The motto of the reformers was semper reformanda, meaning “always reforming.” The early protestants, from whom our current Christian movement stems from had to come to grips with the fact that the church as a whole was wrong and needed to be corrected. And once the church life and doctrine was corrected, it was to continually be examined, time and time again, to discern if more reformation was needed.
Our lives are like this too, though we sometimes imagine we have reached our spiritual destination and have grasped the ideal state of being, we must always realize this is still a journey, and we should be “always reforming” or “always repenting.” I have discovered many times that I was wrong, and the more I live, the more I realize I need this reformation in my life. Throughout the years I have often discovered myself to be sinful when I thought I was not. Many times I pursued humility and upon reaching a “more humble” state than someone else, I was plagued by more pride because of that. A few years ago I even adopted a fancy saying that reads: “funny thing about humility… just when you think you’ve finally got it, you’ve lost it.” And the really funny thing is, I got a little bit proud because I “discovered that truth.”
Herein, I would like to offer brief glimpses of some of my weakest moments and with brutal honesty display the types and manifestations of pride that raged in my heart. Like the ocean, though mostly water, is tainted with the profound taste salt, so too our human hearts are tainted with selfishness, of more varieties than we can realize at times. I hope that understanding these categories of pride and selfishness would wake you from your own selfish slumber. I pray that this would equip you with an deeper understanding of this dangerous enemy of our souls, pride, and cause you to continually reexamine your life, faith, heart, and doctrine.
TEN DIFFERENT TYPES OF SELFISHNESS
1. Low Self-esteem
(Having a depressing concept of myself)
We often conceptualize pride as something distinctly arrogant. We assume that pride is displayed in the halls of the rich and famous, while the socially awkwardly and speckled teenager wearing ill-fitting clothes is quiet and humble. I can assure you, I was not humble, though many would have thought that about me. Indeed, I was shy and quiet. And truly, I did not have much money or many friends for all of my teenage years. Why, I was even self-diagnosed with very low self-esteem and spiraled into depression and self-loathing. I thought I was poor, ugly, unloved, and many other horrendous things about myself. I remember looking at a picture of myself and hating appearance, I was neither strong not attractive , I crumpled up the photo in my anger and refused to take any more. To this day I still have this ingrained hatred of taking personal photos, though I hardly have those same emotions and reasons. At that time I hated myself. My self-hatred looked as if it was the opposite of pride! How could I be proud? Yet, at the bottom of my heart there was a wound the festered, it was the feeling of “unjust punishment by life.” I did not think “I am nothing” and “that is ok.” Instead, I thought “I am nothing” but “it’s unfair because I deserve more.” Later I learned that low self-esteem was not low-pride, but rather it was still a egocentric focus on me, myself, and I. Perhaps I was not thinking highly of myself, but I was ALWAYS thinking of myself.
2. High Self-esteem
(Having a puffed up concept of myself)
Later on in life, I finally grew up and reached some of my goals. Though there was depression, doubt, and detriment in the later years of adolescence, there was more hope that I could finally be the person I wanted to be. I finally overcame some of my limitations and obtained work, money, and friends. Like a playground seesaw, without stopping anywhere in the middle, my opinion of myself quickly moved to the opposite direction. If I was not down, then I was up. I began to think very highly of myself, often realizing and trying to repent, and abruptly falling back into the “down” position of despair. It was all either the pride of low self-esteem or the pride of high self-esteem. I even remember this strange moment, which I still laugh at, where I assumed (after three sermons) that I was the best preacher I knew. I still cannot believe I though this, it’s hilarious. I had just started preaching at the Slavic church I served at, this was probably five years ago, and delivered a one hour lecture on love. I have no idea what I said, what did I know about love? Yet I kept more entertained than they were accustomed to. After the sermon, one of the leaders told me they wanted to do a whole conference on love and romance, and had a great preacher they wanted to invite. I smiled because I though he meant me. He proceeded to talk about another fellow, and I kept thinking “what? Am I not good enough?” I still chuckle at my foolishness then.
