On Humility and Pride
Now I, Nebuchadnezzar, praise and extol and honour the King of heaven, for all his works are truth, and his ways are justice; and he is able to bring low those who walk in pride.
In 2002 the word “humblebrag” was added to the dictionary. This is an instance of the fluidity of language—new words get coined and added. Often found on social media, the humblebrag is a boast disguised as self-deprecation: “I’m so nervous about picking up my Nobel Peace Prize, I’ll probably trip on my way up to the podium!” The “humblebrag” is also reserved for job interviews to answer the dreaded trick question, “What is your greatest weakness?” There is no other answer but a humblebrag: “I’m such a perfectionist, and I work too hard. My boss has to make me go home at night to take a break.”
When we read of Daniel’s hesitation to deliver the difficult news of the interpretation of Nebuchadnezzar’s dream—the news that Nebuchadnezzar was too full of himself; full of an arrogant pride that could only lead to disaster—I don’t think Daniel’s response was a ‘humblebrag.; Daniel said, “My lord, may the dream be for those who hate you, and its interpretation for your enemies!” I don’t think Daniel is disguising a secret inner joy he feels in delivering God’s word chastising Nebuchadnezzar—though Nebuchadnezzar is the very king who deported Daniel from his home. It is clear that Nebuchadnezzar trusts Daniel to give him the straight goods; to tell him the real meaning of the dream not just what Daniel thinks Nebuchadnezzar wants to hear. A trust Daniel has won through genuine service.
I invite you to reflect with me in this story as we probe the ideas of pride and humility represented in these two main players, Daniel and Nebuchadnezzar. Daniel who displays the true fruit of humility in his regard for Nebuchadnezzar’s welfare and Nebuchadnezzar whose arrogant pride leads to madness and a humbling that changes his life. Perhaps we see something similar in what our Lord invites his disciples to observe in today’s gospel lesson. Don’t be like the scribes who “devour widow’s houses and for the sake of appearance say long prayers.” And by the way did you see that poor widow put two small cooper coins into the offering for the poor? “She out of her poverty has put in everything she had, all she had to live on.” (Mark 12:38-44)
1. Thomas Watson, a 17th century Puritan preacher and author wrote that, “All Christian growth is finally growth in humility.” I find Watson’s insight to be essentially correct. As the believer grows in understanding of all God has done for us in Jesus Christ; as the believer learns the wonders of God’s creation who gives us our life within that creation; as the believer’s appreciation that everything for life depends on God expands we are humbled by such love and care. When we know ourselves a sinner rescued by the sheer grace of God; when we appreciate that nothing in my hand I bring but only to the cross I cling; then we see we have no claim of superiority over our fellow human beings. And so, Christian growth is finally (at bottom) growth in humility.
We must be careful not to equate humility with self-denigration, with a sense that I am trash. Joshua Pearse, a pastor who is a survivor of childhood sexual abuse, has written an article on how childhood trauma can sabotage ministry in sinister ways. He wrote that such abuse often renders the minds and hearts of victims unreliable narrators of their experiences in life. The Christian virtue of humility in not to be equated with the feeling victims of abuse have that they somehow deserved the abuse.
2. In the Apostle Paul’s letter to the Philippians he wrote, “if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise think about these things.” (Philippians 4:8) Jesus said that the first command is “you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.” (Mark 12:30) Note the repeated word “all.” There is an excellence that the gospel enjoins; a call to be all in with all that we are.
For those who watch a hockey team play regularly you can tell when a player has decided to take the night off. Oh, they are on the ice all right but their effort keeps them out of the really heavy traffic. “Don’t they have any pride in what they are doing,” we wonder, “Are they not at least a little ashamed for drawing a huge pay-cheque for so little effort?” Taking pride in our work is a good thing. Plainly, there are, at least, two distinct meanings to “pride.” Pride that pertains to the pursuit of excellence has nothing to do with sin. In fact, not to pursue excellence is sin. It was the Canadian poet Irving Layton who penned the line, “The slow, steady triumph of mediocrity.” Layton is right—mediocrity is threatened by excellence and longs to submerge it.
Christian humility is not an excuse for mediocrity. Clearly Daniel was good at what he did and gave his best effort to the work of his life—even as a captive forced into service of Nebuchadnezzar. Humility isn’t an attitude that everyone is better than me but a following in our Saviour’s footsteps of service of others—regarding others as important. You can be excellent at something and know you are and this is not inconsistent with humility. Please note that I am not implying that you should be excellent at everything, rather we ought to bring the best we have to each of our efforts.
