Week 6 - Learning to live without pride
Read: Matthew 6:1-18
So far we have explored the awful reality of the opposite to the Good and Beautiful life as described by Paul in Romans 1:18-32. We’ve looked closely at the good news that Jesus proclaimed and noted the centrality of the kingdom of God in the Gospel message, and we've thought about the grand invitation that Christ issues to enter this way of life in the here and now.
In this session we’re thinking about the fourth of a number of very practical ways in which we can live the good and beautiful life as we think about learning to live without pride and vainglory.
In this session we explore what the author of the ‘Good & Beautiful Life’ calls vainglory.
The OED translates vainglory as: “Boastful, unwarranted pride in one’s accomplishments or qualities.” We’re thinking about pride, and our need to be noticed.
In ‘The Good & Beautiful Life’, James Bryan-Smith tells a familiar story. It’s a story that is personal to him, but common to us all. It’s a story of mixed motives. The clash of desires that so often play out in our Christian lives. It’s the story of a desire to do good that just can’t quite seem to break away from a desire to be noticed when doing it.
It’s clearly not a new problem. Jesus spends some time reflecting on this in his sermon on the mount. He gives three examples of times when doing right and doing good are compromised by the need to be seen, noticed, and praised. The pull of pride, the desire for accolades, and the longing for compliments have marked our existence since time immemorial.
As I write these notes I’m aware of the conflict. I want these words to encourage and build up God’s people, to help us in our journey as disciples. But if I’m honest I also want them to reflect well on me, to be praised for them, to be thought of as intelligent and thoughtful. Mixed motives are never far away.
Reflect: Can you think of some examples of how you experience the reality of mixed motives? Are there times that you’re aware of when your motives are pulled in the direction of a need to be noticed?
Where is our value located?
Throughout the series we’ve been reflecting on ‘false narratives’. Untruths which shape the way we interpret and live life.
When it comes to our desire to be noticed, our need for affirmation, a strong and deeply embedded narrative is at work, one that in all likely-hood, is deeply embedded in our culture in Ashtead.
The false narrative is this: My value is determined by the assessment of another.
This is a narrative we learn from the very earliest days of our life. When we do well we receive affirmation. When we do not do well we do not receive affirmation, in-fact we may be criticized. When we do great things our value is affirmed, fail and the reverse is true – and so it continues throughout life.
Let’s be honest, we all love to be loved. Written into our DNA is a need to feel loved, worthwhile, and wonderful. The problem is that the narrative of the world determines our worth and our loveableness (if that’s a word) on the basis of our appearance, productivity, and performance. This narrative says that our value is determined by other people’s assessment of us.
Reflect: To what degree do we look to find our value in the assessment of others? This may be a painful thing to reflect on and may involve un-packing some long standing hurts. As a group why not spend some time, individually or together, praying through this. In particular please pray for members of the group for whom this is a painful question.
Pride – a trap for religious people…
When we locate our lives outside of the kingdom of God we have no way of determining our value other than the judgments of others. If we do something well and no-one notices we’re irritated because we feel deserving of praise and crave the affirmation that could have been given.
But here’s the thing, even though we do locate ourselves within the kingdom of God, the temptation to continue living this way is still there. The narrative of the world often gets transferred into the kingdom life.
Here’s an example: Most of us in some or another praise religious activities. We praise and affirm those people who read their bibles a lot, who pray every morning, who fast etc etc. These people are held up as examples to us all, they receive accolades and praise. When on the receiving end of such ‘religious praise’ few find that they are immune from the temptation to vainglory and pride…and so the cycle begins. In doing something religious and pious, we receive acclamation, and we feel valued and loved…etc etc – see Jesus words in Matthew 6!
Saint John Cassian (c360-435ad) wrote:
“One who would not be taken in by the vices of the flesh can be all the more vulnerable to vainglory”
Because we may not be defeated by them ore obvious sins we may feel our lives are more ‘spiritual’ and in some way superior…pride is close at hand. And as Andrew Murray (not the tennis player) said ‘there is no pride so dangerous, so subtle and insidious, as the pride of holiness.”
