The Perils of Pride
- 2007 20 Apr
Winston Churchill, who perfected the art of the clever put-down, once described a political opponent as “a modest little man who has a good deal to be modest about.” The last part of his remark is an accurate description of me — though I can’t say I’m humble, I certainly have much to be humble about! My general ineptness is well known to all who have even a casual acquaintance with me, and that’s no exaggeration.
If you were to speak to any of my friends, they would confirm how I continually surprise them with fresh discoveries of my inadequacies. I even provide them a certain degree of entertainment, especially when it comes to the hands-on and the mechanical.
A while back, someone informed me that my car’s rear left tire — or was it the rear right? — was low on air. Now, in fact, I had no idea how to put air in a car tire. (Really). So I turned to a friend — a close friend, I’ll have you know — and asked for his help.
In such a moment, the godly and servant-hearted response from a friend would be to cheerfully answer, “Yes, let me help you.” Instead, my good friend exclaimed, “I cannot believe it. I cannot believe it! You don’t know how to put air in your tire?”
On and on like this he went, until he faced me squarely and added, “You, my friend, are a moron.”
My friend was merely having fun at my expense, but the truth of the matter is that on a previous occasion I had actually tried, on my own, to put air in my car’s tire. As I knelt to place the air hose on the stem — or whatever that little dealy’s called where you attach the hose to the tire — the extremely loud noise that erupted was an intimidating PHHHHT! PHHHHHHT!
Then a loud ringing started: DING DING DING DING! I was suddenly consumed by an intense fear that my tire was only seconds from blowing up. It’s going to explode, I told myself, and you’re going to die. And at your funeral, all your friends — while wiping away tears in the midst of their mourning — will be shaking their heads and saying to themselves, “What an idiot!”
I’m convinced that the sum effect of my attempt that day was only to let out more air than I put in. And as I drove away from the station with a badly underinflated tire, I could almost hear the faint sound of the station attendant’s laughter following me home.
Against All Logic
Now you might assume that in a normal human being, such ineptness couldn’t possibly coexist with any significant measure of pride. Someone as unskilled as I am would, naturally, be humble, right? However, let me assure you beyond doubt that both incompetence and pride are very evident in my life. Let me illustrate with another story.
One day my daughter informed me that our car was making a strange noise, so I went out to investigate. She tried to prepare me, but in no way did I anticipate the violent shrieking that assaulted my ears upon starting the car. I immediately turned off the engine.
In such a moment, wisdom demands one course of action only: Get out of the car, walk back into the house, and call a trustworthy auto-repair service.
That would have been the appropriate and prudent response. Instead, I followed the arrogant male instinct, which requires at bare minimum that the male lift the hood and stare intently at the engine. After all, neighbors might be watching, and we want to at least give the appearance that we have some mechanical knowledge.
But given my personal history, what groundless self-assurance could possibly motivate me to lift the hood to examine my engine? The only thing I actually know how to do is check whether the container for window-washer fluid needs refilling! So I checked that — with great authority. (It was more than half full).
Then I shut the hood (also with great authority) and, proud fool that I am, got back into the car and turned the ignition once more — as if my having merely stared at the engine was sufficient to repair it; as if the broken parts were now calling to one another, “He’s seen us! Get back together, quick!”
Yet as I turned the key again, the same violent shriek issued forth.
Only at this point did I finally go back in the house to do what I should have done earlier: I telephoned the repair shop to notify them of my car’s condition — fully ready to pass along to them my firm conviction that the problem was not the window-washer fluid container.
Doesn’t pride have a strange way of ignoring reason altogether? The sad fact is that none of us are immune to the logic-defying, blinding effects of pride. Though it shows up in different forms and to differing degrees, it infects us all. The real issue here is not if pride exists in your heart; it’s where pride exists and how pride is being expressed in your life. Scripture shows us that pride is strongly and dangerously rooted in all our lives, far more than most of us care to admit or even think about.
In his essay, “Pride, Humility & God,” John Stott wrote the following: “At every stage of our Christian development and in every sphere of our Christian discipleship, pride is the greatest enemy and humility our greatest friend.”
In the previous column, we saw the promise of humility — the gracious support of God. But we must also be aware of the great perils of pride — not just occasionally or under certain circumstances, but at every stage and in every sphere. Throughout our time on this earth, and in every arena of our lives, you and I share a common greatest enemy: pride.
The First Sin
Pride has quite the history, one that precedes Adam and Eve.
Pride, it seems, was the very first sin. Isaiah 14 records the downfall of a king, but not a mere earthly ruler. This king is the embodiment of God-defying arrogance, but the language used here apparently references the rebellion and fall of Satan himself.
In Isaiah 14:13, the motivation behind Satan’s rebellion is exposed: “You said in your heart, ‘I will ascend to heaven; above the stars of God I will set my throne on high.’” Led by the prideful Lucifer, powerful angelic creatures possessing beauty and glory far beyond our comprehension arrogantly desired recognition and status equal to God Himself. In response, God swiftly and severely judged them.
Pride not only appears to be the earliest sin, but it is at the core of all sin. “Pride,” John Stott writes again, “is more than the first of the seven deadly sins; it is itself the essence of all sin.”
Indeed, from God’s perspective, pride seems to be the most serious sin. From my study, I’m convinced there’s nothing God hates more than this. God righteously hates all sin, of course, but biblical evidence abounds for the conclusion that there’s no sin more offensive to Him than pride.
