In Sinning Like a Christian, William Willimon notes that pride is “a specifically Christian sin” and that "we would not know that Pride is a sin were it not for the example of Jesus" (p. 33).
The chapter on pride in C. S. Lewis' Mere Christianity is entitled "The Great Sin." Lewis says that understanding pride as sin takes us not only to “the centre of Christian morals,” but also “to that part of Christian morals where they differ most sharply from all other morals” (Lewis, p. 121). Indeed, as Alasdair MacIntyre notes in After Virtue, the New Testament "praises at least one quality as a virtue which Aristotle seems to count as one of the vices relative to magnanimity, namely humility" (p. 182). So what Christian moralists saw as “the great sin,” many ancient moralists viewed with admiration.
Willimon argues that in our time pride has enjoyed a “benevolent transformation” from the root of all evil to the root of all virtue (Sinning Like a Christian, p. 33). And so we talk about Southern Pride, Black Pride, Gay Pride, etc. In such a cultural context, pride appears to be an attractive virtue that affirms the values of self-worth, accomplishment, aspiring to do one’s best, and the desire for excellence. "Yet, to tell the truth," Willimon writes, "I can't think of much that is wrong with a healthy - within limits - sense of Pride except that Jesus was against it" (ibid., p. 37; emphasis in text). And again: "Jesus' exhortation to 'love thy neighbor as thyself' has been shortened to a hard and fast, ruthlessly enforced mandate: love thyself!" (ibid., p. 34; emphasis in text).
Willimon may be right that the triumph of the therapeutic in our culture entails excessive concern with self that, taken to an extreme, collapses into narcissism. But is it really the case that Jesus and the Christian moral tradition are against things like self-worth, accomplishment, doing one's best, and desiring excellence? Or has Willimon inaccurately diagnosed such things as manifestations of the Christian understanding of pride as the great sin?
C. S. Lewis helps to clear up possible misunderstandings. I'll mention two of them. According to Lewis, “Pleasure in being praised is not Pride” (Mere Christianity, p. 125). If a son or a daughter take pleasure in hearing a parent praise them for school work, for example, that's not sinful. On the contrary, that's a fitting response to a job well done. In addition, to say that a parent is “proud” of his/her child, or someone is “proud” of her school, or his country, or her church, etc., is not sinful. According to Lewis, these uses of the words “pride” and “proud” really mean “‘warm-hearted admiration’” for someone or something (ibid., p. 127). And that's a good and necessary thing. "To love and admire anything outside yourself is to take one step away from utter spiritual ruin," Lewis writes, but then adds "we shall not be well so long as we love and admire anything more than we love and admire God" (ibid.).
So what exactly is the sin of pride?
As already noted, C. S. Lewis calls pride “the great sin.” He equates it with self-conceit (Mere Christianity, p. 121). Pride, Lewis continues, is “the essential vice, the utmost evil” (ibid.). Pride is the vice in comparison to which all other vices “are mere fleabites" (ibid., p. 122). Pride is “the complete anti-God state of mind” and “the chief cause of misery in every nation and every family since the world began” (ibid., pp. 122, 123). Pride is “essentially competitive” and the cause of enmity between people and between human beings and God (ibid., p. 123, emphasis in text).
In Introducing Moral Theology: True Happiness and the Virtues, here's how William C. Mattison describes the sin of pride:
Simply put, pride is selfishness, or putting ourselves first. There are obvious examples of this, as when people take what belongs to others out of concern only for themselves, and not those who are wronged. But the pride that is the root of all sin goes deeper. It is a fixation on one’s own life and desires. Indeed it is seeing all of reality out there through the warped lens of “what does this have to do with me?” When we are inattentive to the needs of those around us because they do not seem to immediately impact us, we are prideful. When we find ourselves reading any situation through its ultimate impact on ourselves, we are prideful. Being prideful entails seeing things not as they truly are, but how we would be with ourselves at the center. For the prideful person, all the world is a stage, and he is the star of show. In fact pride is self-centeredness, in the sense that the prideful person sees things and acts as if he is indeed the center of all things (p. 237).
C. S. Lewis notes the irony that people consumed by pride can also be among the most religious. How is that possible if pride is “the complete anti-God state of mind”? Perhaps we can find some clues as to why in a close study of Jesus' parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector:
He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt: ‘Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax-collector. The Pharisee, standing by himself, was praying thus, “God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax-collector. I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income.” But the tax-collector, standing far off, would not even look up to heaven, but was beating his breast and saying, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!” I tell you, this man went down to his home justified rather than the other; for all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted’ (Luke 18:9-14).
Lewis adds the following thoughts about the infection of religion by pride:
It is a terrible thing that the worst of all the vices can smuggle itself into the very centre of our religious life. But you can see why. The other, and less bad, vices come from the devil working on us through our animal nature. But this does not come through our animal nature at all. It comes direct from Hell. It is purely spiritual: consequently it is far more subtle and deadly (Mere Christianity, p. 125).
According to Christian moral theology, the antidote to the vice of pride is the virtue of humility. If pride “entails seeing things not as they truly are,” then humility means precisely the opposite: a right assessment of reality, the recognition of “our rightful, truthful place in the world” (Mattison, pp. 237, 238). And if pride is all about putting one’s self “at the center of all things,” humility is about moving beyond self-centeredness by placing love of God and neighbor at the center (ibid., p. 237).
Given pride's cunning ability "to smuggle itself into the very centre of our religious life," we do well to distinguish between true and false humility (Lewis, p. 125). Here's how one article makes the distinction:
"True humility" is distinctly different from “false humility,” which consists of deprecating one’s own sanctity, gifts, talents, and accomplishments for the sake of receiving praise or adulation from other, as personified by Uriah Heep. In this context legitimate humility comprises the following behaviors and attitudes:
- Submitting to God and legitimate authority
- Recognizing virtues and talents that others possess, particularly those that surpass one's own, and giving due honor and, when required, obedience
- Recognizing the limits of one's talents, ability, or authority; and, not reaching for what is beyond one's grasp
Ironically, false humility is actually pride masquerading as true humility.
What about the feminist critique of pride as sin? Here's Mattison's brief response:
A common feminist critique of the claim that pride is at the root of all sin counters that pride is exactly what some people – especially abused, neglected, or otherwise disenfranchised people – need in this world. As victims they need to assert themselves! But note that a just and accurate recognition of one’s proper place in the world, including asserting one’s self when that place is not recognized, is not the sin of pride, since it is neither self-centered nor inaccurate. The sin of pride is always both of these (p. 238).
In the New Testament, the paradigm for true humility is the example given to us by Jesus. The apostle Paul sums it up in his letter to the Philippians:
If then there is any encouragement in Christ, any consolation from love, any sharing in the Spirit, any compassion and sympathy, make my joy complete: be of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others.
Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ 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. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death — even death on a cross.
Therefore God also highly exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father (Philippians 2:1-11).
Commenting on this passage, N. T. Wright notes: "This is a God who is known most clearly when he abandons his rights for the sake of the world" (Paul for Everyone: The Prison Letters, p. 104).
"Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus," namely, the complete anti-Pride state of mind that voluntarily embraces the self-emptying of humility. How counter-cultural is this state of mind in our time? What does it look like when we Christians embrace and exemplify this state of mind? And when we don't?