Gregory the Great described it as the “Queen of the vices.” Aquinas called it “the first sin, the source of all other sins, and the worst sin.” Augustine of Hippo wrote that it is “the commencement of sin because it was this that overthrew the devil, from whom arose the origin of sin.” St. John Cassian said that so great is this evil that “it rightly has no angel, nor other virtues opposed to it, but God Himself as its adversary.” Evagrius says it is the “cause of the most grievous fall of the soul.”
The early church fathers agreed that of the seven soul-destroying sins, the most deadly was the sin of pride.
It’s really easy to spot pride. . .in someone else. We hate it when it manifests itself in the forms of haughtiness, arrogance, conceit, superiority, self-importance, grandiosity, narcissism, vanity, glory-seeking, egotism and overconfidence. We can even detect a false humility and an air of pride in the timid, who are overly concerned about what others think of them. But this deadly sin, which is so easy to spot in the character of others, has a stealthy ability in our own lives. We fail to remember that the soul-eroding destruction of the seven sins doesn’t lie in the overt manifestations they reveal in the life of the believer, but rather the fact that they disguise themselves in an undetected cloak of virtue. We rationalize, justify and even spiritualize pride without even knowing it.
Pride is the trust in one’s own abilities rather than a dependence on God. It is a form of rebellion against God. A proud person believes that she can know an unknowable God. She doesn’t live in the tension that her finite mind cannot wrap around an infinite God. Pride is a failure to put God in a proper place and fall prostrate in fear before Him. It creates a spiritual blindness, in which we fail to see that we truly cannot see all who God is. It also creates an attitude of “spiritual rightness” that is nothing less than arrogance.
Pride puts believers in an improper place of not recognizing that we are frail, helpless, limited, wicked beings who need God. While we may know this, we fail to live it. All our lives we have been taught we can accomplish anything that we put our minds to, to believe in ourselves and to glory or define ourselves by our successful accomplishments. We fail to see who we really are. This deadly sin is the very sin that caused Lucifer to fall.
Origin of Pride
Of all God’s creation, Lucifer was the most spectacular. Ezekiel writes that he was clothed with every precious stone and he walked on the holy mountain of God. Lucifer was described as “the model of perfection, full of wisdom and perfect in beauty” (Ezekiel 28:12 NIV). God put Lucifer in a strategic position for His glory.
But Lucifer compromised his position, realized his own wisdom and beauty, and pride crept in. Ezekiel 28:17 records God’s assessment of Lucifer’s sin. He says, “Your heart became proud on account of your beauty, and you corrupted your wisdom because of your splendor. So I threw you to the earth; I made a spectacle of you before kings.” The prophet Isaiah adds to this account by informing us that pride in the heart of Lucifer made him overestimate who he was. Pride destroyed him when he said that he would be like the Most High God (Isaiah 14:14). He never said that he would be God; just that he would be like God.
The Old Lie Repeats Itself
Okay. Now, follow the logic of the early church fathers’ unique twist on the sin of pride. They believed that people in ministry struggled most with this sin because they strove to be godly. They used spiritual accomplishments as mile markers in accomplishing righteousness. In short, they were striving to be like God, the same sin that caused Eve and then Adam to fall.
All my life I was taught to be “like Christ.” This created a standard for me to achieve. Little did I know that this was the sin of pride rearing its ugly head. I found myself constantly thinking of what I needed to do to be more like Jesus. Unknowingly, I embodied a spiritual elitism. I had a handle on truth and it was my job to correct kids by serving as their example, leading them, or if need be, confronting them in love.
Pride puts us in a place where we need to stay one step ahead of the people we minister to. Gregory the Great writes about teachers like this, noting that pinnacle-positioning is a form of spiritual pride or arrogance. It is not unlike the Pharisees who stand in the Temple and draw attention to their tithe giving. They probably didn’t see this as a form of arrogance but rather an example of godliness to those in their spiritual charge. They knew they were right, and they believed that they needed to model the right behaviors. In short, they were striving to be like God.
It’s easy to see their pride, but we are no different. Maybe we have perpetuated a spiritual pride by wearing the banner of WWJD. Instead of teaching kids to allow Christ to live through them, we invite them to mimic Him. They rely on their own power, interpret their own behaviors as God-honoring and feel a sense of spiritual pride when they hit the mark. They reflect what we are more than who Jesus is. They learn that godliness is striving to eliminate the sin in their lives (something that only Christ does for us), when really it is simply dealing with the sin in their lives. We fail to fall on our faces humbly before God in recognition of who we truly are â€” in constant need of a Savior. When pride creeps in we find ourselves in less of a need daily for Christ. This is pharisaical.
This sin has a strong kickback. The more I work at not being proud, the more I become it. There is only one way to beat this sin: total dependence on God. It requires a constant perspective check that reminds me of who God is (in my limited comprehension), and who I am not. Pride will always be in us; its roots go back to the fall. Only Jesus can eradicate it from the soul of a youth worker. The Apostle James reminds us that we need to submit to Christ, resist the devil and humble ourselves before God. This is the only posture to help us see the soul destructive work of pride in our own lives.
STEVE GERALI is director of the Youth Ministry Undergraduate Degree Program at Azusa Pacific University in Southern California. In addition to over 25 years of youth ministry experience, Dr. Gerali is a clinical counselor, author, speaker and educator.