(Removing myself from culture and society as if I was better)
Once upon a time, my friend and I were mischievous teenagers, often doing stupid things. I thought of myself as the “more moral” because I was a little bit more afraid of getting caught. Soon thereafter, his life was changed and eventually he formed/joined a group of young guys who were going to change the world for Jesus. I believe their name was C12 or G12, though at the time I was not invited close enough to even hear the name. And I grew so bitter because of this. I began to immerse myself in my studies and my work in an effort to gouge out all of the people in my life. I began to have a very nihilist and anti-social approach to life, church, society, and culture. This was philosophical in the mind, but very emotional at heart. I pursued many self-centered feelings of bitterness at the exclusion I felt, and expounded this as philosophical viewpoints. Ultimately I began to withdraw from church and society as much as I could. My favorite quote, and my younger brother can attest, was “people are stupid.” That became my philosophy for a long time. I remember sitting at a new year’s party, feelings emotions of social exclusion, looking at the C12 table filled with laughing faces, and selfishly thinking “people are stupid” and “I need to get away from them all.”
(Promoting myself in culture and society as if I was better)
Yet as the Author of Ecclesiastes aptly noted “there is a time for everything” (Ecc 3:1). After the time for social isolationism, came a time where I began to grow in social influence. I had grown up, become a “leader molodejhi” (the Russian term for youth pastor). I became almost popular. The youth group I led began to revolve around me, and I was constantly inundated with reminders of my social prominence. Now, of course, I eagerly tried to be good, and preach Jesus, and there were many moments of Grace, but in all that light, there was darkness too. I remember that I began to send out mass text messages with daily devotionals to over a hundred people, and would eagerly wait for the responses of praise. When I preached, I burned with the desire for God’s word, then after I was done, deep down I wanted approval. I remember trying hard become humble, or at least act overtly humble to responses of praise, by looking down and saying “it’s all for God.” I eventually transitioned to Facebook and even opened a blog. Though my reasons for blogging were different than self-promotion (I wanted an outlet for my ideas). I did not a philosophy that “people are to be used” or anything too explicitly prideful, and I genuinely wanted to help and affect their lives in a very positive way, yet at heart, I loved the praises of man. Alas, I still do. Deep down, it’s very common that a Facebook post with one hundred likes brings me more satisfaction than one with two. I ask myself “why are you feeling this?” And the answer is vividly obvious. And I repent, and Jesus still has grace.
(Grief at unmet needs in relations with others)
Of all of these various forms of pride and selfishness, this one is the most deeply rooted and deeply hidden in myself and many others. This form of pride, seems nothing at all like pride, and usually exhibits itself in beautifully emotional way. Instead of being pushy, forceful, or rude, this selfishness appears at the saddest part of a movie, while soft piano music is playing and people are crying. This is the selfishness of a parent who bemoans as their needs are not met when their child chooses a different path in life than the parent prescribed. This is the selfishness of a child who sits in their room, letting waves of misery wash over her heart because her parents did not meet her wants. This is the selfishness of a spouse who is so fixated on his own wishes that he turns sad music and ruminates on his/her feelings of rejection. When I became a married man, I was shaken at my very foundations. I quickly learned the depth of my selfishness and depravity, as did my wife. We both ended up secretly projecting expectations on the others, and feeling a deep sadness when those were not reached. Ultimately we discovered that instead of seeking the fulfillment of our own needs, we ought instead to meet the other’s needs. I have often met others who have sinned this way and are sinning against others like this. I was recently told a story of a father who consistently lives in the selfishness of self-pity because his son left a lucrative career that the father prepared for him. This father’s self-pity appeared as like genuine pain, and indeed, was genuine pain. Yet the fathers pain was selfish, it was caused by his ego being wounded, because his plan and wishes were rejected. It was never a selfless desire for his son be happy, but a selfish desire for his son to follow his plan, and in doing that fulfill him.
