The Stooge Who Thinks He’s Zeus: The Deadly Sin of Pride

Why the sin of pride makes you unhappy, as well as an insufferable jerk.

By David Mills Published on August 9, 2017

They stride the hallways like gods. They have power over life and death. Their subjects go to them almost on their knees, begging for favors. They perform miracles.

I’m talking about surgeons. To be fair, the one I’ve spoken with most recently was kind, if a little awkward. But he got me thinking about surgeons I’d met, and surgeons I’d heard about.

One of the most popular surgeon jokes goes like this. Question: What’s the difference between God and a surgeon? Answer: God doesn’t think he’s a surgeon.

Another goes: Question: How many surgeons does it take to change a light bulb? Answer: One. He holds the bulb while the world revolves around him.

It’s a stereotype, yes. It doesn’t apply to every surgeon. But medical friends assure me that it describes many of them. It also describes many of the world’s successful people. The 27-year-old tech genius. The long-time U.S. senator. The NFL quarterback. Even the pastor of the small country church and the head of the local homeschool association. Even the humble writer.

Being a Human God

Surgeon jokes make obvious something true of almost all of us. Some people are amazingly humble. Some. But the rest of us, we all suffer the sin of pride. You may have a medical degree and amazing fine motor skills. You may be the guy who always spills his coffee in his lap. Star or klutz, you still commit the sin of pride. Surgeons R Us.

One of the most popular surgeon jokes goes like this. Question: What’s the difference between God and a surgeon? Answer: God doesn’t think he’s a surgeon.

Another goes: Question: How many surgeons does it take to change a light bulb? Answer: One. He holds the bulb while the world revolves around him.

Pride, Dorothy L. Sayers wrote in her great essay “The Other Six Deadly Sins,” is “the sin of trying to be as God. It is the sin which proclaims that Man can produce out of his own wits, and his own impulses and his own imagination the standards by which he lives: that Man is fitted to be his own judge.” In Mere Christianity, C. S. Lewis called pride “the complete anti-God state of mind.”

That’s pride as it looks upward. We also enjoy pride as we look downward. As we think we look downward, I should say. We’re no higher up than anyone else.

Lewis described pride as a competitive vice. “Pride gets no pleasure out of having something, only out of having more of it than the next man,” he wrote. “We say that people are proud of being rich, or clever, or good-looking, but they are not. They are proud of being richer, or cleverer, or better looking than others.”

The French priest St. John Vianney, known as the Cure D’Ars (priest of Ars), said in one of his homilies, “A proud person thinks everything he does is well done. He wants to domineer over all those who have to do with him. He is always right and always thinks his own opinion better than that of others.” That’s most of us. “We put pride into everything like salt,” Vianney noted.

Ugly and Foolish Gods

We stink at being gods. We’re not Zeus or Ares or Athena. (Who, actually, also stunk at being gods.) We’re Curly, Moe and Larry. But with a twist. Pride makes us Larry who thinks he’s Zeus.

C. S. Lewis described pride as a competitive vice. “Pride gets no pleasure out of having something, only out of having more of it than the next man. We say that people are proud of being rich, or clever, or good-looking, but they are not. They are proud of being richer, or cleverer, or better looking than others.”

And we don’t even get to enjoy pretending to be Zeus. Pride, wrote G. K. Chesterton, “dries up laughter, it dries up wonder, it dries up chivalry and energy.” It sucks the joy out of life because it keeps us looking at ourselves, when all the things that we will truly enjoy lie outside of us.

Pride chains us to ourselves. For one thing, we fret way too much about what others think of us. The prideful person wants others to see his good points but not his bad points, St. John Vianney said. He’s only happy when others think highly of him. For the humble person, “whether he is laughed at or esteemed, or praised, or blamed, whether he is honored or despised, whether people pay attention to him or pass him by, it is all the same to him.” You can guess who’s the happier of the two.

Pride makes us pretend to be something we’re not. We’re Larry acting like Zeus. We’ll like life a lot more if we’d just accept being Larry. God who wants our happiness, Lewis said, wants us “to take off a lot of silly, ugly, fancy-dress in which we have all got ourselves up and are strutting about like the little idiots we are.”

If you want to be happy, don’t dress up like Zeus. Take off the sheet you’re using as a robe. Get down from the high stool you’re using as a throne. Really, don’t be an idiot. Just be Larry.

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  • Mensa Member

    I’ve heard the same thing about surgeons for years — from my mother who worked as a tech in surgery.

    She liked other types of doctors. It would make me laugh because she thought the ones who treated the “humble” parts of the body — like urologists and other various private parts — were the most humble.

    It’s one of those paradoxical traits, don’t you think? Surgery is a field where you want confident leadership. You don’t want your surgeon waffling on decisions when time matters. But you want a surgeon humble enough to take advice, like a nurse asking “Dr. aren’t you supposed to be removing the left testicle?”

    • john appleseed

      I have only gotten to know one surgeon in my life: the one who successfully removed a benign tumor from inside my skull in 1999. The following statement in no way detracts from my gratitude for his skill: He was quite obviously a very proud man.

  • Mensa Member

    Very nice article. And truly Christian, IMHO . Please run more!

    The most spiritual giants I’ve known were very humble. It’s the opposite of the way the world works.

  • Nunyadambizness

    In what seemed like a hundred years ago when I worked in a hospital laboratory, the story went: A man died and went to Heaven, and once there was assigned to a person to show him around. The two went all over Heaven, and the guide told the man “Just be aware, that when the dinner bell goes off you need to run to the line or you’ll be waiting forever to get dinner.” The man said OK, and later as they were walking around the dinner bell went off–both started running as fast as possible to get there, only to find out they were still a long way back. As they stood there waiting, a person with a long white robe strode past them all the way to the front. The man asked “Who was that??” to which the guide responded “Oh, that’s God. He thinks he’s a doctor.”

    When I worked there, the attitude of “I”m smarter than you” or “I’m better than you” was common as doctors would talk down to anyone who was not another doctor. Not every one of them, but many had that smug attitude and I frankly am glad I didn’t work in the lab for very long.

  • David Mills

    FYI: I deleted one purely ad hominem comment denouncing one of the other commenters for his alleged lack of faith and character. That’s not the kind of thing I will tolerate on my articles. If a commenter wants to be a jerk, there are many other places he can indulge himself.

  • Dean Bruckner

    Nyuk nyuk nyuk!

    • Howard

      It’s one thing to be a stooge, but it’s another to be Curly Joe and fall short of the glory of the Stooges.

  • john appleseed

    Why does the proud man think God is on his level & other people are beneath him?
    Because your view gets distorted when you walk around with your nose in the air.

  • Morrie Chamberlain

    This is why I go to New Advent. To pull up articles like this that really get me thinking and hopefully leads to changes in me for the better. David Mills, Charles Pope, Dwight Longnecker, Father Z, Bishop Baron are indeed the GK Chesterton’s and CS Lewis’s of our day.

    • David Mills

      Thank you. That’s very kind.

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