Godly Spirituality Or Fleshly Pride?

Some who think they are quite spiritual can often be just arrogant:

We are told that pride is one of the seven deadly sins. It certainly is a deadly sin. And spiritual pride may be the worst form of this. Of course we are all susceptible to pride, and all Christians are at risk of succumbing to spiritual pride. Self-righteousness and carrying on like a Pharisee is an ever-present reality for all of us, so we always need to be on guard.

Many of the world’s great writers have written about pride. Let me mention just one, and then give an example of a form of spiritual pride that we must watch out for and avoid like the plague. C. S. Lewis said much about pride. Here are just two of his well-known quotes. In Mere Christianity for example he said this:

The vice I am talking of is Pride or Self-Conceit: and the virtue opposite to it, in Christian morals, is called Humility. You may remember, when I was talking about sexual morality, I warned you that the centre of Christian morals did not lie there. Well, now, we have come to the centre. According to Christian teachers, the essential vice, the utmost evil, is Pride. Unchastity, anger, greed, drunkenness, and all that, are mere flea bites 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.

Or as he also said in that book: “For pride is spiritual cancer: it eats up the very possibility of love, or contentment, or even common sense.” Here I want to look at just one example of spiritual pride. It came up in a recent social media debate – where else!

I had rather innocuously (or so I thought) posted a brief remark about a new commentary I was reading and how I was being blessed by it, but one fellow came along and decided to challenge me. I am not singling him out, as there are so many other Christians just like him. But our recent chat serves as a good example of the dangers of spiritual pride.

He said what I hear so often: relying on things like commentaries is basically a waste of time. We have the Holy Spirit as a teacher – that is all we need. He ran with the old false dichotomy: we either rely on the Holy Spirit or we rely on human wisdom and teaching.

I have dealt with such folks often before, and tried to point out how mistaken they are. The truth is, God works in and through fallen and finite men. That is basically how he gets things done in this world. Yes he wants to use those who are full of the Spirit and not full of themselves, but he is not calling us to be brainless wonders and theological illiterates.

He urges us to study, to read, to learn, and to grow in knowledge and understanding. And human teachers – be they pastors giving a sermon, or Christian scholars writing commentaries – are a major part of this process. To claim that we do not need them because we have a direct pipeline to God via the Holy Spirit is NOT a sign of spirituality – it is usually a sign of pride and fleshly arrogance.

To another person who was saying similar things, I replied as follows:

Yes but…! That is like saying you never go to church to hear a pastor teach the Bible, because you have the Holy Spirit and that is all you need. But we are NOT infallible and we can get things wrong, even when we think we are relying fully on the HS. And God himself gave us pastors and teachers to help expound and comment on the Bible. So to reject those means is to reject what God has designed for us. See more detail on this here: billmuehlenberg.com/2010/07/14/who-needs-commentaries/

Sadly the fellow first mentioned above wanted to keep going back and forth for a while. He kept trying to make this fake division between being Spirit-led and having ‘mere men’ helping us with books or commentaries or theology, etc. He did not seem to get it that he too was a ‘mere man’ and therefore why should any of us pay any attention to HIM and what HE was saying?

In our discussion I linked to an article I had written earlier on this but it was clear as we went on that he had not read it. This is the piece he should have looked at: billmuehlenberg.com/2011/01/31/creedless-christianity/

In that piece I had carefully stated that of course we need the Holy Spirit, but the HS works through us mere human beings. So of course, we must avoid dry intellectualism and so on, but those who want to throw the baby out with the bathwater are not being helpful at all. As I said in the conclusion of that article:

We must realise that we are all finite and fallen – even born-again Christians. Thus we must always be on our knees, coming to God in humility and brokenness. We must admit that we do not always get things right. We often mis-hear God, misinterpret his Word, and mistake our own understanding and insights for that of the Holy Spirit.

