I have known some people in my life of whom I would have said they were genuinely humble. They showed all the signs of authentic humility and continued to demonstrate that humility over time and through thick and thin. But I guarantee you that they would have been the very first people to admit that they were not only very proud people, but continued to be so despite their best efforts to kill the pride in their hearts. It is the paradox of real humility that those who have it are invariably the most conscious of how little they have! Pride is a bottom sin, one of those sins from which most other sins spring, and since we are all sinners – constantly, inveterately, in thought, word, and deed – it is painfully obvious that we must be proud. I wasn’t thinking of any of you in particular when I wrote this sermon on pride. I was actually thinking of Florence primarily.
A simple definition of pride is “the idolatry of the self.” It is the worship of oneself. It is the nature of pride as competition with God – the displacing of God by the self at the center – that has led many Christian thinkers through the ages to regard pride (superbia) as the mother sin and the essential element in all sin. It is strongly suggested in the Bible that pride was Satan’s first sin (1 Tim. 3:6; cf. Ezek. 28:17; Isa. 14:12-13), and from that pride in his case came every manner of hostility to God and man: evil desire, hatred, cruelty, and deceit. In the same way man’s fall resulted from his being persuaded by Satan that he might throw off his creaturely limitations and be “like God” (Gen. 3:5). From that pride, and its grasping for something more that Adam thought he deserved, has come all the rest of the evil that men think, say, and do, much if not all of which is motivated by the desire of men and women either to serve themselves as of first importance or protect their place in the center of their existence. Whether lust, greed, anger, laziness, dishonesty, or indifference toward others, it is painfully easy to see our sins as the expression of self-worship. In one way or another we are serving ourselves at the expense of other obligations, usually at the expense of others. It was for this reason that Alexander Whyte once observed that “self is simply another name for sin.” A religious person, certainly a Christian would not necessarily deny that God is immeasurably greater than himself, but theoretical admissions of that type are no match for the raging self-admiration in the heart that so obviously governs his or her behavior so much of the time and so much more than reverence for God.
One of the worst features of our pride, and the most demoralizing, is its breathtaking dishonesty. The fact is we indulge illusions about ourselves that are ridiculously easy to disprove. We construct a view of ourselves in defiance of the most obvious facts. And we end up thinking about ourselves after a fashion that should be perfectly obvious to us is unique. No one else shares the lofty view of ourselves we entertain every day. Indeed, when we see others thinking about themselves the way we do, we despise them for it! Pride, as Aquinas put it, is an offense against right reason. He meant it offends against the truth that every one of us knows. We have all the evidence we should ever need and ready to hand to keep us humble, but we rarely appeal to it.
Or as St. Teresa once said, “I am always very glad that my slanderers should tell a trifling lie about me rather than the whole terrible truth.” It is the testimony of the Christian ages that the holiest men and women are invariably the most keenly aware of the humiliation they would suffer if others ever discovered the enormity of their moral failure. Samuel Rutherford was only speaking for a great company of Christians when he wrote, “despair might almost be excused, if everyone in this land saw my inner side.” And William Law said that he would rather be hung and his body thrown in a swamp than that anyone should be allowed to look into his heart! It is man’s most monumental effrontery to imagine that a selfish, petty collection of unworthy desires such as himself or herself belongs in the center, even of his or her own life. Or as Augustine memorably summed up the situation: “That which first overcomes man is the last thing man overcomes.”
That monumental silly effrontery is well-nigh universal in human life. You can’t pick up a newspaper, a newsmagazine, turn on the television or listen to the radio without encountering person after person of whom it is true what Shakespeare said of one of his characters:
“…but I can see his pride
Peep through each part of him.” [King Henry the Eighth, 1.1.68-69]
And even when we recognize how ridiculous is this view we entertain of ourselves, even when we hate ourselves for indulging it, we struggle to get rid of it; all our lives we struggle and we never get rid of it. The insidious nature of pride is such that men and women – even Christian men and women who have thought about this and condemn themselves for their pride – rarely appreciate how proud they are and the index of pride’s power over the heart is that even the purest motions of the Christian soul are deeply affected by it. Indeed, as the wisest of men and women have long warned us, it is possible to be proud even of one’s confessions of sin and unworthiness or secretly to congratulate oneself on one’s “brokenness.”
