Developing the identity, attitude, and conduct of a humble servant does not happen over night. It is rather like peeling an onion: you cut away one layer only to find another beneath it. But it does happen. As we forsake pride and seek to humble ourselves by daily deliberate choices in dependence on the Holy Spirit, humility grows in our souls.
“Pride is your greatest enemy, humility is your greatest friend.” So said the late John R.W. Stott, a remarkably humble man of great abilities and accomplishments who is often said to have made the greatest impact for Christ of anyone in the twentieth century. His succinct statement about pride and humility goes straight to the heart of what the Bible teaches about the deadly root of our sins and sorrows.
How many recent sermons have you heard on pride or humility? Probably not many. One hears surprisingly little from church or parachurch leaders about either of these subjects. In fact, what throughout history has been recognized as the deadliest of vices is now almost celebrated as a virtue in our culture. Pride and arrogance are conspicuous among the rich, the powerful, the successful, the famous, and celebrities of all sorts, and even some religious leaders.
And it is also alive and well in ordinary people, including each of us. Yet few of us realize how dangerous it is to our souls and how greatly it hinders our intimacy with God and love for others. Humility, on the other hand, is often seen as weakness, and few of us know much about it or pursue it. For the good of our souls, then, we need to gain a clearer understanding of pride and humility and of how to forsake the one and embrace the other.
C.S. Lewis, another top contender for having had the greatest impact for Christ in the twentieth century, called pride “the great sin.” Every believer should read his chapter by that title in Mere Christianity.
There Lewis said,
According to Christian teachers, the essential vice, the utmost evil, is Pride. Unchastity, anger, greed, drunkenness, and all that, are mere flea bites in comparison: it was through Pride that the devil became the devil:
Pride leads to every other vice: it is the complete anti-God state of mind…it is Pride which has been the chief cause of misery in every nation and every family since the world began.1
If this sounds like exaggeration, it will help us to know that Lewis is not simply giving us his private opinion but summarizing the thinking of great saints through the ages.
Augustine and Aquinas both taught that pride was the root of sin.2 Likewise Calvin, Luther, and many others. Make no mistake about it: pride is the great sin. It is the devil’s most effective and destructive tool.
Why do the great spiritual leaders, Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, and Protestant alike, unite around this conviction? Because it is so clearly and solidly taught in Scripture.
Pride first appears in the Bible in Genesis 3, where we see the devil, that “proud spirit” as John Donne described him, using pride as the avenue by which to seduce our first parents. Taking the form of a serpent, his approach was simple yet deadly. First, he arrogantly contradicted what God had said to Eve about eating the forbidden fruit and charged God with lying.
This shocking rejection of God’s word introduced Eve to the hitherto unknown possibility of unbelief and was intended to arouse doubt in her mind about the truthfulness and reliability of God. In the next breath, the devil drew her into deeper deception by contending that God’s reason for lying was to keep her from enjoying all the possibilities inherent in being Godlike. This clever ploy was aimed at undermining her confidence in the goodness and love of God and arousing the desire to become as God.
The desire to lift up and exalt ourselves beyond our place as God’s creature lies at the heart of pride. As Eve in her now confused and deceived state of mind considered the possibilities, her desire to become Godlike grew stronger. She began to look at the forbidden fruit in a new light, as something attractive to the eyes and pleasant to the touch. Desire increased, giving rise to rationalization and a corresponding erosion of the will to resist and say no.
Finally, weakened by unbelief, enticed by pride, and ensnared by self-deception, she opted for autonomy and disobeyed God’s command. In just a few deft moves, the devil was able to use pride to bring about Eve’s downfall and plunge the human race into spiritual ruin. This ancient but all-too-familiar process confronts each of us daily: “Each person is tempted when he is lured and enticed by his own desire. Then desire when it has conceived gives birth to sin, and sin when it is fully grown brings forth death” (James 1:14–15).
