Proper 17 (Year C)
Sirach (Ecclesiastcus) 10:12-18
by The Rev. Dr. Deonna D. Neal
St John’s Episcopal Church, Montgomery, AL
1 September 2019
May the words of my mouth and the meditation of all of our hearts, be acceptable in thy sight, O Lord, our strength and our redeemer.
“The beginning of human pride is to forsake the Lord; the heart has withdrawn from its Maker,” the text from Sirach in the Old Testament begins. It continues, “For the beginning of pride is sin, and the one who clings to it pours out abominations.” The text ends with, “Pride was not created for human beings, or violent anger for those born of women.”
Pride. It is one of the 7 deadly sins. More than that, it has traditionally been understood as the capital sin, which means that all other sins on that list, anger, sloth, envy, greed, lust, and gluttony all flow out of the foundational sin of pride. The kind of pride the text is talking about isn’t the kind of pride we mean when we tell someone who has given a sloppy effort to “take pride in their work.” It is not the kind of pride that parents feel when they see their kids make a good decision to reject bad peer pressure. No, the kind of pride the text is talking about is the spiritually deadly form of pride that we all struggle with. It is the pride that involves privileging our own conceptions of happiness and our own power to achieve it over and against God.
I received a small devotional prayer book as an ordination gift from one of my friends from seminary many years ago, called the Saint Augustine’s Prayer Book. It is not, in fact, St. Augustine’s personal prayer book. But the book is named after St Augustine because he is the patron saint of the Order of the Holy Cross, which is a monastic order founded in the Anglo-Catholic tradition of the Episcopal Church. The prayer book is a great resource for all sorts of personal devotions, but I have found its section on the Sacrament of Reconciliation particularly useful. In that section, it contains 11 pages devoted to explicating the 7 deadly sins and gives examples of how they manifest themselves in daily life. Three of those 11 pages are devoted to the sin of pride, which is the first on the list.
The book defines pride this way: Pride puts self at the center and is not willing to trust or obey God; it holds oneself above or away from others and refuses to see oneself within the larger human family. The book breaks pride down further into 7 subcategories: Irreverence, presumption, distrust, disobedience, impenitence, vanity, and arrogance. Here are some examples from each of the subcategories.
- Irreverence: Neglect of public worship and failure to keep a disciplined prayer life.
- Presumption: Assuming that the normal rules and patterns of Christian life don’t apply to us because of our particular situation or personal attributes
- Distrust: Surrendering to gloom or discouragement instead of striving for confidence, patience, and hope
- Disobedience : Rejection of God’s known will in favor of our own interests or pleasures. Refusal to grow in understanding of the Christian faith and scripture.
- Impenitence: Refusal to know and admit our sins and shortcomings.
- Vanity: Crediting to ourselves rather than to God our talents, abilities, insights, accomplishments and good works.
- Arrogance: Disregard of others and their concerns. Being overbearing, argumentative or obstinate. Pride of race, family position, education, religious standing, skill, or possessions. Disdain for others for these reasons.
One of the difficulties of being honest about how the sin of pride infects our lives, is that we get it confused with proper forms of self-love and self-esteem. What is the difference?
Self-esteem is having the proper regard and understanding of ourselves as a creatures of God. A healthy self-esteem is to know that we are worthy to be loved and to believe that God has blessed us and equipped us with various gifts and talents to use in the service of God and our neighbor. A healthy self-esteem allows us to set good boundaries, so that we do not believe that we deserve to be abused by others.
Self-love, we might say, are those activities we undertake to honor our proper place in God’s creation as his children. To love ourselves is to provide our bodies, minds, and souls with what they need so we can live well and contribute to the various communities of which we are a part—our families, professions, schools, church, and nation. We love our body by giving it proper rest, exercise, and having a healthy diet. We love our body by devoting it to meaningful labor. We love our mind by educating it broadly, studying the arts and sciences and humanities and our Christian faith. We love our mind by finding thoughtful conversation partners so that we can learn to think well and positively participate and use our intellectual gifts to the service of community. We love our soul by opening it up to the love of God, by means of prayer and participating in the sacraments.
Notice that we love ourselves so we can be of service to God and our neighbors. Self-love turns into the sin of pride when that self-love is directed inwardly and for our own aggrandizement alone. The spiritually deadly form of pride is a form of self-immanence, a pre-occupation only with our own life. This understanding of pride of which Scripture warns, leads us into isolation and removes us from true community—community with others and community with God. This is why the lesson from Sirach points out that when human beings forsake God, communities will be destroyed. If a community is turned in on itself and away from God, how can God sustain it?