Reflect: Why not take some time reflecting on the following:
· If I accomplish something or receive praise for something I have done, I want others to know about it.
· I try to ensure that others only know about my successes and hide my weaknesses and failings.
· When I speak to others I try to come across as humble but all the time want the other person to think I’m remarkable.
· I like to drop names.
· When I do an act of service, I rarely try to ensure it stays secret.
These function as ‘alerts’ to vainglory and pride. If we can see one or several of these played out in our lives, maybe now is a good time to confess to the group, repent, and pray for strength to stand against pride.
In our reading from Matthew 6 Jesus tackles this issue of vainglory and pride head on. His words are aimed at those who would identify themselves as the ‘holy’ people, the ‘God-fearers’. In a nutshell his words are directed at us!
Each of his three illustrations involves someone doing something that is fundamentally and intrinsically good. Giving to the needy, praying, and fasting. Three deeply commendable religious activities that, if seen by others, are likely to lead people to conclude that the person practicing them is holy, pious, and deeply spiritual.
Let’s unpack these examples.
Example 1 – Giving to the poor
Like the modern welfare state, the synagogue had a system in place to ensure that the needy were cared for. People gave a proportion of their money to the synagogue which was in turn distributed to the poor and needy. If someone made a large donation it was common practice for the person to be acknowledged. To this situation Jesus says ‘if you give a large gift primarily to be noticed and praised, then you’ll be noticed and praised. BUT…that will be all the reward you get. You’ll get what you want in an immediate sense, admiration, acclamation, but it will be short lived.
Example 2 – Praying
Again Jesus says ‘ if you make sure that everyone know’s you’re praying. Praying loudly and in public, primarily because you want people to think you are ‘spiritual’ and see your commitment and piety, then they will. You will receive admiration and acclamation and praise from people. You’ll feel good and valued for a short time. But it will pass.
Example 3 – Fasting
Certain sects within Judaism fasted twice a week, Mondays and Thursdays. It was common place to put on sackcloth and cover ones face is ash as a sign of penance and mourning. Again, Jesus says ‘there is nothing wrong about fasting, but if you do it to be seen, you will be seen, you will get what you desire, but it will not last.’
In each of these three examples the action itself is good. Giving money to the poor, praying, and fasting, are some of the most important of spiritual disciplines. Jesus doesn’t criticize the act, but he criticizes the motives of those who do these things in order to be seen and in order to receive affirmation and praise.
The Cure – kingdom humility and the kingdom narrative
Throughout his ministry Jesus encourages us to do good things with no regard for what others think about us. It’s made clear in the parable of the tax collector in Luke 18:11-14. The Pharisee is the epitomy of vainglory and pride – announcing loudly his spiritual accomplishments.
Jesus’ narrative of the kingdom is opposed to the narrative of the world and it is this:
You are valuable to God.
God loves you.
Your worth is not dependent on your performance or what others think of you.
Your worth is found in the loving eyes of God.
If you win God loves you. If you loose God loves you.
God is a God of covenant and his love towards you as his child never changes.
This has a profound effect on how we live. It means we are not living for praise from others. We are not living to cultivate a particular image. We are not living to earn praise and respect. We are ‘living for an audience of one’ as the old Puritan phrase goes.
When this works itself out in life we find the need for affirmation, the need for praise, the reliance on the opinions of others diminishes, and with it goes the temptation towards pride and vainglory.
Reflect: Spend some time thinking and praying through some of these quotes…
“Our hearts are restless, O God, until they find their rest in you” – St Augustine.
“It is evident that man never attains to a true self-knowledge until he has previously contemplated the face of God, and come down after such contemplation to look into himself” – John Calvin”
“Not that we are competent of ourselves to claim anything as coming from us; our competence is from God” - St Paul (2Cor3:5)
“O divine master, grant that I might seek not so much to be consoled, as to console; to be understood as to understand; and not so much to be loved, as to love another.” – St Francis