As anyone knows who has struggled against it, one of pride’s most sinister effects is its dulling our sense of appreciation for the kindness and mercy of God.
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.
A Christian, of course, would never say that he deserved salvation, perhaps never think it; but the difficulty every Christian has in being and remaining genuinely amazed and stirred and thrilled and heart-broken at God’s grace to him or her is evidence enough of the pride that still fills the heart. We think so well of ourselves, it is very hard to think that God should not as well. Remember, pride is exposed in us not as often by direct statements made to others in which we declare ourselves better than they or boast of our prowess in some fashion, though we may well know people who do just that. Our pride is usually demonstrated in petty ways, such as a critical spirit towards others or defensiveness when we or our work are criticized.
I sometimes write letters or reports on behalf of the session. When I have completed a draft I send it around for other men to admire, but, invariably they edit it and send it back all marked up and changed. Usually my most magnificent prose is replaced by something not nearly as good! Those ingrates! Who do they think they are? I feel like parents do when their children are criticized. So I must remind myself of the story Ben Franklin told Thomas Jefferson when a committee appointed to review his draft of the Declaration of Independence made a number of revisions (all of which were later regarded as real improvements, by the way). Jefferson had been offended that the committee changed his prose so Franklin told him this story and it helped him adjust to the changes. It seems that Franklin, when he was a young man, had a friend who had completed his apprenticeship as a hatter, a maker of hats, and was about to set up in business for himself. He was anxious, of course, to have a fine sign made for his shop and designed one with the inscription:
“John Thompson, hatter, makes and sells hats for ready money”
written over the picture of a hat. He then showed his design to his friends and asked them what they thought. Of course he was expecting that they would like it but perhaps someone might suggest a small improvement, probably an addition to what he had written. The first one remarked that “hatter” was superfluous, as “makes and sells hats” described the nature of his business. A second friend pointed out that “makes” could be left off the sign, as customers would be unlikely to care who made the hats. The third said that since it was not the local custom to sell on credit, the words “ready money” were also superfluous, and they too were struck, leaving simply “John Thompson sells hats” “No one would expect you to give them away,” a fourth friend said, “so what is the point of ‘sells’?” Finally someone said that it seemed unnecessary to have the word “hats” on the board since there was the painted picture of a hat. So the sign eventually read “John Thompson” with a picture of a hat underneath the name. So much for his great idea for a sign!
We’ve all been there. Everyone’s got a better idea and feels free to substitute his for ours. We know how little we like criticism, how quick we are to defend ourselves (at least in our hearts), how easily we criticize others for faults of which we are also guilty, how quickly we find some injustice in any decision that does not reflect well on us or does not serve us as we would like to be served, and on and on. It is all so petty and so utterly detached from reality. Who, after all, cares what we think? Who decided that the world began and ended with us and our opinions? All of that petty selfishness and grandiosity is pride, the absence of humility. And so all the showing off, all the patronizing we do of others and our hatred of being patronized ourselves, our taking offense at being ignored and on and on. And the more sharp-eyed we are to see such things and to identify the virtually numberless evidences of our pride the better we are and the better hope we have of actually making some kind of dent in our pride. As C.S. Lewis wrote in Mere Christianity :
“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.”
It is the power and prevalence of pride as the principal sin of the human heart that explains the concentration on self-denial and humility in the Bible’s teaching of the Christian life, what Charles Simeon called, “growing downwards.” It is not too much to say, as Augustine did [Letters, 118], that humility is the first, the second, and the third part of godliness. If, he said, humility did not precede, accompany, and follow every action we perform, it would not be a good work. And surely that is right. Could we approve of loving our neighbors proudly, hoping all the while for some congratulations in return? Could we approve of using our gifts proudly? Why, that was what Jesus accused the Pharisees of doing: doing the right things for selfish reasons and in hopes of congratulations by others! To love God and others, to serve God and others disinterestedly is moral perfection and anyone who has tried hard to do that knows how punishingly difficult a work it is!