If the effects of pride are the pre-occupation with self, isolation, and the disintegration of communities, then the anti-dote to that is humility. Cultivating humility is difficult, since it is always easier to spot pride in others, but it is harder to see it in ourselves.
Identifying our own sin of pride can be a painful process. Sometimes we experience a difficult and humbling event, which forces us to come to grips with our pride. But there are ways, I think, to be more regularly pro-active about addressing our sin of pride before God has to more forcefully cut us down to size. How do we do this? We have to go back to basics. Basically, we need to establish a regular routine of some form of private self-examination and confession that we do outside of the regular worship services. This can be done alone by ourselves, or in the presence of a priest in the form of sacramental confession. Here is what that a private process alone with God might entail.
The first thing we have to do is to open up ourselves to God and pray for humility. We might say, “God please grant me humility so that I can honestly confess my sins to you.” Since one of the main indicators of pride is too much self-reliance, then it makes sense that we have to turn ourselves over to God and admit that we cannot conquer the sin of pride on our own.
Second, we need to make this confession out loud when we are alone with God. It is tempting to just do a self-examination silently in our minds. It is easy to “think” about our sinfulness, like we think about an answer to a question, but often times, that is where it stays—in our head. By taking that self-awareness out of our head and bringing it out into the open with speech, then we can confront that reality with our whole self. By naming it out loud we “put it on the table,” so to speak, where it has to be honestly confronted. Naming our sins out loud makes us claim and take ownership of them. This is not easy to do. Hearing our sins with the sound of our own ears can be painful. And, if saying the words out loud leaves a “bad taste” in our mouths, then that is a good sign. We should hate what we are saying. If we don’t, then we need to ask ourselves if we are being completely honest about the nature of our sins.
After we pray for humility, we might start our confession by simply saying, “Merciful God I confess to the sin of pride.” We address our confession to God, since it is God who is the most offended by our sins. They really do hurt and offend God. (Sometimes I think we forget that. Yes, God is God and he can “take it” as it were, but God is still hurt and offended by sin, since it is a rejection of God and his grace.) Also, it is important to name pride as a sin, because that is what it is. No use beating around the bush about it or making it seem less bad than it is. Karl Barth, the famous 20th century German theologian insisted that one of the main spiritual problems of the 20th century was that it stopped taking sin seriously and turned to psychologizing everything.
Next, be specific about what this sin of pride entails. Ask yourself questions like: Toward whom do I feel disdainful? Why? Where in my life am I trying to do everything myself? Why? How am I being neglectful of worship and prayer? Why? Whose approval am I seeking more than God’s approval? Why? What images of myself am I trying to project to make me feel superior to others? Why? How concerned am I with the clothes I wear? Why? Am I prone to name-dropping? Why? Why do I think my plan for my life is better than God’s plan for my life? How we answer these questions and the reasons for them can be illuminating and can give us some insight about what we need to pray for.
After this exercise in self-examination, apologize to God. Say something like, “Merciful God, I am truly sorry for my sin of pride. Please forgive me and help me to amend my life.” You’ve done the hard work at that point. Now, just be silent and wait and listen for God’s voice. Try to feel how the Holy Spirit is working in you. Wait in silence until you feel calmer and more peaceful, these are good signs that the Holy Spirit is working on your heart and healing you with God’s grace.
One of the reasons why I think some form of dedicated time for self-examination and confession is so important is because it is an activity that connects us with God at one of the deepest and most fundamental levels that is proper to us as human beings. In this activity, we are connected with God the Father who created us, God the Son who redeems us, and God the Holy Spirit who not only enlightens our hearts and minds with true self-knowledge, but is also the conduit of God’s love, mercy and healing grace. Making a humble confession is one of the most profound and authentic expressions of being in relationship with God. It is not a technical exercise to simply wipe a slate clean. It is the means by which we learn how to grow into our own humanity.
If pride is humanity’s original sin and what separated the first humans from God, then kneeling before God in humility is to return to our most proper position before God. When we orient ourselves to God in humility, we occupy the safest and most secure position we can have before God. We humble ourselves before a God who loves us and who has our best interest at heart. The sin of pride denies this truth and deceives us into thinking that we are the one’s who can best look after ourselves. This is why battling against the sin of pride is important. Pride puts us in spiritual danger. Humility give us spiritual safety. No harm will ever come to us in that space of confession and repentance, where we make ourselves completely vulnerable to God and are united and secured to God through his grace.
Pride was not created for human beings. This is why Jesus tells us to take the lowest seat at his banquet table. When the time comes he will say to us, “Friend, move up higher.” For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted. Amen.