Pride is something most of us understand to a certain extent. Or, at the very least, we think we know what it looks like when we see it. Whether seen in business leaders, politicians, celebrities, or neighbors, there is a type of pride that almost all of us recognize. You can characterize it as bombastic, self-inflating, egotistical self-centeredness. These people are so caught up in and with themselves, that a ‘normal’ person would just as soon avoid them as deal with them.
In reality, though, pride has other faces that are less noticeable but just as destructive when woven into the fabric of our lives. St. Thomas Aquinas calls pride “the love of one’s own excellence.” It is equally at home inside our own quiet piety, false humility, and self-reliance. St. Gregory the Great, and St. Thomas Aquinas after him, considered pride to be the “queen” of all vices.
Pride Under the Surface
Think of the sin of pride as if it were a fruit, like the infamous apple from the Garden of Eden. Fruit always grows on a tree, and trees always have roots. If pride is a fruit, then it has a root. The root of the sin of pride (or any sin, for that matter) has room to grow when we are deprived of certain good in our lives, which results in beliefs that deeply influence us. Pride, as a sin, is almost always rooted in some belief about isolation or abandonment. We feel like orphans- making our way in a hostile world.
Most of us have had the experience of being lost as a child, maybe on an outing with family members. When we reflect on a memory like that, we often experience some powerful emotions. We feel alone, unprotected, or uncovered.
We might even hear the voice of our own beliefs, thoughts like, “In the end, I’ll always be alone,” “It will always be up to me,” or “Nobody will be there to protect me.” Pride is a coping mechanism for this deficit within ourselves. Before you wag your finger and scream, “A-ha! I knew that about so-and-so,” you might want to read on, and see if any of these other, more subtle forms of pride have a place in your life.
Almost every year when we begin to decorate for the holidays, we discover that those Christmas lights that were so carefully put away in January, will emerge from storage in December in a hopelessly knotted and mangled mess. This word-picture describes narcissism. We confuse our God-given special-ness with an illusion of greatness. Our uniqueness to our Heavenly Father becomes tangled up with the littlenessof our humanity before Him. In the world of addiction recovery, this has its own name- terminal uniqueness. We are so confident of our own specialness that we think others cannot relate to us.
If you think that nobody really understands you, or that others can’t possibly understand your inner workings, watch out for narcissism. Narcissism hardens our hearts to others since they cannot possibly “get us”. Narcissistic beliefs lead to the expectation that everything and everyone around us should be ordered according to our way of thinking.
One of the many faces of pride is self-reliance. We rely on ourselves, acting and believing that God is not to be trusted with a part of our lives. We might trust God in many areas of our lives, but we usually have at least one area that we keep from Him and rely only on ourselves.
It might be in the area of finances, work, or relationships. We prize self-reliance in Western culture, and it is deeply ingrained in the American ethic. In reality, self-sufficiency is just another kind of pride. Our reliance on ourselves is a refusal of the grace and power of God. We live as if we know ourselves and our needs better than God. We live as if we are alone. Self-reliance a way in which we say to God, “I don’t need you and I don’t trust you.” Sooner or later, we will be confronted by a situation that we cannot solve.
When we don’t get the things we think we deserve, our frustration can lead us to arrange events and relationships in a way that “helps things along.” We’ve all wondered when our faithfulness, hard work, or patience would finally be rewarded. We try to do the right thing, but like poor George Bailey from the movie It’s a Wonderful Life, we’ve become agitated in the waiting of life. We begin to believe that nobody is looking out for us- not even God. We might believe that He isn’t good because He won’t give us what we desire, or that He’s not capable because He can’t give us what we deserve.
Self-promotion may be at work when we find ourselves seeking recognition at the expense of others, boasting, or seeking admiration through our actions. We can even be tempted to promote ourselves for spiritual reasons, boasting about our vocational call, for example, but doing so will simply cause us to move ahead of God’s timing.
The Call to Belonging
If our pride is rooted in isolation and abandonment, in the experience of separation, then its antidote is ‘belonging.’ Rather than orphans, our true calling is to relationship with God. In a particular way, the fatherhood of God helps us to experience the joy and freedom of ‘littleness,” while being the delight of a loving and watchful ‘daddy.’ Belonging to God, drawing close to Him, knowing the goodness of His heart for us, replaces the shallow and ineffectual confidence we attempt to muster for ourselves and helps us grow in holiness.