|"His pride led to his downfall."|
“As long as he sought the Lord, God gave him success,” the inspired historian records of young Uzziah. And was he ever successful! A warrior king almost on a par with King David, he defeated the mighty Philistines and demolished the walls of their principle cities, and waged successful campaigns against the Arabs and the Ammonites. No other king could boast of so disciplined an army and of such deadly war machines--catapults and mechanized equipment for firing arrows. For his army and weaponry, even for advances in farming, Uzziah was the envy of ancient kings.
But something was not right: “As long as he sought the Lord…” With those words, the chronicler hints that Uzziah is not going to stay the mark. This young king had humbly sought help from the Lord and “was greatly helped.” But here’s the rub, “after he became powerful his pride led to his downfall” (II Chronicles 26:15b, 16a).
So it will be with you if you do not persevere in seeking after God. On the heels of urging you to seek the Lord early, I wonder if some young men jump to the conclusion that seeking the Lord is a youthful activity, that if you do enough of it in your youth you can live off the interest in your adult life. No way. Seeking the Lord is a continuum. It is daily rising up and calling him blessed. It is hourly vigilance over besetting sin. It is daily diligence in the Word and prayer. It is humble worship, seeking the Lord in his house on the Sabbath day. Genuine seeking is always in the present perfect tense--continuing, pressing on, straining every spiritual muscle after Christ—all things Uzziah stopped doing.
Continue doing these things and you will have success. God does not make idle promises. You will succeed in mortifying sin, in effectual prayer, in heartfelt worship, in humble service, and at the last you will have the celestial success of Satan conquered and heaven won. Forget riches and fame—there’s no greater success.
But many men—young and old—are brought low, like Uzziah, because when they gain a measure of success they become proud; they fail to give God credit for his gracious work in them, his gifts given to them, his successes.
Sports and pride
Moments before the 500 meter US Sprint Kayak Nationals final I asked one of my sons what his race strategy was. “I win, they lose,” he said with a grin. He’s a big Ronald Reagan fan and likes quoting Reagan’s Cold War strategy. Two days earlier he’d lost the 1000 meter sprint to a Hungarian-born paddler by 4,800ths of a second and was absolutely determined not to cut things so close. He did win the 500 and by a bigger margin. And then the monster pride rears his ugly head.
Competitive sports, young men, and pride are a union forged in hell. If you are an athlete—or the father of one--you must particularly beware of pride. Why? Because, as C. S. Lewis put it:
Pride is essentially competitive—is competitive by its very nature. Pride gets no pleasure out of having something, only out of having more of it than the next man. We say that people are proud of being rich, or clever, or good-looking, but they are not. They are proud of being richer, or cleverer, or better-looking than others. It is the comparison that makes you proud: the pleasure of being above the rest. It is Pride—the wish to be richer than some other rich man, and (still more) the wish for power. For, of course, power is what Pride really enjoys.
Most young men love competition. Men thrive on it. And we love power. We love being strong and being in control of people and situations. Many great things have been accomplished by powerful men straining to be the best. Consider General Bradley’s quip as George Paton led the 3rd Army in victory after victory, ever deeper into German-held territory in WW II: “Give George another headline and he’ll be good for another thirty miles.” It’s embarrassing, but we’re inclined to do more if we’re getting lots of credit for doing it. Feed our pride and we’ll conquer the world.
Unlike war, where pride might motivate a young man to do great deeds that benefit others, in sports young men are easily consumed with shameless self-interest. Listen to the boasting of professional athletes. Watch the swagger of the varsity basketball jock. See the jutted chin and hauteur of the All-American quarterback. Gaze in disgust at the unabashed self-conceit of the running back as he struts and preens in the end-zone. Listen to your teammates. Hear your own words. Look into your own heart. If you are a competitive athlete, beware of pride.
“If sports are supposed to build character,” wrote Brad Wolverton in the Chronicle of Higher Education, “recent evidence suggests that college athletics is falling down on the job.” He cites a study of the moral reasoning of 70,000 college students conducted over two decades. The result? “Athletes have significantly lower moral-reasoning skills than the general student population.” Moral reasoning—what the ancients called virtue--leads you to use your strength and skill in the interest of others. Competitive sports can flip things around. So impressed with your own athletic prowess, you sneer in disdain at others. Gradually, you begin to think of yourself as a worthy object of the most devout—and disgusting--self-worship.
Once on your knees before yourself, the absurdity of it all never occurs to you. How ridiculous for you to be puffed up over strengths and skills God ultimately gave you! But seeing your pride for what it is requires a changed heart.
