12.15.2010

Of Prayer and Pride

Recently, a friend and I made a prayer pact: We decided to pray for a certain length of time each day and to hold each other accountable to the pact. I faithfully honored the pact every day - until yesterday, when I forgot to pray for the required length of time. When I first realized that I had forgotten, I became somewhat frustrated with myself. Then I began to think about why I was frustrated with myself.

The reason my friend and I had decided to make our prayer pact was obvioust enough: Having faith in the power of prayer, we wished to be consistent in daily prayer in spite of our cluttered schedules. My objective (and my friend's) was a stronger prayer life - nothing more. And yet it quickly became clear to me that I was not frustrated with myself because I had failed to meet this objective. After all, my prayer life had become more consistent as a result of my pact; my one day of "insufficient" prayer, though unfortunate, did not seriously hinder my walk with God. On the contrary, I was frustrated with myself because I had not met the terms of the pact, because I would no longer be able to tell myself that I had fulfilled the pact - because, in my quest for righteousness, I had left no room for grace.

The problem was not that I was striving to pray more consistently, or even that I had made a specific, potentially "legalistic" pact with my friend. The problem was that I cared about being righteous for the sake of thinking of myself as righteous, rather than caring about righteousness for righteousness' (or, better yet, Jesus') sake. The problem was that I was more worried about demonstrating to myself that I was a man of prayer than I was worried about actually being a man of prayer.

My mistake reminded of this quotation from J.B. Phillips' When God was Man:
"The 'good' man, the man whose god is righteousness, has as his life’s ambition the keeping of rules and commandments and the keeping of himself uncontaminated by the world. This sounds admirable; but, as the truth of Christ showed, the whole of such living, the whole drive and ambition, the whole edifice, is self-centered. That entire process of effort must be abandoned if a man is to give himself in love to God and his fellows. He must lose his life if he is ever going to find it."
For me, an admirable enough pursuit - prayer, of all things! - became a self-centered means of proving myself to myself, of earning my salvation. I had been pursuing righteousness so that I could avoid my need for grace, so that my faith could rest in my own good deeds and not in Christ's redeeming sacrifice. Of course, when I made the prayer pact, I was not consciously attempting to pray my way out of a need for grace; but that is what happened nonetheless.

The culprit, unsurprisingly, was the great sin, pride. And there is an important lesson here, I think, for all of us. In my experience, there are two kinds of people in this world: those who do not think they need forgiveness and those who do not think they can be forgiven. We can identify the former as the "self-righteous souls" - the souls out of touch with their own sins - and the latter as the "self-pitying souls" - the souls out of touch with God's amazing grace.

Interestingly, the self-righteous soul and the self-pitying soul are not that different, for self-righteousness and self-pity are both manifestations of pride. It is pride that reassures us that we have no need of grace, that our sins are minor or justifiable, that we are actually quite good people (and certainly better than him or her); and when we do (inevitably) stumble and fall, when the truth of our sinfulness becomes inescapable, when we can no longer pretend that we have it all together, it is pride that tells us that it is too late, that nothing can be done, that we are eternally stained and unforgivable.

Notice how these two superficially different attitudes are both fundamentally egocentric in nature. The self-righteous soul cares not at all (or very little) that his good deeds please God or benefit his fellow men; he cares only that his reputation with others - and with himself - be preserved. The guilty soul cares not at all (or very little) that his sins have injured God; he cares only that he can no longer think of himself as good, that he has toppled himself from his own imaginary pedestal. The self-centeredness evident in both cases is the hallmark and calling card of pride.

Pride convinces the self-righteous soul that grace is beneath him and the self-pitying soul that grace is above him. Both are wretched lies, but they are not lies that are easy to spot; the devil is too cunning for that. No, these lies can only be discovered if we are on the lookout for them - rather like the moonwalking bear.

If we are willing to catch our pride in the act, we will, of course, succeed. ("Seek, and ye shall find" goes for sin, too.) After all, pride is plenty common, and it can be found virtually anywhere - as I recently learned, even in prayer. Unfortunately, the first step with pride, as with alcoholism, is admitting we have a problem - and this we are not always willing to do. If we are courageous enough, however, to resist our pride - to pray for humility, to seek advice and correction, to submit to others, to confess our sins, to search out our hearts, and to cast off our fa├žades - then the Scriptures are clear: "Humble yourselves before the Lord, and He will lift you up" (James 4.10).

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