Several years ago, after I made a pretty self-righteous remark at a church meeting, I was reproached as having “no right to be so flip for someone so young” (I was 24 at the time, in my first year of seminary). Feeling bruised in the ego, I counterattacked, accusing the person of discriminating against me because I was young. Oh brother.
Things have a way of coming back to haunt you.
I was in Toronto (last summer, pre-SARS) when the Pope came to visit . At an assembly of about 150 college and high school students, a bishop from California was speaking from a prepared text about reconciliation, what it means to turn back to God. He then gave the students a chance to talk to one another in groups and then to report to the whole crowd on their discussions. A well-styled guy of about twenty got up to the cheers of his college group and proceeded to lecture us all about what it really means to be a good Catholic.
I suppose he raised some good points�the importance of prayer, being proud of your Catholic heritage. But sometimes the way you say something says more than what you said. This guy was all attitude, certain of his spiritual superiority, intent on flaunting the great moral wisdom he had reached. And he was clearly accustomed to the adulation of the students in his group. And I had to sit there through the whole thing.
Pride of the spirit
Pride, of course, is the head of the family of the seven capital sins in Christian tradition, the granddaddy of evil. It might seem like it only appears in the ownership of mansions, sportscars, and the ability to command untold numbers of other people to fan you with banana leaves. But pride is a problem of anyone who can somehow look in the mirror and pronounce the word invincible.
And there’s such a thing as thinking you are spiritually invincible.
Knowing who you are and who you aren’t
Thus all of us Christians are enjoined to humility. But, much as I hate to admit it myself, it’s probably an especially good idea for those of us who are young. Our culture’s love of youth should not blind us to the fact that wisdom comes with experience and reflection upon it. Time is required.
That doesn’t mean that the young can’t ever be wise. But the wisest and the most spiritually mature among us recognizes that we have limitations. We need to know that we don’t know things.
To be humble is not to be self-deprecating or to suffer a lack of ambition. The definition of humility is to know who you are and who you aren’t.
The Bible on humility
You may remember the story in the Bible of the Pharisee and the tax collector who visit the Temple to pray (Luke 18:9-14 ). The tax collector�who earns his bread by extorting from his own people the large taxes and tolls the occupying Roman forces require�knows he is a terrible sinner and makes no bones about it. He buries his face in his hands and begs God for mercy.
The Pharisee, a big time religious leader, feels no such guilt or need for divine help. He smugly thanks God he is not like that sinner, the tax collector, and then goes on to bend the Almighty’s ear with his hefty spiritual accomplishments�fasting, charitable giving, yada yada yada. He somehow forgets to mention any possible failures (such as, for example, regarding tax collectors with contempt). This is a man who knows his strengths but is unfamiliar with his weaknesses. Such is the sound of spiritual pride or arrogance.
Jesus concludes the story by saying that the enemy-collaborating tax collector went away justified before God but the good and loyal Pharisee did not. Hold on here�traitors are justified but upstanding citizens no?. This no doubt shocked some of Jesus’ listeners and it may shock us.
But apparently, in God’s eyes, spiritual arrogance is not to be taken lightly.