The Sins of Pride and Self-Negation (or, How I Learned to Lighten Up a Little About Service)

In 1960, a thinker by the name of Valerie Saiving wrote an influential article which is often considered the beginning of modern feminist theology, critiquing traditional models of sin which were centered around pride. Since such perspectives considered pride or excessive self-assertion to be the most basic sin,  they understood the process of overcoming sin as necessarily involving a move toward greater selflessness. Love was defined in such approaches as being “completely self-giving, taking no thought for its own interests but seeking only the good of the other.”1 Saiving raised the objection that these models ignored some basic differences in the self-development of women and men, and arose from an essentially masculine perspective. The crucial point that these formulations overlooked, she argued, is that there is danger in the other direction as well, as it turns out that too much selflessness, far from producing someone in an idealized and virtuous state, leads to the development of a kind of “chameleon-like creature who responds to others but has no personal identity of his [or her] own.”2  Saiving saw this as a temptation to which women are particularly vulnerable.

We thus need to turn, suggested Saiving, to what the influential twentieth-century theologian Reinhold Niebuhr referred to as the sin of sloth, or sensuality. Though Niebuhr acknowledged the existence of this potential pitfall,  she noted, he did not devote much attention to it. Some decades after Saiving’s article took the theological world by storm, another theologian named Susan Dunfee proposed that Reinhold’s “sloth” might better be termed the “sin of hiding.”3  These and other feminist thinkers pointed out that historically, too much theological work had actually served to exacerbate this kind of sin. As Saiving put it, instead of supporting “the woman who desires to be both a woman and an individual in her own right,” traditional theological models framed “such desires as sin or temptation to sin”4; any valorization of autonomy or selfhood was seen as dangerous.  Theology has had a long history of holding up selflessness as the ultimate good, in other words, without realizing the real  dangers such an orientation poses when taken too far; it has often been oblivious, in fact, to the possibility that selflessness even could be taken too far, or be a destructive force. In over-emphasizing pride and failing to deal with this “sin of hiding,” wrote Dunfee, Christian thought “has perpetuated patterns of bondage and repression rather than breaking them.”5

Aspects of Saiving’s influential article have been called into question in the decades since it came out; her implicit gender essentialism in particular has been critiqued. But her basic point has remained compelling, I think, as it provides a necessary corrective to a tradition overly focused on the sin of pride and historically unaware of some of the issues that have (for a variety of reasons) tended to plague women more.

How does all of this play out in an LDS context? I remember one of my very earliest bloggernacle conversations, in which the topic under discussion was that of losing yourself in the service of others, and the question arose as to whether that could be problematic—especially for women who were already spreading themselves far too thin. I said something about it being important in my view to seek balance between care for self and care for others. A very outspoken male strongly disagreed with me, and said that no, in any given situation in which there was competition between your needs and the needs of others, it was always better to err in the direction of focusing on the needs of others. I was torn, because I could see as he talked that taking that stance had in fact aided his spiritual development. But I think he had no clue about the situation of someone who didn’t have a self to begin with, and thus for whom the concept of “losing one’s self” was almost meaningless.

That new perspective in which selflessness is potentially dangerous too can be a hard sell to make, though, given that Jesus did say that “he that findeth his life shall lose it: and he that loseth his life for my sake shall find it,” and the Book of Mormon includes numerous calls to focus your attention on the needs of others; in the familiar words of Mosiah 2:17, “When ye are in the service of your fellow beings ye are only in the service of your God.” I don’t actually think there’s a lot of emphasis on self-care in either traditional or Restoration scripture, despite the valiant efforts of various people over the years to discover it lurking somewhere between the lines of sacred texts, perhaps most commonly by interpreting the second great commandment, “Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself” (Mark 12:31), as containing at least an implicit command to love one’s self. Perhaps the concern for working out your own salvation, which is in fact a theme prominent in scripture, can be seen in that vein, as fundamentally a project of attending to the spiritual needs of the self. But broadly speaking, the LDS faith has followed closely in the footsteps of traditional Christianity on this one, with service and selflessness being held up as the ultimate ideals with little discussion of how these ideals can go wrong. People tell the story again and again of President Hinckley’s father’s response when a young Gordon shared feelings of discouragement about his mission: “Forget yourself and go to work.” If there is a single motto which concisely sums up the contemporary LDS attitude toward this issue, those six words may well be it.

