I am the most arrogant person I know.
Now, I suppose that out there somewhere is probably someone who is more puffed up on their own importance and virtue than I am. In a world with 7 billion people, I guess the odds are in my favor. But even if I were to have the misfortune of meeting that person, I would still argue that I should win the “Most Proud” award, because even if that other person actually was somehow worse than me, I still know more of my heart than I do of theirs. I am well-acquainted with the steady stream of arrogant, condescending thoughts and motives running through my head, far more than I would have any right to accuse them of. John Newton, knowing this truth well, once wrote to a friend,
“Every person who is truly convinced of sin thinks he has reason to deem himself the chief of sinners, because he knows more of the nature, number, and aggravations of the evils of his own heart and life than he can possible know, or has any just right to suspect of his fellow-sinners.”
Pride is a difficult and sneaky beast. By the grace of God, I have made a lot of progress in my war against pride (believe me, you would not have wanted to meet me ten years ago). The gospel of God’s sovereign mercy to undeserving sinners does wonders for cutting an ego down to size. And yet the battle often feels like a game of whack-a-mole. I start making progress against pride in one area, and bam! it pops up in another. I get my bragging mouth under control, and my thought life floods with a noxious superiority complex. I start to bring my thoughts captive to Christ, and then discover that bitterness has been growing in the darkened corners of my heart. I dig up the root of bitterness, and then find my proud desire for control fueling anxiety about my finances. And on and on the seemingly-unwinnable war goes, two steps forward and three steps back.
Why is the fight so hard? Part of it has to do with just how deeply pride has worked its way into human nature. Lust can probably be conquered. Gluttony can restrained into lawful appetite. But pride is so deeply entrenched in the soil of our sinful hearts that no matter how much sanctifying gardening we do, the only way to tear its roots up, ultimately, will be resurrection.
But there’s another, more subtle reason that pride is so difficult to wage war against: we may be fighting with the wrong weapons. On one hand, the gospel is a powerful antidote to the poison of arrogance. The news that I cannot save myself, that I do not deserve to be saved, and have to be rescued by grace alone is humbling. Regularly beating that hard and precious truth into one’s own heart will prune many of pride’s more noxious branches. But not even the gospel can kill pride’s root.
That’s because the root of pride goes all the way down to something inescapably wired into human nature: our craving for significance. The reason we love praise and admiration and success is because we were designed by God for greatness. Made in the image of God, we were created to exercise dominion and bend creation to our will and represent the Almighty in his governance of the universe.
But the Fall dethroned us from our position of dominion, and everything wrong in our souls flows from this lost kingdom. Now, our hearts reflexively grab for the greatness we were made for. And so, just like a starving person will steal a loaf of bread in order to sustain himself, we steal glory whenever we can, desperately feeding our bottomless hunger for significance. The world is full of starving glory-robbers, desperately fighting over the crumbs of authority that fall from Satan’s table. This is why we begrudge the success of others in the spotlight; we crave the accolades they receive. This is why we can’t stand braggart know-it-alls; their desperate quest for attention interferes with our quest. This is why we flare with anger when we don’t get our way; our raw and ravenous hearts demand that others acquiesce to our sovereignty. And this is why, no matter how often we apply the medicine of gospel truths to our wounded pride, it never fully goes away. It can’t; no matter how much we fight against it, pride is the reflex of a heart that has lost its throne.
The ultimate solution to pride, then, turns out to be the very story that we have been tracing. The restoration of our regal image-bearing status, which the whole story of the Bible is about, does two things. First, in showing us our inability to restore ourselves and the perfect work of Christ on our behalf, our admiration is transferred away from ourselves and onto him. That’s how the gospel works against our pride.
But the second way is more surprising. The Bible’s message of the greatness of our inheritance and the glory of our calling is a salve on our heart’s open wound of lost kingship. Secure in our identity as co-heirs with Christ, we no longer have to clamor for approval and claw at a sense of approval. In Christ, we finally have the greatness we were looking for, beyond our wildest dreams.
