Saturday, March 20, 2010

The Pride Reflex

12 “ How you are fallen from heaven,
      O Lucifer, son of the morning!
How you are cut down to the ground,
      You who weakened the nations!
13 For you have said in your heart:
      ‘ I will ascend into heaven,
      I will exalt my throne above the stars of God;
      I will also sit on the mount of the congregation
      On the farthest sides of the north;
14 I will ascend above the heights of the clouds,
      I will be like the Most High’” (Isaiah 14:12-14).

Pride stands squarely at the center of the world’s spiritual history. Its roots go down deep in the soil of this planet, penetrating the core of our individual beings. It is fundamental to human nature. We cannot understand ourselves until we recognize that poison within us. This evening we will examine the nature of pride. Specifically, we will see how pride:

1) Pollutes relationships

2) Distracts us from legitimate pleasures

3) Causes misery

4) And ends in destruction.

But first, what is pride? How will we know it when we see it? The dictionary definition of pride is: 1. a high or inordinate opinion of one's own dignity, importance, merit, or superiority, whether as cherished in the mind or as displayed in bearing, conduct, etc. 2. An excessively high opinion of oneself; conceit. Pride is simply the exaltation of the self. Pride is me making much of me. It is a way of making myself appear bigger, look better, seem greater than I truly am. Pride is the celebration of the self apart from God.

In the above passage from Isaiah, we observe the workings of pride on the mind of Lucifer. “I will exalt my throne above the stars of God,” he says, and with that the perfection of God’s creation is gone. At the root of the first rebellion is an unwillingness to accept your place in the created order. The creature wishes to usurp the Creator. Satan did not want to submit to the authority of God, and neither do we. What was it that tempted Adam to eat the forbidden fruit? Was it not the promise that “your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil” (Genesis 3:5)? Adam was tempted by the promise of becoming like God. We are no different. We hope for apotheosis, secretly yearning to drag our throne into the heavens.

Christopher Marlowe understood our instinct to transgress boundaries in the search for knowledge. Marlowe’s play, “The Tragical History of Dr. Faustus,” is one of the most under appreciated works of English literature. Faust is a brilliant man who seems to have mastered many disciplines (arete). The story opens with Faust rejecting the limitations of traditional sources of knowledge: "Aristotle on logic, Galen on medicine, the Byzantine emperor Justinian on law, and the Bible on religion" (SparkNotes, Doctor Faustus). Faust is not satisfied with the knowledge available to unaided Man and turns to black magic (hubris). Listen to Faust himself:

"All things that move between the quiet poles

Shall be at my command: emperors and kings

Are but obeyed in their several provinces,

Nor can they raise the wind, or rend the clouds;

But his dominion that exceeds in this [sorcery]

Stretcheth as far as doth the mind of man:

A sound magician is a mighty god" (Marlowe 994).

Faust's thirst of the power of knowledge is so great that he sells his soul to Lucifer in exchange for the service of a devil named Mephastophilis for twenty-four years (ate). Mephastophilis reveals the hidden nature of the Universe, but refuses to tell Faust who created the world. Faust travels the world, but instead of using his new found knowledge for the benefit of mankind, is reduced to playing practical jokes (SparkNotes, Doctor Faustus). As the end of the twenty-four years approaches, Faust begins to regret his choice. He begs for deliverance: "O God, if thou wilt not have mercy on my soul, Yet for Christ's sake, whose blood hath ransomed me" (Marlowe, 1022). In the end, a group of devils drag Faust of to hell (nemesis). Here are his chilling last words: "Ugly hell gape not! Come not, Lucifer! I'll burn my books-ah, Mephastophilis!" (Marlowe, 1023).

After Adam, we all face Faust’s temptation to overreach (ate). Now sin and death has been loosed on the whole world. It infects every area of life, including our most cherished relationships. I want to pause and examine the way that pride interrupts the spirit of brotherhood that should persist between individuals.

First, pride replaces love with competition (Lewis, The Great Sin). Lewis put it best:

The point is that each person's pride is in competition with every one else's pride. It is because I wanted to be the big noise at the party that I am so annoyed at someone else being the big noise. Two of a trade never agree. Now what you want to get clear is that Pride is essentially competitive - is competitive by its very nature - while the other vices are competitive only, so to speak, by accident. Pride gets no pleasure out of having something, only out of having more of it than the next man. We say that people are proud of being rich, or clever, or good-looking, but they are not. They are proud of being richer, or cleverer, or better-looking than others (Lewis, The Great Sin).

Pride replaces harmony with invidious comparisons. It offers the “pleasure of being above the rest” (Lewis, The Great Sin). And it is never satisfied. There will always be someone better, and our pride will never let us rest until we have surpassed them, until the whole world lies below us. In the place of the pure, legitimate joy of pursuing excellence for its own sake, pride suggests an endless series of competitions, of enemies to be vanquished. Because there can be only one best.

