Presumption: The ‘I Am a Good Person’ Sin

The Way We Were

Presumption is a sin that has become increasingly more common over the past fifty years. Before Vatican II, Catholics were taught to have a healthy fear of God and being judged by Him. Whether we were doing well or poorly was determined by the state of our souls. If you had committed a mortal sin and had not sought Our Lord’s forgiveness, then you could be sent to Hell. Those who died with a venial sin on their soul would be sent to Purgatory. A small number of saints, whose souls were free from all sins, went straight to Heaven. Although we knew that God was all-merciful, we understood that He was all-just as well. This meant that when we stood before Him to be judged, we would receive exactly what we deserved. This, in turn, would be determined by how well we lived our lives as He intended. His standards, not our standards, are what would prevail.

As I go back and read the preceding paragraph, it sounds harsh, even “mean” spirited by today’s standards. In working with children, it is not uncommon to hear a youngster accuse adults who discipline him as being “mean.” In the years before our modernist milieu, being disciplined when caught for behaving badly was expected. Describing punishment as being “mean” never entered into the equation. If the punishment was administered fairly, children accepted this without resentment. As a result, yesterday’s children were much better behaved then those of the current generation.

I can remember my sixth grade teacher, Miss Garrahan, who was a stickler for good behavior. Miss Garrahan was forever reminding us that our top three priorities should be as follows: God was first; Loyalty to our Country was second; and Family was third. Can you imagine talking about God and how He expected us to behave in a Public School setting today? Miss Garrahan rated thinking about one’s self as a poor fourth. Self-centeredness was frowned upon back then. It was considered to be a character defect at best or mortally sinful at worst.

Yes! God and how He expected us to behave was the number one priority in Miss Garrahan’s classroom. The final four things that we would eventually face — Death, the Final Judgment, Heaven, and Hell — were discussed and taken seriously back then. Even though we were young, these values were stamped into our souls — always in the back of our mind. Again, unlike today, we had a healthy fear of Our Lord. He was not our “friend.” Rather, He was and always would be Our Father who meted out His justice with pin-point accuracy, totally free of error or imperfection. It was Our Lord and He alone who decided whether we measured up to His standards. Whether His children viewed Him as being “mean” or not had no influence on how He judged us.

The Way We Are

Over the past fifty years, the fear of God, a gift from the Holy Ghost, is fast evaporating.

As a practicing psychologist, it is most striking to me how grandiose we have become in assessing the “goodness” of our character. How many reprobates declare, “I am a good person,” despite having a long history of despicable behavior? They take Our Lord for granted, believing that an all-merciful God would never send anyone to Hell. Although they ignore God and violate His laws, they will argue that they are no worse than the rest of the human race. In fact, they will insist that they are better than most and can cite a few acts of kindness to support their point. Even Al Capone funded soup kitchens for the poor during the Great Depression. Their conclusion that “I am a good person” is founded on this twisted logic. They hang their hat on the belief that an all-loving God will take them into paradise upon their demise, regardless of the state of their soul. Moreover, they believe that they have no obligation to attend Holy Mass, follow His laws, and receive the sacraments. A free pass into heaven is their right.

The result of the preceding leads to the sin of Presumption. Presumptuous thinking people overestimate their goodness, believing that they are better than they really happen to be. Moreover, they vastly underestimate God’s justice, assuming He so loves His people that He will take them into Heaven even if they violate His commandments.

The Danger of Presumption

The danger of presumptuous thinking is obvious. First, presumptuous thinking people tend to overrate and underrate themselves, their ability, and those persons with whom they interact. Because their thinking is seriously flawed, conducting an honest self-examination of conscience — the first step leading to change — can be an onerous, if not impossible, task. As a result, these poor sinners fail to make needed corrections in their flawed thinking. Rather, they tend to repeat the same maladaptive behavior, which only deepens their problems. Needless-to-say this puts their soul at high risk, which could lead to damnation.

One final point with regard to the preceding should be kept in mind. Because they exaggerate, distort, and misinterpret that which is true, presumptuous thinking people often fail to succeed in dealing with worldly matters as well. Unless their thoughts are identified and altered, this problem is likely to worsen. It is important to keep in mind that presumptuous thinking is often unconscious. The sinner may sink to such a low level of spiritual dullness that he can no longer distinguish between truth and fiction and right and wrong. His self-insight is so poor that he is unaware of how depraved he has become. Lacking insight, makes change difficult. More on this will follow.

Learning to Control Presumption

In order to learn to control presumptuous thinking, gaining self-insight is important. The first step in bringing this about is to identify presumptuous thoughts. Using actual words to describe them should be logged into a journal. Once this has been accomplished, the next step would be to identify productive thoughts, which could replace them. Note that when we put words and sentences onto an experience, that experience, which was once unconscious, becomes conscious. Light replaces darkness. Being aware helps us to think clearly and rationally. Hidden, irrational forces no longer dominate our thought processes. Presumptuous thinking can now be brought under control and managed accordingly.

