Pride is a sin that is so pervasive, runs so deep within us, that we often don’t even sense it is there. Not only is it a sinful drive in itself, it also plays a role in every other sin we commit. Pride is the sin we most share with Satan and the fallen angels. Satan refused to serve God or to submit to His plan; these are strong tendencies in every human person as well. Satan planned his strategy well as he tempted Eve. You will be like God, he told her. 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. They 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 inordinate esteem for one’s own excellence. It is a habit or vice that disposes us to think more of ourselves than we ought. There is a proper esteem we should have for ourselves, but it is 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; it is a reverence for the truth about who and whose we are. We do have gifts, but they are gifts, gifts that God has given us. 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 failure to seek 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 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. In this way, pride is both impoverishing and isolating.
II. The Distinctions Regarding Pride – In modern English usage as well as in pagan philosophy, the word “pride” 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 effort.
The use of the word “pride” in a positive sense is much less common in Christian moral theology, which typically speaks of pride only as a vice; it categorizes striving for the difficult but possible under the virtues of fortitude and hope.
Note that pride is not the same as vanity. Vanity actually shows some humility because in 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 types of pride:
Thinking that one’s good is from oneself
Thinking that one’s good is from God but that it is as a consequence of one’s own merits
Boasting of excellence that one does not possess
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 push 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.
Having moved God to the periphery, the prideful person 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 because 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 notmortal, as 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 because 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 judgment and that we will one day have to render an account to God is not a significant factor in the thinking of most moderns. God is trivialized and man is exalted. To many, God exists to please and validate them on their own terms; 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 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; it is a violation of the First Commandment. Such pride cries out for correction and punishment. Yes, pride is ugly — a deadly disease.
*Image: King Nebuchadnezzar as a Wild Animal by an unknown artist, c. 1400-1410 [J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles, CA]. The image refers to Daniel 4: 25-35: the prophet tells the king that he will lose his mind and live like a beast for seven years. The illustration is from Rudolf von Ems’ Weltchronik or “world chronicle” written in the mid-1200s.