The Bad Kind of Pride

What does Scripture say about sinful pride (see Jam 4:6; 1 Pet 5:5) and the dangers that even believing teachers face (see Rom 2:1-3, 21)?  In each of these passages in James and 1 Peter, the authors quote the Greek translation of Proverbs 3:34 (“God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble”).  Sinful pride bring on the opposition of God, therefore it is very great sin.  It is so dangerous that even those who we often consider holy or well-schooled in God’s word are susceptible to being grossly blind to identical sins in their lives that they are teaching against.  Pride is a particularly pernicious kind of sin because it is so deceptive and liable to deceive even teachers of God’s word.

“The sin of moral superiority and self-righteousness is so easy to fall into today,” Jerry Bridges writes, “when society as a whole is openly committing or condoning such flagrant sins as immorality, easy divorce, a homosexual lifestyle, abortion…Because we don’t commit those sins, we tend to feel morally superior and look with a certain amount of disdain or contempt on those who do.”  I suppose that we can so easily drift into the pride of moral superiority and then develop a spirit of contempt toward those who practice those sins.  It is apparent to me that believers who are pursuing a morally-upright lifestyle tend so often to self-righteousness because we compare ourselves to the wrong standard.  We are content to see ourselves in light of a degraded and depraved culture, because it usually allows us to feel good about ourselves.  This favorable (but illicit) comparison of our moral standards with the world’s conduct naturally lends itself to the birth of morally superior pride, and then matures into either a spirit or outspoken contempt toward people who commit the “big sins”.  But what we fail to recognize is that we are comparing ourselves to the wrong standard (the world), and completely missing the point that we are called to a higher, holy standard as revealed in the Scriptures.  We are like people bragging to others because we are not as dirty as pigs or rats.  What blindness!  So what!  That is not the point!  And I think we know it deep inside.  We know that we cannot stand in our own outward righteousness before our holy God, so we simply decide not to.  Instead we opt to wash our filthy, sin-stained clothes in detergent that we know will not make us clean in the sight of God, but will at least make us more “clean” that the culture in which we live.

Ask youself, to what kind of people did Jesus tell the parable about the self-righteous Pharisee?  And why is this significant to us (see Luke 18:9)?  Jesus knew exactly what he was doing when he addressed the parable of the Pharisee and tax collector to the morally superior folks of his day.  He knew that the Pharisees were self-righteous, and that the tax collectors were considered filthy, traitorous, worldly sinners by the culture.  He knew that selecting the two extremes (holy and filthy), and turning the tables on what we expect him to teach is exactly what prideful, morally self-righteous people need to hear—that they (we) are far from the kingdom of God, and that unless we repent of our good works then we will never be made right with God.  Justification, vindication, and the blessing of God’s favor will remain forever elusive for those who are too good to repent of their goodness.  This is significant for us today because we are all guilty of treating others who are committing the “bigger” sins with contempt.  Although the Scripture is clear that there are indeed degrees of sin and sinfulness, in the final analysis it is not about the size of your sin, it is about who is humble and repentant before God.  The ethics of Jesus and his kingdom are counter-intuitive.  It is those who are humble who he will exalt, and those who are proud, self-righteous, and morally superior that will be humbled, brought low, and ultimately left outside weeping and gnashing their teeth at God for being “unfair” to them because they are the “good” ones.

Believers who care deeply about a particular belief system are susceptible to pride of correct doctrine—thinking that people who hold other beliefs are theologically or spiritually inferior.  Paul’s words to those prideful believers who concluded that eating food sacrificed to idols fell within the bounds of Christian liberty (See 1 Cor 8:1) are applicable to us today.  Pride in right knowledge and doctrine is apparently a sin that goes back a long time.  The church at Corinth was puffed up with its knowledge of the correct bounds of their Christian liberty.  Paul plainly declares that this kind of puffed-up knowledge is sin because it destroys (!) weaker brothers and sisters in Christ.  I’ve seen this sin rampant in the Presbyterian and Reformed world.  This tradition in the Church has earned its bad reputation when it comes to being puffed up in doctrinal superiority.  I suspect this is the case because theologians in the Reformed tradition are very careful to be intentionally faithful to the Bible alone when deriving and constructing their theology.  And I’ve witnessed doctrinal arrogance at the Reformed seminary where I studied (mostly in the students and rarely in the professors).  And surprise, surprise—I’ve even fallen victim to the sin being arrogantly doctrinaire.  But I’m not a “victim” of this sin as if I caught some disease in seminary.  That sin was in my heart (and theirs too) well before I began to study the Bible systematically.  And it is not just a sin of people in the Reformed tradition.  I’ve witnessed it everywhere I’ve been: the Church of Christ, charismatic circles, seeker-sensitive evangelical churches, even in the emerging church!  Pride in one’s doctrine is everywhere, and it is a difficult sin to combat, because dismissing doctrine is not the answer.  Those who dismiss the value of doctrine in favor of living the Christian life in simple faith are just as guilty of doctrinal arrogance.  They are proud that they have it all figure out—that doctrine is not necessary!  Self-righteousness is the kind of sin that bubbles to the surface in all ponds.  Surely I note it in my own heart even today, and seek to combat it through humility, confessing it as sin to God, and loving my neighbors who have different theological convictions as myself.

