Pride, Humility and God

The following is from a paper by the late John Stott in a collection Alive to God for James Houston, the founder of Trinity College, Vancouver. The paper has been much abridged and edited by David Holloway.

Pride and Humility

Richard Baxter (1615-1691), following Jesus' spiritual ideal of being like "a little child", wrote: "humility is not a mere ornament of a Christian, but an essential part of the new nature." How that contrasts with the more modern power philosophy of Nietzsche whose hero was the Übermensch - tough, brash, masculine and overbearing and who would become a "Lord of the Earth." There is no possibility of finding a compromise between these alternative models; we are obliged to choose.

Pride is more than the first of the seven deadly sins. It is itself the essence of all sin. For it is the stubborn refusal to let God be God, with the corresponding ambition to take his place. It is the attempt to dethrone God and enthrone ourselves. Sin is self-deification. But God says that since he is God and he alone, he will not share his glory with any other (e.g Is 42.8).

Humility, then, is not a synonym for hypocrisy, pretending to be other than we are. The real hypocrisy is pride, the pretence that we can manage without God or we can rival God. Humility is honesty, acknowledging the truth about ourselves, that as creatures we depend on our Creator's power and as sinners on our Saviour's grace. Only God depends for himself on himself. His eternal self-dependence is the ultimate reality in which humility rejoices and against which pride rebels.

World History and Pride

The ancient Greeks had a saying that those whom the gods would destroy "they first make mad." That particular madness was hubris, a combination of arrogance and insolence. The biblical equivalent is saying "pride goes before destruction, and a haughty spirit before a fall" (Pro 16.18); and Scripture provides numerous illustrations of this principle. Since God alone is able truthfully to declare, "I am the Lord, and there is no other" (Is. 45.6), it is intolerable that any nation or individual should presume to make these words their own as Assyria did (Zeph 2.15) and later Babylon (Is 47.8). Any human claim to be God constitutes such an offence against reality. Indeed, God cannot condone such a monumental lie or even allow it to remain unchallenged. Israel and Judah, God's people, were tiny kingdoms squashed between the successive empires of Assyria, Babylonia and Persia to the north east and of Egypt to the south-west. And God used these pagan nations to invade and subjugate his people, as the prophets explained, for punishment and discipline. But when these nations became proud of their successes, he discarded them and they, too, were laid low.

It has been the same throughout the history of the world. All tyranny is dreadful while it lasts; but it does not last. Wickedness flourishes for a while, but then withers. Evil empires rise, but then they fall. Hitler boasted that his Third Reich would continue for 1000 years; it lasted exactly twelve years, three months and two days. And if not all such proud persons or groups are humbled during their lifetime, they will certainly be brought low on the Day of Judgment. For on that day, all the veils of illusion will be stripped from us; idols will be exposed in their falsehood; and the living God will be revealed in his truth. In that blinding moment of reality, all people of all times and places will acknowledge that God is God, and human arrogance will be seen for the empty puff of vanity that it is:

"the arrogance of man will be brought low, and the pride of men humbled; the Lord alone will be exulted in that day" (Is 2.17).

Salvation history

Within the general history of the world, over which the sovereign Lord presides, whether people acknowledge him or not, he has been working out a particular history of salvation. It began with the covenant he made with Abraham and renewed with Israel, and which culminated in Christ and the new community of Christ. In world history, as God of the creation, he has been active in the life of the nations. In salvation history, as God of the covenant, he has been especially active in the life of his people Israel.

In both histories the same double epigram has operated, that God humbles those who exalt themselves and exults those who humble themselves. In world history, however, the negative aspect has prevailed: God has brought low the pride of those who have refused to acknowledge him as God. In salvation history, by contrast, the epigram's positive aspect has predominated. God has delighted to exalt those who have humbled themselves before him. Indeed, he has disclosed himself in these terms – Psalm 113.5-8:

"Who is like the Lord our God, who is seated on high, who looks far down on the heavens and the earth? He raises the poor from the dust and lifts the needy from the ash heap, to make them sit with princes, with the princes of his people."

In other words, this is the kind of God he is. At the same time, and in consequence, he tells us the kind of people he wants us to be. He wants us "to walk humbly" with our God (Mic 6.8). Humility is to be an essential characteristic of his redeemed people. Of course, we need to consider God's own humility of mind and action. We are told that Christ Jesus, who shared eternally in the very nature of God, did not regard this equality with God as a prize or privilege to be selfishly enjoyed. Rather taking the very nature of a servant he "emptied himself" of his glory and "humbled himself' to serve. He fed the hungry and healed the sick. He fraternized with the dropouts of Palestinian society. He even donned a slave's apron and washed his apostles' feet. And the final stage of his self-humiliation was to become obedient to death, even to death by crucifixion. Therefore, because he had thus humbled himself to the depths, God exalted him to the heights, giving him the highest rank, in order that every knee should bow to him and every tongue confess him Lord (Phil 2.6-11).

Personal history

In his public teaching ministry Jesus commended humility as the pre-eminent characteristic of the citizens of God's kingdom, and went on to describe it as the humility of a child (Mt 18.2-4):

"And calling to him a child, he put him in the midst of them and said, "Truly, I say to you, unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Whoever humbles himself like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven."

Many people are puzzled by this teaching, since children are seldom humble in either character or conduct. Jesus must therefore have been alluding to their humility of status, not behaviour. Children are rightfully called "dependents." They depend on their parents for everything. For what they know, they depend on what they have been taught; and for what they have, they depend on what they have been given. As we shall see, these two areas are, in fact, the very ones Jesus specifies when he develops the model of a child's humility.

In our thinking, we are to be adults not children, putting our God-given intellectual powers to their fullest use (1 Cor 14.20). Nevertheless, in the process of learning, we are to be like children. Jesus thanked his Father that he had "hidden these things from the wise and understanding" and had instead "revealed them to little children" (Mt 11.25). What he was rejecting was not, of course, wisdom and learning in themselves, but rather pride of intellect and trust in autonomous reason. Similarly, what he was advocating was neither ignorance nor irrationality, but rather humility before God's self-revelation in Christ. Christian humility begins with an open-minded readiness to listen to God and submit to his revelation. Childlike humility is to be expressed not only in an open mind (the way we learn what is taught us), but also in an open hand (the way we receive what is offered us). Jesus stressed this in relation to the kingdom: "Truly I say to you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God like a child shall not enter it" (Mk 10.15). In other words, the kingdom (a synonym for salvation) is a free gift to be received - no merit can earn it, or even contribute to it.

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