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The sin of pride

Dr. Jim Denison is a cultural apologist who helps people respond biblically and redemptively to the vital issues of our day. He is also the co-founder and Chief Vision Officer of the Denison Forum, a Dallas-based nonprofit that comments on current issues through a biblical lens.

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The major was promoted to colonel and received a fancy new office. As he entered it for the first time, sitting in the nice new chair, a knock came at the door. He said, “Come in,” then quickly picked up the telephone as a corporal walked in.

“Just a minute,” the colonel said to the corporal. “I have to finish this telephone call.” Then the colonel began speaking into the mouthpiece: “Sorry about the interruption, General. Yes, sir, I will take care of that. Yes, I’ll call the President after I finish talking with you, General.”

The colonel ceremoniously put the telephone down, turned to the corporal, and said, “What can I do for you?” The corporal replied, “Well, colonel, I just came in to connect your telephone.”

Pride is always listed at the top of the “seven deadly sins.” Thus we will begin our study of these sins at this place. Not that any of us need such a study; Humility and how I perfected it is the book we each could have written. But what does the Bible say to the rest of the race, prideful as it is?

What is pride?

The Bible uses several words for the first deadly sin. Gea (Hebrew) means “haughty” (“I hate pride and arrogance, evil behavior and perverse speech,” Proverbs 8:13). Huperephania (Greek) means “arrogant,” literally “being lifted up” (cf. Mark 7:22). The various Hebrew and Greek words point to the root of pride: being lifted up high. The high waves of the sea are said to be “proud” (Job 38:11). When attributed to humans, this exaltation can be either positive or negative. The question is whether the height is attributed to God or to us.

There is such a thing as “good” pride. For instance, Paul writes, “I glory in Christ Jesus in my service to God” (Romans 15:17, using the Greek word for being lifted up). But why? “I will not venture to speak of anything except what Christ has accomplished through me in leading the Gentiles to obey God by what I have said and done–by the power of signs and miracles, through the power of the Spirit” (vs. 18-19).

By contrast, “bad” pride is exaltation we attribute to ourselves. Examples:

•”You said in your heart, ‘I will ascend to heaven; I will raise my throne above the stars of God; I will sit enthroned on the mount of assembly, on the utmost heights of the sacred mountain. I will ascend above the tops of the clouds; I will make myself like the Most High.’ But you are brought down to the grave, to the depths of the pit” (Isaiah 14:13-15).

•”The ground of a certain rich man produced a good crop. He thought to himself, ‘What shall I do? I have no place to store my crops.’ Then he said, ‘This is what I’ll do. I will tear down my barns and build bigger ones, and there I will store all my grain and my goods. And I’ll say to myself, ‘You have plenty of good things laid up for many years. Take life easy; eat, drink and be merry.’ But God said to him, ‘You fool! This very night your life will be demanded from you. Then who will get what you have prepared for yourself?’ This is how it will be with anyone who stores up things for himself but is not rich toward God” (Luke 12:16-21).

The sin of pride is the sin of self-reliance and self-exaltation. It is trusting ourselves and promoting ourselves. Why do we commit it so frequently?

Why do we commit the sin of self-reliant pride?

Nietzsche was right: the “will to power” is the basic drive in human nature. Satan said to Eve, “you will be like God, knowing good and evil” (Genesis 3:5). And she saw that the fuit was “desirable for gaining wisdom,” and ate it. She gave it to Adam as well, and he ate it (v. 6). And we’re still eating it.

Very little that we strive to possess and achieve possesses intrinsic merit worthy of the sacrifices it requires from it. Money is just green paper. A $100,000 vehicle is not so much more efficient than a $20,000 car. Most of us could live in half the house we occupy, and get by. At issue is the will to power. The more we do and own, the more powerful we feel we are. Pride is the basic motive of all fallen humanity.

Conversely, pride covers our self-perceived inadequacies. We were each made by a perfect God, for perfect relationship with him. Though we have fallen into sin, we “remember” the way things should be, and wish they were that way still.

So we know our failures and weaknesses. Rather than admit them, we compensate for them. Our prideful actions cover our self-esteem issues and inadequacies. We act in prideful ways, to convince others that we are what we pretend to be. Years ago, a psychologist friend of mine stated our self-awareness this way: “I am not what I think I am, or what you think I am. I am what I think that you think I am.”

Pride is the expectation of our culture. How does our society define success? Performance, achievement, drive, initiative. The “self-made man.” Jon Gruden, head coach of the once world champion Tampa Bay Buccaneers, arrives at his office at 3:58 each morning. He is so driven that during the season he rarely sees his wife and children. His voice is constantly strained with all the talking and yelling of his job. The world celebrates his success. When last was a truly humble person elevated as a role model for our youth? We are to be driven, prideful, perfectionists or we are not a success.