(Promoting my needs first in relations with others)
In many cases I have played the wounded victim, showing much sadness when others didn’t live up to my secret expectations. In others cases, I was the one that actively pushed my expectations on others, hardly allowing my head to care about what they wanted. This particular example may be controversial in that some might say I was doing a good thing. At the time, I would have agreed with them, today I am not so sure. Rather than showing an obvious example, I want to show how self-preferment can exist in midst of some good intentions. I spent four years as the youth pastors of a Slavic Pentecostal church. While I grew up this way and do consider it a “home” of sorts, I do not promote Slavic cultural ideals or Pentecostalism as the best way to do church, while most of the people in that community do. I began to do my best to “change the church” to become a model of church that I thought was best. In my defense (then) this model I wanted would get rid of legalism, bring in Grace, and open doors to all cultures. In my judgment (now) I was trying to do a good thing with a very self-centered heart. Very few of the people there needed or wanted this type of modern culture infringement in their beliefs. I didn’t care and hardly listened. Because I could find Scriptural defense for everything, I made it my goal to change the culture and tradition. Most people didn’t want this, and rather than letting people get what they want, I pushed and tried. I had a deep desire to lead a successful and Biblical ministry, and rather than ignoring my wants and talking with each person individually, to care and shepherd their heart. After talking with many other young leaders on this issue, I have seen that this is a selfish desire that infects many of us. It is tainted with so much good, yet in all that good there is the need of “my ministry” and “my success” at the neglect of what others want or need.
7. Spiritual self-flagellation
(Pursuing my own atonement for bad deeds)
The concept of self-flagellation is something that has been practiced in many cultures. It is basically any physical act of self-harm or self-mutilation in an effort to appease the gods or atone for your sins. In the early years of Christianity many monks also adopted this process and created innovative ways to punish themselves. Some refrained from eating any foods that had pleasing tastes, or fully fasting, some carried heavy loads, and others whipped or beat themselves with all manner of physical objects. Yes, I have actually hit myself for sinning before, no it is not a good idea, nor is it fully what I mean by “spiritual” self-flagellation. At one point in time I (subconsciously?) made the connection between sin and punishment, and made efforts to atone for my own sins. This did not begin as some weird religion, but as one young man’s attempt to atone for his sins. So, for example, when I found myself looking at pornography, I would begin to feel terrible, and load shame and condemnation on myself. I would repent to God, but that never felt enough and I always felt like I should do more. I would begin to withdraw some pleasure from myself, to punish myself. I would not allow myself some well-deserved meal, or the purchase of something I wanted. I even tried to “repay” God by living with own guilt, humility, and excelling with good works. Now, I acknowledge that to try to pay or atone for your sin is pure selfishness. Instead of looking outward, to Christ, you are looking inward, to yourself as the cure.
8. Spiritual self-vindication
(Pursuing righteousness by my own good deeds)
Because I was struggling with pornography among others sins, I began to develop an excessive need to not only atone for the bad, but to vindicate myself as good, before God and men. Unfortunately my answer was not “let Jesus save you from sin” it was “turn from the bad, to going good.” It was a fine answer, if Christ were the root and the cause, but He wasn’t. I did acknowledge all of that, I could say that Jesus died for our sins, however, like many alongside me, I had no idea how that meant anything different for my life. I began to attend zealous and loud prayer meeting with the goal of being righteous. I began to try to force myself to read the Bible. I forced myself to avoid skipping one choir practice. Every time my sin would come out, I would do my best to push it in and try even harder. It was like a game of “Whack-a-mole.” Sin comes out, pop it back in, and try even harder to become righteous-like. For a time, with one part of my brain I could say “salvation is from Jesus” and yet my wicked, lying, prideful heart pushed me to earn it by myself. Logically I didn’t think I could, but my heart made me feel I should. Then my spiritual pride began to unravel. I remember standing on my knees about three years ago, I had already secretly given up on many Pentecostal distinctives and was embracing some form of “Calvinism.” To be honest, I at the time I felt like giving up on God. I felt so broken, I could hardly pray, and definitely didn’t want to pray loudly or consider praying in tongues. I just stood there on my knees in a crowd that prayed loudly and begin to weep saying “God I can’t, I give up on everything. I can’t.” I was filled with the surest knowledge that I was saved, through Christ’s cross, no matter what people say.
