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The Ego, The Greatest Hindrance for Virtue

by Pope Shenouda III

Danger of the ego:

The ego may lead a person to perdition, for the Lord Christ says, "He who finds his life will lose it." (Mt 10: 39) It is very dangerous indeed to focus on oneself and try to be greater and exalted, feeling righteous, great, and wise in one's own and the others' eyes (Job 32: 1; Acts 12: 21- 23; Prov 3: 7), all of which the Lord warned against.

The ego is a mother sin bringing forth many other sins.

It is the first sin in the world, and the sin by which Satan fell when he said in his heart, "I will ascend into heaven, I will exalt my throne above the stars of God … I will be like the Most High." (Isa 14: 13, 14), by which also he tempted our first parents to fall, saying to them, "You will be like God" (Gen 3: 5).

The ego reminds us of the sin of Jonah the Prophet.

Jonah feared his word fall if the people of Nineveh after warning them of the destruction of their city repent and God have mercy upon them! Jonah was exceedingly displeased and angry (Jon 4: 1). That also was the fault of Job: righteousness in his own eyes (Job 32: 1). The same applies to wisdom:

"Do not be wise in your own eyes." (Prov 3: 7)

Some people are not willing to listen to any counsel, trusting their own mind and good judgment of every thing! We should not lean on our own understanding as the Scripture commands us in (Prov 3: 5) and says, "There is a way that seems right to a man, but its end is the way of death." (Prov 14: 12; 16: 25)

Results of the ego war:

1. When the self becomes the focus of one's interest, confining one's thoughts to one's future life, position, dignity, opinion, or person, the self turns into a goal, comprising all one's works, sayings, and behavior. The word "I" prevails over all one's talk!

2. Self love may extend to self-praise, making a person lose humbleness and fall in the love of vainglory, by which he will not be able to blame himself for anything, but will rather attempt to justify himself in everything. He may not even bear a word of reproach, seeing himself righteous, and wants to be righteous in the eyes of the others, seeking their praise and feeling joy at that. For all this the Lord said:

"If anyone desires to come after Me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow Me" (Mt 16: 24)

"He who loses his life for My sake will find it" (Mt 10: 39) and also to be His disciple one ought even to hate one's own life (Lk 14: 26).

3. To satisfy one's desires and do what one wants, a person may resist God, revolt against Him, separate himself from Him, break His commandments and join His enemies! He wants God to respond to whatever he asks, not considering God's wisdom and will. He gets angry and annoyed if God delays -or he thinks so- and begins to doubt His love and care, and threats to leave the church and its meetings.

The Existentialists deny God's existence, seeing that He stands against their desires and does not let them enjoy their existence!!

See where self-love can lead a person: it led the communists to atheism, and led many philosophers to lay their trust in their own thoughts rather than on God's word. It made some clergy in the west make of their minds a supervisor over the Holy Scripture, accepting only what accords with their thoughts and denying everything else!

4. The self also may have its impact on the spiritual and natural fatherhood. Some people obey their spiritual father only when his opinion complies with their desires, otherwise they seek another father! Sometimes, they tell the spiritual father only what they know he would approve! The same applies to obedience to parents and to the family elders, or to the church guides and counselors.

5. In church ministry, the self may interfere with love of leadership, domination, and imposing one's opinion and way, causing divisions. It appears when a minister wants to be a leader not a follower, or at least to have a special group submitting to him and resisting whoever may object to his views whatever was his rank. Such a minister only seeks his own "kingdom" not God's Kingdom, not caring if divisions lead to the interference of other sects or to the destruction of the ministry, nor if they cause offense and scatter people! The only concern is the self and gratification of its desires of domination and dignity, even if by this a person receives his good things in his lifetime on earth (Lk 16: 25).

6. The ego in the field of dogma leads a minister to disseminate his own thoughts even though they contradict the recognized church teaching and tradition or consensus in general! His own thoughts and knowledge are his only concern. He accepts no instruction, seeing himself greater than all instructors! How heresies did appear except of the ego and the private thoughts! A heretic though warned several times, holds to his own views. The self is more powerful than all warnings!

7. Self-love may lead to self-worship when a person is not satisfied with being first, but rather to be alone, as if he would say, 'I, and no one else'! Self-love makes one resist the others, attack violently, take an adversary stand, or attack whoever objects!

