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The mother of all sins

Why do the Holy Fathers say that pride is the mother of all sins? Amelia analyzes the nature of ten categories of sins, including the seven known as "deadly," and explains what pride has to do with each.
The holy fathers say that pride is the mother of all sins. Interestingly, it's also the flaw we most often have difficulty identifying. Upon enough introspection, though, we’ll always be able to find traces of pride within ourselves because it's the one sin that enables us to commit all others.


Some people are angry because they hate themselves. Others are angry because they've been provoked. No matter what the cause, anger is the feeling of wanting to punish somebody for something they've done, or sometimes for how they've reacted to something we've done. The problem with anger and the violence that results from it is one of authority: We don't have a God-given right to get back at anyone. Revenge belongs to God alone (Romans 12:19; Hebrews 10:30). When we attempt to share that right with Him, it's like we're saying we're His equal or, at the very least, that we’re superior to the person at whom our anger is directed. Even though that person may have wronged us in one way or another, he or she is still a child of God, just as we are. Anger elevates us to a seemingly higher status than others, one that tells us that our anger is justified and that the other person deserves to be on its receiving end. When we allow ourselves to feel this way, our anger is built on a foundation of pride.


Like anger, lust is a sin that involves more than one person. Unlike anger, though, the sin of lust is usually committed under the guise of love. In The Ladder of Divine Ascent (15:23-24), Saint John Climacus points out that we can't argue with the demon of lust and expect to win. Moreover, when we lose an argument to lust, we find ourselves doubly guilty—not just for stains we've left on our own soul, but also for contributing to the staining of someone else's. To tempt someone toward fornication, adultery, or unbridled or unnatural passion isn't a sign of love, although we might mistakenly think it is. In reality, it's the same as saying: "My body's urges are more important than what God wants for your soul or mine." Placing our sinful desires on a pedestal—perceiving them as more important than God's will or the condition of the other person's soul—is another example of pride.


Lust doesn't always have to involve carnal desires. We can be lustful over food and drink, lustful with our emotions, and lustful on shopping sprees. Gluttony is simply the act of indulging in our various lustful fantasies. It's why some people are morbidly obese, others are hapless drunks, others are clingy and co-dependent, and others always have to have the most and the best. This is one of the spiritual sicknesses that can lead to addiction (although addiction certainly can have other spiritual causes). When we're busy being overindulgent, we forget that we're supposed to live according to the desires of the soul, not the flesh. Our flesh wants what's here and now, but our souls yearn for God, Who's eternal. By his or her actions, the glutton says to God: "I'll pay attention to the things You said about temperance and moderation later; right now, I have a craving to satisfy." When we think this way, whether we express the thought directly or just live according to it, we reveal that we feel entitled to certain satisfactions. Entitlement is a form of pride.


A close cousin to gluttony is greed. With gluttony, we feel like we can't get enough of something; with greed, the mere thought of getting some is a treat. Greed is an initial fantasy that can propel subsequent sinful actions. Since greed is the desire behind those actions (as opposed to an action itself), it knows no limits. When a greedy desire grows unchecked, we begin thinking we're entitled to having whichever things we want. Despite our most valiant efforts, however, a greedy appetite can never be fully satisfied; it'll always crave more. In trying to satisfy it anyway, we end up denying ourselves the spiritual sustenance that we actually do need. When we endlessly chase things that we have no chance of catching, given that the desires will keep evolving, we show God that the fulfillment of our desires is what matters most to us. This is another glimpse into our pride.


When our greed can't be satisfied, we become envious of the people who have what we want, are doing what we want to do, married whomever we wanted to marry, and so forth. Jesus said that one of the two greatest commandments is that we love our neighbors as we would love ourselves, and the holy fathers teach that jealousy stems from a lack of such love. When we're jealous, the love we feel is for ourselves more than for anyone else. Rather than sharing in others' happiness over what they've achieved, we feel like we're more deserving of those things than they are. This is doing the exact opposite of what God has commanded. When our happiness for others is overshadowed by our sadness over what we don't have but think we deserve, the bitterness we feel is the result of pride.


