Sunday, October 31, 2010

The Scariest Sin of All

On Halloween, children pretend to be someone or something they’re not.  I’ve come to believe that, despite its darker side -- it’s the opportunity to pretend, to role play, to be childlike...which is what actually redeems Halloween in my mind, as well as the opportunity to meet and greet our neighbors.  C. S. Lewis once said, "When I became a man, I put away childish things, including the fear of childishness and the desire to be very grown up” (On Three Ways of Writing for Children, 1952).

What’s not funny or playful…but actually very scary, is when we pretend to be people we’re not during the rest of the year; when we hide behind masks of conceit and self-importance, and keep God at a distance. The scariest sin of all is certainly pride. In the words of C. S. Lewis, “Pride leads to every other vice: it is the complete anti-God state of mind….Pride is spiritual cancer: it eats up the very possibility of love, or contentment, or even common sense” (Mere Christianity, Book III, ch. 8).  That’s because…

Pride is always in competition with others.  At the root of pride is competition….The quickest way to find out how proud you are, says Lewis, is to ask yourself, “How much do I dislike it when other people snub me, or refuse to take notice of me, or patronize me, or show off?" The reason that I dislike it when other people are the life of the party is that I want to be the life of the party. The reason I’m annoyed by that loud mouth up there is that I want to be noticed, I want to be admired, I want to be on center stage. Now let me caution you that pride is not simply wanting to be praised or recognized for a job well done. According to Jesus we should aspire to hear God say, “Well done, good and faithful servant" (Matthew 25: 23). Pride, on the other hand, is the need to feel that our job was not just well done, but done better than anyone else; and that we ourselves are better and more important because of it. That’s why pride is not simply the desire to be smart, good looking, or rich, but the need to feel smarter, better looking or richer than the next person. My pride is always in competition with your pride.


Jesus told a parable to some who “trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt” (9). That is, he told a story for those who did not see their own sin, who did not see their own faults, who felt that they stood over and above the rest...


‘Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax-collector. The Pharisee, standing by himself, was praying thus, “God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax-collector. I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income.” But the tax-collector, standing far off, would not even look up to heaven, but was beating his breast and saying, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!” I tell you, this man went down to his home justified rather than the other; for all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted.’
Some vices bring people together; a crude joke, friendliness at a drunken party, or an illicit affair …but pride always separates us, says Lewis: it is competition & enmity between one man and another, or between peoples and nations….which is why Jesus describes the Pharisee (the proud man in this story) with telling words. He is the one, says Jesus, who is “standing by himself.”  I’m thinking of rock star Courtney Love who grew accustomed to the fame and wealth that came with her marriage to Curt Cobaine of Nirvana. A few years ago, she was dropped off by a black stretch limo in front of the Manhattan Criminal Court building, where she faced charges of disorderly conduct for hitting one of her fans with a microphone stand. When the security guard wouldn’t allow her to bypass the long line for the metal detector, she told a reporter: “The guy wants me to stand in line with everybody else. I'm not everybody else.” Then she added, “It's scary standing in line with everybody else.” The most frightening horror movie is nothing compared with the scariness of admitting that we don’t stand in some special privileged place; that we are just like everyone else; mortal, vulnerable, & accountable to God. Pride is always in competition with others, but that’s not all…

Pride is always in competition with God. That’s because “In God you come up against something which in every respect is immeasurably superior to yourself” writes Lewis. Unless you know God in this way and yourself as nothing by comparison, you really don’t know God at all. A proud person cannot know God because he or she is too busy looking down on things and people to see the One who is above him. That’s why the Pharisee is an impossible contradiction in this story: a man who claims to know God on a first name basis, but who is looking down on everyone else: “God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax-collector. I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income."  Sometimes (surprise!) it’s the people in our own church family that we view as the thieves and tax-collectors. They’re the ones who are in the way of our personal prestige and popularity and power….but the more we compete and look down on others, the more obvious it is that we do not really look up to God. Of course, religious pride is only one way that our eyes can be directed away from God and focused on ourselves....

There is intellectual pride: putting our trust in what the human mind can know and understand…without admitting its limitations. Recently, I’ve had the pleasure of discussing science and theology with a professor of astrophysics at a major university in our area, and a member of our church. What most impresses me about him is how deeply he values science and yet how passionately he speaks about its limitations.  He does research at one of the most prestigious universities in the country, and yet he seems able not to take himself or his colleagues too seriously.  As a Christian, he has questions science cannot address; questions that only find their resting place in God. That's humility.

