The MOTHER of All Sins
I am currently working my way (slowly!) through one of the most excellent books ever: ‘Mere Christianity’ by C. S. Lewis. It is an introduction to Christianity, yes, but to describe it thus really does not do it (never mind Christianity) justice. While it is a “first-floor”, and therefore elementary, learning experience; a solid basis upon which to understand what Christianity is at its core, it also provides a more comprehensive overview through the use of persuasive philosophical arguments and observations that appeal to broad common sense.
What I say is… get this book!
Any Christian who has been at her or his walk with the Lord for any appreciable amount of time has come to understand that, in an economy of words, sin is rebellion against God. As Christians, we also hear that “all sin is sin”. This would lead one to believe that God hates all sin on an equal basis, and for God (who is sinless) that is true. However, God does not need to fear sin; as fallen people, we do need to fear sin, and there is one sin that we do need to fear more than all of the others combined.
Holy Scripture attests:
If anyone sees his brother commit a sin that does not lead to death, he should pray and God will give him life. I refer to those whose sin does not lead to death. There is a sin that leads to death. I am not saying that he should pray about that. All wrongdoing is sin, and there is sin that does not lead to death. (1 John 5:16-17)
Note that John states that there is a sin that leads to death. In ‘The Teacher’s Commentary’, it is suggested that this may be: 1) sin that is denied or unconfessed, 2) sin that is justified by excuse and argument, or 3) sin that is not brought under the covering of Jesus’ blood because we deliberately choose to turn from the light to wander in the darkness. In any event, what this “killing” sin is, John does not explicitly state, but the effect of it is to plunge humanity not only into the deepest, if only transient, darkness of this present world, but also into the outer, and eternal, darkness away from the new heaven and the new earth that God will be bringing.
So we come to ‘the mother of all sins’. It is this sin which, if not quickly recognized and repented of, will eventually become the sin that leads to death. C. S. Lewis writes on this sin so eloquently in Chapter 8 of ‘Mere Christianity’ that nothing else, save the testimony of Holy Scripture itself, need be added to convince believer and unbeliever alike of how serious a sin it is. Please enjoy the entirety of Chapter 8 of ‘Mere Christianity’; the italic emphases are mine (except for single words in italic emphasis, which are in the original text).
THE GREAT SIN
I now come to that part of Christian morals where they differ most sharply from all other morals. There is one vice of which no man in the world is free; which every one in the world loathes when he sees it in someone else; and of which hardly any people, except Christians, ever imagine that they are guilty themselves. I have heard people admit that they are bad-tempered, or that they cannot keep their heads about girls or drink, or even that they are cowards. I do not think I have ever heard anyone who was not a Christian accuse himself of this vice. And at the same time I have very seldom met anyone, who was not a Christian, who showed the slightest mercy to it in others. There is no fault which makes a man more unpopular, and no fault which we are more unconscious of in ourselves. And the more we have it ourselves, the more we dislike it in others.
The vice I am talking of is Pride or Self-Conceit: and the virtue opposite to it, in Christian morals, is called Humility. You may remember, when I was talking about sexual morality, I warned you that the centre of Christian morals did not lie there. Well, now, we have come to the centre. According to Christian teachers, the essential vice, the utmost evil, is Pride. Unchastity, anger, greed, drunkenness, and all that, are mere fleabites in comparison: it was through Pride that the devil became the devil: Pride leads to every other vice: it is the complete anti-God state of mind.
Does this seem to you exaggerated? If so, think it over. I pointed out a moment ago that the more pride one had, the more one disliked pride in others. In fact, if you want to find out how proud you are the easiest way is to ask yourself, ‘How much do I dislike it when other people snub me, or refuse to take any notice of me, or shove their oar in, or patronise me, or show off?’ The point is that each person’s pride is in competition with everyone 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. If everyone else became equally rich, or clever, or good-looking there would be nothing to be proud about. It is the comparison that makes you proud: the pleasure of being above the rest. Once the element of competition has gone, pride has gone. That is why I say that Pride is essentially competitive in a way the other vices are not. The sexual impulse may drive two men into competition if they both want the same girl. But that is only by accident; they might just as likely have wanted two different girls. But a proud man will take your girl from you, not because he wants her, but just to prove to himself that he is a better man than you. Greed may drive men into competition if there is not enough to go round; but the proud man, even when he has got more than he can possibly want, will try to get still more just to assert his power. Nearly all those evils in the world which people put down to greed or selfishness are really far more the result of Pride.
