Last week, we wrote here about the problem of temptation. Today, we want to discuss what is in many ways the root of all temptation: pride. The 18th century Anglican clergyman Thomas Adam declared, “Pride thrust Nebuchadnezzar out of men’s society, Saul out of his kingdom, Adam out of paradise, Haman out of court, and Lucifer out of heaven.” Even if I’m not entirely sure about that last one, it is no wonder that Scripture repeatedly calls pride a sin. To foreshadow our sermon series a bit moving forward, James writes, Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will exalt you (Jam 4:10). Citing Proverbs 3:34, he says, God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble (4:6).
Augustine called pride the greatest of all sins, because it means we displace God and worship ourselves. C.S. Lewis has an entire chapter devoted to pride in his classic word, Mere Christianity, entitled “The Great Sin.” He writes: “According to Christian teachers, the essential vice, the utmost evil, is Pride. Unchastity, anger, greed, drunkenness, and all that, are mere fleabites in comparison…Pride leads to every other vice: it is the complete anti-God state of mind.”
Pride is an insidious thing. It invades every facet of our lives. We can be proud of ourselves. We can be proud of our accomplishments. We can be proud of our possessions. We can be proud of our country. We do all these in a way that robs glory from the one who deserves it—God. We can even be proud of our humility! Like a fellow I knew who, without a shred of irony, once told me, “You know, I’m one of the most humble people I know.” That’s something, but it’s not humility.
So how do we deal with this issue in a culture that tends not merely to not view pride as a negative, but, in fact, celebrates it as a virtue? It is true that pride can be used in a good sense, even in Scripture. Pride in the sense of self-respect and dignity is admirable, even necessary. We are created in God’s image, and so we should never disparage ourselves; we have worth. We cannot love our neighbor as we love ourself if we don’t have a healthy self-love!
But Scripture usually sees pride as an evil. It is synonymous with arrogance, self-importance, conceit. And it is repeatedly called a sin. It is something that God hates (Pro 6:16-19). Haughty eyes and a proud heart…are sin (Pro 21:24). It is one of the sins that characterizes degenerate society in Romans 1. In fact, if you recall from last week, the pride of life is one of the avenues used in temptation.
What are some of the negative consequences of pride that we might have to deal with? For one thing, it causes us to overvalue material things. We are plagued in our society with trying to keep up with the Joneses. We buy things we do not need, with money we do not have, to impress people we do not know. We end up trusting in our possessions, talking about ourselves and taking care of our own, all the while forgetting that we don’t really have anything—all of our blessings are ultimately from God and belong to him. We would have nothing if not for his goodness. Of course, we can also be proud of our poverty: if we make a show of our humble circumstances, that’s not humility. True humility allows us to put material things in their proper place: blessings from God to be enjoyed for what they are.
Pride also causes arguments. Pride…breeds quarrels (Pro 13:10 NIV). If you put 2 know-it-alls in the same room, you have the irresistible force and the immovable object; neither will back down or admit they might be wrong, and the arguments continue on and on. Do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly. Never be wise in your own sight. (Rom 12:16). I like the way the Living Bible paraphrases that: Don’t try to act big … And don’t think you know it all. Those arguments provoked by pride could be avoided if we would humble ourselves.
Most seriously, a lack of humility inhibits our relationship with God. For one thing, it will prevent conversion. We must humble ourselves like a little child to enter the kingdom, as Jesus says (Mt 18:4); meanwhile, Felix’s stubborn pride kept him from responding to the gospel (Acts 24:25). Then, too, we have to humble ourselves to confess our sins. It’s not easy to say, “I’m sorry—I was wrong.” But we need to be able to say that to God (1 Jn 1:8-10) and to others (Jam 5:16; Mt 18:15-17). Perhaps most dangerously, we can be tempted to trust in our own virtues rather than the grace of God. The Pharisee in Luke 18, for instance, was guilty of this sort of pride. Whenever we find our religious life is making us feel superior, we can be sure that is the Devil acting on us—not God. He is perfectly happy to see us become virtuous, all the while filling us up with pride, because it is a spiritual cancer; it eats away the possibility of contentment, service, and love for God.
So how can we overcome pride? Well, first of all, we have to realize that we are proud. That’s actually a big step! At least, nothing can be done before we do that. If we think we aren’t—like my friend who boasted of his humility—it means that we are very conceited indeed.
Secondly, we need to remember our own fallibility. We all make mistakes, we make bad decisions, we say things that are stupid and do things that are embarrassing. One of the things that makes Paul admirable is that he never glosses over his past. Again and again he reminds himself and us, “I am the chief of sinners, saved by the grace of God.” It’s alright to feel good about yourself in a healthy sense. But we need to stop and remember our fallibility too; it will help us develop proper humility.
Thirdly, we need to remember God’s sovereignty: He is in charge. As Americans, we particularly value self-reliance. We must reach the point where we will come before God and say, “God, I need help! I can’t save myself. I can’t change myself. I need you.” I am as guilty of trying to do it alone as anyone. We must come to God and admit that He’s in charge and in control.
Finally we need to develop a sense of service, of being willing servants. Jesus summed up his mission in Mt 20:28 that, The Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life as a ransom for many. I think particularly of how he demonstrated that by washing the disciples feet in John 13. This was the most menial of tasks, yet he was willing to humble himself, to serve, to do it. The whole purpose of it was to teach them humility. They had just been arguing about who was greatest; he cleansed their feet to cleanse their hearts of pride. But how many in the church are still trying to be on top instead of reaching for the towel?