Pride interrupts our vertical as well as our horizontal relationships. Pride prevents us from knowing God (Lewis, The Great Sin). Again, Lewis:

In God you come up against something which is in every respect immeasurably superior to yourself. Unless you know God as that - and, therefore, know yourself as nothing in comparison - you do not know God at all. As long as you are proud you cannot know God. A proud man is always looking down on things and people: and, of course, as long as you are looking down, you cannot see something that is above you (Lewis, The Great Sin).

Pride offers to exchange intimacy with God for your own way. Pride offers you more of you. Why do we choose ourselves? What can we offer ourselves that is so irresistible?

The answer is that at some level we recognize our brokenness. We sense that there is something ugly buried deep inside. We don’t want to look at it. We don’t want to acknowledge the darkness that has taken up residence there. It hurts. It hurts to really see ourselves. It hurts to admit that we are thieves, or liars, or cheats. We don’t want to be gossips, or slanderers, or gluttons. So we hide behind pride. It offers a refuge from our sense that we are fatally flawed. But prideful pleasure is a vapor: you cannot hold it. It is a dish that leaves you hungry as soon as it is past your lips. It is a building that seeks to rip out its own foundation, as Spurgeon knew:

Again, pride is the maddest thing that can exist; it feeds upon its own vitals; it will take away its own life, that with its blood may make a purple for its shoulders: it sappeth, and undermineth its own house that it may build its pinnacles a little higher, and then the whole structure tumbleth down (Spurgeon, Pride and Humility).

It promises pleasure but only drives the needle of despair deeper.

We could talk for hours about the pain that pride has caused throughout our personal histories. Pride introduces corruption into our lives a thousand times a day. Let me give an example from my own life. Last week, I received an email from one of my students. He was struggling to get anything out of my lectures. He felt as though he was teaching himself. Could I perhaps do a few more examples in class?

I must confess, I bristled when I read the email. I hadn’t even really thought about what he was saying, but I felt a powerful urge to strike back. My response was automatic, almost instinctive. How dare he question my methods?

This is an example of what I describe as the pride reflex. It happens immediately when someone suggests we have come up short. It isn’t even rational. The truth is, it is my job to teach the material to the best of my ability. Once I calmed down, I remembered that the only thing that matters is how effective I am at doing that. I decided to eat my pride, and change. The next class period the students worked examples. And guess what? They got a whole lot more out of that lecture. In other words, my student was right and I was wrong. By accepting his feedback, everyone benefited.

Pride hates outcomes like that. It wants to convince us that we’ve got it all figured out. It is there when we refuse to change in order to better love our wives, husbands, children, or friends. It helps us rationalize our choice too hurt each other. It explains away our faults, sooths our bruised egos when we fail. “It’s okay. You’re still better than him!” it consoles. It stands between estranged husbands and wives. It turns friends into enemies. It tries to convince us that words like grace and forgiveness don’t apply to him. It whispers that things will never be the same again. It assures us that we’re worth it, that whatever we just have to have today is worth it. Worth letting nothing and nobody get in our way. Pride tells us that we can have it all.

Where does pride end? It ends here, in Job chapter 20.

4 “Do you not know this of old,
      Since man was placed on earth,

5 That the triumphing of the wicked is short,
      And the joy of the hypocrite is but for a moment?

6 Though his haughtiness mounts up to the heavens,
      And his head reaches to the clouds,

7 Yet he will perish forever like his own refuse;
      Those who have seen him will say, ‘Where is he?’

8 He will fly away like a dream, and not be found;
      Yes, he will be chased away like a vision of the night.

Let me encourage you with this thought: it doesn’t have to be that way. I want us to imagine for the moment a world where people have unlearned the pride reflex. The Scripture promises, “Before destruction the heart of man is haughty, and before honor is humility” (Proverbs 18:12). God who made me tells me that humility will earn his praise! I admit that I long to feel the honor that only God can bestow. If the praise of man is so seductive, how much more potent must be the approbation of God Himself? Recall the luminous lyric, “You will show me the path of life; In Your presence is fullness of joy; At Your right hand are pleasures forevermore” (Psalm 16:11). The glorious truth is that you are not a robot or a helpless piece of foam afloat on the moral ocean. You have a choice. You can pursue the pure, satisfying, everlasting joy that is the presence of almighty God. “But Jesus said, ‘Suffer the little children to come unto me, and forbid them not: for such is the kingdom of heaven’” (Matthew 19:14). Such is the kingdom of heaven – what does that mean? In this little vignette Jesus communicates something that is beyond earthly understanding. It has to be experienced to be understood. He is trying to show us a small part of what it means to truly be with Him. He says to each of us, “Child, come to me.” And He waits for us with open arms. In the arms of the Savior we find the peace that prideful pleasure could never provide. Suddenly, the chains of guilt and self-loathing fall away and you see Him. In the hands of God we find acceptance conditioned on nothing, meaning relative to no one.

1 comment:

  1. Excellent insights- especially that pride replaces love with competition. Thank you.