6 Insights from C.S. Lewis on Why Pride Is the Greatest Sin

It was early 1941. England had survived the Blitz, a series of massive German air attacks that included a systematic bombing of London for 57 days and nights. The cost had been great, with tens of thousands of civilians killed and a million houses destroyed or damaged. While the threat of an invasion of the United Kingdom seemed unlikely, the rattled British population faced the likelihood of a long and bloody war.

To reassure people, the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) decide to expand its religious broadcasting to include some short, 10- to 15-minute talks by an Oxford fellow named C.S. Lewis.

The BBC’s director of religious broadcasting had been impressed by Lewis’s apologetic work The Problem of Pain and figured that Lewis could share his quality of thinking, and depth of conviction, over the airwaves. Lewis agreed. And, in August of 1941, he started the first of four series of weekly radio addresses.

Because had been an atheist for many years and had become a Christian fairly recently, Lewis could empathize with those who struggled with the Christian faith or some aspects of it. So, his first two sets of talks focused on apologetics, or reasoned arguments in support of Christianity, and were later published in the U.S. as The Case for Christianity

In the fall of 1942, his third series of talks covered Christian behavior, including morality, sexual morality, forgiveness, faith, and “The Great Sin.”

What is the great sin? What sin is worse than any other?

C.S. Lewis replied to this question with clarity:

There is one vice of which no man in the world is free; which everyone in the world loathes when he sees it in someone else and of which hardly any people, except Christians, ever imagine that they are guilty themselves. There is no fault which makes a man more unpopular, and no fault which we are more unconscious of in ourselves. And the more we have it ourselves, the more we dislike it in others.

According to Christian teachers, the essential vice, the utmost evil, is Pride. Unchastity, anger, greed, drunkenness, and all that, are mere fleabites in comparison. It was through pride that the Devil became the Devil: Pride leads to every other vice. It is the complete anti-God state of mind.

Recognizing that some in his audience would object, Lewis spent the rest of his talk giving reasons why pride is the worst of all sins. Here they are:

1. A proud person has to be “better” than everyone else.

Do you struggle with pride? Lewis started with a simple test: the more pride you have, the more you dislike it in others.

How do you feel when you are snubbed, or unnoticed, or patronized, or shown up by someone else? If you are proud, then you get very upset when someone else “wins.” Says, C.S. Lewis:

Pride gets no pleasure out of having something, only out of having more of it than the next man. We say that people are proud of being rich, or clever, or good-looking, but they are not. They are proud of being richer, or cleverer, or better-looking than others. If someone else became equally rich, or clever, or good-looking there would be nothing to be proud about. It is the comparison that makes you proud: the pleasure of being above the rest.

2. A proud person is never satisfied.

Competing with others is not always a sign of pride. For example, when resources are scarce, people often compete with each other for those resources. A proud person, however, will try to get more, even when he already has more than he needs. Many sins, such as greed and selfishness, are the result of pride, explains Lewis. Lewis says:

Take it with money. Greed will certainly make a man want money, for the sake of a better house, better holidays, better things to eat and drink. But only up to a point. What is it that makes a man with $10,000 a year anxious to get $20,000 a year? It is not the greed for more pleasure. $10,000 will give all the luxuries that any man can really enjoy. It is Pride—the wish to be richer than some other rich man, and (still more) the wish for power.

3. A proud person craves power.

Power, says Lewis, is what pride really enjoys. A proud person wants to feel superior to others, and power over others feeds a superiority complex. According to Lewis, we can see the quest for power in everything from a beautiful woman who tries to amass admirers to a political leader who demands more and more influence and control.

The pride-fueled quest for power leads to enmity between people. Says Lewis:

If I am a proud man, then as long as there in one man in the whole world more powerful, or richer or cleverer than I, he is my rival and my enemy.

Lewis characterized pride as the chief cause of misery in every nation and every family since the world began. While other vices, such as drunkenness, sometimes brings people together, pride never does. It drives people apart.

4. Pride makes you God’s enemy.

Pride not only makes people enemies with each other – it also makes people enemies with God. Says Lewis:

In God you come up against something which is in every respect immeasurably superior to yourself. Unless you know God as that—and, therefore, know yourself as nothing in comparison—you do not know God at all.

As long as you are proud you cannot know God. A proud man is always looking down on things and people: and, of course, as long as you are looking down, you cannot see something that is above you.

That raises a terrible question. How is it that people who are quite obviously eaten up with pride can say they believe in God and appear to themselves very religious? I am afraid it means they are worshiping an imaginary God. They theoretically admit themselves to be nothing in the presence of this phantom God, but are really all the time imagining how He approves of them and thinks them far better than ordinary people: that is, they pay a pennyworth of imaginary humility to Him and get out of it a pound's worth of pride towards their fellow-men.

I suppose it was of those people Christ was thinking when He said that some would preach about Him and cast out devils in His name, only to be told at the end of the world that He had never known them. And any of us may at any moment be in this death-trap.

5. Pride makes you vulnerable to the Devil.

Vices other than pride, says Lewis, come from the Devil working on us through our animal nature. Pride, on the other hand, is purely spiritual and, consequently, far more subtle and deadly.

One way to fall into the Devil’s trap is to use pride to overcome simpler vices. Says Lewis:

Teachers, in fact, often appeal to a boy's pride, or, as they call it, his self-respect, to make him behave decently. Many a man has overcome cowardice, or lust, or ill-temper, by learning to think that they are beneath his dignity—that is, by pride. The Devil laughs. He is perfectly content to see you becoming chaste and brave and self-controlled...provided, all the time, he is setting up in you the Dictatorship of Pride—just as he would be quite content to see your chilbains cured if he was allowed, in return, to give you cancer. For pride is spiritual cancer: it eats up the very possibility of love, or contentment, or even common sense.

6. You can be blind to your own pride.

In his talk, Lewis emphasizes that pleasure in being praised is not pride. In many situations, there is nothing wrong with trying (and succeeding) in pleasing someone. Lewis characterizes vanity, or seeing and reveling in praise from others, as the least bad type of pride because it demonstrates that “you are not yet completely contented with your own admiration.”

Problems begin, however, when you begin to delight less in the praise and more in yourself:

The real black, diabolical pride, comes when you look down on others so much that you do not care what they think of you. Of course, it is very right, and often our duty, not to care what people think of us, if we do so for the right reason; namely, because we care so incomparably more what God thinks.

But the proud man has a different reason for not caring. He says ‘…All I have done has been done to satisfy my own ideals—or my artistic conscience—or the traditions of my family—or, in a word, because I'm That Kind of Chap. If the mob like it, let them. They're nothing to me.'”

How does one acquire humility?

The first step, Lewis says, is to realize that you are proud. If you don’t think you are conceited, then you are very conceited indeed.

According to Lewis, a humble person will strike you as “a cheerful, intelligent chap who took a real interest in what you said to him. If you do dislike him it will be because you feel a little envious of anyone who seems to enjoy life so easily. He will not be thinking about humility: he will not be thinking about himself at all.”

For more on C.S. Lewis, visit the C.S. Lewis website (www.cslewis.com) and read George Marsden’s book C. S. Lewis’s “Mere Christianity”: A Biography. (Both were sources for this piece.) To read C.S. Lewis’s radio addresses, get a copy of the book Mere Christianity.


headshot of author Chris BolingerChris Bolinger is the author of Daily Strength for Men, a 365-day devotional published by BroadStreet Publishing and available at Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Christian Book Distributors, DailyStrengthForMen.com, and other retailers.

Photo Credit: ©Unsplash/Peter Forster

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