There is family pride. Obviously there is nothing wrong with being “proud” (i.e., having admiration for our children) but it can become warped when we become obsessed with their success. From 1982 to 2006, 16,475 college students completed an evaluation called the Narcissistic Personality Inventory (NPI). The standard inventory asks for rated responses to such statements as, "If I ruled the world it would be a better place," "I think I am a special person," and "I can live my life the way I want to." The nationwide results were revealing. "We need to stop endlessly repeating, 'You're special' and having children repeat that back," said Professor Jean Twenge of San Diego State University. "Kids are self-centered enough already." The study asserts narcissists "are more likely to have romantic relationships that are short-lived, at risk for infidelity, lack emotional warmth, and to exhibit game-playing, dishonesty, and over-controlling and violent behaviors." Evidently it all began with some kids when they were taught an alternate version of "Frère Jacques" in preschool: "I am special, I am special; Look at me, look at me!"

There is generational pride: the assumption that my generation is superior to the generation of my parents, or (as an adult) that my generation is superior to that of my children or grandchildren. One of the devil’s ploys is to cut each generation off from all others. It seems painfully difficult for one generation to honor the next or for the next to honor the former. The desire to be honored, to be understood rather than to understand is devastating for Christ’s mission… because it kills all desire to communicate to the next generation in ways they can understand; or to learn from the wisdom and mistakes of our elders. Pride is always in competition with others, and with God; and though the disease has many symptoms…it has only one antidote…

Pride’s antidote: developing honesty and humility. Researchers have found -- not surprisingly -- that there are several public situations in which we do not act like our true selves: when we enter a fancy hotel; when we enter a new-car showroom and begin talking to the salesperson (I've thought of a few others: when we’re texting, going on a first date, or sitting down for a job interview). But the other place researchers say we don’t act like ourselves is when we take our seat in church [Buffington, Playing Charades, Universal Press Syndicate (9-26-99)]! A church ought to be the one place where we can truly be ourselves, and yet for many of us it’s the place where we feel we must be someone else, where we must convince God & others we are good enough, and spiritual enough to be there.

“Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax-collector,” says Jesus. Oddly enough it was the tax-collector (despised as a Roman collaborator and extortionist), and not the Pharisee, who stood far off  “…would not even look up to heaven, but was beating his breast and saying, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!” Clearly, Jesus wants us to follow the example of the tax-collector who admitted he was a sinner; came to God in humble repentance, and rather than justifying himself, asked God for mercy!

Now does this mean that the humble person is filled with self-loathing hatred, intent on apologizing to everyone that he’s alive? No. The humble won’t be recognized by how bad they feel about themselves, denying whatever gifts and abilities they have, but by their genuine interest in you and what you have to say. Lewis reminds us that it’s not as though God wants us to stop being prideful and start obsessing about being humble…how lowly and insignificant we are. True humility, in God’s eyes, is about a change in focus…from an obsession with ourselves (whether it is how great we are or how terrible we are) to a genuine interest in others and a passion for the kingdom of God.

If pride is the scariest sin of all, then the cure is the ability to see how funny, how silly we can be in God's eyes; to admit our foolish pride and, better yet, to be able to laugh at it.  Along these lines, Uncle Screwtape, the senior temper in C. S. Lewis' Screwtape Letters, gives advice to his nephew on how to entangle his "patient" in his own humility.  Here is an exerpt from Letter XIV:

          MY DEAR WORMWOOD,


The most alarming thing in your last account of the patient is that he is making none of those confident resolutions which marked his original conversion. No more lavish promises of perpetual virtue, I gather; not even the expectation of an endowment of "grace" for life, but only a hope for the daily and hourly pittance to meet the daily and hourly temptation! This is very bad.


I see only one thing to do at the moment. Your patient has become humble; have you drawn his attention to the fact? All virtues are less formidable to us once the man is aware that he has them, but this is specially true of humility. Catch him at the moment when he is really poor in spirit and smuggle into his mind the gratifying reflection, "By jove! I'm being humble", and almost immediately pride—pride at his own humility—will appear. If he awakes to the danger and tries to smother this new form of pride, make him proud of his attempt—and so on, through as many stages as you please. But don't try this too long, for fear you awake his sense of humour and proportion, in which case he will merely laugh at you and go to bed. (C. S. Lewis, The Screwtape Letters, XIV)  
Humility is laughing at your pride…pride even in being humble.  Humility is not saying “I am a poor artist, or a lousy student” when you’re really a very good one; but honoring the artistry and brilliance of those around you.  Humility is not the minimizing of your own abilities; but a genuine interest in the abilities of others. Humility is neither self-loathing, nor self-conceit…but the love of all selves, including your own.  Humility is the ability to stop looking down (on yourself or on others), and to start looking up at the One who made you, and called you to love the people around you. "For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted!" 

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