Growing in humility, putting off pride

We generally dislike ‘pride’ shown by people like the over the top ‘brain surgeon’ in the humorous clip above. Most of us think of pride as a problem others have. Yet, in Mere Christianity, CS Lewis writes: ‘There is one vice of which no man in the world is free; which everyone in the world loathes when he sees it in someone else; and of which hardly any people…ever imagine that they are guilty themselves…The vice I am talking about is Pride or Self-Conceit…Pride leads to every other vice: it is the complete anti-God state of mind… As long as you are proud you can’t know God at all. A proud man is always looking down on things and people; and, of course, as long as you are looking down, you cannot see something that is above you. Is CS Lewis overstating the problem? Is pride really our greatest struggle? I’d like to briefly consider four questions based on Daniel 4:

1. What is pride?

Daniel 4 gives an account from the life of Nebuchadnezzar II, king of Babylon from c. 605 – 563BC. During his reign Babylon became the largest city in the world and featured the hanging gardens, one of the 7 wonders of the ancient world. Nebuchadnezzar ruled over the entire known world, many lived in fear of him, yet in Daniel 4 he is terrified by a dream (vv5-17). Daniel interprets the dream, telling Nebuchadnezzar of his failure to acknowledge the Most High who is over him. Daniel advises him to repent and turn to God (v27). Nebuchadnezzar ignores the warning. One year later, when walking on the roof of his palace he said: “Is not this the great Babylon I have built as the royal residence, by my mighty power and for the glory of my majesty?” (Daniel 4:30)

This is a clear example of pride. Pride is self-conceit, self-centredness, pride focuses is on what I have done, or what I will do: ‘is this not what I have built by my power?’ Pride’s focus is on living for ourselves, drawing attention to ourselves: ‘for the glory of my majesty’, rather than living for God.

Pride is a focus on self and the service of self, a pursuit of self-recognition and self-exaltation, and a desire to control and use all things for self (Stuart Scott, From Pride to Humility)

2. What’s wrong with pride?

Was it wrong for Nebuchadnezzar to be proud? After all he was a great king, a great military leader. Wasn’t he right to say, this is the great Babylon I have built? The problem, as he was told in the dream is that there is a greater King who had given him everything. Four times in Daniel 4 we hear this phrase or words like it: The Most High is Sovereign over the kingdoms of men and gives them to anyone he pleases (v17, 25, 32, 35). It wasn’t Nebuchadnezzar’s doing that he was born the eldest son of a Babylonian King instead of son of a slave in some distant land. It wasn’t Nebuchadnezzar’s doing that he had intelligence or strength or even life.

We can be like Nebuchadnezzar and think, look at what I’ve achieved in my life or what I’ve accumulated, but how much of it is our doing that we we’ve lived where we have, rather than in a country where there’s no escape from the poverty cycle? How much of it is our doing that we were not born with HIV from our parents, or suffered Malaria at a young age, like so many in Africa. How much of it is our doing that we have intelligence, or strength to work, or even breath? None.

The problem with pride is that we take the glory that belongs to our Creator. Instead of living for him, we live for ourselves. Pride is lying to ourselves and others by overstating our greatness, and stealing what does not belong to us. Pride traps us in a delusion of our own importance. John Piper tweeted recently: On every scale of excellence God is infinitely greater than the best person you’ve ever heard of. He’s right, God’s greatness is breathtaking, he is worth marvelling at, he is worth drawing people’s attention to. Pride is when we want to take what really belongs to God, and draw attention to ourselves instead.

