Pride and Humility - St Bride's: Reflection

St Bride's: Sermons

Pride and Humility

If there is one word that might be said to provide a connection between our three biblical readings this morning, it is the word 'pride' - regarded by many as the foremost of the seven deadly sins.  Indeed, St Augustine famously said, 'It was Pride that changed angels into devils; it is Humility that makes men as angels'.  And yet, interestingly enough, both pride and its corresponding virtue, humility, are often quite significantly misunderstood.

This is partly because of the rather confusing way in which we use language.  'You can feel really proud of yourself!' we might say to a child who has done well at a particular task - suggesting that pride is something entirely positive that is to be encouraged. 

Conversely, I can remember growing up with the strangely distorted idea that the virtue of humility was something that you achieved by striving very hard to think badly of yourself - a kind of conscious cultivation of low self-esteem.  Whereas, in reality there can be few things more painful to see than a person who is crippled by a sense of their own worthlessness.  And there is nothing remotely virtuous about that: on the contrary, that is precisely the sort of desperate human situation from which God's love in Christ offers deliverance.

So you can perhaps see just how easily these notions can get tangled up and confused.  Indeed, if pride is feeling good about yourself, and humility is feeling bad about yourself, and pride is a sin and humility is a virtue - then the Christian faith must surely be a pretty miserable religion!

But of course that is emphatically not what the Christian faith teaches; nor is it what scripture is talking about when it speaks about the qualities that we label 'pride' and 'humility'.  Because, properly understood, the distinction that the Christian faith works with is a very different one, and it is this:

We commit the sin of pride when we put ourselves at the centre of the universe.  When the single most important question we ask ourselves is: 'What will other people think?'  What will people think of me if I am seen doing this, or not seen doing that?  What will people think if have a house that is smaller than theirs, or a job that is less well-paid, or a car that is inferior?'  Or, more insidiously, 'What will people think when they find out that I got that wrong?'; or discover that it was my fault; or that I have failed?  How, then, will I be able to command their respect?'

We are guilty of the sin of pride whenever those kinds of questions or concerns are uppermost in our thoughts - because they will swiftly begin to influence our behaviour and the way we handle our relationships.  And when those kinds of forces are at work in our lives they are invariably destructive.  Invariably.  Because whenever the primary focus of our attention is ourselves, then our view of other people, the situations we find ourselves in, and indeed our sense of who we are begins to get distorted and warped, and can slowly eats away at everything that is good in our lives.

I'm sure you will all have met the kind of person who so cannot bear to be seen to be in the wrong, or to lose face, that they will go to any lengths to avoid it: by laying the blame on someone else, or give a completely distorted version of events, or concealing the truth in some way - without recognising that, paradoxically, that kind of conduct only serves to lose them respect. 

Indeed, when I think about two of the most impressive individuals I have ever worked for, they both had a wonderful honesty and transparency about them: if they got something wrong they were the first to point it out.  And when that happened, far from going down in my estimation, the opposite was the case.  They had that wonderful kind of unselfconsciousness, or self-forgetfulness, which meant that they lived untrammelled by any concerns about what people might be thinking about them.  Which in turn, freed them to live lovingly and compassionately, with a remarkable ability to see both people and situations as they truly were.

And that kind of humility - true humility - is the mark of someone who, deep down, knows that they are loved and accepted for being who and what they are.  Who feels no need to impress anyone or beat anyone, or rubbish anyone - and because of that he, or she, is simply free to be. 

There is a profound kind of self-knowledge and self-awareness that goes with that, which does indeed mean that that kind of person will, inevitably be more than usually aware of their own failings.  That is why, traditionally, the greatest saints were always most acutely conscious of their own sinfulness.  But there is a massive difference between that kind of self-awareness, which is the product of being set free because we know we are loved and accepted - and the kind of false, grovelling, self-obsession with what a failure one is - which is not humility at all but in fact a bizarrely distorted form of pride: indeed the poet Coleridge described 'the pride that apes humility' as 'the devil's darling sin'.

True humility brings with it the freedom to listen to God attentively; to love God unreservedly; and to serve God wholeheartedly; and that in turn liberates us to listen to, and love, and serve one another.  In the process we will almost certainly become newly aware of our own limitations and inadequacies - but such failings understood in the light of God's profound and lasting and unconditional love for each one of us, are very different from the feelings generated by a despairing sense that we are worthless.  We are called to be God's loving and liberated children - not to be 'Doormats for Jesus'.  And those whose pride means that they need to strive to preserve appearances at all cost, simply end up looking insecure.

The sin of pride is pernicious because it both generates, and is fuelled by, a false sense of how important we are - or need to be.  Which is why in our Gospel reading this morning, Jesus gives such a clear warning about the perils of seating yourself in the place of honour at a wedding banquet.  'Pride comes before a fall', as the proverb goes.  And it is indeed the case that, if you have an elevated sense of your own importance - or want to create an impression of that importance - then the likelihood is that sooner or later the truth will out and you will come a cropper. 

The person of pride wants to be seen sitting in the place of honour, regardless of whether or not they deserve that place.  Whereas the person of true humility doesn't give a fig where he or she sits, because their sense of self-worth is not bound up with anybody's seating plan - they are just content to be who they are, wherever they are seated.  So ironically, such a person would not mind in the slightest sitting in the lowliest place - they probably wouldn't even have noticed that that is where they were. 

But it is they who are the people of true freedom; free to enjoy God's gifts; free to know they are loved and accepted; and free to love and accept those around them.  Which is why in the parable of the wedding feast that Jesus told, it is to one of their number that the Lord comes quietly and says, 'Friend, move up higher.'

And thanks be to God for that.


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