Our Sins: Pride


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Once again, this current evening series on “Our Sins” was interrupted: two weeks ago by David Scott’s sermon on the love of money and worldly gain and last Lord’s Day evening by Jay Stoms’ sermon on the power of the gospel and the certainty that Christ will build his church. It is interesting how most of the sermons that have interrupted this evening series have dealt with “our sins” as well: first Pastor DeMass on sexual sin and then Mr. Scott on the love of money. This was not part of the plan and I am sorry that this evening series has been delivered piecemeal, but, in these interruptions, we have been fortunate nevertheless to hear fine sermons that have been related to the theme.

So far in our series we have considered the importance of a Christian having and carrying about with him or her a living sense of sin and we enumerated some of the blessings that come to us from an honest reckoning with how much wrong still remains in our hearts and our lives. We also described the two-dimensional problem we face: SIN and sins: SIN being the underlying and fundamental penchant for sin and love of sin and bent toward sin that lies deep within us and sins being the many particular violations of God’s will that come up from below. We also discussed the question, much discussed in the history of Christian theology, whether we can identify a bottom sin, an essential sin, the one sin from which all our sinning comes. We decided last time that the Bible really does not answer that question for us and quite often identifies or distinguishes specific sins. It does not treat all our sins as various manifestations of but one sin. And it summons us to deal with our sins individually, specifically, one by one and shows us how to do that. Then we considered the first two of the sins that I want to cover in this series: first, the sin of worldliness, using the term in the deeper sense of that forgetfulness of what is unseen, that way of living that is shaped by our tendency to pay little or no attention to the reality that is known only by faith, that way of living in which the world is taken to be all there is; and second, last time, the sin we called “form over freedom,” a contentment with an outward, dutiful Christian life at the expense of the inward engagement of the heart and the affections.

These sins, as I said, do not make a typical list. In this series I’m interested in considering sins that, I think, we too often do not, at least fully, recognize for what they are. They lie lower down and too often, I fear, out of sight. We see our many violations of the commandments themselves, but we miss the more fundamental sins from which our daily sinning draws its strength. I am after in this series the sins that are the mother of so many of our particular transgressions. As I said last time, these sins we are considering we might liken to the trunk and the largest branches of the tree. If we could get at these sins, if we could put these sins to death, the leaves and blossoms – our individual sins of lust, of selfishness, of dishonesty, anger, laziness, disrespect, and envy would wither and die. There are three more of these sins that I want to consider and the next one is Pride.

Listen to the Word of God from Isaiah 57:15:

“For this is what the high and lofty one says – he who lives forever, whose name is holy: I live in a high and holy place but also with him who is contrite and lowly in spirit…”

Humility, in other words, is the essential prerequisite of fellowship with God. And again and again throughout the Bible this point is made: whether in memorable statements such as this one or that in Isa. 66:2 – “This is the one I esteem: he who is humble and contrite in spirit, and trembles at my word” –, or in powerful illustrations such as that of the prodigal son or Peter at the great catch of fish, or in the relentless logic of the gospel as Paul sets it out step by step in Romans 1-11. It is the knowledge of one’s sin, one’s moral failure, one’s complete inability to escape the degradation of his nature that is the first step to salvation and continues to be the engine that drives a life of faith in Christ. It was, therefore, not a stretch for Augustine to say,

“Should you ask me what is the first thing in religion? I should reply: the first, second, and third thing therein is humility.”

And the same point is made negatively in the Bible a thousand times. When Paul wants to characterize the unsaved man, he speaks of him as a lover of himself, boastful and proud (2 Tim. 3:2). And the Bible is littered with immortal pictures of man in his pride, from Lamech to Nebuchadnezzar, from Hezekiah to Peter. When Paul says that Christ died that we might no longer live for ourselves what is he saying but that such is the natural motive of the human heart: to please oneself (2 Cor. 5:15; Rom. 15:2). And what, of course, used to be the essential characteristic of his heart remains, as we know, far too much the truth about the Christian’s character. What Christian would dare deny that it is still true of himself or herself far too much of the time that

I lived for myself, I thought for myself,
For myself and none beside –
Just as if Jesus had never lived,
As if he had never died.

