The sins of ministry: Pride

Traditionally pride has been considered the basic form of sin. According to Theophylact, an 11th century theologian, pride is “the citadel and summit of all evils”. In his essay ‘The Great Sin’ CS Lewis argued that:

Unchastity, anger, greed, drunkenness, and all that, are mere fleabites in comparison: it is through Pride that the devil became the devil; Pride leads to every other vice: it is the complete anti-God state of mind.

Pride is to be found everywhere: “the earth is strewn with the exploded bladders of the puffed up”. And what is true of life in general, is true of the religious life too. We think perhaps of the parable of the Pharisee and the Tax-Collector, where the Pharisee prayed: “God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax-collector. I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income” (Luke 18.11-12). Instead of thanking God for God’s goodness, he thanked God for his own goodness. Like little Jack Horner, he tells God – and indeed anybody else who cared to listen in – ‘what a good boy am I’. We may well feel like accusing the Pharisee of being a hypocrite and a prig – but the Pharisee would have been very hurt by such an accusation. Almost certainly he genuinely believed what he prayed, and he was genuinely glad he was different! What is more, if ever there was a church member most ministers would love to have, it would have been this Pharisee. He really put all his energies into his religious activities. No doubt the Pharisee thought that God would also have been most impressed – but the very opposite was true. For the whole prayer is not God-centered, but man-centered – it is dominated by the horrid little pronoun “I: “I thank you that I am not like other people… I fast… I tithe all that I get”. CS Lewis observed:

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.

Pride is devilish for it not only cuts us off from God, but it also cuts us off from one another. For pride is essentially competitive. To quote CS Lewis yet again:

Pride 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 among drunken people or unchaste people. But pride is always enmity. It is enmity.

Pride is probably the occupational hazard of ministry. While few ministers are likely to be tempted by all seven of the deadly sins, few are not tempted by the sin of pride. “By way of quick and easy proof”, challenges Andrew Blackwood, “let any reader make a list of able ministers whom he knows to excel in humility. Then let him ask a group of honest friends if he can qualify”.

Ministers, in a way which does not always seem to be true of others, seem to be obsessed with their ego. Often insecure in themselves, they tend to identify themselves with “their” churches, and are easily threatened. They need to ponder afresh on the words of Jesus: “Those who try to make their life secure will lose it, but those who lose their life will keep it” (Luke 17.33).

Michael Ramsey gives a wonderful description of the minister’s frail ego:

If you do well, you can be pleased with yourself, and humility is in peril. If you do badly, you may worry about yourself, and humility is in peril. If people are nice to you and tell you what a good clergyman you are, humility is in peril. If people are nasty to you, you have a grievance and humility is in peril.

As followers of the Servant King, we know there is no room for pride. For he who washed his disciples feet said, “I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you” (John 13.34). An allusion to this incident of the foot-washing is found in 1 Pet 5.5, where with church leaders in mind, the Apostle Peter wrote: “All of you must clothe must clothe yourselves with humility in your dealings with one another” – or as the GNB translates: “all of you must put on the apron of humility”. Why? Because “God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble” (1 Pet 5.5b: see also Prov 3.34; Jas 4.6). God, it would appear, opposes the proud because the proud trust in themselves, while the humble trust in God – and God delights in being trusted. Moreover, the proud seek glory for themselves, while the humble give glory to God – and glory rightly belongs to God.

It is all too easy for ministers to deceive themselves and pretend that they are free of this most basic of sins. But, as Jeremiah once said: “The heart is devious above all else” (Jer 17.9). As Paul said to the church in Corinth, “If you think you are standing, watch out that you do not fall” (1 Cor 10.13). Like the Pharisees of old, we so often fool ourselves into believing that we are serving God and others, when in fact we are only serving self.

Sometimes the only way in which God can deal with our pride is to crush our spirits and in that way bring us to our senses. It is sometimes only through pain of grief and disappointment that God brings about the new creation, where fevered ambition and pushy pride are no more. Phoenix-like true humility can emerge out of the flames of crisis.

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