Pride and Humility at War
Lanier Burns is senior research professor of theology at Dallas Theological Seminary. Since 1973 he has served as president of Asian Christian Academy in Bangalore, India.
David George Moore conducted the following interview. Some of Dave’s videos can be found at www.mooreengaging.com.
[Personal note: During my first semester at Dallas Seminary I took a theology class with Lanier. It is where I first experienced the life-giving reality of a theology professor preaching his class material!]
Moore: Every author has his or her own motivation for writing. What spurred you to write Pride and Humility at War? https://www.amazon.com/Pride-Humility-War-Biblical-Perspective/dp/1596381760
Burns: Reading and listening. I first learned of the importance of pride v. humility in my doctoral research at Dallas Seminary in the 1970s. I learned that, from the beginning of recorded history, pride has been associated with chaos in the world. I was intrigued, because I had been taught that self-aggrandizement was the natural lifestyle of an ambitious person. My doctorate at the University of Texas focused on “social justice,” and I was struck by the polarizing trajectories of Christians and secular scholars on issues of ethics; the educated elites were profoundly concerned with injustices, while Christians seemed to have only a tangential interest in ethics. Divisions among Christians sparked my interest in “Christlikeness” as a measure of Christian character and behavior. Hours of counseling with students revealed that they shared the same concerns. Repeatedly, they asked, “How can I use my theological training to live a significant – or successful – or famous life? Is this possible in “ministry”? I was bothered by the fact that I was hearing a biblical goal cast in the same terms as worldly alternatives. Students who were not “the best” or “the brightest” returned heartbroken, feeling that they were inferior to their peers. Then I began to focus on Christ’s words (e.g., Mark 10:35-45) and discerned that theological institutions may have misrepresented the biblical goals for contemporary ministry, where godly accomplishments are not equivalent to winning the lottery or the Super Bowl. This discovery was underscored by crucial passages like Philippians 2, where Paul stated that the attitude of Christ Jesus is clearly a kenosis of pride. Finally, P & R requested that I contrast pride and humility, since they viewed it as a neglected topic as well.
Moore: I have heard something about debates that is sometimes attributed to A.N. Whitehead. Regardless, it is a good reminder. Many times debates are not very illuminating because the two parties arguing their respective points never get around to defining key terms. Christians bandy about terms like humility and pride without being very clear on what they are. Would you give us a working definition of each?
Burns: Careful research indicated that “dictionary definitions” of humility are problematic for the biblical concept. The issue of definition on this topic contains a number of traps and pitfalls that we should avoid. Is humility a human virtue that distinguishes as person as “effective and skilled” suitable for the biblical understanding? Is humility in the Bible a passive self-denigration that does not describe the characters that we are to emulate? If Moses was “more humble than anyone else on the face of the earth” (Num. 12:3), why does the passage not pause to precisely define what this meant? Was Jesus, the exemplar of humility, passive in his earthly ministry and his solution to the sin problem at the cross? In modernity, we can observe a reversal of virtues and vices; pride becomes a virtue while humility becomes a vice. On the other hand, Jesus argued that greatness in his kingdom is the opposite of “the rulers of the Gentiles who lord it over their subjects. Not so with you . . . whoever wants to be first must be last of all” (Mark 10:42-43). I began to see pride and humility as clusters of similar characteristics as is true in most semantical studies. Humility suggests obedience, dedication, service, and generally sacrificial love for God and others. Pride is associated with arrogance, oppression, rebellion, and idolatry. The Bible synthesizes these synonyms as an inner conflict between God-centeredness and self-centeredness. In a word, “If anyone would follow me, he must deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me” (Luke 9:23). This conclusion has also given me insights into our secular culture and its widely recognized narcissism and consequent polarization. What do we expect when God’s Word is marginalized in public squares?
Moore: You mention that “God’s humiliation of pride is a blessing…” Please describe why that is the case.
Burns: God’s humiliation of pride is a blessing, because the Bible forbids thoughts about pride and humility apart from God. The contemporary secular priority is a very proud environment. We should not be surprised that secular thinking extols pride as a virtue so long as “mutual consent” is the ethical criterion. However, in biblical wisdom pride leads to social conflict, personal disgrace, and self-destruction. Humility leads to honor, wisdom, and fullness of life. In a word, pride “goes before destruction, a haughty spirit before a fall” (Prov. 16:18). Consistent with this is the fact that wise living is tethered to “the fear of the Lord”: “The fear of the Lord is to hate evil; I hate pride and arrogance, evil behavior and perverse speech” (8:13). An axiom at the core of biblical ethics is “God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble” (Prov. 3:34, Matt. 23:12, and James 4:6). In my lifetime I have observed a competitive model of “success” that requires single-minded devotion to a goal that has nothing to do with godly character or the glory of God. We all know professing believers who “failed” because they prioritized their celebrity status at any cost and ultimately turned away from their former beliefs. They crashed because they didn’t trust God for his blessing, usually because they wanted “more” than God’s blessing in their lives! What I have described here is usually a downward slide into the compromising values of our societies where God ceases to be relevant at home, office, or play. How many high-profiled celebrities do you know who prioritize their faith, hope, and love? Is it wrong to be a Christian celebrity? Not necessarily, but it is rare to attain this degree of social success without a whole-hearted commitment to it, which leaves little room for basic responsibilities and commitments.
