Overcoming pride is extraordinarily difficult. In dealing with most other vices, the cure is to grow in virtue, but in this case, that can itself become an occasion for sin: we can take pride in our virtue. This is particularly true for the antidote to pride, which is humility, the Queen of the Virtues according to the ancient monks. Once we think we have attained it, it is lost and we fall once again into pride.
Nonetheless, we are not helpless in the face of pride. Building humility requires that we deal with our attitudes toward ourselves, toward others, and toward God, and there are steps we can take in each of these areas to weaken pride and encourage a humble attitude in our hearts.
First, we need to come to an accurate evaluation of ourselves. We need to examine ourselves prayerfully, seeking to see our attitudes and actions objectively, that is, from God’s perspective. This can be a difficult and painful process since we need to look squarely at the many ways that we fail, not simply in our actions but in our words and attitudes. We even need to identify things that we try to hide from ourselves, which requires attention and a willingness to pursue things that are profoundly uncomfortable for us.
This exercise is not only about identifying sins, however. We also need to take a clear-eyed view of our successes and the good that God has done in and through us. Ignoring the positive things God has done in our lives is a sin; we need to learn to appreciate those things properly and thankfully, recognizing that there is nothing that we have that we did not receive (1 Cor. 4:7). Seeing our successes and achievements as God working through us rather than as our own doing is an important antidote to spiritual pride.
Since it is impossible evaluate ourselves objectively, it is helpful to have people close to you such as a soul friend or an accountability group with whom you can be transparent and who have permission to speak openly and honestly to you about your life. It takes time to build up the trust required for this kind of relationship, but it is an invaluable help in overcoming pride as well as other sins in our lives.
A warning here: if you do not see pride in yourself you are almost certainly not seeing yourself clearly. C. S. Lewis warned us of this in Mere Christianity:
“If anyone would like to acquire humility, I can, I think, tell him the first step. The first step is to realise that one is proud. And a biggish step, too. At least, nothing whatever can be done before it. If you think you are not conceited, it means you are very conceited indeed.”
Through this kind of self-examination, we can come to a more accurate perception of ourselves, recognizing our failures and successes without exaggerating either. Both will help mitigate the effects of pride in our lives. In particular, a sound awareness of our own shortcomings will make us more tolerant of the failures of others, more patient with them, more willing to forgive them, and less likely to look down on them. And this brings us to the second point.
Our Attitude Toward Others
Along with our attitude toward ourselves, we need to look to our attitude toward others. Our guide here is Phil. 2:1-11. Jesus did not insist on what was rightfully due Him, but voluntarily came down to serve. He even went to the cross on our behalf, the most shameful and ugly death the Romans could devise. We should have the same attitude of obedience toward God and service to others.
As part of this process, we need to cultivate in ourselves an awareness that the people around us are made in the image of God and thus are intrinsically worthy of honor regardless of any other characteristics they may have or lack. The image of God is the ultimate source of human worth, and if you put anything ahead of that, you are guilty of idolatry.
On this point, consider the words of C. S. Lewis from his sermon, The Weight of Glory:
“It is a serious thing to live in a society of possible gods and goddesses, to remember that the dullest most uninteresting person you can talk to may one day be a creature which, if you saw it now, you would be strongly tempted to worship, or else a horror and a corruption such as you now meet, if at all, only in a nightmare. All day long we are, in some degree helping each other to one or the other of these destinations. It is in the light of these overwhelming possibilities, it is with the awe and the circumspection proper to them, that we should conduct all of our dealings with one another, all friendships, all loves, all play, all politics. There are no ordinary people. You have never talked to a mere mortal. Nations, cultures, arts, civilizations – these are mortal, and their life is to ours as the life of a gnat. But it is immortals whom we joke with, work with, marry, snub, and exploit—immortal horrors or everlasting splendors.”
The next time you are tempted to look down on someone, remember these words.
Our Attitude Toward God
And that brings us to our third point: we need to grow in our relationship with God. As we grow in our appreciation of His greatness, His power, His wisdom, His holiness, we will recognize our radical inability to be worthy of anything from Him. He owes us nothing, and by ourselves we can make no claim on Him. But as we also come to a deeper knowledge of His kindness, His patience, His steadfast love, we will recognize with gratitude that all that we have and all that we are is a gift of grace. This will kill our presumption before Him along with our spiritual pride, and will reset our attitude toward ourselves, toward others, and toward God.
And through this process we find our way to humility, the ultimate antidote to pride. But as we noted earlier, it’s slippery—as soon as we think we have it, we’ve lost it. True humility takes no notice of itself. Speaking of the humble man, C. S. Lewis remarked, “He will not be thinking about humility: he will not be thinking about himself at all.” And so, as is so often the case with pride, as soon as we begin recognizing a virtue in our life, we need to begin the cycle of self-examination again, being sure that we are grateful for the gift of the virtue and taking no credit for it ourselves.
The process of self-examination, repentance for sin, and seeking God’s grace and the virtue He develops in us will never end in this life. Only when we enter the next life and see Jesus as He is will we move past our struggle with sin—but as long as we have that hope, we will continually strive for greater purity of heart and mind, and greater conformity to the image of Christ (1 John 3:2-3).