Someone recently wrote me the following:
Can you please give us a word regarding the topic of “how to overcome thoughts of pride in our hearts that inevitably come after labouring on good works for our families and people around us.”
I have been struggling with that lately. How is it that we can reach a point where we don’t count and remember the good we have done for others?
I would appreciate it if there are any councils from Sts. Barsanuphius and John on this topic.
Since proud thoughts are a very common problem, although they take different forms, I’d like to comment on it. Unfortunately, I don’t have a specific quote from Sts. Barsanuphius and John. There are 844 letters, and if I were to underline every significant sentence, half the book would be underlined (the other half is also significant, but too profound for me to understand). However, this shouldn’t be a problem, if your willing to take my word for it because this is a struggle that not only Barsanuphius and John write about, but also many other Orthodox Fathers write about.
Furthermore, this is a struggle that I also experience. I don’t like to give spiritual advice about things I have only read and heard about. Luckily (or unluckily), this is a struggle I have a lot of experience with.
The struggle with pride takes many forms, but one of the most common forms that devout Orthodox Christians experience is really a two-pronged demonic attack. Using the scenario mentioned above, I will describe what the attack looks like.
Before I do the good work, thoughts nag at me like the following:
“I don’t have to do it”
“It’s my turn to take a break”
“It’s not fair that I always do it”
And as I think about such thoughts—and these are just examples, there are thousands of variations—as I think about such thoughts I get angry. And the more angry I get, the more the thoughts torment me and become a vicious cycle of thoughts and feelings.
However, if I overcome the first attack and do the kind, helpful, loving or gracious thing for my family member or person close to me, immediately the thoughts change and now they sound something like this:
“My sister (wife, brother, friend) doesn’t realize how lucky s/he is to have me in their life”
“S/he had better thank me this time”
“I must be progressing in my spiritual life”
“I did a good job overcoming those bad thoughts in the beginning”
Again these are just a few of the thousands of variations these prideful, second-prong thoughts can take. These thoughts produce a very different kind of feeling. Instead of anger, these thoughts make me feel good about myself, feel happy and proud of myself, feel as though I have earned God’s favour.
These thoughts and feelings are much more dangerous than the first set. It’s usually pretty easy for us to notice that something is wrong when we are angry—even if we think or feel that we have a right to be angry. But when we have the feeling of being right, the feeling that we are pleasing God, then we have to watch out because that’s exactly what pride and self-righteousness feels like.
Jesus instructed his Disciples that when they had done what was right (what was commanded of them) that they were to say to themselves only, “We are unprofitable servants; we have done only what was our duty to do” (Luke 17:10). I think this verse is one of the reasons why the Church Fathers recommend that we constantly recite the Jesus Prayer: “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me the sinner.”
Of course even prayer can be fodder for the demons’ attacks on our mind. We can be proud that we have prayed. I have even experienced thoughts of pride for my supposed humility.
All of these confused thoughts and feelings is what the Church calls spiritual warfare. And the important thing to remember is that the warfare in my mind is not me. So long as I am resisting or trying to discern my thoughts, my thoughts are not me. My thoughts only become me when I accept them, but even then I can repent. Sometimes I accept a thought, usually accompanied by a feeling, only to slowly realize that the thought/feeling is inappropriate. When I realize it, I repent. I change my mind and ask for forgiveness.
My spiritual father is a hermit monk, yet he constantly tells me that the “trenches” of spiritual warfare are in family life. Loving those we live with is hard work, and it produces confusing and conflicting thoughts. But it is this very warfare in our thoughts that transforms us into the image of Christ. As we struggle to love in our words and actions, we also have to struggle with the flood of conflicting thoughts and feelings.
Sometimes the thoughts and feelings try to keep us from doing the loving thing and urge us to speak unkind words. However, sometimes the thoughts and feelings urge us to a self-satisfied self righteousness and pride. We forget that even when we do well, we are merely doing our duty, we are only doing what God has given us to do.
What has helped me immensely in this spiritual warfare in my mind is the thought that, in the end, whatever I do is not really between me and my loved one. It’s between me and God. When I remember this, then whenever a thought of pride or laziness or boredom or selfishness that comes to me, I can take the thought immediately to God. The issue is not the situation or the people, the issue concerns my relationship with God, and I need to let my relationship with God determine what I do and how I think about it. It’s not easy, but what do we expect? It’s warfare.
Now as to the part of the question that asks if we ever get to the place where we no longer count or remember the good we do to others: my word is, I don’t know. It has been reported that some saints have gotten there, but for most of us, I think spiritual warfare in our thoughts will be with us until the end of our lives. In fact, many Church fathers say this very thing: that we should not expect to experience anything but struggle in this life.
Actually, I have accepted this for myself and it has made the struggle a little easier. Since I expect to have conflicting thoughts, I am not as much disturbed when I experience them. I just deal with it. And, in fact, I think over time I have gotten a little better at dealing with it. Not that I don’t continue to experience proud, lazy, lustful and sinful thoughts. It’s just that with practice I recognize them a bit sooner in the process and generally (but not always) deal with them sooner. And as a result, the roller coaster ride of feelings is not as extreme as it used to be.
I’d like to end with a longish word by Mother Teresa of Calcutta. I know she isn’t Orthodox, but this word she gave truly is Orthodox:
People are often unreasonable, irrational and self-centred: Forgive them anyway.
If you are kind, people may accuse you of selfish, ulterior motives: Be kind anyway.
If you are successful, you will win some unfaithful friends and some genuine enemies: Succeed anyway.
If you are honest and sincere people may deceive you: Be honest and sincere anyway.
What you spent years creating, others could destroy overnight: Create anyway.
If you find serenity and happiness, some may be jealous: Be happy anyway.
The good you do today will often be forgotten: Do good anyway.
Give the best you have, and it will never be enough: Give your best anyway.
In the final analysis, it is between you and God: It was never between you and them anyway.