Much has been made of the testimony of athletes, politicians, and superstars who reach the upper heights of their respective fields and find that it’s not all it’s cracked up to be. In 2005, NFL superstar Tom Brady was interviewed after winning his third Super Bowl championship. In a surprisingly candid moment, Brady revealed that even after reaching the pinnacle of his profession, he still hadn’t found what he was looking for. He confessed,
“Why do I have three Super Bowl rings and still feel like there is something greater out there for me? I mean, maybe a lot of people would say, ‘Hey man, this is what it is.’ I’ve reached my goal, my dream, my life is… Me, I think, ‘God, it’s got to be more than this.’”
When asked if he knew what the answer was, he replied, “I wish I knew, I wish I knew.”
Tom Brady was unusual in his honesty, but he was not unusual in his experience. No matter how high we climb, the greatness we chase always remains just out of reach, receding from our grasp like a mirage. The common Christian answer to this has been to point and say, “See! We weren’t made to chase success and greatness!”
But I’m starting to wonder about that response. If it were really true that we weren’t made to chase after greatness, then why does every single human being still have that innate, instinctual desire for importance? Why does it still drive us, no matter how we fight against it?
What if the problem is not that success doesn’t satisfy, but that our sights are set too low? If eating dirt doesn’t satisfy, it’s not because we weren’t designed with a need to eat; it’s because dirt can’t satisfy us like real food can. A super bowl ring can’t bring fulfillment, not because success is immaterial, but because a super bowl ring is a dim shadow and a poor substitute for the crown and glory that we really crave. What if our hungering for glory isn’t something that has gone wrong in our hearts, but is actually what our hearts were designed to do? The problem, then, is not the hunger—it’s what we’re trying to feed ourselves with. No success, no praise, no achievement can fill the gaping, cavernous desire we have for significance. Because what we really desire is so much greater, all the success we could possible achieve is like dirt in comparison.
What we call pride is really just our hearts doing what they were designed to do. But in the absence of actual glory that will satisfy us, our desire short-circuits and starts grabbing ahold of any substitute it can get its claws into. And it is this desperation, this abandonment of the actual glory that will satisfy us, which is the root of every evil.
C.S. Lewis stumbled upon this insight, and wrote his masterful essay The Weight of Glory seeking to explain it. The following is a long quote, but worth reproducing and studying in its entirety. Lewis wrote,
“I suddenly remembered that no one can enter heaven except as a child; and nothing is so obvious in a child—not in a conceited child, but in a good child—as its great and undisguised pleasure in being praised. Not only in a child, either, but even in a dog or a horse. Apparently what I had mistaken for humility had, all these years, prevented me from understanding what is in fact the humblest, the most childlike, the most creaturely of pleasures—the specific pleasure of the inferior: the pleasure a beast before men, a child before its father, a pupil before his teacher, a creature before its Creator. I am not forgetting how horribly this most innocent desire is parodied in our human ambitions, or how very quickly, in my own experience, the lawful pleasure of praise from those whom it was my duty to please turns into the deadly poison of self-admiration. But I thought I could detect a moment—a very, very short moment—before this happened, during which the satisfaction of having pleased those whom I rightly loved and rightly feared was pure. And that is enough to raise our thoughts to what may happen when the redeemed soul, beyond all hope and nearly beyond belief, learns at last that she has pleased Him whom she was created to please. There will be no room for vanity then. She will be free from the miserable illusion that it is her doing. With no taint of what we should now call self-approval she will most innocently rejoice in the thing that God has made her to be, and the moment which heals her old inferiority complex forever will also drown her pride. Perfect humility dispenses with modesty.”
The inheritance which is ours in Christ and the divine accolade which is coming to us—“Well done, good and faithful servant”—is the glory and crown for which our hearts long. That moment in which we enter into our reward will heal the old inferiority complex and forever drown our pride in an ocean of glory. When the kingdom comes, we will finally find what we’re looking for.