Now, I realize that pride usually finds a place in almost any list of sins. It is, as we saw earlier, even one of the two primary candidates for the basic or bottom sin of human life, the sin from which all other sins spring. But there is pride and there is PRIDE. Once again, I’m not sure we Christians have really grasped the nettle of this sin. They think of it, as we do so often think of all our sins, as largely a specific failure of obedience – at such and such a point we were proud when we should have been humble – that is, as a discrete, separate violation of a commandment of God’s law. We are less likely to see it as a fundamental condition of our hearts, a self-referential perspective that we bring to absolutely everything in our lives. Everyone thinks he or she knows what pride is, but I’m not sure that is so. Nor do people – even Christian people – recognize how many of their failings are the direct result of their pride. They don’t immediately make the connection between pride and envy, pride and unkindness, pride and laziness, pride and crankiness, pride and cruelty and so on. We are more likely to think of pride as a sin rather than as the mother of the many other sins and defects of our characters. Pride is, in fact, a complex condition in the human heart and its baleful effects are everywhere in our lives. It is also the most subtle of our sins, so subtle, indeed, that it is not unusual to find ourselves or someone else acting very proudly at the very moment he imagines himself or we imagine ourselves to be most humble.

We have, for example, been treated of late – even, if not especially, in our Reformed evangelical circles – to a curious kind of speech in which someone speaks of how “broken” he is. This is the new term, the 21st century certification of someone’s seriousness about sin. People speak of their being “broken,” or their “brokenness” and I have heard this way of speaking many times now, especially in testimonies, that is Christians’ personal accounts of their spiritual experience. It is, of course, all to the good to be broken in the sense of having come face to face with one’s sin and badness. We are broken people – objectively that is; we are a wreck of moral thinking and living – and if we honestly recognize that fact, there is certainly a sense in which we ought to be able to describe ourselves as broken subjectively as well. Used in this way, “broken,” as a subjective condition, becomes a synonym for “humble” and therein lies the problem. Imagine substituting “humble” in the sentence I have now heard in many different variations: “I am a broken man.” Here is a style of humility that seems suspiciously like its opposite, drawing attention to one’s humility, to the honesty and candor with which one has faced the truth about himself. [cf. James Neuchterlein, First Things, (October 2001), 8] It has long been seen by wise men as a particular temptation for Christians to admire and want others to admire their humility and to use the acknowledgement of their sins to seek that admiration. William Cowper sketched the problem in an 18th century verse.

When I would speak what thou hast done
To save me from my sin,
I cannot make thy mercies known,
But self-applause creeps in.

In his classic of Reformed spirituality, The Memoir of Robert Murray McCheyne, Andrew Bonar asked in the mid 19th century: “Is it possible…for a person to be conceited of his miseries? May there not be a deep leaven of pride in telling how desolate and how unfeeling we are?” [23]

The Scottish theologian, John Baillie, recollected how once in an autobiography he read the words, “I have never lost the childlike humility which characterizes all truly great men.” [Cited in Dudley-Smith, John Stott, ii, 452] We easily recognize a statement like that for what it is. It is like the preacher acquaintance of my grandfather who, in the early years of the 20th century, would advertise his coming to some town with banners hung over the main street proclaiming the soon arrival of “The World’s Greatest Evangelist.” That sounds obviously wrong to us, but we can still be beguiled into thinking that self-assertions of humility should be taken as proof of the broken spirit and contrite heart.

Once in a saintly passion
I cried with desperate grief,
‘O Lord, my heart is black with guilt,
Of sinners I am chief.’

Then stopped my Guardian Angel
And whispered from behind,
‘Vanity, my little man!
You’re nothing of the kind!’

Well there is a sense in which every sinner can say, “…of whom I am the worst,” but there is definitely also a sense in which our pride can take a secret pleasure even in the fact that we outdo others in sin – at least to the extent that we can say so publicly and gain the approval of others for our humility. In Christian circles we admire the great sinner who honestly acknowledges his sin, as we should. The problem is that the great sinner is not, therefore, to admire himself for owning up to his sins! He is not, in that way, to admire his sins for the opportunity they provide to present himself as an outstanding Christian and deeply spiritual man. In my experience, when people, even when Christians say how broken they are, they intend for you to admire their humility, not to agree that they are really as awful as they claim or that they are really the abject failures and no-accounts that they are describing themselves to be.