And surely cheering excellence in others is to act in humility. I brought my nine year old granddaughter home from school recently and she proceeded to do some of her homework. She was writing a summary of a book she had read and when her father came home she proudly showed him how much she had completed. But it was the way her eyes lit up with delight when her father praised her for having so much done that makes a grandfather’s heart skip a beat.
The humility the gospel has in mind is seen most clearly in Christ Jesus who though he was in the form of God humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death—even death on a cross. Jesus does so in service of all of us. In light of this the Apostle Paul would write, “in humility regard others as better than yourselves.” It is this regard for others that stands at the heart of the gospel idea of humility.
3. So if pride isn’t sin when it’s the appreciation of excellence when is it sin? Pride is sin when it’s a God-defying and neighbour-disdaining arrogance. The key is the distinction between excellence and arrogance. Then why is pride in the sense of arrogance to be abhorred? If the consequences of arrogance were merely that we appeared somewhat snooty and snobby then pride would be a trifle. Yet our mediaeval foreparents named it one of the seven “deadly sins”, the deadly sin. And in fact the consequences of spiritual arrogance, so far from being trivial, are ruinous.
The book of Daniel tells us that when King Nebucchadnezzar became swollen with pride his spirit was hardened, he was deposed from this throne, his glory was taken away from him, he went mad and ate grass like an animal. His pride brought on “melt-down”. His pride blinded him, blunted him, dehumanised him. The text tells us that he remained in this state “until he learned that the Most High has sovereignty over the kingdom of mortals, and gives it to whom he will.” Note Nebuchadnezzar’s arrogant pride, ‘Is this not magnificent Babylon, which I have built as a royal capital by my mighty power and for my glorious majesty?’ And also note that the text tells us that it was when he lifted his eyes to heaven to the Most High that his reason returned to him.
The Puritan Thomas Watson (cited earlier) also said that disobedience to God is “an irrational sin. We are not able to stand it out in defiance against God! Are we stronger than he?” Our theological and spiritual foreparents, however, were quick to attack pride chiefly because they knew the hideous illusion that our pride visits upon us. I speak now of the illusion that we are not creatures in that we acknowledge no creator, we are not sinners in that we acknowledge no judge, we are not to be servants in that we acknowledge no master, we are not to spend ourselves for others in that we acknowledge no claim upon us, and we are not to submit ourselves to the Other (God) in that we acknowledge no one to be our Lord. This is the ultimate illusion.
The ultimate evil of pride is that it destroys our capacity to perceive the truth about ourselves under God. It even destroys our awareness that we are under God. This is the ultimate illusion and, if we were sensible at all, the ultimate horror. Nebuchadnezzar comes to see how deluded he was—“Now I, Nebuchadnezzar, praise and extol and honour the King of heaven, for all his works are truth.”
4. Daniel has the unenviable task of delivering hard news to Nebuchadnezzar; the hard news that the king’s arrogant pride has lead him to believe an illusion; the illusion that he built his empire himself for his own glory. Daniel pleads with him to “atone for your sins with righteousness, and your iniquities with mercy to the oppressed.”
In many respects the church ever stands in this same place when we announce the gospel. The message that people are sinners in need of a saviour is hard to hear and often unwelcome. I think Daniel shows something important in how we are to share this message—it is the spirit of humility that reveals itself in a deep regard for others. Daniel recognizes that Nebuchadnezzar is an accomplished and skilled leader; he didn’t get to this place of greatness by being incompetent. Daniel said, “You have grown great and strong. Your greatness has increased and reaches to heaven, and your sovereignty to the ends of the earth.”
The gospel teaches us to bless excellence wherever we find it. We meet many accomplished people who do much good in our world. In the final vison of the New Jerusalem in John’s vision he writes, “The nations will walk by its light, and the kings of the earth will bring their glory into it.” The achievements of humanity will be redeemed and find a place in this great future in the final consummation of things. It is in this humble regard for others that a hearing of the gospel is gained. The news of the gospel is that while excellence is not to be discounted we are yet sinners in need of a saviour and that which we cannot do for ourselves God has done for us. Excellence, in the gospel, becomes a response of love for the love God has shown us.
Hear again the witness of Nebuchadnezzar: When that period was over, I, Nebuchadnezzar, lifted my eyes to heaven, and my reason returned to me. I blessed the Most High, and praised and honoured the one who lives for ever. For his sovereignty is an everlasting sovereignty, and his kingdom endures from generation to generation.