9. Ideological self-defense
(Ardently defending my ideas to defend my name)
This form of pride often exhibits itself as a form of righteous advice given to sinners without them asking for it. I grew up in a world like this, and for a time, continued the legacy. I often heard old men yell at girls about jewelry and offering them unsolicited “advice” like “you are look like a prostitute, stop wearing earrings!” (True story.) I once sat and tried to understand that particular person and wondered why he told those young girls such a thing. I imagined this: He lives in his head, and speculates things in there, then upon forming an opinion, embraces it as truth. He feels that he is absolutely correct in this opinion-that-became-truth and tells it to others to bring his internal world to the outside world. By teaching his thoughts, he validates his existence, and gives meaning to his life. His ideology becomes his way of proclaiming himself, as the one who is right, accurate, precise and correct. Fast forward a few years, and I found myself flirting with this exact same mindset. There were about ten or twenty specific issues that were so ingrained with my identity, I felt hurt when others put down my ideas or ideology, and my life consisted in defending it. As I would scroll Facebook, and see someone making fun of an idea that I held closely, I would feel the incessant urge to defend this idea, and by doing that defend myself. I saw others, my “theological opponents” doing the same thing. We were so attached to shielding our ideas, because our identities, views, our “rightness” was connected to those ideas. While I still wholeheartedly love to discuss and even debate on controversial issues, God has been for years now teaching me to repent of a selfish ideological identity, while placing my identity in Christ.
10. Ideological self-elevation
(Pompously uplifting myself by the accuracy of my ideas)
This one is tough, I hate to admit that I am wrong, but I am. It started a long time ago and it was something I did strongly for many years. When I became a youth pastor I finally started dealing with this and repenting of this. And yet, I find that tiny strains of if still infect me today. That quote I mentioned, saying that “people are stupid” often gave me the feeling that I was, on the other hand, smart. For much time, I literally considered myself to be smarter than people because my ideas were so much better than them. I began to repent of this, and then came a huge theological change in my life. I became more or less “reformed” in doctrine, which should have humbled me, and did humble me, but not all the time. The theology was so God-centered, that there was not an inkling of room in it to give one pride. Yet my heart was so stubborn, that even in a good situation it shows bad fruit. I would find myself discussing with someone who did not understand me, in light of which my head said “it’s ok, just love them” but my heart, frustrated to no end, would cast me as an intellectually superior hero. Even now this is hard to deal with, I hardly call people stupid, and know that I know nothing. Yet, how do you deal with another person, who is clearly and provably wrong, but refuses to budge? It used to be frustration and self-elevation, not it is slowly becoming kindness and patience. By God’s grace, over the last two years, my hearts theology has been catching up to my brain theology.
I am not done, I am still a work in progress, but I trust Jesus will complete me.
Two choices: Join me in sin or in repentance
Why did I write this? Did I have a splendid moment where I realized “I was wrong and everyone was right? Hardly, this has been a deep seated struggle for many years, and by God’s grace I will keep fighting it. As for the” others,” most people I’ve interacted with have been just as guilty of this as myself. I would hope my honesty could help bring out repentance in many.
What is your response at this point? I would hope that you join me in repenting. Though, of course, you can cast the first stone at me, I would plead with you to find a truer way. For, no doubt, you will soon stand in my place, also surrounded by those who would throw stones at you. You see, we all have gone astray, and we all sin this way, though not all of us have yet seen and understood. If you have at times interacted and disagreed with me on something, I understand this is a perfect opportunity for you to point your finger and highlight the serious brokenness within me. Yet I urge you to join me in repentance, otherwise you join me in that sin of pride that was just described. There is no middle ground.