Far better the advice given by great men whose humility was the observation of others and would never have been the confession of their own mouths. “Talk not about myself,” was the advice Charles Simeon confided to himself in his journal. Sound advice that and the best way not only to be humble but eventually to be known to be so. The humble man is far more likely not to talk about himself at all than to tell you how broken he is. One of the most insightful of all the Screwtape Letters is the 14th which, if you remember, begins this way.

“My Dear Wormwood,

The most alarming thing in your last account of the patient is that he is making none of those confident resolutions that marked his original conversions. No more lavish promises of perpetual virtue, I gather; not even the expectation of an endowment of ‘grace’ for life, but only a hope for the daily and hourly pittance to meet the daily and hourly temptation! This is very bad!

I see only one thing to do at the moment. Our patient has become humble; have you drawn his attention to the fact? All virtues are less formidable to us once the man is aware that he has them, but this is specially true of humility. Catch him at the moment when he is really poor in spirit and smuggle into his mind the gratifying reflection, ‘By Golly! I’m being humble,’ and almost immediately pride – pride at his own humility – will appear. If he awakes to the danger and tries to smother this new form of pride, make him proud of his attempt – and so on, through as many stages as you please….

You must…conceal from the patient the true end of Humility. Let him think of it not as self-forgetfulness but as a certain kind of opinion (namely, a low opinion) of his own talents and character…. To anticipate the Enemy’s strategy, we must consider his aims. The Enemy wants to bring the man to a state of mind in which he could design the best cathedral in the world, and know it to be the best, and rejoice in the fact, without being any more (or less) or otherwise glad at having done it than he would be if it had been done by another…

When you have the time, read that excellent letter and take the whole of it to heart. But you take the point. The truly humble man will not tell you how humble he is, or how broken. He won’t talk about himself at all. His attention will be fixed cheerfully and positively on other things. His true humility makes him other-centered not self-centered and even his painful, honest reckoning with his own moral failure will always lead him gratefully back to God and to Christ to find the perfection he cannot find within himself and the forgiveness he needs.

As Lewis says in another place [Christian Reflections, 14]: “A man is never so proud as when striking an attitude of humility.” And in still another place, “If anyone would like to acquire humility, I can, I think, tell him the first step. The first step is to realize that one is proud. And a biggish step, too. At least, nothing whatever can be done before it. If you think you are not conceited, it means you are very conceited indeed.” [Mere Christianity, 114] Or in other words, admire more the man who tells you that he is proud and conceited than the man who tells you he is broken!

You see, the pride I want to consider with you this evening as one of our fundamental sins is not first a kind of outward conceit or boastfulness. It is not the drawing attention to oneself that we are used to seeing in children, high schoolers, and adults. It is not the behavior that convinces us that a person is “stuck up.” The pride I want us to consider as “our sin” is not primarily the efforts we make to look good, to appear better than we are, nor the vanity that leads us to run others down so that we might look better in comparison. The pride I am thinking of – and it is a fundamental feature of everyone’s heart and life – is our putting and keeping the self, ourselves, at the center. We are proud in this way, profoundly proud, because we are always self-referential; we look at everyone and everything in reference to ourselves. This is the deeper, more deadly form of pride.

And any honest man or woman knows how true it is of us all. We think of everyone and everything in reference to ourselves. It is so fundamental a tendency we hardly ever recognize it for what it is. We think of economic developments in the country or world at large not first or second or third in terms of the hardship they may pose for the poor and hungry, but for the loss or even the inconvenience we might suffer as a result. We find the sorrows of others very hard to sympathize with in any genuine and heartfelt way – we may feel a pang but it quickly disappears – because those sorrows do not touch us and do not affect us! Don’t deny this, my friends; don’t make matters worse. You pass others, many others, every day who are going to hell – they walk by you, they talk to you, and you know that they are utterly unaware of their onrushing doom – and you hardly ever give a serious thought to what awaits them – and would await you as well but for the intervention of God – but, nevertheless, you often are easily irritated by the little things these doomed people do that affect you in some minor, inconsequential way. They don’t matter much because they are not you!

