The Bondage of Either/Or Spirituality

by David Prince May 30, 2019

In the preface to C.S. Lewis’s The Screwtape Letters, he describes “the mark of hell” as “the ruthless, sleepless, unsmiling concentration on the self.” Hell is the end of the road for the sin of pride, which is the root sin, the sin of sins. 

In the Bible, pride is not merely an abstract idea, but is pictured as manifesting itself in the heart, hands, and eyes. Pride brings corrupt speech (Prov. 8:13), insolence (Jer. 48:30), defiance of God (Jer. 50:29), indifference to the vulnerable (Ezek. 16:49), self-deception (Obad. 3), lust (1 John 2:16), and false trust in riches (1 Tim. 6:17). 

The heart of pride is self-centeredness. Self-centeredness, by definition, displaces God and his gospel from the center of our lives. Pride, because it centers on self, looks outside of self and only demands and uses all that is external. God and others become tools to use to serve and make much of self. The central fact about pride is that God opposes the proud and God will unquestionably bring it down (1 Pet. 5:5, James 4:6).

"For the Lord of hosts has a day against all that is proud and lofty, against all that is lifted up—and it shall be brought low … And the haughtiness of man shall be humbled, and the lofty pride of men shall be brought low, and the Lord alone will be exalted in that day." - Isaiah 2:12, 17

Since pride de-centers God and his gospel in favor of self, it creates a self-defined, either/or view of the world, that grasps whatever can be used to make oneself look better. The surprising reality is: both the legalist and the libertine are walking down the same path, albeit on opposite sides of the fence. Both legalism and libertinism have the same root, pride. What is billed as one’s convictions is really little more than an extension of a person’s own personality and preferences. In other words, what they can cling on to for self-justification. 

Consider that when what matters most to me is me, my response to criticism will either be indifference (Who cares what you think?) or I’ll be devastated and personally paralyzed by it (I can’t believe they would say that to me! I’m humiliated!). Also, consider the issue of confrontation when self is at the center of our thinking: we will either be looking for it (I’ll show my superiority!) or a fearful avoider of all confrontation (I need approval!). We often fail to recognize that each of these responses is rooted in prideful entitlement. Pride can only bring bondage and discontentment because you do not have the power to compel the world to affirm you on your terms.  

Pride causes us to think it is:

  • Grace or Truth
  • Weakness or Strength
  • People to Love or Enemies to Defeat
  • Saved or Sinner
  • Free or Guilty​

Only centering our lives on the gospel brings freedom and contentment. The gospel that unites us with Christ and saves us from an eternal hell also redefines every category of our lives, as we determine, like Paul, to know nothing among anyone “except Christ and him crucified” (1 Cor. 2:2). Paul made that declaration to a church that had displaced the gospel from the center of the church community. For Paul, gospel-centered humility was the only answer to the self-referential either/or personal identity and the resultant division in the church. Paul’s words make clear that the battle against pride is one to which Christians are not immune.

Because of Christ crucified, believers should understand that we are saved sinners, guilty but free, and it is grace and truth, strength through weakness, and love for our enemies. What freedom is birthed in our hearts and minds by taking “every thought captive to obey Christ” (2 Cor. 10:5)! We are liberated to love, serve, and suffer, in his name, rather than traveling the unloving, self-serving, self-protecting path of making a name for ourselves.  After all, “For freedom Christ has set us free; stand firm therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery” (Gal. 5:1).

Editor's Note: This post originally appeared at David's blog, Prince on Preaching, and is used with permission.