In 1124, the French monk Bernard of Clairvaux published his first work, On the Steps of Humility and Pride. Bernard had been asked to put into writing a series of talks he had given on the topic of humility, but the finished product ended up discussing pride as much as humility. He explained:
You are perhaps saying, brother Geoffrey, that I have done something different from what you asked and I promised, and instead of writing about the steps of humility I have written about the steps of pride. I reply, “I can teach only what I have learned. I did not think I could fittingly describe the steps up when I know more about going down than going up.”
Unsurprisingly, Bernard’s insight is as relevant today as it was nearly 1,000 years ago. Here are his twelve steps of pride with portions of the exposition.¹
- Curiosity. You see a monk of whom you had thought well up to now. Wherever he stands, walks, sits, his eyes begin to wander. His head is lifted. His ears are alert. . . . He has grown careless about his own behavior. He wastes his curiosity on other people. . . . And truly, O man, if you concentrate hard on the state you are in it will be surprising if you have time for anything else.
- Light-mindedness. For the monk who instead of concentrating on himself looks curiously at others, trying to judge who is his superior and who is his inferior, will see things to envy in others and things to mock. Thus it is that the light-minded follow their roving eyes and, no longer pinned down by proper responsibility, are now swept up to the heights by pride, now cast down into the depths by envy. . . . He displays these changes of mood in his speech: Now his words are few and grudging; now numerous and trivial; now he is laughing; now he is depressed; but there is never any reason for his mood.
- Foolish merriment. The proud always want to be happy and to avoid sadness . . . . Anything that shows him his own vileness and the excellence of others checks his curiosity; but on the contrary, he is always ready to notice anything which makes him seem to excel. He uses his curiosity to perceive how he excels others, and he always deceives himself so that he avoids sadness and he can go on being happy.
- Boasting. When vanity has begun to swell the bladder and enlarge it, it makes a bigger hole for the wind to escape. . . . His opinions fly about. His words tumble over one another. He butts in before he is asked. He does not answer other people’s questions. He asks the questions himself and he answers them, and he cuts off anyone who tries to speak. . . . He may say something edifying, but that is not his intention. He does not care for you to teach, or to learn from you what he himself does not know, but that others should know how much he knows.
- Trying to be different. When a man has been boasting that he is superior to others it is galling to him not to outdo them in performance, so as to make it obvious that he is more advanced than they are. . . . He acts not so as to live better but so as to seem to triumph, so that he can say, “I am not as other men” (Lk 18:11). . . . He is very anxious to perform his own special exercises and lazy about. . . . But [the simple-minded] do not see his motive and by canonizing the wretch they confirm him in his error (Lk 18;11).
- Arrogance. He believes the praise he hears. He is complacent about what he does. He does not give a thought to his intentions. He puts that from his mind when he accepts what others think of him. He believes that he knows more than everybody about everything else, but when they praise him he believes them rather than his own conscience.
- Presumption. He who thinks himself superior to others, how can he not presume more for himself than others? At meetings he must sit in the most important place. In discussions he speaks first. . . . What he himself has not done or ordained he considers not to have been done right, or to be arranged displeasingly. . . . But since he is so eager to offer his services and rushes at things rather than taking thought before he acts, he is bound to make mistakes sometimes. . . . So when he is accused of a fault he adds to his sins rather than giving them up. If you see someone answering back when he is reprimanded you will know that he has fallen to the eighth step of pride, which is self-justification.
- Self-justification. There are many ways of making excuses for sin. One person will say, “I did not do it.” Another will say, “I did it, but it was the right thing to do.” Another will admit that it was wrong but say, “It was not very wrong.” Another will concede that it was very wrong, but he will say, “I meant well.” If he is forced to admit that he did not mean well, he will say as happened in the case of Adam and Eve that someone else persuaded him to do it.
- Insincere confession. An earthen vessel is tested by fire, and tribulation makes it clear who is really penitent. A real penitent does not shrink from the labor of doing penance, but whatever hateful task is imposed on him for his sin he patiently embraces without complaint. If obedience forces him to what is hard and goes against his wishes, and even if he suffers reproach he has not deserved, he bears it without flagging, so that he shows that he stands on the fourth step of humility. But he whose confession is all pretense, when he is tested by one little punishment cannot simulate humility or hide the fact that he has been pretending up to now. He complains and murmurs and grows angry and proves . . . that he has sunk to ninth step of pride which, as we said, can rightly be called insincere confession.
