In scanning the headlines today, I noticed how there’s an untold story that lies at the root of so many of the developments in the news – human pride. I’m not talking about pride in the sense of self-dignity or self-respect, but in the sense of arrogance.
Charles Haddon Spurgeon once said, “Be not proud of race, face, place, or Grace.” There’s a classic story told about Spurgeon, the terrific Reformed Baptist preacher of 19th century London. One day after church, a proper Victorian woman was commending him for his sermon, when a drunk happened to stumble by.
The woman made a face, expressing her disgust at the drunk, and said, “Well, I never!” And Spurgeon, looking over at the same drunk, said, “But for the grace of God go you or I, Madam.”
The warnings against pride in the Scriptures are many and varied. They are summed up in the theme that God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble.
Next month we celebrate the 50th anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s classic speech, “I have a Dream.” In that speech, the Baptist preacher quoted Isaiah from the Bible, including the point that in due time, the humble (“every valley”) shall be exalted and the proud (“every hill and mountain”) laid low: “I have a dream that one day every valley shall be exalted, every hill and mountain shall be made low, the rough places will be made plain, and the crooked places will be made straight, and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together.”
Pride often robs us of our ability to see things properly. We compare ourselves with our neighbors and come off better (in our minds) than we really are before an all-seeing holy God.
To the Christian the sin of pride is among the greatest evils. C. S. Lewis likened it to spiritual cancer. In fact, listen to what the great British scholar (a professor at Oxford, then later Cambridge) had to say on the subject: “… the essential vice, the utmost evil, is Pride. Unchastity, anger, greed, drunkenness, and all that, are mere fleabites in comparison. … It is Pride which has been the chief cause of misery in every nation and every family since the world began.”
One of the greatest rulers from antiquity was King Nebuchadnezzar II (605-562 B. C.). He has a lot to teach us about pride and its destructive nature. Thankfully, the important lessons surrounding him were recorded in the Bible and thus preserved for all time.
Nebuchadnezzar II was Babylon’s greatest king. As a conqueror, he was feared by all. A great builder, he had enlarged the city of Babylon to an area of 6 square miles, beautified it with magnificent buildings and surrounded it with impenetrable walls. He had hanging gardens around his palace so spectacular that they were one of the seven wonders of the ancient world.
Nebudchanezzar had indeed accomplished many things, but he wouldn’t have been able to do any of these things were it not that God had given him his life, his health, his talents, his genetic makeup, his family background, etc. This is true of anybody great or small that accomplishes anything. As Paul notes, What do you have that you did not receive? The answer is nothing.
But full of pride, Nebuchadnezzar bragged, “Is this not great Babylon, that I have built for my royal dwelling by my mighty power and for my majesty?”
God was not pleased with Nebuchadnezzar’s overinflated opinion of himself. Listen to what happened next, as found in the book of Daniel: “While the word was still in the king’s mouth, a voice fell from heaven: ‘King Nebuchadnezzar, to you it is spoken. The kingdom has departed from you! And they shall drive you from men, and your dwelling shall be with the beasts of the field. They shall make you eat grass like oxen; and seven times shall pass over you, until you know the Most High rules in the kingdom of men, and gives it to whomever He chooses.'”
Then what happened? Daniel continues, “That very hour the word was fulfilled concerning Nebuchadnezzar; he was driven from men and ate grass like oxen; his body was wet with the dew of heaven till his hair had grown like eagles’ feathers and his nails like birds’ claws.”
After seven years he acknowledged God, and his mental health and kingdom were restored. I remember in an “abnormal psychology” class at Tulane, this story was in our textbooks. Of course, as I recall, it discounted the divine element, which is critical to the story.
The saying “pride goes before a fall” (a paraphrase of Proverbs 16:18) is certainly true. In all the universe the most devastating example of this is Lucifer. He was once a highly exalted angelic being. How did Lucifer fall? Through the sin of pride. As C. S. Lewis puts it, “it was through Pride that the devil became the devil.”
To me, the key to overcoming pride is in reversing the phrase “alter ego” (and alter the spelling of alter to altar): We leave our ego on the altar.