It’s an interesting phenomenon, and one that I’ve spent a good bit of time thinking about and wrestling with over the past few weeks.
In a lot of ways, I think studying about pride is somewhat like reading a nutrition textbook that says you should eat healthy food – it doesn’t really tell you anything you didn’t already know, but neither does it really help you out very much. Also, it isn’t very easy to be objective about pride in your own life, seeing as how if you knew you were being prideful, you would no doubt change what you were doing.
In addition, a certain amount of pride is often a healthy thing – being defined by Merriam-Webster as “a reasonable or justifiable self-respect”. There is a part of pride that causes us to feel a belonging to a certain group, or look rightly with favor on some particular thing we’ve accomplished.
It isn’t in fact pride, but rather hubris that is often condemnable. It was seen as a crime in ancient Athens, and was often the predecessor to the tragic fall in Greek tragedies.
When we say “pride” we usually mean either hubris or arrogance – both of which are rooted in an exaggerated sense of self importance. In the Christian sense, I think truly the most insidious danger for each of us is perpetuated by the lie we call “The American Dream” – that if you work hard enough and long enough you can accomplish anything. With that societal cry in our ears, we begin to trust and believe so highly in our own merit and ability that we leave little room for God’s grace, and even in a social vacuum without realizing it, we fall victim to the most serious sort of Christian pride – one that doesn’t involve others, but only ourselves and God.
On an interpersonal level, I think often we confuse humility with self-deprecation. It is not humility to pretend we are less than we really are – it is perhaps false humility, but a better word might be dishonesty. Remembering Merriam-Webster’s definition, pride can be a reasonable or justified self respect. When Paul writes to the Romans, he cautions them to “not think of yourselves more highly than you ought” – something we often simply read to mean “don’t think of yourself highly”. I think Paul advocates a healthy and sober recognition of the gifts God has given each of us.
In Philippians, he writes what I think may be the key to balance – “Don’t be selfish; don’t try to impress others. Be humble, thinking of others as better than yourselves. Don’t look out only for your own interests, but take an interest in others too.”
As I’ve thought and struggled the past few weeks, I think the place I am beginning to arrive is here: interpersonally, pride is not about denying who you are or the gifts God has given you so people feel more comfortable around you. Jesus certainly didn’t do that. Even though he gave up his divine privileges, he didn’t simply pretend to be “just another human” so everyone would like him. He performed miracles, spoke truthfully, and acted consistent to his character, and in fact, contrary to what we would like to think, there were no doubt people who considered Jesus a bit on the “prideful” side – “Who does he think he is? Only God can forgive sins!” (Luke 5:21).
On the other hand, just as we’re called to not think of ourselves more highly than we ought, so too we are called to not think of others as being less than ourselves, remembering that we are all truly equals before the Cross of Christ. We often take comfort in playing the comparison game, feeling that as long as we’re doing just a little bit better than somebody else out there, we’re at least not the worst. For many of us, I think interpersonal pride manifests itself less often in overvaluing our own gifts and achievements than in undervaluing the gifts and achievements of others. In pretending our gifts, talents, and accomplishments are more important than someone else’s, we lose perspective on the fact that all gifts, talents, and accomplishments exist only by the grace of God.
No matter who we are, hubris is our constant companion. Often it is so subtle we don’t recognize it. Even when we look at “prideful” people, there is usually a small part of us that says “I’m glad I’m not *that* prideful”, in turn making us just a bit more prideful than we were. Again and again, I am reminded of the words of Nietzsche – Wer mit Ungeheuern kämpft, mag zusehn, dass er nicht dabei zum Ungeheuer wird. Und wenn du lange in einen Abgrund blickst, blickt der Abgrund auch in dich hinein. – “He who fights monsters must take care that he not become a monster himself. For when you gaze into the abyss, the abyss gazes back into you.”
At the the end of the day, when I evaluate myself and am tempted to look around at people who “aren’t quite as good” as I feel I am, I hope I am constantly reminded of this reality – that I am not very far from being any of those people; that there, but for the grace of God, go I.