The Wisdom of Humility (and the Folly of Pride)
by Jules Grisham 
I want to be famous
so I can be humble
about being famous.
What good is my humility
when I am stuck in this obscurity?
- “Dilemma,” by David Budvill
“Good breeding consists of concealing how much we think of ourselves and how little we think of the other person.”
– Mark Twain
Do not love the world or anything in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him. For everything in the world—the cravings of sinful man, the lust of his eyes and the boasting of what he has and does – comes not from the Father but from the world. The world and its desires pass away, but the man who does the will of God lives forever.
– 1 John 2:15-17
When John speaks of the world, he’s speaking of the world not as we with our scientific presuppositions are inclined to think of the world (as referring to the world as a physical entity in its spatiotemporal totality), but as a spiritual entity. “World” for John refers to the world in its fallenness and rebellion against the God who created it; it refers to sinfulness and its dreadful causes and effects. And it’s important to understand this because so many people down through the ages have been led to really wild misapplications of Scripture on this point – as if, when John directs us by the inspiration of the Holy Spirit not to love the world, we were to reject the good things of God’s creation, things we were created to enjoy. No, John’s command here is not that we should run off and join a monastery and live ascetic, monkish lives apart from the world, but that we should not love the world in its sinfulness, in its rebellion against God.
In this regard he speaks of the three things that this “world” which we’re not to love consists in. Indeed, what follows he refers to in its unpleasant aggregate as “everything in the world” – first, the cravings of sinful man (literally, “the lust of the flesh”), second, “the lust of the eyes,” and third, the boasting of what he has and does (literally, “the arrogant pride of life”). D.A. Carson has spoken of these three constituents of the world in its rebellion as “the trinity of evil,” the terrible triad out of which arise our ongoing rebellion against God.
The first one refers to the inner corruption, the inner proclivity to sin which lurks within, always at the ready to fire up and fan the flames of unrighteous desire within us. The word here which the NIV renders “cravings” and which the NAS translates more literally as “lust” is, in Greek, epithumia. Epithumia is a compound word consisting of a prefix, epi (on, over, against, or in this case “over the top”) + thumia (desire). So the root corruption which John has in view is not mere thumia (desire), but epithumia (literally, “over-the-top desire”). In God’s wisdom, it’s not desire itself that’s bad (though many Christians have read it this way down through the centuries). We’re not Buddhists! The universe is a created order which God made “very good,” and we are to engage it and appreciate it as such. Desire for good things is, well… good! But! Desire becomes sinful when good desire, good thumia, leaves the bounds of conformity to God’s will and purposes and, straying away from his will and purposes, becomes over-the-top desire, epithumia, unrighteous desire, unrighteous grasping, craving, lust – outside the bounds of and opposed to God’s will and purposes. Okay? That’s our Greek lesson for the day!
The lust of the flesh, therefore, is the inner corruption, the inner proclivity to oppose God’s will. Then, second, the lust of the eyes consists in those external triggers which pass through the gateways of our senses, and which, entering into our inner being, interact with and awaken the engines of our inner corruption, conceiving desire, which gives birth to sin, which then pollutes our living environment, as it were, and in time turns around and devours us in turn. A frightening scenario, isn’t it?
And finally, whereas the first of these two root sins – lust of the flesh and lust of the eyes – are focused on our unrighteous obsession with what we don’t have and our unrighteous compulsion to acquire those things, the third one – the pride of life – is all about an unrighteous satisfaction with what we do have. It’s a too-inflated sense of self which gives rise to a nagging sense of entitlement which then becomes offended at God’s claims on us….. And it is this last one, pride, which is the chief and worst of all vices.
You may remember several months back that Rob preached in one of his sermons about how, despite the fact that we all tend to be most focused on the sins of the flesh – sexual sins, say (and rightly so, by the way, because these sins are so destructive), nevertheless, he went on, the sins which are far worse even than these sins of the flesh, but which tend to be overlooked in their dire seriousness by the church, are the sins of the spirit – the sins which we commit with our tongues – as Peter writes, “all malice and all deceit, hypocrisy, envy, and slander of every kind” – the sins which tear at the fabric of our unity and shred it to pieces…. These are the really serious sins. But where do these come from?
