Forrest Church

November 12, 2001


Medieval Christians considered pride the number one sin. In my experience, they were right. Pride partners with all other sins by severing connections that support and sustain our being.

This morning, to explore the sin of pride, I am going to share a little of my personal story. On my own journey, I have found spiritual autobiography to be helpful. For one thing, awareness of another’s trials or self doubts lessens our individual sense of isolation. Beyond this, though tricky (especially today, with celebrity confessions all the rage), the open sharing of our personal struggles certainly beats the pretense that all is well when it’s not. How readily we forget that the cover of another’s life may be far more alluring than its contents.

To bring this closer to home, this morning I shall open the curtains on one window of my life. It is important for a minister to do this every once in a while. After all, judging from our words and our office, you might easily conclude that we ministers are spiritually and morally for more accomplished than is actually the case. This can’t make you feel any better about yourselves, about your own struggles and failings. Just remember, ministers preach not only what they know, but also what they too need to hear. When I preach with particular authority and passion. it is because I am trying to lift up my sights as well as your own. Ministers too need to be saved.

I’ve been thinking about this lately in the context of my pastoral counseling. You are so open and vulnerable when you come in to me and share your problems. Reflecting on many extraordinary pastoral encounters over the past few vivid weeks, I thought it only right to be as open with you as you are to me. In this spirit, I shall share with you this morning one aspect of my spiritual pilgrimage that few people beyond the members of my immediate family are aware of: my long and for many years unsuccessful struggle with an addiction to alcohol.

During the course of this struggle I slowly got lost in what people in Alcoholics Anonymous describe as a "God-shaped hole." In the depths of my addiction, had I known enough to ask, Augustine’s question to God would have echoed in my emptiness: "Where was I when I was seeking for You? You were there before me, but I had departed from myself. I could not even find myself, much less You."

My subsequent journey, which took place over the course of a decade, is not punctuated by a dramatic conversion like Paul’s on the road to Damascus. I look back on it more as a gradual awakening, interrupted and delayed by the constant temptation to drift back to sleep. My flight continued to be spurred by longstanding fears of vulnerability. Afraid of what I might discover if I delved too deeply into myself, I continued, if more intermittently than before, to find ways to subdue my consciousness. In a way, alcohol served me as a kind of God substitute. Even once I recognized this, howsoever much I ached to, as long as another power greater than myself presided over me, I could not bring God into my life. Because my wife wouldn’t look the other way, and because I had grown bone weary of my penchant for evasion, I couldn’t live like this much longer. All my excuses and rationalizations had far outrun their expiration date. After several aborted attempts and long experimentation with variously successful half-measures, one year ago I quit drinking completely.

In retrospect, I see now that my struggle with alcohol was rooted more in pride than in gluttony. It is pride that encourages its servant to drink on gluttony’s demand. Yet, paradoxically, gargantuan appetites often arise from a famished ego. In consequence of this intrinsically unstable coupling, pride and low self-esteem alternate in possession of the psyche, provoking mood swings from complete self-aggrandizement to absolute self-abasement. A temperate drinker has no direct experience of this, but anyone unfortunate enough to live with an alcoholic knows just how fragile and imperious his or her ego can be. Highs are precipitously high, lows pathetically low. Yet in each instance, King Baby’s ego is completely engaged, to the exclusion of all others. Certainly there is no room for God in the melodrama of such a life.

I have pondered why I drank so much and for so many years. To any but the most attentive observer, it would not appear to have been from a lack of healthy self-esteem, but looking back I wonder. I certainly used alcohol to subdue unwelcome feelings. I suppose I was afraid of looking too deeply within myself, for fear of what I might find there.

More prideful expressions of my egoism were more obvious in my drinking. I dictated my own set of rules and then slavishly followed them. Nonetheless, having counseled many addicts and alcoholics over the years, I didn’t recognize myself in their glass. My work won me the respect of others, and my spirit–whether elevated artificially or not–contributed to the general bonhomie of most of the company I kept over the years. For the most part, I lived life in the manner I wished and did what I chose to do.

To ease my conscience, I also prided myself for not being a moral perfectionist. I wrote books with titles like The Devil & Dr. Church and The Seven Deadly Virtues. I even edited a 12-step book while drinking. I have discovered it to be useful to me now that I have stopped. At the time, however, I accepted drinking as a lubricant to creativity. If Faulkner, Hemingway and Fitzgerald could write drunk, who was I to question such a muse? It even appeared to work for me. I found that Scotch muted self-criticism and thus facilitated my productivity. I would never be guilty of committing a best seller, but that was fine also. Until my awakening began to complicate matters (when the emptiness of my life became unendurable), I was enjoying a good time and hardly raising a sweat as I did so. My appetites for both indolence and gluttony were well served, and far from being a bad person, I was merely a self-indulgent one. I believed that the world, on balance, was a better place during those years of my residence within it, and in retrospect I think it probably was.

As things turned out, for me pride didn’t lead to a fall; it simply took slow possession of my soul. Fortunately, when I awoke one day to discover that God was nowhere in my life, I knew enough to recognize that alcohol (though symptomatic of more general self-absorption) was part of the reason. I wasn’t humiliated into humility as so many others have been, merely lost in the desert of self. I felt an emptiness that I could no longer medicate myself against and to which I either had to respond or succumb.

