"What is it, Doc? What do I have? What's wrong with me?"
It's a question we all ask ourselves from time to time. When we blow up at our kids or a co-worker again—what's wrong with me? When we come home from the store with something else we don't need and can't afford—what's wrong with me? When we wolf down that donut in the break room when no one is looking, when we fantasize about intimacies with a stranger or a colleague, when hearing about someone else's vacation or promotion makes us mad instead of happy, when we realize we've wasted another evening channel-surfing, when we're driving home from a party and realize we spent the whole evening talking about ourselves—what's wrong with me?
In moments like these, we realize something's not right internally: something that keeps robbing us of joy and wreaking havoc in our relationships and ruining our witness as followers of Christ. We're sick on the inside. We're not our best selves. We're not functioning at full capacity. And we're not getting better. What's wrong with us?
What's wrong is that we're sinful. It's not a pleasant or popular diagnosis, but it's the truth. And no matter how much we protest, no matter how much better we may seem to be than other people, deep down we know that something is wrong—and that something is killing us.
How did this happen? And what, if anything, can make us better?
Background on the 'deadly' sins
Lent is a season of reflection and repentance in preparation for Holy Week. For these next 40 days or so, we're going to invite the Lord to search our hearts, to reveal and heal what's wrong inside. We're going to use the seven deadly sins as a sort of diagnostic imaging tool.
A little background on the seven deadly sins—they didn't originate with that Brad Pitt film from the '90s. They go back quite a bit farther than that. The first such list shows up in Proverbs 6:16: "There are six things the Lord hates, / seven that are detestable to him." It goes on to list a collection of vices, including some of those on our list of deadly sins. So there is a biblical precedent for the idea.
The list we are familiar with originated in the monastic movement of the early church, around the third century. God-seeking men and women began retreating to the desert to escape the evils of the world. They took refuge in remote caves and huts—alone, at first, but before long in communities. To their surprise, they discovered that no matter how far they removed themselves from the evils of society, those evils had a way of finding them and spoiling their communion with God and with each other. To their dismay, they discovered that those evils were actually inside them: that they brought them with them wherever they went. Over time, they identified seven dark tendencies they believed to lie at the root of their problems. Dealing with the seven sins became a central theme of the monastic life and community.
But it was Pope Gregory the Great in the seventh century who popularized the list, putting it in its current form and applying it to the daily lives of ordinary people. He actually wrote an eight-volume work on the sins! Wouldn't that make for some nice bedtime reading?
In the medieval period, around the 13th century, the Catholic theologian Thomas Aquinas did some extensive study and teaching on the seven sins. While they had been called the "deadly" sins since the days of the early church, Aquinas preferred to call them the "cardinal," or "capital" sins, believing they were the root of all other sins. The word "cardinal" in Latin means "hinge," suggesting that these seven opened the door to every kind of evil.
When the Protestant Reformers came along in the 16th century, they set the collection aside since it didn't come directly from Scripture. But every so often, down through the centuries, church leaders have stumbled upon the list, blown the dust off it, and found it valuable for spiritual formation.
So here we are, eager to become missional people, asking the Lord to use this ancient list of vices to search out and change our hearts. We're going to combine them and double up a bit to cover them all. Here's the list, and the order we'll be considering them in: pride, anger, gluttony, lust, greed, envy, sloth.
Now, a series like this could get dark and discouraging real fast. We don't want to just obsess over what's wrong; we want to get better. So each week, we'll identify a corresponding virtue to each of these vices. We'll call them "lively virtues" in contrast to deadly sins. You can probably figure out that this week's virtue will be humility.
The problem is that getting from one column to the other isn't easy. As the doctor said, there's no pill you can take to become humble. And you can't just grit your teeth and try harder. In fact, the harder you try to be humble, the more likely you are to end up being proud!