From pride. Pride. Pride was the devil’s original sin. Recall what Paul said about this, in 1 Timothy 3, when he spoke of how a new convert mustn’t be given authority prematurely, lest “he may become conceited and fall under the same judgment as the devil.” And pride was our first parents’ first, original, sin. Look at how the crafty serpent led Eve into willful rebellion against the God who’d given her every blessing: first, he spreads confusion concerning God’s words, and in this way, acts like a sort of – well, if Jesus is the Word, the Logos, of God, embodying the truth and clarity of that word – then the serpent here is the Anti-Logos, the Anti-Word, bringing confusion where there was clarity, deception where there was truth. “Did God really say, ‘You must not eat from any tree in the garden’?” Then, after Eve’s initial response, he pushes further, the father of lies contradicting God’s own words – but, in doing so, appealing to and awakening Eve’s sense of entitlement, her desire to become like God and thus to supplant him, awakening her resentment at this … limitation on her freedom of action, in short, awakening her pride. “You will not surely die,” he says, “for God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.” And there in that moment was birthed in Eve the sin of pride, and all the sense of entitlement and resentment that would lead inexorably to her disobedience. Thus, immediately, we read that “when the woman saw that the fruit of the tree was good for food and pleasing to the eye, and also desirable for gaining wisdom” – the lust of the eyes interacting then with the lust of the flesh, all from the pride of delusional entitlement – and “she took some and ate it, and gave some also to her husband….”
Look at the terrifying inexorability of this process once unbelief was sown: from sowing the seeds of unbelief in doubt and uncertainty as to what God’s words are and what his purposes are, to an awakened and inflated sense of self which breeds unrighteous entitlement, which confronted by limitation and other’s failure to recognize this inflated self-entitlement turns to resentment, which cultivated awaits only lust’s trigger to fall into sin and rebellion against the God who gave us above and beyond all we need and crowned us with glory and honor….. There’s a revelation of the way the devil works down through all the ages, through deception and lies, targeted to our unrighteous pride and structured to incite our unrighteous desires.
So which is the greatest of sins, unbelief or pride? Clearly, unbelief is the ultimate root sin, the sine qua non of human sin and misery. We could not have fallen had we not strayed from the light and protection provided by close, intimate proximity to God’s Word and way; unbelief, straying into the shadow, stepping out of God’s near presence, always is an exercise which is full of the gravest danger to our souls. But pride is the rotten flower of unbelief; it is the consummation – the perfection, if you will – of sin, and out of pride flow all other sins.
It’s interesting to think of this in terms of their opposite. First, we note how John’s “evil trinity” consists of a triad of vices (unbelief, covetousness, and pride) which are actually the opposites of the three Christian virtues (faith, hope, and love). (Unbelief being the opposite of faithful reliance on God and his revealed will; covetousness consisting in unrighteous desire, hope for what is wrong and bad and harmful; and self-aggrandizing pride being the opposite of other-upbuilding love.) Second, when we consider faith, hope, and love, we see that faith is the root virtue (it is by faith we lay hold of Christ, and it is in Christ and through Christ that all God’s blessings flow to us); but it is love which is held up as the consummate perfection, the beautiful fruit and flower of faith. We believe in order that we might love. (This is sort of a variation on Augustine’s famous phrase, Credo ut intelligam – “I believe in order that I might understand” – to say Credo ut diligam – “I believe in order that I might love.”)
So then, pride is the greatest sin (as love is the greatest virtue) because pride is the violation of the first and greatest commandment, which is that we should love! (Specifically, that we shall love the Lord our God with all our heart and with all our soul and with all our strength, and our neighbors as ourselves). Pride is that which puts self before God. Pride loves me, my self, with all my heart and soul and mind and strength, rather than God. And in this self-love, we resent God’s claims of Lordship in our lives, and seek to oppose and displace him, and to set ourselves up in that honored position which our pride leads us to imagine is our right. And humility, as we’ll see, is the opposite of pride; humility is pride’s vital antidote.
Augustine, in the City of God, says that everyone belongs to one of two cities: either to the City of God, which consists of “all who love God to the despising of self,” or to the City of the World, who “love self to the despising of God.” God is the source and end of the first city; the devil is that of the second. That’s the difference between humility and pride. Pride is a sin directly from hell; humility is God’s antidote to it.
