You may be familiar with this famous saying, ‘Pride goes before destruction, a haughty spirit before a fall’. It comes from the Bible, Proverbs 16:18.
We have mixed feelings about pride in Australia. On the one hand, we like to run over any tall poppy with the lawnmower. And yet pride is splashed across Instagram and Facebook pages all the time: pride in achievement and success, pride in people, pride about identity. Pride has become an idea or slogan to embrace and celebrate.
We have a discombobulated our relationship with pride.
To quote Pride and Prejudice,
‘[Mr. Darcy’s] pride,’ said Miss Lucas, ‘does not offend me so much as pride often does, because there is an excuse for it. One cannot wonder that so very fine a young man, with family, fortune, every thing in his favour, should think highly of himself. If I may so express it, he has a right to be proud.’
‘That is very true,’ replied Elizabeth, ‘and I could easily forgive his pride, if he had not mortified mine.’
I think Australians are selective about the pride we denounce and the pride we embrace.
As a church last Sunday, we looked at the reign of King Uzziah from 2 Chronicles 26. In the account, the theme of power and pride rears its ugly head in devastating form.
Uzziah comes to the throne at the age of 16 and he starts well. While most teenage boys are gaming and playing cricket and using their testosterone for all manner of quick fulfilment pursuits, Uzziah was ruling a nation. He begins well:
He did what was right in the eyes of the Lord, just as his father Amaziah had done. He sought God during the days of Zechariah, who instructed him in the fear of God. As long as he sought the Lord, God gave him success. (vv 4-5)
Uzziah rebuilds military towers and rebuilds towns. He organises and leads the army well. He brings people together. He led the army in battle against the Philistines, verse 7, ‘and the Lord helped him’. It’s not difficult to imagine the excitement surrounding this positive beginning. Uzziah is doing what pleases God and he’s looking after the people and protecting them. He oversees state-run building projects that run on time and to budget.
Then it goes horribly wrong. Verse 16 spells out the downward progression:
But after Uzziah became powerful, his pride led to his downfall.
Power – pride – downfall.
While power is usually spoken of in negative and abusive ways today, power isn’t inherently bad or wrong. God is all-powerful. By his powerful word, God created the universe, and he made you. By his powerful word God exercises justice and administers mercy. In this strength, he stops nations and cares for the hungry. God also gives people strength – physical, mental, and spiritual strength.
Power can achieve much good and also much sin. In the hands of sinful people, which is all of us, power and strength is a present temptation. We have the creative ability to twist and misuse power in all kinds of ways.
Power doesn’t inevitably lead to pride but when it swims in the bathtub of humanity, it’s like putting an egg in boiling water for 6 minutes; the outcome is pretty likely.
We mustn’t think of pride in a one-dimensional way. Pride can grow in all kinds of soil: in success, in power, in failure, in suffering. Pride is adaptable and fits snugly in all different sizes.
Pride is having that concern for yourself and your reputation over and above God and his glory and the good of others. Pride is a belief that I am better or that I deserve better.
Pride includes but isn’t limited to boasting and feeling big about yourself. John Piper is right when he observes, ‘Boasting is the response of pride to success. Self-pity is the response of pride to suffering. Boasting says, “I deserve admiration because I have achieved so much.” Self-pity says, “I deserve admiration because I have suffered so much.” Boasting is the voice of pride in the heart of the strong. Self-pity is the voice of pride in the heart of the weak.’
In Uzziah’s case, his pride is fed by power. He came to believe that power justifies freedom to live on one’s own terms. Uzziah comes to believe that power is a road to autonomy and freedom for defining life’s norms. He no longer felt the necessity to follow God’s laws. He had the liberty to take licence. He thought, I can even enter the Temple ignore the law and relate to God as I decide.
This pride exhibits itself in a shameful act in God’s Temple:
But after Uzziah became powerful, his pride led to his downfall. He was unfaithful to the Lord his God, and entered the temple of the Lord to burn incense on the altar of incense.
Of course, the reality is Uzziah was never independent. All the good he achieved only came about because of God’s help. As verse 5 reminds us, ‘As long as he sought the Lord, God gave him success’. The Lord blessed his endeavours. The Lord was his helper. Not only that, the people Uzziah serves are God’s people. And this is God’s Temple and yet Uzziah’s self-confidence persuades him to strut about on his own terms.
It’s here that I think it’s worth seeing how the story plays out and in doing so displays the stupid stubbornness of pride and its ability to destroy.
We read that a large delegation of priests warn Uzziah and urge him to stop his behaviour:
Azariah the priest with eighty other courageous priests of the Lord followed him in. They confronted King Uzziah and said, “It is not right for you, Uzziah, to burn incense to the Lord. That is for the priests, the descendants of Aaron, who have been consecrated to burn incense. Leave the sanctuary, for you have been unfaithful; and you will not be honoured by the Lord God.” (vv 17-18)
Pride doesn’t listen to wisdom. Pride ignores warning. Pride doesn’t know when to stop. It’s insatiable and when confronted, the typical response is anger. Pride and anger go hand in hand. Pride is never an isolated or controlled sin. When challenged, the proud responds with anger. Why? Because you’re questioning my identity and my freedom. We get very defensive.
