The Twelve Steps of Pride

If you think the idea of “Twelve Steps” is new, go back and see how the Greeks put it, or in this case how the medieval Latins put it. St. Bernard of Clairvaux identified twelve steps up the mountain of pride in his 12th century work The Steps of Humility and Pride.

In today’s post, we focus on the twelve steps of pride, and tomorrow we’ll tackle the twelve steps of humility. The list below is from St. Bernard, but the commentary is mine.

Notices how the twelve steps grow progressively more serious, leading ultimately to the slavery of sin. The steps begin in the mind, move to behavior, then to a deeper attitude of presumption, and finally bring forth revolt and slavery. If one does not serve God, he will serve Satan.

Think of these steps like escalating symptoms:

(1) Curiosity – Although there is such a thing as healthy curiosity, we often delve into things we should not: other people’s affairs, private matters, sinful situations, and so forth. What makes such curiosity prideful is that so thinking we have a right to know things we do not. Casting all caution aside, and with a certain prideful and privileged attitude, we pry, meddle, and look into things we ought not to, as if we had a right to do so. This is sinful curiosity.

(2) Levity of mind – In this next step, we occupy our mind with inappropriate things; we become less serious in wider matters. There is a place for a reasonable sense of humor and some recreational diversion, but too often this is just about all we do. We cast aside matters about which we should be serious, instead pursuing only light and passing things. In ignoring or making light of serious things pertaining to eternity and delving only into entertaining and passing things, we ignore things to which we ought to attend. Watching sitcoms and “reality” TV for hours with no time for prayer, study, instruction of children in the faith, caring for the poor, and so forth shows a lack of seriousness that is a symptom of pride. We lightly brush aside what is important to God and substitute our own foolish priorities. This is pride.

(3) Giddiness – Here, we move from levity of mind to the frivolous behaviors it produces, behaviors in which we overemphasize trivial experiences or situations at the expense of more important, profound things. Silly, vapid, foolish, and capricious behaviors indicate a pride wherein one is not rich in what matters to God. We maximize the minimum and minimize the maximum. We seem to find plenty of time for frivolity but no time for prayer or study of Holy Truth.

(4) Boasting – Increasingly locked into our own little world of darkened intellect and foolish behavior, we begin to exult in baser, carnal activities and consider them a sign of greatness; we begin to boast of foolish things. To boast is to speak and think of oneself more highly than is true or reasonable. While we should appreciate the gifts we have, we ought to recall that they are gifts given to us by God and often developed through the help of others. St. Paul says, What have you that you have not received? And if you have received it, why do you boast as though you had not? (1 Cor 4:7) The boaster thinks too highly of himself, either claiming to have gifts he does not or forgetting that what he does have is a grace, a gift. This is pride.

(5) Singularity – Our world gets ever smaller and yet we think ourselves as even greater. We are king, all right, king of an ant hill, rulers of a tiny speck of dust sweeping through the immensity of space. As our pride grows, we too easily forget our dependence on God and others for who and what we are. There really is no such thing as a “self-made man.” We are all contingent beings, dependent on God and others. Further, we also too easily withdraw into our own little mind and world, tending to think that something is so just because we think it to be so. Withdrawing only to our own counsel, we discount the evidence of reality and stop seeking information and advice from others. The man who seeks only his own counsel has a fool for an adviser—and a prideful one at that! Singularity is pride. This pride swells in us as our world gets ever smaller and more focused on our own self.

(6) Self-conceit – This is an unjustly favorable and unduly high opinion of one’s own abilities or worth. As our world shrinks and our pride grows, we become increasingly self-referential. We’ve reached the point at which we believe that something is so merely because we say it is so. We are fine because we say so. Never mind that all of us are a mixture of strengths and weaknesses, sanctity and sinfulness. Too easily we grow blind to just how difficult we can be to live with. Too easily we find faults in others but fail to see them in ourselves. Further, we tend to compare ourselves to others favorably, thinking, “Well, at least I am not like that prostitute or drug dealer over there.” Being better than someone else is not the standard we must meet. Jesus is the standard we must meet. Rather than comparing ourselves to Jesus and seeking mercy, we compare ourselves to others on whom we look down, and give way to pride.