Take it with money. Greed will certainly make a man want money, for the sake of a better house, better holidays, better things to eat and drink. But only up to a point. What is it that makes a man with 10,000 [Pound Sterling] a year anxious to get 20,000 [Pound Sterling] a year? It is not the greed for more pleasure. 10,000 [Pound Sterling] will give all the luxuries that any man can really enjoy. It is Pride – the wish to be richer than some other rich man, and (still more) the wish for power. For, of course, power is what Pride really enjoys: there is nothing makes a man feel so superior to others as being able to move them about like toy soldiers. What makes a pretty girl spread misery wherever she goes by collecting admirers? Certainly not her sexual instinct: that kind of girl is quite often sexually frigid. It is Pride. What is it that makes a political leader or a whole nation go on and on, demanding more and more? Pride again. Pride is competitive by its very nature: that is why it goes on and on. If I am a proud man, then, as long as there is one man in the whole world more powerful, or richer, or cleverer than I, he is my rival and my enemy.
The Christians are right: it is Pride which has been the chief cause of misery in every nation and every family since the world began. Other vices may sometimes bring people together: you may find good fellowship and jokes and friendliness among drunken people or unchaste people. But pride always means enmity – it is enmity. And not only enmity between man and man, but enmity to God.
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.
That raises a terrible question. How is it that people who are quite obviously eaten up with Prode can say they believe in God and appear to themselves very religious? I am afraid it means they are worshipping an imaginary God. They theoretically admit themselves to be nothing in the presence of this phantom God, but are really all the time imagining how He approves of them and thinks them far better than ordinary people: that is, they pay a pennyworth of imaginary humility to Him and get out of it a pound’s worth of Pride toward their fellow-men. I suppose it was of those people Christ was thinking when He said that some would preach about Him and cast out devils in His name, only to be told at the end of the world that He had never known them. And any of us may at any moment be in this death-trap. Luckily, we have a test. Whenever we find that our religious life is making us feel that we are good – above all, that we are better than someone else – I think we may be sure that we are being acted on, not by God, but by the devil. The real test of being in the presence of God is, that you either forget about yourself altogether or see yourself as a small, dirty object. It is better to forget about yourself altogether.
It is a terrible thing that the worst of all the vices can smuggle itself into the very centre of our religious life. But you can see why. The other, and less bad, vices come from the devil working on us through our animal nature. But this does not come through our animal nature at all. It comes direct from Hell. It is purely spiritual: Consequently, it is far more subtle and deadly. For the same reason, Pride can often be used to beat down the simpler vices. Teachers, in fact, often appeal to a boy’s Pride, or, as they call it, his self-respect, to make him behave decently: many a man has overcome cowardice, or lust, or ill-temper, by learning to think that they are beneath his dignity – that is, by Pride. The devil laughs. He is perfectly content to see you becoming chaste and brave and self-controlled provided, all the time, he is setting up in you the Dictatorship of Pride – just as he would be quite content to see your chilblains cured if he was allowed, in return, to give you cancer. For Pride is spiritual cancer: it eats up the very possibility of love, or contentment, or even common sense.