My love for Carolyn gradually turned me from the bottle, which had become a kind of mistress. I discovered that I could fulfill my own hopes only by satisfying the needs of the one I loved. Old habits are hard to break, but over time, love’s responsibilities tempered and deepened this awakening. At first I simply cut my drinking back, and my pilgrimage progressed, albeit slowly. Were it not for my wife, I doubt that I would have attempted to continue it sober, for to do so entailed the loss of fond and familiar comforts. Notwithstanding her concerns, comfort triumphed over love for years. I walked toward God with a half-full bottle in my suitcase. I tried to cut a bargain between my appetites and my responsibilities. As most drunks will tell you, this didn’t work. So I swallowed my last bit of pride, and, at long last, found my way out of the thickets of addiction.

In retrospect, I am grateful today not only for my wife but, in a strange way, for my addiction also. It established the parameters of a God-shaped hole that I could only fill with God. Each of us has his or her personal version of this hole, and we attempt to fill it in our own private ways. Yet no god-substitute can fill the God-shaped hole. For this reason alone–since little contentments can disguise our spiritual emptiness by taking the edge off our hunger for spiritual renewal–we should welcome discontent when it visits.

At the outset of my search, one prayer in particular touched my heart. Written by a hero of my youth, whose tempestuous life and insistence on his freedom had inspired my emulation, it is a tragic prayer. I read it to remind myself how lost I was, and how profoundly I needed God’s help to find peace.

And what do I owe You, God, for my gifts:

I owe you perspiration and suffering and

all the dark night of my life:

God I owe you godliness and diligence,

God I owe you this blackest loneliness,

and terrified dreams–

But humbleness, God, I have none and

I owe it You: for I would have You

reach down a hand to me, to help me

up to You–Oh I am not humble.

Jack Kerouac wrote this poem, one of many found in a satchel of prayers, hymns and personal essays after his death. Kerouac’s book, On the Road, served as the anthem for a generation of lost, if liberated, souls. His incandescent brilliance was equaled only by his magnificent pride and self-destructive addiction to alcohol and drugs. For all his devotion to freedom, Kerouac could not escape from self-imposed bondage. He could not receive the help for which he so desperately prayed. And he hated himself for this. In words that suggest having been written in an intoxified state of depression, Kerouac pleads:

Spit in my soul, God, for asking and

always asking, and for not giving and

owing what I have given, and give,

and shall give: God make me give.

Old Job there of the three thousand five

hundred years a-moldering in his grave,

old Job there is your servant, God:

forgive me for my youth, then forgive

me for it, God, oh make me a giver.

Nothing is emptier than a life in which God is palpably absent. Kerouac died an angry, prideful, repentant and broken man. God could not make him a giver, because another god held possession of his soul.

Humility may not be as central for you in your journey as it has been for me. A dose of humility enhanced my self-worth. For someone else, a double-shot of pride might be necessary to work the same change. People who have had the pride beaten out of them may discover self-esteem to be far more important than humility to the advancement of their spiritual search. Without a healthy sense of self-esteem, we may not feel worthy to invite God into our homes. I know women who accept humiliation as if it were their birthright, and others who argue angrily that indeed it is just that. For Jesus or anyone to tell a person who is already empty of self that she should empty herself and be filled is nothing less than cruel. Perhaps one can go to a store and redeem a coupon that isn’t worth anything, but the same does not hold true for a human life. We may journey from dust to dust, but our life need not be ashes in between.

Pride that helps people accept and affirm who they are is not a sin but a virtue. Such pride unites people. In sharp contrast, the sin of pride divides us, leading to mutual alienation and estrangement from the ground of our being. For similar reasons, both selfish pride and self-abasement leave little room in our hearts for giving or for gratitude. In his book, Markings, Dag Hammarskjøld wrote, "Humility is just as much the opposite of self-abasement as it is of self-exaltation. To be humble is not to make comparisons. Secure in its reality, the self is neither better nor worse, bigger nor smaller, than anything else in the universe. It is–is nothing, yet at the same time one with everything." Remembering this distinction, as long as we don’t confuse humility with humiliation, its presence in our lives will open our hearts to one another and make room in them for God. This, in any case, has been my own experience.

The Sufi mystic and poet, Rumi writes of his own soul's journey,

My soul is from elsewhere, I'm sure of that,

and I intend to end up there.

This drunkenness began in some other tavern.

When I get back around to that place,

I'll be completely sober.

. . . What is the soul?

I cannot stop asking.

If I could taste one sip of an answer,

I could break out of this prison for drunks.

Fortunately, as the Qu’ran (touchstone of Rumi's faith) promises, "We are all returning." On this point almost every religious tradition stands in agreement. To seek the way of return is our birthright. We may be lost and forgetful of our true nature, but we are born with a homing instinct, a capacity for self-transcendence that can lead to salvation or enlightenment. The way home is the way of paradox. Lose yourself and be found. Empty yourself and be filled. Give your old life away and discover new life and love in abundance. What a gift this is. How grateful I am for it.

Amen. I love you. May God Bless us all.



Back To Home Page

Back To Forrest Church Sermons