In scanning the headlines today, I noticed how there’s an untold story that lay at the root of so many of the developments in the news—human pride. I’m not talking about pride in the sense of self-dignity, but in the sense of arrogance.
Charles Haddon Spurgeon once said, “Be not proud of race, face, place, or Grace.” There’s a classic story told about Spurgeon, the terrific Reformed Baptist preacher of 19th century London. One day after church, a proper Victorian woman was commending him for his sermon, when a drunk happened to stumble by.
According to the story, the woman made a face, expressing her disgust at the drunk, and said something like, “Well, I never!” And Spurgeon, looking over at the same drunk, said, “But for the grace of God go you or I, Madam.” So true. But so easily forgotten.
Pride often robs us of our ability to see things properly. We compare ourselves with our neighbors and come off better (in our minds) than we really are before an all-holy seeing God.
To the Christian the sin of pride is among the greatest evils. C. S. Lewis likened it to spiritual cancer. In fact, listen to what the great British scholar (a professor at Oxford, then later Cambridge) had to say on the subject: “…the essential vice, the utmost evil, is Pride. Unchastity, anger, greed, drunkenness, and all that, are mere fleabites in comparison….it is Pride which has been the chief cause of misery in every nation and every family since the world began.”
The warnings against pride in the Scriptures are many and varied. They are summed up in the theme that God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble.
Next month we celebrate the 50th anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s classic speech, “I have a dream.” In that speech, he quotes Isaiah from the Bible, including the point that in due time, the humble (“every valley”) shall be exalted and the proud (“every hill and mountain”) laid low: “I have a dream that one day every valley shall be exalted, every hill and mountain shall be made low, the rough places will be made plain, and the crooked places will be made straight, and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together.” He was, of course, a Baptist minister.
One of the greatest rulers from antiquity was King Nebuchadnezzar II (605-562 B. C.). He has a lot to teach us about pride and its destructive nature. Thankfully, the important lessons surrounding him were recorded in the Bible and thus preserved for all time.
Nebuchadnezzar II was Babylon’s greatest king. As a conqueror, he was feared by all. He had crushed his enemies, put foreign kings in chains, and enslaved their subjects. As a builder he was equally famous. He had enlarged the city of Babylon to an area of six square miles, beautified it with magnificent buildings, and surrounded it with massive impenetrable walls. He had beautified his own palace with hanging gardens, so spectacular, that they were one of the seven wonders of the ancient world.
Nebudchanezzar had indeed accomplished many things, but he wouldn’t have been able to do any of these things were it not that God had given him his life, his health, his talents, his genetic make up, his family background, etc. This is true of anybody great or small that accomplishes anything. As Paul notes, What do you have that you did not receive?
But full of pride, Nebuchadnezzar bragged, “Is this not great Babylon, that I have built for my royal dwelling by my mighty power and for my majesty?” (Daniel 4:30).
God was not pleased with Nebuchadnezzar’s overinflated opinion of himself. Listen to what happened next, as found in the book of Daniel: “While the word was still in the king’s mouth, a voice fell from heaven: ‘King Nebuchadnezzar, to you it is spoken. The kingdom has departed from you! And they shall drive you from men, and your dwelling shall be with the beasts of the field. They shall make you eat grass like oxen; and seven times shall pass over you, until you know the Most High rules in the kingdom of men, and gives it to whomever He chooses.’”
Then what happened? The book of Daniel tells us, “That very hour the word was fulfilled concerning Nebuchadnezzar; he was driven from men and ate grass like oxen; his body was wet with the dew of heaven till his hair had grown like eagles’ feathers and his nails like birds’ claws.”
After seven years he acknowledged God, and his mental health and kingdom were restored. I remember this story even being in my secular psychology book on mental illnesses. Of course, as I recall, it discounted the divine element which is critical to the story. God hates the pride of man, not the self-respect, not self-dignity, but pride in the sense of hubris, of arrogance.
The saying “pride goes before a fall” (a paraphrase of Proverbs 16:18) is certainly true. In all the universe the most devastating example of this is Lucifer. He was once a highly exalted angelic being. God banished him from heaven because he became too proud. What did Lucifer say just before he fell, according to Isaiah? “I will ascend into heaven. I will exalt my throne above the stars of God…I will ascend above the heights of the clouds, I will be like the Most High.”
How did Lucifer fall? Through the sin of pride. As C. S. Lewis puts it, “it was through Pride that the devil became the devil.”
Of all sins, pride is the most dangerous and the most lethal. “Haughty eyes” are among the things that God hates the most (Proverbs 6:17). He opposes the proud because nobody can come to God—full of self, with a high view of his own accomplishments, full of his own “righteousness.”
Why is it that people sometimes reject the Gospel—that Christ died to redeem sinners? Because of their pride. They’re too proud to see the need for divine grace. They think they’re good enough in and of themselves. They don’t see themselves the way a holy God sees them.
To me, the key to overcoming pride is in reversing the phrase “alter ego” (and alter the spelling of alter to altar): We leave our ego on the altar.