“The truth shall set you free”, our Lord promises in the Gospel (John 8:32). To stand in the truth gives one’s life stability, direction, and purpose. It gives balance to our spiritual lives and prevents us from “from being tossed to and for by every wind of doctrine” (Eph. 4:14). The desire for truth is inherent in human nature, as Aristotle observed, “all men by nature desire to know.” This is a consequent of our rational nature imparted to us by God.
The subjective possession of that truth, however, can work strangely in us. Universal human experience reveals that often there are no more intransigent people than those convinced that they are right. Whether they actually are right matters little—the subjective belief that one is right is enough. Arguing with a person who is utterly certain of their rectitude can be endlessly frustrating. Such experiences demonstrate that, though truth can set us free, it can also make one arrogant. The universality of this experience should be sufficient to point to some connection between certitude and arrogance.
I would never claim that certainty makes one arrogant; that the connection exists does not mean it is necessary. There are a great many of us who live the truth faithfully while cultivating a genuine spirit of humility. Some readers, whom I have been blessed to know in real life, do this. And the saints furnish innumerable examples as well. St. Bernard and St. Francis, despite their profound spiritual insights, were exceptionally humble men. St. Catherine of Siena remonstrated with popes but was docile and meek. If anyone had a right to be arrogant about his knowledge it was Moses, of whom Scripture says “the LORD would speak to Moses personally, as a man speaks to his friend” (Ex. 33:11); and yet Scripture also says “Moses was a man exceedingly meek above all men that dwelt upon earth” (Num. 12:3). Moses’ unique knowledge of God did not make him arrogant; rather, it made him humble.
Clearly a firm grasp of the truth need not necessarily make one prideful or intransigent. But it is a common enough pitfall nonetheless. I know this truth painfully, as I myself have frequently fallen into it in my life. There is a certain perverse sort of pride that can come with knowing you are right, especially in matters of faith where one is professing the very truth revealed by God Himself. A kind of ego contra mundum attitude can spring up, swelling ever greater to the degree one is opposed or contradicted. It’s easy to feel like we are a noble martyr for the truth when in reality our defense is much more about being right.
And obviously it’s not an either-or proposition: sometimes we really are defending God’s truth but doing so from selfish motives or with off-putting behavior. It can be hard to tease out the dividing line when we reflect on it.
The question then, brethren, is how can we maintain a faith with such certainty that we are willing to be slain for it whilst simultaneously avoiding the vice of pride that is always liable to ensnare us? How can we be strong of faith but not obnoxiously strong-willed, arrogant, or just annoying when it comes to discussing it? How can we make sure we have removed the plank from our own eye before removing the speck from our brother’s?
The only real answer is a continuous examination of our motives and focus on our own spiritual life and disposition, which is really the obligation of all Christians. However, I have found the following specific methods helpful over the years in cultivating humility about the treasure we possess:
(1) Resist the Temptation to view Faith in Sectarian Terms. It is easy to view the Faith—especially traditional Catholicism—as a sort of socio-political “movement”, viewing it through a lens that is almost sectarian. Traditional Catholicism has its own media outlets, its own talking heads, its own “talking points”, its own publications, its own partisans, and its own agenda. Not that it is wrong to have these things by any means, but it does mean we must always be on guard against treating the Faith the way we treat our own moribund secular politics. The Faith certainly has socio-political ramifications, but it is not, at its heart, a socio-political “movement”, and refusing to treat it as such helps dissipate some of the hostility that comes with sectarianism.
(2) Examen of Conscience for the Fruits of the Spirit. St. Paul teaches us that the fruits of the Holy Spirit in our souls are nine: “But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control; against such there is no law.” (Gal 5:22-23) When I was a younger Catholic, I was prone to skim over passages like this and focus my attention more on meaty doctrinal verses. Not that I thought this stuff was unimportant. More like, I took it for granted that I already possessed these fruits and did not need to worry about it. But a soul that cannot deal with disagreement without becoming arrogant and puffed up is not demonstrating these fruits. That is why St. Paul warns that if someone is arrogant in their talk it may be a sign that they lack the power of God in their life (1 Cor. 4:18); he also warns against Christians whose lives are characterized by “quarreling, jealousy, anger, selfishness, slander, gossip, [and] conceit” (2 Cor. 12:20). As I have gotten older, I have become more introspective about whether I possess these fruits, and more cognizant that a spirit that is joyful, patient, and gentle is not one that is habitually arrogant. I realize this is a little subjective, and there will always be those people who are wrongly accused of being arrogant merely because they are taking a stand for the truth. But in my experience, when a person is peaceful it is not difficult to disagree with them in a friendly manner.
(3) Remember Faith is a Gift: The awareness of faith as a gift is tremendous antidote against being puffed up with pride. Sometimes I think when we get arrogant about the truth we possess, it is because we somehow view the truth as “ours”—often, it feels like something we discovered through our own study, our own labors, our own searching; something we built with our own mental and spiritual blood, sweat, and tears. We must remember, however, that faith is a gift. It is a gift of God in a threefold sense: (a) Divine Revelation itself is a communication from God to man, given gratuitously out of love, of truths that we would have no way of knowing by reason alone (b) the faith we enjoy today is something that was passed on to us by the Church of ages past delivered “once and for all to the saints” (Jude 1:3) which we receive as an inheritance (c) the theological virtue of faith itself is a gift bestowed on each one of us by God through baptism and maintained by grace. None of us saves himself. It is very difficult to be prideful about the certitude of faith we possess when we view it wholly as a gift.
(4) A Lively Awareness of Grace: What does it mean to have “eyes to see” as the Scriptures say (Ezk. 12:2)? To see with eyes of flesh is one thing, to see with eyes of the spirit is another. Spiritual sight is awareness of the movements of grace behind the scenes that form men’s souls and bring about the will of God in the affairs of men. Focusing on the working of grace helps us to decrease and Christ to increase, because we become more aware of the actions of God behind our affairs. Though of course we always understand the power of a good argument, we become less inclined to think, “It is my job to change this person’s mind through my persuasive rhetoric” and more accustomed to see these things as in the hand of God. When I dispense divine truth, I am merely as one beggar trying to show another beggar where to find some food. See also: “Christ Will Give You Victory” (USC, Jan. 2019)
Originally Published at Unam Sanctam Catholicam. Reprinted with permission.
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