Pride and Our Idol Factories: The Disturbing Relationship between Pride and Idolatry
If you don’t mind, I’d like to start on a personal note. I don’t have years and years of experience under my belt as a missionary pastor. I have only been doing this for about eighteen months. In eighteen months, however, I have observed some things about human nature from experience and Scripture. Those observations led me to suggest this as one of the topics.
Before we came to live with the people in Fort Babine, we had caught a glimpse of life there. Besides the glimpses we had received, we had heard a lot of things. Based on what we had heard and briefly seen, we thought the biggest problems in the community would be related to substance abuse or perhaps sexual and physical abuse. These are problems to varying extents in Fort Babine. However, we have come to see that the biggest problem is plain old pride. And as we thought about it more, it became clear that pride and idolatry are closely connected.
Before anyone thinks that this observation is limited to the mission field in Fort Babine, it’s time to get closer to home. Working with native people means that we sometimes hear racist comments from people in our churches all over Canada. What is racism, if not pride? Let’s zoom in a little closer at ourselves. To do that, I’d like to read a quote from a female author. I made sure it was a woman, since she would know more about these things than I would. This is what she says:
How do we treat our friends when we differ with them over methods? Do we criticize them behind their backs? The Bible calls this backbiting. Do we openly criticize them? Do we tell their method is inferior to our own? That can be arrogant or just plain rude. Do we make officially “polite” but loaded comments which express our displeasure and disapproval of their application of God’s principles? Do we try to embarrass them to make ourselves look better? This is not courtesy.
Here are a few examples: “Can you believe how often she has to go feed her baby? My baby was sleeping through the night at six weeks.” “Your youngest is almost two? You know three children are better than two!” “Why aren’t you homeschooling?” “Why are you homeschooling?” Women who feel free to express themselves about such things have no idea of the damage they are doing.1
I think by this point I have just about stepped on everyone’s toes, including my own. Let’s face it: by nature, we are a proud lot. But does that make us idolaters as well? Do we really sink that far? I’m going to argue that we do. I believe that the Scriptures confirm my observation that there is a strong, inseparable relationship between pride and idolatry. Before we investigate that relationship in detail, let’s look at idolatry and pride separately. We’ll start with some observations about idolatry.
Some Observations about Idolatry
Most of us, I’m sure, know very well how the Heidelberg Catechism defines idolatry: “having or inventing something in which to put our trust instead of, or in addition to, the only true God who has revealed Himself in his Word.” This is especially in connection with the first commandment. However, the second commandment is also associated with idolatry. In the first commandment, the one true God tells us to worship Him alone, and in the second commandment, He shows us how to worship Him. When people break the first commandment, they usually do it consciously – they know that they are putting their trust in someone or something other than the God of the Bible. When people break the second commandment, they still figure that they are worshipping God. But they worship Him in their own way – and sometimes the way theysin and sinners. So, they recreate God into a type of cosmic Santa Claus. He knows if you’ve been bad or good, but in the end, everybody gets the presents. This recreating of God virtually eliminates the need for a Saviour.
In this article, we’re especially interested in this second commandment type of idolatry. As we’re going to see, with pride there is often a violation of the first commandment as well. But since our situation often sees us going in the direction of “in addition to the only true God,” we are especially in the realm of the second commandment. The question needs to be asked: is our understanding of who God is and what is He like in conformity with the Bible or do we recreate Him to fit our own needs and situation? When we do that, we all end up with our own version of who God is.
That’s why John Calvin said in his Institutes that “man’s nature is a perpetual factory of idols.” He wasn’t speaking about false gods. He was speaking of recreations of the one true God. That’s why in the last paragraph of that section, Calvin speaks about the sin of the people at Sinai in Exodus 32. The golden calf was meant to portray the one true God for Israel. The infinite and almighty God of heaven and earth was reduced to a finite and destructible (as Moses illustrated) animal. This was sin against the second commandment!2 And it was directly related to pride. Calvin writes,
Man’s mind, full as it is of pride and boldness, dares to imagine a god according to its own capacity; as it sluggishly plods, indeed is overwhelmed with the crassest ignorance, it conceives an unreality and an empty appearance as God.3
That comment leads us into some observations about pride.
