The paradox of pride and humility
RiDE is your greatest enemy, humility is your greatest friend.”
So said the late John R.W. Stott, a remarkably humble man of great abilities and accomplishments who is often said to have made the greatest impact for Christ of anyone in the twentieth century.
His succinct statement about pride and humility goes straight to the heart of what the Bible teaches about the deadly root of our sins and sorrows.
How many recent sermons have you heard on pride or humility? Probably not many. One hears surprisingly little from church or parachurch leaders about either of these subjects.
in fact, what throughout history has been recognised as the deadliest of vices is now almost celebrated as a virtue in our culture.
Pride and arrogance are conspicuous among the rich, the powerful, the successful, the famous, and celebrities of all sorts, and even some religious leaders.
And it is also alive and well in ordinary people, including each of us. Yet few of us realise how dangerous it is to our souls and how greatly it hinders our intimacy with God and love for others.
Humility, on the other hand, is often seen as a weakness, and few of us know much about it or pursue it. For the good of our souls, then, we need to gain a clearer understanding of pride and humility and of how to forsake the one and embrace the other.
C.S. Lewis, another top contender for having had the greatest impact for Christ in the twentieth century, called pride “the great sin.”
Every believer should read his chapter by that title in Mere Christianity. There Lewis said: ‘According to Christian teachers, the essential vice, the utmost evil, is Pride. Unchastity, anger, greed, drunkenness, and all that, are mere flea bites in comparison: it was through Pride that the devil became the devil: Pride leads to every other vice: it is the complete anti-God state of mind…… it is Pride which has been the chief cause of misery in every nation and every family since the world began.”
if this sounds like exaggeration, it will help us to know that Lewis is not simply giving us his private opinion but summarising the thinking of great saints through the ages.
Augustine and Aquinas both taught that pride was the root of sin. Likewise Calvin, Luther, and many others. Make no mistake about it: pride is the great sin. it is the devil’s most effective and destructive tool.
Why do the great spiritual leaders, Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, and Protestant alike, unite around this conviction? Because it is so clearly and solidly taught in Scripture.
Pride first appears in the Bible in Genesis 3, where we see the devil, that “proud spirit” as John Donne described him, using pride as the avenue by which to seduce our first parents. Taking the form of a serpent, his approach was simple yet deadly. First, he arrogantly contradicted what God had said to Eve about eating the forbidden fruit and charged God with lying.
This shocking rejection of God’s word introduced Eve to the hitherto unknown possibility of unbelief and was intended to arouse doubt in her mind about the truthfulness and reliability of God.
in the next breath, the devil drew her into deeper deception by contending that God’s reason for lying was to keep her from enjoying all the possibilities inherent in being Godlike.
This clever ploy was aimed at undermining her confidence in the goodness and love of God and arousing the desire to become as God.
The desire to lift up and exalt ourselves beyond our place as God’s creature lies at the heart of pride. As Eve in her now confused and deceived state of mind considered the possibilities, her desire to become Godlike grew stronger.
She began to look at the forbidden fruit in a new light, as something attractive to the eyes and pleasant to the touch.
Desire increased, giving rise to rationalization and a corresponding erosion of the will to resist and say no.
Finally, weakened by unbelief, enticed by pride, and ensnared by self-deception, she opted for autonomy and disobeyed God’s command. in just a few deft moves, the devil was able to use pride to bring about Eve’s downfall and plunge the human race into spiritual ruin.
This ancient but all-too-familiar process confronts each of us daily: “Each person is tempted when he is lured and enticed by his own desire. Then desire when it has conceived gives birth to sin, and sin when it is fully grown brings forth death” ( James 1:14–15).
From this point on in the Bible, we see the outworking of pride and unbelief in the affairs of individuals, families, nations, and cultures. As people lose or suppress the knowledge of God, spiritual darkness grows and a psychological inversion occurs: in their thinking God becomes smaller and they become larger. The centre of gravity in their mental lives shifts from God to themselves.
They become the centre of their world, and God is conveniently moved to the periphery, either through denial of his existence or distortion of his character. Self-importance and godless self-confidence grow stronger. The cycle that follows is familiar: people exalt themselves against God and over others. Pride increases, arrogant and/or abusive behaviour ensues, and people suffer.