A number of sins fall into this category—procrastination, idleness, boredom—but they're all forms of basic laziness. We likely have many excuses for not doing whatever we're supposed to do, but the bottom line is that we're ignoring our day-to-day responsibilities. God gives us obligations, both to Him and to other people. When we make excuses for not fulfilling them, we show God that we really don't care. Telling the Lord that we don't feel like doing the things He expects of us is another manifestation of pride.


Because to worry involves suffering, sometimes people think it's a sign of humility or holiness, especially when the worry is for a person we love. However, worrying is actually a sin because it's an effort in vain. We can't accomplish or prevent anything from happening by worrying. Some things are within our control, and we're responsible for taking care of those things on time so we never get to the point of worry in the first place. Other things are beyond our control—the jobs that belong to God. When something is God's business, to worry over it is to say that we don't trust Him. Instead of worrying, we should ask Him for help, and it's also very important to believe He'll come through. To think that we're in this alone, and to squander our efforts on trying to prove so, is a reflection of vanity and pride.


Everyone feels sad now and then, and there's no shame in that. But when sadness turns into hopelessness or self-pity, a spiritual problem is always to blame. When we focus all of our attention inwardly—on ourselves and how awful we feel, we've taken our thoughts away from God and our compassion away from other people. Moreover, when we have no hope of ever getting better, we're denying God the opportunity to help us with whatever most needs His help. To turn to God and say: "This is too much for me; please help," is a sign of humility, but pushing God away by saying: "I don't need You; I can do this on my own," is the voice of pride. (Note: If we're depressed, obviously we aren't doing too well on our own.)


We usually know exactly what we want, but we often don't like waiting for it to arrive. Whether we're waiting for God to provide it or someone else, we ought to feel grateful that whatever satisfaction we're expecting is on its way. But how can we be grateful if we're thinking: "I know you're doing something nice for me, but do it faster!" The stress of impatiently waiting for something to happen stands in the way of our ability to be grateful for it. When we've been blessed not only to receive but to know we're going to receive something we desire, we need to focus on gratitude and Christian joy. If we don't, our focus is one of pride.

Pure pride.

Finally, there are some sins for which there's no other explanation except pure, arrogant pride. Every good and perfect gift is from God (James 1:17), not from within ourselves or to the credit of our own capabilities. After all, without God, we're capable of absolutely nothing (Deuteronomy 32:39; John 15:5). When we take credit for things we couldn't have achieved without God's help, not to mention the help of other people, where's our gratitude? Are we ascribing glory to the Lord Who makes every opportunity possible, or are we trying to glorify ourselves? Are we being humble or proud?

Saint Tikhon of Zadonsk said that every gift of God turns to ruin when we use it not for God's glory but for our own. If we can see ourselves in any of the above examples, we're using our gifts to fulfill our own sinful passions and not to glorify God. It doesn't matter what the situation-specific details are; glorifying ourselves and believing that we're in a higher position of ability or importance than God is shameful. It's our pride talking.

If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us.
— 1 John 1:8

When we search our hearts for all the ways we've sinned, we should be especially careful that our pride doesn't try to cover them up. Pride is the most poisonous of all the passions because it makes us think we haven't done anything wrong, based on the incorrect idea that we have the right to do whatever we want. Pride gives us permission to commit all other sins.

Just the same, the more humble we are, the easier it is to see and confess our other errors. If pride is the mother of all sins, then it follows that humility is the mother of all virtues. The Scriptures remind us: Humble yourselves in the sight of the Lord, and he shall lift you up (James 4:10). We should always seek to be humble because, indeed, our true position before God is a lowly one. When we recognize this position and live humbly according to it, we can trust that the Lord will reward us for it both in this life and in the next.