This is where most teaching on the seven deadly sins comes up short: with no practical help in getting from one to the other. So each week in this series, we're going to offer an antidote. We'll call them "healthy habits" that can help us move from death to life. So if you want to find out how to get from pride to humility, you're going to have to hang with me for a few more minutes!
Let's get started with the deadly sin called pride, which traditionally comes first in the list.
The 'sin' of pride?
The Bible clearly names pride as a sin: one of the ways we fall short of God's glory. We could point to all kinds of verses in the Old Testament. Proverbs 16 is a good example, "Pride goes before destruction, / a haughty spirit before a fall. / Better to be lowly in spirit along with the oppressed / than to share plunder with the proud" (v. 18-19).
The New Testament continues along those same lines. Jesus continually confronted the pride and arrogance of religious and political leaders. Paul wrote to the Philippians, "Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves" (Phil. 2:3). Later on, the apostle James reinforces the Old Testament teaching: "That is why Scripture says: 'God opposes the proud / but shows favor to the humble'" (James 4:6). Throughout the Bible, it becomes clear that God has zero tolerance for pride. Now why is that?
The dictionary defines pride as "a feeling of deep pleasure or satisfaction derived from one's own achievements." Now that doesn't sound so bad, does it? In fact, it raises one of the questions about this list of sins, which is that they don't seem all that deadly. Shouldn't a list of deadly sins include things like murder, adultery, hatred, robbery, and drunkenness? I mean, pride, greed, lust—these things are unseemly, but are they really deadly? What's wrong with feeling pleasure or satisfaction that's derived from one's own achievements? Isn't self-esteem a good thing?
In fact, here in America, we're proud of being proud. Peruse the magazines at any checkout counter, plastered with pictures of the beautiful, the powerful, the successful. They're not hiding their achievements or their abs—they're flaunting them, and we're admiring them. How many of our TV shows today are about ordinary people showing off their talents—singing, dancing, surviving, anything to grab their 15 minutes of fame? A football player goes on a rant on national TV, taunting his opponent and declaring his superiority. For the next two weeks, he's the most talked about player in sports! Pride seems to be working for these folks. So what's so wrong, so deadly, about it?
The problem with pride, from a biblical perspective, is that it leaves God out of the picture. It fails to recognize that God is great and worthy to be praised, and that any human achievement is possible only because of his grace and goodness.
Pride pushes God off the podium. It has us believing that whatever good things we have attained or received in life are purely the result of "one's own achievements": our hard work, our good looks, our smarts, our talent, our persistence. We make ourselves the source of all good things, instead of God. That very quickly puts us at the center of our own universe. Once we become the center of the universe, then everyone else takes second place to us. God becomes an afterthought—if we think about him at all.
We're going to define pride, from a biblical perspective, as "an unholy preoccupation with self." There's nothing wrong with being "occupied" with ourselves to a certain degree, attending to our needs and interests and ambitions—as we'll discover in a few minutes. The problem with pride is we become occupied with ourselves first—preoccupied—putting our needs and interests ahead of others. We leave God out of the picture. It's an unholy preoccupation: forgetting that God is the source of all we have and enjoy and the only one worthy of worship.
A deadly sin
Now we know why pride traditionally appears at the top of the list. If these sins are deadly, then pride is the deadliest because it separates us from God. When pride has its way with us, we end up exalting ourselves, serving ourselves, contemplating ourselves, and trusting ourselves—instead of exalting, serving, contemplating, and trusting God. Pride is the ultimate form of idolatry, and it's been with us for a very long time.
In the beginning, Adam and Eve were given everything they needed for good and meaningful life. All was well with them and God, until Satan came along and tempted them to eat from the one tree the Lord had warned them to stay away from. And what was Satan's ploy? "'You will not certainly die,' the serpent said to the woman. 'For God knows that when you eat from it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil'" (Gen. 3:4-5). That was all they needed to hear—"and you will be like God"- and the seed of sin was sown in the human heart.