Here’s C.S. Lewis, from The Great Divorce: “There are two kinds of people, in the end: those who say to God, ‘Thy will be done,’ and those to whom God says, in the end, ‘thy will be done.’” This is the ultimate choice we face in life, the most important lesson we can ever learn.
So: what does God’s word have to say about pride and humility? Let me just read a few verses so that we’ll get the idea – first on pride:
In Deuteronomy 8, God warns his people that disaster will surely follow when our hearts become proud and we forget the redemption which he has effected in our behalf. And there’s an interesting insight to keep in mind: that pride entails forgetfulness of all that God has done for us; pride negates gratefulness, which ought rightly be our response to God’s grace.
As for those who have become proud, Proverbs 16:5: “The LORD detests all the proud of heart. Be sure of this: they will not go unpunished.” Again, from Isaiah 2:12: “The LORD Almighty has a day in store for all the proud and lofty, for all that is exalted (and they will be humbled).” And Paul commands us in Romans 12:16 that we should “live in harmony with one another. Do not be proud,” he says, “but be willing to associate with people of low position. Do not be conceited.”
Indeed, Proverbs 11:2: “When pride comes, then comes disgrace, but” – But! “With humility comes wisdom.” Pride, then, entails the folly of forgetfulness and ingratitude, which leads away from grace, to dis-grace, and to disaster. But humility directs us in the path of wisdom, wise-living, life in accord with God’s purposes, a life of grateful receiving of God’s grace! Thus, we read in James 3:13: “Who is wise and understanding among you? Let him show it by his good life, by deeds done in the humility that comes from wisdom.” Now note that! “With humility comes wisdom,” we read in Proverbs, but so too it is “humility that comes from wisdom.” Humility is the foundational stance by which we become wise – wise to receive grace! – in the first place, and humility is also the stance which wisdom teaches us that we should remain in our walk of faith in God’s presence. Humility before and after: it’s not a one-time-thing! Very important! We’ll come back to that shortly.
But first, two more quotes on humility. First from 1 Peter 5:5: “All of you, clothe yourselves with humility toward one another, because, ‘God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble.’” Do you want the God who is the Lord and sovereign Creator of all things to oppose you (an unwise proposition)? Go ahead and be proud! But do you want to receive the grace which is the manifestation and fulfillment of his favor? Then be humble to receive it. What could be more ridiculous, and more deeply offensive, than a creature’s arrogant and ungrateful pride of self in the presence of his Lord and King and Creator. But it’s not just with God that we are called to the stance of humility, but with all those who bear God’s image. As Paul writes in Philippians 2:3: “Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit, but in humility consider others better than yourselves.” Do you say, like the Pharisees, that you’re humble before God and yet maintain an air of haughty pride and disdain toward God’s image-bearers? Then the God to whom you profess to be humble is but an idol, a projection of your own imaginings, a God you’ve thought up to affirm yourself at others’ expense. Genuine humility before the Living God of the covenant entails genuine humility with those who bear his image, just like to pronounce one’s love for God while loathing those who bear his image is a manifest inconsistency. This is the great principle that our Lord Jesus, the incarnate God Man, teaches us: that love for God with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength, entails a necessary corollary: love for neighbor as oneself. Amen!
In sum: God hates pride. Why? Because pride is that vice which most effectively cuts us off from God’s grace; it is the delusional sense of sufficiency, fueled by ingratitude and delusional entitlement and unrighteous resentment, which gives rise to all other sin in our life. Pride must be eradicated from our life, and humility must be cultivated in its place. Humility is that which clears the decks of the impediments to receiving grace. Humility orients us rightly vis a vis God, both to come to wisdom, and to the further humility which comes from wisdom, so that we become, not those who are so satisfied with our lot as to spurn God’s grace and to reject his claims on us, but those who receive grace upon grace all the way to glory. Amen!
Humility before, after, and always. Humility as the mark and foundational orientation and stance of the Christian…. When Bernard of Clairvaux was asked what the four cardinal virtues were, he replied, “Humility, humility, humility, and humility.” Humility and more humility! And just when you think you’ve learned the thing and are ready to move beyond it, you’re proud, and have not gotten beyond it! And just when you think, no, now I’ve really banished pride. I am one fellow who understands and embraces humility: beware being proud of your humility!
