The Danger of Pride
The Bible has a lot to say about the dangers of pride and the importance of humility. Chapter 23 of Matthew, for instance, includes the often quoted sentence, “All who exalt themselves will be humbled, and all who humble themselves will be exalted” (23:12). In Proverbs, we read, “Pride goes before destruction, a haughty spirit before a fall” (Prov 16:18). James 4:6 states, “Therefore it says, ‘God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble.’”
But is pride always bad?
The other day, I was talking with a young man who insisted pride could be a good thing. Because of pride, we accomplish deeds we would not attempt otherwise. Pride, he said, allows us to believe in ourselves when the world doesn’t, and to keep going in the face of challenges and setbacks.
What is Pride?
Perhaps we’re defining pride in different ways. When I think of pride, I generally imagine that pretense of superiority we use to try and overcome feelings of shame and unworthiness. In our Western world, shame and unworthiness are common. The Buddhist teacher, Jack Kornfield, describes how shocked the Dalai Lama was to discover that people in America struggle with low self-esteem and deep wounds to their sense of self. According to Kornfield, it took about ten minutes for the Dalai Lama to even understand what this meant. 
Perhaps this kind of shame is a legacy of the Abrahamic faiths that inform our Western culture. Legalistic and judgmental interpretations of these scriptures are not unusual, yet such teachings encourage unworthiness. When we feel unworthy, we often become either depressed and loathe ourselves, or we develop a false pride that cannot tolerate faults in ourselves or others. This deluded sense of our own importance injures us and everyone around us.
The Bible and Humility
Perhaps our tendency exhibit a false pride is why the Bible reminds us that we remember are unimportant. Except as we are connected to and in service to God, scripture tells us, we have no value or worth. We read, for instance, “Do nothing from rivalry or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourself” (Phil. 2:3). Also, we hear that God dwells with the person “who is of a contrite and lowly spirit” (Isa. 57:15). Over and over, we are exhorted to think of ourselves as sinners who must beg for grace and mercy.
The danger here is that when we believe we are invincible, that we can solve our problems by ourselves, we forget about God. Thomas A. Tarrants, in his article “Pride and Humility,” writes that as we exalt ourselves over and against God, “[p]ride increases, arrogant and/or abusive behavior ensues, and people suffer.” 
Pride and the Oppressed
Humility, on the other hand, recognizes that God – or the Buddha, or inherent worth and dignity – exists in every person Ultimately, we are not better than others. According to Tarrants, humility is the ability to see ourselves clearly, understanding our faults, but also our gifts. Although we are “small, finite, dependent, limited in intelligence,” Tarrants states, we are also gifted with “abilities, resources, and advantages.” We are not, after all, worthless.
So does pride have some value?
According to feminist theologians, the repetitive warning against pride comes out of a worldview that sees male as normative. In Scripture, they suggest, men of power and substance speak to other men with power, men who have used that power to control and abuse others. In an article about the understanding of pride in Islam, Irema Halilovic writes that “when one has a privileged identity,” such as being a man in a society that values males over women or children, “humility becomes a necessary and positive attribute.” 
Halilovic contends, on the other hand, that for marginalized people pride is important. Indeed, she states that for those who are oppressed, “pride is an ethical necessity. Although the Qur’an condemns pride at least as strongly as do Christian Scriptures, the pride the Qur’an isn’t talking about “deserved self-pride in one’s identity.”  This kind of pride, Halilovic explains, is used not to reject or argue with God, but to give one the strength to fight one’s oppressors. 
This belief in one’s own value and the strength it gives helps women find the courage to leave their abusers, and people of color, prisoners, transgender individuals, harassed employees, and others to speak out against unfair treatment.
Halilovic refers to the work of the psychiatrist Donald Nathanson who describes a healthy pride that encourages us to take pleasure in our accomplishments. He has written about the importance of pride in the eradication of shame.  Wikipedia points to this kind of pride when it talks about a “positive” pride, describing it as “a humble and content sense of attachment” to one’s own and others’ actions. 
I might question the use of the term “attachment” here, but what strikes me in this understanding of pride, is the use of the term“humble.” Really? Can pride be humble?
If we think of pride as taking joy in our gifts, as an eagerness to share song and dance and hope with others, perhaps it can be. Shame isolates us, but a healthy pride encourages us to reach out, to share our successes and our happiness. When we feel such pride, we don’t compare ourselves to others. Instead, we recognize the value and the beauty in each person. Thus, when friends, or even strangers, succeed, we feel pleased at their happiness. The false pride that scriptures condemn leaves us empty, compelling us to compete with others. To feel okay ourselves, we must denigrate their accomplishments.
Perhaps that’s why another biblical passage reads, “But let each one test his own work, and then his reason to boast will be in himself alone and not in his neighbor” (Gal 6:4). In other words, feeling good about ourselves and what we’ve done is all right. What causes problems is when we boast to others, compare ourselves to them, and put them down.
Yet is this healthy pride really humility? When we are humble, we are in right relationship with God, or whatever we consider sacred and holy. We are less concerned about ourselves and more about others. With humility, we can see ourselves clearly, recognizing our gifts and our limitations. Also, we do not pretend to be someone or something we are not. That is why Jesus condemned the hypocritical scribes and Pharisees. They were not humble.
