Some dangers are, as the book and movie title asserts, clear, and present. We can see them coming from a mile away. A hurricane builds for weeks in the ocean, gathering moisture and swirling into a frenzy. The computer models may disagree about the exact point of landfall, but the gulf coast states know of potential danger days before they need to evacuate. A tornado, on the other hand, can drop from a thunderstorm without warning. Given our modern meteorological advances, hurricanes don’t sneak up on people, but sometimes tornados do. More accurate forecasting, based on Doppler radar technology, and early warning systems provide better protection against significant loss of life from tornados than in years past. But even still, the threat of the unexpected persists.
Likewise, some spiritual threats are easy to see coming while others seem to come out of nowhere. Adultery rarely happens without a pattern of mental, if not physical, recklessness. Theft is most often a calculated sin. Even dishonesty usually builds slowly into a life-defining attribute. But spiritual pride usually lurks quietly and grows imperceptibly until it overwhelms a person’s attitude and actions. For this and other reasons, spiritual arrogance is an especially dangerous poison. Growing from a sinful root in the heart, it yields a harvest of deadly fruit that stunts individual growth, threatens personal relationships, and weakens the bonds of love and unity among God’s people.
Spiritual pride is a feeling of self-worth that breeds an attitude of superiority over others in relation to doctrinal or practical matters of faith. Jesus confronted it often during his earthly ministry, including through the “Parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector” recorded in Luke 18:9-14.
9 He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and treated others with contempt: 10 “Two men went up into the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. 11 The Pharisee, standing by himself, prayed thus: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. 12 I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I get.’ 13 But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even lift up his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’ 14 I tell you, this man went down to his house justified, rather than the other. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted.”
The pharisee’s central problem was trusting in his own righteousness. He saw no need for grace because he felt justified by his religious activity. His prayer displays two attributes of this manifestation of pride: self-righteousness and a condescending attitude toward others. His statement of superiority provides an immediate contrast with the tax collector, one of his prime targets. While regarded as a blatant sinner, Jesus informs us that the tax collector is in better spiritual condition because of his humility and godly sorrow. It’s a surprising statement and one meant to call the spiritually arrogant to repentance.
As mentioned in a number of sermons this summer, I’ve been burdened this year by an attitude of spiritual pride I see present in our congregation. As some of us are growing in our understanding of and seriousness regarding the Scripture, we display an air of self-righteousness and condescension. We celebrate the growth, but this root of pride is producing an aloofness and withdraw from relationships, judgmental dismissiveness of others, and a divisive spirit. It’s especially insidious because it’s cloaked in the garb of spiritual maturity. But while giving the appearance of maturity, it is deplorable to the Lord (as we saw in Proverbs 6:1-19). For the record, I have eyes to see it in our church family because I see it too often in the mirror. Theological training and ministry gifting have formed a toxic onramp for this sin in my life that, by God’s grace, I fight regularly.
Our pharisaical prayers sound a little different than the one in Luke 18, but they’re essentially the same. “God, I thank you that I am not like other people who listen to topical sermons, read mainstream Christian books, and participate without discernment in Christian culture. I digest the deeper material; I use greater discernment in my decisions.”
The inverse is just as dangerous, “God, I thank you that I am not like other people who are overly restrictive in the sermons they listen to, the books they read, and the ministries they’ll participate in. I appreciate a wide variety of material; I rightly enjoy my freedom in Christ.”
I’m writing this morning with an ache of pastoral care for struggling sheep on all sides of this matter and I’m praying God will work to bring repentance and renewal. I want eagerly for everyone to develop a deeper grasp of the truth and more finely-tuned discernment so that we invest our time and energy digesting the best resources available. I trust this has been clear over the past decade. But while we’re on this road of spiritual growth, I want just as eagerly for us to walk patiently, gently, and humbly with one another. We must display the attitude of Jesus by moving in love to serve and bear with one another rather than pompously glancing down at each other. According to Luke 18, arrogance is a graver danger than immaturity.
So how do we fight this subtle danger?
First, preach the gospel to yourself. Review and meditate on the good news of God’s plan and work to rescue you from your sin through the work of Jesus. Reflect on the fact that if not for God’s initiative, you’d still be dead in sin. Even more, consider with humility God’s continued grace to help you mature in your understanding of the Scripture. All spiritual advances come from God. In addition, ask God to reveal spiritual pride in you and then repent.
Second, invest time and energy to build relationships widely in the local church. Avoid small circles of “sameness” that can cultivate condescension, create opportunities for slander, and fan the flames of spiritual pride. The local church is meant to be diverse in myriad ways. The New Testament never sets the goal of finding a church family that shares all our preferences and provides a self-congratulating echo-chamber. Of course, we share a common commitment to the essential truths, but differences of perspective and preference on nonessential matters are a gift from God for our sanctification.
Third, pursue genuine friendship that can offer real accountability. Cultivate relationships that foster honesty and humility and give opportunity for others to preach the gospel to you. Form bonds that can support vulnerability and confrontation providing the place for others to speak truth and even call you to repentance.
As you can tell, I’m gravely concerned about this cancerous intrusion into our church. When allowed to persist, spiritual pride is personally and relationally destructive because it leads to sinful patterns, broken relationships, and fractures to the church family. For the sake of our souls and our family in Christ, let’s attack it with Spirit-empowered zeal.