Pride, as a desirable attitude of successful living, is easier to think about because it is pervasive in our sinful world. It is easy to rationalize, when everyone around us approaches life in a self-interested way. Scholars in Christian traditions have agreed that pride as self-centeredness is the human condition. It is usually defined as “a satisfaction that is derived from one’s achievements or qualities that are widely admired; a sense of one’s own dignity and worth.” Pride is generally valued, but no one, ancient or modern, likes a braggart—someone who makes us feel that they are superior to us and other people. No one on earth likes to be humiliated or denigrated.
I can now list four ways that the study [of pride and humility] has changed or refined my thinking. First, I no longer perceive humility as a single virtue that can be analyzed and quantified in isolation from other traits. In fact, humility has developed throughout history as two incompatible concepts. One is the classical and modern notion of human character traits; a person is characteristically virtuous or vicious in a variety of social behaviors. Humanistic concepts are inadequate for biblical realities, because the Bible never separates a person’s character from his or her standing before God and His people, whether in truth or error. The Creator is central to understanding pride and humility in the Bible.
How should we define the concepts and their contrast? Interestingly, we search in vain for a thorough biblical analysis of pride or humility, although the various aspects of our study have been mentioned in the many sources that we have consulted.
At the most basic level, the Bible defines humility as God-centeredness and pride as self-centeredness. The latter trait is not selfishness per se, but rather an orientation away from God toward willful rebellion and disobedience. The etymology of humility is derived from humus (“earthy”), with a backward glance to the creation of humanity from the earth, inbreathed by the breath of God (Gen 2:7).
We were made creatures to be nurtured by our Maker. Philip Yancey concurs with this conclusion in the following remark: “As theologian Daniel Hawks puts it, ‘The basic human problem is that everyone believes that there is a God and I am it.’ . . . Humility means that in the presence of God I gain a glimpse of my true state in the universe, which exposes my smallness at the same time it reveals God’s greatness.”1
Jon Bloom is also on target: “Humility is essentially the recognition of what is real—simply assessing things as they really are. To be fully humble is to fully trust God (Proverbs 3:5) who is the Truth (John 14:6; 17:17); to govern according to His just ways and perfect work (Deuteronomy 32:4); to be content with what He gives us (Hebrews 13:5), knowing that a person cannot receive even one thing unless it is given him from heaven’ (John 3:27).”2 This God-centered understanding of humility is obviously absent from the secular passions of the world.
The concepts are usually used in clusters of similar characteristics and effects. Humility as lowliness under God occurs in connection with concepts like obedience, dedication, service, or love for God and others. So when believers are exhorted to “seek humility,” they are to “seek the Lord, all you humble of the land, who do His just commands” (Zeph 2:3). This is a turning from pride and idols toward a renewed dedication to the true worship of God (cf. Deut 8:2–3).
Pride as presumptuous boasting occurs in conjunction with oppression, rebellion, idolatry, and factiousness. These clusters of sin should not obscure that pride and humility have been viewed as antithetical foundations of religious ethics. All of this means that the virtue and the vice describe the character of the whole person in a social context. We cannot say that a person is humble or proud without including the effects of their character on social circumstances and relationships.
Second, the concepts may be personal traits, but they are strongly social and communal. I was surprised to discover that humility of mind, a Christ-centered attitude, is biblically imperative for unity in the church. Having been frequently involved in conflict resolution, I can testify that this is true in a practical sense. It is literally true! If Christ is not given highest priority in Christian work, then the members will begin to quarrel and fight over the “best way to serve.” This makes sense when we learn that we should consider no gift as superior to others under God (1 Cor 12), and we should esteem the interests of other believers as more important than our own (Phil 2). Comparisons and competitions in the church create conflicts and are manifestations of pride that generate quarrels and godless detours.
Third, I uncovered the valuable insight that pride at its core is competitive. A proud person gets no pleasure from personal position or possessions unless they make that person feel superior to others by comparison. Human nature naturally gravitates toward comparatives and superlatives in thinking about who is truly good or unspeakably evil. The prime possession is an illusion of self-sufficient power from status and wealth. Since the Fall, human pride has been the impossible and illicit desire to be as powerful and great as God—people blindly pursue it anyway.
Proud people try to win at any cost and generate wars to be “like all the nations” (1 Sam 8:5). Pride provokes some people to oppress and enslave others on an international scale. For personal advantage, pride is willing to betray or plunder friends and associates. In spite of the danger of broken relationships, it condones infidelity simply because some people feel entitled to have what they want without consequences. But apart from God, standards disappear. God responds with judgment, “so that they will know that I am the sovereign Lord.” God has allowed pride so that its vanity can underscore His justice in judging the self-destructiveness of futile ambitions.
Fourth, in contrast, I have learned that we cannot categorize humility and pride as virtue and vice, respectively. This adjustment is similar to the first change in my thinking. “Virtue” has been historically
understood as human behavior that reflects high moral standards; it is moral excellence that promotes individual and collective uprightness and greatness.
Classically, it was derived from vir (“manliness”) and the Middle English virtu (with a similar nuance from the thirteenth century). It refers to a human quality without theological implications. Likewise, “vice” is human behavior or a habit that is socially considered to be degrading, immoral, or evil without connection to the Bible.
Biblical theology forbids the advantages of noble birth (in the past) or “genetic superiority” (in the present) in assessing godly character. Nothing from achievement—to wealth, to rank, or to prestige—can stand before the perfections of God. In fact, achievements usually promote our pride or blind us to our need for the Lord. Everyone “by their unrighteousness suppresses the truth” (cf. Rom 1:18). Besides, the great reversals in history and the Gospels mean that pride and humility are valued differently by Christ and secular cultures. This means that traits like humility are rooted in submission to God and then service for others’ needs.