 

None of this is to say that we cannot have theological certainty and biblical clarity. We can have sufficient truth, or true truth, as Francis Schaeffer used to say, even though we cannot have exhaustive truth. We can have strong certainty in biblical basics, while also remaining humble with a teachable spirit, recognising that we can always learn more, and we can always learn more accurately and biblically.

 

“Jesus-Only Christianity” or “Bible-Only Christianity” sounds so spiritual, but the truth is none of us are lone wolf Christians and all of us depend upon and need others, even when it comes to understanding the Scriptures. The whole body of Christ, both past and present, is needed for our walk with God and following Christ according to his word. It is only pride and self-righteousness which says I can do all this alone and I don’t need or want the rest of Christ’s body, teaching and instruction.

I finally told this fellow that I am praying for him and that it would be best to give this debate a rest for a while. When folks get themselves into this way of dodgy and unbiblical thinking, it is seldom easy to help them see the error of their ways. Best to just pray for them and hope they will eventually come around.

Getting the right balance

Let me note that those on the other side of this debate are not immune from pride of course. That is, those who DO love their books and learning and theology and commentaries can also be proud and spiritually anaemic. So I am not picking on just one side here.

Spiritual pride can easily come in either extreme, so both sides need to take care. We all know of people who are full of biblical knowledge, who are great theologians, who have read zillions of books, etc., but are not exactly great examples of Christlike Christianity.

So yes, having lots of head knowledge or even a great theological library can become a source of pride as well. If the Devil does not get us one way, he will get us in another. So we ALL need to be on guard here. Let me finish by noting something I just saw on the social media.

One post had said this: “Doctrinally Sound Christian Men To Follow.” I did not click on the link to check out the list, but the first thing I thought was this: ‘Yes, but are they spiritually sound?’ There may have been some great theologically correct men on the list, but are they all humble, on fire for the Lord, and walking in the Spirit?

As has often been said, 18 inches makes all the difference in the world: the distance from the head to the heart. We have some folks who have a head-full of Christian knowledge and theological truth, but their heart is cold and empty. As always, we want the biblical balance here. We want people who love God with both their head and their heart.

Some pride themselves in only loving God with their heads. Some pride themselves in only loving God with their hearts. Both are wrong. Jesus told us what the greatest commandment is, and that entails loving God with our head and our heart – with the totality of our being.

So we must be on guard. Pride can creep into our lives from a million places. This piece concentrated on those who think they have no need of books or commentaries or teachers or ‘mere men’. They are often proud and fleshly, and need to repent. But we are all susceptible to pride in so many different shapes.

Spiritual pride is a killer, and it comes in countless forms. So we need to daily take a spiritual inventory of our lives. As we read in Proverbs 4:23: “Keep your heart with all vigilance, for from it flow the springs of life.” Or as it says in James 4:6: “God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble.”

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7 Replies to “Godly Spirituality Or Fleshly Pride?”

  1. I believe, far and away, the biggest issue causing division among Christians is not the differences in doctrine so much as the tendency of, I believe somewhat prideful people, to set up strawman claims as to what they say other’s doctrine is so that they can then knock them down and make themselves out to be something that they are not. Perhaps they justify it in their own mind as necessary to attempt to solidfy their congregation but, to me, it is still simply deceitful and we know where that comes from.

    What I suggest Christians should do is, irrespective of how reliable they think someone is, they should always check for themselves that what someone is claiming others say is actually what they are saying. Too many times I have found that, from people who should know better ,that the claims made were simply false or, at best, a misunderstanding of what the person was saying.

  2. As Christians, we need to be “both scribes & disciples”. Matthew 13:52
    “Scribes study, disciples do”. Borrowed from Warren Wiersbe.

  3. Unfortunately there are many of these head Christians out there, the Bible belt and other areas known to be heavily Christian are full of them, and it is a shame as it ultimately brings disrepute to God. I like to say they know what the Bible SAYS but they don’t know what the Bible MEANS! I think we see this in Jesus’ first coming how the Jews of that time were quite proud of their knowledge of the Torah and the prophets yet they didn’t understand them. It seems we may be becoming like the Jews of the time of Jesus …. Most not truly believing and yet fully assured they are saved.

