It is the comparison that makes you proud

Today, I want to revisit another cumulative lesson that I’ve been reading and thinking about for a couple of weeks. It is popular today for people to say that “money is the root of all evil,” but in a Christian context, that is untrue. Money is a root of great turmoil and strife and conflict between people, but it’s not the root of all evil. The great and deep root we’re looking for is Pride (capitalized for a reason).

There is another common proverb people spout about Pride: “Pride goes before the fall.” Until I started reading the book of Proverbs, though, I didn’t realize that this was a paraphrasing of an actual Bible verse. Proverbs 16:18 says “Pride goes before destruction, a haughty spirit before a fall.”

Pride caused the original fall, and if I think about it, it has probably been the root cause of practically every single conflict since then. I’d never really thought about it in this way, but upon reading a chapter in “Mere Christianity,” by C.S. Lewis, I’ve come to see it his way: Pride is a competition.

He writes: “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 every one 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.”

I’m not sure that I’ve ever actively thought of my own pride as being competitive against my fellow men and women–I’m not a particularly competitive person. But looking back, of course there is an element of comparison to my peers.  This friend is married with a house, those strangers drive better cars, that coworker makes twice my salary.  Greed and selfishness are certainly a component of the unrest that might cause, but ultimately I think I have wanted some benchmark–call it the “average”–against which to measure myself. That is how I’ve always defined my self-worth. I am rather cleverer than average, a slight bit taller than average, that sort of thing.

This is not only a terrible way to assign value to myself, but it is also a horrifying way to measure my fellows. If I am constantly looking to my neighbor to see if he has more than I do, I will forget to be thankful for what I do have. Furthermore, if I am constantly evaluating my self based on where I fall on the continuum of human success, I will forget that everything I have I owe to Him who made me. The following verse calls out that very idea: “You may say to yourself, ‘My power and the strength of my hands have produced this wealth for me.’ But remember the LORD your God, for it is he who gives you the ability to produce wealth” (Deuteronomy 8:17-18). If I compare my own success to that of my peers, I will forget to find joy and gratitude in the victories that God has granted me.

One way to let go of this is to recognize that in the eyes of God, we are, all of us, the same. He does not discriminate against any of us. As Paul writes, “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:28). God does not see the crude matter I am made of, nor does He revere the human husk that contains any other soul. He sees only the luminous part of us. We are comparing ourselves based on meager criteria that mean nothing in the end.

The real danger, though, is not when we compare ourselves to each other, or to our past selves, or even to our own potential. I wrote a bit about this idea in this previous post about selfishness, but I’d like to take a moment to expand. There, I wrote that one root cause of my selfishness was that I thought I was the creator of my own successes, of my own greatness, and that I was the master of my own life. This is the most prideful folly, and it is the most dangerous idea in all of human history. We think that because we have free will, we are fit to compare ourselves to God.

One of my favorite movies of all time is “Rudy.” It’s the (mostly) true story of a hilariously undersized linebacker who dreamed of playing football for Notre Dame. One day, when Rudy is feeling dejected, he visits the campus church, where his priest unloads this bit of wisdom on him: “Son, in thirty-five years of religious study, I’ve come up with only two hard, incontrovertible facts: there is a God, and I’m not Him.” This is my favorite line in the film. In context, it’s very funny, and Father Cavanaugh says it to illustrate the fact that he doesn’t know everything about God (actually, he’s illustrating that in the grand scheme of things, he is certain of next to nothing). But in another sense, in the context of my writing today, I think that this quote may actually be about pride, and understanding our place as God’s creation. We simply do not compare.

EDIT: After thinking about it for a bit more, I recalled something that Lewis wrote about the Natural Law (knowing right from wrong and good from bad). In the case of that Natural Law, he says we are essentially comparing our own capacity for good or evil against an external standard of perfection. There is such a thing as “perfectly good,” even if we cannot achieve it. I think this may also apply here! There is such a thing as perfection, and we might be able to better understand how humble we truly should be by thinking of ourselves in the shadow of that perfection.

Lewis is right, I think, in saying that once comparison is gone, so too shall be Pride. Whether I’m comparing myself to my neighbor or to God Himself, I must remind myself that down that path lies a fall.

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