Say the word, pride, and a person might picture a rooster with puffed out chest, ready to crow. Is that really the nature of pride, the quality that the Bible seems so soundly to condemn? I fear it’s too easy for fallen humans to “see” the pride in others and fail to observe its ugliness within. Like the parable of the log and the splinter, those most guilty of the failing are ready to remove “the splinters” from other eyes while blinded by the “logs” in their own perceptions.
Genuine humility starts and ends in one’s relationship with God. If a person truly comprehends his or her own selfish, self-centeredness as the basis for sin and disobedience, any pretense to superiority will be broken and perhaps shattered, not just superiority over God but superiority over others. As those who are nothing apart from what God has given creatively, and as sinners shamed in the light of God’s perfect holiness, what remains to enable a person to stand in judgment over another sinner? One would think that the problem of pride would be eliminated, once and for all.
Sadly, pride is so deeply entrenched at the root of sinfulness that it finds its way back into operation (perhaps with an occasional boost from a devilish voice). One general demonstration of this happens in congregations almost routinely. It is the condescension of saved sinners over the yet unsaved. Being aware of the sinfulness of sin does not authorize a believer to feel superior to those yet struggling in bondage. The appropriate attitude is “There, but for the grace of God, go I.” Instead, Christians put on their holy faces and forget the abject shame they once felt. No doubt, for some, the real issue may be that they never felt such shame because they never really came to Christ. By creating an environment where the church is a group of nice people doing nice things, new people come along and become more nice people doing nice things. Sadly, the result is something like spraying air freshener in an outhouse; pretending like the stink of sin is gone doesn’t change the source of the stench! Believers ought to radiate an attitude of joy and appreciation for the forgiveness they’ve received, but they should never start thinking they are better than merely “sinners saved by grace.”
This era is notable for its emphasis on self-esteem. Everyone should feel good about themselves for no particular reason other than they should. The message is taught in schools both actively and passively. The words are spoken out loud, and things that might damage this fragile sense of self-worth are avoided, such as bad grades or losing competitive games. Treating everyone, as if they were somehow the same and their different skills, abilities, and lessons learned didn’t matter, is crazy. Self-esteem from this perspective is empty and meaningless, and those so taught generally understand that it’s a lie, instinctively, up to a point.
Churches are surrounded and, to an extent, invaded by this meaningless self-esteem. On the one hand, it discourages achievement and progress; on the other, it fosters self-importance. The very sameness it tries to establish defeats itself as pride demands an elevation of self above others. This isn’t a healthy sense of self-worth as comes with seeing oneself as one created by God; this isn’t a recognition of the unique gifts and abilities God has given each person. This is a demand for recognition of worth without merit, encouraged by the denial of merit the promoters of self-esteem have demanded.
Of course, sinners, even those who’ve been saved, don’t need help to be proud. It is the very essence of sin, going all the way back to Eden. The Serpent appealed to Eve’s pride: “God’s holding back on you,” “You can be just like God himself!” “Who is God to give you orders anyway?” Resistance to God’s love comes in resenting God’s authority, which itself comes because he is indeed God. People don’t want anyone to rule over them, not even God; so people deny the very existence of God and put themselves in his place. Man becomes God, or at least he thinks and acts like one.
Taking God’s place holds particular appeal for “religious” people, religious in the sense of self-righteous. Such people love to stand in judgment of others, criticize and broadcast the failings of others, especially those who stand in authority above them, gossip and complain about the shortcomings of others, and act as if they are the judges of righteousness, justice, and spiritual competence. Of course, this also creates a spirit of strife and division, something the Lord also hates.
Is all of this really a problem for more than the individual? Pride is an attitudinal sin, after all, and attitude is in the head and heart. Of course, internal attitudes influence or even control external behavior, behavior towards other people, especially in the case of pride; “Where there is strife, there is pride, but wisdom is found in those who take advice,” says Proverbs 13:10. The simplest example of pride’s voice is when it speaks down to another person; put downs, insults, scornful expressions, discouragement, and condescension are inspired by pride, where the critic feels himself or herself superior to another for whatever reason. Typically, the recipient of such attacks is hurt, and frequently the subsequent interchanges soon lead to open conflict. Critics recruit allies in what becomes a war, a war in the house of God. Yet, somehow, such prideful critics may imagine themselves serving God’s interests, if they haven’t totally lost sight of God in the fervor of battle. Spiritual maturity rejects this sort of condescension, never losing sight of one’s own weaknesses and failings. The mature respond to sin and shortcomings with understanding, encouragement, and gentle correction if truly needed.
At this point, pride shows itself clearly in opposition to love. At an obvious level, one does not speak harshly to someone they love. Yet, from the other perspective, the Lord has commanded his disciples to love: “A new command I give you: love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another” (John 13:34-35). The history of the Church is rife with the ugliness of harsh, critical, unloving behavior; denominations and associations split again and again, and local congregations do the same. Church bodies act like rivals or even enemies, rather than parts of the same family. Is it any wonder that the Church has lost influence and credibility in this era? Who can see the proof, the love, when so many are engaged in “spiritual” combat? The Great Commandment allows no room for loving God as an excuse for not loving one’s neighbor. Who is a neighbor? Who isn’t?!
What about truth? What about correction? “Speak the truth in love,” Paul wrote in Ephesians 4, so we must be diligent to set people straight when they are wrong, right? It’s a spiritual obligation! Right?! I don’t think so! I have observed this attitude, sometimes justified in this manner, over my entire life of ministry…and before. Much of my growth into maturity came because of an intense desire for truth; however, truth is not a club for beating up those who disagree. Neither is truth, justice, or righteousness a reasonable or appropriate justification for acting like a jerk! Seriously, I have seen more jerk-like behavior from pompous, arrogant believers than I can stand; I don’t know how our holy yet loving God can be so patient with them (I might say “us,” but I have worked hard not to be a critic or engage in open conflict with believers, though no doubt imperfectly).
