In Dante’s Purgatorio, pride is the first sin punished. Penitents carry heavy boulders on their back, forcing proud heads to stoop so the gaze of their smug eyes never leaves the earth. Elsewhere, Dante compares proud persons to children, which suggests pride is a characteristic of spiritual adolescence.
So, it’s not outside the realm of possibility that covenant children, especially teenagers, will have seasons of incorrigible youthful arrogance. Teenagers with this condition are unsociable and uncivilized. Unsociable because, like Gorgon, everyone else in the room turns to stone—laughter fades, wonder evaporates, and valiance vanishes. Uncivilized because solemn conceit ruins everyone else’s day. A scoffing spirit fills the room and suppresses the virtue of others. Courage is debunked. Wonder and learning are debunked. Self-sacrifice is debunked. Obedience is debunked. Thinking of others is debunked. Love is debunked.
Those who blow the sly breeze of self-congratulation haven’t quite grasped that other people aren’t interested in those quite interested in themselves. In sum, youthful arrogance is when a teenager pretends they are the universe. It’s a disposition of self-absorption and sinful self-love.
This proves difficult for parents and teachers, who wish to help the young soul to maturity. A complex interaction of spiritual, developmental, and psychological forces produces a bewildering kaleidoscope of youthful arrogance that is hard to understand. Youthful arrogance is built on three founding myths: I am special; I am the central presupposition; I have a theory for that.
First, I am special
Proverbs 10:4 says, “A slack hand causes poverty, but the hand of the diligent makes rich.” Those who think themselves special say, “I’m going to be rich when I’m an adult, but I’m not going to work hard like the chumps.” Proverbs 3:13-14 say it is better to gain wisdom than riches and Proverbs 4:24 says, “Put away from you crooked speech, and put devious talk far from you.” Those who think themselves special say, “I’d tell a lie if it resulted in a large profit.” Proverbs 10:17 says, “Whoever heeds instruction is on the path to life, but he who rejects reproof leads others astray.” Those who think themselves special say, “Who are they to correct me?” Proverbs 10:8 says, “The wise of heart will receive commandments, but a babbling fool will come to ruin.” Those who think themselves special say, “I’ll babble whatever I want, whenever I want.”
In other words, those with inflated self-regard bluff that the wisdom of God doesn’t apply to them. In the Proverbs, God says, “The world normally works this way.” The arrogant remonstrates, “I’m not normal; I’m the exception; I’m special.” It’s an ill-placed certainty that the wisdom of God doesn’t apply to me.
Second, I am the central presupposition
It’s fitting in John Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress that the character Ignorance hails from the town of Conceit. Ignorance is described as a “very brisk lad” who is going to the Celestial City. The trouble is Ignorance doesn’t enter the narrow path at the Wicket-Gate that is at the head of the way. He enters through a crooked lane. Nevertheless, Ignorance is confident he will gain entrance to the Celestial City because he tithes, gives alms, and lives a good life. Ignorance responds to Christian’s objection by saying, “Be content to follow the religion of your country, and I will follow the Religion of mine.” Ignorance is wise in his conceit. He takes the journey alone rather than join the pilgrims. When he trusts his own heart, Christian points out this is deceitfulness and the Word of God is the only trustworthy testimony. Ignorance responds, “I will never believe that my heart is thus bad.”
When someone thinks they know what is good and evil without relying on Scripture, they’ve made themselves the standard of knowledge. So, when they read a book with words they don’t understand, they think, “How dumb for the author to use those words that I don’t understand.” When they see someone take the narrow path, they think, “Why would anyone do that?”
Consider, Dillon, a teenager with youthful arrogance. He blasphemies what he doesn’t understand (Jude 10) in fits of disinterested conjecture. Dillon is suspicious of those who don’t start where he starts, namely, with Dillon. He is suspicious of great men and great ideas because they aren’t Dillon’s ideas. He can’t see the merit in lowering himself to the level of Aristotle or Edmund Burke, who foolishly write complicated sentences with words and ideas that no one could possibly understand. Dillon presses on with an abiding hostility against all that is non-Dillon.