That was the theme of the humorous poem I started us off with, which shows the anxiety of being humble without anyone knowing about it, thus to appreciate how very, very humble we are, fueling our pride in that very thing! The devil is very crafty. As Dorothy Sayers wrote, “The devilish strategy of pride is that it attacks us, not in our weakest points, but in our strongest. It is preeminently the sin of the noble mind.” Very interesting. Pride is the vice which attaches itself to our assessment of our very strengths, which can if left unchecked lead to our downfall. Pride in this light takes on the aspect of a sort of kudzu vine, wrapping itself around a noble tree and slowly strangling it to death.
Listen to this quote from Dick Morris. You may remember that he was an advisor to President Clinton several years back who got in trouble for his infidelities. Listen to what he said after these events led to his disgrace (and remember the Bible’s warnings, how pride will lead us away from grace to dis-grace). He said of that time, “My sense of reality was just altered. I started out being excited working for the president. Then I became arrogant, then I became grandiose, and then I became self-destructive… Man, everybody who turns 40 should read the Greek tragedies. They all have within them the same idea: the thing that may have helped you move up then destroys you. And I’m a living example of that.” Wow…. “The thing that may have helped you to move up then destroys you.” Why? Because of pride.
On this point, Peter Kreeft writes that there are only two kinds of people: fools, who think they are wise, and the wise, who know they are fools.” He says that “Augustine’s two cities” – remember, the City of God and the City of the World – “Augustine’s two cities are the proud, who think they are humble, and the humble, who know they are proud. The only way to become humble is to admit that you are proud!”
Now then: given all this consistent biblical teaching in this regard on the importance of combating pride and of cultivating humility, what I think is really interesting in this regard is that nothing so divides the Christian worldview from that of the world at large than the radical difference in the way Christians and non-Christians understand and evaluate this thing, pride, and pride’s opposite, pride’s antidote, humility. The Greeks thought of pride as one of the virtues. Christianity calls it the greatest of all vices. More and more, as American society veers away from its moorings in Christian thought, pride is being reconceived not as a vice but a virtue. Modern American non-Christians tend to look at pride as a good thing.
Some qualifications right up front. We mustn’t confuse, as many seem to do, pride with self-respect, or self-esteem. After all, isn’t it good to be proud of ourselves? But the pride we’re talking about today is not the same as self-respect, a justifiable sense of one’s worth or a realistic assessment of one’s abilities and giftings. And while we can go on and on about the absurdities of the modern cult of self-esteem (story of American students and math), that is merely delusional, pathetic, ridiculous. But the pride we’re speaking about is something far worse.
We’re talking about what John referred to as “the pride of life.” We’re talking about what the Oxford English Dictionary defines pride as “an unreasonable conceit of superiority,” an “overweening opinion of one’s own qualities.” We might say that pride is over-the-top self-esteem, esteem run amok, esteem on steroids and gone dangerously delusional. The pride we’re talking about rears its ugly head when our self-worth loses connection with reality, when it swells into delusions of self-sufficiency, when it seeks to displace God as Lord.
So pride is not mere self-esteem, but over-the-top esteem; not the mere affirmation of self-worth but the assignation to self of primary worth – it is the idolatry of self. And self-esteem has shifted into sinful pride and idolatry when, for example, we derive our esteem and value, say, at the expense of diminishing and devaluing others; when we are more satisfied to compare ourselves favorably to others than to compare ourselves to what God expects of us; when we imagine ourselves so sufficient and capable as to be hindered and burdened by God’s demands on us, as if they were diminishing and dishonoring our glory, when we delude ourselves into imagining that we don’t need God’s grace……
Now, most Americans, one gets the sense, still object to pride in at least one of its two more boorish, overtly obnoxious manifestations. That is, most Americans still react very negatively to the sort of pride which we might call aristocratic pride, the consciousness of class superiority by which one person or group looks down its nose on another as being innately inferior, less educated, less refined, less whatever. That runs afoul of the prevailing egalitarian ethos.