Paul said that it is in living for God and others rather than for ourselves – the Bible’s simplest definition of humility – that we are most like Jesus Christ (Phil. 2:3-4). Remember, in the Bible love is not first a feeling but a way of life and so is humility: not first a feeling about ourselves but a commitment to others before ourselves! If someone so worthy of the worship of all nevertheless devoted himself unstintingly and selflessly to the welfare of others, how much more ought we sinners saved by grace cheerfully live the life of a servant, grateful every hour of every day for gifts that we did not deserve, giving all credit to God who loved us in defiance of our sins, and looking for every opportunity to declare his praises. As Paul put it, our lives cannot be a fit response to God’s grace if we do not live in heart and behavior as those who know very well that we have nothing that we did not receive as a free gift (1 Cor. 4:7).
But to put pride to death is lifelong work of the most difficult kind. We certainly get no help from our culture. Pride is a topic of little interest to modern psychology or the self-help industry and self-congratulation has become an accepted art form in the era of the “touchdown dance.” I was reminded again recently of how perfectly acceptable it has become in our culture to say publicly, in regard to an athlete’s contract negotiations or a celebrity’s career, that, of course, one must first look out for oneself. Perhaps you saw the flap in the news this past week over public campaigns to secure Oscars for films and for actors and actresses. It is the perfect example of the human situation and that in three respects. First, everyone knows how seamy it is for anyone effectively to say in public, “I am the best actor and you ought to vote for me.” Second, they do it anyway. And third, there are very few people who would simply die of shame for such a self-congratulatory statement to be attributed to them. Not, if it might do their campaign some good. After all you have to look out for number one. American politics is likewise an inhospitable place for the humble or those seeking to be humble. If you do not indulge in self-congratulation, if you don’t toot your own horn, if you don’t in effect say over and over again that you are a better man than your opponent, if you never in some way or another run him down to your advantage, and if you ever admit your limitations, your ignorance of many things, you are inviting your ruin. The electorate may despise preening politicians, but they vote for them in droves. Perhaps the Lord should have said instead, “It is harder for a politician to enter the kingdom of heaven than for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle.”
Nowadays low self-esteem is likely to be thought a far more serious problem than pride – even though while low self-esteem may have killed its thousands, pride has killed its tens of millions and millions of millions – but few notice the obvious connection between the two. After all, low self-esteem is simply pride in another form: sadness, even self-hatred, but still pride. Why? Because in the final analysis the person struggling with low self-esteem is still struggling with a universe in which he or she sits squarely in the center. The world is not what it ought to be for me. People do not think of me as they ought to think. I am not happy with who I am, with what I have done and so on. I…I…I remains the center of all the interest, all of the concern. In the heart of those with low self-esteem, their ego is the center of the universe, which is why the universe is such a miserable place. Move the ego out of the center and all manner of good and happy things become possible. As any wise person knows, the cure to low self-esteem – and I am neither denying the condition nor belittling it; it can be a real problem, a debilitating problem in human life – but, as I say, the cure, the most effective cure, the sure and certain cure is a large dose of biblical humility.
The godly have always known that true goodness requires the killing of their pride and they learned soon enough that there was no gentle way to go about it. It has to be hacked to death. Amy Carmichael required higher caste converts to break rocks and dig foundations in front of low-caste coolies. They would have been happy to be asked to go on a preaching tour and give their testimonies to large crowds. But to do low-caste work in front of low-caste people was utter humiliation unless one truly had a Christian mind shaped by the recognition of his own great sin and God’s mighty love and grace. And the only way to test that mind and then to cultivate it was to be required to act as if one truly did consider others better than himself.
