Augustine of Hippo once postulated that the first sin was pride. Producing the desire to overthrow and replace God, this was the sin that caused the fall from heaven that created the devil. It was then this sin that he passed to humanity as he tempted in the Garden of Eden. Whether or not one agrees with Augustine that pride represented that archetypical sin, one cannot deny the fundamental nature of humanity. This nature is both given over to pride and has a desire to depose God, establishing itself as the essential source of wisdom, knowledge, and power. It is this nature that then permeates through us. It is humility before God that is lost in the fall and pride that keeps us separated from God.
The only real answer to this is humility, a true and sincere humility that is rooted in Christ and nurtured by the power of the Spirit. This, though, requires that we tackle something very basic and core to who we became since the fall, which is easily manipulated by the devil. He is, after all, the adversary who knows our weaknesses and how they might be best used against us. The inherent problem is that most of us don’t necessarily see pride as a vice that inflicts us or humility as a virtue we must work on.
Yet, as we examine our spiritual state, we must look upon ourselves rightly and understand our nature clearly. When we do, we come to an unavoidable truth. This is, namely, that our salvation, relying on the Cross of Christ, is reflected in the deep sense of humility that comes through the regeneration of the Spirit. In this, the foundation of our faith is Christ, and its framework is humility. These two truths are intrinsically bound together because Christ, in the incarnation, was born a servant to suffer and die for us. Recognizing this, we come to the inevitable conclusion that he serves as the very model of true humility for humanity.
This humility is something that must be constantly guarded, something which must be continuously worked on, lest we fall into the trap of pride, whose dangers are everywhere.
The Danger of Our Age
This, though, is not in line with our current zeitgeist, and, in that, the Christian needs to understand that the threat that pride poses is closer than we think. We live in a time and an age where everything in western culture seeks to replace God with the individual, giving them undue exaltation. Rather than submitting to God, the goal of society is to have God submit to us. The Word of the Lord is twisted and turned to meet current thought. We regard those passages that don’t fit within progressive thinking to be archaic and no longer relevant to our society today. The objective truth of the Lord is replaced with our base subjective truth. “Pride was the cup, which on being cast down he [the devil] gave the man, still standing up, to drink,” and we have drunk heavily from that cup.
The inherent danger here is that we don’t necessarily recognize that we have given ourselves over to pride. We are so deceived that we believe what we are doing comes from a sincere place of goodness rather than our own vanity and hubris. Because of it, we replace the rule of God with the law of our perversion. Eventually, we seek to please others rather than God, convincing ourselves that it is out of serving when it is about ensuring our status.
This, in turn, can have an incredibly negative effect on the Church and the believer. After all, as Sir Isaac Newton observed with his Laws of Motion, “For every action there is an equal and opposite reaction.” Within religious experience this has proven true, particularly as society moves away from God. We see it in the New Testament in the Pharisees, who rose to prominence in the Intertestamental Period.
It was the Pharisees who, in witnessing the decline in Jewish religious life, dedicated themselves to the Law. Like the prophets of the Old Testament, sent by God to call His people back, their desire was to bring them back to righteousness. Yet, an obsession with righteousness, and the keeping of the law, would turn their focus not towards God but to their own good works. Here, they would lose sight of their fellow man and, in turn, God. After, our humility before others gives witness to that humility that we have before God.
This is the danger that pride presents to the Church and to the believer. In reacting to society and culture, we can create idols within the religion of our works, another form of vanity and arrogance that elevates ourselves at the expense of God.
In this sense, a twin threat of pride can arise, meeting where arrogant self-righteousness becomes the dominant thought, the prevailing course of the present age. Each believes they are born out of humility, yet, at their very core, they represent pride in the individual’s life. This is the deception of pride and why it is essential to understand the true nature of what pride and humility actually are.
What is Pride?
As I said, Augustine, the Bishop of Hippo, viewed the first sin as being that of pride. In his sermon at the ordination of a bishop, he preached, “Now pride is a great vice, and the first of vices, the beginning, origin, and cause of all sins.” His perspective was not without a biblical foundation. After all, it is Proverbs that remind us that “Pride goes before destruction and a haughty spirit before a fall. It is better to be a lowly spirit with the poor than to divide the spoils with the proud. Whoever gives thought to the word will discover good and blessed is he who puts trust in the Lord.” (Prov. 16:18-20) In writing to Timothy on the qualifications of an overseer, Paul warns his young protégé that he must not be new to the faith or a recent convert. The apostle worries that if the overseer is, he will quickly become proud, conceited, and fall into the devil’s condemnation. (1 Tim. 3:6)
The sin of pride is, at its heart, the elevation of the individual to those places that ultimately belong only to God and, in that, seeks to replace God with oneself. It aims to elevate one’s self and, in that, takes their sight from God, focusing it inward on themselves. In this sense, pride is rightly understood as a defect of nature, a mutation of humanity’s true, created self. Because of that, it takes even the noblest of motives, the noblest of intentions, and it twists them into something that is unrecognizable. As such, as Augustine warns in another work, pride will lurk within our good works in order to destroy them.
