O Captain My Captain
I am increasingly realizing that pride is not a sin of ambition, but a sin of delusion. This is a valuable revelation to me, for pride is my greatest temptation. If there is a point on which Christ and my nature are most at odds, it is here. From my perspective, it is a virtue. Indeed, my natural system of morality is based upon it. Certain sins I consider beneath me, certain virtues worthy of me pursuing them. When I fail or do not measure up to what is required, it is my pride that urges me to improve. Pride, I might think, is the noblest feature I have – the urge to be the best human being I possibly can be, and a pleasure at my progress towards that goal.
Why, then, is Christianity so hard on what seems to me to be the most sterling of all virtues? Here I do not see pride praised for causing men to strive for greatness. Instead I see Isaiah 14 – “How you have fallen from heaven, morning star, son of the dawn! You have been cast down to the earth, you who once laid low the nations! You said in your heart, ‘I will ascend to the heavens; I will raise my throne above the stars of God; I will sit enthroned on the mount of assembly, on the utmost heights of Mount Zaphon. I will ascend above the tops of the clouds; I will make myself like the Most High.’ But you are brought down to the realm of the dead, to the depths of the pit.”
Yet it seems to me that man’s quest to become like God is the noblest quest possible. The journey for perfection, fulfillment, enlightenment – this is what our culture reveres. And yet, when man attempts to achieve greatness, he is thrown down “to the depths of the pit.” It is tempting to believe that God is threatened by our attempts at perfection, striking us down lest we overthrow him.
But this cannot be true, for elsewhere we are told that “God created man in his own image,” and that we are called to “be perfect, even as our heavenly Father is perfect” (Genesis 1, Matthew 5). Either God is a hypocrite, or there is a deeper meaning that we are missing.
For God to not be contradicting Himself there must be some contexts or ways in which it is virtuous to strive to become more like Him and others in which it is not, or – to put it another way – certain aspects of His nature we are called to emulate and others we are not. And here we come to an interesting facet of the Christian God. Not only is he composed of the Trinity, three aspects of Godhead in one Deity; those aspects are also all very different while still being called “perfect.” One the one hand, we see God the Father, source of all authority and glory and majesty, who is above all kings and nations; on the other we see Jesus Christ the Son, utterly obedient to his Father, doing only that which the Father sends him to do, even unto death.
So the Christian God is the synthesis of these opposites, of glory and humility, of authority and obedience. And so we begin to see the solution to our problem. If perfection takes two different forms – one of perfect authority, the other of perfect servitude – then our pursuit of perfection can take two different forms as well. And this is where Christianity truly parts ways with the world: not in the pursuit of excellence, but in what form of excellence we ought to pursue.
Self-dominion is the cornerstone of my natural thought processes outside of Christ. I control my own destiny, it is my will that determines my decisions. I may rule myself justly, imposing certain standards, but it is important that I do the ruling. I am responsible for my ethics, my actions, my success, and feel justified in my pride when I achieve excellence and more complete self-control. None of this smells of sin to me – indeed, it feels noble to envision Man as captain of his own fate, on a determined odyssey to remake Himself in a more perfect image.
And yet this is not what Christianity offers us. Yes, we are captains of our fate, but we are deaf and blind and our ship is heading for the reef. We have been given this captaincy in order that we might freely and willingly turn it over to the true Captain, surrender our ship and precious authority that the odyssey may be completed. We will be remade in His image, not our own, and we will not be remade by attempting to be as good a captain as our Leader, but by striving to be perfect in our obedience to Him. Then, in the sweetest irony in all of Christianity, we will become like Him. When we – blind and deaf and power-hungry as we are – give up authority, then we will be made whole and have our authority returned to us, and just as our Captain rules us perfectly, we will obey Him perfectly, and thus be perfect as He is perfect.
This is the sin of pride – not a desire to see our odyssey completed, but a determination to be at the helm when we arrive. It is not a threat to God’s superiority or sovereignty, but a threat to our own salvation. Chained to the wheel as we are, we are doomed; thanks be to the God who frees us!