Seven Deadly Sins Continues: Pride! "Blessed are the Meek."

This week an amazing thing happened: Kodak filed for bankruptcy protection. Kodak was the leading camera film and equipment company in the world for more than a century. At its peak, around 1997, its share price on Wall Street was close to $100. Today it is close to nothing. Kodak once employed nearly 150,000; today it’s less than 20,000. In 1996 revenues were $16B, and profits peaked in 1999 at $2.5B. Now, you can think this was inevitable; people don’t buy film anymore, and more and more of us use phones to take pictures, not cameras—even digital cameras. True. But here’s another truth: Kodak’s longtime rival, FujiFilm, is still a very strong company. Last year, while Kodak turned a profit of “only” $220M, Fuji profited $12.6B. There are several reasons why Kodak failed, but it’s much more than the obvious transition from film to digital photography. One of its main problems was pride, with an unhealthy mix of sloth. Fuji began to diversify years ago; Kodak did not. Executives believed the company too strong, too important, too powerful, to fail. They could meet any challenge without having to do the difficult work of reallocating priorities in the face of change demands. Many of them are available today if you’re hiring!

Pride can be a frustrating sin to talk about, because it has two meanings with differing contexts. You could rightly say, “How can Pride be a sin? Are you saying I should not be proud of my kid when he gets a good grade? Or proud of my granddaughter when she hits a game winning shot?” Every Sunday I speak with pride of how our church is inclusive—to the point of having a float in the annual pride parade! That sort is good and should be encouraged. One of the most important things I can say to my boys is, “I am proud of you.” The sin of Pride is different. It is not an expression of satisfaction in a person or thing—it is an excessive love of self. The other day Pastor Kerry sent me a link to a photo essay on the Seven Deadly Sins. The one for Pride was a woman looking at a cross, which doesn’t sound prideful at all—except that the cross was a mirror. She saw herself in the cross, not Jesus.

Remember, sin is anything that separates us from relationship with God. Through God’s grace, we have been given the power to overcome sin’s pull on us. Pride is often disguised as ambition, a need to be noticed, a feeling of superiority. Of the Seven Deadly Sins, Pride is commonly thought to be the most serious—it is a fundamental flaw in our character, an insecure, self-defeating narcissism that causes us to see everything and everyone as a projection of ourselves. It is an innate need to show off, claiming power and authority that do not belong to us.
Consider the sin of Adam and Eve. They lived in a perfect paradise with everything they could ever need, but the one restriction given to them by God—not to eat of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil—was what they thought most about. When challenged by the snake to eat the forbidden fruit, the snake tempts them at their most basic desire—Pride: “God does not want you to eat it, lest you become like God.” Immediately, the fruit of that tree looks different. They disobey God’s only command so that they may be transformed into gods themselves. Overstretching their only limit, God expels them from the Garden forever. 

Generations later, Genesis tells us the people of the earth all spoke one common language. They achieved great success in their endeavors. They decided to build a tower to the heavens to proclaim to God their own goodness: “Come, let us build ourselves a city, and a tower with its top in the heavens, and let us make a name for ourselves…” God punishes the people again for their Pride—not expelling them from a Garden as much as expelling them from community with each other. They no longer speak the same language. They are forced to settle across the earth. God does this because, “…this is only the beginning of what they will do; nothing that they propose to do will now be impossible for them.”

In the Book of Exodus the people are liberated from slavery in Egypt. Moses leads them to the mountain of God, where they receive the law of the covenant. The first commandment says, “I am the Lord your God. You shall have no other gods before me.” The second commandment is similar: “You shall not make for yourself an idol, whether in the form of anything that is in heaven above, or that is on the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I the Lord your God am a jealous God…” Pride is the worship of self, where we place ourselves at the center of our lives—and the lives of others. Jesus told a parable of a Pharisee, a religious leader of his day, and a tax collector. Both men prayed in the Temple, and their prayers revealed much about their character. The Pharisee’s prayer went like this: “Thank you, God, that I am not like other people, like this tax collector. I tithe my income. I observe your laws. I, I, I.” The tax collector confronts his sin and his guilt, unable to look to heaven, he simply prays, “Hear my prayer, a sinner.” Jesus then said, “I tell you, this man went down to his home justified rather than the other; for all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted” (Luke 18:14). He warned us to not to assume to take the honored place around the table, but sit at the end of the table. Paul chastised his congregations for taking favored spots at the Lord’s table. He reminded the Corinthians to be aware of God’s grace: “What do you have that you did not receive? And if you received it, why do you boast as if it were not a gift?” (1 Corinthians 4:18-21). He offers them a choice for his next visit: should he greet them with a stick—WHACK!—or with gentleness?