Pride also appears in the desire for achievement and independence.  Where does our ability to achieve or succeed come from (See Gen 45:4-8; 1 Sam 2:7; Dan 2:21; Hag 1:5-6)?  In light of these verses, there should never be a hint of pride in our achievements and perceived independence, because all that we have (including our abilities and circumstances) comes from the good hand of God.  God sent Joseph to Egypt ahead of his family and raised him to a position of power to preserve the covenant family line.  God raises up and removes kings in every nation, and he proved it in the case of Nebuchadnezzar.  God gives and withholds the material blessings of labor when it is appropriate to his purposes.  As the apostle Paul said, there is therefore no room for boasting.

Read 1 Corinthians 4:7 and ask how relevant are Paul’s words to us today?

For who sees anything different in you? What do you have that you did not receive? If then you received it, why do you boast as if you did not receive it? (1 Cor 4:7)

In this passage, Paul is rebuking the Corinthian believers for their boasting in things they have, in who they are, and in what they know.  It is as if he is speaking directly to Americans in our day.  We are the most wealthy nation in history, and yet we are exceedingly proud of our achievements, in our wealthy and material prosperity, and in our favored status among the nations (that we attained to amazingly in less than 200 years from our birth as a nation).  We are the Corinthians of this age!  Paul’s words must be heard, not only by our nation as a whole, but especially by the American church.  We are exceedingly blessed with freedom, wealth, peace, and a host of other privileges.  To much is given, much will be required.  We must not boast in what the Lord has blessed us with.  We must employ our blessings to serve our weaker brothers and those who are less fortunate in our communities, extending all the way to the ends of the earth.  And this must begin with each one of us in our hearts and in our plot of kingdom land.  What will I do to expand God’s kingdom and bring grace to others?  What will you do?

How does God feel about a proud heart? (See Ps 101:5; Prov 16:5; 21:4)  How does He feel about our failure to acknowledge His gracious blessings?  God does not suffer (proud) fools lightly. He will not endure a proud look or even an arrogant spirit.  God will punish the proud because they are (gulp!) an abomination to him.  I say “gulp” because I frequently associate the word “abomination” with sexual perversion.  We’ve all had the OT verse drilled into our heads that homosexuality is an abomination to the Lord—and it is.  But pride is also in the same category of sin to God?  Yes, the same Bible teaches so.  I’m sure I’ll think about that the next time I am tempted to spiritual or moral pride.  I’ll be sure to acknowledge God’s gracious blessing on my life because that is the only way to steer away from sinful pride.  To give thanks for God’s grace (his unmerited favor) in my life should be the end of all pride.  It must.  To neglect to give God thanks is to commit the sin of ungodliness, which is akin to either ignoring him or spitting in his face.

There are several biblical principles that help us guard against a sinful desire for personal recognition (See Luke 17:10; Ps 75:6-7).  When it comes to the prideful desire to receive recognition from man for achievement, effort, or righteousness, I confess that I sometimes struggle with jealousy.  I’m not different for everyone else.  We all want to be recognized and honored.  We are hard-wired for glory.  But since the fall, we naturally crave it for ourselves at the expense of our neighbor and God.  But I suspect that most of us would be a little ashamed if we were honored for what we honestly do.  Most of our lives are lived in the mundane.  Even those of us in higher profile positions will not be remembered in 100 years.  So in the end, even the great ones are ordinary.  What we really need to realize is that what we should crave is recognition, reward, and glory from God and not merely men.  And we should not have an opinion of ourselves that exceeds who were really are—servants who if faithful are just doing our duty.  Besides, the good personal recognition we all desire in some degree comes from the Lord.  God is even the source of it if it is before men.