Only a grateful heart will keep the nonsense of your pride in check. Just when you’re swelling up at your victory, offer thanksgiving that God gave you a healthy body, that he gave you the opportunity to develop your skill, and if you’re really good at it, the particular talent that sets your performance above the pack. Remind yourself that this is God’s doing.
Then brace yourself like a man. The devil slithers near. “Yes, but you’ve worked hard—harder than the rest,” he hisses in your ear. “You’re first on the water and last off every workout.” Stop your ears. The devil woos with “honest trifles.” Believe him and, as Shakespeare put it, he will “betray you in deepest consequence.”
Insanity from hell
C. S. Lewis has little good to say about pride. “It comes direct from Hell,” he wrote. “Pride is spiritual cancer; it eats up the very possibility of love, or contentment, or even common sense.” He’s just getting warmed up. “The essential vice, the utmost evil, is Pride. There is no fault which makes a man more unpopular, and no fault which we are more unconscious of in ourselves.” He argues that all other sins “are mere fleabites in comparison: it was through Pride that the devil became the devil: Pride leads to every other vice; it is the complete anti-God state of mind.”
In one of the Bible’s classic passages on pride, the prophet Daniel records the history of how pride ate up the common sense of another great king of the ancient world. Nebuchadnezzar designed and built the magnificent hanging gardens of Babylon, one of the seven wonders of the world. It was a splendid sight, and Nebuchadnezzar was intensely proud of it. Like Uzziah, Nebuchadnezzar grew so proud that he gave himself credit for the splendor of his entire empire. Seizing glory that belonged to God, and setting himself up as God, he personified pride, “the complete anti-God state of mind.” For this, Nebuchadnezzar became a madman, more like a wolf than a human.
For a just God, the punishment always fits the crime. No punishment could have been more fitting for this proud man. Pride dehumanizes a man. You are most human when you are closest to God, when you acknowledge his ways, when you bow before his sovereignty, when you say that God does what he pleases, that his kingdom is an eternal kingdom, when you say, “Heaven rules!” But pride makes you see things upside down and inside out. Pride, like insanity, grossly distorts reality.
Nebuchadnezzar’s self-conceit made him believe the utter nonsense that he had made himself, his strength, his intellect, his very life. Believing the ridiculous notion that you have accomplished anything by your mighty power, for “the glory of [your] majesty” is nothing short of insanity.
Thus, God punished Nebuchadnezzar by letting the full impact of his pride come down on his head. Chained to a stump, eating grass like a beast, Nebuchadnezzar finally learned that “Those who walk in pride [God] is able to humble” (4:37). Finally, he learned that “Heaven rules” (4:26).
Nebuchadnezzar’s son Belshazzar, however, didn’t get this. Fathers train sons, alas, more persuasively by our vices than by our virtues. Son Belshazzar lost his entire kingdom to the Medes and the Persians--and his life--because “[he] set [him]self up against the Lord of heaven,” and because he “did not honor the God who holds in his hand [his] life and all [his] ways” (5:23).
Walk in pride and you lose your common sense. Persist in pride and you become a madman. Press on in pride and you end up where pride began: hell. God resists the proud. He gives grace to the humble. Walk in humility--or prepare to eat grass.
Know it all
Anglican bishop J. C. Ryle called pride, “the oldest sin in the world. Satan and his angels fell by pride. Thus pride stocked hell with its first inhabitants.” Ryle warns that, next only to Satan and his angels, “Pride never reigns anywhere so powerfully as in the heart of a young man,” and it puts young men in particularly dangerous positions. “Pride makes us rest satisfied with ourselves, thinking we are good enough as we are.” And when you think you are good enough as you are you are in deep weeds. You fail to be teachable. Why bother learning when you’re smug and satisfied with yourself?
Lewis in the opening letter of Screwtape Letters gives demonic lesson one in tempting a young man into hell: “Best of all, give him the grand general idea that he knows it all.” This is an easy sell for him. It’s a strategy that has worked exceptionally well for the devil over the millenniums and it continues to work on your soul. But it’s a temptation entirely dependent on your pride. We love believing this lie.
Similarly, Ryle argues that pride “closes our ears against all advice.” How many times have you resented your father’s advice this week? You feel like you already know what’s best for you, so why listen to his advice. I remember this resentment at the words of my father. You’ve got to get over this, and Ryle offers particularly valuable advice to curb this foolish expression of your pride. Don’t close your ears to it.
