According to Protestant Reformer Martin Luther, “True humility does not know that it is humble. If it did, it would be proud from the contemplation of so fine a virtue.” In other words, there is a very real danger of being proud that you are humble. I have both witnessed this and, sadly, done it.
In my office, you will not find my diplomas framed and hung on the walls. I am not ashamed of my education, in fact, I am very glad that I attended and graduated from excellent schools. I made an intentional decision when we moved into our new building that I would not hang them prominently for all to see. I felt as if it might come off a bit showy, as if I were trying to beef up my reputation by boasting of two post-graduate degrees. It was intended to put people at ease, to show them I’m just a regular guy whom God happened to call into ministry. My initial motivation was, at least as best as I can remember, genuinely pure.
I was asked by a church member looking around my office why I hadn’t displayed my diplomas on the wall. “After all,” they stated matter of factly, “you earned them.” “Well,” I said as humbly as I knew how, “I was trying not to come off as a big shot.” Had I left it there, my motivation would probably have been mostly pure, but I just couldn’t keep my mouth shut. “As a matter of fact,” I continued, “I’m not even sure where the diploma from my doctorate is … probably stuffed in a drawer somewhere.” Oops. I knew immediately when the words came out of my mouth that I had stepped over the line from being humble to being proud of my supposed humility.
The Bible warns us against pride. Pride trips us up and brings destruction (Proverbs 16:18). Pride is intended to shame others but eventually brings shame on the prideful one (Proverbs 11:2). Pride binds us up in unseen chains (Psalm 76:6). It creates strife in our relationships (Proverbs 28:25). To sum it up, pride is a sin (Proverbs 21:4). Catholics list pride among the seven deadly sins. Some have gone so far as to say that the root of all sin is pride. But can we not be proud of our accomplishments or proud of our children and grandchildren? Is all pride sin?
According to Thayer’s Greek Lexicon, “pride” is “the character of one who, with a swollen estimate of his own powers or merits, looks down on others and even treats them with insolence and contempt.” In so far as our attitude matches this description, then our pride would be sinful. But there is a kind of satisfaction that we have in noble accomplishments, those of ourselves and of others we know. To applaud that your daughter scored with winning goal in soccer or that your son scored the highest in his class on an essay is not pride based on the definition found above, however that same sense of satisfaction can lead us to a prideful attitude. You don’t even have to say it out loud. If when you see the supposed star of your daughter’s soccer team fail to score at all while your own child won the game with her goal, your heart can be filled with pride. Do you see the difference?
Pride has to do with comparison. “I am better than you.” “My child is better than your child.” “My accomplishments exceed yours.” “You would be nothing without me.” Those are prideful attitudes that rob us of our contentment and sow the seeds of discontent and discord. To make it worse, if our children or grandchildren see in us that kind of pride, they are likely to begin to imitate our attitude.
Pride is subtle. It distorts our sense of satisfaction and accomplishment into something twisted and sinful. Overcoming pride does not mean that we demean ourselves; it means that we view rightly the world and our place in it. A humble heart recognizes that all we have and all we are is because of God’s graciousness toward us. A humble attitude can rejoice in the achievement of others, even if their actions surpass us.
Our example of humility is found in none other than Jesus Himself. In Philippians 2, Paul reminds us that even though Jesus was God in the flesh, He did not use His divine nature to His own advantage but humbled Himself. He not only took on flesh and became a person, He also died in our place and took our sins. He knew who He was. His humility did not negate His divinity; it fulfilled it.
If you are a child of God, celebrate all the He has done in your life. Rejoice in the accomplishments He has allowed you to have, but never forget that every good and perfect gift comes from above and that we were saved to serve others. When we do boast, let our boasting be in the Lord!