Pondering Pride, the Most Perilous of All Sins

blog11-18Pride is a sin that is so pervasive, and that runs so deep within us, we often don’t even sense it is there. Not only is it is a sinful drive in itself, it also plays a role in every other sin we commit. It is the sin we most share with Satan and all the fallen angels. Satan refused to serve God or to submit to His plan, and these are strong tendencies in every human person as well. Satan planned his strategy well as he tempted Eve: you will be like God. Both Eve and Adam falsely reasoned that in order to be free they should not be told what to do; they should do as they pleased and should decide for themselves what was right and wrong. They pridefully claimed the right to determine good and evil for themselves rather than trusting God. This prideful pronouncement has gone forth from human hearts ever since: “I will not be told what to do.”

Let’s take a brief look at the primordial sin of pride.

I. The Definition of Pride – Pride is an inordinate esteem for our own excellence. It is a habit or vice which disposes us to think more of ourselves than we are. There is a proper esteem we should have for ourselves, rooted in an appreciation for the gifts we have received from God.

Humility, the virtue that is opposed to pride, is not a hangdog disdain for ourselves. Humility is a reverence for the truth about who and whose we are. We do have gifts, but they are gifts, which God has given us. And these gifts are usually given to us through others. We should be humbly grateful for the gifts and talents that God has given us. In contrast, pride sets aside proper and grateful esteem in favor of excessive esteem that is often self-referential and unappreciative of what God and others have enabled us to become.

On the one hand, pride is one particular vice, sinful in itself. On the other hand, it is a more general vice that is involved directly or indirectly in most other sins. Pride plays an especially large role in sins of malice. Sins of malice are those in which one directly and defiantly refuses to obey God, or refuses to be told what to do, or willfully insists that one knows better than God, the Church, or those entrusted with one’s instruction and guidance. Pride plays a more indirect role in sins of weakness. Sins of weakness are those in which one acts sinfully not so much out of defiance as out of a weak inability to do what one admits is right. Pride may be more indirectly present through careless neglect of growing in virtue or seeking God’s help.

Pride is directed not only at God but also at our neighbor. There are times when we refuse to submit to the instruction or authority of others who rightfully have that position. There are other times when we pridefully refuse to admit that others have gifts and abilities that we do not possess, and that we may in fact need in order to be completed. Further, we sometimes refuse to admit that others are just better at certain things than we are. As such pride, is both impoverishing and isolating.

II. The Distinctions Regarding Pride– The word “pride” in modern English and also in pagan philosophy can have a positive meaning. The pagan philosophers often thought of pride as a good thing. Before it becomes sinful, pride inspires us to strive not merely for the ordinary, but for loftier things. In this sense, pride pushes us to be more than we currently are; it inspires in us a kind of drive and effort.

This positive use of the word “pride” is less common in Christian moral theology, which more commonly speaks of pride only as a vice and ascribes striving for the difficult but possible things under the virtues of fortitude and hope.

Note that pride is not the same as vanity. Vanity actually shows some humility since, by manifesting it, one shows the need for the admiration of another. For the same reason, pride is also not the same as pleasure at being praised.

St. Gregory lists four species of pride: 

  1. Thinking that one’s good is from oneself
  2. Thinking that one’s good is from God but that is in consequence of one’s own merits
  3. Boasting of excellence that one does not possess
  4. Despising others and wishing to appear the sole possessor of what one has (this is related to the sin of envy)

III. The Dangers of Pride – The central effect of pride is to move God to the periphery of our moral, spiritual, and temporal existence. God is either shunned directly or becomes increasingly irrelevant to us. Man necessarily moves to the center and, even more egotistically, I move to the center. If God exists at all to the prideful person, it is only to gratify his pleasures and confirm his preconceived notions.

The prideful person, having moved God to the periphery, focuses more on his own power and exaggerated notions of control. Money, prestige, power, access, and possessions become his focus. It is himself on whom he relies, not God.

This of course is the height of foolishness since no human being can save himself. The relegation of God to the margins of our life is the chief danger of pride, because He alone can save us. It is said that pride looks down, but no one can see God except by looking up. Pride turns us inward and downward!

Because pride involves entertaining the illusion of self-sufficiency and omits or minimizes God, it can be a serious or mortal sin. However, it is frequently not mortal, since that would require a conscious and fully willed discounting of God. Most individual acts of pride are venial by reason of this deficiency of awareness or full consent of the will.

