The Pharisee, standing by himself, prayed thus: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other men… Luke 18:11
I recently re-read Flannery O’Connor’s famous story “Revelation” for a study on classic short stories and spirituality that I’m co-leading at my church. This study is allowing me to geek out on literature like I did as an English major and English teacher. (Yesssss!) It’s also challenging me spiritually.
The main character in “Revelation” is a woman named Ruby Turpin who is preoccupied with categorizing people. The story begins in a doctor’s waiting room, where Mrs. Turpin immediately begins judging strangers based on what they’re wearing, how they talk, and their dispositions. We learn that this is a common practice for Mrs. Turpin. At night, the narrator shares, Mrs. Turpin stays up putting people in categories of race and class in her mind. She even invents a mind game where God forces her to choose between being a black person or being “white trash.”
Speaking to her fellow waiting room members, Mrs. Turpin can’t help but give voice to her habitual thoughts:
"If it's one thing I am," Mrs. Turpin said with feeling, "It's grateful. When I think who all I could have been besides myself and what all I got, a little of everything, and a good disposition besides, I just feel like shouting, 'Thank you, Jesus, for making everything the way it is!' It could have been different!" For one thing, somebody else could have got Claud. At the thought of this, she was flooded with gratitude and a terrible pang of joy ran through her. "Oh thank you, Jesus, Jesus, thank you!" she cried aloud.
That’s when the book hits her. A young woman, whom Mrs. Turpin has been silently judging, throws a huge book across the room at Mrs. Turpin’s head and then lunges to attack her. Will this incident be enough to reveal Mrs. Turpin's pride to herself?
In our discussion of the story, one of our group members said this part brought to mind Jesus’ parable in Luke 18:9-14. To put the story in context, a Pharisee is a strict observer of Jewish law and would have been revered. Tax collectors were considered traitors and thieves, people who took money from the Jews to give to Rome while skimming some off the top to put in their own pocket. In Jesus' story the Pharisee prays, “I thank you that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I get.” Meanwhile, the tax collector standing a little away from the Pharisee “would not even lift up his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’” Jesus tells his astonished listeners that it is tax collector who will be exalted and not the religious man who was blind to his own pride.
As our group continued to discuss the story and its Biblical allusions, we admitted that we all have a little of Ruby Turpin/Pharisee in us. Though I may not phrase it exactly like Mrs. Turpin or the Pharisee, I have thoughts along the same lines. Thank God I’m not like fill-in-the-blank. And with all the division that continues to exist in the political sphere today, it’s all too easy to identify the “other.”
In C.S. Lewis’s Mere Christianity he describes this type of pride perfectly: “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 they are far better than ordinary people.”
So, how can we recognize our pride in a way that doesn’t involve getting hit upside the head by a perceptive, yet violent young stranger?
Awareness is the first step, right? Learning about myself through the Enneagram personality test has helped me recognize that my default is to hold myself and others to really high standards and to be critical when they’re not met. This can make me really unpleasant to be and to be around. Reading work by Brené Brown has helped me understand that perfectionism isn’t the badge of honor I thought it was but really the shield of self-righteousness I’ve used to protect me from criticism and from my own feelings of inadequacy. Serving others has helped. When I volunteer or do my work with a servant mindset, I have the opportunity to connect to new people and to realize that “otherness” is a lie. Most of our differences can be attributed to differences in circumstance, opportunity, and privilege.
I’m still processing my issues with pride and learning how to be humble. I think it will be a lifelong task.
What about you? How do your recognize pride in your own life? What strategies do you recommend to become more humble? I definitely appreciate any wisdom you can share in the comments below, and thanks for reading!
Want to know what happens to Mrs. Turpin? You can read “Revelation” here.