  4. In today’s world it is probably best to say nothing and do nothing as a proud Christian. I am proud of my service to my country. I am proud that I do follow Christ and believe in the Bible. Reading your article I should keep all of this to myself. I fear that we should just keep our mouths shut and move on, by reading what you have post. I don’t know what to do anymore. Do I stand up like a lion or shy away and never confront anybody. Do I hide in the base, afraid to offend anyone. Is there some sort of measurement device I should use.? Your using to much of your head or you are using to much of your heart. Sounds like the Three bears and their porridge. When do I know. Sometimes I feel I can never please Jesus no matter what I do or how I feel. I am so thankful for all he has done for me. I was a bit depressed after reading all of this. If I truly express my pride I guess I should hid in the shadows. Don’t refence scripture because more then like you’ll use it out of context. I don’t want to have friends anymore because when they blurt out their nonsense about Christians and Jesus I should keep my pride in check. Often I feel it is best to remain silent but I see what that does and we then are sucked even deeper to the secular world. Basically there is nothing we can do as Christians except to pray? Does God really expect us to keep our lip zipped because we are proud? I am sure all who read my comments will tear it apart and explain to me how I should think and act!

  5. Thanks Charles. But it seems a big problem here is you may be confusing two quite different meanings of the words ‘pride’ and ‘proud’. If that is the case, let me try to explain:

    There is a good sort of pride and a bad sort of pride of course. The good sort involves things like this:
    -I am a proud father.
    -I am a proud American.
    -I am a proud truck driver.
    -I am a proud grandmother of three great grand-kids.
    -I am a proud soldier.
    -I am a proud member of my local football club.
    -I am a proud blood donor.

    There is nothing wrong as such with those sorts of things. We can all take pride in our work, in our craftsmanship, in our jobs, in our family relationships, in our accomplishments, and so on. As one online dictionary says of this good kind of pride:

    “A feeling of deep pleasure or satisfaction derived from one’s own achievements, the achievements of those with whom one is closely associated, or from qualities or possessions that are widely admired. ‘The team was bursting with pride after recording a sensational victory’.”

    Sure, sometimes these things might become a source of the wrong kind of pride, but not necessarily. And that leads to the second definition of pride, the harmful sort of pride: pride that is arrogance, looking down on others, having a haughty spirit, thinking you are better than others, being full of conceit, etc. That is obviously a sinful sort of pride which the Bible – and culture in general – warns against.

    We should not be arrogant and have an overly-inflated view about ourselves. We should be humble, and thank God for whatever talents and gifts and callings we might have. It is this sort of pride that the Bible warns against so often, eg.:

    Psalm 18:27 For you save a humble people, but the haughty eyes you bring down.
    Psalm 138:6 Though the Lord is exalted, he looks kindly on the lowly; though lofty, he sees them from afar.
    Proverbs 11:2 When pride comes, then comes disgrace, but with the humble is wisdom.
    Proverbs 16:18 Pride goes before destruction, and a haughty spirit before a fall.
    Proverbs 18:12 Before a downfall the heart is haughty, but humility comes before honor.
    James 4:6 But he gives more grace. Therefore it says, “God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble.”

    But if that is NOT your main issue here, then you might need to explain what it is! Blessings.

  6. I enjoyed this essay. This past week as I was studying Scripture I used several different commentaries to broaden my understanding. I thought do I really need these? Should I not rely on the Holy Spirit to enlighten me as I study Scripture? I thought about it for a few seconds and decided that the Lord provided these commentaries to give me insight I may not have otherwise achieved.

    Truly, pride is a sneaky thing and must be guarded against. Thanks for your essays, I find them thoughtful and relevant.

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