Pride - The Root of All Sin III

As I’ve said before, in our post-modern, capitalist world of a success-oriented culture, most are probably familiar with the expression, “you must sell yourself.”  In a grotesque caricature of this opportunistic motto, some cynical people might see this as prostituting oneself for business or employment.  Oddly enough though, there might be a grain of truth to that.  Please understand, I am not comparing job interviews and resumes to a hooker standing on a street corner hustling potential ‘johns’ to patronize their harlotry! What I am saying is that in a commodity-driven domain (much of the world), where everyone competes for jobs, or businesses compete for clients, people often must hustle and embellish the presentation of their abilities or skills to get hired or attract clients.  It sounds crude but it is true.  A cursory look at job search statistics speaks volumes to this blunt reality.  According to Jobsearch Canada Inc., a study revealed that out of the estimated 250 resumes an organization receives for a corporate opening, roughly six applicants get called for an interview, and only one gets the job.  Mind you, this is in Canada, but I suspect the numbers are similar in several other developed countries.

James Ellis, considered one of the foremost authorities on employer branding, affirms that job applicants have an average of 5-6 seconds to get their resume accepted or tossed.  He compares resumes to commercials and maintains that an applicant must assess which details to leave out of a resume and save for an interview to better impress their potential new employer.  In short, Ellis punctuates resumes as “marketing documents,” to showcase what an amazing candidate you are.  

Self-promotion isn’t limited to employment or business either.  Just look at all the dating sites online and you’ll find a growing number of people looking for romance across the cyberscape.  In 2022, more than 366 million people used online dating services worldwide with Internet dating generating 2.86 billion U.S. in revenue for the same year.  According to Statista, a German online data gathering platform, it is estimated that by 2027, there could be up to 440 million online dating users worldwide.  Currently, there are approximately 8,000 online dating sites competing for people seeking romance.  The most popular are Tinder, Badoo, Plenty of Fish, and Bumble.  There are also scores of niche market dating sites as well, such as Over 50, Extreme Age Gap, and Bald Dating, just to name a few.   There are even Christian dating sites, such as e-Harmony, Elite, Match, and Christian Mingle.  

Another facet to online dating is that it’s not only used for romance.  In a February 2020 article in The Economic Times, Tinder is being used for marketing and political campaigning –another conduit for self-promotion.  A cursory look on any search engine will reveal dozens of sites educating people on how to better present oneself to potential lovers, with the tactic of embellishing one’s best qualities or traits in the hopes of attracting Mister or Miss Right.  I am not saying that online dating is necessarily wrong for Christians; there are differing views on that within Christendom and there is nothing in scripture that explicitly forbids this approach to finding a soulmate.  What I am saying, is that—like any venture in life—we, as followers of Christ must follow the moral/ethical principles found in the word of God so as not to cross that subtle line into an ironic foolhardy pursuit that so many of us can easily traverse with the intention of pursuing something valid.

If any of us are honest with ourselves, we’ll admit that we’ve all promoted ourselves—depending on the reason—to get a job or attract clients, to varying degrees, and for those of us looking for love, a date.  It’s as much a part of our modus operandi as professionalism or personal hygiene.  Yet, it does underscore a harsh truth about human beings: no matter how much we profess to care about each other, we’re often drawn into an orbit of rivalry that can sometimes appear like Social Darwinism, in a survival-of-the-fittest dynamic.  It’s just the way our world is.

For those of us who profess to follow Christ, we must decipher between healthy and malicious competition.  This rings true for any venture, and, as it is with all forms of pride, if we’re successful, we’ll negotiate that precipice between hubris and false humility –without falling.

With that in mind, is it necessarily a sin when we promote ourselves to achieve our goals in life, be it jobs and careers, business, or dating?

Well, according to Stefanie Sword-Williams, author of F*ck Being Humble: Why Self Promotion Isn’t a Dirty Word (2020), people tend to get hung up on self-promotion coming across as arrogant. Sword-Williams asserts that the aim of this book is to help those who seek to overcome shyness and gain self-confidence.  Through this book—and her online mentoring platform by the same name—she believes that she has helped thousands of people present themselves and their abilities rather than waiting until they are ‘experts’ in their relative fields to promote themselves.  This reasoning seems to align with those of the Aristotelian mindset on pride.  The key distinction in this is Sword-Williams' assertion that self-promotion must be applied in increments and that self-promotion—and self-confidence—doesn't necessarily have to reflect competence, at least not in a fully developed sense.  

She believes that this incremental self-promotion of small achievements can be a display of ongoing development to be noticed before a promotion or hiring.  Sort of a precursor to ‘milestones of success.’  She professes to believe in humility but not at a cost to personal success, which she sees as a problem in her country (the U.K.) because of a culture that she thinks vilifies self-promotion.  Interestingly, she sees the U.S., on the contrary, as a country with a culture that celebrates self-promotion.