Persons who are presumptive are rigid in their thinking. They believe that their views should be unquestionably accepted by those with whom they interact. More often than not, however, their interpretations of reality are in error. If these errant interpretations remain uncorrected, their problems only deepen. The following scenario is an example of presumption and the faulty thoughts associated with it. Note the student’s misinterpretation of the surrounding events and the consequences that follow.

Pretend that you are a twenty year old college student and you are taking a difficult math course. The professor has been lecturing for thirty minutes. You don’t understand any of the material that he has presented. The professor, after writing a formula on the board, turns and asks the class, “Does anyone have any questions?” You look around the room. No one raises their hand. You assume the following: “No one raised their hand. They must understand the material. If I raise my hand and ask a question, I’ll look stupid. I don’t want to appear stupid, especially in a class which is obviously filled with such bright students. I’ll just catch up as we go along.” Now let’s conjecture what the professor might be thinking when he sees that no hands are raised: “No one raised their hand to ask a question. Obviously, they must fully understand my lecture. I should now continue to move ahead, building on the material that I just presented.” This same scenario repeats itself again and again until the class ends. The students then exit the room. No questions were asked throughout the entire period.

Let’s now go back to the preceding scenario and examine how presumptuous thinking works. Because the student never raised his hand and asked a question, his situation worsened. Lacking the needed information, he failed to pass the course. Interestingly, most of the other students, who he thought understood the work, also failed the course. They, like him, believed they were stupid even though this was not so. All of these math students had high entrance test scores, which gained them admission to the university. They were all intellectually capable of passing the course. However, they never raised their hand and asked a question when they were confused and feeling “stupid.” Rather, they sat passively, letting time pass. These students grossly underestimated their ability. As a result, they failed when they should have succeeded.

The professor, who thought that his students understood the work because they never asked questions, was erroneous in his perception as well. His lectures were well prepared but poorly delivered. However, he failed to recognize this. The professor continued on the same path. As a result, his students continued to fail and he was rated as being a poor teacher. Imagine if the twenty year-old student had raised his hand and asked questions at the beginning of the term. Perhaps this would have inspired other students to do the same. Moreover the professor, seeing that the students were having difficulty, might have changed his method of teaching. This change might have helped the students to better understand the work and receive passing grades. This, in turn, could have led to the professor receiving better student ratings as well. An entirely different scenario with a productive ending might have occurred if just one student had raised his hand and asked a question on the first day of class.

Presumption: The Devil Verses Eve

The sin of Presumption and the evil that it spawns has existed throughout the course of human history. It began with our first parents, Adam and Eve, and continues to flourish, particularly in those nations, which take God and His mercy for granted and disregard His rightful position as Christ the King. Instead of obeying His laws, like Lucifer, we loudly proclaim, “I will not serve,” and do as we please. Arrogance replaces wisdom, the Gift of the Holy Ghost, and spiritual dullness and moral depravity soon follow.

Let’s go back to the beginning of the Old Testament, the Book of Genesis, when our first parents lived in the Garden of Eden. How might the Devil have lured our mother Eve into committing the sin of Presumption? Certainly she did not begin her day with the intention of disobeying God and tempting her husband to commit the “original sin” and pass that sin on to all their children. What mother would ever wish this upon her offspring? Yet, the unanticipated happened. In order to better understand how presumption might have entered into this context, let’s speculate on how a scenario involving the Devil verses Eve might have unfolded.

Eve is alone in the Garden basking in the sun. A serpent slides out from the long grass approaching Eve. The serpent has big plans today — the seduction of the mother of mankind. He is dressed in his best skin covered attire. Resplendent colors on his coat glisten in the sunlight, adding to its attraction.

The serpent has an unsavory reputation. He must act like a gentleman. Oozing with charm, the “snake oil” salesman slithers up beside Eve, close enough to be seen and heard, but far enough away so that he doesn’t violate Eve’s personal space. He must be careful not to appear overly aggressive. The slightest infraction could put Eve on the defensive.

After a few moments had passed, the serpent greeted Eve in a soft-spoken voice. He introduced himself and commented on how beautiful the Garden was at this time of the year. The serpent then asked Eve if she lived in the Garden. When she answered in the affirmative, the serpent said that he also lived there. He then added, in his most humble manner, that he was thankful to God for allowing him this privilege. The serpent knowingly lied to Eve. He wanted to determine how naïve she might be. Although the serpent claimed that he was a resident of the Garden, Adam and Eve never saw him in all the time that they had lived there. Moreover, God never mentioned the serpent to Adam and Eve. This was a bit surprising since Adam identified and named all of the animals there.