Next thing you know, Cain kills Abel. Why? Because he didn't like the way God was running the universe. It didn't take long for human beings to rally in a place called Babel and declare their independence from God. Look at Genesis 11: "Come, let us build ourselves a city, with a tower that reaches to the heavens, so that we may make a name for ourselves … " (v. 4). Many millennia later, we're still at it—exalting, serving, and trusting ourselves.
We have lots of words we use to describe a proud person: arrogant, egotistical, conceited, vain, self-centered, self-absorbed. The problem is we almost always use those words to describe other people, right? The problem with pride is that everyone else knows you have it before you do.
What are the some of the symptoms that you have "an unholy preoccupation with yourself"? Name-dropping. Mirror-looking. Calling attention to yourself. Putting other people down. Choosing friends based on what they'll do for your image. Talking over top of people. Always having to get your way. Needing to win every argument. Grabbing credit whenever you can. Not being able to apologize. Leaving God out of the conversation. Thinking that it's always about you. My guess is we can all find ourselves in that list of behaviors. I thought about titling this message, "You're So Vain, You Probably Think This Sermon's About You."
If I were going to rank the seven sins in order of my struggles with them, I would have to put pride at the top of list. I blame my parents. I was a firstborn child, and so for two and a half years I was the center of the universe. Most firstborns never quite get over that need for attention, for approval, or that sense of being somehow central to everything that happens. Even though I make a living exalting and serving God, it's amazing how often and easily I can leave him out of the equation, relying on my own strength, will, or words to make my way in this world.
When I make my annual visit to Celebrate Recovery, I always introduce myself the same way: "My name is Bryan. I'm a grateful believer in Jesus Christ in recovery from self-reliance and people-pleasing."
A few years ago, I was on a prayer and study retreat at an Episcopal retreat house. It happened that this retreat center practices the discipline of silence. There's no speaking at all, other than prayer and worship. So as we gathered for a service in the middle of the day—a few brothers and a dozen or so guests—all we were permitted to do was to greet each other by first name. That's all. I was amazed at how difficult that was for me, how desperately I wanted them to know who I was: that I was a senior pastor from a big church, that I had cleared my busy schedule for this. If we talked long enough, it might even slip out that I was fasting, too. I so wanted them to think highly of me.
That's one of the reasons for the discipline of silence. It prevents us from using words to manage other people's opinions of us. It requires us to simply be who we really are before God and others.
Lively virtue: humility
That leads us to the corresponding virtue to the sin of pride: what we are calling the lively virtue of humility. This one isn't hard to figure out. The Lord lays it out for us, as we read a few moments ago in the Book of James: "That is why Scripture says: 'God opposes the proud / but shows favor to the humble'" (4:6).
Like pride, humility is one of those virtues that's easy to spot and hard to define. I went to the dictionary for some help, and you know what it said? "The lack of pride"! So let's go back to the Scripture we looked at earlier and see if that will give us a handle on humility.
"For by the grace given me I say to every one of you: Do not think of yourself more highly than you ought, but rather think of yourself with sober judgment, in accordance with the faith God has distributed to each of you" (Rom. 12:3).
We're not supposed to think too highly of ourselves, because that's pride. But we're not supposed to think too lowly of ourselves, either. We're to think of ourselves with "sober," or "sound," judgment. The New Living Translation puts it: "Be honest in your evaluation of yourselves." That honest, sober evaluation is not to be based on what others think of us, or what we think of us, but rather on what God thinks of us—"in accordance with the faith God has distributed to each of you."
The Bible tells us in many places what God thinks of us. It tells that he loves us in spite of our sinfulness. It tells us that we are fearfully and wonderfully made, that we are of incredible value to him. It tells us that when we turn to Christ in repentance and faith, we can be forgiven for our sins and be made new from the inside out. It tells us that when we are in Christ, we are filled with his Spirit and destined for glory.
