The First of the Seven Deadly Sins is Pride By James Stalker

The First of the Seven Deadly Sins is Pride By James Stalker

By James Stalker, 1902


IN war it is a great advantage to possess a thorough knowledge of the country. Soldiers fighting on their own ground are able to attack when not expected, to draw the enemy into ambushes, and to vanish when hard pressed without paying the penalty of defeat. It is of equal importance to possess accurate information as to the numbers of the opposing side, their strength in the different arms, and their material equipment. 

The lack of such knowledge may involve even for the victors an enormous expenditure of life and treasure. These rules are no less true of spiritual than of physical warfare. If we are to cope with the tempter, we must not be ignorant of his devices, and we must know the nature and the extent of the forces, which he is to bring into the field. For this reason it has been one of the tasks of theology to enumerate the sins by which the human soul is beset, to search into their subtlety, and to expose their methods of attack; and, as the result of many centuries of observation, seven sins have been especially noted as the leaders and chieftains of those that war against the soul—pride, avarice, lust, envy, gluttony, anger, and sloth. 

These seven sins are nowhere all mentioned together in any single passage of Scripture, although, of course, they are all often mentioned separately; and it is open to anyone to question whether there are not others entitled to the bad pre-eminence of being called the deadly sins; but the selection of these for this position is a conclusion reached, after centuries of discussion, by some of the acutest intellects of the race. 

I may refer in subsequent chapters to the history of the process by which this conclusion has been reached, but meantime I invite my readers to the study of the sin which heads the list—Pride. 

I. It may not seem obvious that pride is the primary sin; but this has been the pretty unanimous conclusion of those who have investigated the subject most deeply; and it will reward anyone to think out for himself the reasons why they have come to this conclusion. It will be remembered that this was the first sin of which we have any knowledge, for it was pride through which the angels fell; and the outstanding feature of the character of the leader of the angels in that tragic drama, as Milton has depicted it, is arrogance. ‘Better,’ he cries, ‘to reign in hell than serve in heaven.’

In like manner, the sin of our first parents, which has brought woe to all their descendants, was pride; for the tempter whispered to them, ‘You shall be as gods.’ Besides, if anyone reflects, he will perceive that in no other sin is the very essence of all sin so concentrated. The essence of sin is selfishness, and pride is the inordinate assertion of self; it would annihilate others, and it disdains to be prescribed to even by God. 

The Latin name for pride, superbia, means aiming at what is above, and Chaucer says that the proud man is he who will always be swimming aloft. But the mere desire of what is above us is not pride. Not to desire what is above us would do not be to desire any kind of improvement. Those, indeed, who aim at excellence will always be exposed to the charge of pride, but the accusation maybe groundless. A learned man cannot help being aware that he knows many things which an ignorant man does not; and by the latter it may be supposed that he must be proud on this account; but the increase of knowledge may, on the contrary, be making him every day more humble. 

In a promiscuous company, if a woman refuses to join in an unlovely game, she will be reproached as proud; but her maidenly modesty is really beautiful and virtuous. It is impossible to display any constancy or zeal in religion without being accused of pride, as if one considered oneself better than one’s neighbors; indeed, there are those who call everyone who will not join with them in riot and excess a Pharisee and a hypocrite, without more ado: but God himself has said, ‘Come out from among them, and be you separate.’ 

There is such a thing as proper pride; and, when an accusation of pride is brought, the accuser requires to be judged as well as the accused. 

In pride, justly so called, there is always an element of falsehood. It is a claim to merits which are not possessed; or, if we possess them at all, we deceive ourselves and attempt to deceive others as to the degree in which we possess them. We deny and ignore the claims of others, in order that our own may be pre-eminent. We hate those who estimate us exactly for what we are worth; and arrogance, in its extreme manifestations, demands that all should suspend their own judgments and accept its self-estimate at the point of the sword. This falseness seems to me to be the distinctive mark of pride. 

II. Many kinds of pride have been distinguished. There is, for example, that which is within, in the heart, and there is that which is without, in the clothing, the furniture, or the like; though, as Chaucer characteristically remarks, the latter betrays the existence of the former, as the wine in a tankard at the door of a tavern speaks of the wine that is in the cellar.(1.) 