Proverbs 2:1; 3:1; 4:1; 5:1; and 7:1 speak to the sin of an independent spirit (in the context of a father-son relationship).  The principles taught in these verses are relevant to the juxtaposition of prideful independence versus a teachable spirit.  It is interesting that several of the sections of Proverbs begin with a father pleading with his son to hear his wise, godly instruction.  We as sons are called to be teachable and attentive to fatherly counsel.  Most sons conclude by the time they are teenagers that their fathers don’t know anything.  As the joke goes, a few years later they are amazed at how much their fathers learned in so few years!  This is funny because we are familiar with those who don’t have a teachable spirit, who think they know everything but don’t even know how much they don’t know.  But it ceases to be a laughing matter when it comes to the way we as Christians so often respond to Biblical counsel as it comes to us through the sermons we listen to or even directly as speech to our lives particularly.  Many people tune out or jump ship when they are called to submit to the instruction of their elders.  This is a manifestation of prideful independence and lack of teachability. May God help me to listen to the godly advice of my spiritual elders in my life, and to have a wise and discerning mind to recognize advice that is biblically faithful and that which is not.

Then there is the sin of selfishness.  What is the root of our selfishness (See Gen 3:1-6; Jer 17:9; Hos 6:7; Rom 7:17-20; 8:6-7; Gal 5:16-17; Eph 2:3)?  According to the Scriptures, the root of our selfishness is the evil desires that lie within our hearts.  Eve was the first to give in to the desire to please one’s self rather than to obey God.  When she tempted Adam to do the same, he was carried away into the kingdom of darkness by his own selfish desires.  The sin in our heart is described as the “flesh” or sinful nature in the Bible.  When we transgress the law of God, we break covenant with him and become selfishly unfaithful by pursuing our own wicked desires rather than yielding to the good and perfect divine plan he has for us.

There is a very convicting phrase in 2 Timothy 3:1-2 that describes a selfish person.  In this passage, the selfish person is described as a “lover of self”.  This is so convicting because this is a cardinal virtue in our society.  We are told that we must love ourselves if we are to be able to love others (to be selfless).  Ironically, if we are to translate this cliché we could say you must first be selfish in order to be selfless.  What foolishness!  And we as a society (and the Christians who live in this society) swallow this whopper!  God’s word is exactly contrary.  Self-esteem (loving oneself) comes from loving others and loving God.  For he who seeks to save his life will lose it; and he who loses his life for Jesus’ sake and the gospel’s sake will certainly find life.  That is the opposite, and it is the truth.  Which will I choose to believe?  Obviously I choose Jesus, but I can swim against the strong current of selfishness that prevails in the world and in my flesh by his grace and the power of the Spirit.  You must do the same, otherwise you (and I) will have an appearance of godliness, but will be denying its power (2 Tim 3:5).

Because time is precious, it’s easy to be selfish with it.  The following verses reveal some interesting things about sharing our time with others (See Acts 9:36; Rom 16:2; Gal 5:13; 6:2; 1 Thess 5:14; Heb 6:10; 1 Pet 4:10).  The question before us is, is it wise or right be selfless with our most valuable and limited resource—our time?  All of these passages in the NT urge us to use our time to serve, not ourselves, but others.  It is interesting that several of these verses describe historical examples of people who used their time and talents to serve others, and they are eternally honored for it through enshrinement in the Bible.  These people gave of themselves for God’s glory.  They humbled themselves, and therefore God exalted them.

In contrast to someone who is inconsiderate—not thinking about how what he or she says or does affects other people—what does God say about being considerate (See Tit 3:1-2; Jam 3:17).  I recall a pastor-teacher who once questioned whether he was called as a Christian to be nice to people.  He honestly thought that he was not called to be kind and gentle, but only to be truthful when it came to his relationships with other people.  And because I respected this person, I confess that I actually considered his reasoning.  Thankfully God’s Spirit was kind and gentle enough to me to convince me that teach is wrong.  God is clear that we as believers are called to be nice to people and to be considerate.  Courtesy is not just good manners, being considerate is a way to put the interests of others ahead of ourselves.  In a word, it is a way to mirror Christ.  And to mirror Christ is the death of pride and selfishness.