Jesus himself was tempted with pride. After his baptism the Spirit drives him into the wilderness, where he was tempted by Satan over a period of forty days. Listen to how he is tempted: ‘If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread.’ ‘If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down;’ ‘All these [kingdoms] I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me.’ They all have to do with pride. Show off your power! Test God’s favor! Realize your ambitions! But Jesus was steadfast in his refusal, finally saying, ‘Away with you, Satan! for it is written, “Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.” ’ In refusing to give in to pride, Jesus affirms God’s power and authority in his life. 

One of my favorite Bible stories is found in 2 Kings 5, the story of the great captain of the army of a neighboring country suffers from the humiliating disease of leprosy. A servant of his wife tells her of a Hebrew prophet, Elisha, who can help. So Namaan loads up a caravan of mules and horses with riches and goods. His plan is to buy favor from the prophet. When he arrives at Elisha’s home, the prophet does not even come outside. His servant tells Namaan to jump into the Jordan River seven times and he will be healed. Namaan becomes angry. “Doesn’t he know who I am? He should at least come out here and wave his hands over my wounds or something! Besides, we have better rivers in Syria. I’ll just bathe there!” Pride. But his servants ask him: “If the prophet had asked you to do something difficult you would have done it. Why not do something easy?” Namaan changes his mind and jumps in the Jordan. He is healed. A powerful lesson in humility, which just happens to be the opposite Virtue of Pride.

Humility places others’ needs above our own. Humility acknowledges the goodness in everyone and turns away our focus on self. There are many teachings about the virtue of Humility—so many you’d think we struggle with it or something: “And all of you must clothe yourselves with humility in your dealings with one another, for ‘God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble’” (1 Peter 5:5). “Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves” (Phil 2:3). For you know the generous act of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, so that by his poverty you might become rich. (2 Cor 8:9)
Jesus himself illustrates the virtue of Humility when he washed the disciples’ feet. Peter resists: “You will never wash my feet!” But Jesus did it to give them an example, that they should wash others’ feet. “The Son of Man came not be served, but to serve,” he often said. Scripture testifies to Jesus’ humility: “Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God   as something to be exploited, but emptied himself,   taking the form of a slave,   being born in human likeness. And being found in human form,  he humbled himself    and became obedient to the point of death—    even death on a cross” (Phil 2:5-8). 

Kodak’s downfall was an inability to change in the midst of an identity storm—and great was its fall. How ironic that a technology-based company would be resistant to innovation. But that’s pride at work. Too big to fail. You and I struggle with pride all the time, though often when we do not realize it. Let’s not become so self-absorbed that we are unaware that everything is eroding around us. Remember: the power of sin is real. And pride may be the strongest—the very source—of all sins. But we have faith in the power of God, which saves us from sin and saves us throughout our life. When we begin to think we have it all figured out—when we feel the pull of gravity to make us the center of the universe—take a moment for some perspective. 

The Gospel of Luke takes a unique perspective on the calling of Peter to discipleship. Jesus came to the sea where Peter had been fishing, unsuccessfully, all morning. Jesus stepped into Peter’s boat and went out onto the water to speak to the crowds. After speaking, Jesus asked Peter to go out to deep waters and throw his nets overboard. Peter did it, but he could not resist sharing his experience that day: ‘Master, we have worked all night long but have caught nothing. Yet if you say so, I will let down the nets.’ The nets were immediately full—so much they had to call in reinforcements. Soon the boats were sinking with the weight of fish. Peter was overwhelmed: “Go away from me, Lord! I am a sinful man!” He was not yet the all-star disciple. He did not have the answers. He was not worthy of the honor of Christ’s call. Yet he would become the rock on which Christ would build the church. We may feel destined for greatness. We may be confident in our strengths. But let’s not allow our ambition, our anxiety, our insecurity to become gods themselves. Remember Peter’s humble affirmation of who he really was when Jesus invited him to be a disciple. But still hear, and respond to, Christ’s gracious invitation: ‘Do not be afraid; from now on you will be catching people.’

Boxing legend Mohammed Ali turned 70 last week. There’s a story about him taking a flight years ago. The flight attendant tried to coax Ali to wearing his safety belt. “Superman don’t need no seatbelt,” he said. “Superman don’t need no airplane,” she replied. Pride is a real temptation for all of us. We all crave the recognition we know we deserve. In a culture that values individuality and the pulling up of the self by one’s bootstraps pride runs rampant. I mean, we’re from Texas, right? We’re not exactly short on pride. I don’t imagine “Ford is the Best in Rhode Island” would be a very effective slogan. If boasting is so difficult a behavior to put aside, then let’s put it to good use and honor God: “My soul makes its boast in the Lord; let the humble hear and be glad” (Psalm 34:2). “But let those who boast boast in this, that they understand and know me, that I am the Lord; I act with steadfast love, justice, and righteousness in the earth, for in these things I delight, says the Lord” (Jeremiah 9:24).