperance, charity, diligence, patience, kindness, and humility. Even as we look at the sins we need to avoid, we need to examine the virtues we need to practice, and we will do that in this study.
We will also look at the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit spoken about by the prophet Isaiah (cf. Isaiah 11:2-3). They are wisdom, understanding, counsel, fortitude (or might), knowledge, piety, and fear of the Lord. These seven gifts, part of sanctifying grace, complete and perfect the virtues of those who receive them. In some ways, the gifts are similar to the virtues, but a significant difference is that the virtues operate under the impetus of human reason, though prompted by grace. In contrast, the gifts operate under the impetus of the Holy Spirit.
We need to use them both.
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 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 we are proud. So how do we recognize it in us? Honest answers to these questions may provide some clues. We don't need to feel unduly bad if we discover we are prideful; we just need to acknowledge our failings, repent for them, and ask God to lead a life that is more humble.
Do you think you are smarter than others?
Some of us take great pride in our 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 that he had never held a cricket bat in his hand in his entire life! People generally considered my friend 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 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 frozen within minutes of hitting the ground. As a result of the navigator's pride, five other people went to their deaths.
Do you think you are superior to others?
This pride makes us think we are better than everybody else and is often expressed by bragging. One of the greatest braggarts of all time was the boxer Mohammed Ali who immortalized the phrase, "I am the greatest."
There's a story reported about a conversation 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 and asked him to 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 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.
Are you ambitious?
Do you want to be greater than 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 we carry forth through life. We want to 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 would happen to him, they were more concerned about what would become of them! Two of them, James and John, went to Jesus and told him, "Let one of us sit at your right and the other 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 wants to become great among you must be your servant," he said, "and whoever wants to be first must be slave of all" (Mark 10:35-45).
That is good advice to cure the 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 you can do things on your own. I saw this in my own life some years ago. 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 due to this negligence: One, I felt exhausted most of the time, which was the result of working on my own steam rather than being 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.
God doesn't let me get away with nonsense for too long, and he sat me down for a week in Omaha and showed me the error of my ways. I spent this time under the care of the late Mother Nadine, one of the most wonderful women of God I have had the fortune of meeting.
I ceased all travel for three months after that, restoring my relationship with him. More recently, I took a break for an entire year.
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 noticed how the guests picked the places of honor at the table, so as was his habit, he told them a parable.
"When someone invites you to a wedding feast, do not take the place of honor, for a person more distinguished than you may have been invited. If so, the host who invited both of you will come and say to you, 'Give this person your seat.' Then, humiliated, you will have to take the least important place. But when you are invited, take the lowest place, so that when your host comes, he will say to you, 'Friend, move up to a better place.' Then you will be honored in the presence of all the other guests. For all those 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 we can engage in false humility in our desire to show others that we are not proud. 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 my devotions every day. I'm doing better than her." Or, "I go for church services daily while he doesn't even go on Sundays. I am high up the spiritual 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 look 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 foolishly 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 you're above rules; 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 healthy 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. Instead, it is thinking less about ourselves. If we take the focus off us and put it on somebody else, we're on our way to being humble.
Another way towards humility is realizing our dependence 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 little 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?" (Matthew 18:1).
It was a shocking question, especially considering 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 quarreling 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 adults for all their 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.
Children are also innocent and unpretentious. Consequently, they are teachable, unlike many adults who are so puffed up with knowledge, they believe they are smarter and cleverer than everybody else. Consequently, they are unteachable.
Jesus called simple people to be his apostles because they would be prepared to listen to what he had to say and learn what he had to teach. Perhaps Judas was the most intelligent of the twelve he chose, and there is probably a lesson in there somewhere.
Being intelligent is not bad, but it often gets in the way of discovering the truth. Being knowledgeable is not a bad thing either, but this too often makes one blind to things that should be obvious. One always has to be open to learning, open to looking at things from a different perspective, and open to the realization that one does not and cannot know everything.
I used to think of myself as highly intelligent and knowledgeable most of my life. I looked down on almost everybody as fools, especially those who believed in God—I, myself, was an atheist and very proud of it—until fifteen years ago when I encountered God. And then I realized I was the fool and that everything I had believed for twenty-five years was so much rubbish. So I just decided to wipe the slate clean and let God teach me afresh.
But then, even what God teaches can puff you up, making you think you know a lot when you still know nothing. So now, every once in a while, I will take this big duster to the blackboard of my mind, wipe it clean again, and start afresh. This is why I believe I am still learning and discovering so much that is new and, consequently, can teach so much that is new.
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 we use to counsel others; instead, it is counsel we 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: 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. Anyone serious about their spiritual growth needs someone to direct them, but we need to seek God's counsel first in anything.
Adam and Eve would never have made the mistake they made in Eden if they had gone to God for counsel. Eve may not have been able to stop the dialog 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 God. 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 childlike we become. Jesus said, "Enter through the narrow gate. For wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it. But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it" (Matthew 7:13-14). Perhaps only children can find it; if the gate is so small, only they can get through.
Scripture teaches us that the way of fools seems right to them, but the wise listen to advice (Proverbs 12:15). This advice is best taken when it comes from God, as Scripture also teaches: Trust in the LORD with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding; in all your ways submit to him, and he will make your paths straight (Proverbs 3:5-6).
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. He was a brilliant, highly educated man 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 know anything.
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 was 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 horns piercing into him.
Pride is like that bull. Let us believe it dead only when we are.
May the Spirit be with you.