Of course, there have been correctives in the trajectory of LDS thought, too. I suspect that this issue alone is one of the major factors for the runaway popularity of the writings of Chieko Okazaki. Growing up, I was the stereotypical Mormon woman who was drowning in guilt about not serving people enough, and focusing too much on myself and my own needs. Chieko (I’m presumptuously using her first name because I feel like she would have been okay with it) threw me a life raft. I devoured Lighten Up!—all her books were excellent, I thought, with an unusual ability to encourage and inspire rather than pile on the obligations—but that was the one that touched me the most. In Chieko’s world, often there wasn’t a single right answer for everything; it was legitimate to consult your experience and do what worked for you and  your individual circumstances. I can’t remember in which of her books she says that there are different seasons of life when it comes to scripture study, and some might involve putting in an hour a day of poring over the text, and some might involve reading the scripture written on an index card taped to the bathroom mirror as you brush your teeth. And that was okay! And this utterly radical notion was even being published by Deseret Book!  My mind was blown. In what I see as being in the tradition of my favorite medieval mystic, Julian of Norwich, who envisioned a Christ who was at quite at home in the domestic sphere, Chieko describes a Jesus who offers to come along and pitch in as you deal with the chores of daily life, who doesn’t care that you’re once again eating off paper plates because you forgot to turn on the dishwasher, who says things like “I know a lot about cats and stoves. I’ll come with you,”6 as you head off to address your responsibilities related to those things. She shared with me a Jesus who didn’t need to stay in a holy sphere and be protected from the messy details of human existence, one whom I even dared to think might not be completely repelled by me and my utterly messed up life. I will always love her for that.

Okay, I realize that I’ve gone off on a tangent here, because wow! so good! But getting back to the focus of this post, when Chieko wrote about the subject of service, I braced myself for the usual onslaught of guilt—and was almost disoriented when it failed to materialize. In a subsection of Lighten Up! scarily titled “Seeking Opportunities for Service,” she talks about even small acts of good being meaningful, and the power of encountering the pure love of Christ. I read it and thought, oh, okay, I actually like that vision. An insight she shared in another book was that service is ideally just the spontaneous, natural response you have when you see a need that you can meet, not a Huge Onerous Obligation that’s assigned to you by a third party. I love so much of what she has to say, but I think most powerful for me, along with her absolute belief in the Savior’s unfailing love for every single person, is the assumption both implicit and sometime explicit that self-care is entirely legitimate, that it isn’t “selfish” to think realistically about your capabilities and limits and experience and take those things into account when making decisions about what you have to give to others.

A rather prominent man who had served as both a bishop and a stake president once complained to me that after Lighten Up! came out, hordes of LDS women flooded the offices of their bishops, asking to be released from their callings. While I could be sympathetic to the administrative hassle that such a happening might cause for church leaders, especially if a lot of people quit at once, I simply could not see it as a bad thing if women read these ideas and perhaps realized that their callings were killing them and they didn’t actually have to sacrifice their sanity on the altar of church obligations. In the long run, I cannot see such a shift in perspective as anything other than healthy, not just for the women but even for the institution, because wouldn’t it be better for everyone if things were running on a fuel other than guilt?

Bringing this back to the theological questions involved, I see the sins of pride and self-negation as equally problematic, and I think it’s a mistake to set forth either of them as a kind of antidote for the other. If you do in fact suffer from excessive pride and self-assertion, in other words, I don’t know how helpful it is to suggest increased self-negation as the path forward; and conversely, I don’t know that we should prescribe pride as the solution to those who are committing what Dunfee calls the “sin of hiding.” Rather, it seems to me that everyone needs to be called to something altogether better. In an Augustinian model, sin is most basically a disorientation of the will, a turning away from the divine. Perhaps this points to a way forward here, a perspective from which liberation from sin means accepting the grace that has the power to transform all of your relationships, both with yourself and with those around you, and that contextualizes them in the overarching narrative of God’s radical love for all people—a narrative which casts light on how both pride and self-negation are problematic stances because they inherently involve a rejection of that love (whether it shows up in the form of not really believing that God loves and values your neighbor, or not really believing that God loves and values you).

