Spiritual Pride Disguised as Virtue

So you also, when you have done everything you were told to do, should say, “We are unworthy servants; we have only done our duty.”        Luke 17:10                                          

Of all the unruly tendencies of the flesh, spiritual pride is by far the most deceptive.  It always feels somewhat more warranted than it should be.  You are doing well in your spiritual disciplines.  You are finding many ways to serve God in your day.  Others are appreciating the encouragement you bring to them.  A little self-satisfaction surely seems appropriate.  More than any other sin, this one seems so easy to justify.

In her book, To Believe in Jesus, Ruth Burrows exposes this sin of spiritual pride as it applies to the things we do for God saying, “Over and over again we must realize how, in what we think of as our love and service of God, lurks a ravenous self-seeking which would use God to inflate self.”  She adds,

  • A great deal of what we call charity towards others may actually be self-love, satisfying a need in myself rather than pure seeking of my neighbor’s good. The motivation for charity could just as easily be a need to be useful and important, or perhaps a way of alleviating our guilt or of managing the impression of others.

Spiritual pride easily disguises itself as virtue.  That is why we so often justify it.  Burrows offers an example of how this sin subtly deceives us into believing we are acting for God when, in truth, it is our own spiritual satisfaction that we are serving.  She writes,

  • A priest might have devoted himself to work for the poor. Everyone praises him for his selfless dedication – nothing is too much trouble, nothing too irksome. Then perhaps he is asked to take charge of a well-to-do, stick-in-the-mud parish, and he objects. The reasons brought forward will sound edifying because he must convince himself that he is a man of God, but the real reason is that to work in such a parish will rob him of his sense of doing something worthwhile, something heroic; it would be a spiritual come-down and would tarnish his image of himself. And yet it may be precisely in the non-glamorous situation of an ordinary middle-class atmosphere that the greatest generosity is called for, but it probably won’t feel very spiritual.

To feel “spiritual” is the most cherished possession of the devout.  But it is a treasure that we must let go of.  Our Lord taught us to be careful to not display our good works for the admiration of others (Mat. 6:1, 5), but we must not display them to ourselves either. Paul understood this when he wrote,

  • For His sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as refuse, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in Him not having a righteousness of my own, based on law, but that which is through faith in Christ (Phil 4: 8-9).

Any form of self-congratulation is ground for spiritual pride.  It easily masks what Paul calls a “righteousness of my own”—a spirituality of glory that flatters human pride under the guise of serving God.   In the midst of such deception the only safe posture we can assume is that of the servants who, at the end of their day’s work, are quick to remind themselves that, “We are unworthy servants; we have only done our duty.”  Anything more than this we should consider suspect.

– by Rob Des Cotes, the 4th in a series of Lenten meditations – distributed on March 12, 2015
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