(7) Presumption – At this stage, even God’s judgements must cede to ours. We believe we are saved because we say so. This is a sin against hope wherein we take salvation as granted and due to us no matter what we do. In effect, we already claim to possess what we do not. It is right for us to confidently hope for God’s help in attaining eternal life—this is the theological virtue of hope—but it is pride that makes us think we already possess it. It is further pride for us to set aside God’s Word, which over and over teaches us to walk in hope and seek His help as beggars rather than as possessors or as ones legally entitled to glory in Heaven. Presumption is pride.

(8) Self-justification – Jesus must now vacate the judgment seat because we demand to take His place. Not only that, He must also vacate the cross because we don’t really need His sacrifice. We don’t really need a lot of saving, and if we do we can save our own self. Self-justification is the attitude that we can, by our own power, justify (that is, save) our own self. It is also the attitude that says, in effect, “I will do what I want to do and I will decide whether it is right or wrong.” St. Paul says, I do not even judge myself. My conscience is clear, but that does not make me innocent. It is the Lord who judges me (1 Cor 4:3-4). The prideful person cares only for his own view of himself and refuses to be accountable, even to God; he forgets that no one is a judge in his own case.

(9) Hypocritical confession – In Greek, the word hypocrite means “actor.” In certain settings, some degree of humility and acknowledgement of one’s faults is profitable. One can get “credit” for acknowledging certain faults humbly and calling oneself a sinner; the prideful man is just acting when he does this. He’s merely playing a role, more for social credit than out of any real contrition or repentance. If posturing and playing the role of the humble and contrite sinner will get him somewhere, he’ll say his lines, play the part, and pretend to be holy—but only if the “applause” from the audience is forthcoming.

(10) Revolt – Pride really begins to get out of control when one revolts outright against God and His lawful representatives. To revolt means to renounce allegiance to or any sense of accountability or obedience to God, His Word, or His Church. It is to attempt to overthrow the authority of others, in this case God and His Church. It is prideful to refuse to be under any authority and to act in ways that are directly contrary to what lawful authority rightly asserts.

(11) Freedom to sin – Here, pride reaches its near conclusion, as it arrogantly asserts and celebrates that it is utterly free to do what it pleases. The prideful man increasingly rejects any restraints or limits, but his “freedom” is not really freedom at all. Jesus says, Whoever sins is a slave to sin (John 8:34). The Catechism echoes, The more one does what is good, the freer one becomes. There is no true freedom except in the service of what is good and just. The choice to disobey and do evil is an abuse of freedom and leads to the slavery of sin (Catechism #1733). The proud man will have none of this, continuing to assert his freedom to do as he pleases even while descending deeper and deeper into addiction and slavery.

(12) The habit of sinning – This is see pride’s full and ugly flower: habitual sin and slavery to it. As St. Augustine says, For of a forward will, was a lust made; and a lust served, became custom; and custom not resisted, became necessity (Confessions 8.5.10).

Thus we have climbed the twelve steps of the mountain of pride. It begins in the mind with a lack of sobriety, rooted in sinful curiosity and frivolous preoccupation. Next come frivolous behavior and excusing, presumptive, dismissive attitudes. Last come outright revolt and slavery to sin. The slavery results because if one refuses to serve God out of pride, he will serve Satan.

We have seen an escalation in these steps that is not far from an old admonition: sow a thought, reap a deed; sow a deed, reap a habit; sow a habit, reap a character; sow a character, reap a destiny.

Is there a way down this mountain of pride? Tune in tomorrow …

4 Replies to “The Twelve Steps of Pride”

  1. Accurate and devastating analysis of our moment in history. Why is pride a sin? If you didn’t know before, read this carefully and be honest with yourself. This destructive path is reinforced each day by the messages we marinate in through our base culture: be yourself (ignore Christ, who we are called to imitate), Jesus loves you (he does, and he wants you to get better, he calls you to repent and turn away from sin and follow Him), it’s always someone else’s fault and you’re a victim (maybe, but is our own house clean? have we removed the plank from our own eye?) etc.

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