There’s an axiom which says that nothing feels better than virtue. There’s a deep truth here, but it has an underside. When we do good things we feel good about ourselves. Virtue is indeed its own reward, and that’s good. However, feeling righteous can soon enough turn into feeling self-righteous. Nothing feels better than virtue; but self-righteousness feels pretty good too.
We see this famously expressed in Jesus’s parable of the Pharisee and the publican. The Pharisee is practising virtue. His actions are exactly what they should be. But what this produces in him is not humility or a sense of his need for God and mercy, but self-righteousness and a critical judgment of others. So too for all of us, we easily become the Pharisee. Whenever we look at another person who’s struggling and say, there but for the grace of God go I, our seemingly humble gratitude can indicate two very different things. It can be expressing a sincere thanks for having been undeservedly blessed or can just as easily be expressing a smug self-righteousness about our own sense of superiority.
Classical spiritual writers like John of the Cross, when talking about the challenges we face as we walk the way of discipleship, speak about something they call the faults of those who are beyond initial conversion. What they highlight is this: we are never free from the struggle with sin. As we mature, sin simply takes on ever more subtle modalities inside us. For example, before initial maturity what we’ve classically called the seven deadly sins (pride, greed, envy, lust, anger, gluttony and sloth) express themselves in us in ways that are normally pretty crass and overt.
We see this in children, adolescents and the immature. For them, pride is plainly pride, jealousy is jealousy, selfishness is selfishness, lust is lust and anger is anger. There’s nothing subtle or hidden here. The fault is out in the open.
But as we overcome these sins in their crasser forms, they invariably take on more subtle forms in our lives. So that now, for instance, when we’re humble we become proud and self-righteous in our humility. Witness: nobody can be more smug and judgmental than a new convert or someone in first fervour.
But sin too has its complexities. Some of our naïve ideas about sin and humility also needed to be critically examined. For example, we sometimes nurse the romantic notion that sinners are humble, aware of their need for forgiveness and open to God. In fact, as a generalisation, this is true for the Gospels. As Jesus was preaching, it was the Pharisees that struggled more with his person and message, whereas the sinners, the tax collectors and prostitutes, were more open to him.
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