When His Word reveals those things “that the LORD hates” and “that are an abomination to him,” it’s the proud man’s “haughty eyes” that head up the list (Proverbs 6:16-17).
When the personified wisdom of God speaks out, these clear words are emphasized: “I hate pride and arrogance” (Proverbs 8:13, NIV).
And consider the divine perspective on pride revealed in Proverbs 16:5: “Everyone who is arrogant in heart is an abomination to the LORD; be assured, he will not go unpunished.”
Stronger language for sin simply cannot be found in Scripture.
Contending with God
Why does God hate pride so passionately?
Here’s why: Pride is when sinful human beings aspire to the status and position of God and refuse to acknowledge their dependence upon Him.
Charles Bridges once noted how pride lifts up one’s heart against God and “contends for supremacy” with Him. That’s a keenly insightful and biblical definition of pride’s essence: contending for supremacy with God, and lifting up our hearts against Him.
For purposes of personal confession, I began adopting this definition of pride a few years ago after I came to realize that, to some degree, I’d grown unaffected by pride in my life. Though I was still confessing pride, I knew I wasn’t sufficiently convicted of it. So rather than just confessing to God that “I was proud in that situation” and appealing for His forgiveness, I learned to say instead, “Lord, in that moment, with that attitude and that action, I was contending for supremacy with You. That’s what it was all about. Forgive me.”
And rather than confessing to another person, “That statement was prideful on my part; will you please forgive me?” I began saying, “What I just did was contending for supremacy with God,” and only then asking for the person’s forgiveness. This practice increased a weight of conviction in my heart about the seriousness of this sin.
Pride takes innumerable forms but has only one end: self-glorification. That’s the motive and ultimate purpose of pride — to rob God of legitimate glory and to pursue self-glorification, contending for supremacy with Him. The proud person seeks to glorify himself and not God, thereby attempting in effect to deprive God of something only He is worthy to receive.
No wonder God opposes pride. No wonder He hates pride. Let that truth sink into your thinking.
God’s Active Opposition to Pride
Now let me ask you: What do you hate?
I’ll tell you what I hate. I’ve got two lists. One is a silly list that begins with foods that I sometimes think must be products of the Fall. I detest meat loaf. I loathe sauerkraut. And I hate cottage cheese. I even hate it when anyone eats cottage cheese in my presence; it ruins my appetite.
I also despise any and all professional sports teams from New York City — that’s simply part of my heritage, being born and raised in the Washington DC area.
But that’s just the beginning, a little sampling of my silly list of things I hate. I also have a serious list of things I hate. I’m sure you have one, too.
I hate abortion.
I hate child abuse.
I hate racism.
What do you hate?
You and I hate nothing to the degree that God hates pride. His hatred for pride is pure, and His hatred is holy.
In his Commentary on the Book of Psalms, John Calvin wrote, “God cannot bear with seeing his glory appropriated by the creature in even the smallest degree, so intolerable to him is the sacrilegious arrogance of those who, by praising themselves, obscure his glory as far as they can.”
And because God cannot bear with this arrogance, He reveals Himself in Scripture as actively opposed to pride.
“God opposes the proud, ” says James 4:6 and 1 Peter 5:5. “Opposes” in this statement is an active, present-tense verb, showing us that God’s opposition to pride is an immediate and constant activity. The proud will not indefinitely escape discipline.
We would do well to note pride’s peculiarly destructive power. In his Advice to Young Converts, Jonathan Edwards called pride “the worst viper that is in the heart” and “the greatest disturber of the soul’s peace and sweet communion with Christ.” He ranked pride as the most difficult sin to root out, and “the most hidden, secret and deceitful of all lusts.”
Despite this thorough understanding of its ugliness, Edwards himself constantly battled his own pride (a fact which gives me hope, knowing I’m not alone in this struggle). “What a foolish, silly, miserable, blind, deceived poor worm am I, when pride works,” Edwards once wrote in his diary. In his sermons and in his vast writings he constantly warned against pride, especially spiritual pride, which he viewed as the greatest cause of the premature ending of the Great Awakening, the revival that had brought so much spiritual vitality to the church in Edwards’s day.
Pride also undermines unity and can ultimately divide a church. Show me a church where there’s division, where there’s quarreling, and I’ll show you a church where there’s pride.
Pride also brings down leaders. “Pride ruins pastors and churches more than any other thing,” Mike Renihan writes in his essay “A Pastor’s Pride and Joy” from Tabletalk. “It is more insidious in the church than radon in the home.” When you read about the next public figure to fall, remember Proverbs 16:18 — “Pride goes before destruction, and a haughty spirit before a fall.” That person’s situation might appear circumstantially complicated, but at root it’s not complicated: Pride goes before a fall.
God’s Merciful Warnings
The warnings from Scripture about pride could not be more serious and sobering. But they’re an expression of God’s mercy, intended for our good.
Don’t you think God is merciful to warn us in this way? He reveals this sin to our hearts and identifies its potential consequences. He is merciful, and He intends to protect us. So throughout His Word, God exposes pride as our greatest enemy.
By unmasking pride — as well as introducing us to humility, our greatest friend — God lays out for us the path to true greatness, a path that we see most clearly in our Savior’s life and death. We’ll begin walking that path together in the next column.
Excerpt from Humility by C.J. Mahaney. Used with permission.
C.J. Mahaney leads Sovereign Grace Ministries, a church-planting ministry with a growing international family of churches. He also is the author of several books and a contributor to the Together for the Gospel blog. This column is adapted with permission from his book, Humility: True Greatness (Multnomah Publishers, Sisters, OR).