Some deadly diseases often present no outward symptoms; they just lie within surreptitiously and imperceptibly until they unleash catastrophe. Deep vein thrombosis.
Hypertension. Brain aneurism. Pride.
More than just a sin, pride is a category of sin because, though indeed a sin itself, it leads inevitably to more sin and other sin. Pride is particularly insidious because, unlike pornography, adultery, or thievery it remains socially acceptable — even in the Christian world, particularly in ministry, and especially in the artificial bubble of seminary. Insulated from the challenges of other world views, constantly graded and evaluated in ways that lend themselves to comparison, and surrounded by admirable and attractional people, a seminary student can easily forget that the call of God is to follow Christ alone. Pride can distort the entire experience and suggest that the cross to be taken up must be a designer model, carried in a top-grain leather case, and immortalized in an Instagram selfie.
The ultimate secret sin
Perhaps pride persists so perilously because it has a certain utility in the world of the flesh, an expediency in gaining an invitation to sit in the chief seats at the table. It can masquerade as self-confidence in preaching and draw the admiration of others. It can fool a wife into thinking her husband is self-assured and confident when he is self-absorbed and conceited. It can pose as poise and leadership to a search committee or a potential employer who cannot perceive the insatiable appetite for prestige and lust for status lurking beneath the impeccably curated clothing.
Pride, however, has no single uniform. It can infect the seminary student nattily attired in Brooks Brothers, bow tie, and brogues, or equally the one who, just as proudly, refuses to wear anything but jeans and a t-shirt. It can dehumanize a wife into an ornament, and make children think more about maintaining the image of dad than reflecting the image of God. It can pervert a simple thing—like drinking a cup of coffee—into an act of idolatry and fountain of disdain for those with less educated palates. It robs the simplest pleasures of their simplicity and joy, and substitutes instead the convolution and complication of a sinful heart with the sneer of self-righteousness. Pride is so subtle and perverted that it can corrupt the good that we do, ostensibly in service of the kingdom, into deeds of the flesh that cannot please God.
Ultimately, pride robs God of his glory — the eternal — because it delights in self-glory — the temporal, transient, and meaningless.
That’s why seminary is so dangerous. Unfortunately, seminary can become an incubator for nascent pride that, if not defeated by the indwelling Spirit of Christ, will grow into a disfiguring and destructive monster that makes even the most academically gifted seminary graduate of little use to the Kingdom of God. In one way seminary is no different than any other place because pride can grow in any climate and every heart. On the other hand, Satan’s forces are working overtime at seminary because habits and attitudes established here will likely harden and endure throughout ministry — and cause great damage.
Overcoming an inflated sense of self
The key to defeating pride lies in truly believing what God’s Word says about every one of us. The Bible is clear that we are all broken. We might be broken in different ways, but one cannot experience degrees of total depravity. When we deny the depth of our own desperate need we fail to see the enormity of God’s grace and redemption in Christ. Not only is pride sinful, but also misplaced. We have nothing to be proud of. If everyone knew the truth about us we would only be ashamed. Apart from Christ, we certainly have no cause for boasting.
We must remind ourselves, therefore, that our salvation, our sanctification, and even our gifting, is all of grace. The more one appreciates and appropriates the grace of God, the less one feels either desire or ability to boast. Grace, after all, transforms mundane things in precisely the opposite direction of pride. Grace puts gratitude where pride once was. The discerning palate, for instance, becomes a heart filled with praise and gratitude for a God who designed taste buds and created coffee trees and different soils, climates, and altitudes so His creatures could enjoy the simple—or complex—pleasure of a cup of java. Clothes and appearance become a strategy to present the gospel and to express a sanctified and unique personality with a thankful heart. Beautiful pens become a way to write encouraging or comforting notes to others rather than a possession to fuel pride. Social media become a tool of discipleship and gospel impact rather than self-centered aggrandizement.
Humility is not thinking lowly of yourself, or even little of yourself; it’s not thinking of yourself. A life filled with Christ and focused on others will not have room nor time for pride. A follower of Christ must evaluate his or her own spirit and attitude in every action with brutal honesty to bring every thought captive to Christ. We strive to be servants, not masters; to be least, not the greatest. We serve one who humbled and emptied Himself.
Southern Seminary is a wonderful place and a gift of God to His churches. I marvel at what God has done here. Our campus is the most beautiful I have ever seen. Our faculty is stunningly gifted and accomplished. Our students and alumni are used of God in great and inspiring ways. May none of that, however, be a source of anything other than gratitude to God with a sense of our own debt to the gospel. We have nothing that we have not received.