Biblical humility (or loving submission to God) focuses our lives on him and draws us away from the lesser things—temporal and transitory—that haunt our days on earth. It cannot be quantified and probably cannot be proven in this world. Various Christian thinkers have pondered about how we can recognize humble people.
Augsburger puts it this way, “Humility, the tangible evidence that one loves God with heart, soul, strength, and mind is visible to others, but not so visible to the self.”3 Augsburger’s point is that someone who loves others out of their affection for God is radically different from the survival-of-the-fittest ethos around us. But he alludes that a truly humble person is not self-obsessed.
C. S. Lewis noted that we can recognize a humble person, because “He will not be thinking about humility: he will not be thinking about himself at all.”4 In Paul’s words, “I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me” (Gal 2:20). The arrogant Corinthians made them-selves judges of Paul’s ministry. At first Paul cared little “that I should be judged by you or by any human court. In fact, I do not even judge myself” (1 Cor 4:3). This means that humble believers judge only in the Lord according to His Word. It also means that humble people are too busy serving God to be introspectively concerned about their status. “For I am not aware of anything against myself,” he continued, “but I am not thereby acquitted. It is the Lord who judges me” (v. 4).
In other words, Paul knew of nothing in his ministry that required an apology. Biblical humility is inseparable from accountability before God. Paul would eventually list his credentials that made him the greatest missionary and minister who ever lived. But he did not live to seek greatness on earth, and he knew that his weakness channeled God’s strength through his faithfulness.
Therefore, I would conclude that the Bible teaches that true humility is real in the Holy Spirit. Humanity in general, on the other hand, pursues an elusive and transitory ideal, prioritizing its power, wealth, and strength. One should not equate meekness with God as a human virtue—it is a divinely enabled character trait. Human virtue is servile, while the latter is worthy of exaltation and greatness.
Paul exhorted the Corinthians to boast only in the Lord. So we should say, “I have significance because God has worked through my submission to His will.” In view of this disparity, we must conclude that people have some sense of the ideal of humility. But humanity in general has concluded that it is elusive in the real pressures of our prideful world. Most people seek the approval and applause of the world rather than the glory of God.
Fifth, related to the above, I have learned that the social image of humility is weakness and passivity. For this reason, it has not been respected or desired in ancient and modern societies that favor heroic significance and security. Regrettably, some Christians, like the Corinthians, have followed suit.
One Internet site, which will remain unnamed, defined biblical humility as “a quality of being courteously respectful of others; it is the opposite of aggressiveness.” I have learned that biblical humility is “aggression for God” that elevates us from our limitations and shortcomings.
Jesus was not passive when, as the Son of God, He embraced His incarnation and “for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God” (Heb 12:2).
In conclusion, why should we seek this humility in the Spirit for which saints have suffered so greatly through the ages?
The simple answer is that this is the way of wise living, godly significance, and eternal meaning in a dying world. Moses, “who was more humble than anyone else on earth,” enjoyed special intimacy with God. But few people have desired to know God “face-to-face” (Num 12:1–8).
Hannah was reviled for her barrenness. In spite of her circumstances, she kept on praying to the Lord. God gave her one of the greatest prophets and king-makers in Israel’s history. Hannah celebrated by singing, “Talk no more so very proudly, let not arrogance come from your mouth . . . The Lord makes poor and makes rich; he brings low and he exalts . . . for not by might shall a man pre-vail” (1 Sam 2:3, 7, 9).
Joseph could have boasted for a long time without pause, but he humbly comforted his family, “You meant evil against me, but God meant it for good, to bring it about that many people should be kept alive, as they are today” (Gen 50:20).
With an echo of Hannah’s praise, Mary accepted the incredible gift and responsibility of mothering the Messiah. “Let it be to me according to your word” (Luke 1:38). Then she sang, “My spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has looked on the humble estate of his servant . . . He has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts; he has brought down the mighty from their thrones and exalted those of humble estate” (vv. 47–48, 51–52).
The list goes on from Genesis to Revelation! We should seek humility because it is the heart of our self-
giving God, the character of Christ, and the promise of exaltation now and in
1. Philip Yancey, Prayer: Does It Make Any Difference? (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2006), 37.
2. Jon Bloom, “Don’t Let Pride Steal Your Joy!,” Revive 46, 2 (2015): 14.
3. David Augsburger, Dissident Discipleship: A Spirituality of Self-Surrender, Love of God, and Love
of Neighbor (Grand Rapids: Brazos, 2006), 122.
4. C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity (1952; repr., San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1952), 128.
Excerpt taken from Pride and Humility at War: A Biblical Perspective by J. Lanier Burns, ISBN 978-1-59638-176-6, pages 193–99.
Used with permission from P&R Publishing Co PO Box 817, Phillipsburg, New Jersey 08865, prpbooks.com.
Scripture taken from the Holy Bible, English Standard Version.
About the Contributors
Dr. Burns is actively involved in administration in Christian and secular organizations. He also devotes time to writing, conferences, and pastoral leadership. He has been involved in post-doctoral research at Harvard and Oxford Universities. For over forty years he has served as president of the Asian Christian Academy in Hosur, India. He has participated in numerous neuroscientific activities for about fifteen years. His research interests include Trinitarianism, anthropology, sin, eschatology, the relationship of science and religion, and issues in social justice. He spends his spare time with his family and enjoying sports. He and Kathy have four children and 11 grandchildren.