of Hubris, God, and Men
“A man who is eating or lying with his wife or preparing to go to sleep in humility, thankfulness and temperance, is, by Christian standards, in an infinitely higher state than one who is listening to Bach or reading Plato in a state of pride.” –C.S. Lewis
In the Divine Comedy (Purgatorio Canto XI), Dante describes the first ledge of purgatory, which is just a notch above hell, as a place where the prideful walk the path while carrying large stone weights upon their backs, forcing their faces and hence their gaze toward the ground as a means for teaching humility. While I don’t subscribe to the theology of Dante’s Divine Comedy, I do think the image is a powerful one and well worth pondering.
Perhaps the most dire condition for the human soul is the condition of pride. Among all the sins of men, God seems to be most concerned with the sin of pride. In reflecting on the gravity of pride, the medieval theologian Thomas Aquinas once wrote, “In order to overcome pride, God will punish certain men by allowing them to fall into sins of the flesh, which though actually are less grievous than pride itself, are outwardly more shameful . . . From this indeed, the gravity of pride is made manifest. For just as a wise physician, in order to cure a worse disease, allows the patient to contract one that is less dangerous, so that the sin of pride is shown to be more grievous, by the very fact that as a remedy God allows some of them to fall into other sins” (Summa Theologica II q.162 ad.3). I think Aquinas is on to something here; but if Aquinas is correct, why is pride so grievous?
Aquinas suggested, “pride has extreme gravity, because in other sins man turns away from God either through ignorance or through weakness, or through desire for any other good whatever; whereas pride denotes aversion from God simply through being unwilling to be subject to God and His rule” (Summa Theologica II q.162 ad.1). Most usually think of pride in this way, as a sin that has at its root a refusal to submit to God’s authority. Thus, I am reminded of James’ words, “Therefore it says, ‘God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble.’ Submit yourselves therefore to God . . .” (Jam 4:6–7a). Certainly, rejection of God’s authority is serious; but unlike Aquinas, I do not think a rejection of God’s authority is the primary reason for its grievousness. A clue to the reason for the grievousness of pride can be found in Deuteronomy chapter 8, specifically in the connection God makes between pride, humility, the wilderness, and his provision.
In Deuteronomy chapter 8, God warns Israel of the destructive nature of pride and the need for humility in saying, “Take care lest you forget the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt . . . who led you through the great and terrifying wilderness, . . . that he might humble you . . . lest, when . . . all that you have is multiplied, then your heart be lifted up, and you forget the LORD your God . . . Beware lest you say in your heart, ‘My power and the might of my hand have gotten me this wealth.’ . . . And if you forget the LORD your God and go after other gods and serve them and worship them, I solemnly warn you today that you shall surely perish” (Deut 8:11–19). Humility, as the opposite of pride, is that realization that I am not omni-sufficient for a divine and noble life. More to the point, humility, as the opposite of pride, keeps me not just from rejecting God’s authority but also from rejecting God’s provision.
The theology reflected in God’s warning affirms both Aquinas’ and Dante’s concern with the gravity of pride as well as their suggested antidote of humility, but it also serves as a correction to them both concerning their view of the nature of pride’s destruction, why it is so grievous, and just who actually grieves.
I am reminded that man does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God (Deut 8:3). Pride is most grievous not simply because it says, “no” to God’s rule but because it says, “no” to God’s bread, and the two are always linked. When I reflect on my life as of late, I am most challenged by the understanding of my pride as a rejection of God’s bread when sometimes I just don’t want the wilderness path. Far too often, I give in to hubris, because I look toward that which has been multiplied, lift up my heart, and forget that the Lord my God is the only one who is omni-sufficient for a noble and divine life.
As theologian and philosopher Ravi Zacharias has suggested, when we sin and push God away, God indeed grieves; not because he has lost something . . . but because we have lost something. O’ Lord, when hubris encroaches upon my soul, may your grace be set upon my back as a large stone weight forcing my face and hence my gaze toward the ground from whence I came. Help me to know that your bread is what I need.