Against this, though, there is an accelerating acceptance of something that, too, was once out of bounds, and that is of what we might call the pride of natural ability, the pride of what we might refer to as the “natural aristocracy.” If Americans can’t stand the idea of inherited snobbery, they seem to be more and more accepting of prideful boasting and preening behavior among those whom they deemed have earned it. You see this more and more in our professional sports. It’s as if we’re devolving from a more team-oriented ethos to a more individual valor, warrior ethos. See the ridiculously over-the-top boasting which has become part and parcel of so many sports. But more than just sports: look at reality TV. As a people, Americans seem to be losing even the idea that it would be best at least to look humble – even if only to avoid embarrassment upon failure. But no, you see these clowns come out and inevitably they talk trash of everyone else, project a preposterously over-inflated sense of self-esteem and self-worth, and then, if they fail, they walk off spouting pop psychological drivel about how wonderful they are for not compromising, and so on…. As I watch these things, the dismaying thought has been taking hold of me more and more that, gee, I don’t like this people we’re becoming. Arrogant, vain, puffed-up, extreme, Nike, pride, me, me, me, great, great, great. And humility doesn’t even show up on the radar. And the problem is that, for all the individual prowess and valor of warriors in warrior societies, in societies which are centered around the pride of the male individual, these societies inevitably face defeat at the hands of organized societies. Let’s put it this way: the devolution of American society into an increasingly individualistic ethos based on self-assertion, overweening self-worth and an utter disdain for humility in public settings doesn’t bode well for our future as a nation……
And you think, good gracious, how did this happen? How is it that in our society, anchored as it is in such a wealth of Christian heritage, should be veering so badly and so rapidly off-course? How is it that a society whose foundations are so drenched in biblical thought should have come to this place where pride, overt and overbearing pride, is deemed good, while humility is deemed not even worthy even of giving lip service to? The answer is very strange, when you think about it. The answer is that the late-nineteenth century philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche has worked its way into a large segment of our society – though the great majority of these Nietzscheans have no idea whatsoever of this, and Nietzsche himself would have been bewildered and astonished by this development.
Nietzsche was the guy who formulated what is probably the most consistent – and in the end, the most terrifying – rejection of Christian morality that has ever been expressed. He believed that Christian morality – with its rejection of pride and its endorsement and enforcement of humility – was nothing other than the enslavement of the master race, the true aristocracy, by the weak and the degenerate. He derided the Christians’ attack on pride as a mask to cover the resentment of the weak. All their calls for “love” and “compassion” are therefore bogus, being nothing other than the grand rationalization by which the slave class has curtailed the power of the master class, with its nobility, excellence and “pride.” Against this, his philosophy – consonant with nineteenth century ideas of progress and evolution – called for the emergence of the ubermensch, the superman, who would realize that “God is dead” and thus be freed from all moral scruple and guilt. After all, he said, so-called Christian morality is itself a gigantic lie, originating in the weakness of the herd and their resentment at its own weakness. “They invented morality to pull the teeth of the wolves so that they, the sheep, would not be devoured by them.”
Listen to this quote from his book, Thus Spake Zarathustra: “’Man is evil’ – all the wisest men have hold me that to comfort me. Oh, if only this were true today! For evil is man’s strength. ‘Man must grow better and more evil’ – this is what I teach. The greatest evil is necessary for the superman’s greatest achievement.”
Yikes. As it happens, Nietzsche himself went insane, and the society in which this terrifying vision of a society which purges itself of all “softening” virtues in order to make room for those who would “will to power” and lord it over everyone without guilt or scruple – that society went insane, too. As Peter Kreeft writes: “Why should someone who believes this philosophy have moral scruples? Reason gives no answer to this question, and history gives a clear answer. It wears a swastika.”
Now, one might expect that given the insanity of its founder and its adoption by Nazis, this nineteenth century European philosophy would have a hard time infiltrating the sunnier optimistic climes of America. But unfortunately, that’s exactly what has happened – though in many ways anonymously, and stripped of much of its intellectual baggage. What has survived the transplant into America is one thing: the emphasis on the will to power, that an individual has the right, and the duty, of self-promotion and self-assertion, and that humility is nothing but phoniness and weakness for wimps and hypocrites. And this could only have happened in a cultural situation which has forgotten, rejected, spurned, turned from God, where faith in a universal justice has become non-existent, where there is only this life, here and now, and the choices we make to maximize our enjoyment of it. Pride is the virtue of the godless, humility is seen as a virtue only for the weak. And as we veer headlong into this Nietzschean abyss, I for one want to cry out the words of Isaiah: “Woe to those who call evil good and good evil, who put darkness for light and light for darkness, who put bitter for sweet and sweet for bitter.” Woe to the society which brazenly scorns the word of God which was the source of its founding principles and the comfort of its fathers!
