Tag Archives: pride

To God Be the Glory

It can’t be denied that as a species, human beings have an enormous capacity for kindness. Time would fail to tell of the occasions when friends of mine have gone far beyond and above the call of duty in their love for me and for others. So perhaps it’s no surprise that we sometimes feel these good works of ours are grounds for pride, as discussed previously. But the gospel destroys our grounds for pride by reminding us that these good works of ours are really God’s works, prepared in advance for us:

“For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.” (Ephesians 2:10)

In the sovereignty of God, he planned where we would end up, and the circumstances in which we would find ourselves. Both the specific needs we will be confronted with, and the gifts and resources we will be equipped with to meet those needs are ordained by God. Instinctively, I think we recognise that fact when others help us out of a situation of dire need – at least for the Christian person, it feels natural to thank God for their support.

We see this illustrated for us in the Old Testament, where even the greatest victories of the people of God are not attributed to them and their strength, but to the Lord and his mighty power. Take, for example, one the best-known victories in the Bible: that of David over Goliath. The situation makes it clear that the credit doesn’t belong to David – this young, scrawny shepherd boy armed only with five tiny pebbles and a sling clearly didn’t stand a chance against the gigantic Philistine, the shaft of whose spear was as thick as a weaver’s beam. But David never doubted what the result would be. His motto:

“All those gathered here will know that it is not by sword or spear that the LORD saves; for the battle is the LORD’s, and he will give all of you into our hands.” (1 Samuel 17:47)

For sure, David was the human agent God used to deliver his people from the Philistines. It was David who had to gather up his pebbles from the stream; it was David who had to make the effort to stand up to Goliath and confront him when nobody else would dare; it was David who had to take aim and sling his pebbles and slay the mighty tyrant. But David saw the truth throughout: the battle was the LORD’s. Without the Lord governing and directing his every step, David would never have been so confident of a favourable outcome for the Israelites. If God could subdue the mighty Philistines by the hand of this single shepherd boy, then he could do it with anyone – David knew it wasn’t his right to take the credit for himself.

We see the same story over and over again in the Old Testament. Gideon is another example, where God deliberately thins out the Israelites army again and again until only a few hundred men remain, “In order that Israel may not boast against me that her own strength has saved her” (Judges 7:2). The victory had nothing to do with Israel, and everything to do with God.

So next time you find yourself tempted to feel proud about something you’re doing for God, ask yourself who put you in this position? Who gave you the gifts and abilities that made you able to do this? Who instilled in you the desire to serve in this way? And just see if the credit isn’t really due to God, and not to you.

No Room for Pride

In our sinfulness, we humans can be very quick to turn the good things that we do into grounds for pride. Maybe it’s just me, but it’s disturbing how many times somebody has politely thanked me for some inconsequential act of kindness and I’ve immediately become puffed up, thinking “yes I know, I am pretty special, aren’t I?” To my shame, I suspect that sometimes I even do those things in deliberate anticipation of the nice things people will say about me afterwards. It’s not just the praise of other people that we enjoy, however: don’t we often expect to impress God with our good behaviour? How often do we start thinking “God must be really pleased with me this week, I’ve done so well, he’s sure to bless me now!” When we fall into sin, often the thing that upsets us most is that our grounds for pride have been whisked away from under our feet, and instead we’re left feeling stupid, humiliated. We are prone to turn the good things that we do into grounds for pride.

Jesus destroys such grounds for pride in one of his parables:

“Will any one of you who has a servant plowing or keeping sheep say to him when he has come in from the field, ‘Come at once and recline at table’? Will he not rather say to him, ‘Prepare supper for me, and dress properly, and serve me while I eat and drink, and afterward you will eat and drink’? Does he thank the servant because he did what was commanded? So you also, when you have done all that you were commanded, say, ‘We are unworthy servants; we have only done what was our duty.'” (Luke 17:7-10)

“So you also, when you have done all that you were commanded, say, ‘We are unworthy servants; we have only done what was our duty‘”. It’s a staggering change of perspective, isn’t it? Even if you succeed in doing all that you were commanded to do, what are you boasting about? That was merely your duty! It was the least you could do, to do what you were told.