Uzziah, who had a censer in his hand ready to burn incense, became angry. While he was raging at the priests in their presence before the incense altar in the Lord’s temple, leprosy broke out on his forehead. When Azariah the chief priest and all the other priests looked at him, they saw that he had leprosy on his forehead, so they hurried him out. Indeed, he himself was eager to leave, because the Lord had afflicted him. (vv 19-20)
This idea of freedom is as ancient as time and as contemporary as the next model iPhone. Personal autonomy is perhaps the number one value today in Western cultures including Australia. We want freedom and we search for it, even demand it. Take pride! Express yourself!
Of course, Jesus said, ‘You can gain the whole world and yet forfeit your soul’, but who today believes Jesus?
Pride isn’t an ally; it cheats you. Pride is like a performance-enhancing drug that gives illusions of greatness and being faster and smarter than everybody else, but it is an illusion that will wear off.
Pride sets us up against other people and so you either become envious and jealous because those people are more successful or more liberated than you or you look down on others who are less successful and enslaved by the very things you have broken away from.
In a certain book of the year, there is this great line: ‘Progress panders to our pride’. It’s true. We love to talk progress: in technology, ethics, education, and science. Much progress is positive and brilliant, but as we engage morally and intellectually better than those who lived before us, we are quick to judge past generations. We even mock and condemn ideas that were considered normal 10 years ago. Even Christians jump eagerly onto the pride wagon as though our grasp on the Bible today is greater than Christians from former days.
We live in a proud culture. I feel sorry for most Australians whenever Melbournians talk. They must think Melbourne has an identity crisis because we’re constantly going on about how great we are. [The same applies to Sydneysiders! – Ed] We’re the capital of this in the capital of that. And in case we thought years of lockdown might humble us a little bit, they were wrong.
I no longer need God. I will use God on my terms.
I am God.
Pride gives us a sense of freedom.
But no matter how confident we are in our proud bubble, reality will always catch up. God can’t be outmanoeuvred. No matter how rich, influential and powerful we are, we can’t out powerplay God.
In Uzziah’s case when he took licence with God, God showed him who is God. That’s the thing with pride; it doesn’t respond to gentle correction or open rebuke. When pride is confronted it either turns to defiance or to bitterness.
As Uzziah stood in the Temple in defiance against God’s law, leprosy broke out on his forehead. It’s a powerful real-life illustration. In God’s holy Temple where nothing unclean can enter, Uzziah’s unclean and proud heart is now visibly unclean.
He is subsequently banished from the Temple and so removed from the presence of God and the only place where he could atone for his sin. He is also removed from the palace, the seat of his rule. Uzziah can no longer perform his duties as King or enjoy the privileges of being King.
Uzziah spends his final years in isolation. The message is, pride does not end well. Uzziah’s obituary, in verse 23, reads, ‘he had leprosy’.
Uzziah’s start was so promising and yet he didn’t reach the finish line.
Pride isn’t just a societal problem; it is an ever-present temptation for people in ministry. Pride will destroy your ministry and harm the people around you. Sure, it may go unnoticed for some time, and it may be excused because of your ministry successes, but the outcome is fixed. If only Uzziah had listened to the priests.
The only saving grace is to humble ourselves before the one who made himself nothing for us. There is one King of Israel who can truly say, ‘I’m the greatest’ and yet he chose to live in the dust and dirt and make friends with sinners and die on a cross.
He broke the chain: power – pride – fall. Jesus took the harder path: power – humility – exaltation.
No one has more power than God and the Son of God shares this authority and power. And yet he laid aside his glory and took the path of humility and suffering and shameful death. What Jesus reveals about God is breathtaking. God says, I’ve come to serve. He humbled himself that we might share in his resurrection.
One of the things that makes Christianity unique and good is that God’s Son came to us and he says, ‘I want to share with you my victory over death and sin’. He longs to share with those who’ve failed and have no hope of coming near God. When we grasp the nature of Divine grace, there is no room for pride in our ministry and life, but only thankfulness and a gratitude that moves us to a life of service for the sake of others.
Pride will destroy you. Pride is an ugly ministry companion that doesn’t let go easily. Pride will undo years of ministry and preaching and leading. If a friend has the courage to say, I think you’ve become proud, listen to that loving correction. Let God break that chain before it breaks you. Let us daily immerse ourselves in the humbling grace of God in Christ, that we might avoid the route taken by Uzziah and instead walk the one taken by the Lord Jesus.
This is a slightly edited version of the article which first appeared on Murray’s blog.