Moore: In Habits of the Heart Robert Bellah, et al. underscore the corrosive effects of “expressive individualism.” How big a problem is “expressive individualism” among us Christians and how should we address it?
Burns: Habits of the Heart (1985) is a landmark, sociological analysis of American individualism. The authors were evaluating Alexis de Tocqueville’s observation that individualism was dangerous in that it tended to set citizens apart from one another, making positive collective action difficult if not impossible. “We are concerned that this individualism may have grown cancerous.” They distinguished several forms of individualism: utilitarian, expressive, and economic to name a few. The utilitarian form sees collective action only as a way of protecting self-interests. The expressive form sees the self as mingling into larger wholes like nation or nature. The economic form gravitates away from personhood to the acquisition of money. Bellah correctly noted that “we are all tempted to exalt our own imperial egos above all else.” The perennial concerns of the human person relate to identity, which is closely related to how we form and sustain relationships. An interesting example is Benjamin Franklin, who sought a virtuous life for the common good of the country. “Humility” was his thirteenth virtue, and he was “always surprised” that he was flawed in all of them. Humility and orderliness were the most problematic for him, “There is perhaps no one of our natural passions so hard to subdue as pride.” C. S. Lewis stated that pride/humility is “that part of Christian morals where they differ most sharply from all other morals.” Of course, Pride and Humility at War is concerned with the biblical perspective, and the biblical emphasis from Genesis to Revelation suggests that self-centeredness is the pervasive, sinful condition of the world, the SIN that leads to other sins. Is this a problem in the church? I would say “yes” to the same extent that it characterizes the world. Bellah et al. replaced God with humanism and were perplexed by “a social fabric that would hold individuals together is vanishing.” The church has replaced god with statistics and strategies and wonders why unity and community are so elusive. But I would add that I have known a number of believers, churches, and organizations who love God and neighbor to the point that they are great in Christ’s kingdom – even if they are unknown in their societies.
Moore: You mention that Moses and David were “aggressive for God.” How can we delineate between a godly zeal versus a zeal to build our own kingdom?
Burns: This might be the most difficult question, because it deals with motives, which, at best, cannot be fully understood or explained by me or any other human being. So, I will resort to the Bible, which is very clear on the distinction. My assumption is that God made humanity to rule creation under his sovereign direction (Gen. 1:26-28). The notion of ruling is aggressive, So the issue is whether we are aggressive for God or something else. In Numbers 12 Miriam and Aaron criticized Moses because, beyond his Cushite wife, they wanted more prestige in the nation (12:2). God himself separated Moses’ godly zeal and their self-centered zeal, judging Miriam with leprosy as a lesson for the nation. From this, I would infer that a critical spirit to advance our position is not godly zeal. In Matthew 23 Jesus identified pride as “doing everything for people to see. They make their phylacteries wide [badges of spirituality] and the tassels on their garments long, they love the place of honor at banquets and the most important seats in the synagogues” (23:5-6). They neglect of justice and mercy (vv. 23-24), and concern for appearance over character (vv. 25-27). To this long list of “woes,” Matthew 5 emphasizes their love for public display and attention (e.g., 6: 5-8). Paul marked the difference in Philippians 2:3,” Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit, but in humility considers others better than yourselves.” His singular exhortation to the Corinthians was to boast only in the Lord. John condemned Diotrephes, “who loves to be first and will have nothing to do with us” (3 John 9). And James 3:16 states, “For when you have envy and selfish ambition, there you will find disorder and every evil practice.” So the Bible clearly identifies pride as “self-promotion,” a corrosive condition that undermines Christian unity and community. To the contrary, humility is joyful service of God and neighbor with awareness that such an attitude will be rewarded by God.
Moore: What are two or three things you would like your readers to gain from reading Pride and Humility at War?
Burns: I would like for readers to gain three things from reading Pride and Humility at War:
First, most people today do not believe in sin, which is dangerous and delusional. They wonder why they suffer such serious consequences in life, because they are only doing what everyone else seems to be doing. They wonder why world history evidences one crisis after another – usually war. But the Bible tells us to expect this if we reject him and his truths. Other people are preoccupied with “sins” – usually social sins that embarrass them before other people. So, they never feel that they are as bad as everyone else. However, sins flow from SIN, deeds flow from the human condition after the Fall. Pride is the condition that affirms that “we all sin and fall short of the glory of God,” so that all need salvation by the grace of God through faith in the finished work of Christ on the cross.
Second, I would hope that the readers would discover that humility is not weak and servile. It is serving God to the extent we are freed from taking ourselves so seriously. When we serve for the glory of God and the betterment of others, we promote unity in the body of Christ worldwide. Humility is a willingness to do this because Christ is supreme in everything (Col. 1:18), which leaves no room for our petty self-interests in a world of nearly 8 billion people.
Third, I would hope that the readers can realize that the Bible makes sense of life on such terms. We must be realistic about the dangers of evil in the world. We should not have to recite the genocides and nuclear threats every time we make the point. We do not have “better angels” that overrule our damage to relationships around us. People should recognize that we are Christians by our sacrificial love for one another (John 13:34) rather than our impressive credentials. Instead of present fractiousness, people should see that Christ lives in us through the indwelling Holy Spirit (Gal. 2:20). I am aware that most people do not want to live this way, but this is the standard by which the Savior will assess our lives when he returns.