As with other forms of humanism, this view contrasts sharply with the biblical worldview of self-promotion.  As we see in Proverbs, Solomon points to diligence—not self-promotion—as the ethically sound way to gain recognition. “The hand of the diligent will rule, while the slothful will be put to forced labor.” (Prov. 12:24).  “Do you see a man skillful in his work? He will stand before kings; he will not stand before obscure men.” (Prov. 22:29).  Conversely, on self-promotion, Solomon wrote: “Do not put yourself forward in the king’s presence, or stand in the place of the great, for it is better to be told, ‘Come up here,’ than to be put lower in the presence of a noble.” (Prov. 25:6-7) To stress a point about the futility of human pride, Jesus quoted this proverb as recorded in Luke 14:8-11 to illustrate the foolhardiness of premature self-promotion and he also reflected the divine view of self-promotion in his Sermon on the Mount, where he tells us, “Beware of practicing your righteousness before men to be noticed by them; otherwise you have no reward with your Father who is in heaven.” (Mat.6:1, NASB) 

As with all forms of pride, this of course begs the question: Can we still ethically promote our personal brand when competing for careers, business, or dates without committing the sin of pride? 

In a July 2023 article in Themelios, the online journal of The Gospel Coalition, an evangelical, multi-denominational ‘watchdog’ alliance, author and leadership coach Miranda Carls attempted to address the issue of reconciling the apparent opposition between humility and self-promotion.  In the article, How Can I Lead a Quiet Life When My Job Requires Self Promotion? Carls implies that the pursuit of self-promotion seems to contradict Thessalonians 4:11-12, which tells us to lead quiet lives.   Carls cites the proliferation of social media in post-modern culture and with that, people exhibiting everything in their lives from pay increases to family outings.  The advent of reality TV shows, talent shows, and the Internet in the early twenty-first century almost seems like a fulfillment of a secular proverb mistakenly attributed to pop artist Andy Warhol, in which he supposedly said that everyone wanted to be famous, to which photographer Nat Finkelstein replied, “Yeah, for about fifteen minutes,” at a photo-op for one of Warhol’s art shows in 1968.

“strike a balance between downplaying achievements and subtly showcasing them to maintain authenticity and engage with others effectively.”

Another form of self-promotion is a less conspicuous, but equally pretentious one known as ‘humblebragging.’  The term was first coined in the early 2000s by comedic writer, Harris Wittels, who wrote for several TV shows, most notably NBC’s Parks and Recreation.  Since then, it has been woven into the vernacular of a growing number of people in the English-speaking world, particularly the online world.

The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines humblebragging as the act of making, “a seemingly modest, self-critical, or casual statement or reference that is meant to draw attention to one’s admirable or impressive qualities or achievements.”  The Urban Dictionary defines it as speaking, “in a covert yet boastful manner,” and, “to show off with indirect phrasing.”  Psychology Today defines it more acutely as “showcasing achievements under the guise of self-deprecation or false modesty” so a person can, “subtly highlight their accomplishments while maintaining a facade of humility.”

In a July 3, 2023, blog from the online magazine for The Balancing Act, a morning TV show about women’s lifestyles, humblebragging was viewed through the Aristotelian lens as an effective tool for personal branding and social validation.  In their view, it is cast as an art textured by manipulative nuances and social tactics designed to “strike a balance between downplaying achievements and subtly showcasing them to maintain authenticity and engage with others effectively.”  

Those who humblebrag probably know that overt bragging (self-exaltation) is pompous and frowned on by a lot of people.  Therefore, to flex their egos, humblebraggers try to sound humble while boasting.  I’m reminded of people who have said, “I can’t believe I got ninety-eight percent on that exam!  The teacher must’ve really dumbed that one down!”

The realm of Christian psychology however, casts it in a less flattering way. 

Brandi Gann, a mental health counsellor and bible teacher based in Tennessee, said in a February 2016 blog titled, “Humblebragging” is Still Bragging and God Knows It! that the prevalence of humblebragging in social media circles is commonly manifested in posts whereby a person will talk about others bragging on them.  A classic example of this would be someone saying, “Bill said I’m the best (or most talented, skilled, intelligent) person in this world that he has ever met, and that he admires me.”   To echo Gann’s observations on a similar humblebrag she saw on a post, it’s good that Bill complimented that person, and that the one being complimented acknowledges that, but it’s always more appropriate to let Bill tell others about the compliment rather than by the person being complimented.  This is a clear indication to others that the person talking about the compliment is trying to brag while being ostensibly humble.  Gann says that most people are not tricked by this tactic, and I would agree.  I can personally attest to encountering more than a few people over the course of my life, who are guilty of this behavior.

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