Eighth Thought – Pride
In our Finding Happiness series we’ve been learning that true happiness comes through purity of heart – when our hearts are completely free from the power of negative and damaging thoughts. Getting in the way of this is a pattern of eight negative thoughts, afflict all of us to varying degrees.
This week the final thought: pride
Pride, like vanity, is subtle because it operates in the spiritual dimension – in a person’s soul. It means having self-importance, and it’s the most damaging of the thoughts. What we’re not talking about here is e.g. “taking pride in our work”, which is about delighting in a job well-done. That’s fine. It’s when it grows into an inflated sense of self-importance that it becomes dangerous.
Pride is so pervasive that it’s found socially acceptable ways of manifesting itself. The first: keeping busy.
- ‘The assumption is that important people are busy people, and so if we are not busy, we are not important.’ (p.202).
- “How are you?” … “Keeping busy.”
- Some activities can become so absorbing that they shut out other other dimensions of life.
- Sometimes people aren’t that busy at all, but they tell others they’re busy or feel the need to tell others they’re busy in order to maintain an image of being needed and important.
What’s behind this culture of busy-ness? Abbot Christopher suggests that in many cases, people find themselves driven to work harder and harder to sustain the consumer lifestyle that we’ve come to assume gives us happiness. So we become stuck in what’s called the ‘pleasure treadmill’ where the treats and holidays are needed to relieve the stress of work, but then harder work is needed to pay for those things, and so on.
Another manifestation of self-importance is what the abbot calls ‘keeping friends.’
This is the idea that ‘Happiness is achieved not only by having a circle of friends but also the technology that enables constant communication with them.’ (p204) – texting, mobile phones, social network sites etc.
This is not to demonise a valuable part of life. What the Abbot means is the way a person’s life can become confined to this small circle of friends, without any reference to any wider narrative, without any accountability, without any possibility of a larger vision of life. ‘The keeping friends culture is about shared self-importance and it consciously excludes any wider importance offered by political, philosophical or religious visions.’(p205). Happiness is seen to be found solely within one’s circle of friends, and everything else is to be regarded with suspicion.
At the same time, however, is a darker fact that goes against this trend, and that’s the marked rise in suicides among teenagers in Britain and America. Why?
Studies show the biggest factor is social isolation.
- Fewer young people commit to the experience of long-term community. They might readily join in one-off events, but their suspicion of institutions makes them wary of joining any kind of club or institution.
- And that’s one significant reason why we see so few young people in our church – not just St Michael’s, but up and down the country.
The abbot writes, ‘Since they believe that close friends are the only really important people in life, young people carry the full weight of life with the support of just a few friends.’(p207).
Our task is to find ways to enable people to see their lives as part of a bigger picture which gives meaning to life.
Keeping busy and keeping friends are quick fixes to happiness. But the more we’re able to approach life and relationships with a pure heart––rather than a consumerised heart––the greater the happiness we’ll find.
Abbot Christopher points us to the beatitudes yet again: that core part of Jesus’ teaching, which depict the truly blessed life as one in which nobody has over-blown self-importance, and in which everybody has time for those who are insignificant. The church should be a counter to the ‘being-busy-being-important’ culture. The abbot recommends ‘wasting our time’ creatively by doing things like,
- Playing with our children;
- Visiting the sick & lonely – those who cannot give anything back at the material level;
- ‘Wasting time’ spiritually – making time for meditation and spiritual reading.
- Things in which we will discover robust and true happiness.
And in contrast to the ‘keeping friends’ culture, Jesus’ disciples were, yes, a group of friends, but who reached beyond the normal social barriers to welcome the stranger. This is what made the early Christian community so compelling.
So how does pride work?
John Cassian taught there are two kinds of pride: carnal pride and spiritual pride.
Carnal pride is where we place ourselves above our community.
- We reject our community.
- We consider ourself above the others,
- We’re not content, and want to keep certain jobs and certain property to ourself;
- We’re suspicious, loud, obstinate, easily angered and never apologise.
- We claim to be seeking the spiritual life while actually we’re out to get our own desires.
Spiritual pride is where we place ourselves above God.
This is illustrated with the very old story of Lucifer, the most gifted and beautiful of all the angels, but who wanted to use those things for his own glory, not God’s, thinking that ‘he didn’t need any point of reference beyond himself in order to be happy.’ (212). God gave him what he wanted, and Lucifer eventually found he was a prisoner of his own will, unable to find happiness. It teaches us the lesson that attractive, dangerous people can become trapped inside their own world.
The antidote to pride is humility: a right perspective of ourselves before God. Last week we ended by looking at Mary as the role model of humility. In her song, the Magnificat, she poetically indicates where the source of pride lies: the imagination. ‘God has scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts’
Everything in our consumer culture around us is trying to stir up our imaginations so that we want more – more importance and more things. So one of the most important prayers we might pray this week, is for God to heal and purify our imaginations. And through time in prayer and prayerful study of the Scriptures word, that cannot but happen.
To take us back to the beginning of this series, we learned that true happiness comes with purity of heart, which is all about living the kind of virtue that conquers all the Eight Negative Thoughts.
Initially we might seek virtue out of fear – fear of being punished for doing wrong. As we grow spiritually, we might seek virtue out of hope for some reward; some personal benefit, whether from God or others. But the most mature motivation for seeking virtue, and one to which we can all aspire, is out of love – love of doing (and being) the right thing, ultimately love of God, and our neighbour.
It’s often asked: is Church “relevant” to people’s lives these days. Hopefully this series, dealing with such deep issues that affect every human being, and the very basic quest for happiness, has shown us that church, and the treasures of wisdom we’ve inherited, still has much relevance to everyday life. In fact, our message might be more crucial than ever…
Sermon by Rev. James Pettit on Sunday 7th November 2016