Lent is a season of fasting and repentance in preparation for Easter. This season, situated in the grey dregs of winter, reflects on sin in anticipation of the celebration of our redemption in the Easter feast. We are mindful of our fallenness in order to turn away from sin and towards Christ.
In Roman Catholicism, a distinction is made between mortal and venial sins, with mortal sins compiled in a neat list of seven: wrath, greed, pride, sloth, envy, lust and gluttony. In Reformed Protestantism, the sin of pride has been given top billing.
The term “pride” has a specific theological meaning that differs from its colloquial usage. A sense of accomplishment at a job well done is not the sin of pride. The sin of pride is the attempt to justify one’s own life. To give one’s life value through one’s own efforts. Or perhaps more starkly, to make oneself worthy in the eyes of God.
This might not sound like such a bad thing. Shouldn’t we all strive to do good in the world? To craft lives of beauty and purpose? In the United States, we love the idea of pulling ourselves up by our own bootstraps. The notion is that if we work hard enough at anything, we will succeed. This kind of if/then, effort/success thinking seeps into our theology. If we are good enough, God will love us.
Yet, God’s love cannot be earned. As Desmond Tutu writes, “God does not love us because we are loveable. We are lovable precisely because God loves us.”
On a practical level, pride is a hamster-wheel of anxious striving. On a theological level, pride is a usurpation of the place of God. Instead of recognizing that our value in the world is given to us by God, we attempt to secure that value for ourselves. We conjure carrot and stick to convince ourselves that the outcome of the race is in our control. Furthermore, once we imagine God’s regard as a goal to achieve, it quickly blurs with other goals of human achievement, such as financial security or professional success. The love of God becomes like any other carrot, gold star or finish line.
The call of Christian life is not to earn God’s love, but to respond to it. Tutu states, “I know that the space is very small between ‘I am doing it in response to love’ and ‘I am doing it to be loved.’ But in that space resides the difference between joy-filled peace and despair.”
The anxious striving of pride has a flip side: sloth. Where pride is a form of self-aggrandizement, sloth is a form of self-abnegation. It is the refusal to accept oneself as a child of God. If the proud attempt to win a race of their own construction, the slothful assume they are disqualified from competition. Unwilling or unable to accept the love of God, the slothful cannot respond to it fully. This, too, is a rejection of God’s valuation of human life.
Sloth and pride are both ways of rejecting God’s love. Because they are so connected, I can swing back and forth between them in quick succession. I am a terrible person because I am so behind on all my very important work! My inadequacies have huge consequences because so much depends on me! Self-loathing and self-importance are equal denials of my identity as a child of God.
As human beings, our value, worth and deepest identity is given to us as a gift from God. Presbyterian theologian David Kelsey uses the phrase “eccentric existence” to convey that the heart of who we are comes to us as gift from beyond ourselves. Theologians parse this in many ways, drawing on different doctrinal and biblical resources. Desmond Tutu published a book called “Made for Goodness” with his daughter, Mpho Tutu, who is also an Anglican priest. The Tutus look to the creation accounts in Genesis to describe humanity as made in the image and likeness of God, created by and for God, and declared very good by God. They write, “We are animated and held in life by the very breath of God.” Always Christological, Karl Barth grounds his understanding of humanity in Jesus. It is in Christ the “new man” that we receive the gift of our own identity and freedom. Karl Rahner, a Roman Catholic theologian influential in Vatican II, describes the “innermost constitutive element” of the human person as the gift of Godself, given and accepted in the indwelling of the Holy Spirit. However it is explicated — with reference to God as creator, Christ or Holy Spirit — the heart of who we are as human is that we are loved by God.
Pride and sloth are two sides of the same coin, and it is a wooden nickel. The only true tender comes from God. Our own and only value can be neither earned nor lost, but is given. God loves us. Our worth is gifted, to each and all of us. We cannot lord it over others because it is not of our own making. For precisely the same reason, we cannot undo it, even with our deep denials. Even in the grey dregs of winter, we are perfectly loved. Reflecting on our sinfulness in the season of Lent is a discipline of noticing our self-distortions, when we imagine that our value is in our own hands. Likewise, it is a discipline of remembering our true worth and identity is held safely in the hands of God.
SHANNON CRAIGO-SNELL is professor of theology at Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary. Her most recent book is “The Empty Church: Theater, Theology, and Bodily Hope.”