From this point on in the Bible, we see the outworking of pride and unbelief in the affairs of individuals, families, nations, and cultures. As people lose or suppress the knowledge of God, spiritual darkness grows and a psychological inversion occurs: in their thinking God becomes smaller and they become larger. The center of gravity in their mental lives shifts from God to themselves. They become the center of their world, and God is conveniently moved to the periphery, either through denial of his existence or distortion of his character. Self-importance and godless self-confidence grow stronger. The cycle that follows is familiar: people exalt themselves against God and over others. Pride increases, arrogant and/or abusive behavior ensues, and people suffer.
On a national level, this is writ large in the history of Israel and surrounding nations, especially in the indictments delivered by the prophets of the eight and sixth centuries BC. Blinded by power and the unprecedented affluence of the eighth century, prideful leaders in Israel embraced a corrupted view of God, trusted in their own wisdom and power, oppressed their people, ignored his call to repent, and thereby invited his judgment, which fell with disastrous results.
There are also many biblical examples of pride and its consequences in the lives of individuals, and they offer valuable lessons for our own lives. Often their stories are self-contained in one chapter and make for easy reading. One of the more notable examples from the Old Testament is that of Uzziah, who was a believer. When he became king of Judah at age sixteen, he set his heart to seek God and put himself under the spiritual mentorship of Zechariah. And “as long as he sought the Lord, God made him to prosper” (2 Chron. 26:5). As a result, he acquired wealth and also became politically and militarily powerful. Then things changed. “His fame spread far, for he was marvelously helped, till he was strong. But when he was strong, he grew proud, to his destruction” (26:15–16).
What happened? There are hints in the text that at some point on the road to the top, he stopped seeking the Lord and the spiritual mentoring of Zechariah. This suggests a lessening dependence on God and a growing reliance upon himself and his own strength and wisdom. History shows at every point how easy it is for pride to increase as we become stronger, more successful, more prosperous, and more recognized in our endeavors. In fact, anything, real or imagined, that elevates us above others can be a platform for pride. Ironically, this is true even when these things come as a result of God’s blessings.
As a result of all his blessings, Uzziah, rather than humbling himself in thanksgiving to God, began to think more highly of himself than he should have and developed an exaggerated sense of his own importance and abilities. This pride of heart led to presumption before God and brought very serious consequences upon him, illustrating the biblical warnings that pride leads to disgrace (Prov. 11:2) and that “pride goes before destruction” (Prov. 16:18). I encourage you to read and meditate on Uzziah’s full story in 2 Chronicles 26. The stories of Haman (Esther 3–7) and Nebuchadnezzar (Daniel 4) also offer valuable insights into pride and are well worth reading.
This is evident today in the dangerous pride in some political and business leaders in the West. We have only to look around us at the current state of political life in America to see examples. Pride and arrogance are obvious in many political leaders, whether liberal or conservative, making matters much worse than they need to be. Or consider the business and financial catastrophes we have experienced in recent years. A thoughtful article in the Wall Street Journal after the WorldCom and Enron debacles attributed them to “pride, greed and lack of accountability.” The recent financial crisis in America is yet another example of the same thing. Clearly pride is very dangerous and can produce widespread suffering in society when people in leadership and power are corrupted by it.
Pride also affects religious people. Few people today seem to be aware of the danger of spiritual pride, but spiritual leaders throughout the history of the church have always seen it as a great plague and tool of the devil. Even in times of revival, it is a danger. Commenting on the revival in Northampton, Massachusetts, in 1737, Jonathan Edwards said:
The first and worst cause of errors that abound in our day and age is spiritual pride. This is the main door by which the devil comes into the hearts of those who are zealous for the advancement of Christ. It is the chief inlet of smoke from the bottomless pit to darken the mind and mislead the judgment. Pride is the main handle by which he has hold of Christian persons and the chief source of all the mischief that he introduces to clog and hinder a work of God. Spiritual pride is the main spring or at least the main support of all other errors. Until this disease is cured, medicines are applied in vain to heal all other diseases.3
An instructive lesson on religious pride from the New Testament is found in the Parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector (Luke18:9–14). It is aimed at those “who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and treated others with contempt.” It addresses spiritual pride, an especially subtle and dangerous temptation of religious people and leaders, which has been very much in evidence in recent years.