The stakes are really raised when you realise just how much God has required of us: firstly to love him, the Lord our God, with all of our heart, all of our soul, all of our strength, all of our mind, and secondly to love our neighbour as ourselves. That’s a pretty comprehensive set of commandments with very little wiggle room. It leaves no scope for believing that our efforts to love and serve God and others are somehow exceptional, above and beyond the call of duty. So you battled your way through rush hour traffic in the pouring rain to go and do some shopping in a crowded supermarket on behalf of an elderly friend? Well done, but you haven’t loved her any more than you love yourself, nor have you loved God with anything more than all of your strength. You have only done what was your duty. Or you resisted that constant temptation that is daily nagging at you to give in, and instead you spent the evening in prayer and joyful meditation of God’s word? Terrific, but don’t for a minute think that in that moment you were loving God with anything more than all of your heart and soul.

Our trouble is that we measure ourselves against the standard of other people. We look at others, and we’re good at noticing how half-hearted they are in their love for God or their service of others. We see their reluctance to go out of their way, or their failure to notice somebody’s moment of need. Then we look at ourselves, and we ignore or make excuses for all of the failures in our own life, and we see only the good. And compared to what we’ve seen in others, sometimes our assessment of ourselves comes out looking pretty great. But that is not the standard we’re called to: God calls us to nothing short of perfection. We’re to be measured against the awesome purity of his own holiness – spotless and without blemish. It’s a standard that we can never attain – only one person who ever lived hit the mark, the Lord Jesus Christ – and even if we were to get near, what would we have done besides what was asked of us?

If you are trusting in your good works as grounds for pride – beware! We are but unworthy servants – even perfect obedience to God’s will is merely doing our duty and merits nothing from God in return.

Why Our Best Works are but Filthy Rags

Do you ever have that feeling where you look at other people and secretly feel really smug about your own righteousness? Do you ever derive some perverse sense of pleasure when others screw up, because it makes you feel that little bit better about yourself knowing that at least you’re not quite as bad as that? I suspect that most of us go through life with a sense that we’re basically pretty good people – we’ll admit that we’re not perfect (we’re only human, after all!) but we’re mostly decent and upstanding in the grand scheme of things. We often do good, lending others a helping hand, giving money to those less fortunate, allowing that pregnant woman to take our seat on the crowded train, sacrificing our time and energy to support a struggling friend. These are all wonderful things to be doing – and let’s strive to do so more and more – but the Bible warns us that we’re in real danger the minute we start relying on these good works of ours to justify ourselves, that is, to start thinking that God must be really pleased with us because of all the great things we’ve done. If we start thinking our good works are grounds for pride, we’re in real trouble.

Just as last week we saw that the Apostle Paul counted all his righteous deeds as loss compared to the righteousness of Christ, so the prophet Isaiah spoke of our good works in these stark words:

“All of us have become like one who is unclean,

and all our righteous acts are like filthy rags;

we all shrivel up like a leaf,

and like the wind our sins sweep us away.” (Isaiah 64:6, NIV)

In the sight of God, even our best deeds are like filthy rags compared to the awesome purity of his holiness. His holiness is like a consuming fire that burns up all impurity in an instant. When Isaiah was confronted with a vision of God, he was so overcome with a sense of his guilt and unworthiness that his immediate reaction was to cry out, “Woe is me! For I am lost; for I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips; for my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts!” (Isaiah 6:5). Likewise the prophet Malachi describes the coming of God’s presence in these terms:

“But who can endure the day of his coming, and who can stand when he appears? For he is like a refiner’s fire and like fullers’ soap. He will sit as a refiner and purifier of silver, and he will purify the sons of Levi and refine them like gold and silver” (Malachi 3:2-3)

Here and now we may be tempted to take pride in our good works, but when the Lord Jesus comes in judgement all of the secrets of mens’ hearts will be laid bare, and all of our motives will be exposed. It won’t be enough to show what we did: we will be required to explain why we did it as well. How many of our good deeds will really stand up to that level of scrutiny? How often did we really have mixed motives for our righteous acts, perhaps seeking to look good in the eyes of others or to avoid being thought of as selfish? Often when I fail to do the right thing in a given situation, my first thought is not of how I have wronged God and others, but rather fear that others will think less of me. That can be a powerful motivator to try harder next time. But if we think we can be made right in God’s eyes by doing things purely for the sake of upholding our reputation, then we’re sorely mistaken. That’s not serving God – that’s serving ourselves, and that is the essence of sin.

