It might surprise people today to know that pride comes first in the longstanding list of seven deadly sins. In Scripture, “a proud look” or “haughty eyes” also tops the list of seven things God hates (Proverbs 6:16-17). Yet most people agree that there is a type of pride that is good.
It seems good, for example, to take pride in your work or in some achievement of excellence. We feel right about encouraging our children to be proud of themselves — not in an egotistical sense, but in a way that promotes healthy self-respect.
If pride is a feeling of satisfaction at a job well done or a healthy sense of worth as one made in God’s image, it’s not necessarily a bad quality.
The ugly side
But let’s be honest, there’s an uglier side to pride that is all too obvious. Sometimes it comes in “the form of inordinate self-congratulations” or a “blend of narcissism and conceit that we detest in others and sometimes tenderly protect in ourselves” (C. Plantinga).
When pride involves a blend of self-absorption with an overestimation of one’s ability or worth, it’s a destructive force that is anti-community and, more importantly, anti-God. “What sin makes God seem more irrelevant? God wants to fill us with his Holy Spirit, but when we are proud we are already full of ourselves. There’s no room for God” (Plantinga).
Augustine depicted pride as the great political enemy in the city of God. Scripture teaches that, “God resists the proud and gives grace to the humble” (I Peter 5:6 ). “According to traditional Christian wisdom, a main problem with pride is that it recognizes neither sin nor grace; in fact, pride hammers them flat and discards them” (Plantinga). This is why a proud heart is opposed by God.
For a long time there was widespread agreement in our culture about the evils of sinful pride. But attitudes toward pride have shifted significantly. “What has changed is that, in much of contemporary American culture, aggressive self-regard is no longer viewed with alarm. Instead, people praise and promote it.” Are we now living in an ego-centered culture in which “human life degenerates into the clamor of competing autobiographies?” In such a culture, the self exists to be explored, indulged and expressed but not disciplined or restrained” (Plantinga).
For a cultural gut-check, enter American Idol: the self-esteem movement on steroids. It stretches credulity to believe that all of those who audition really believe they can sing well. Is this what we wanted to accomplish by making self-esteem the primary goal of education? This show repeatedly features people with harmful levels of self-delusion. Perhaps this is one contributing factor to the pervasive struggle with depression in our culture. Our expectations are too high because our egos are too inflated. What a set-up for disappointment!
The original sin was pride. It was the sin that occasioned the fall of Satan himself. We learn this in a New Testament list of qualifications for church leaders. The leader “…must not be a recent convert, or he may become conceited and fall under the same judgment as the devil (I Timothy 3:6, NIV). Conceit is defined in another scriptural passage warning us, “Don’t think you are better than you really are. Be honest in your evaluation of yourselves” (Romans 12:3, NLT). Another translation warns not to “think more highly of yourself than you ought.” This is at the heart of sinful pride.
While exposing pride, we must not encourage false humility. Some people are so humble they’re proud of it. Pre-tending to be humble isn’t the same as actually being humble. Pretentious humility is self-refuting. Those who use humility to seek out praise are perhaps the most proud. Discerning people will see through this behavior.
Humility doesn’t require one to continually engage in self-deprecation. We must learn to think soberly about ourselves. This often necessitates the help of others when we miss the mark. True self-perception is slippery territory but it’s possible to be both humble and aware of one’s gifts. Admitting our sins, faults and limitations fosters stronger humility. Being humble involves showing deference to others in a courteous and respectful manner. It’s the opposite of precocious arrogance, boasting and self-absorption.
What did Jesus teach?
Jesus both taught and demonstrated humility as God’s way for us (See: Luke 22:24-30; John 13:1-17; Philippians 2:3-10). Jesus pronounced blessing on the poor in spirit, not the proud in spirit (Matthew 5:3). Humility, according to Jesus, is the mark of true greatness. “At that time the disciples came to Jesus and asked, “Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” He called a little child and had him stand among them. And he said: “I tell you the truth, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Therefore, whoever humbles himself like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 18:1-4). “And whoever exalts himself shall be humbled; and whoever humbles himself shall be exalted. (Matthew 23:12 NAS)
Jesus said, “If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me will find it. What good will it be for a man if he gains the whole world, yet forfeits his soul?’” (Matthew 16:24-26).
Let’s learn from Jesus Christ the joy and freedom that comes with humility and self-denial. Those who take the path of self-denial in an age of self-expression, self-worth and self-indulgence, will be set free! A proud heart is an imprisoned heart. A humble heart that looks to God is free and full of grace.