Pride may be in thought, in speech, or in action. On speech it has an extraordinary effect. There are people whose conversation is nearly all about themselves. As often as the conversation strays to other subjects, they bring it back, for whatever any interlocutor relates reminds them of something that has happened to themselves, and this immediately becomes the absorbing topic. They know how to bring the conversation round by the most circuitous routes, in order to return to this favorite center. They think their devices are unnoticed, but everyone perceives them, for pride is constantly overleaping itself: it tries to make self out to be great, and in the very act of so doing proves it to be little. It is no uncommon thing for a man to be laboring to convince people of his superiority, when his transparent vanity is making him the laughing-stock of the whole company. Boastfulness easily leads to exaggeration, and exaggeration to falsehood. It is no uncommon infirmity to be unable to speak the truth about oneself. Everything that has happened to us must be wonderful, and everything we have done must be great. And, while thus we are puffing ourselves out, people are saying behind our backs, ‘You cannot believe a word he says.’ 

The most fruitful division, however, of the different kinds of pride is, in my opinion, that founded on the different kinds of gifts by which it may be excited. These may be gifts either of nature, or of fortune, or of grace. 

1. Among gifts of nature, intellectual talents are often accompanied with an overweening sense of importance, and with the craving for recognition and notoriety. The man of moderate gifts believes himself a non-such, and he who has achieved a little fame considers the applause of his coterie the murmur of the world. A Roman satirist has spoken of ‘the irritable race of poets’; but all men and women of the artistic temperament have an itch for recognition and applause which, unless it is held in restraint by good feeling and good sense, makes them discontented with the acknowledgment they receive, and disposed to believe that the praise which is their due is being withheld through the cabals of enemies. In a character like the German philosopher Nietzche, this self-importance is seen grown to such colossal dimensions that he makes out of his own morbid cravings a philosophy of existence, teaching that the only law for man is to grasp the universe in his desires and then march forward to realize his ambition, in utter disregard of the happiness of other people. This is the apotheosis of pride.

Perhaps it is among women that the temptation is strongest to be proud of the gifts of the outward person, as it is chiefly on those who nature has bestowed beauty. It is not wrong to give to the body a certain degree of attention or to be happy in the possession of a fair face; but ‘favor is deceitful and beauty is vain,’ if it hides from its possessor the value of the soul or hardens the heart to the claims of others. It is not wrong to dress with care, according to one’s station in life; but pride comes in when there is an aping of those in a superior station or when the attempt is made to appear to belong to a station above one’s own. In these days, when athletics are so much in vogue, it is, perhaps, rash to say that the temptation to pride in the body is stronger in the one sex than the other; for, I fancy, there must be an enormous development of vanity in connection with the exhibitions of strength of muscle and fleetness of foot before the crowds that gather to witness athletic contests, and with the reporting of these in the newspapers. On the other hand, the judgments of a crowd are uncompromisingly exact, and a man is brought to his senses when he has to measure his strength and skill against competitors. He learns the precise truth about himself, and this must tend to produce a humble mind. 

2. The gifts of fortune are most dangerous when they are given suddenly and unexpectedly. The Bible is full of warning to those who have been exalted to prosperity, lest they should be lifted up with pride and forget to whom they owe their wealth—’But Jeshurun waxed fat and kicked; you are waxen fat, you are grown thick, you are covered with fatness; then he forsook God who made him, and lightly esteemed the Rock of his salvation.’ It is not only, however, in the Bible that this tendency is noted: in the satiric literature of every age the sauciness and extravagance of those who have risen rapidly to opulence are objects of attack. Few have the steadiness of head and hand to carry a full cup, especially if it has been suddenly filled. The upstart forgets his old friends, is ashamed of his poor relations, and is an abject flatterer of those above himself into whose society he is seeking an entrance. Seldom is the sin of pride witnessed in more repulsive forms than in the vulgar ostentation of the nouveaux riches

3. Even spiritual gifts may be a cause of pride. Yes, even humility itself may give occasion to it, and one of our living poets makes Pride say: 

I am that voice which is the faint,
First, far-off sin within the saint,
When of his humbleness he first
Takes thought; and I become that thirst
Which makes him drunken with his own
Humbleness, and so casts him down
From the last painful stair that waits
His triumphing feet at heaven’s gates. 

