The big myth about pride is that it only manifests itself in arrogant behaviour. We tend to be critical of those who seem over-confident in their abilities and enjoy ‘blowing their own trumpet’, and we are sympathetic to those who put themselves down and appear to have low self-esteem. But humility is not the same as having an inferiority complex. And although my pride may not always be obvious to me or to others, when I pull back the layers of my own insecurities, my need for reassurance and affirmation, my lack of confidence in my abilities and my fear of being disliked, I find a deep condition of pride at the root of it all.
So what is pride? Well it’s not quite as simple as thinking too highly of oneself. Tim Keller, in his brilliant little book, The freedom of self-forgetfulness describes pride as the delusion that we can find worth, value and identity in something other than God. It is more complex than arrogance. It is a hunger for validation from the things around me that I am a somebody, that I am worth something. And this desire to find value and worth in my looks, job performance, relationships, social status or gifting, left unchecked, ends up driving most of what I do.
How do we identify pride in our lives? Keller explains that we all have dysfunctional egos and we know this because our egos are always drawing attention to themselves. Think about how many times you think about how you’re coming across, how you’re being treated or what somebody is thinking about you. So often I interpret situations as being all about me. If someone doesn’t acknowledge me, my first instinct is to wonder what I’ve done wrong and perhaps feel indignant that they didn’t treat me well. When I see two people sharing a private joke, I often feel insecure and left out. And it’s because I’m allowing these scenarios around me that are really nothing to do with me, to dictate my worth.
Where else is pride evident? Well we’re always comparing. I find myself comparing my appearance to others, my work performance, my sense of humour, even my Godliness. And so do you! In his book Mere Christianity, CS Lewis says, Pride gets no pleasure out of having something, only out of having more of it than the next man… It is the comparison that makes you proud: the pleasure of being above the rest. Once the element of competition is gone, pride is gone. And whether we compare up or compare down – pride is at the heart of it. Even when I feel less beautiful, less popular, less funny or less Godly than the next person, the same sin of pride is underneath. I am still seeking to find my value and worth in being better than someone else – I’m just disappointed that I’m not. Tragically, this habit of comparing prevents us from simply enjoying the gifts and abilities of others because we are preoccupied by feeling either insecure or superior instead.
How else can we spot pride behind the scenes? Our egos are fragile. Praise gives me a high but I’m easily offended by criticism.. Our egos are high maintenance! Paul describes the Corinthians’ egos as being puffed up in 1 Corinthians 4 as they boast about their affiliation to a particular apostle. The term puffed up gives a sense of emptiness and fragility, something that can easily be deflated. I can go from feeling on top of the world to down in the dumps within minutes because my ego is puffed up, not filled up with anything solid.
So what’s the answer? Can I find any freedom from being mercilessly driven by the desire to find my worth in the things around me? How can my ego be filled up and not puffed up, ready to deflate at any moment?
The reason our egos are never really satisfied is because we’re not designed to be fulfilled by the things we pursue to give us self-worth. The hole is too big to be filled with good looks, social status or academic success, which is why we’re never quite satisfied. I often find myself thinking, If I just… *fill in the gap* then I’ll be secure/happy/satisfied. Contentment with myself and my identity always seems just out of reach. I am always seeking an elusive verdict that I am someone, and that I have worth, but I never quite get that confirmation, or I feel the need to be constantly reaffirmed. The verdict is never ultimate. Does this person still like me? Are we as close as we were? Am I still good at this? I’m on trial every day, judging myself.
It is only through finding our identity in our standing in Christ that we will truly fill our egos and find the ultimate worth we are seeking. The ultimate verdict we are seeking is in already – we are valued, loved and accepted by the creator of the universe, and facing a glorious eternity with him in which we will be made perfect like him. We don’t have to be on trial each day because Jesus has already been on trial for us! He took the verdict we deserved and we are of immeasurable worth to God. And Paul lives out of this truth. I care very little if I am judged by you or by any human court; indeed, I do not even judge myself… It is the Lord who judges me. (1 Corinthians 4:3-4) He is not governed by what others think, or indeed what he thinks of himself. He knows that it is only God’s verdict that matters. How liberating to live like that! And he goes on to expose the madness of having pride in any of our gifts or abilities anyway. For who makes you different from anyone else? What do you have that you did not receive? And if you did receive it, why do you boast as though you did not? My gifts and abilities were not given for me to find my own self-worth – they are gifts from God to be used to glorify him, not me.
But is it really possible to live like that? To actively live out of the knowledge of my worth in Christ, and not to be governed by what others think and what I think of myself? Is Paul being unrealistic?
Perhaps changing old habits and deep mindsets feels impossible, but I believe there is more power in claiming a new truth than living out of an old lie. We’re told in 1 Corinthians 10:31 to ‘do all to the glory of God, and again in 1 Peter 4 that in all things God [must] be glorified through Jesus Christ. In Romans 15, Paul instructs us to, with one mind … glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. If God’s word is living and active, with the power of the Holy Spirit working through it to actively change us, then we can claim this for ourselves and make it our purpose for living! I’ll stop asking questions like does this make me look good, or what does that person think of me, and instead begin asking questions like is God being honoured by this or how can I encourage this person to love God more. Living with this new purpose and identity is what we were designed to do, and our egos will finally be filled up with something solid, which cannot be inflated or deflated at the drop of a compliment or a critical comment. Keller describes this new identity as the blessed rest of self-forgetfulness. The liberty found in not relating every situation and circumstance to myself and my worth. It’s true humility – not thinking less of yourself, but thinking of yourself less. (CS Lewis)
The great irony of pride is that in the very act of desiring to be admired, to be valued and to look good, we become most ugly. Nobody likes to admit how much time they spend thinking about how they look, or what others think of them because they will be exposed for being self-absorbed. When pride stops us from apologising or from taking constructive criticism, we are most unattractive. Truly beautiful people aren’t those who put themselves down, but those who are entirely interested in other people. Those who are able to do menial tasks and be in the background because their identity isn’t compromised by doing so. Those who are able to enjoy the gifts and achievements of others as much as if it were they performing or achieving it. And then there is the most beautiful one of all – Jesus, who had every reason to boast – creator of everything, perfect in every way. But who, instead,
did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage;
rather, he made himself nothing
by taking the very nature of a servant,
being made in human likeness.
And being found in appearance as a man,
he humbled himself
by becoming obedient to death—
even death on a cross.
Oh to be like him!