You are defensive when criticized even for minor faults, you dislike the exposure of your failures, even when the far greater failures not only remain hidden but have been covered by the blood of the Son of God. How little your spirit and my spirit are like that of Teresa of Avila who said, “…I am always very glad that my slanderers tell a trifling lie about me rather than the whole terrible truth.” [Cited in Whyte, Thomas Shepard, 123] And what is that but this same concentration on yourself, this same conceit, this sense of the importance of yourself, this idea you have that others ought to regard you and serve you and should never diminish you in any way. In other words, you maintain a special standard for yourself. You feel that others should show deference to you that you do not show to others and do not feel you should show to others. It is all so preposterous for people as small, unimportant, and unadmirable as you are!

I have sometimes amused you by telling you what Bonaventure says about the technique Francis of Assisi used to preserve himself in humility, especially after he became famous and became the object of the adulation of others.

“And so when people extolled the merits of his holiness, he commanded one of the friars to do the opposite and to impress upon his ears insulting words. When that friar, though unwilling, called him boorish and mercenary, unskilled and useless, he would reply, with inner joy on his face: ‘May the Lord bless you, my beloved son, for it is you that speak the very truth and what the son of Peter Bernardone should hear.” [The Life of St. Francis, CWS, 229]

You’ve cheerfully volunteered to offer that service to others: whisper insulting things in their ears to keep them humble. But, the fact is, as wise students of the heart have long observed: generalia non pungunt. General criticisms do not penetrate, pierce, or stab. You would take some pride, probably, in having someone whisper in your ear that you are a miserable sinner. Christians know that about themselves and one another and the assertion is uncontroversial. But let them tell you that that remark you just made was unkind, or that you really should be more interested in other people, or that your interest in this or that seems to indicate a lack of seriousness about spiritual things, or that you seem to enjoy your pleasures more than walking with God, or that your behavior just now seemed designed to attract attention to yourself, or that your prayer life is pathetic, or that being a Christian as long as you have been one you don’t seem to know the Bible very well, or that a remark about Christ would have been appropriate in that situation and that your failure to make it seemed cowardly; I say, let them say those things and see if you ask that person back for another day of whispering in your ear!

Or consider this. You do not like to be asked to do unbecoming work. You do not want to do it. Young people, adults, is it not so? You resent being assigned tasks that you will not enjoy or that do not in some way exalt you! You don’t put it to yourself this way, but what other reason is there but that you feel this beneath you. You feel that you are above it; it is work that should be done by someone else. Be honest with yourselves. You say, “No, it is only my laziness, not my pride.” But what is laziness, I ask you, except a sense that you deserve ease? You manifestly do not think that you deserve nothing but whatever assignments someone might give you and that you ought to do that work before anyone and everyone else and your grouchiness when asked to do it proves the point. You don’t feel that you are a servant and nothing but a servant, though that is manifestly what you are according to Holy Scripture and the facts of your own existence.

Amy Carmichael required higher caste converts to hew stones and dig foundations for a house and she required them to do that work in front of low caste coolies. No sterner test of true faith in Christ could be found. It was honorable to preach and teach because such work places you before and above others. Grace in teaspoons would have been sufficient to assign high caste converts to a preaching tour. But ditch digging lent dignity to nobody. “Grace in rivers was required for this.” [E. Elliot, A Chance to Die, 264]

No! The true humility and lowliness of heart that the Lord is after in us is not simply not acting conceited in front of other people. That is relatively easy to do. We have an eye and an ear and a nose for conceited people and detect their behavior immediately and find it distasteful. But there are a great many very proud people whose public behavior does not offend us. In fact, everyone at least struggles with raging pride – even those we never think of as proud people. Real humility then must be something else than just not seeming to be proud in an obvious way. True humility, the true mortification of pride in our hearts will be nothing less than a genuine other-centeredness founded upon a repudiation of any sense that we are deserving of any special attention, a heartfelt sense that all of our goodness and any hope of greatness is all Christ in us and nothing of ourselves. This was the point made, remember, in Philippians 2:1-11, the text we considered over two Lord’s Day mornings recently. Christ forsook his own interests at great cost to himself to serve our interests. We should do the same and have much more reason to do so because we don’t deserve glory and honor as he did, we have no equality with God to lay aside as he did. We are unprofitable servants and if we were honest with ourselves would always realize that it should be our privilege to serve others, and that it is our highest privilege that God should ever think that there is some work that we might do for him.