Some Observations about Pride
One of the most profitable places to find practical help in godly living is the Puritans. I’ll grant that they’re not always easy to read, but if you take the time to read their works with a charitable and teachable attitude, you’ll always come away blessed. Since many of the Puritans were in tune with godliness and genuine piety, they have much to offer us on the subject of pride. Richard Greenham, for instance, said that
The more godly a man is, and the more graces and blessings of God are upon him, the more he has to pray, because Satan is busiest against him, and because he is the most likely to be puffed up with a conceited holiness.4
In other words, godliness and earnest prayer belong together. Another Puritan, George Swinnock, said, “Pride is the shirt of the soul, put on first and put off last.”5
Pride is indeed a very difficult corner in our old nature. It’s very hard to get into that corner and crucify that pride lingering there.
However, we know from the Scriptures that pride is what used to be called a “deadly sin.” The book of Proverbs has much to say about pride. We read in Proverbs 6:17 that a “proud look” or “haughty eyes” is one of the six things that the LORD hates, one of the seven that are an abomination to Him. The LORD hates pride. Proverbs 21:4 says it bluntly, “A haughty look, a proud heart, and the plowing of the wicked are sin.” In Psalm 101:5, King David promises God that he will not put up with the proud. And to be sure, the New Testament underscores the same message. Peter says it in 1 Peter 5:5, quoting from Proverbs 3, “Yes, all of you be submissive to one another, and be clothed with humility, for ‘God resists the proud, but gives grace to the humble.’” Romans 12:3 warns believers not to think of themselves more highly than they ought to – and this passage provides a good definition of pride. What is pride? Thinking of yourself more highly than you should. From all this, pride is obviously a sin and the Christian church has often spoken of it as a deadly sin or a capital sin – a sin from which other sins are derived.
Traditionally, there were seven deadly sins: lust, gluttony, anger, sloth, avarice (greed) and envy, and finally, pride. In a recent issue of Christian Renewal, columnist Geoff Thomas pointed out that most of these seven deadly sins are still recognized as something bad – though they have been transformed. For instance, those who would previously have been said to be lustful are now diagnosed with a sex addiction. Anger is now an emotional addiction. Gluttony is an eating disorder, a food addiction. However, with pride it’s different. Says Thomas,
Of all the seven deadly sins, pride is the only one that has been completely rehabilitated. That is why pride is never diagnosed as a disease... These days virtually every social and psychological problem is blamed on low self-esteem.6
Today, many therapists and counsellors (sometimes also so-called Christian counsellors) believe that pride is a necessary and good thing, pride is virtuous. And so we have to face the fact that we live in a culture where pride is no longer understood to be a sin. But at the same time, we have to face the Scriptures that clearly tell us that it is a sin.
This places conflict and tension in our lives because we can’t remove ourselves from our culture. We can’t escape its influences, also when it comes to regarding pride as a positive thing. This conflict makes our lives difficult and complex. And things get only more complex when we consider what the Bible has to say about the relationship between the sin of pride and the sin of idolatry...
A Godly Pride?
Before we finish off, I would like to make some brief remarks about some of the statements of the apostle Paul in the New Testament, particularly in 2 Corinthians 11. In this chapter, Paul seems to do a lot of boasting. He speaks about his ministry and all that he has done and suffered for the Lord. Doesn’t this show that there can be a pride which is not sinful, a pride which is not directly connected with idolatry? But before we take this chapter and use it to excuse any pride which we may have, we need to look closer at the context. What led Paul to this point?
False apostles with a false gospel were threatening the Corinthian church. This is clear even from chapter 11, verse 13, “For such are false apostles, deceitful workers, transforming themselves into apostles of Christ.” Part of the strategy of these false apostles was to undermine the authority of Paul, his apostolic status, and so also undermine the gospel that Paul preached. The true apostle of Christ is addressing this problem in 2 Corinthians 11.