Before leaving this subject I must guard against some possible misunderstandings:
(1) Pleasure in being praised is not Pride. The child who is patted on the back for doing a lesson well, the woman whose beauty is praised by her lover, the saved soul to whom Christ says ‘Well done,’ are pleased and ought to be. For here the pleasure lies not in what you are but in the fact that you have pleased someone you wanted (and rightly wanted) to please. The trouble begins when you pass from thinking, ‘I have pleased him; all is well,’ to thinking, ‘What a fine person I must be to have done it.’ The more you delight in yourself and the less you delight in the praise, the worse you are becoming. When you delight wholly in yourself and do not care about the praise at all, you have reached the bottom. That is why vanity, thought it is the sort of Pride which shows most on the syrface, is really the least bad and most pardonable sort. The vain person wants praise, applause, admiration, too much and is always angling for it. It is a fault, but a child-like and even (in an odd way) a humble fault. It shows that you are not yet completely contented with your own admiration. You value other people enough to want them to look at you. You are, in fact, still human. The real black, diabolical Pride, comes when you look down on others so much that you do not care what they think of you. Of course, it is very right, and often our duty, not to care what people think of us, if we do so for the right reason; namely, because we care so imcomparably more what God thinks. But the Proud man has a different reason for not caring. He says, ‘Why should I care for the applause of that rabble as if their opinion were worth anything? And even if their opinions were of value, am I the sort of man to blush with pleasure at a compliment like some chit of a girl at her first dance? No, I am an integrated, adult personality. All I have done has been to satisfy my own ideals – or my artistic conscience – or the traditions of my family – or, in a word, because I’m That Kind of Chap. If the mob like it, let them. They’re nothing to me.’ In this way real thoroughgoing pride may act as a check on vanity; for, as I said a moment ago, the devil loves ‘curing’ a small fault by giving you a great one. We must try not to be vain, but we must never call in our Pride to cure our vanity.
(2) We say in English that a man is ‘proud’ of his son, or his father, or his school, or regiment, and it may be asked whether ‘pride’ in this sense is a sin. I think it depends on what, exactly, we mean by ‘proud of’. Very often, in such sentences, the phrase ‘proud of’ means ‘has a warm-hearted admiration for’. Such an admiration is, of course, very far from being a sin. But it might, perhaps, mean that the person in question gives himself airs on the ground of his distinguished father, or because he belongs to a famous regiment. This would, clearly, be a fault; but even then, it would be better than being proud simply of himself. To love and admire anything outside yourself is to take one step away from utter spiritual ruin; though we shall not be well so long as we love and admire anything more than we love and admire God.
(3) We must not think Pride is something God forbids because He is offended at it, or that Humility is something He demands as due to His own dignity – as if God Himself was proud. He is not in the least worried about His dignity. The point is, He wants you to know Him: wants to give you Himself. And He and you are two things of such a kind that if you really get into any kind of touch with Him you will, in fact, be humble – delightedly humble, feeling the infinite relief of having for once got rid of all the silly nonsense about your own dignity which has made you restless and unhappy all your life. He is trying to make you humble in order to make this moment possible: trying to take off a lot of silly, ugly, fancy-dress in which we have all got ourselves up and are strutting about like the little idiots we are. I wish I had got a bit further with humility myself: if I had, I could probably tell you more about the relief, the comforts, of taking the fancy-dress off – getting rid of the false self, with all its ‘Look at me’ and ‘Aren’t I a good boy?’ and all its posing and posturing. To get even near it, even for a moment, is like a drink of cold water to a man in a desert.
(4) Do not imagine that if you meet a really humble man he will be what most people call ‘humble’ nowadays: he will not be a sort of greasy, smarmy person, who is always telling you that, of course, he is nobody. Probably all you will think about him is that he seemed a cheerful, intelligent chap who took a real interest in what you said to him. If you do dislike him it will be because you feel a little envious of anyone who seems to enjoy life so easily. He will not be thinking about humility: he will not be thinking about himself at all.
If anyone would like to acquire humility, I can, I think, tell him the first step. The first step is to realise that one is proud. And a biggish step, too. At least, nothing whatever can be done before it. If you think you are not conceited, it means you are very conceited indeed.