This doesn’t mean that it’s always easy to figure out the right balance of self-care and other-care, but it does mean that taking care of your own needs is actually not just okay, but essential, because you too are a beloved child of God. And if you are an adult with your capacities roughly intact, the person primarily responsible for taking care of your needs is you. You may be thinking, well duh! But it took me years to really see and appreciate that, and for it to sink in that when I failed to do the work of caring for myself, it had a toxic effect not just on my own life, but on my relationships with others. This worldview also means that you are called to be genuinely concerned with the needs of others—not in a way, I hasten to add, which involves having no boundaries and taking responsibility for them—but rather in having an openness to them, and a willingness to offer what you can (which may sometimes be quite small). And one of the things that grace does, I think, is to open up a space in which you have all the time you need to work out these dynamics, which require time and experience and a process of trial-end-error, rather than ratcheting up the pressure to achieve some ideal of a “perfect balance” between self and others right away.  And since I’m on a roll, I’ll conclude with more words of wisdom from Chieko (noting that it’s stuff like this that puts me in a frame of mind where I can talk about service in a constructive instead of a guilt-driven way):

[The Lord is] not waiting for us to be perfect before we can be happy. We can take our time. We can enjoy ourselves. We can consult our own needs and wants. We can forgive ourselves for what we can’t do, and we can be patient about the things we can’t do yet. We can lighten up and stop punishing ourselves by thinking we have to do it all.7

  1. Valerie Saiving, “The Human Situation: A Feminine View,” in Womanspirit Rising (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1979), 26. []
  2. Ibid., 41. []
  3. Susan Nelson Dunfee, “The Sin of Hiding: A Feminist Critique of Reinhold Niebuhr’s Account of the Sin of Pride,” Soundings 65 (1982): 318. []
  4. Saiving, 39. []
  5. Dunfee, 317. []
  6. Chieko N. Okazaki, Lighten Up! (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1993), 174. []
  7. Okazaki, 148. []

6 comments / Add your comment below

  1. This was an absolute delight to read. I’d never heard of Saiving’s writings, but have long felt that what we generally call sin is really just the subset of sins men are prone to be tempted by. I will definitely be looking up her work.
    I personally think that the church on the earth now is the church, the scriptures, & the Priesthood by and for men, and that someday the female counterpart of all those things will be revealed.

  2. Not exactly the messages we hear in a regular basis. The challenge is to find balance within such a large spectrum of personalities. Learning to listen to your innerself, concscience and the Spirit is the key, I believe.

  3. Christianity often seems to be an expression of co-dependence. All that service and sacrifice on top of more serve and sacrifice plus a giant helping of guilt. Oy veh!

  4. The friend who pointed me to the Saiving article a while back defines sin in terms of misrelation. You seem to be getting at something similar in our final paragraphs. I find the idea very compelling, for reasons you articulate: healthy relationships have two people in them, meaning that they require self-care on both sides, along with times of giving and receiving on both parts.

  5. Starfoxy, so glad you enjoyed it! I absolutely agree that the system as currently revealed is pretty much about men’s life and experiences; I share your hope that someday that will be expanded.

    J, yes, I do think it’s a challenge given the—as you say—”large spectrum of personalities.” I’ve thought about that a lot, actually, in reference to things like conference talks; how do you address such a wide variety of needs and situations? It gives me a bit more sympathy for the GA’s. But I agree that ultimately we have to pay attention to what the Spirit is telling us in our individual lives and experience.

    Vajra2, oy vey indeed!

    Jason K., yes, very much: sin as misrelation is the most compelling model of sin I’ve found. I like the way you put it, that a real relationship has to have two full people.


Leave a Reply