But the antidote to pride is the cultivation of pride’s opposite, humility, the openness, the receptivity to grace. Humility rejects the delusion of pride and its idol, the self, that the world is a sort of pantheistic market of choices, and that the goal in life is to pick and choose and grab and lay hold of all those things you desire, and opens itself to a higher reality, the reality of God calling us from beyond the horizon of the foreseeable, toward a future which we couldn’t otherwise even imagine, calling us to orient ourselves and chart a course in that futureward direction. Humility is the acknowledgement and affirmation and acceptance of what we really are in light of what God really is. And pride can rant and rave all it wants about our grandeur and importance and sufficiency and about how great we are at this and that, but all that posturing and preening doesn’t make it so. Humility is nothing else than the emptying of the trash of delusion which fills our spiritual bin, the throwing out of pride and the clearing the deck for grace. Listen to what T.S. Eliot had to say about humility in one of my favorite poems, “East Coker,” from The Four Quartets:
The only wisdom we can hope to acquire
Is the wisdom of humility: humility is endless.
Wisdom is the stance which opens the way to coming into wisdom, and wisdom teaches us in turn to abide in humility. Why? Because God’s work in us is not a one-time thing requiring humility up front, only to allow the return of pride. God is transforming us in stages all the way to glory, as he prepares us for everlasting life in his presence, and to transform us we’ve got to keep throwing out the trash! (Story of Frontier House.)
How then do we respond when the culture at large embraces a God-defying and insane philosophy which makes a virtue of pride and a vice of humility? We uphold, we proclaim the gospel, which confronts them with the truth of their condition – that despite the ravings of their pride, the reality is that they are sinners in need of God’s grace; that despite their arrogance in saying that they’re strong and healthy and don’t need such a thing, that indeed though their pride insists otherwise, and tells them they are free, they are not free, but are in bondage to the compulsions and proclivities of their own sinfulness. We, all of us, are sinners; we, all of us, need God’s grace; we, all of us, need to purge the blinding folly of pride, by which we tell ourselves that we’ve got all we need, when in fact, absent God’s grace, we’re wretched, pitiful, poor, blind, and naked. Scorn it, scoff at it, mock it, ignore it, deny it, but it’s true. And, fellas, if we don’t proclaim this truth, who will? And if they don’t hear this truth, then how can they be saved from their delusions…? As Paul writes, “How, then, can they call on the one they have not believed in? And how can they believe in the one of whom they have not heard? And how can they hear without someone preaching to them?” Amen!
But! It’s not just “them,” those guys, the non-Christians, who need to hear the gospel. We do, too, even after we’ve been saved, and we need to continue to be in a stance ready to receive it, ready to be transformed by the operations of God’s love. The danger for us is especially acute, because if Christians fall into pride – having been inoculated, as it were, by an initial encounter with humility in our need of God’s grace that we now assume no longer applies, we become bullies and legalists, we become Pharisees. Humility is the stance of openness to being transformed by God, and it is the direct opposite of, and it is in fact the antidote to, pride.
So, in conclusion: how are we to counter the pride we encounter in the world – that is, in the world in its rebellion against its creator? We uphold and proclaim the gospel of Christ! And how are we to counter the pride we continually discover and uncover in ourselves? We uphold and proclaim the gospel of Christ! And all the while, we pour the water of thankfulness on our souls – a water of gratefulness which extinguishes the fire of pride even as it nourishes the root of humility.
Finally, rejoice in the Lord! Rejoice in that you’ve been blessed by your need of him. Rejoice in all the blessings of his grace which he has lavished on you. And abide in the wisdom which comes from humility, which is the wisdom that leads to more humility, as God transforms us needy sinners into saints perfected for glory.
1 This paper was originally delivered as a lecture by Jules Grisham at Fourth Presbyterian Church in Bethesda, Maryland, 2004.