- Rebellion. The divine mercy may look on such a man and inspire him to do what is very difficult for him, to submit without a word to the judgment of the community. But if his response is to frown and be insolent, by his rebellion he falls lower and to a more desperate state . . . and he who before secretly despised his brothers in his arrogance now openly shows by his disobedience that he despises his superiors.
For you must know that all the steps I have divided into twelve can be put into three groups. In the first six there is contempt for one’s brothers. In the next four there is contempt for one’s superiors. In the remaining two pride comes to a head in contempt for God.
- Freedom to sin. Then he begins to travel roads which seem good to men (Prov 14:12; 16:25) and, unless God blocks his way (Hos 2:6), he will come at their end to the depths of hell, that is, contempt for God. . . . When he stands there, the monk who recognizes and fears no superior and who has no brothers whom he may respect enjoys doing what he wants the more safely as he does it the more freely; and he does things which in the monastery fear or shame would have held him back from doing. . . . Like someone entering a river, he does not plunge, but goes step by step into the torrent of vices.
- Habitual sin. And after he finds that his first sins go unpunished by the terrible judgment of God (Heb 10:27), he freely seeks to enjoy again the pleasures he has experienced. Habit binds him as desire revives, and conscience slumbers. The wretched man is dragged into the depths of evil (Prov 18:3) and handed over captive to the tyranny of the vices as though to be swallowed up in the whirlpool of fleshly desires; and he forgets the fear of God and his own reason. The fool says in his heart, “There is no God” (Psa 13:1).
¹Bernard of Clairvaux: Selected Writings (trans. by G. R. Evans), The Classics of Western Spirituality; Paulist Press (1987), 99-143.
Only those whose “eyes have been opened” to the light of Christ rejoice to have their deeds exposed. It is baffling that our whole society knows and apparently loves the hymn “Amazing Grace.” What are people thinking of when they sing, “Amazing grace, how sweet the sound / that saved a wretch like me”? The man who wrote the hymn was a slave trader who came to see the wickedness of his activities. Most of those who sing the hymn today know nothing of this background. It is startling to hear it robustly sung by people who are so imbued with today’s talk of self-esteem that one can’t imagine them identifying themselves as wretches. A chasm of incomprehension has opened up between the awe of the old slave trader who knew that he had been redeemed by Christ in spite of himself and the contemporary notion of a generalized sort of spiritual self-improvement. The joy of the hymn writer is specifically that of being released from the burden of sin. His gratitude is “for the means of grace and for the hope of glory.” The link between the confession of sin and a prevenient state of blessedness, however poorly understood today, remains indissoluble.
–Fleming Rutledge, The Crucifixion, 170.
…for by what a man is overcome, by this he is enslaved. –2 Peter 2:19
The mortification of sin consists not in the improvement of a quiet, sedate nature. Some men have an advantage by their natural constitution so far as that they are not exposed to such violence of unruly passions and tumultuous affections as many others are. Let now these men cultivate and improve their natural frame and temper by discipline, consideration, and prudence, and they may seem to themselves and others very mortified men, when, perhaps, their hearts are a standing sink of all abominations. Some man is never so much troubled all his life, perhaps, with anger and passion, nor doth trouble others, as another is almost every day; and yet the latter hath done more to the mortification of the sin than the former. Let not such persons try their mortification by such things as their natural temper gives no life or vigor to. Let them bring themselves to self-denial, unbelief, envy, or some such spiritual sin, and they will have a better view of themselves.
–John Owen, Of the Mortification of Sin in Believers
The nature of self-love and of this human Ego is to love self only and consider self only. But what will man do? He cannot prevent this object that he loves from being full of faults and wants. He wants to be great, and he sees himself small. He wants to be happy, and he sees himself miserable. He wants to be perfect, and sees himself full of imperfections. He wants to be the object of love and esteem among men, and he sees that his faults merit only their hatred and contempt. This embarrassment in which he finds himself produces in him the most unrighteous and criminal passion that can be imagined; for he conceives a mortal enmity against that truth which reproves him, and which convinces him of his faults. He would annihilate it, but, unable to destroy it in its essence, he destroys it as far as possible in his own knowledge and in that of others; that is to say, he devotes all his attention to hiding his faults both from others and from himself, and he cannot endure either that others should point them out to him, or that they should see them.
