In reality there is perhaps not one of our natural passions so hard to subdue as pride. Disguise it, struggle with it, beat it down, stifle it, mortify it as much as one pleases, it is still alive, and will every now and then peep out and show itself… For even if I could conceive that I had completely overcome it, I should probably be proud of my humility. -Benjamin Franklin
Pride. It’s what we notice first and hate most in other people, but notice last and defend most fiercely in ourselves. Pride is the chief spiritual sin from which all the others come because it dethrones God in our hearts, replacing love of God with love of self, glorification of God with glorification of self. Pride insists on its own way, listens only to voices that affirm what it wants to hear, feels entitled to things from others and God, baulks at submission, gets bored with compassion, loves only when its easy.
Want to get a grip on the nature of pride? Read Matthew chapter 23. In the margins of my Bible I have privately titled this chapter the “anti-pride chapter.” In it, Jesus blasts the pride of the scribes and Pharisees (i.e. the ultra religious people of his day). On the one hand it is a fun chapter to read because Jesus comes across as being so obviously superior to his petty adversaries. On the other hand, reading it is almost painful because of the intensity with which it exposes and condemns my false humility and religiosity, both of which are manifestations of the pride in my heart. There is no escaping it, if you’re honest with yourself. As Mr. Franklin noted, apart from Jesus and submission to him, pride rules our hearts exclusively.
Clothe yourselves, all of you, with humility toward one another, for “God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble.” Humble yourselves, therefore, under the mighty hand of God so that at the proper time he may exalt you, casting all your anxieties on him, because he cares for you. 1 Peter 5:5-7
The opposite of pride is humility. People often misunderstand humility, confusing it with distortions of the real thing. Humility is not self-deprecation, false modesty, an inferiority-complex, or being a doormat to whoever wants to take advantage. “It is not pretty women trying to believe they are ugly and clever men trying to believe they are fools,” as C. S. Lewis said. Stirring up false humility in this way simply serves to turn a person’s attention back to himself or herself, just in a more subtle way. On the contrary – real humility means, simply, self-forgetfulness.
If you want to see what humility looks like, read Philippians 2:1-11 and John 13:1-20. Note Paul’s wording in Philippians 2:3. He does not say “in humility count yourselves as less significant than others,” but rather, “in humility count others more significant than yourselves.” The focus is outward. Note also the reason for Jesus’ breathtaking humility in John 13:3 – “Jesus, knowing that the Father had given all things into his hands, and that he had come from God and was going back to God, rose from supper…” Jesus acted in humility and love in that instance and in every other because he knew his identity. He knew his relationship with the Father was certain and immovable; therefore he did not need to assert or exalt himself with other people. God was enough for him.
The same is true of us when we as Christians recognize who we are. We know, first, that we did not create ourselves; all our talents and abilities are gifts from God. Second, we know we are sinners who do not go a day without needing forgiveness. We know, third, that Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection are completely sufficient for saving us and there is nothing we can add or take away. When this head-knowledge begins to creep into our hearts, lives change. Real, healthy humility begins to take root.
Even in secular estimation, Jesus was a man of amazing humility. It did not make him passive or fearful – he spoke the truth boldly. He also served, boldly and constantly, outcasts and lawbreakers. His humility expressed itself in tangible acts of love and generosity. He did not live for the attention and praise of other people, but only for the pleasure and glory of God and for the joy of serving his Father.
It sounds backward, but God is good to let us fail or suffer if genuine humility results. It is so beautiful, and so free, to live humbly. In a life of humility there is freedom from those gnawing desires for attention, success, admiration, or whatever else, that make our lives so unnecessarily miserable and so perpetually sinful. There is frank and honest joy in the good things in life, whether or not we get the credit, and sadness in the sad things in life, whether or not they directly affect us. There is unobstructed worship of the King and love for people – and people always notice when they are being loved without an agenda, served without needing to be thanked. Humble love is so distinctively beautiful, and so incredibly rare, that it is impossible to fake.