God does care about justice, but we humans are limited in our ability to evaluate it. We he warns, “Who are you to judge your neighbor?” Of course, the world’s message is different: “Assert yourself and demand justice!” What is the result? For the relative few injustices, numerous false accusations, judgments without evidence, endless and groundless generalizations, and name-calling (evil rich, racist, and homophobe, to name a few). A disciple of Jesus must guard against the influence of a world opposed to us and our Savior, for He has called us to a substantially different way.
I suspect that the twin clubs of truth and justice are often abused and excused by proud believers. Many have made a virtue out of being right while criticizing those they believe are wrong. It’s the perfect Satanic trap for unwary believers who think doing a good thing (pointing out wrongs) justifies doing a bad thing (treating a fellow believer or anyone, unlovingly). Criticism has so much shifted toward negative, destructive complaints that the positive sense of constructive criticism has become a rarity. Sadly, people enjoy listening to nasty criticism as much as others enjoy giving it. Instead of modeling a better way to the world about us, we take our cues from the strife-filled culture, whether from highly polarized and angry political speech, from nasty interchanges on talk shows and Internet chat rooms, or even from sports and competition that look increasingly like street fighting.
How many times does the New Testament say, “Encourage one another” (4) or “Build up one another” (2 and 1)? How many, many more times does it tell us to love one another (19)? How often does it tell us to set our brother straight (Good luck with that!)? Love’s absence is far too common among believers; in a world starved for authentic love, we the ambassadors of a loving Savior easily and often treat others without love. We who are supposed to be evangelists of the gospel spend so much time “perfecting the message among us” that we have no time to share it; we create an environment so devoid of love that the lost find little about our community that appeals to them. Before they have a chance to meet our gracious and loving Savior, they are blocked by his brothers and sisters who seem to possess little of grace or love…or forgiveness. And, no, they are not impressed by claims of being right when others are wrong. That does not make us credible; it makes us petty!
It should be enough to say that God hates this. God indeed hates strife among his children; he is not impressed with our excuses and justifications. For the arrogant critic, however, it might also help to realize that this spirit is counter-productive. Jesus taught a different way because it is a better way. Strife, head-to-head confrontation, and gossipy undercurrents never solve problems; they create or increase them. Jesus way is “winning,” not winning a fight or competition, but winning over another to a better way of thinking and acting…different purpose…different attitude.
Jesus taught, “If your brother or sister sins, go and point out their fault, just between the two of you. If they listen to you, you have won them over” (Matthew 18:15). Approaching someone with a defiant, arrogant, in-your-face attitude nearly always guarantees a reaction. We may walk away and say, “I sure showed him,” but to what end? Pride may be satisfied, but the Lord is not. The opening salvos of a war do not constitute a victory; besides, wars rarely have winners. Instead, approaching humbly with a desire to win a positive response, valuing the relationship more than a divisive issue, offers a constructive rather than a destructive outcome.
I wonder how many believers will be greeted, some day, not with “Well done, my good and faithful servant,” but with an accounting (see note below) of the pain and destruction they caused. I know God forgives even very terrible sins to the repentant person. Yet, how often do proud critics even recognize their sin and repent of it? This is serious business! God’s word is very clear:
“The end of a matter is better than its beginning, and patience is better than pride. Do not be quickly provoked in your spirit, for anger resides in the lap of fools.”—Ecclesiastes 7:8-9
“Let their lying lips be silenced, for with pride and contempt they speak arrogantly against the righteous.”—Psalm 31:18
“The fool’s mouth lashes out with pride, but the lips of the wise protect them.”—Proverbs 14:2-4
“Pride goes before destruction, a haughty spirit before a fall. Better to be lowly in spirit along with the oppressed than to share plunder with the proud.”—Proverbs 16:18-19
Psalm 56 is an appeal from one who is criticized unfairly (I’ve been there, and I can tell you it wasn’t fun!).
Galatians 6:1-5 encourages the critic to strive to be restorative, not just critical, and be wary of self-serving pride that seeks to elevate self by tearing down others.
At this time, it would be too easy to use a Harold Camping as an example. He has claimed the total apostasy of churches except his own, but he has also picked dates for the Lord’s return and been obviously wrong, every time. About how many other things has he “made a mistake?” Modern communication allows one man’s errors to be multiplied easily, perhaps creating a greater responsibility. Comparable error in a local body is still wrong. One man I knew insisted that the “gap theory” was the only acceptable interpretation of creation, until he was no longer welcome in more than one congregation. Insisting on doctrinal “fine points” may divide a worldwide body or a local one, but it is equally prideful and destructive.
Countless other examples, that I have known or heard directly over a lifetime of ministry, focus not even on doctrine, but applications, extra-Biblical issues, and personal grievances. Oh, so often, proud but imperfect people demand perfection from others, compliance to their point of view, or submission to their demands. I wouldn’t want a lightning strike, but a crystal clear WORD from the Lord might be nice, sometimes. Of course, the Word is spoken by other prophetic voices; and, as so often in the past, those voices are ignored, and the prophets themselves often maligned. Such is the power and cost of unmanaged pride…arrogance…self-importance…a critical attitude. I urge you to be careful, the next time you feel inclined to speak against another person, either to her face, or behind his back!
NOTE: This parable is often interpreted as referring to natural or spiritual gifts that believers should invest in the kingdom. Plainly, however, the people God places in our lives are also resources into which we should invest for a profit. I believe he will hold us accountable for those we reject, even and perhaps especially those we consider deficient in some way.