I remember finding that thought quite shocking as a young Christian: the idea that a seemingly good deed could be as sinful in God’s sight as something obviously wrong like theft or adultery. But that’s because I was defining sin in terms of external actions rather than as an attitude of the heart. It is striking that the first of the 10 Commandments is entirely an internal action: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength”. And that explains why idolatry is such a serious offence to God: it is loving something created in place of loving the creator. If you do outwardly “good” things out of love for your favourite idol, be that the desire for reputation, for status, for money, for security, or just to impress someone special to you, no matter how seemingly good the act, if it’s done for the wrong motives it’s still deeply offensive to God and in fact is tantamount to adultery.

When I was a first year student at university, I did all manner of crazy things in order to try and impress a girl I was rather fond of. I even went as far as taking ballroom dancing lessons so that I could spend more time with her (I would say that it was an opportunity to demonstrate to her how suave I was, but that would require me to have had some skill on the dance floor!) My desire to please her overcame my natural desire to avoid dancing like the plague, and made me act in all sorts of out-of-character ways. It’s exactly the same with all our idols: what we love will always show itself in how we act, and that will often manifest itself in very respectable looking acts of apparent righteousness. But in God’s sight they are but filthy rags, symbols of our betrayal of him.

The prophet Jeremiah portrays it like so:

“Be appalled, O heavens, at this; be shocked, be utterly desolate, declares the Lord,

for my people have committed two evils:

they have forsaken me, the fountain of living waters, and hewed out cisterns for themselves,

broken cisterns that can hold no water.” (Jeremiah 2:12-13)

When we act to please our false gods, it’s like sticking two fingers up at God and saying that he’s not worth pleasing – at least, not as much as our idols are. Throughout the Bible, God frequently uses the image of a marriage covenant to describe his relationship with his people Israel. Their idolatry is then compared to the actions of an unfaithful bride – sometimes in quite brutal terms! Take the next chapter of Jeremiah, for instance:

“Have you seen what she did, that faithless one, Israel, how she went up on every high hill and under every green tree, and there played the whore?” (Jeremiah 3:6)

So be careful of resting on your good works as grounds for pride – they may not be quite as good as you think they are!

Pride and Christ’s Example

Why Jesus’ Example Removes Our Grounds for Pride

All of us love to feel good about ourselves. Some of even have a few reasons: perhaps we have a great skill or talent, perhaps you’re just a really stand-up chap. If there was one man in the history of the world who had grounds to be proud, surely it was the Lord Jesus Christ. There were many reasons why he might have been inclined to exalt himself:

Jesus could have been proud because of his earthly heritage. Firstly he was Jewish, a member of God’s chosen people to whom were entrusted all the oracles of God (Romans 3:2). He was born into a devout family who brought him up according to all the laws that God had instituted, such as taking him to the temple as a baby to present him to the Lord (Luke 2:22). More than that, he was “descended from David according to the flesh” (Romans 1:3) – as if being part of the chosen people of God was not noble enough, specifically he was from the house and line of David, the great king of Israel to which all other kings were compared, the one after God’s own heart, and whose reign marked the glory days of Israel’s history as a nation. To David was given the promise that God would establish the throne of his kingdom for ever, and that one of his descendants would forever rule over God’s people. You can imagine people clamouring to establish direct descent from David and the substantial prestige that would be associated with that. My family once got really excited at the discovery that there might be a link between my Grannie and Lord Kitchener (the guy with the amazing moustache in the original “Your country needs you!” posters). Given my complete inability to grow a moustache I suspect there wasn’t much truth behind the claim, but we love the idea of being related to important people, and the more important the person the more pride we feel at being associated with them. As a descendant of Israel’s greatest king, Jesus had great grounds for pride.

Jesus could have been proud because of his existence since times immemorial. Before the foundations of the world Jesus existed along with his Father: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God.” (John 1:1-2) He existed before all others and so is greater than all others. Coming after King David was enough to receive the reflected glory of his ancestor, and yet how much more is coming before David? As Jesus points out in Mark 12:35, even David submits to the Christ as his Lord. That would have been a shocking idea to the people at the time, since in Jewish thought the order in which you were born establishes a hierarchy: children must always honour their parents, and the eldest child always received the largest share of the inheritance. Yet Jesus existed long before David, in fact he never had a beginning, and so David calls him his Lord. Or take the most revered figure in Jewish history: the patriarch Abraham, from whose line came the whole Jewish race. In Jesus’ day, just as now, the Jewish people took great pride in their relationship to Abraham, and yet Jesus says to them, “Before Abraham was, I am”. Jesus precedes all the greatest figures of Jewish history by virtue of the fact that he existed long before them. In a game of Bible hero Top Trumps, Jesus would win hands down against all the others. As the one who alone was with God since before the world began, Jesus had great grounds for pride.