Even though culpability may be less than mortal, the harm caused by marginalizing God cannot be overstated. The damage grows both individually and collectively until the most foolish things become daily fare. Further, a culture dominated by people who “forget” that God sees all and that they will have to render an account to Him will suffer increasingly from tyrannical, vicious, and destructive behaviors.  Such a culture is dominated in growing measure by those who exercise little or no restraint on their behavior and who act imperiously—even despotically.

Pride can get very dark, very quickly because it involves a direct turning away from God. In this sense pride is the first and worst of all sins.

So serious is pride that, as a remedy, God allows us to fall into other sins, especially those of the flesh. Thus, though God does not cause acts of fornication, drunkenness, or gluttony in us, He often permits their stubborn presence in order to save us from pride, which is a more serious sin. Sins of the flesh, especially those related to sexuality, often bring great shame, which is related to humility. And though it is strong medicine, God permits it in order to save us from the sin of pride, which is even more deadly.

IV. The Disease of Pride Pride is the source of many other sins. Not only is it their source, it is in those sins. Pride conquers at the root, since it conquers the heart of man and disposes him to the other capital sins. St. Gregory does not even account pride as a capital sin, for it is the mother of them all!

A widespread modern form of pride, even among believers, is the reduction of God from the Holy One, to a “harmless hippie,” or a doting Father. Further, the awareness of final judgement and that we will one day have to render an account to God is not a significant factor in the thinking of most moderns. As such, God is trivialized and man is exalted. To many, God exists to please and actualize them on their own terms, and His role is to affirm and console (but never challenge) them. In a certain sense, the ugliest and most self-serving form of pride is refashioning God in our own image. Making your own god and worshipping it used to be called “idolatry.”

Today, many pridefully assert the right to fashion their own god: the god within, the god of their own understanding. This is pride writ large and ugly. It is idolatry, somewhat veiled, but idolatry just the same, and a violation of the First Commandment. Such pride cries out for correction and punishment. Yes, pride is ugly—a deadly disease.

4 Replies to “Pondering Pride, the Most Perilous of All Sins”

  1. OOH! Yes! How I have struggled with this – all my life!
    Even when I ‘think’ I am exercising humility – I am ‘filled’ with pride that I am so humble!! God forgive me!
    What a terrible and invidious thing pride is.
    We all need each other’s prayers to attempt to overcome this awful aberration. I find, like most other areas of sin – because it is at the very root of most sin, the suppression of pride is a daily and uphill struggle. How very important, it seems to me, that we renew our true repentance, on the knees of our hearts, daily, hourly, – even every minute of the day!
    I believe this is what St Paul meant when he said, “Pray constantly.” 1 Thessalonians 5:17
    But Jesus Himself, as usual, said it first – when He tells us in Matthew 26:41, “Watch and pray so that you will not fall into temptation. The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak.”
    Thank you Mgr Charles, as ever . . . . . .
    God bless and help us all.

  2. ‘Thinking that one’s good is from oneself”

    Hence why we have Morning and Evening Offerings to offer up our good back to God, Who prays with and in us.

    “Thinking that one’s good is from God but that is in consequence of one’s own merits”

    Even when giving holy advise, one can forget that it is God’s grace.

    “Boasting of excellence that one does not possess”

    Would this also count as lying?

    “Despising others and wishing to appear the sole possessor of what one has (this is related to the sin of envy)”

    The extreme form of combating pluralism and relativism, on one hand, and the extreme form of fighting for truth and love, on the other hand.

  3. How do we avoid creating a false image of God in our minds? How do we worship God with all of our heart, soul, strength and mind if, in the apparent absence of His fully recognizable Presence, we strive to carry out the Lord’s command to love Him fully? If one’s feeble mind creates an image of a doting Father in prayer, what then? Who is to blame? Do we put our faith on trial? From where comes this faith? We say it comes from God. If our faith leads us to think of God as a hippie, what then? Where is an eye-witness to confirm the sighting of God in our minds? Who gave sight to the artists who fashioned the many faces of God on all of the different variations of the Crucifix? Who gives sight to the artists who create religious icons? Are their images false; who will verify and validate? Where are the real faces that we may see and prove what we see in our minds? Are they in stained glass windows of the many houses of worship? who will declare that these artists did not paint or construct from a basis of personal pride?

  4. As always, great article, Msgr Pope. Can you elaborate and explain what you said about “great shame is related to humility”? I’m thinking of a particular situation when people (like one of our children) by their behavior bring shame on us and we feel the pain of humiliation; isn’t that a sign of pride on our part? How do we handle such situations and the emotions we feel in the proper way which is consistent with Christ’s teachings?

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