The Importance of Humility
In the passage in Matthew 23, Jesus declares that scribes and Pharisees “are like whitewashed tombs, which on the outside look beautiful, but inside they are full of the bones of the dead and all kinds of filth” (23:27).
That seems pretty clear. Looking good on the outside doesn’t mean we’re pure and holy on the inside. In fact, when we worry more about how we look to others than who we really are, when we crave approval more than integrity, we lose touch with the sacred and holy in and around us, and we can get puffed up with a false pride.
Addictive family systems are like that, as are addictive societies. Fear, anger, loneliness, failure, and hopelessness abound in our country, but we pretend to be rich, strong, healthy, sexy, happy, and independent. Politicians and advertisers appreciate our desperate need to appear better than, or at least as good as, our neighbors, for in our anxiety, we seek the safety of powerful leaders and the glitz of new cars, clothes, and toys. We hide from others. We even hide from ourselves.
The Problem of Shame
Yet, it’s not easy to be honest about our weakness and frailty. After all, if we show people who we really are, we might be rejected. Especially when we didn’t grow up with love and acceptance for our true selves, we think no one can love us. Filled with shame, we hide behind a false pride and a desperate need for success. What a painful way to live.
It’s also a lonely way to live. If we cannot be honest about who we are, we cannot form close or supportive relationships. We cannot experience healthy love. How is true intimacy possible when we pretend to be someone we aren’t?
In a previous column, I talked about shame and how we can heal from the burden of self-hatred that often leads to the kind of posturing Jesus points to in the scribes and Pharisees. Yet in Chapter 23, Jesus is concerned not just with scribes and Pharisees. He admonishes all of us to be humble, to recognize that although we might be earthly teachers, in the end, we have but one teacher, and that is God in heaven or the Messiah himself.
The Wisdom of Scripture
Unitarian Universalists do not affirm Jesus’s divinity as the Messiah, yet does that mean there’s nothing of wisdom or learning we can gain from this passage of Scripture? Can it not teach us as much as myths and folk tales do? After all, no matter how educated or brilliant we are, we do not know everything.
So where do we find guidance? What inspires us?
In my work, I sometimes find myself in the position of leader or instructor. Not only do I preach now and then and write these messages, but as a chaplain and a counselor, I teach meditation, mindfulness, and centering. People ask my advice. Though I try to invite their own discovery and understanding by asking questions and reflecting back what I hear, by doing so, I decide what questions to ask, I reframe their words, and I guide their process. Is that not teaching?
Preparing to Teach
I don’t think Jesus meant we are never to teach. Before we teach, however, we need to develop the capacity to listen, to connect to source, to that inner wisdom that is deeper than our minds. This takes humility, and we can’t be humble unless we have a healthy pride that allows us to accept our frailty, our awkwardness, our imperfections.
So if we believe in our capacity to offer insight and understanding to others, how do we best do this? Well, how did Jesus teach?
Jesus taught with stories, fables, aphorisms, questions. He taught by example, by healing, by loving, and by remembering who he really was. As a being or spirit or energy that is larger than ourselves and invisible to our conscious self, Jesus as the Messiah, or God if you prefer, sets us tasks, trips us up when we need to be awakened, and tears our world down so that we can stand up and do what we must to become who we need to become.
Accepting Ourselves as We Are
I’m not sure we actually become that person before we die. We’re also evolving. Besides, some of us die in our addiction or lost in the pain of past traumas. None of us become perfectly humble or perfectly prideful. Thus we can’t be perfect teachers or even perfect students. Yet wherever we are in this life, however angry or spiteful or frightened, that is where we start from. We accept ourselves the way we are and move forward.
When we’re ready, we can seek out a Buddha, or a Messiah, or a God, or some other teacher who can show us at least a piece of the truth. We can learn who we truly and learn to love ourselves. Eventually, we can uncover our essential happiness.
That’s where the humility comes in. Before we can seek wisdom and healing, we must acknowledge that we need it, that we don’t have it all together. We’re not the smartest or the coolest. At our core, we’re just like everyone else.
That means that, although there are no masters or Messiahs among us, there are also no hopeless ones, no utter fools. We are all students, and we are all teachers, together.
In faith and fondness,
- Kornfield, Jack, The Wise Heart:A Guide to the Universal Teachings of Buddhist Psychology, OverDrive Audiobook, Louisville: Sounds True, 2008.
- Tarrants, Thomas A., “Pride and Humility,” Knowing and Doing, C. S. Lewis Institute, Winter 2011, http://www.cslewisinstitute.org/Pride_and_Humility_SinglePage, accessed November 4, 2017.
- Halilovic, Irema, “A Feminist Liberation View of Pride: An Islamic Ethics Case Study,” Relics, Remnants, and Religion: An Undergraduate Journal in Religious Studies, Volume I, Issue I, Article 7, May 13, 2016, University of Puget Sound, http://soundideas.pugetsound.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1006&context=relics, accessed November 4, 2017, 3.
- Ibid 4.
- Ibid 8.
- See Nathanson, Donald, Shame and Pride: Affect, Sex, and the Birth of Self, New York: W. W. Norton, 1994. https://www.amazon.com/Shame-Pride-Affect-Birth-Self/dp/0393311090.
- “Pride,” Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pride.
Copyright © 2017 Barbara E. Stevens