Trust in the LORD with all your heart,
and do not rely on your own insight.
In all your ways acknowledge him,
and he will make straight your paths.
Do not be wise in your own eyes;
fear the LORD, and turn away from evil.
It will be a healing for your flesh
and a refreshment for your body.
We live in an age of pride in the United States. As we are engaged in various cultural liturgies and habits that engage in the promotion of oneself and one’s ideas, as we are encouraged to think deeply about our own wants and what it is we want to pursue, etc., we live in a world that slowly sculpts our hearts and minds to become immersed in pride. Ultimately, the problem of pride is how it excludes, minimizes, and disregards others, including even the true, living God, while at the same time seeking to include our, maximize, and rationalize our own place; this leads to the “colonization” of our relationships with others for our own purposes, numbing and blinding us to the (potential) harm we can cause others.
Before proceeding further, it is important to clarify what pride really is. Unfortunately, there has been a tendency to associate pride with (a) positive self-esteem and feelings about oneself and (b) unwillingness to relent to the opinions, thoughts, or demands of another. As a consequence, accusations of pride can be readily used to make people feel bad or to try to press them to slavishly submit to the dictates of another. While those who have pride have positive self-esteem and are often unwilling to accommodate to others, these are not the same things. A person may have positive self-esteem while not thinking of themselves to be the epitome of goodness, rightness, etc. A person may refuse to accommodate to the wishes of another person because they have good reason to think it evil, harmful, unnecessary, etc. Confidence in what is good and what is bad can lead us to positive self-esteem and resistance to control, but this is not the exact same thing as pride.
I have come to find a useful distinction between confidence and pride. Confidence is the belief that what I think, feel, want, seek to do, etc. is good and/or right. Pride, however, pushes further and suggests that what I think, feel, want, seek to do, etc. cannot be bad or wrong. Confidence allows us to act but it doesn’t immunize us from accepting any feedback that would suggest we are in fact going down a bad or wrong direction. By contrast, pride cements us in our course of action, hardening our hearts into our course of action, making us increasingly resistant to any word to the contrary. (I myself have had to learn this distinction because, throughout the course of my life, I often eviscerated any sense of confidence in myself, believing it to be prideful and, thus, wrong.)
At the root of pride is often a sense of fear, ultimately of our mortality. If things don’t go my way, if things aren’t the way I see things, if I am not in the right, then we often feel this deeply unconscious/subconscious sense of fear for our well-being, whether it be a direct fear of death or simply a fear of our current place and status in the world. To that end, pride leads us to re-up on our sense of rightness and goodness so as to stave off this deep-seated fear of mortality. This is especially the case as our sense of survival is often tied to the way people socially perceive us, such that by coming across as more confident, we can have a greater chance to receive the approval and acceptance of others. Pride reinforces such confidence by removing any sense that one can be wrong, thereby reinforcing personal confidence in the midst of threats and challenges. At the end of the day, pride is a way that we perceive ourselves that buffers our confidence in a more general sense, whereas confidence is more ‘local’ to specific things we think, feel, seek to do, etc.
When the Proverbs tell us to not rely on our own insight, the language does not ask people to simply discard any and everything they think as somehow being wrong. It is not calling people to eviscerate any and every sense of our confidence. Rather, it distinguishes between insight and how we relate to our insights, warning against putting excessive confidence in what it is that we believe to be right. Similarly, when the sage warns us against thinking ourselves wise in our own eyes, it isn’t asking people to think they are worthless, foolish, etc., but rather to not develop a sense of pride in one’s own understanding, as if they are assailable and certainly good and right.
In light of the Proverbs, we can then say the problem of pride is ultimately this: it prevents people from receiving direction and healing from God. Being excessively self-assured, one seeks to protect oneself from any perception of threats and challenges to one’s status and well-being, which means we would become increasingly brittle in the face of perceived challenges that we deem that we can not escape. Pride makes people ultimately brittle. As a result, we become resistant to allowing God to lead us down a new direction for our life, one that can heal us and brings us into a new place. We are sure we are in the right, we will often find ourselves having to wrestle with God if He seeks to lead us in a different direction. Similarly, we can become resistant to others who provide us insight into a different direction for our thoughts, feelings, and actions, seeking to rigidly preserve ourselves and what we have built in the face of perceived challenges. Pride thus sets us against the will of God and the love of others.
This is why the antidote to pride is not ultimately the tearing down any and all sense of positive self-esteem and confidence, but rather to coming into the fear of God. To be clear, the fear of God is not a crippling fear that God is about to strike you down. Yet, it isn’t simply a reverence for God. Instead, the fear of God is the recognition that if I were to oppose God, God could push me out of the way, get rid of me, bring painful discipline and punishment, etc. The fear of God opposes our pride, because we are then left with the recognition that there is One greater than “I” who can demonstrate my foolishness, pronounce me guilty, and alter my course of life without an ability to resist it if God chooses to act forcefully. One can not maintain such an excessive self-confidence in the recognition of such a capacity. So, in lieu of pride, the fear of God keeps up open in our mind for the will of God, to allow the true paths of life and well-being that God seeks to lead us into. It is not that we believe that God is authoritarian or dictatorial, as if we should believe that God will strike us down for the slightest infringement, but that instead, if we act in a way that continues to harmfully oppose the life and shalom that God wants to cultivate in His creation, God will in His time take us out of the way (ultimately, for all, as the resurrection and judgment) if we don’t allow God to take it out of us.
To that end, the cross is the ultimate act of turning upside-down nature of the pride of human life: facing suffering and the perceived threats to olur mortality is the route towards joy and life rooted in the will of God. Human pride, being rooted ultimately in self-preservation, suffocates and shrivels in the acceptance of the experience of the cross, whereas it is God who gives new life and health to our bodies (potentially even now in this age and fully and eternally in the eschaton) and insight to our minds through the cross.