In addressing this problem, he engages in what he calls “boasting.” This is his defense of the gospel. It’s clear that he does it rather tongue-in-cheek. Paul is not being completely serious – though he is deadly serious about defending the gospel. That he is not serious is clear when he repeats more than once that he is engaging in folly – verse 1, verse 17, verse 21, and then again in chapter 12, verse 11. In other words, what we find here is not true pride on the part of Paul – this is a rhetorical pride, pride used as a literary device. This is to make a point to the Corinthians regarding the status and authority of the one who taught them the true gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ. He is doing this against the background of the claims of the false apostles who are threatening to lead the church astray.
Were this not the case, we would have a hard time reconciling what Paul writes here with what he wrote in 2 Timothy 3. This is the same man who claimed to be the chief of sinners in 1 Timothy 1:15. If Paul was bragging in 2 Corinthians 11, he would have contradicted what he wrote in Galatians 6:14, “But God forbid that I should boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ...”
No, it is quite clear that we would be on the wrong track if we tried to appropriate what Paul does in 2 Corinthians 11 for ourselves. The general principle of defending the gospel against all false teachers is a task that remains for the church today. However, this passage does not give any reason for a person to feel secure in his or her pride, thinking that Scripture allows for a pride that is not sinful and idolatrous.
To draw this out a little bit further, there is a common practice today, also in the church, which sees parents speaking about being “proud of their children.” I would like to raise the question with you today whether this practice can be supported with Scripture. Does it not rather seem that we have no reason to be proud? Does it not seem that we should carefully avoid all language associated with pride? Every time we read about pride in the Bible, it is in a negative way. Pride is never described as something good in the Bible. So, wouldn’t it be better to speak about being thankful for all that God has blessed us within our children? No, the Scriptures do not appear to support any kind of pride on the part of believers. Everything we have, we have by grace – and that means we always give credit where credit is due. 7
The time has come to draw some conclusions from our look at this topic.
In the first place, we can conclude that pride and idolatry are indeed like inseparable Siamese twins. They will always be joined together. The idolatry of pride exists in making human standards into divine standards. We make our own standards – which we always meet – into what God expects and so we also recreate God. We make the standards of others – which we seldom meet – into what God expects, and so we recreate God again. Over top of this, we idolize both ourselves and others. The idolatry of pride works therefore works three ways: ourselves, others around us, and then toward God.
Second, we can say that idolatry is symptomatic of pride and vice-versa. Where you see idolatry, whether in believers or unbelievers, there will be pride. Where you see pride, whether in Christians or non-Christians, there will be idolatry. To be proud is to be an idolater and the reverse holds true as well. This simply follows from the inseparable character of these sins. Idolatry inevitably issues forth from the proud heart. Pride is always at the root of the “idola-tree.”
Third, we have noted already that the way to shut down the idol factory and the pride which keeps it running is to fear God. Nehemiah Rogers, a Puritan writer, put it another way: “Humility is the repentance of pride.”8
And that means, humility first of all before God. We must humble ourselves before Him daily and realize what poor, wretched sinners we truly are, undeserving of anything good from the hand of a holy and just God. But as those who fear God, we know from the Scriptures the glorious revelation of Jesus Christ. He is revealed to us especially in Philippians 2 as the One who humbled Himself for our sakes. The idol factory tempted Him, but it never ran in his heart or life. It could not run, for the pride that energizes the factory was nonexistent for Him. And so, He never broke the first or the second commandments. His life was one of perfect obedience – and that was for us! Thus, we are obliged ever more to humility before the God of our salvation! Moreover, we are likewise obliged to humility before one another. As we do this day by day, lead by the Holy Spirit of Christ, we will increasingly put to death that old sinful nature which enjoys the humming of the busy idol factory.
Let us be resolved to shut those factories down!