Although there were signs of caution, Eve found the serpent to be an attractive creature. He was “well dressed” and groomed, gentle and soft-spoken, and engaging. Not only was he easy to talk to, but he was a clever little creature. The serpent sparked Eve’s curiosity. She found him to be a bit exciting and mysterious, quite different from the other animals, with whom she was acquainted. In essence, the serpent’s friendly, non-threatening approach fooled Eve. She began to let her guard down and trust the evil one. Because she listened to the serpent, she was lured into believing that she could be like God if she ate the forbidden fruit. However, Eve did not eat the forbidden fruit right away. She ruminated in thinking over the various lies fed to her by the serpent. The serpent told Eve that she had the right to choose and God would expect her to think for herself in determining what was in her best interest. One lie was placed on top of another. Eve never stopped to assess the veracity of the information fed to her by the serpent. She failed to ask herself what God would want her to do. Rather, she allowed herself to become overwhelmed, trying to make sense out of the conflicting material presented to her by the glib serpent, for whom she was no match. As a result, Eve made a poor choice. She and Adam were then exiled from the Garden thereafter.

Let’s go back to the preceding scenario and further examine the presumptuous thinking that led Eve and Adam into being exiled from the Garden of Eden. Eve, after allowing herself to be seduced by the serpent’s charm, ruminated about being like God — she, too, would know the difference between good and evil. All she had to do was to eat one apple from a single tree. What’s the big deal? she thought. All she had to do was to disobey God! That is the big deal, Eve failed to consider in making her decision. Suppose Eve paid attention to the signs of caution mentioned previously. Suppose she had said to the serpent, “What you are promising is very enticing. However, let me talk this over with God to see what He thinks about me disobeying Him.” What events might have followed? Unfortunately, the more that Eve engaged in sinful thinking, the more corrupt she became. As a result, her judgment became so clouded she lost her ability to choose wisely. The gift of Wisdom, given to her by the Holy Ghost, had abandoned her. The consequences were a disaster.

The New Testament and Presumption

Interestingly, the New Testament provides some excellent examples on the danger of presumption and Our Lord’s condemnation of the arrogance and pride associated with this deadly sin. Consider the Gospel of Saint Luke 18, 9-14, which is as follows:

At that time, Jesus spoke this parable to some who trusted in themselves as being just and despised others. “Two men went up to the temple to pray, the one a Pharisee and the other a publican. The Pharisee stood and began to pray thus within himself: ‘O God, I thank you that I am not like the rest of men, robbers, dishonest, adulterers, of even like this publican. I fast twice a week; I pay tithes of all that I possess.’ But the publican, standing afar off, would not so much as lift up his eyes to heaven, but kept striking his breast, saying, ‘O God, be merciful to me the sinner!’ I tell you, this man went back to his home justified rather than the other; for everyone who exalts himself shall be humbled, and he who humbles himself shall be exalted.”

The anti-dote for presumption, as Our Lord makes clear, is humility. It is humility that draws God’s graces to us and provides us with the spiritual fortitude to hold the evil one at bay in the quest to save our soul. This short, but powerful gospel drives this point home.

Our Lord’s distain for the pride and arrogance manifested by the Scribes and Pharisees is blatantly pointed out in the Gospel of Saint Matthew 23, 1-12. Again, the importance of humility as the panacea for the hypocrisy of the social climbing ruling class is emphasized. In reading this gospel, I was struck with how similar this was to our current politically correct climate and the behavior of those whom we elect to office. Our Lord’s words, which were spoken over two thousand years ago, are as follows:

At that time, Jesus spoke to the crowds and to His disciples, saying, “The Scribes and the Pharisees have sat on the chair of Moses. All things, therefore, that they command you observe and do. But do not act accordingly to their works; for they talk but do nothing. And they bind together heavy and oppressive burdens, and lay them on men’s shoulders; but not with one finger of their own do they choose to move them. In fact, all their works they do in order to be seen by men; for they widen their phylacteries, and enlarge their tassels, and love the first places at suppers and the front seats at the synagogues, and greetings in the market place, and to be called by men ‘Rabbi.’”

Lastly, let me offer this crown jewel from Saint Luke’s Gospel wherein Our Lord gave us His holy counsel on how to control our thoughts so we can make better choices and avoid becoming presumptuous. The wisdom conveyed in this short but poignant lesson is a masterpiece on the virtue of humility. Christ’s words are as follows:

But He also spoke a parable to those invited, observing how they were choosing the first places at the table, and He said to them, “When you are invited to a wedding feast, do not recline in the first place, lest perhaps one more distinguished than you have been invited by him, and he who invited you and him come and say to you, ‘Make room for this man ;’ and then you begin with shame to take the last place. But when you are invited, go and recline in the last place; that when he who invited you comes in, he may say to you, ‘Friend, go up higher!’ Then you will be honored in the presence of all who are at table with you.” (Gospel. Luke 14, 1-11)

The final words, which are recorded at the end of the parable, put the final touch on what we must do to avoid becoming a victim of the sin of presumption: “For everyone who exalts himself shall be humbled, and he who humbles himself shall be exalted.” This is the standard set by Our Lord. If we meet this expectation, we will never have to defend ourselves claiming that, “I am a good person,” when we know we should have done better.