Now what we find in Proverbs are statements of three kinds: 1) the contrast between pride and humility; 2) their respective rewards; and 3) advice on cultivating humility and killing pride.
We begin with those proverbs that place pride in a bad light, as a trait of fools rather than the wise. For example, among the seven things that the Lord hates and that are an abomination to him in 3:16-19 are “haughty eyes.” Or,
“When pride comes, then comes disgrace, but with the humble is wisdom.” [11:2]
“Before destruction a man’s heart is haughty, but humility comes before honor.” [18:12]
“Haughty eyes and a proud heart, the lamp of the wicked, are sin.” [21:4]
“Like clouds and wind without rain is a man who boasts of a gift he does not give.” [25:14] The idea here is that clouds and wind portend rain and, of course, in Palestine rain is life. How disappointing then to get clouds and wind, but no rain. “All show and no results” is the idea. [Longman, 454] Well so of the man who boasts of his intentions to someone some good –and so gets the “reward” of people’s expectations – but it all comes to nothing and he’s shown to be nothing more than a blowhard.
“Do you see a man who is wise in his own eyes? There is more hope for a fool than for him.” [26:12]
“There are those – how lofty are their eyes, how high their eyelids lift.” [30:13]
Proverbs never explicitly explains the sin of pride or the problem with it: why it is the attitude of fools and not of the wise. But perhaps it comes close in the famous statement in 3:5-7:
“Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and do not lean on your own understanding. In all your ways acknowledge him, and he will make straight your paths. Be not wise in your own eyes; fear the Lord, and turn away from evil.”
In other words, pride is a state of mind opposite to both faith and reverence for God. No one who knows himself utterly dependent upon God for everything can remain proud, at least not in principle. Beggars may be proud at heart, but it is certainly easier for them to realize how foolish such pride would be in their case because they are constantly being reminded of the fact that no one else looks at them in the way they look at themselves. They are nobodies to everyone else. And no one who has ever seen God in his majesty can remain proud in spirit. The divine glory is an acid that eats pride. And this is effectively the two-pronged argument against pride that we find in the rest of the Bible: human pride is an affront both to the divine majesty –“Who are you, O man, to answer back to God?” or “What is man that you are mindful of him?” – and to divine grace – “What do you have that you have not received?”
The second group of proverbs concerns the respective rewards of pride and humility
“The Lord tears down the house of the proud but maintains the widow’s boundaries.” [15:25]
“Pride goes before destruction, and a haughty spirit before a fall. It is better to be of a lowly spirit with the poor than to divide the spoil with the proud.” [16:18-19]
“The reward for humility and fear of the Lord is riches honor and life.” [22:4]
“One’s pride will bring him low, but he who is lowly in spirit will obtain honor.” [29:23]
Again, this is typical of the Bible’s whole presentation. Twice in the NT, in James 4:6 and 1 Peter 5:5, Proverbs 3:34 is cited:
“Toward the scorners he is scornful, but to the humble he gives favor,” which you know better as:
“God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble.”
Remember that the Scripture characterizes the lost in several places as “lovers of themselves,” which is simply a more colorful way of saying “the proud.”
The third group of proverbs points the way to the tactics necessary to kill our pride and cultivate humility in its place.
“Do not put yourself forward in the king’s presence or stand in the place of the great, for it is better to be told, ‘Come up here,’ than to be put lower in the presence of a noble.” [25:6-7]
“It is not good to eat much honey, nor is it glorious to seek one’s own glory.” [25:17]
Precisely what is going on nowadays seeking votes so as to win an Oscar. Wise people know better than to work too hard either to get rich or to get famous! And the truly wise among them would find the award impossibly tainted if it were unfairly won. Do you remember that unseemly piece of American un-sportsmanship at the Athens Olympics, when the American, Paul Hamm, was awarded the gold medal in gymnastics as a result of a scoring mistake by the judges? The Korean who was victimized sought justice for himself – none of this “Well it wasn’t his fault and to win any medal at the Olympics is high honor for me” – and the U.S. Olympic committee defended its athlete all the way to the Supreme Court of Sport in Europe. Not once did we hear the words from either athlete, “Well, I would not want a medal that I did not fairly earn and that everyone did not believe I fairly earned.” Justice was done at the end, however, as God promises it will be; if you remember, Paul Hamm was supposed to be on boxes of Wheaties but General Mills dropped him. Apparently at least General Mills knew that “it is not good to seek one’s own glory.”