. . . Man is then only disguise, falsehood, and hypocrisy, both in himself and in regard to others. He does not wish any one to tell him the truth; he avoids telling it to others, and all these dispositions, so removed from justice and reason, have a natural root in his heart. -Blaise Pascal, Pensées, #100
What Pascal called self-love and Ego, the Scriptures call pride. He offers no references but consider a few of the biblical proofs:
- Precisely because we hate attention being drawn to our imperfections, Proverbs is replete with appeals for us to receive discipline and instruction (Prov 1:7-8; 3:11; 6:23; 12:1; 17:10; 19:20).
- The natural desire to hide our faults from ourselves(!) and others explains the scarcity of confession in Christian fellowship, in spite of the commands and characterizations we find in Scripture (Prov 28:13; James 5:16; 1Jn 1:9 cf. Mark 1:5; Acts 19:18). Confession is the mortification of ego.
- Man’s desire to annihilate the truth is epitomized in the world’s hatred of Christ (Jn 7:7; 8:40ff).
Overcoming our aversion to truth is a conversion miracle out of which Christian fellowship flows (1Jn 1:6-7). Apart from this new life, Pensees #101 is axiomatic:
I set it down as a fact that if all men knew what each said of the other, there would not be four friends in the world.
J.I. Packer cites Ecclesiastes(!) as his favorite book in the Bible and explains why in an interesting & helpful article at CT. The entire piece is worth reading but I especially appreciated how he describes cynicism against the backdrop of his own experience.
His basic description:
Cynics are people who have grown skeptical about the goodness of life, and who look down on claims to sincerity, morality, and value. They dismiss such claims as hollow and criticize programs for making improvements. Feeling disillusioned, discouraged, and hurt by their experience of life, their pained pride forbids them to think that others might be wiser and doing better than they themselves have done. On the contrary, they see themselves as brave realists and everyone else as self-deceived. Mixed-up teens slip easily into cynicism, and that is what I was doing.
His personal experience:
. . . I developed a self-protective sarcasm, settled for low expectations from life, and grew bitter. Pride led me to stand up for Christian truth in school debates, but with no interest in God or a willingness to submit to him. However, becoming a real as distinct from a nominal Christian brought change, and Ecclesiastes in particular showed me things about life that I had not seen before.
Being too proud to enjoy the enjoyable is a very ugly shortcoming, and one that calls for immediate correction. Let it be acknowledged that, as I had to learn long ago, discovering how under God ordinary things can bring joy is the cure for cynicism.
The real eye-opener for me was Packer’s diagnosis of the sin beneath the sin of cynicism–namely, pride. If there’s a mask that pride can’t wear I haven’t found it yet.
We have all read in scientific books, and, indeed, in all romances, the story of the man who has forgotten his name. This man walks about the streets and can see and appreciate everything; only he cannot remember who he is. Well, every man is that man in the story. Every man has forgotten who he is. One may understand the cosmos, but never the ego; the self is more distant than any star. Thou shalt love the Lord thy God; but thou shalt not know thyself. We are all under the same mental calamity; we have all forgotten our names. We have all forgotten what we really are. All that we call common sense and rationality and practicality and positivism only means that for certain dead levels of our life we forget that we have forgotten. All that we call spirit and art and ecstasy only means that for one awful instant we remember that we forget.
-G. K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy
It is seldom that any of our [bad habits or flaws] are made to disappear by a mere process of natural extinction. At least, it is very seldom that this is done through the instrumentality of reasoning…[or by] the mere force of mental determination. But what cannot be thus destroyed may be dispossessed–and one taste may be made to give way to another, and to lose its power entirely as the reigning affection of the mind…. [T]he heart[‘s]…desire for having some one object or other, this is unconquerable…. [T]he only way to dispossess [the heart] of an old affection is by the expulsive power of a new one…. It is…when admitted into the number of God’s children, through the faith that is in Jesus Christ, [that] the spirit of adoption is poured upon us–it is then that the heart, brought under the mastery of one great and predominant affection, is delivered from the tyranny of its former desires, and is the only way in which deliverance is possible.
-Thomas Chalmers, “The Expulsive Power of a New Affection”
Sin aims always at the utmost; every time it rises up to tempt or entice, might it have its own course, it would go out to the utmost sin in that kind. Every unclean thought or glance would be adultery if it could…every rise of lust, might it have its course, would come to the height of villany: it is like the grave that is never satisfied. And herein lies no small share of the deceitfulness of sin, by which it prevails to the hardening of men, and so to their ruin (Heb. 3:13) — it is modest, as it were, in its first motions and proposals, but having once got footing in the heart by them, it constantly makes good its ground, and presseth on to some farther degrees in the same kind.
–John Owen (1616-1683), Of The Mortification of Sin in Believers