Paradox and Pride


Aquinas is a primary source for Christian theology as we know it today, and suggests that it is the greatest sin because it is an attempt to resist subjugation to God “in accordance to divine rule.”  Dyson follows with a more nuanced definition pointing out that “the difficulty arises when love of God and country are fatally blurred and the theology becomes little more than a handmaiden of empire.” But I submit an uncommon (though still orthodox) view of sin: God hates sin because it hurts God’s children – and we are all God’s children. To get a clear understanding of the sin of pride, we must examine the ways it hurts us and our neighbor, and keeps us from getting the best out of our lives. If living without sin is the gospel, or “good news”, how is pride bad news for us?

A large part of the problem is the word “pride” itself. The word can mean both the state that is best and most life-affirming for us as humans- or the absolute worst of our need to try to fill inner wounds with external praise.

What the Sin Of Pride Isn’t

I suggest that pride in work well done is a virtue, as the bible makes clear in Galatians 6:4: “Each one should test their own actions. Then they can take pride in themselves alone, without comparing themselves to someone else.” (emphasis added) When we do a good thing for it’s own sake, exercise our gifts, and afterward experience pleasure in a job well done- this is virtue, not vice. It may be in this way that we can be most like God, who took pleasure in creation at the beginning of the story in Genesis 1. If we were doing the thing we felt most excited about doing, enjoyed the work to get there, and reached that goal for the pure pleasure of accomplishment, knowing that it was the best we could do, without concern for anyone else’s opinion- we were not only in bliss, but we were in holiness (“whole-ness”). This is exceedingly rare.

This experience has been researched rather extensively as a result of the work by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. His groundbreaking book, Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience is recognized as the seminal work on this subject. Csikszentmihalyi uses the term autotelic to describe this feeling, “’autotelic’ derives from two Greek words, auto meaning self, and telos meaning goal.” This is the kind of joy that derives from the work itself- also known as intrinsic motivation. This is the kind of pride that is obviously best for us, for our livelihood, and for our own sense of satisfaction.

This kind of pride should never be misunderstood to be sin- it is in fact glory. It is the ability to move and engage in the world in the way we were created to, and this brings God pleasure as well as we fit into the great orchestra of life in tune and on time when we use your skills, gifts, and vocational passions. Those that would condemn another for experiencing the joy of being content and proud of their work in this way are themselves struggling with their own pride, and this often manifests as discontent or jealousy.

What the Sin of Pride Is

Paradoxically, the same verse I used to share what pride isn’t can be used to share what pride is. Lets re-examine Galatians 6:4: “Each one should test their own actions. Then they can take pride in themselves alone, without comparing themselves to someone else. (emphasis added)” It is in the comparison of oneself to another, and the desire to come out ahead. CS Lewis makes an excellent point in Mere Christianity when he says:

“Pride gets no pleasure out of having something, only out of having more of it that the next man. We say that people are proud of being rich, or clever, or good-looking, but they are not. They are proud of being richer, or cleverer, or better-looking than others.”

This is why the sin of pride is so insidious. It not only asks the sinner to interpret his own life and his own joy as lacking, but falsely convinces him that the only way to obtain it is by reducing the joy they find in another person’s life to gain comparatively more. The sin of pride isn’t simple arrogance, arrogance is the result of prideful thoughts, habits, and feelings- or more accurately a prized collection of these thoughts. It is competition for the sake of the prize, not the joy of the struggle.

This is the consequence of the sin of pride: all of our stolen gifts will not only give us less reward than what we would have found in our own work. We will never have the fulfillment of work well done, but it creates an enemy or a competitor in our neighbor who might have partnered with us to create our own work and reward- and rightful pride in creating something new.

Pride is a stolen trophy. The scratches will always be visible where we removed the name of the original earner under our own, sloppily scrawled over the top. This so diminishes the trophy that we never have the joy that our neighbor did when we look at it, nor does anyone else appreciate what we actually do or who we really are…

But pilfered pride is no prize at all.

[i] Aquinas, Thomas; translated by Joseph Rickabay. Aquinas Ethicus: The Moral Teaching of St. Thomas, Vol. 1, Volume 1, Jazzybee Verlag, 2016, p. 139[ii] Alexander, Jeffrey C., and Michael Eric Dyson. Pride : The Seven Deadly Sins, Oxford University Press USA – OSO, 2006. [iii][iv] Csikszentmihalyi, Mihaly. Flow (Harper Perennial Modern Classics) (p. 67). HarperCollins e-books. Kindle Edition..[v] Lewis, C. S.. Mere Christianity (C.S. Lewis Signature Classics) (p. 122). HarperOne. Kindle Edition.”

Self-Confidence vs Ego

Lama Surya Das in his article Self-confidence vs. Egotism and Pride  asks the crucial question, “Which self are we confident in, exactly, one might profitably ask and inquire into. Are you really better than anyone else, except at a few little tasks or skills?” Recently I’ve been wrestling with this question in therapy and meditation and realized that I had a shockingly inconsistent approach to the concept. 