As I examine my life, it is a little depressing to me that sinful expressions of pride and selfishness tend to surface not in a particular area of my life, but in every area of my life.  In some respects, that should be expected because it is a psychological myth that we as people can segregate or compartmentalize areas of our lives so that tendencies in one area would not surface in others.  But on the other hand, it is still depressing to recognize that I’ve got evidence of expressions of these kinds of sins all other the place!  At home, pride and selfishness manifest themselves in my parenting and relationship with my wife.  I’m tempted to think that I’m a pretty good dad who’s got it all together—until I get angry and snap at my children.  I’m tempted to think that I’m a good husband, until I find myself pushing my wife’s buttons to get her to say or do what I want.  How prideful!  How selfish!  How pathetic.  Just last night, I attended a session (elders) meeting at my church where we shared dinner together.  One of the elders had to leave before dinner to attend to an emergency situation in a family whom he ministers to.  So in his absence, there was a few extra slices of pizza.  So what did I do?  Not the selfless thing, which would have been to pray for my brother and his ability to effectively minister to the hurting family.  No, I snagged an extra slice of pizza, not even considering that he might be back to eat.  And that’s exactly what happened.  He sat next to me in the meeting eating the two last pizza slices and never once complained about his meager portion.  He was so gracious and true to character.  Me?  I was feeling a little bloated from all the dough in my distended stomach.  How selfish!  I could give other examples of my pride and selfishness rearing its head during my seminary classes, in recreation with friends, and especially in my thought life.  So when it comes down to it, I’m pretty prideful and downright selfish at times in all areas of my life.

One aspect of my life that I have seen maturity and growth is in my ability to have conversation with others without steering it discussion immediately to myself, my thoughts, and my desires.  In the past I was much more brash and outspoken as I am now.  Part of the change can be attributed to finally learning (the hard way) that words quickly spoken often lead to humiliation of me or the other person.  A recent example of this is when I was attending a Christian conference out of town where I didn’t know anyone.  A couple of recent converts to the faith graciously invited me to have dinner with them, and we quickly because friends.  Throughout the rest of the night I found myself content just getting to know them and answering their questions about me, without trying to steer the conversation to my own interests.  At one point, my new friend showed me his blog (which was pretty cool) that included many articles/posts he had written about various issues surrounding the Church.  Several times I tried to show him my blog to express that I too am a blogger and that we have that in common.  But the way the conversation was progressing, I sensed that it would be best to focus on him and his excitement over what he had written.  I found myself rejoicing in how much the Spirit had transformed his life and was teaching him through his worship and discipleship experience at his church.  What about attention focused on me?  “So what” I found myself thinking.  And that was a major victory for a guy who struggles with being selfish and prideful.  Praise God that he’s still working on me.

In terms of my checkbook and calendar, I find it is hard for someone in vocational ministry to assess whether I am being selfish or not—especially since I love my work.  I would do it for free if I could.  My calendar is booked with family and ministry time.  Very little time is devoted to myself and my personal interests.  Some might point out that blogging (particularly personal journal-type blogging) is inherently selfish—even narcissistic.  But I find that I write not so much for the attention, but more for the benefit of my readers.  In fact I write this article to better answer questions about pride and selfishness at my next small group Bible study, and to pursue holiness to please God.  My checkbook reveals that most of our money is spent on home and family expenses, and not too much on entertainment or “toys”.  Most of the “toys” we own are gifts we’ve received.  My one weakness I suppose is buying books, but as a teacher of God’s Word I use what I learn to edify other Christians who God puts in my path.  I don’t mean to boast at all about these things since God has faithfully taken care of me and my family through the years.  We are content with what he has given to us.  And if you are wondering, my family tithes to our local church.  Again, I mention it not to boast in how good I am (as you can see I’m a sinner just as the rest), but to demonstrate that God changes sinners like myself to give up things like time and treasure for his glory.  Left to myself, I would certainly not choose to do these things.

I note that the sins of pride and selfishness are the polar opposite of the fruit of the Spirit (love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control).  While on first glance one could argue that some of these fruit could conceivably be done with a prideful and selfish attitude, it is in reality impossible.  By the Holy Spirit’s help, I need to make changes in my life to become more patient (to combat selfish desires to have my own way right now) and gentle (to combat my prideful heart that can be so rude to others—including those I love).  My prayer is for God to work in my heart to accomplish these seemingly impossible changes.

Lord God, I am mindful of the areas of sinful pride and selfishness that have taken root in my life, in fact all areas of my life are infected with these terribly destructive sins.  I confess them as abominations in your sight.  They might be more respectable than other sins that we call more heinous, but they are offensive to you, and you desire to purge them from your people.  God, please do your work on my heart to purse these sins from me.  I ask that you would even use means that prove painful to eradicate pride and selfishness from me so that I may more gloriously reflect the image of your perfect and holy Son Jesus Christ.  Continue to make me less mindful of myself and more mindful of the needs of others.  For your glory and your kingdom.  Amen.

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