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Pride: The Root of all Sin and Division


The Medieval church understood that pride is the granddaddy of all the other sins.

How can this be?

Given all the widespread suffering in this world from wars, murder, rape, both illegal and legal theft of all kinds, a divorce and infidelity rate in the neighborhood of 50% for all marriages, how can pride be the biggest issue of them all??

I think the Medieval church was onto something. Because when you peel back the layers on all those sins, you often find the unmistakable footprint of pride underneath most of them, if not all.

Today, the church largely describes sin today using the same categories as the secular world. We debate the “culture wars” issues. We talk about immigration, climate change and racism. There is value in the church using terminology that is widely used in categories that people commonly understand. But the danger is that the church can get easily co-opted by political forces. It also diminishes what could be the church’s ability to speak to the heart of these matters and provide its best witness.

What is pride?

Pride is the breaking of the 1st commandment. It is an inability to understand and accept the basic relationship between humans and God: God is God. Humans are humans. Humans are all equal in dignity to each other.

Pride is not knowing who we really are. It’s not letting God be God and letting people who God created them to be. As a result, we over-compensate. We attempt to do what is not ours to do. Like Prometheus, we are on a fool’s quest to steal God’s fire and be in control of it—and then judge those poorly who don’t measure up.

Why would we do this? A newborn baby seems content. Why would we put so much energy addressing something that babies already know does not need to be addressed? The answer: Shame. We put layers of masks and coping strategies over shame.

Shame is the message that we are not good enough. When we get the message that we are “not good enough” we start to throw our fundamental relationship with God—and our fellow humans—out of balance. That’s because we can’t actually do anything to earn or justify our own worth! That is a God-given dignity. But in a desperate attempt to cover up this pain, we pretend that we can actually do something to merit our own worth and feel good about ourselves.

Where do we get this message of shame? Bad parenting. Our culture. From other shame-ridden, prideful people before us. It can take a lifetime of introspection to discover all those messages buried deep within us that others gave us or that we simply picked up somehow. When someone tell us we aren’t good enough, that implies the very false belief that it’s our job to earn our worth and that we can actually do—or not do—something to devalue ourselves or that we don’t have the dignity which our faith teaches us we all have.

Superiority Covers Inferiority

Pride always masks its opposite. Noted psychologist Alfred Adler has said that feelings of superiority (i.e. pride) always masks feelings of inferiority. Always. The most egotistical, prideful person is always a scared, insecure person on the inside. It may just take a while to see it. A prideful person seems so confident, so secure, so radiant in their own self-assuredness. But they are only working so hard to project that image because they feel the opposite on the inside.

It’s kind of simple when you think about it: A person is driven to those things for a reason, so what is that reason? What is that wound, that ache or that fear? There must be a reason or else someone wouldn’t expend so much energy doing it.

The person with not a single hair out of place is a person who feels very much out of place on the inside. The student who cannot be satisfied with any grade below an “A” is someone who has already graded themselves poorly. Hard work, achievement and respectable appearance can be worthy efforts, of course. After all, we have work to do while on this earth. But if those things are done out of a compulsion to pretend we can earn our place over and above others, then we are out of sync with God, we are our of sync with our nature, and sin can and will result.

Pride is always a coping mechanism attempting to cover for shame, self-hatred and self-doubt. That pain is to severe so we put layers of masks on top of it, trying to hide it, trying to muddle through, trying to keep up until such a time comes when we can actually deal with it. At least that’s the foolish quest we on.

By Grace Alone

Given how important this issue is, it is easy to see why Christians become embroiled in bitter theological debates over small nuances of doctrine. It’s easy to see why Protestant Reformers, for example, have been so fervently committed to the “grace alone” theology expressed by Luther and so many other Reformers. I don’t necessarily agree with them or their approaches, but I do agree that there is  something so important at the heart of that issue, that if you get that wrong, that is seems like everything else would be wrong by consequence.

In this blog, we often severely critique the impulse of Christians to split the Christian community over what seems like tedious theological points. People are going to have theological differences of opinion and practice. We ought to relax about that and allow people to stretch and grow in their thinking rather than let those differences result in denominational splits. But those points do matter. It is easy to understand why those points are considered so important.

We end up using our very theology to establish our own merit! My church is better than yours. My theology is better than yours. No matter how hard we try to run from this sin, we keeping getting caught up in it in increasingly slippery and sly ways. I would argue here that the root of Christian division is not differences in theology, doctrine, national origin, culture or practice—it’s pride. And a divided Christianity does a poor job of witnessing against all the other sins in our world which are ultimately rooted in this same division.

Pride Establishes Hierarchies Where God Has Not

Pride is a symptom of our fallen condition. We aren’t good enough. We must be in control. It’s the false self, the ego. We must augment ourselves, we must market and “sell ourselves” we must be on top of the hill otherwise we’ll just wither and disappear like dust in the wind.

But in doing so, we throw our fundamental anthropology out of whack. We judge some people to be better than others. Suddenly, we group people by race, by culture, by gender, by national origin, by economic class, by material possessions and by church doctrine and all the other false gods in our lives. We’ve got to get on top of the hill before they do! We’ve got to somehow be in control of the things that are really only God’s to control. We start doing things that are really God’s job. We create hierarchies to judge the worth of ourselves in relation to others: My yard is tidier than your yard.  My church is better than your church.  My race is better than yours. My immigration status makes me more worthy than yours. My sins are better than your sins.  

It’s the same works righteousness that the Protestant Reformers fought so hard to resist. It’s a perennial problem in the human condition which religious traditions have been trying to address since the beginning of time.

The Opposites of Pride are Humility and Calmness

Understanding that God is God and humans are humans leads to calmness. It leads to humility. And out of that humility our true natural dignity shines all the better. This is where true achievement is to be found! This is the paradox.

The Medieval church understood that pride is the deadliest of the deadly sins. It is the root of all division. By definition, it divides and establishes hierarchies of worth and merit. Let God be God. Know who you are in light of that and then see your brothers and sisters in that same light. There is a feeling of calmness in this. You don’t have to do anything to earn your worth. That being said, there is value in human achievement, rightly understood. There is value in calling out sin in our fellow humans, rightly understood.  But our daily work must be to re-center ourselves in a proper theological anthropology so that our work can be to help unravel—rather than re-assert—pride and its very deadly consequences.


This is part of a series on the Seven Deadly Sins.
Other installments:
Fasting from Division, Feasting on Inclusion

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