3. Can proud hearts be changed?

Daniel 4 shows us proud hearts can be changed. Nebuchadnezzar had a proud heart, but here he gives us his testimony. He begins and ends telling us how great God is: It is my pleasure to tell you about the miraculous signs and wonders that the Most High God has performed for me. How great are his signs, how mighty his wonders! His kingdom is an eternal kingdom; his dominion endures from generation to generation… Now I, Nebuchadnezzar, praise and exalt and glorify the King of heaven, because everything he does is right and all his ways are just. And those who walk in pride he is able to humble. (Daniel 4:2-3,37)

Nebuchadnezzar demonstrates that proud hearts can be changed by being  broken, humbled and receiving God’s grace. Nebuchadnezzar receives a terrible discipline from God. He is driven away from his people. His hair grew long like feathers, his nails grew long like the claws of a bird, he ate grass like cattle, and his body was drenched with dew. Yet God used this discipline for Nebuchadnezzar’s good. Eventually, he humbles himself and acknowledges God, his throne is restored and he becomes even greater.

Just as God humbled Nebuchadnezzar for his ultimate good, so God can use hardship in our lives to humble us, and help us see our complete dependence on him. The real cure for our pride comes in seeing the humbling of one far greater than Nebuchadnezzar. Jesus could look around a far greater dominion than Nebuchadnezzar’s and say the words Nebuchadnezzar said, but he would be right: He could say ‘Is this not the world I created by my mighty power and for my glory?’ and he’d be absolutely correct (Colossians 1:16). Yet this greatest King, Jesus was humbled. Nor forcibly, rather, Jesus chose to humble himself: Have the same mindset as Christ Jesus, who, being in very nature God, 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! (Philippians 2:5-7)

The way for pride to be humbled is to see what Jesus went through on the cross. When we realise our sin against God is so serious that it requires Jesus’ death for us to be forgiven, there’s no room for us to have pride in ourselves. The cross shows us we’re no better than anyone else, we’ve all lived for ourselves instead of God, it’s pointless looking down on others, we are just as guilty before God as they are.

The cross also shows us God’s grace. In Jesus humbling himself we have both an example to follow, and the power through which we can do it. The cross of Jesus gives us power to move from pride towards humility.

4. Some practical examples in moving from pride towards humility?

a) Growing in gratitude: Our pride shows when we rarely thank God or others. Nebuchadnezzar thanked no one but himself for his kingdom. He was wrong, God had given it to him. After God humbled him, he praised God for who he is and what he’s done. One way we can work at moving from pride towards humility is to regularly thank God, and notice and thank the people God brings into our lives who contribute in various ways.

b)  Talking less about ourselves: Pride shows when our speech is full of ourselves. Nebuchadnezzar’s proud speech was about himself, but after God humbled him he wanted to tell everyone about God, he begins and ends the chapter talking about God. One way we show we are moving from pride towards humility is through talking less about ourselves and seeking to listen to others. When you talk, use your speech to glorify God, and encourage and build others up.

c) Being less impatient or irritable: Our pride shows in the way we treat others, we may put them down, or be impatient or angry with them. Often our anger shows our focus is on ourselves, we’re not getting what we want. We move from pride to humility by showing patience with others, just as God has been patient with us, not looking down on them, but extending to them the grace God has shown to us.

d) Being less concerned what others think of us: Our pride will show in
constantly being concerned what others think of us. We may have ‘perfectionist’ tendencies because we want to look good, or we may be devastated by criticism. Through the cross we realise, that before God we’re worse than the worst things others know of us, yet in Christ we are fully accepted by God. It doesn’t matter what others think of us. Moving from pride to humility means we’ll try to learn from our critics, and try to love them, extend grace to them, and be more concerned for God’s name than we are for ours.

 e) Being willing to admit wrong and ask forgiveness: Our pride shows when instead of admitting we’re wrong we try to cover it up or minimise it, or just ignore it. Humility shows in saying: I’m wrong, I’m sorry, please forgive me. It’s the cross that gives us power to say sorry to God and to others, as we experience God’s forgiveness. It’s through the cross we can be moving from pride towards humility.

Through the cross of Jesus, may God help us to say, along with Nebuchadnezzar: Now I, praise and exalt and glorify the King of heaven, because everything he does is right and all his ways are just. And those who walk in pride he is able to humble.

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