Do not be too confident in your own judgment. Cease to be sure that you are always right, and others always wrong. Be distrustful of your own opinion when you find it contrary to that of older men than yourself, and especially to that of your own parents. Age gives experience and therefore deserves respect. Never be ashamed of being a learner. The wisest men would tell you they are always learners, and are humbled to find after all how little they really know.
I recently watched and listened to a twenty-two-year-old fool publicly dress down a man of fifty at a regatta where everyone was supposed to be having fun. It was shameful. But you would never do that. Not out loud, maybe. But how often have you responded to advice with internalized smart-mouthed, know-it-all comments? True, it’s better manners not to speak disrespectfully, but the pride is still there deeply rooted in your heart. Being a Christian man is about rooting it out.
Pride and gunpowder
“To be proud,” continued Ryle, “is to be more like the devil and fallen Adam, than like Christ.” But you’re called to be like Christ who was born in a barn, became friends with sinners and sick people, washed his disciples’ feet, was despised and rejected by the big shots of his day, finally submitting to the most ignominious suffering and death for our salvation. If anyone had a right to be proud, it was the second member of the eternal Godhead, but Christ was not proud.
Neither was his follower John Newton. When Newton took up his ministerial duties and moved into the Old Vicarage in Olney, in 1764, he rearranged his garret study. Instead of looking out on the lovely river valley and the fourteenth-century gothic church, he looked on the rows of tenement houses where the needy of his parish lived and worked. Soon the upper-crust in Olney resented Newton: He was too busy with the poor to attend them when they held court at their fine dinners and balls. They despised a minister who refused to fawn on them like Jane Austen’s ministerial caricature Mr. Collins, who made himself a laughingstock by constant gushing over his venerable patroness, Lady Catherine de Bourg.
In Newton’s day the ministry was a way to schmooze with the rich and famous, things Newton never did. But he knew many ministers who did and so gave this advice to a young pastor: “It is easy for me to advise you to be humble, but while human nature remains in its present state, there will be almost the same connection between popularity and pride, as between fire and gunpowder: they cannot meet without an explosion, at least not unless the gunpowder is kept very damp.”
How do you keep your pride damp? By having the same mind as Jesus. He came “not to be served, but to serve and to give his life a ransom for many.” Be honest about your powers. Christ’s are infinite and original; yours are derived and pathetically finite. He is God; you are not. Yet, Christ was humble, and he calls you—who have no right to be proud—humbly to follow in his steps. And best of all, he enables you, by the grace and power of Jesus, to grow in the grace of humility.
Irrational as it is, many Christian young men swagger on in their pride. They speak condescendingly to parents and teachers. They are rude. They are so “wise in [their] own eyes” (Proverbs 26:12) that they strut as if they know it all.
But maybe you are bright, gifted, talented, strong, and highly capable. Compared with the rest of teenaged young man on the planet, most of you are highly privileged. Some of you believe it when your grandparents gush at how gifted you are. Maybe you are gifted. So how do you avoid pride?
Listen to humble, gifted tinker John Bunyan in Grace Abounding to the Chief of Sinners as he addresses the gifted young man’s sin. “Gifts being alone [are] dangerous because of the evils that attend those that have them—pride, desire for vainglory, self-conceit.” He warns that if a young man rests in his gifts and not in the grace of God he will “fall short of the grace of God.” A wise young man “has cause also to walk humbly with God and be little in his own eyes, and to remember that his gifts are not his own, but the church’s, and that by them he is made a servant to the church.” There’s that word again—servant.
Avoid pride by humbly using your gifts, great or small, to serve others in Christ’s name and by his grace. And for the rest of us who may not be so gifted, Bunyan memorably concludes that “Great grace and small gifts are better than great gifts and no grace.”
Talented, gifted as you are, you are not nearly as great as the devil wants you to believe. The devil loves pride because pride makes you an idol worshiper—with you as idol. He’ll do anything to keep you from worshiping the living God, giver of all gifts.
Swollen with pride at his success, Uzziah forgot all this. “His pride led to his downfall.” Not content merely to be king, Uzziah usurped the priestly role, was struck with leprosy, and “excluded from the temple of the Lord.” Young men, walk humbly with your God. Gratefully appreciate your gifts and the gifts of others as if they were gifts of God—which they are. Humbly “serve the Lord with gladness,” knowing your great daily, hourly, moment-by-moment need of the preserving grace of Christ who promises to complete the good work he has begun in your heart. Keep your eyes on his strength, not on yours.