8. Self-love may lead to stubbornness, obstinacy, and rejection of other opinions, either by giving no ear to them, or refusing them, or arguing and ending with sticking to one's own opinion in spite of attempts to convince him!

9. The ego may destroy families or be the main cause of marital controversies when each party holds to his own opinion, or seeks his/her rest at the expense of the fatigue of the other, or forces the other to submit without discussion, whatever the consequences may be!

10. The ego may corrupt societies, for a society needs discussing decisions, and exchanging opinions, not imposing a certain opinion. If anybody wants to impose his own views, or disregards the views of the others, the society will be divided and loses stability.

The ego leads always to selfishness.

Selfishness in turn does not build, but rather destroys any social relationship.

Forms of self-love:

Self-love may focus on the body, the soul, or the spirit. If self-love is focused on the body, a person seeks away from God to satisfy the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life (1 Jn 2: 16).

Falling in the love of flesh and material made Solomon the Wise lose his wisdom.

The word "myself" prevailed over his words when he said, "I built myself houses, and planted myself vineyards. I made myself gardens and orchards … I also gathered for myself silver and gold and the special treasures of kings and of the provinces. I acquired male and female singers, the delights of the sons of men." (Eccl 2: 4- 8) What was the result? "When Solomon was old, that his wives turned his heart after other gods; and his heart was not loyal to the Lord his God, as was the heart of his father David." (1 Kgs 11: 4)

The same applies to Samson and David concerning the sin of each of them, the life of luxury, wealth, women, grandiosity, lust of the flesh, and God's punishment to each of them.

All of those wanted to build themselves in an unspiritual way, by satisfying their desires by male and female singers, by women, by Delialah and Bethsheba! To them apply the words of the Lord, "He who loses his life for My sake will find it".

Virtue of overcoming the ego and self-control:

St. Paul the Apostle said, "I discipline my body and bring it into subjection, lest, when I have preached to others, I myself should become disqualified." (1 Cor 9: 27)

Likewise, whoever wants to satisfy his self-desires may fall in jealousy and envy, desiring to get what is in the hands of the others, and enter into wrestling with them. Such a person resembles Joseph's brothers and their envy to their brother (Gen 37), or the elder brother with his bad feelings towards his younger brother whose father killed the fatted calf for him. (Lk 15), or Esau who said, "I will kill my brother Jacob" (Gen 27: 41), or Rachel and Leah who said, "With great wrestlings I have wrestled with my sister" (Gen 30: 8). They all fell in wrestling. To them may apply the words said about Abraham and Lot:

"The land was not able to support them, that they might dwell together" (Gen 13: 6)

Our father Abraham, having no self-love, let Lot choose the land he wanted, but Lot's choice worked for his loss afterwards in the captivity and destruction of Sodom (Gen 14, 19).

The ego wrestling appeared in the complaint of Martha against her sister Mary, when she said, "My sister has left me to serve alone?" (Lk 10: 40) Her complaint was because of Mary's godliness and choosing the good part! The ego resists the brothers and sisters, the relatives, and even the ministers!

See the beautiful and deep words of St. Paul the Apostle:

"It is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me;" (Gal 2: 20)

They imply complete self-denial in everything, as the Lord said to the Father, "Not My will, but Yours, be done." We say the same everyday in the Lord's Prayer, "Let Your will be done".

Our father Abraham did the same when the Lord said to him, "Get out of your country, from your family and from your father’s house, to a land that I will show you." (Gen 12: 1) He went out, "not knowing where he was going." (Heb 11: 8) In his obedience he denied himself and everything, even his own emotions and hopes when God commanded him to offer his only son as a burnt offering to God (Gen 22: 2). He left everything pertaining to himself and was occupied only with God, and his heart saying, 'Not my will, but Yours, be done.'

John the Baptist likewise hid himself that the Lord may appear, saying, "He who has the bride is the bridegroom; but the friend of the bridegroom, who stands and hears him, rejoices greatly" "He must increase, but I must decrease." (Jn 3: 29, 30) these words 'I decrease' was repeated by St. Paul in the words, "No longer I"

Yet, he who said these words was described by the Lord by the words, "Among those born of women there has not risen one greater than John the Baptist" (Mt 11: 11).


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