The Gospel and Our Pride

William C. Brownson Uncategorized

READ : 1 Corinthians 1:28-29

For consider your call, brethren; not many of you were wise according to worldly standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth; but God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise, God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong, God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are, so that no human being might boast in the presence of God. He is the source of your life in Christ Jesus, whom God made our wisdom, our righteousness and sanctification and redemption; therefore, as it is written, “Let him who boasts, boast of the Lord.”

1 Corinthians 1:26-31, RSV

Think with me today about pride. What a slippery word that is! It’s hard sometimes to get a good grip on what it means. It has an upside and a downside. It can be a virtue or a vice. In one sense pride is something vital for every human being to have. In another, it’s the deadliest and most destructive of all the sins.

When is pride a good thing? Suppose I say, “I’m proud of my grandchildren.” You know what that means. It means I think they’re great. I’m happy that they’re part of our family. I want my friends to get to know them, and when other people admire and like them, that makes me feel good all over. Like every grandparent, I like to pass around pictures of these marvelous children. I couldn’t feel better or more thankful about them than I do. Is that a good sort of pride? You bet it is! I’d be a poor grandfather if I didn’t feel that way. That kind of pride is one of the ingredients of genuine love.

Sometimes we mean by pride, healthy self-esteem. Everyone needs that. You and I need to see ourselves as persons of genuine worth and dignity. There’s no virtue – and surely no humility – in despising yourself, or in being a doormat for other people to walk over. Thank God for that pride in who you are that makes you hold your head high and feel that you are a significant person.

And what about people who take pride, as we say, in their work? Is that something to be ashamed of? Certainly not. We’re talking about people who want to do the best job they can possibly do. They aren’t satisfied with shoddy work, cutting corners or projects half-done. They strive for excellence. And when they’ve given maximum effort to some project, they feel good about it. They have a sense of achievement and fulfillment in what they have produced. When other people appreciate what they’ve done or admire it, they derive a great satisfaction from that. Aren’t you glad there are people who feel that way about their work? I am. If this is what pride is about, I say “three cheers for it!”

As the word appears in the Bible, however, and in our common usage, pride has a quite different character. Here it’s an exaggerated self-esteem, a pre-occupation with the self. It’s the kind of self-regard that leads us to feel superior to other people. When we are proud, we think greatly of ourselves and meanly of others. We magnify ourselves and belittle them. We see ourselves as worthy of admiration and others, by comparison, as deserving of contempt. The proud person decidedly over-values himself or herself and under-values others.

Think of the image created in your mind when someone is described as “haughty.” The man takes himself very seriously. You get the distinct impression when you’re around him that he considers himself far more important than ordinary mortals. Or think of the word “pompous.” Pompous people seem somehow inflated, swollen with self-importance. They affect a personal dignity that’s almost ludicrous. The haughty and the pompous generally regard others with what we call “disdain.” They view them with thinly disguised scorn. They treat their fellow human beings as though they had little or no value. They seem to look down on everyone else from some pinnacle of self-absorbed loftiness.

Now we’re getting a sense of the evil in pride. It leaves us deceived about ourselves. It puts distance between us and others. When we are proud, we obviously expect to be admired, but are usually resented. We think to impress but we only nauseate. None are so thoroughly miserable as those who have as the only object of admiration, themselves.

But even that is not the worst of it. Of all the evils of which we are capable, pride is probably the most anti-God of them all. That’s precisely what it is – setting up oneself instead of, in the place of, God. We become in pride our own “gods.” We suffer as someone has put it, from a “god-complex.”

Pride is the opposite of faith. When we are proud, we trust not in God but in ourselves and our own resources. Pride is poles apart also from gratitude. Proud people never think they get as much as they deserve. When pride blinds us, we assume that our abilities and achievements, the virtues we show and the honors we win, are all self-engendered. We treat the gifts God gives us as though they were occasions for self-congratulation, as though we deserved all the credit for them. Pride is then the ultimate rebellion against our Maker. It leads us to attribute to ourselves the honor and glory which are rightfully His. It’s no wonder then that high on the list of things that God abhors is “a proud look” and that a major aim of God’s providence in this world is to humble the human pride.

In Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians, the first chapter, the apostle shows how God does precisely this through the gospel. Listen as He reasons with the Corinthian believers. I begin at verse 26:

For consider your call, brethren; not many of you were wise according to worldly standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth; but God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise, God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong, God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are.

The calling that Paul writes of here is not a person’s vocation in the sense of what he or she may do for a living. It is the saving call of God which He sends forth in the gospel. It is the preaching of Jesus Christ crucified for us and risen from the dead along with the invitation to repent and believe in Him for salvation. Paul wants the congregation in Corinth to look about them and see what sorts of people have responded to this gospel call. There were all kinds in the congregation, apparently. They must have represented a wide spectrum. But Paul calls attention to the fact that not many were wise according to worldly standards, not many powerful and not many of noble birth.

