This is the fourth in a series of weekly reflections through the season of Lent, written by Bobby Gross, who contributed the reflections for this past Advent Season. The first appeared on Ash Wednesday. You can browse the second reflection here and the third reflection here.
We all know that pride is a problem. It blinds us. It inflates us. It goes before a fall.
But we’ve also bought into certain positive versions of pride: to feel good about who we are and what we do. We raise our kids to have self-esteem (Oh the Places You’ll Go by Dr. Suess). We’re encouraged to have strong ethnic and gender identities (an admittedly trickier exercise for those of us who are White and male). We hold onto a deep appreciation for where we grew up or where we live now or where we went to school (Go Tar Heels!). We value our accomplishments, especially when they have required hard work or sacrifice or perseverance (see the framed diplomas on the wall).
David Brooks, in his book The Road to Character, describes “the intellectual and cultural shift” from the more self-effacing “moral realism” of the mid-twentieth century toward “the age of self-esteem” and “the Big Me” of our time, with this shift having been exacerbated by the distorting effects of information technology, social media, and the meritocracy:
The meritocratic system wants you to be big about yourself—to puff yourself, to be completely sure of yourself, to believe that you deserve a lot and to get what you think you deserve (so long as it is good). The meritocracy wants you to assert and advertise yourself. It wants you to display and exaggerate your achievements. The achievement machine rewards you if you can demonstrate superiority….”
This is the water we swim in, especially in academia. But pride can swim in any water. Jesus felt the need to address the dangers of pride in his day and his words are jarring for us.
As told in Luke 18, he once perceives spiritual overconfidence on the part of some in his audience, people who trusted in their own goodness and regarded others with contempt. So he tells a little story about two men going to the temple to pray. One is a religiously esteemed Pharisee, the other a publicly despised taxman for the Roman overlords. The one touts his piety before God, the other shame-facedly admits his moral failings. Jesus makes clear who will receive mercy: “All who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted.”
In the very next scene, the self-important disciples in Jesus’ entourage are busy shooing away parents who want Jesus to touch and bless their children. Jesus will have none of such a hierarchy of value and welcomes the kids into his arms: “Whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it.” Which is pretty much what he told the Too-proud-to-be-seen-with-Jesus-in-the-daytime-Councilman, Nicodemus, in John 3.
Twice in Luke Jesus quells arguments among his protégés about which of them was the greatest. The first time he points to children again: “Whoever welcomes them welcomes me…for the least among all of you is the greatest”; the second time he points toward kings: “The greatest among you must become like the youngest and the leader like one who serves.”
Returning to Brooks, he affirms humility as the greatest virtue and asserts pride as the central vice:
Humility is having an accurate assessment of your own nature and your own place in the cosmos. [see Psalm 90]. Humility reminds you that you are not the center of the universe, but you serve a larger order.
“Pride blinds us to our own weaknesses and misleads us into thinking we are better than we are. Pride makes it hard for us to be vulnerable before those whose love we need. Pride makes coldheartedness and cruelty possible. Because of pride we try to prove we are better than those around us.”
I Peter 5 offers a simple two-fold Lenten prescription: Humble yourselves under the mighty hand of God; clothe yourselves with humility in all your dealings with one another. Why? Because God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble.
Give some thought this week to what feeds your own unhealthy pride and where you most need to practice greater humility. How are you prone to spiritual presumption or self-righteousness? Who in your orbit are you brushing aside as unimportant? In what situations do you want to be in the position of power or honor, making it harder to humbly serve?
If we are going to look down in any way, let it be in prayer; if we are going to hold our heads up in any way, let it be toward God. As C. S. Lewis wrote about “the great sin”:
As long as you are proud you cannot know God. A proud person 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.”
 Brooks, p. 263.
 (Random House, 2019), p. 253.
 Mere Christianity (MacMillan, 1954), p. 96.