Rev’d Jonathan Gale
Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up.
When I was much younger, I used to read about the sin of ‘pride’ and wonder why it was such a bad thing. I was proud of my heritage, of my family, of my school and a whole series of things.
I thought that the more talented you were and the harder you worked, the more proud you could be and that, that would motivate you to do even better. I even believed that pride would fortify you against the negative opinions of others, hence enable you to make progress in what you achieved in spite of opposition.
Later I became a Christian and wondered how God (who was perfect) could be so offended by anyone who was proud. How would that affect God, I wondered?
It wasn’t until some time later, as I grew in the faith, that I began to realise that pride was at the essence of self-sufficiency. I had of course come to realise that self-sufficiency was not a virtue, but a fundamental misapprehension about the nature of God and humankind.
It dawned on me that God permeates every single atom in the universe and that our wellbeing is intimately tied up with our being intimately close to God. A complete dependence upon God was not what the secular world understood as weakness, but rather wisdom. It makes profound sense.
Pride, I realised, was an active revelling in ignorance – an ignorance of how debilitating it was to subtly draw away from our life-giving God in the foolish notion that our own strength was the most desirable state to be in. Pride distances us from the opportunity to grow in love for God. You don’t love someone when you draw away from them. That, is on the level of God.
On a human level pride works against love in that when we develop a proud spirit we differentiate ourselves from others because we think we are better than they are. Donald Trump recently referred to underdeveloped countries in a manner that evidences his pride.
Pride on our part is hurtful because it puts other people down. It is the very opposite of love which draws near, looks for the good, looks for commonality. Pride is laughable because it uses as its rationale for existence a limited view of ourselves. When we are proud we are short-sighted, very short-sighted.
St Paul, in his letter to the church in Corinth says, Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up.
If pride is based upon ignorance, this makes for profound irony. Developing a sense of self-importance because we think we are knowledgeable is what Paul is on about.
I’ve often wondered why the primal sin (the first act of withdrawing from God) in Scripture is described in the story of Eve eating the forbidden fruit from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. “I know better” is at the heart of pride and it all began with the devil telling Eve that he knew better than God and that they would not surely die if they ate the forbidden fruit. In fact they would then have the knowledge that God had.
Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up. Even when the knowledge is correct knowledge, it’s not necessarily loving or helpful.
In the case of our reading from 1 Corinthians, “I know that it’s okay to eat food sacrificed to idols. I mean, hey, what’s an idol? They mean nothing to me, so there’s no harm in it at all” As Paul puts it, 8‘Food will not bring us close to God.’* We are no worse off if we do not eat, and no better off if we do.
But is this really helpful? It might be factually true, but what if someone ignorant of the nature of pagan gods and ignorant of what you believe, should see you eating it? Will they not be enticed to think that spiritual compromise is okay? That is essentially what Paul is getting at.
His actual words: 9But take care that this liberty of yours does not somehow become a stumbling-block to the weak .10For if others see you, who possess knowledge, eating in the temple of an idol, might they not, since their conscience is weak, be encouraged to the point of eating food sacrificed to idols? 11So by your knowledge those weak believers for whom Christ died are destroyed.
Now this example means little to us because these are not the issues we face but you get the point: it might be okay for us to do something because it doesn’t affect us, but what about those whom it does affect?
The proud say, “Who gives a continental? It’s not harmful to me. If they’re that foolish that’s their lookout.” This proud spirit goes all the way back to Cain who asked of God, “Am I my brother’s keeper?”
Whenever we exercise our own good without concern for the effects it’s going to have on others with whom we are in relationship in some way, we are acting proudly. We are not showing concern for our brother and sister.
This is so contrary to the example Jesus set us to follow. He of course famously requires us to turn the other cheek to the person who strikes us.
But what is it that motivates us to put others first? What do we need to develop within ourselves in order that putting others first becomes a lifestyle choice for us, rather than something that, at best, we agonise about before we act?*
Again, Paul has a response for us. He tells the church in Philippi,
Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, (Philippians 2: 3) “Woah! Value others as above yourselves? What if they’re clearly not above me?” Well, that assumes we are not blinkered to our own shortcomings. Paul goes on:
5Let the same mind be in you that was* in Christ Jesus,
6 who, though he was in the form of God,
did not regard equality with God
as something to be exploited,
7 but emptied himself,
taking the form of a slave,
being born in human likeness.
And being found in human form,
8 he humbled himself
and became obedient to the point of death—
even death on a cross.
(Philippians 2: 5 – 8)
You see, we are all of us faced with the same question? Do I want to be right or do I want to be loving? Do I want to follow the instructions of Jesus or do I want to trust my own rationality?
Jesus, in his humanity, faced the same question in the Garden of Gethsemane. He would almost certainly have been tempted to think, “Do I really have to go through this for these ungrateful unwashed masses?” Thankfully he had developed a humility that caused him immediately to respond with, “Father, if you are willing, take this cup from me; yet not my will, but yours be done.” (Luke 22: 42)
Humility is not a smokescreen for pride. It is the opposite of pride. Neither is it, as in the case of Uriah Heap, in Dickens’s novel David Copperfield, a creepy kind of ingratiating oneself with others. “I’m so ‘umble, Mr Copperfield.”
Humility is love in action. It is a decision to trust that Jesus knew and knows what he is doing, both in being humble and expecting us to be the same.
Jesus knew a thing or two when he said in Matthew 19: 24, Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.”
Pride comes easy to the successful. You can insert any word you like in there: talented, successful, inordinately fortunate.
And the sad thing is you don’t have to be successful in life, to suffer from pride.
Pride is a cancer and it eats away at those too blind to see that it has swamped them. It can sneak up quietly and before we know it, it is insinuated its way into our attitudes.
Our only hope is in repentance, and following in the footsteps of Jesus; he who emptied himself,
taking the form of a slave, Paul tells us.
Because when we yield to him, he lovingly takes us, cleanses us, renews our mind and begins to build into us a wholly different set of values, Kingdom of God values.
We don’t all have to have unclean spirits driven out of us like the man in our Gospel reading this morning, but we do all need to say with David in Psalm 51: 10, Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me.
God takes great joy in building love and humility into us. They are the primary means of our living out the grace of God.
Readings for the day:
- Deuteronomy 18: 15-20
- 1 Corinthians 8: 1-13
- Mark 1: 21-28