We are told that pride is one of the seven deadly sins. It certainly is a deadly sin. And spiritual pride may be the worst form of this. Of course we are all susceptible to pride, and all Christians are at risk of succumbing to spiritual pride. Self-righteousness and carrying on like a Pharisee is an ever-present reality for all of us, so we always need to be on guard.
Many of the world’s great writers have written about pride. Let me mention just one, and then give an example of a form of spiritual pride that we must watch out for and avoid like the plague. C. S. Lewis said much about pride. Here are just two of his well-known quotes. In Mere Christianity for example he said this:
The vice I am talking of is Pride or Self-Conceit: and the virtue opposite to it, in Christian morals, is called Humility. You may remember, when I was talking about sexual morality, I warned you that the centre of Christian morals did not lie there. Well, now, we have come to the centre. According to Christian teachers, the essential vice, the utmost evil, is Pride. Unchastity, anger, greed, drunkenness, and all that, are mere flea bites in comparison: it was through Pride that the devil became the devil: Pride leads to every other vice: it is the complete anti-God state of mind.
Or as he also said in that book: “For pride is spiritual cancer: it eats up the very possibility of love, or contentment, or even common sense.” Here I want to look at just one example of spiritual pride. It came up in a recent social media debate – where else!
I had rather innocuously (or so I thought) posted a brief remark about a new commentary I was reading and how I was being blessed by it, but one fellow came along and decided to challenge me. I am not singling him out, as there are so many other Christians just like him. But our recent chat serves as a good example of the dangers of spiritual pride.
He said what I hear so often: relying on things like commentaries is basically a waste of time. We have the Holy Spirit as a teacher – that is all we need. He ran with the old false dichotomy: we either rely on the Holy Spirit or we rely on human wisdom and teaching.
I have dealt with such folks often before, and tried to point out how mistaken they are. The truth is, God works in and through fallen and finite men. That is basically how he gets things done in this world. Yes he wants to use those who are full of the Spirit and not full of themselves, but he is not calling us to be brainless wonders and theological illiterates.
He urges us to study, to read, to learn, and to grow in knowledge and understanding. And human teachers – be they pastors giving a sermon, or Christian scholars writing commentaries – are a major part of this process. To claim that we do not need them because we have a direct pipeline to God via the Holy Spirit is NOT a sign of spirituality – it is usually a sign of pride and fleshly arrogance.
To another person who was saying similar things, I replied as follows:
Yes but…! That is like saying you never go to church to hear a pastor teach the Bible, because you have the Holy Spirit and that is all you need. But we are NOT infallible and we can get things wrong, even when we think we are relying fully on the HS. And God himself gave us pastors and teachers to help expound and comment on the Bible. So to reject those means is to reject what God has designed for us. See more detail on this here.
Sadly the fellow first mentioned above wanted to keep going back and forth for a while. He kept trying to make this fake division between being Spirit-led and having ‘mere men’ helping us with books or commentaries or theology, etc. He did not seem to get it that he too was a ‘mere man’ and therefore why should any of us pay any attention to HIM and what HE was saying?
In that piece I had carefully stated that of course we need the Holy Spirit, but the HS works through us mere human beings. So of course, we must avoid dry intellectualism and so on, but those who want to throw the baby out with the bathwater are not being helpful at all. As I said in the conclusion of that article:
We must realise that we are all finite and fallen – even born-again Christians. Thus we must always be on our knees, coming to God in humility and brokenness. We must admit that we do not always get things right. We often mis-hear God, misinterpret his Word, and mistake our own understanding and insights for that of the Holy Spirit.
None of this is to say that we cannot have theological certainty and biblical clarity. We can have sufficient truth, or true truth, as Francis Schaeffer used to say, even though we cannot have exhaustive truth. We can have strong certainty in biblical basics, while also remaining humble with a teachable spirit, recognising that we can always learn more, and we can always learn more accurately and biblically.
“Jesus-Only Christianity” or “Bible-Only Christianity” sounds so spiritual, but the truth is none of us are lone wolf Christians and all of us depend upon and need others, even when it comes to understanding the Scriptures. The whole body of Christ, both past and present, is needed for our walk with God and following Christ according to his word. It is only pride and self-righteousness which says I can do all this alone and I don’t need or want the rest of Christ’s body, teaching and instruction.
I finally told this fellow that I am praying for him and that it would be best to give this debate a rest for a while. When folks get themselves into this way of dodgy and unbiblical thinking, it is seldom easy to help them see the error of their ways. Best to just pray for them and hope they will eventually come around.
Getting the right balance
Let me note that those on the other side of this debate are not immune from pride of course. That is, those who DO love their books and learning and theology and commentaries can also be proud and spiritually anaemic. So I am not picking on just one side here.
Spiritual pride can easily come in either extreme, so both sides need to take care. We all know of people who are full of biblical knowledge, who are great theologians, who have read zillions of books, etc., but are not exactly great examples of Christlike Christianity.
So yes, having lots of head knowledge or even a great theological library can become a source of pride as well. If the Devil does not get us one way, he will get us in another. So we ALL need to be on guard here. Let me finish by noting something I just saw on the social media.
One post had said this: “Doctrinally Sound Christian Men To Follow.” I did not click on the link to check out the list, but the first thing I thought was this: ‘Yes, but are they spiritually sound?’ There may have been some great theologically correct men on the list, but are they all humble, on fire for the Lord, and walking in the Spirit?
As has often been said, 18 inches makes all the difference in the world: the distance from the head to the heart. We have some folks who have a head-full of Christian knowledge and theological truth, but their heart is cold and empty. As always, we want the biblical balance here. We want people who love God with both their head and their heart.
Some pride themselves in only loving God with their heads. Some pride themselves in only loving God with their hearts. Both are wrong. Jesus told us what the greatest commandment is, and that entails loving God with our head and our heart – with the totality of our being.
So we must be on guard. Pride can creep into our lives from a million places. This piece concentrated on those who think they have no need of books or commentaries or teachers or ‘mere men’. They are often proud and fleshly, and need to repent. But we are all susceptible to pride in so many different shapes.
Spiritual pride is a killer, and it comes in countless forms. So we need to daily take a spiritual inventory of our lives. As we read in Proverbs 4:23: “Keep your heart with all vigilance, for from it flow the springs of life.” Or as it says in James 4:6: “God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble.”
Bill Muehlenberg, an American-born and Australian-based commentator, is the author of a number of books and thousands of articles. You can follow him on his website CultureWatch, on YouTube and on Twitter.
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Dr. Michael Brown