Holy Scripture mentions arrogance and pride:
To fear the LORD is to hate evil; I hate pride and arrogance, evil behavior and perverse speech. (Proverbs 8:13)
When pride comes, then comes disgrace, but with humility comes wisdom. (Proverbs 11:2)
Pride only breeds quarrels, but wisdom is found in those who take advice. (Proverbs 13:10)
Pride goes before destruction, a haughty spirit before a fall. Better to be lowly in spirit and among the oppressed than to share plunder with the proud. (Proverbs 16:18-19)
The proud and arrogant man – “Mocker” is his name; he behaves with overweening pride. (Proverbs 21:24)
A man’s pride brings him low, but a man of lowly spirit gains honor. (Proverbs 29:23)
I will punish the world for its evil, the wicked for their sins. I will put an end to the arrogance of the haughty and will humble the pride of the ruthless. (Isaiah 13:11)
We have heard of Moab’s pride – her overweening pride and conceit, her pride and her insolence – but her boasts are empty. (Isaiah 16:6)
The LORD Almighty planned it, to bring low the pride of all glory and to humble all who are renowned on the earth. (Isaiah 23:9)
They will spread out their hands in it, as a swimmer spreads out his hands to swim. God will bring down their pride despite the cleverness of their hands. (Isaiah 25:11)
Who is it you have insulted and blasphemed? Against whom have you raised your voice and lifted your eyes in pride? Against the Holy One of Israel! (Isaiah 37:23)
Hear and pay attention, do not be arrogant, for the Lord has spoken. (Jeremiah 13:15)
“We have heard of Moab’s pride – her overweening pride and conceit, her pride and arrogance and the haughtiness of her heart. I know her insolence but it is futile,” declares the Lord, “and her boasts accomplish nothing. (Jeremiah 48:29-30)
The terror you inspire and the pride of your heart have deceived you, you who live in the clefts of the rocks, who occupy the heights of the hill. Though you build your nest as high as the eagle’s, from there I will bring you down,” declares the LORD. (Jeremiah 49:16)
“Prepare chains, because the land is full of bloodshed and the city is full of violence. I will bring the most wicked of the nations to take possession of their houses; I will put an end to the pride of the mighty, and their sanctuaries will be desecrated. (Ezekiel 7:24)
You would not even mention your sister Sodom in the day of your pride, before your wickedness was uncovered. Even so, you are now scorned by the daughters of Edom and all her neighbors and the daughters of the Philistines – all those around you who despise you. (Ezekiel 16:56-57)
“Son of man, say to the ruler of Tyre, ‘This is what the Sovereign LORD says: ” ‘In the pride of your heart you say, “I am a god; I sit on the throne of a god in the heart of the seas.” (Ezekiel 28:2)
Now I, Nebuchadnezzar, praise and exalt and glorify the King of heaven, because everything he does is right and all his ways are just. And those who walk in pride he is able to humble. (Daniel 4:37)
But when his heart became arrogant and hardened with pride, he was deposed from his royal throne and stripped of his glory. (Daniel 5:20)
The Sovereign LORD has sworn by himself – the LORD God Almighty declares: “I abhor the pride of Jacob and detest his fortresses; I will deliver up the city and everything in it.” (Amos 6:8)
The pride of your heart has deceived you, you who live in the clefts of the rocks and make your home on the heights, you who say to yourself, ‘Who can bring me down to the ground?’ (Obadiah 3)
This is what they will get in return for their pride, for insulting and mocking the people of the LORD Almighty. (Zephaniah 2:10)
On that day you will not be put to shame for all the wrongs you have done to me, because I will remove from this city those who rejoice in their pride. Never again will you be haughty on my holy hill. (Zephaniah 3:11)
Pride appeals in persuasive ways not only to the basest of our instincts, but to the noblest of our virtues… it is the single most effective weapon in the battle for the souls of men that is at the disposal of the evil one. A sin that can cater to and work with both the base and the noble is indeed powerful, and in that power lies its deadliness. Pride can kill with broad-brush strokes, or with subtle jabs; pride is so insidious and subtle that we must constantly be on our guard against it: there is not a single circumstance of life with which pride cannot work. To me, the most sobering commentary to come out of the 8th chapter of ‘Mere Christianity’ revolved around what the evil one is more than happy to do: he will gladly trade that which gives you offense in the short run for that which will kill you in the long run. Remember… the evil one is not a sprinter: he is a marathoner, and in addition the most cunning and wily of wheelers-and-dealers.
Jesus showed the way that works against pride:
Jesus replied: ” ‘Love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.” (Matthew 22:37-40)
If you act as Jesus indicated, your heart will be so filled with love that there will be no room for pride.