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] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mihaly_Csikszentmihalyi[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.”