One of the challenges we have is talking about ancient or traditional concepts with the baggage of organized religion. So many of the terms and ideals of faith and self-exploration and discovery for truth (which is what religion is ultimately about) are just loaded with manipulative messages intended to keep people coming back to the organization to donate rather than becoming self-sustaining people of faith. I once heard Fr. Richard Rohr explain that a study revealed religious leaders struggled with ego and pride more than any other career. The titles, the vestments, and the claim to speak for God to a congregation are difficult things to navigate for any person. The same trappings can cause us to elevate these people ourselves. 

Both Lewis and Das seem to be saying the same things to me, but this is admittedly because of a lot of exposure and questioning of these concepts over the years. Language often gets in the way for modern readers. “Pride” can most accurately be rendered “arrogance” in western texts, and reading religious texts on pride this way makes confusing scripture from all traditions easier to grasp.

CS Lewis on the “Great Sin” of Pride

CS Lewis is one of the authors that has changed my perspective more than any other over the years. Mere Christianity in particular was one of the books that most influenced me over 30 years ago. It was interesting to come back to the text after a hiatus, and this revealed a shift in perspective that I didn’t think I’d ever experience. I was surprised by joy to find that I completely agree with Lewis. I approached the text thinking I would not, ironically having some pride in my ability to see something I thought Lewis missed. 

Me overwhelmed at the Eagle and Child, the pub where Lewis and Tolkien used to meet to discuss their writing.

I struggled with the “greasy, smarmy” kind of self-loathing that Lewis describes in the 4th misunderstanding he addresses at the end of the chapter. I used to believe that it was a sign of my humility and a way to honor “God” by emphasizing my own lack and unworthiness. That kind of “humility” never works. It’s the opposite of humility, and therefore insidious. Sin always is, but pride is especially so. 

This is why Lewis calls all other sins “mere fleabites.” Most other sins are somewhat obvious. Lewis himself admits his struggle as he writes his chapter, and to some it may seem boastful to offer advice or criticism in this area. But perhaps in doing so we miss the point. 

Pride is not being sure or confident in yourself and your gifts, this is in fact, faith. It is faith that the God of the Universe is on your side and relentlessly pursuing us all- even our enemies. The desire to help someone struggling with their pride by calling it out is also paradoxically humility. 

And as I chucked at Lewis’s gaffe, upon reflection it turned out that the brother I was quietly rebuking was my own face in a mirror.

Two sides of the Seven Sins

After reading Belliotti’s chapter 7 on the sins in Dante’s Deadly Sins : Moral Philosophy in Hell– it helped me realize that it was Dante himself that sold the narrative of a firey, punishing hell to the church and common parlance. There is ample evidence that this view was influenced by Zoroastrianism and greek mythology, it might be better understood as a cultural reference rather than a theological one. If I were to say that “my addiction is slicing away at my resolve like Freddie Kreuger!” we would all understand the reference- though none of us would take it seriously, much less literally. (though we might rightfully question the clumsy prose)

We’re all familiar with Jesus and Socrates. But why aren’t any of us enamored with modern Christians or philosophers who are supposedly walking the same line? Why are so many of us confused about the simple idea of sin as we can see on the evening news and online articles like “Bless Me Father”- Catholic Sin Explained  on popular websites like the Daily Beast? Jesus, Socrates, and Nadeau all ask similar questions and present parallel alternatives to consider…

What if God doesn’t hate sin because it offends Him, but because it hurts us? Belliotti gives a small nod to this idea on page 218 when discussing Soctates: “Sin betrays the self, the community, and the divine… sin is it’s own punishment.” 

If there was no devil and no hell, then the idea of sin gets a major re positioning in our hierarchy of fear, which means the solutions to the problem become less important and powerful influences. For those that rely on those structures for power or wealth, these may be threatening ideas, indeed.

Ideas even worthy of murdering influential, wise men who simply pointed out the inconsistencies in the system and offered an alternative way.

The True Cost of Greed.

In the film The True Cost, Tim Kasser, a PhD in Psychology at Knox College states that hundreds of studies over the last twenty years bear out that “psychological problems (like depression, anxiety) tend to go up as materialistic values go up.” (33:28). He quotes Martin Luther King, Jr. at the close of the film who said that America “needed a revolution of values, needed to stop treating people like things.” Throughout the film there were vignettes from across the globe that showed how we’ve also done the opposite, treated corporations and profits with more dignity and honor than living, breathing human beings. This is why greed is a sin- it hurts our neighbor, and it hurts us.

Materialism and greed can seem so innocuous, but the consumerism we are accustomed to is like asbestos in the structure of our society and soul. This silent danger has reduced the livelihood of thousands of families in vulnerable places across the globe, but prolonged exposure will slowly steal our joy as well. It is already quite literally killing hundreds of thousands of workers in cotton fields and clothing factories globally.

Vandana Shiva is an environmental activist that summarizes the problem perfectly “For them (the seed/chemical company) it’s win, win, win, win win. For nature and people it’s lose, lose, lose, lose, lose.(32:05)” The farmers go into debt because the seed prices have gone up 17,000%, and when they can not pay the company their farm is seized. Losing their livelihood, they commit suicide by drinking the pesticides in the fields. There have been 250,000 farmer suicides in India in the last 16 years. That’s one farmer every 30 minutes, and the largest recorded wave of suicide in history.

There’s no such thing as a cheap hamburger if you’re a cow. And we’re all cattle to the corporations that place profits over people.