“Let another praise you, and not your own mouth; a stranger, and not your own lips.” [27:2]
“If you have been foolish, exalting yourself…put your hand on your mouth.” [30:32]
You see the drift of these proverbs. To kill pride one must practice humility. You have to do the things that a genuinely humble person would do. You must feed humility first with the glory and grace of God and your own sin and finitude. You can’t think often enough or deeply enough about those two great facts! As Alexander Whyte once tartly 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, 211-212]
But then you must practice humility. You don’t go for the best seat; rather, on purpose you take one in the back. And, especially, you keep your mouth shut about yourself and your accomplishments and, if you must speak say something instead at your own expense or to the praise of another.
One godly man after another has instructed himself in these or similar words: “Talk not about myself;” [Charles Simeon] “Be ambitious to be unknown;” [Archbishop Leighton] and “Lord, Deliver me from the lust of vindicating myself.” [Augustine] We, however, live in the age of Facebook and Twitter and are fast becoming a nation of people – and Christians among that people – who seemingly must talk about themselves constantly, as if the world breathlessly awaits the next tidbit of information about our lives or the next deliverance of one of our opinions. If you are making use of such so-called “social media,” it would be healthy for you to remind yourself, perhaps with a little sticky note on your computer so that every time before you post something you remind yourself that that virtually no one is nearly as interested in what you have to say as you are!
I’ve told you several times before of how St. Francis of Assisi, once he became a celebrated figure and the object of constant adulation, is said to have assigned to a fellow monk the task of reminding him of his failures and of how little he deserved the praise he was receiving. There are other reasons constantly to confess our sins and our weaknesses to one another, but the mortification of our pride is chief among them. Hard work; but the selflessness of the truly humble is one of the most beautiful things in the world and one of the greatest honors we can pay to our Savior.
Humility is fundamental and we must never forget this. I remember being arrested by this fact when I read Alexander Moody Stuart’s comment:
“There is not one humble heart in all the world that the high God is not dwelling in.” [Memoir, 247]
What all these men teach us is that pride and self-love is so fixed in our natures that it can only be got out by drastic measures. And humility is so unnatural to our flesh that only constant practice will make us familiar and comfortable with it. Humility is something like a golf swing. I golf only rarely and so no two of my golf swings are ever the same, with predictable results: the ball never goes in the same direction twice in a row. Well in the same way, humility has to be practiced thousands upon thousands of times until it is fixed in the muscle memory of the soul.
But is it worth working so hard to get humility? Well consider this from C.S. Lewis:
“From the moment a creature becomes aware of God as God and of itself as self, the terrible alternative of choosing God or self for the center is opened to it. This sin… is the Fall in every individual life, and in each day of each individual life, the basic sin behind all particular sins: at this very moment you and I are either committing it, or about to commit it, or repenting it. We try, when we wake, to lay the new day at God’s feet; before we have finished shaving, it becomes our day and God’s share in it is felt as a tribute which we must pay out of “our own” pocket, a deduction from the time which we ought, we feel, to be “our own.” [The Problem of Pain, 63]
What a different life it must be, how much happier, how much nobler, and how much more useful to others a life must be that takes its point of departure, not just in principle but in practice, from how small and how dependent a mere creature such as ourselves must be in comparison to the great God who made us and this whole universe by the mere utterance of a word; how small, needy, and dependent we must be in comparison with the Redeemer who saved us, and the Comforter who consents to dwell within creatures as sinful, self-absorbed, and pompous as we are.
“God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble.”
That’s all we need to know!