Jesus could have been proud because of his eternal destiny. He is the anointed king to whom God promised: “Sit at my right hand, until I make your enemies your footstool.” (Psalm 110:1) His position as God’s Christ makes him the ultimate king before whom none can stand: those who continue to oppose his rule he shall break with a rod of iron and dash them in pieces like a potter’s vessel (Psalm 2:9).
He is the one at whose name every knee shall bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord (Philippians 2:10-11). He is the lamb upon the throne, before whom shall stand for all eternity a great multitude that none could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, forever praising him and giving him great glory. These are things which he knew full well throughout his earthly life, and indeed we are told that it was because of the joy set before him that he was able to endure the cross (Hebrews 12:2). Jesus’ favourite way of referring to himself was as “the Son of Man”, a phrase which brings to mind Daniel 7:13-14, and the one like a son of man presented before the Ancient of Days, to whom was given dominion and glory and a kingdom, that all peoples, nations and languages should serve him; his dominion is an everlasting dominion, which shall not pass away, and his kingdom one that shall not be destroyed. Imagine how Barrack Obama must have felt the night after he was elected as the President of the United States of America – and yet that was only for four years, and as much as he might like to pretend, Obama doesn’t really have control over America’s enemies. Even Obama has a long way to go before being nominated as the President of the Whole World throughout all of time, and yet that’s exactly what Jesus is, with supreme authority over everything and everyone. As God’s supreme king, Jesus had great grounds for pride.

Jesus could have been proud because of his magnificent works. He was the author of all creation: “For by him, all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities- all things were created through him and for him.” (Colossians 1:16) We’re told that through him God created the world, and that even now he upholds the universe by the word of his power (Hebrews 1:2-3). Think of the most majestic thing you have ever seen in all of creation – maybe it’s an incredible sunset, or a stormy day on the Cornish coast, or a geyser spewing out steam, or that amazing “pop” you get when opening a jar of marmalade for the first time, or a mighty blue whale, or an exotic bird of paradise, or maybe your husband or wife – Jesus created that in all of its glorious intricacy and beauty. As John 1:3 puts it: “All things were made through him, and without him was not anything made that was made.” Whilst on the earth, Jesus demonstrated his lordship over creation again and again. He stood on a boat in the middle of the perfect storm: as the winds howled around him and the mighty waves threatened to sink them, Jesus merely had to speak and the storm immediately ceased, running away with its tail between its legs. He healed every kind of sickness and disease, such that those who moments before were at deaths’ door were suddenly running around serving him dinner. He even raised the dead, calling the rotting corpse of his friend Lazarus out of the grave so that he might live again. Not surprisingly, Jesus attracted huge crowds who were constantly banging on his door and hoping to see what he might do next. As the mightiest miracle worker of all time, Jesus had great grounds for pride.

I hope you will agree that the Lord Jesus Christ had every reason to be proud. Yet the great surprise is that he was not, and indeed was the humblest man ever to walk the earth, and came to the human race as a servant. “Though he was in the form of God, he did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men” (Philippians 2:6-7). If you think you have grounds to be proud then I can assure you that they are nothing compared to the reasons that Jesus had to be proud, and yet he felt no need whatsoever to boast or stand on his rights. Instead he emptied himself of all that he was, condescending even to come in to the world as a naked, screaming baby born into a smelly stable. “For even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” (Mark 10:45) Even this mighty king, the eternal ruler, the one who was and is and is to come, greater than Moses, mightier than David, more majestic than the Grand Canyon – even the Son of Man did not come to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many by his gruesome execution on a Roman cross. It should make us ashamed for all our pathetic attention seeking, to think that we have more reason to boast than the Lord Jesus, to think that somehow we deserve recognition, when even the King of Kings lived and died in such obscurity and shame.