The signs, the marks, the evidences of this humility, this true and authentic unpride are quite different than we usually think. St. Francis once said that perfect joy would not come from hearing that all the professors of Paris had become friars along with all the prelates and the kings of England. Nor would perfect joy come if news arrived that all unbelievers came to the true faith. Perfect joy would come when, rebuffed and left in the darkness of the night, when one seeks shelter, some food, and a place to sleep and is called a stupid beggar by those from whom one seeks help, he still has patience and does not become upset. There is perfect joy! [L. Cunningham, Francis of Assisi, 131]

That’s not what we are inclined to think would be the conquest of pride, but it is; because it is the behavior of one who does not behave as if he thought that the world revolves around him. Patience is the proof of true humility. So are kindness and thoughtfulness and interestedness in others. You may remember C.S. Lewis’ famous statement about pride and humility.

“Do not imagine that if you meet a really humble man he will be what most people call ‘humble’ nowadays: he will not be a sort of greasy, smarmy person, who is always telling you that, of course, he is nobody. Probably all you will think about him is that he seemed a cheerful, intelligent chap who took a real interest in what you said to him…. He will not be thinking about humility: he will not be thinking about himself at all.” [Mere Christianity, 114]

Our pride is a deeper problem than we think – this self-referential outlook we wake up with every morning and go to bed with every night. The gall we have! To imagine that in God’s world, a world that is the creation of the Almighty, a world full of human beings made in the image of God, to imagine that we are in the center – or, perhaps worse, to deny that we are even to ourselves, but to live as if we were every hour of every day. What must God think of pipsqueaks who strut through the world, his world, like peacocks? Lewis again:

“We actually are, at present, creatures whose character must be, in some respects, a horror to God, as it is, when we really see it, a horror to ourselves. This I believe to be a fact: and I notice that the holier a man is, the more fully he is aware of that fact.” [Problem of Pain, 67]

And no wonder then that this should be such a fundamental part of our sanctification: coming to realize the full extent of our self-centeredness, coming to despise it in ourselves, and to learn to repudiate it in all the ways in which it appears in our hearts, our speech, and our behavior. Speaking of pride in this deeper, more sinister sense, Augustine said, “That which first overcomes man is the last thing man overcomes.” [Cited in W.G.T. Shedd, Sermons to the Spiritual Man, 282] This pride, this self-centeredness, that peeps out of every part of us, this is the thing that must die if we are ever to advance more than the tiniest distance in the things of God. So long as we remain in the center, so long as we see life first in terms of ourselves, God will never be great to us, others will never be very important, and Christ and his salvation will never be as wonderful, marvelous, and amazing as they ought to be. No matter how vigorously we deny the thought, it will remain the case that down deep we feel that whatever may be the case with others, the Lord should have saved us. And every daily failure to feel the chills up and down our spine at the thought of where we were going and where because of God’s love and Christ’s sacrifice we are going to go instead is simply more proof that we are still profoundly proud!

Listen to the saintly Archbishop Leighton of the 17th century.

“Some sins may die before us, but this hath life in it as long as we [do]. It is, as it were the heart of all other sins; the first to live, and the last to die. And it hath this advantage, that whereas other sins are fomented by one another, this feeds even on virtues and graces, as a moth that breeds in them, and consumes them, even in the finest of them, if it be not carefully looked into. This hydra, as one head of it is cut off, another rises up…. And therefore is there so much need that we continually watch, and fight, and pray against it; and be restless in the pursuit of real and deep humiliation – to be nothing, and desire to be nothing; not only to bear, but to love our own abasement, and the things that procure and help it.” [On 1 Peter 5:5; cited in Shedd, 282]

Good advice except perhaps at the last. Take a good hard look at yourself, by all means. As Alexander Whyte once put it, “Lucifer himself would be a humble angel with his wings over his face if he had a past like yours, and would often enough return to look at it.” [Bunyan Characters, iii, 211ff.] But you can look too much at yourself and for proud people like us that is always a great temptation. Rather, for every look at yourself, take ten at the Lord Jesus and see the other-centeredness of his life, the beauty of it, the goodness of it, his Father’s pleasure in it, and the magnificent result of it, and the more you look the more you will aspire to be as he was and as he is. The more you look at him the more amazing it will seem to you that he cared a fig for a life like yours. And that will be the death of pride even down to the bottom of your heart.