The inherent danger of pride is that it is incredibly deceptive and manipulative. Pride deceives (Obad. 1:3) It has a way of sneaking up, of cloaking and hiding its true nature until it finally has us within its grip. Again, consider the example of the Pharisees of the New Testament. Though their arrogance and pride are put on full display throughout the Gospels, as we witness their desire for self-exaltation, it is also apparent that they did not view themselves as particularly prideful nor as being guided by hubris. Yet the snares of arrogance lie just beneath the surface, and once it snaps, it blinds us to its nature and its power within our lives. Though this is particularly true in our moments of triumph or victory, when all is going well, this arrogance can manifest itself at any time or any point, even in our moments of difficulty, because it is centered around ourselves.
This pride separates us from God because, in it, we lose our fundamental trust in Him, placing it elsewhere, placing it where we now find our identity. As it does, what we find is that it becomes more and more of a challenge to remove from our lives. We are well then to heed the admonition of Paul in his epistle to the Church in Rome, telling to them not to think more highly of themselves than they ought to, evaluating themselves according to that measure which God himself assigned. (Rom. 12:3) We are, after all, not given to ourselves, nor is all else centered on us. Rather, we are given to God through Christ, and to our relationships with others, through Him.
Thus, the only remedy for pride is Christ-centered humility. It is this humility, which is born of utter and complete reliance on God, which, in turn, represents the fundamental virtue of the Christian life.
We see this humility first in our blessed Savior.
Paul, in his epistle to the Philippians, described it as such, “Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.” (Phil. 2:5-8) The self-emptying of Christ, in every way, was, by its very nature, an act of humility on his part. True God, he became man, becoming a slave in human form, and gave himself in complete obedience even to the point of his crucifixion. Rather than coming as the conquering king or the triumphant warrior, he would become the suffering servant. In this, he would give to us a view of the true nature of humanity, that nature as it had existed before the corruption and the fall before pride would take hold.
John Milton, the 17th-century poet, would open his epic Paradise Lost with the lines, “Of Man’s first disobedience, and the fruit of that forbidden tree whose mortal taste brought death into the world, and all our woe, with loss of Eden, till one greater man Restore us and regain the blissful seat.” In these words, we find a measure of truth that relates then to our thoughts here. This is, namely, that Christ, through His sacrifice, came not simply to give us that view of the true nature of humanity but to restore us to it as the second Adam, greater than the first.
Christ then is not only our salvation through his sacrifice, but our exemplar, and here, we learn what true humility is. To recognize this, we need only look at the words which Christ uses to describe himself. “The Son can do nothing of his own accord, but only what he sees the Father doing.” (Jn 5:19) “I do nothing on my own authority, but speak just as the Father taught me.” (Jn 8:28) “I do not seek my own glory.” (Jn 8:50) These are but a few passages that reflect that the essential work of Christ is rooted in and centered around the Father, and that, as the Son, he magnifies Him and His will, not to glorify himself, but rather to glorify the Father. There is no room here for Christ to uplift or elevate himself because he is given to absolute submission and reliance, total, unconditional surrender to the One who sent him.
As those called to be imitators of Christ, we then take his yoke upon us, learning from him who is meek and lowly in heart, knowing that he is our true peace. (Matt. 11:29) As we do, it becomes less about us and more about him as we come to rely more fully on God, willing to give of ourselves to our Lord and to others, knowing that, just as Christ’s relationship with others was a reflection of His relationship with the Father, so too are ours. We willingly take on the role of the lesser so that He may be seen as the greater, serving as we empty ourselves that the Spirit will fill us.
We must then recognize that pride is the birthplace of sin. It is the devil’s delight, brought to us by him in even the earliest of Creation. It is like the root that burrows into our soul, allowing for the weed of sin to spring forth, strangling and killing that good that the Spirit might cause to bloom from us. We must recognize it because its dangers lurk all around us. The Prince of this World, he knows our weaknesses, and he knows how to play off of our vanity, our arrogance, and our self-centeredness, causing us to drink from that poisoned cup.
Yet, when we set our sights on Christ and look towards his humility, seeking to emulate him, we set that cup aside as the Spirit pulls that weed from our soul. We must see humility as a fundamental trust in God that transcends all else, as we give ourselves over entirely to Him in complete surrender. Humility, after all, comes from that realization that it isn’t about us. Instead, it is about God and His work as we wholly and utterly rely on Him.
As this happens, what we then find is that the truest sense of our lasting happiness, our lasting peace rests not in ourselves but in our Savior. This then guides us towards true spiritual health. This, in turn, gives us a complete sense of fulfillment as we die to ourselves so that we may live in Him. We then find that this humility is a virtue and, in being a virtue, a true form of worship of God.
For as difficult as it may be, for as much as it may contrary to this world, we must set aside ourselves. We must abandon our motivations which are centered on our sense of self. Do not seek your own self-satisfaction or your own self-gratification. Instead, pray that these things are emptied from you, that all is emptied from you, that you may come before Him as an empty vessel, knowing that God will, through His Spirit, fill you. After all, humility is born of that Spirit, which leads to our transformation from children of this world to children of God, as our hope and faith is rightly placed in Christ Jesus.
Lord, grant this unto us all…