[This entry follows a sermon called "Pride and Faith: Polar Opposites". Click on the title to listen to the audio.]
Generally speaking, Charles Spurgeon was not a preacher who systematically worked his way through books of the Bible. He didn't preach through Romans, then Job, and on and on. He selected texts from week to week. In fact, Iain Murray once said that Spurgeon had to have a text 'bite on' him before he would preach it. The point was that he wanted to really feel the urgency and weight of the text in his own soul before he stood in front of his congregation to preach. This is a good and wise desire, and some weeks, I definitely feel more 'bitten.' This past week was one of those weeks, as I studied Isaiah 9:8-10:34 and was confronted, once again, with the Scripture's teaching on pride.
I've heard that water can penetrate buildings because it can find the smallest crack...the slightest breach...and enter. It seems that pride is that way as well. The temptation to exalt oneself over others (whether in our own minds or in our words/behavior toward others) comes in all shapes and sizes. I want to reiterate some of the places it comes...for our further meditation. We take pride in our morality...we take pride in our immorality. We take pride in our close family life...we take pride in distancing ourselves from family. We take pride in educational degrees...we take pride in being smarter than people with educational degrees. We take pride in our denomination...we take pride in being nondenominational. We take pride in a big income...we take pride in not having or needing a big income to be happy. We take pride in going green to conserve natural resources...we take pride in using up natural resources simply because we can. We take pride in homeschooling because we feel like we're better parents. We take pride in sending children to public school because our kids are 'missionaries.' We take pride in sending them to Christian schools because we get 'the best of both worlds.' Like water seeping through the smallest of entries, pride can get in and infect our lives.
Now, in saying all of this, I think it's important to think about what pride is not. So, having thought about it, here's a brief list of things that pride is not:
1. Recognizing the Lord's work in our lives is not pride. I am currently reading The Masculine Mandate by Richard Phillips, which talks about what it means to be and live as a man, according to Scripture. So far, I've really enjoyed it. In one of the chapters I read last night, Phillips talked about the habit of chewing tobacco, which he had in his twenties...in his 'Army days.' He writes, "By the time I was thirty, the age at which I was converted to faith in Christ, I was seriously addicted" (40). While in seminary, he came to the conviction that the tobacco "had great power over" him, and he decided he would quit. Phillips would go cold-turkey for weeks, but then he would have a bad day and find himself buying and chewing it once again. He eventually gave up on his self-willed attempts, and while he still fought hard, he sought the Lord's help in breaking tobacco's power over him.
The result? God helped him. Here are Phillips' words: "So it was that God delivered me from the addiction of chewing tobacco. God did not enable me merely to cope with this addiction. Instead, over a period of time during which He called me to be persistent in prayer, the Lord removed the addiction" (41). Did you notice the language? He didn't say, "Look how I kicked this nasty habit"...taking the credit as his own. He says "God delivered me," "God did not enable me," "He called me," and "the Lord removed..." This is a recognition of spiritual growth...a spiritual breakthrough...in his life. Yet, it's not prideful. He turns his eyes away from his own efforts (which were futile) and toward the One who gives strength to fight against sin.
When we look back over our lives and say, "This is who I was, but the Lord has grown me in X, Y, and Z," we are not expressing pride. We give glory to God for His gracious work in us, to will and to do His good purpose (Phil. 2:13)...and we ought to do so. Paul does it over an over again in his letters. This is who I was --> this is what the Lord has made me. In doing this, we recognize and honor the God who makes things (like us) grow (1 Cor. 3:7).
2. Evangelistic zeal is not pride. Unbelievers today say quite the contrary. Our relativistic culture believes that any religion that proclaims itself as the only real religion is arrogant. Such is the message of Christianity. We proclaim Christ and Christ alone because Jesus proclaimed that He is the only way, truth, and life (Jn. 14:6). It is true that some evangelism can come off as arrogant (and this must be avoided because our goal is to exalt Christ, not ourselves), but zeal, in itself, is not arrogance.