And all will remember the late poet laureate’s terrible picture of pride masquerading in the garb of humility in the figure of St. Simeon Stylites, and the saying of another great poet and thinker, that the devil’s darling sin is the pride that apes humility. 

The typical instance of pride in spiritual gifts is the Pharisee, on whom our Lord Himself pours the vials of His sacred scorn. When in Church-courts the sins of the present day are spoken of, it is nearly always of the sins of the publican, the sinner and the harlot that the divines are thinking; but the Master of all divines, while casting a cloak of charity over the transgressions of these classes, mercilessly exposed the pride of the Pharisee and the scribe. To Him pride appeared to be the master-sin. 

The Pharisee must have been, to some extent, consciously a pretender. He concealed the secret sins for which he deserved the contempt of men, and he wore a pretentious garb of virtues to secure the homage of the ignorant. But, for the most part, he deceived himself as well as the public. He believed in the reality and trustworthiness of his own righteousness, and boldly challenged the verdict not only of man but of God. And herein lies the fatal danger of spiritual pride: it renders spiritual progress impossible. The Pharisee does not know that he is a bad man; how, then, can he be made a good one? If he knew, he might repent and betake himself to the source of spiritual strength. But God cannot save a man who is not aware that he needs to be saved. This is the main reason why pride is so often denounced in the Bible and placed by the wise first in the list of the sins. It is the deadly enemy of salvationSalvation is the grand work of God, as it is the only hope of man; but a humble mind is required to appreciate and seek it. The publican who casts his eyes on the ground and beats upon his breast, groaning, ‘God be merciful to me, a sinner,’ is an empty vessel, ready to receive the gifts of redeeming love; but for a Pharisee, satisfied with himself, and with nothing to pray about but his own merits, what can even redeeming love do? Pride frustrates the grace of God; it stays the hand of mercy; for the proud the Savior has died in vain. 

III. If any of the old books on the Seven Deadly Sins are opened, it will be found that, after speaking of a sin in its causes and manifestations, they always finish with the remedies for it. What, then, are the remedies for pride? 

Anything that makes us think more of God or of our neighbor is a remedy; because, as I have said, the essence of pride is selfishnessWe are proud because we are thinking of ourselves alone and have forgotten the claims of God and the claims of our fellow-creatures. We have forgotten that God has given us all our gifts, whether of nature, fortune, or grace. These belong to Him; we are only stewards of them; and there is a day coming when we shall have to give an account of how they have been employed. And, if we receive our gifts that we may be the stewards of God, we receive them likewise that we may be the ministers of our fellow-creatures. It is only a pinchbeck greatness, which lords it over others; the golden greatness consists in service. 

In Dante’s Divine Comedy those denizens of Purgatory(3.) who are being cleansed from the sin of pride are represented as walking over a marble path on which, like the words or figures on a flat tombstone, are carved pictures of notable historical instances of humility. By looking on these they are unlearning their arrogance. We need not wait for the next world, or any fancied scene of purification there, to put this into practice. Look at a figure like Moses in the Old Testament, who was ‘meek above all men which were upon the face of the earth’, or the Virgin Mary in the New, coming with her humble offering of two pigeons to the altar of the Lord; or look at John Knox fleeing to hide himself when called upon to preach for the first time; or the late Dr. Cairns, whose friends discovered only after he was dead that he had been offered the principal-ship of Edinburgh University—look on men and women like these and learn how poor and false is the glare in which pride makes gifts to shine, in comparison with the gracious light with which they are invested by humility. But look, above all, to Him, who said, ‘I am meek and lowly in heart.’ His entire history is one continuous lesson of humility; for ‘though He was rich, yet for our sakes He became poor, that we through his poverty might be rich.’ Who can stand beside His cradle and still be proud? Who can stand beside the Carpenter of Nazareth and still be proud? Who can stand beside the Friend of publicans and sinners and still be proud? Who can stand beside the cross and still be proud? ‘Hereby perceive we the love of God, because He laid down His life for us, and we ought to lay down our lives for the brethren.’

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