Self-reliant pride is the basic strategy of the enemy. Jesus’ temptations were each to self-reliant pride. Turn the stone to bread yourself; jump from the temple and impress the people; worship me and I’ll give you the kingdoms of the world. Satan knows that this is where the spiritual battle is won or lost. So he works on us here if nowhere else.

Who is susceptible to sinful pride?

•Religious leaders: “The Pharisee stood up and prayed about himself: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other men—robbers, evildoers, adulterers–or even like this tax collector'” (Luke. 18:11).

•Religious people: Job said “I am pure and without sin; I am clean and free from guilt” (Job 33:9). This from a man described as “blameless and upright; he feared God and shunned evil” (Job 1:1).

•Followers of Jesus: “Some of you have become arrogant, as if I were not coming to you” (1 Corinthians 4:18).

•Churches: “You say, ‘I am rich; I have acquired wealth and do not need a thing.’ But you do not realize that you are wretched, pitiful, poor, blind and naked” (Revelation 3:17).

•Anyone who believes that he or she is not.

What is wrong with sinful pride?

It rejects the Lord: “Pharaoh said, ‘Who is the Lord, that I should obey him and let Israel go? I do not know the Lord and I will not let Israel go” (Exodus 5:2). This is the sin of idolatry.

It uses others: “In his arrogance the wicked man hunts down the weak, who are caught in the schemes he devises” (Psalm 10:2); “Pride is their necklace; they clothe themselves with violence” (Psalm 73:6). When we come first, everyone else comes second and is a means to our end.

It is destructive: “When pride comes, then comes disgrace, but with humility comes wisdom” (Proverbs 11:2); “When Haman saw that Mordecai would not kneel down or pay him honor, he was enraged” (Esther 3:5); “Pride goes before destruction, a haughty spirit before a fall” (Proverbs 16:18). Self-reliance always leads to failure, for we are failed human beings.

It leads to the judgment and punishment of God: “After Uzziah became powerful, his pride led to his downfall. He was unfaithful to the Lord his God, and entered the temple of the Lord his God to burn incense on the altar of incense” (2 Chronicles 26:16).

“Hezekiah’s heart was proud and did not respond to the kindness shown him; therefore the Lord’s wrath was on him and on Judah and Jerusalem” (2 Chronicles 32:25).

To Belshazzar, “You have set yourself up against the Lord of heaven. You had the goblets from his temple brought to you, and you and your nobles, your wives and your concubines drank wine from them. You praised the gods of silver and gold, of bronze, iron, wood and stone, which cannot see or hear or understand. But you did not honor the God who holds in his hand your life and all your ways” (Daniel 5:23).

God must judge and punish anything which robs his glory and harms his created children.

The Bible concludes: “Haughty eyes and a proud heart, the lamp of the wicked, are sin!” (Proverbs 21:4).

What is the answer to sinful pride?

Refuse self-exaltation

•”Do not be wise in your own eyes; fear the Lord and shun evil” (Proverbs 3:7).

•”Do you see a man wise in his own eyes? There is more hope for a fool than for him” (Proverbs 26:12).

•”Woe to those who are wise in their own eyes and clever in their own sight” (Isaiah 5:21).

•”The man who thinks he knows something does not yet know as he ought to know” (1 Corinthians 8:2).

Know that everything which tempts you to self-exaltation is the sin of pride. Turn this temptation into humility. Erasmus was wise in this regard: “If Satan tempts you toward boasting, double your efforts to be humble in all things. If Satan tempts you to withhold your prayers, increase them. If your inclinations are to be greedy and selfish, increase your donations to charity. This way you can find in temptation renewed provocation to increased piety. This procedure galls Satan the most. It makes him afraid to tempt you because nothing is more hateful to the Evil One than that he should be responsible for some good.”

See your need for God

“Do not boast about tomorrow, for you do not know what a day may bring forth” (Proverbs 27:1). When you are tempted to boast, think of all the ways God has blessed you, and of your utter dependence on these blessings.

See yourself as the valuable child of God

“You are all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus, for all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. . . . If you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s seed and heirs according to the promise” (Galatians 3:26, 29).

Everything which tempts you to self-rejection will lead to pride as compensation. When you are tempted to self-loathing, remember that you have been “died for.” Much of our external pride compensates for such self-deprecation, which is not biblical humility at all.

Value humility as the path to the power of God

•”Moses was a very humble man, more humble than anyone else on the face of the earth” (Numbers 12:3). His pride, however, kept him from the Promised Land.

•Daniel replied, “No wise man, enchanter, magician or diviner can explain to the king the mystery he has asked about, but there is a God in heaven who reveals mysteries” (Daniel 2:27-28). His humility enabled God to use him.

•Jesus: “I tell you the truth, the Son can do nothing by himself; he can do only what he sees his Father doing” (John 5:19).

Martin Luther was right: “God creates out of nothing. Therefore, until a man is nothing, God can make nothing out of him.”

Seek the help of God

Every day of his life, Dr. Martyn Lloyd-Jones prayed the same prayer, “Lord, keep me from pride.” When last did you make this your prayer?