Looking back from my perspective as a – ahem – mature adult, I can certainly appreciate St. Augustine’s youthful prayer, “Lord grant me chastity and continence . . . but not yet.”
What healthy young person isn’t gripped by the biological necessities of procreation – our God-imparted desires to be fruitful, multiply, and to be in full communion with another? It’s more than a pleasant obsession, it’s our life-force; it’s a dynamic transmission of our physical being; and it’s how we partner with God in His creation – in its proper venue.
Almost all things that tempt us are good, because all things created by God are “good.” Sex, food, even money, among other things, are not only good, they are to a greater or lesser extent necessary. But each can be easily abused, each can become an obsessive force in our lives so powerful that they overtake our senses and our sensibilities. And, all too often, each can take on a life of its own, causing us to act in hurtful, deceitful, and abusive ways towards ourselves and others.
As we age, our priorities and the physical things that most incessantly tempt us tend to shift, sometimes dramatically so, sometimes replaced by things far less tangible. Our youthful lust for the flesh might instead transmute into one for excessive riches for its own sake, or for fame, or for power. Napoleon Hill – of Think and Grow Rich fame – referred to this change as “the mystery of sex transmutation” which he defined as the “switching of the mind from thoughts of physical expression to thoughts of some other kind” – a powerful, creative force that Hill recognized could, if thoughtfully undertaken and channeled, help us to define and ultimately achieve our success. (Of course, in this age of Viagra and Cialis, one wonders whether we are losing that later-stage, productive edge as boomer-age men all too often seek instead to prolong an unnatural state of enhanced longevity, performance, and agelessness – but that’s a subject for another day.) Unchecked, this transmutation can itself foster new, even more powerful obsessions and temptations.
But at some point in our lives we may actually find ourselves with “enough.” Perhaps we have achieved a certain level of financial security and physical success. Maybe we have obtained enough in the way of material comforts and earthly companionship. Or maybe we have simply given up trying and have grown too tired or too old to care. Our once driving physical and intangible lusts may no longer be worthy of our full-time pursuit.
So what remains? Often jealousy, many times anger, and almost always pride or hubris crossing over into unbridled narcissism – with pride seemingly the root cause of the other two. In fact, pride may well be the “last temptation,” the sum of all the others against which we are forever doing battle. And many of us will die still fighting the good fight against it.
I’m neither a psychologist nor a theologian, but I suspect that pride may well cover a multitude of other emotions, failings, and temptations, especially in men. We are often our most arrogant when we are the most insecure. Eve’s temptation, and in turn Adam’s, was rooted in a pride that sought to secure for themselves a place in the world that rivaled God Himself rather than remain, as they feared, dependent little children. And their undoing was but a small scale account of the greater cosmic battle that had earlier sent a prideful Lucifer and his minions crashing into earth. It also foreshadowed the prideful and vengeful rage that would soon swell in a murderous Cain.
Pride is such an effective and oppressive tool of temptation that it may even block our very recognition of God’s grace. It could well be one of the darkest forces residing within the human heart. It exposes the battle between what God has called “good” and what He has not. Much like a concrete barrier, pride stands between us and all that God has to offer. It is the last, the most effective, the most powerful temptation.
But therein lies the good news, for this barrier has already been breached, the veil has been torn, the fall has been reversed, and the world and everything in it has been set to rights. But we have to know where to look:
Have among yourselves the same attitude that is also yours in Christ Jesus,
Who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God
something to be grasped. Rather, he emptied himself, taking the form of a
slave, coming in human likeness; and found human in appearance he humbled
himself becoming obedient to death, even death on a cross (Philippians 2:5-8)
Pride is such a formidable barrier between Heaven and mankind that a kind, loving, and compassionate God chose to humble Himself, at a great price, to point the way back home. Loving God above all else, loving our neighbor as ourselves, refusing to store up earthly treasures or placing our hopes in them, exercising disciplined power to submit in meekness but never weakness, reacting in all things with true love and humility, becoming, at last, like little children – these are the deliberate acts and conscious choices of one determined to deprive hubris of the very oxygen on which it thrives.
St. Paul framed it nicely, I think, in Romans 12:3: “For by the grace given to me I tell everyone among you not to think of himself more highly than one ought to think, but to think soberly, each according to the measure of faith that God has apportioned.”
With thoughtful effort, heartfelt prayer, and a constant awareness of God’s presence in our lives, pride’s destructive grip over us may finally be loosened. Christ’s life and death showed us the way. We need but start our walk on the path to which He points.
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