In this very passage, Paul goes on to remind us that we have each been gifted in unique ways to be about his work in this world.
(Read Romans 12:4-8)
Years ago, I came across a definition of humility in the writings of Thomas Merton, a spiritual guide of the last century. He says, "Humility is being precisely the person you actually are before God." Humility isn't thinking poorly of yourself. It's not beating yourself up or neglecting yourself or minimizing your worth. It's simply being honest with yourself and others and God as to who you really are and what's really going on with you. The starting point for every human being is that we are persons, made in the image of God, destined for eternal glory, and gifted to do something good and beautiful in this world. In fact, listen to how Merton completes his thought: "... and if you have the humility to be yourself you will not be like anyone else in the whole universe."
Isn't that great? Do you see how liberating this is? When you know precisely who you are before God and in Christ, you're free. You're free to admit you're a sinner. You're free to say, "I'm sorry." You're free from having to manage other people's impressions of you. You're free from having to compete with everyone else's looks or status or kids or spirituality. You're free to do good without needing people to notice. You're free to let others have their way, free to lose graciously, free to rejoice in someone else's success or good fortune—because you know exactly who you are and that there's no one else like you in the whole universe. If that's not the basis for a healthy self-esteem, I don't know what is!
That's our first lesson: We're freed from pride when we remember who we are before God and in Christ. Before God, we are human beings made in the image of God, fallen into sin, but loved anyway. In Christ, we become sons and daughters of God, filled with his Holy Spirit, and gifted to do something good and beautiful in this world. We exchange the deadly sin of pride for the lively virtue of humility when we remember who we are before God and in Christ.
But let's come back to our chart for a minute, remembering that we can't get from here to there—from pride to humility—simply by trying harder. Have you ever seen someone try to be humble? It's really awkward.
How do we get there? If pride is the sickness, what's the antidote? What will restore us to health? I would like to suggest it's the healthy habit of worship.
Actually, Paul himself suggests it in the very passage from Romans we've been looking at. If we back up to the first verse in the chapter, we read: "Therefore, I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of God's mercy, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God—this is your true and proper worship" (Rom. 12:1). This move from pride to humility is based upon a proper understanding of and response to the mercies of God. It's the natural outcome of worship.
Every time we stand before God and sing "Holy, Holy, Holy," we remember that he is God and we are not. Every time we stand and sing, "In Christ alone, my hope is found, / He is my light, my strength, my song," we remember how loved and secure we are in Christ.
We saw this dynamic at work at our Ash Wednesday service. We had hundreds of folks here from all our campuses, including a whole section of middle and high school students. We spent a good portion of the service naming and confessing our sins, including the seven we've been talking about this morning. It was a sobering experience—having to face those sins in our own lives, to say them out loud and admit that all of them were knocking around in our hearts.
But we were also reminded that Christ came to save us from those sins, and that in 40 days or so, we would be remembering the forgiveness and freedom he would accomplish at the Cross and the empty tomb.
At the end of the service, many of us came forward and received the sign of the Cross, made with ashes, on our foreheads or the back of our hands. We heard the words, "Remember that from dust you have come, and to dust you shall return." Pretty sobering words. You don't think too highly of yourself when you've got ashes smudged on your forehead. But as we returned to our seats, we heard someone singing, "You make beautiful things, you make beautiful things out of dust. / You make beautiful things, you make beautiful things out of us."
It was a liberating moment. That night, we were free to be our true selves, to be honest before God and one another, knowing that we were now free to become our best selves: the men and women we were meant to be in Christ. We're freed from pride when we remember who we are before God and in Christ.
That freedom is available to all of us as we come before God and begin our journey toward Holy Week. Let's make time each day to remember that he is God. Let's allow the Lord to use this series to search our hearts, to reveal what's wrong, and to make us into the beautiful people we were meant to be.
Bryan Wilkerson is pastor of Grace Chapel in Lexington, Massachusetts.