Third, I have a theory for that
The fact that young people are preoccupied with theories over events—speculation over theology—suggests a lack of sense of how the world works. This is the case because the experiences of the young are limited. Old people know how the world works because they’ve lived it. When the Proverbs warn against venting (Prov. 29:11), the experienced person hears the wisdom because they know experientially that venting isn’t as cathartic as advertised. When Proverbs 18:2 says, “A fool takes no pleasure in understanding, but only in expressing his opinion,” the experienced person hears the wisdom because they’ve seen a thousand blithering fools.
When a wise person hears the latest world-altering theory, he pats it on the head and forgets it the next day. Why? Because he’s seen the rise and fall of hectoring ideas his whole life. When an arrogant youngster hears the latest theory, he embraces it full of cocksureness, certain that the whole climate of opinion will turn in this direction. As Chesterton once quipped, “His cunning is infantile.” Young people’s theories on the world are too depersonalized, not accounting for the human lives that animate God’s world with consciousness, will, failure, progeny, responsibility, prejudice, and inheritance. The arrogant youth measures other people’s worth by what they have achieved but then insists that other people measure him by what he postulates.
To identify and address youthful arrogance head-on is not to relegate these children to a cursed caste. Parents and teachers can help poor souls afflicted with youthful arrogance. The goal is to reverse the founding myths of youthful arrogance. I am special becomes God is special. I am the central presupposition becomes God is the central presupposition. I have a theory for that becomes God’s Word has spoken to that.
Consider several strategies for ministering to such as these.
First, help the weak and be patient with them all (1 Thess. 5:14).
A chess game has many moves before checkmate. Likewise, there will likely be many small moments before the child is humbled. There is not one perfectly delivered dad-speech that will fix it. Like most change, the path from pride to humility is slow and gradual. Parents can model humility, teach modesty, and offer correction. They can also pray that the Lord’s good providence orchestrates life circumstances to humble the child. Christ was humiliated before glory. Our covenant children will be no different. To exalt yourself is to imitate the fall of the devil. To humble yourself is to imitate the ascension of the Lord.
Second, help them see that ontology trumps autonomy.
For covenant children in the twenty-first century, autonomy is the alternative to submission to God. Autonomy is rebellion against their ontological placement in the covenant, a rebellion that visualizes a future apart from the efficaciousness of the covenant bond. When covenant children are baptized, they are united to Christ (Rom. 6:1-3). This is the objective (i.e. ontological) meaning of baptism. When covenant children manifest prolonged periods of youthful arrogance, they are failing to embrace the objective gift of God’s grace (1 Pt. 5:6-7). The only proper way to receive the Kingdom is as a helpless babe (Mark 10:13-16), which requires receiving God and his grace.
Chesterton said, “The fullest possible enjoyment is to be found by reducing our ego to zero.” There are two things suitable for this task. First, a proper understanding of the evil in one’s own heart, and that Christ was scourged, mocked, and crucified because of the sin of his people. Second, a proper consideration of the God of the covenant, who chose an undeserved sinner, placed his covenant sign on him, and distributed undeserved grace and glory, revealing divine holiness, power, and majesty.
Third, help them embrace the beauty of the gospel.
The gospel message is this: You are not God! There is only one true God and you are not him. The prideful soul is full of calamity. There is only one thing that gives calm and quiet to the soul (Ps. 131:2) and it is Christ alone as revealed in Scripture alone (James 1:21). In the cross of Jesus, God does everything, leaving you with nothing to put your pride in. It is Jesus who saves. It is not we, but he who saves. It is his going to the cross and submitting himself as the Lamb of God and having our sins put upon him by the heavenly Father. It is Christ bearing the strokes of wrath that were meant for you. He does it all, which means there is nothing left for you to boast in except Christ, and Christ alone (1 Cor. 1:31).
G.K. Chesterton, Heretics (Nashville: Sam Torode, orig. 1905), 53-55.
Jason Cherry is an elder at Trinity Reformed Church in Huntsville, Alabama, as well as a teacher and lecturer of literature, history, and economics at Providence Classical School in Huntsville. He graduated from Reformed Theological Seminary with an MA in Religion and is the author of the book The Culture of Conversionism and the History of the Altar Call and the forthcoming book The Making of Evangelical Spirituality (Wipf and Stock).
 Let’s not pretend for a second that arrogance is only a sin of the young. Any person, old or young, can fall prey to excess self-regard and selfishness.