To Avoid Spiritual Deception, Be Humble

To Avoid Spiritual Deception, Be Humble September 7, 2011

Every age has their own spiritual deficiencies. The present age with its unseemly promotion of individualism is quickly overcome with the sin of pride, a pride which has brought so many people to spiritual delusion (prelest). We have been given great access to the knowledge and wisdom of the ages, but with our pride, we do not know how to access it and apply it for our own spiritual edification. We want to know and then show off what we know. We want to prove to others how superior we are, and we judge others inferior when their opinions, or their practices, do not seem to meet with our own expectations. So many Christians, having been given a little knowledge, and even a legitimate spiritual charism, nonetheless follow with society and its prideful propagation of the self, causing whatever good they might have been given to be used not for the good, but for their own self-destruction. The devil is in the details.

What is good can be abused; pride turns one away from the path of love, and the good which is given is turned into a tool of malevolence by those filled with pride. “It is impossible for a man who sticks to his own judgment and his own idea to submit himself and promote the good of his neighbor.”[1] Evidence of pride comes out when one uses spiritual goods without love, where compassion is lost and one’s self-importance is used to justify malice.  “Observe this last evil: pride is yoked with callous behavior, as humility is with compassion. When the righteous are praised for doing good works they humble themselves the more, without justifying themselves. When these others are accused of being devoid of compassion by Him who cannot lie, they do not humbly throw themselves to the ground, but answer back and justify themselves.”[2]

Doing particular good works, promoting particular spiritual practices, in and of themselves do not present someone as being holy. They are necessary preconditions for holiness, but many of the greatest sinners are known to engage great works of charity and spirituality. One can easily be led astray by praise. The devil, it is said, traps many souls through flattery:

But let us suppose that you faithfully and steadfastly follow the path of virtue, turning neither to the right nor to left: do not imagine that the enemy will leave you alone. No! In the extract I quoted from St. John of the Ladder, you have already heard that when the enemy sees that all his attempts to lead you into evil have failed, he follows you stealthily and flatters you, suggesting that your life is wholly pleasing to God. This is his last temptation. Our response to his flattery is self-opinion, self-importance and self-complacency, which give birth to vanity and pride; vanity robs our doings of all value, even if they are good, and pride makes us abhorrent to God. So watch and repel all such flattery of the enemy, nor let it reach the heart, but repulse it from the first moment it touches the ears of your soul.[3]

Humility is a much needed virtue in today’s world. We all need to remember we are nothing without grace.  We need to remember whatever good we have is a good we have been given: we are not self-subsistent. While one can be grateful of words of comfort given to us by others, humility reminds us that any praise given to us is to be seen as praise of what God has done in and through us. Pride helps us ignore ourselves, while we look upon others and judge them based upon the little good we see in our lives and where they do not have it. Pride pushes us to keep them down while promoting our own selves. Humility leads us to looks at others as our betters, and to consider ourselves as the first among sinners.

It is certainly a good thing that, in today’s day and age, people have been taught how to think. However, we must always remember the limitations we have when we think: there is so much more we do not know that others do know, we need their help and guidance in order to properly think. We cannot do all things ourselves. We cannot start with a blank slate and look into the world and grasp what is contained within it without leaning on others and what they have discovered of the world as well. We must not stand apart from other. We need them, and they need us, to come together in love and work together for the salvation of all.  Jesus said that his presence will be found in community, when two or three are gathered in his name; he told his disciples to love each other and to use that as proof to the world that they are his disciples. Pride cuts away communion as one thinks too much of oneself and finds more and more reason to separate oneself from everyone else. Pride leads one to think that any spiritual fruits they have attained verify their special status, leading them to ignore the need for self-correction. What is there to correct when they have shown such good in their life? Yet, this is exactly when one needs correction the most, lest one goes completely astray. St. John of the Cross points out how this kind of pride leads so many spiritual novices astray:

These beginners feel so fervent and diligent in their spiritual exercises and undertakings that a certain kind of secret pride is generated in them that begets a complacency with themselves and their accomplishments, even though holy works do of their very nature cause humility. Then they develop a somewhat vain – at times very vain – desire to speak of spiritual things in others’ presence, and sometimes even to instruct rather than be instructed; in their hearts they condemn others who do not seem to have the kind of devotion they would like them to have, and sometimes they give expression to this criticism like the pharisee who despised the publican while he boasted and praised God for the good deeds he himself accomplished [Lk. 18:11-12][4]

Spiritual delusion sets in when one sees some good in one’s life while not regulating it with humility. It leads one to think they have attained a great rank, while in truth, they have only begun their spiritual journey. If they want to continue forward, they need to learn humility. They need to stop judging others for their lacks. Yes, their spiritual practices might have led to a good spiritual state, but they must remember, the devil was greater than they and in his pride, he fell. It is his pride which leads him to seek out others and to destroy them, so as to feel good in himself. It is this pride which leads so many spiritual beginners to do the same, and thereby, fall into grave error. They like to interfere in the lives of others, to be critical of them, but there is hardly any sense of compassion in their words or deeds. They might claim they are doing it out of love, but the only love that motivates them is self-love. The way they break into someone else just to silence them through calumny indicates their desire for vainglory. Once someone else is brought low they can feel on high, as St John of the Cross also confirms:

The devil, desiring the growth of pride and presumption in these beginners, often increases their fervor and readiness to perform such works, and other ones, too. For he is quite aware that all these works and virtues are not only worthless for them, but even become vices. Some of these persons become so evil-minded that they do not want anyone except themselves to appear holy; and so by both word and deed they condemn and detract others whenever the occasion arises, seeing the little splinter in their brother’s eye and failing to consider the wooden beam in their own eye [Mt. 7:3]; they strain at the other’s gnat and swallow their own camel [Mt. 23:24]. [5]

While there might be a time and place to help people see through their sins, the way one does it is to help build them up, to take what is good and to use that as the foundation for other virtues. Grace perfects nature, and so the path in which grace work is the way in which we should work in the world. Grace comes to us through the kind love of God, so we must work with others, in patience, showing them love if we want to help them overcome some vice. It must not be overly harsh, nor must it be presumptuous as to the reason why someone is in vice. All one needs to know is how to love and show that love to others. Through love, grace can do its work. And since love requires giving of oneself in order for it to be love, it cannot be overstated that the path of love is one of humility. Without humility, we will fail to achieve the good we desire. With humility, we will love others without judgment, with pride we will accrue condemnation upon ourselves due to judgment. With humility, we will attain love which will cover a multitude of sins, but with pride, will only cover the intellect and hamper its ability to know God. So let us go forth humbly in the world, praying to God, “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy upon me a sinner,” look upon our own sins and mourn them, and let God do the rest.

[1] Dorotheos of Gaza, “Maxims on the Spiritual Life,” in Discourses & Sayings. Trans. Eric P. Wheeler (Kalamazoo, MI: Cistercian Publications, 1977), 251.

[2] St. Gregory Palamas, The Homilies. Trans. Christopher Veniamin with the assistance of The Monastery of St. John the Baptist Essex, England (Waymart, PA: Mount Thabor Publishing, 2009), 32.

[3] Lorenzo Scupoli, Unseen Warfare. Ed. Nicodemus of the Holy Mountain. Revised by Theophan the Recluse. Trans. E. Kadloubovsky and G.E.H. Palmer (London: Faber and Faber Limited, 1963), 114-5.

[4] St John of the Cross, The Dark Night in The Collected Works of St. John of the Cross. Trans. KJieran Kavanaugh, O.C.D. and Otilio Rodriguez, O.C.D. (Washington, DC: ICS Publications, 1991), 362-3.

[5] Ibid., 363.

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