When a cancer patient has been cured through some new medicine, he longs to share that medicine with other cancer patients...that their suffering might come to an end. Imagine a man, dying of cancer, looking at this cured man and saying, "I can't believe you! How arrogant to say you know about the cure! Like I can't find my own cure. All cures are essentially the same, and each person determines which cure is right for them." Though the analogy breaks down if you take it too far, you get the point. Those whose eyes have been opened to the truth want to make that truth known to others. They are zealous to have their families, their friends, their co-workers...all of humanity...know about what Jesus Christ has done for the forgiveness of sin. Zeal is not pride.
3. Seeking to correct a brother in error is not pride. Now, it goes without saying that this, too, can be a crack through which pride can seep in. One can certainly take the attitude of superiority because he/she has 'obviously studied more' than the other. That being said, doctrinal corrections are not, in themselves, pride. Paul is constantly correcting errors in the New Testament. He longs for the people of God to live in a manner worthy of the calling of the gospel (Eph. 4:1), but he knows that you can't live according to the gospel unless you have the right gospel. Paul tells Timothy that, as the Lord's servant, he "must not be quarrelsome but kind to everyone, able to teach, patiently enduring evil" (2 Tim. 2:24). Well, says one, doesn't that just prove that he shouldn't be going about correcting people? Should he patiently endure? Shouldn't he be ready to teach only if someone asks? Unfortunately, I could see a small group discussion going in this direction.
When one reads the next verse (hint: context is always important), you get the rest of the story, as Paul Harvey would say. Paul goes on to say that the Lord's servant must be "correcting his opponents with gentleness. God may perhaps grant them repentance leading to a knowledge of the truth, and they may escape from the snare of the devil, after being captured by him to do his will" (v. 25-26). Whoa! That's serious! False doctrine is not simply a matter of a differing opinion...there's a need to repent and escape the clutches of the evil one. No wonder Paul tells Timothy to "[correct] his opponents." The humility comes as he corrects "with gentleness." The reason that humility, rather than arrogance, is called for is to remove any grounds for the person listening to ignore what you say. Arrogance can shut a person's ears, while humility can be the avenue God uses to opening their hearts.
4. Church discipline is not pride. My English professor in college once said that his favorite verse in the Bible is Matthew 7:1 - "Judge not, that you be not judged." He said this not to justify his lifestyle but to seek to shut the mouths of those who would speak against it. This has almost become the mantra of modern church life. Pastors and congregations feel paralyzed because they don't want to be seen as judgmental when it comes to sin. They want to be "gracious," and they define this word as overlooking anything and everything that goes wrong. However, this is not the way of the New Testament. We are to discipline for the good of the person in sin, for the good of the congregation, for the good of our testimony to Christ, and for the glory of God (with this being our supreme motivation).
To be transparent, pride can creep its way in and take over. Abuses certainly happen, and even where abuses don't happen, individual church members can feel a sense of superiority over the disciplined brother or sister. It shouldn't happen...it's sinful...but it would be naive to say it never does. Yet, this does not remove the need to do church discipline...to lovingly pursue those caught in sin with an eye toward restoration (Gal. 6:1). This can and must be done, as Galatians 6:1 says, in a "spirit of gentleness." Humility must permeate every step of the way because none of the persons active in the discipline process are free from the possibility of being disciplined in the future. None of us are above the kind of sin we see in another.
My English professor could have used a brief session in hermeneutics (i.e.- the art of interpreting the Bible). I was very timid as a college freshman, so I didn't give him that lesson. However, if we keep reading, we see that Jesus goes on to say more. He commands that we avoid hypocrisy, but we don't avoid it by avoiding the correction of a brother altogether. No...we avoid hypocrisy by first examining our own lives. "First take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your brother's eye" (Mt. 7:5). We still must take the speck from our brother's eye, but we must do so only after we have seen the log in our own eye and been humbled by it.
Whatever the situation, it is important to constantly examine our own hearts and ask questions like these: "Am I seeking to exalt myself? Am I seeking to degrade others (which is just the other side of the first question)? Do I feel superior to others, or am I trying to establish my superiority over them? Do I long for (and even subtly ask for) compliments or affirmation from others?" While it is to beware of pride's pervasive influence, it is also important to know that not everything is pride.