It’s interesting that he singles out here three of our chief occasions for pride. There is first intellectual pride, arrogance about what we think we know. It’s easy for people in academic circles to feel that they are a scholarly elite, members of an in-group that knows it all, looking down with amused superiority on the ignorant multitudes. That’s not characteristic, certainly, of all scholars and teachers, but it’s one of the temptations they all confront.

There is also a pride which goes along with power. When Paul speaks of the powerful here, he means people with rank and political clout. That is a heady potion indeed for all who partake of it. When individuals have far-reaching authority over others, when they can subject multitudes to their will, few are the leaders who are not seduced into feelings of self-importance. Wielding great power, they come more and more to see themselves as great people.

And then there is the pride of birth. It’s possible for people to imagine that they are superior to others simply because they possess a famous last name, because their forebears were talented or wealthy. The vanity of the “in-group” is notorious. Some feel themselves infinitely above their fellow human beings simply because they happen to be born into “one of the finest families.”

Now Paul argues here that the call of the gospel has exposed the falsehood and the folly of all that. Human wisdom would dictate that God should get on His side, people of the very best stock, the brightest, the most influential. Religious groups sometimes work in that way in their evangelistic approach. They feel an especial calling, it seems, to interest the wealthy in the gospel, to persuade the famous to believe, to establish relationships with outstanding people. But God apparently has gone about it in quite a different way. Most of the people whom He called into the fellowship of His Son in the city of Corinth had been uneducated, powerless, and lightly regarded. You might call them the “nobodies” of the world, the little people, the rank and file.

In the early centuries of the Christian church, enemies of the gospel sometimes called attention to this very fact. The church father Origen quotes his opponent Celsus as saying this about Christians: “Their injunctions are like this: let no one educated, no one wise, no one sensible draw near . . . but as for anyone ignorant, anyone stupid, anyone uneducated, anyone who is a child, let him come boldly.” Celsus concludes, Christians “are able to convince only the foolish, dishonorable and stupid, only slaves, women and little children.” Celsus apparently thought that that proved the falsehood of Christianity. Paul believed, on the other hand, that it demonstrated an important truth about God. Not only are His standards and His values different from those accepted by the world, but God through the gospel is actively overturning the world’s false standards. His goal, Paul says, in calling ordinary people is to shame the wise, to shame the strong, to bring to nothing things that are, so that no human being may boast in the presence of God. In other words, let no one think that God loves him, God calls him, God saves him, because of his I.Q., or his position, or his family pedigree.

I remember hearing it said once of a famous minister that he “would have been an outstanding success in any field he had chosen to enter.” Now I recognize the intent of that. Someone wanted to eulogize a man he considered great. But it sounded to me as though he thought that God was quite fortunate that He had found such an outstanding man. The emphasis in the Bible falls rather on the fact that the great God takes hold of people considered insignificant and does marvelous things in and through their lives.

But it’s not only in the kind of people He calls to Himself that God demolishes human pride. He does so also by saving us in a way for which we can claim no credit. Listen: “He [God] is the source of your life in Christ Jesus, whom God made our wisdom, our righteousness and sanctification and redemption.” Paul is saying to these believers, “You have a new life in Jesus Christ, and God is the source of it. You didn’t make yourself alive. He breathed that life into you. It’s because of God’s grace and power that you are what you are in Christ. Everything has come from Him. Christ is now your wisdom. In Him you learn about God and about yourselves and about the meaning of your life. He is your righteousness. You are justified, accepted with God, completely on the basis of what He has done for you, and not by any works of yours. He is your sanctification. It’s in union with Him that you become holy. It’s by the power of His Spirit that you are transformed. For that also you can claim no credit at all.”

More, “He is your redemption. He is the One who delivers you from the power of sin and death. He is the One who sets you free from the evil powers that have bound you. Your salvation from beginning to end is His work. It’s by God’s grace alone. It’s by Christ alone, crucified and risen for you. It’s by faith alone, the empty hand by which you receive Him.”

And here’s the goal of all that: “As it is written, `Let him who boasts, boast of the Lord.’” Paul is looking back here to a quotation from Jeremiah, “Thus says the Lord: `Let not the wise man glory in his wisdom, let not the mighty man glory in his might, let not the rich man glory in his riches; but let him who glories glory in this, that he understands and knows me, that I am the Lord who practices steadfast love, justice, and righteousness in the earth.’” Since God is the God of steadfast love and perfect righteousness, since He is the One who provides salvation for us in Christ out of His sheer mercy, since forgiveness and new life come to us totally as a gift, let none of us imagine that we were called by the Lord because of some excellence or virtue in ourselves. Let none of us imagine that we make progress in the Christian life because of some innate superiority. Let none of us dream that we shall be accepted at the last because of anything in ourselves. No, let us look away from ourselves to Jesus Christ, crucified and risen for us, let us find in Him all our salvation and all our hope. For this unspeakable gift, let us give all glory and praise to God.