Christian Living

Pride: Its root and fruit

In his book Mere Christianity, C.S. Lewis claims that pride is the great sin.[1] When I re-read this recently, I thought he was exaggerating. After some more reflection, however, I have come to the conclusion that he is right, that pride is in fact so insidious, and so damaging, that it is indeed worth a good, long meditation (leading to action!).

But I have to content myself with a medium meditation here: so I will concentrate on the causes and effects of pride, that is its root and its fruit.

First of all, what do I mean by ‘pride’? It’s actually really hard to define in terms that make sense to most people. If you look up the definition of ‘pride’, you can see both positive and negative ideas coming through. On the one hand, we think it’s really important to have a secure sense of self; on the other hand, we hate to see people overstepping their proper boundaries and claiming more for themselves than is warranted. By ‘pride’, I am talking about what happens when we have an opinion and zeal for ourselves that is out of proportion with our real position in the universe. The italicised words are really key: pride, as depicted in the Bible, really puts us quite out of sync with reality. Usually it makes us want to ‘centre-stage’ ourselves as the most important, but sometimes it can content itself with centre-staging ourselves as the least important, the most humble –anything is better than simply being one of many!

Now, I don’t naturally think of myself as a prideful person, but when C. S. Lewis warns that “if you don’t think you are proud, it means you are really very conceited indeed”,[2] it makes me think twice about myself in this matter.

For example, when I have a disagreement with my husband, why is my knee-jerk reaction moral outrage? I think it’s because I’m assuming that the universe is on my side, because my side is actually neutral, and any reasonable person would see it my way. Of course, when I say it in so many words… that’s actually a fairly ludicrous position! It should be obvious that I’m not always right – there’s often more than one way of doing things, and in fact I can actually be wrong sometimes! But then, pride is inherently unrealistic.

Or again, why is it so hard for me to be glad when someone else seems to thrive in an area that I really care about? (Especially if I have been doing less amazingly in that area myself?) Whether it’s word ministry, or personal admin, or having well-mannered children, in theory I want everyone to excel at these. But… just excel a bit less than me, please! So do I care more about these things in themselves, or do they become springboards for my own self-aggrandisement?

Pride shows itself in many guises: aggressive competition, ridiculous arrogance, cruel treatment of others, down to preening and vanity, and just being cheerfully oblivious of our neighbour (seriously, why don’t people indicate to change lanes? Or hand in work on time? And how come I still haven’t bothered to learn the names of the countries in Africa?). Whatever the manifestation, the common theme is that pride fills my windshield with… me.

Just as driving with a blocked windshield is insanely dangerous, so pride is also insanely dangerous: it cuts us off from reality. Driving blindly, I miss the big picture, I cut myself off from my neighbour, and especially I cut myself off from God.

Far from having the upper hand, the prideful person – whether it is me or my neighbour – is in a pitiable position, because pride cuts out love. Consider that when offered the choice, Adam chose to try and be like God, rather than to enjoy being with God (Genesis 3). Consider too that while the eternal Word was God, he was glad to be with God (John 1), and that the Son has never tried to usurp the Father, but accepts the glory and honour that the Father chooses to give him (even though it proved to be very costly and painful). Now think where these two paths led – literally Life and Death. Which one would I be if I could choose?

So… why do I ever choose pride?

To answer this, we should consider Matthew 7:9-12. When Jesus teaches the ‘golden rule’ – treat others as you want to be treated – it is connected to the story of the unmiserly father. The point seems to be that because we can trust God, the perfect Father, to be generous to us, then we can afford to love our neighbour as ourselves. We don’t have to grasp for centre stage, but can accept a more realistic position in life. But if we think God is out to get us, or that he is petty or miserly, then we won’t trust him. We will turn away from him. And if he is not looking after us (so we think), then who will? We will – we will try, anyway – no matter the cost to our neighbour, and so our field of vision fills with us and our agenda. I guess the old habits still stick in me sometimes.

But what if we were to turn this dynamic around? What if we were to admit that we do need God’s provision and accept a creaturely status rather than trying to be the Master ourselves? Well, actually the Scriptures are quite clear that this is impossible for us to do ourselves – our pride gets in the way! How can we admit we have been wrong? (Consider Pharaoh in Exodus, or the rebellious kings of Israel and Judah, or the Assyrian, Babylonian and Persian rulers.) Thankfully, God has provided the way forward: he is able to give us faith in his Son. He is able to help us to trust him, and humbly accept rescue from outside of ourselves. Then we are free to let go of our façade. We no longer have to keep up appearances, but can delight in our God, our neighbour and ourselves as we each really are.

Of course, while I have been rescued for freedom from pride, am I perfectly humble? Well, it’s a process.

In order to make progress and ditch pride, the best way forward is not to focus on how bad I am (remember pride loves to focus on self, even negatively). Rather, it is to look to Jesus Christ, who enables us to work on trusting God and loving our neighbour. It is both very simple and very difficult – it hurts to turn away from myself every day! But it is very effective. If I fill my field of vision with my God and my neighbour, then that doesn’t leave much space for me, does it? That’s the idea. We focus on ourselves less when we are focusing on others more. Eventually, I think, we’ll just forget about ourselves altogether because others, especially God, are just so much more interesting, and delighting in them is just so… delightful.

Pride is sneaky, alluring, powerful, devastating. It really, really hurts to cut it out of our hearts, but if we submit ourselves to the Great Surgeon, we will enjoy that sweet relief that is “water to a thirsty man in a desert”.[3]

[1] Lewis, C. S. Mere Christianity, book III, chapter 8, “The Great Sin”, in The Complete Works of C. S. Lewis, 2006, eBook.

[2] Lewis, C. S. Mere Christianity, book III, chapter 8, “The Great Sin”,in The Complete Works of C. S. Lewis, 2006, eBook.

[3] Lewis, C. S. Mere Christianity, book III, chapter 8, “The Great Sin”, in The Complete Works of C. S. Lewis, 2006, eBook.