What Is the Sin of Pride?
The seven deadly sins form a list of vices considered especially dangerous because of their destructive nature and their tendency to entangle us in many other sins. Though the label “seven deadly sins” is not found in the Bible, it has been used by Christians for centuries as a helpful way of summarizing and categorizing the wide-ranging patterns of human sinfulness. This post examines pride, the worst of the seven deadly sins.
Pride is a deadly cocktail of self-absorption (narcissism) and overestimation of our abilities and our significance (conceit). In other words, a prideful person thinks a lot of himself and thinks of himself a lot.
The Deadly Nature of Pride
Of all sins, pride is the most dangerous. It was the first sin, and it is the source of every other sin. Pride is the beating heart of all sins because it says to God, “my will be done.” In our pride we believe that we know better than God, that we deserve to receive whatever it is we want, and that we have the right to disregard what God says. Pride was how Satan became the devil. Pride was how Adam fell. Pride is why we sin today.
Pride is also the sin God hates most. In his righteousness God hates all sin, but there is no sin God more frequently and openly rebukes than pride: When God reveals what he hates, pride is at the top of the list (Prov. 6:16-17). The wisdom of God says, “I hate pride and arrogance” (Prov. 8:13). The Scriptures say, “The Lord detests all who are proud in heart. Be sure of this: They will not go unpunished” (Prov. 16:5). And God doesn’t just detest those who are proud, he actively opposes them (James 4:6).
Pride is the greatest and most hated sin because it is a violation of the first and greatest commandment. The Lord says, “You shall have no other gods before me” (Ex. 20:3), but pride puts the self before God. Thus pride seeks to honor self, not God. Pride causes us to worship ourselves instead of our Creator (Rom. 1:25). Pride loves our self with all our heart and all our soul and all our mind, rather than God (Matt. 22:37).
Pride, Pride Everywhere
The problem, as C.S. Lewis famously observed, is that pride is also a sin that afflicts us all:
“There is one vice of which no man in the world is free; which everyone in the world loathes when he sees it in someone else; and of which hardly any people, except Christians, ever imagine that they are guilty themselves. I have heard people admit that they are bad-tempered, or that they cannot keep their heads about girls or drink, or even that they are cowards. I do not think I have ever heard anyone who was not a Christian accuse himself of this vice… There is no fault which makes a man more unpopular, and no fault which we are more unconscious of in ourselves. And the more we have it ourselves, the more we dislike it in others. The vice I am talking of is Pride.” (C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity, “The Great Sin”, p. 121)
Lewis rightly shows that all men are afflicted with pride, but some are still more prideful than others. For example, there are those who refuse to recognize their pride, or else they call it by another name: self-confidence, self-worth, self-esteem, self-satisfaction, self-trust, self-love. Self, self, self. Those who are confident they are not prideful most certainly are.
Meanwhile, others may admit they struggle with pride, “but no more than any other man,” they say. Such people think often and much of their humility (pride’s opposing virtue); they even self-consciously strive for it. But humility cannot be obtained by focusing more on the self, indeed, that is the chief cause of its lack. Thus, those who are even a little proud of their humility are not actually humble at all.
If some who think they are humble are actually proud, then how can we tell the difference?
The humble delight in God’s authority, but the proud detest it.
The humble seek to obey God’s Word, but the proud reinterpret it.
The humble accept blame for their errors, but the proud blameshift.
The humble confess their many sins, but the proud hide or deny them.
The humble act on behalf of others, but the proud act on their own behalf.
The humble focus on God in the face of Jesus, but the proud focus on themselves.
Modern Praise and Promotion
Until the Enlightenment, pride was widely regarded as the worst of all sins. But the Enlightenment was, at its core, a quest to liberate the self, so it is no wonder that pride has ceased to be cause for much concern. In fact, pride has became not something to be avoided, but something to be praised and promoted. Consider all our talk of self-confidence, of being whatever we want to be, of doing anything we put our minds to, and of loving ourselves unconditionally. What are these if not veiled forms of pride? These are but a few examples of our extreme self-focus and gross overestimation of our abilities and significance. That combination of narcissism and conceit is precisely what pride is.
The shift to praising and promoting pride has, of course, produced a prideful culture, too, one that is full of people who are fascinated with themselves. This kind of acute self-fascination turns our wants into “needs,” and creates a culture of envy, entitlement, and greed. Additionally, our endless self-focus causes us to obsess constantly about how we feel, even how we feel about how we feel. Thus God, the world and all its people shrink to a small circle of personal circumstances the size of me.
Ironically, pride also produces insecure people. All this self-focus causes many to feel as though they don’t measure up. So while the insecure may not think “a lot of themselves,” they grow in their pride by continuing to think of themselves a lot. An insecure man is obsessed with how others view ‘me,’ what others think of ‘me,’ whether or not others like ‘me,’ and so on. He says to himself, “I have low self-esteem, so I can’t be prideful!” But pride is the true source of his problems.
Let's consider one final example of modern pride. In high rebellion against God, we have inverted his moral order, calling good "evil" and evil "good" in many areas of society (Isa. 5:20). This is especially prevalent in how we have inverted the definitions of humility and pride. For example, when someone says, "This is just what works for me," or "This is what I learned on my journey," or "This is my perspective," or "This is how I feel," they are considered humble by others. But if another man says, "Thus saith the Lord..." or "God has told us..." or "The Scriptures teach...", then he is considered arrogant.
But note that the first man did nothing but talk of himself: his journey, his perspective, his feelings, and so on. His comments are utterly self-centered, and he has made himself the judge of what is true. Yet he is praised for being humble! The second man, however, repeated truths that would still be true even if he were never born. His perspective, his hopes, his dreams, and his journey are entirely irrelevant to the truthfulness of what God has said, and he humbly knows this. Because of pride, many people get this totally backwards, scrambled, upside-down.
God’s Cure for Prideful Hearts
There are, in the end, only two kinds of people: the proud who think they are humble, and the humble who know they are proud. Jesus says about these two types, “Those who exalt themselves will be brought down, but those who humble themselves will be exalted” (Matt. 23:12). This is because pride is the chief obstacle to God’s work in our lives. By belittling, excusing, or denying our faults and failures, pride recognizes neither sin nor the need for God’s grace. God also wants to fill us with his Spirit, but the proud are so full of themselves that there is no room left for God. Hence God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble (James 4:6).
But how can we “humble ourselves” so that we may receive grace and be lifted up by God? Where is true humility found? How do we get it? The old cliché rings true: the way to humility is not thinking less of yourself, but thinking of yourself less. And specifically, we think of ourselves less by thinking more of Jesus.
In other words, fix your eyes on Jesus (Heb. 12:2). Think often of him. Remember his mighty works, especially the cross and the resurrection. Seek his help in all things, believing him when he says, “Apart from me, you can do nothing” (John 15:5). Understand that every good thing you will ever do will only be possible because of God’s work in your life (Phil. 2:13). Remind yourself of the undeserved kindness God shows to you, seen in every blessing, far too many to number. And thank him always for his grace.
Grace is the great pride killer, because it reminds us that we have nothing to offer God in ourselves. We have nothing, earn nothing, and can boast of nothing before him. We are but beggars at the foot of God's door. But there, on the bottom step, he stoops to receive us. He lifts us up. And he fills our empty hands with grace upon grace.
Doug Ponder is one of the founding pastors of Remnant Church in Richmond, VA, where he serves in many of the church’s teaching ministries. He has contributed to several published works and is the author of Rethink Marriage & Family. His interests include the intersection of theology, ethics, and the Christian life. Follow him on Twitter @dougponder.