The Perilous, Pernicious and Pervasive Problem of Pride!

Following the recommendation of a fellow pastor, I have taken up a book by the great Puritan writer, Jeremiah Burroughs, and committed to reading just a section of his book each day.  Burroughs (1600-1646) was one of the Independent members of the Westminster Assembly of Divines, and a Congregationalist. He was so highly regarded by his peers that they published 13 volumes of his sermons after his death. The book that caught my attention was “Causes, Evils, and Cures of Heart and Church Divisions.”   Like a good Puritan writer, Burroughs thoroughly explores each topic in depth before moving on to the next, but does so in a way that is relatable and applicable to our lives today.  

“Causes, Evils, and Cures of Heart and Church Divisions” examines the roots and effects of division in the body of Christ, and offers a forward-looking approach for healing the divisions. Burroughs’ study makes suggestions for greater unity, challenging the church to focus on moving ahead in its essential work. Just looking through the contents page will give some indication of where the book is going.  Under the Causes of Divisions, Burroughs addresses Pride, Self-love, Envy, Passion, Jealousy, Whispering, Meddling, and Revenge, just to name a few.

As I read through this work, I’ll give a brief reflection on Burroughs’ work, and I pray that God may bring healing, to our divided hearts and churches, through this study.

The first cause that Burroughs address is pride, which he calls “the chief dividing distemper.”  “It is the great incendiary in the soul of man, in families, in towns, in cities, in all societies, in church and state: this wind causes tempests to arise.” It is pride that hardens our hearts to the needs of those around us; pride that makes us blind to our own sinfulness; pride that keeps us from being useful to the Lord and His Church.  If we are to identify what causes divisions in our relationships and in the Church, the chief and underlying cause will always be our pride.

How does pride work in us? This is one of the great strengths of the Puritan writers: they don’t just name the sin, they examine how the sin really affects us.  Pride, Burroughs says, works in the following ways:

  • Pride makes a man think too great to be crossed:  its is beneath a proudful person to bear any injuries or offenses that others might cause.
  • Pride makes men swell beyond their bounds: “the way to keep all things in union is for every man to keep within his bounds: the swelling beyond tends to the breaking all in pieces.”
  • Pride hardens men’s hearts: “If you would have things cleave, you must have them soft; two flints will not join.”
  • Pride causes men to despise others: Seeking honor for himself, a proud man cannot tolerate other’s success, and cares nothing for others’ sufferings.
  • Pride causes every man to desire to be noticed: One way or another, either through good works that bring fame, or through clamor and opposition, a prideful person must be noticed.  “Proud spirits will venture the setting the temple of God, yea, church and state, on fire, that they may have a name; whatever they do or suffer to get a name, they will rather venture, than die in obscurity; that above all things they cannot bear.”
  • A proud man makes his will the rule of his actions, and would have it be the rule of other men’s too.

This, then, the perilous, pernicious and pervasive problem of pride.  It is worked into each and every heart, and must be driven out by God’s redeeming and purifying Spirit of grace.  Burroughs calls “every man look into his own heart, and see what pride hath been, and still is there, and be humbled before the Lord for this. All you contentious, froward, quarrelsome people, you are charged this day from God with being men and women of proud spirits, and what evil there is in our sad divisions, that pride in your bosom is a great cause of it.”

As we allow the Spirit to show us how deeply pride has set into our lives, we know that God’s work is not merely to crush us under the burden of sin.  “The Lord humbles us, that he may reconcile us, not only to himself, but to one another.”  When we realize how pride as come between us, and between us and God, it is so that we may repent, turn from our prideful ways, and be reconciled and restored by His great grace for us in Jesus Christ.  

SDG

Burroughs, Jeremiah. Causes, Evils, and Cures of Heart and Church Divisions. New York: Carlton & Phillips, 1855. Print.

The Aproachable John Calvin

As a good Presbyterian, my first exposure to classic Systematic Theology was reading John Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion. At first, I wondered if I really wanted to study theology. The two-volume systematic was a different kind of reading. It wasn’t overly complicated, but it was exhaustive. Written in the 16th century, it was foreign to me culturally and methodically.  I still have the highlights and notes in the margins from my first reading, but those treasures then were rare.  After the first reading, I hoped that the readings would get better, and I purposely kept Calvin at arm’s length.

Then I came across something called The Golden Book of the True Christian Life.*  It is a sampling from Calvin’s Institutes that focuses in specifically on the meaning of the Christian life. This booklet completely changed my view of Calvin, and sent me back to the Institutes. It wasn’t that I needed to find better writing, but that I needed a better understanding of what was written.

I wanted to share with you excerpts from the opening chapter of the Golden Book, that you too may find the always approachable nature of John Calvin’s teaching on the meaning of the Christian life.


Scripture is the Rule of Life

The goal of the new life is that God’s children exhibit melody and harmony in their conduct. What melody? The song of God’s justice. What harmony? The harmony between God’s righteousness and our obedience. Only if we walk in the beauty of God’s law do we become sure of our adoption as children of the Father. The law of God contains in itself the dynamic of the new life by which his image is fully restored in us; but by nature we are sluggish, and, therefore, we need to be stimulated, aided in our efforts by a guiding principle.

Holiness is the key Principle

The plan of Scripture for a Christian walk is twofold: first, that we be instructed in the law to love righteousness, because by nature we are not inclined to do so; second, that we be shown a simple rule that we may not waver in our race. Of the many excellent recommendations, is there any better than the key principle: Be thou Holy, for I am holy? Holiness is not a merit by which we can attain communion with God, but a gift of Christ, which enables us to cling to him and to follow him.

Holiness means full obedience to Christ

Scripture does not only show the principle of holiness, but also that Christ is the way to it. Because the Father has reconciled us to himself in Christ, therefore he commands us to be conformed to Christ as to our pattern.  The Lord has adopted us to be his children on this condition that we reveal an imitation of Christ who is the mediator of our adoption. Therefore:

  • Since God has revealed himself as a Father, we would be guilty of the basest ingratitude if we did not behave as his children.
  • Since Christ has purified us through the baptism in his blood, we should not become defiled by fresh pollution.
  • Since Christ has united us to his body as his members, we should be anxious not to disgrace him by any blemish.
  • Since Christ, our head, has ascended into heaven, we should leave our carnal desires behind and lift our hearts upward to him.
  • Since the Holy Spirit has dedicated us as temples of God, we should exert ourselves not to profane his sanctuary, but to display his glory.
  • Since both our soul and body are destined to inherit an incorruptible and never-fading crown, we should keep them pure and undefiled till the day of our Lord.

External Christianity is not enough

Let us ask those who possess nothing but church membership, and yet want to be called Christians, how they can glory in the sacred name of Christ? External knowledge of Christ is found to be only false and dangerous make-believe, however eloquently and freely lip servants may talk about the gospel. The gospel is not a doctrine of the tongue, but of life. Let nominal Christians cease from insulting God by boasting themselves to be what they are not, and let them show themselves disciples not unworthy of Christ, their Master. Our religion will be unprofitable if it does not change our heart, pervade our manners, and transform us into new creatures.

Spiritual Progress is necessary

We should not insist on absolute perfection of the gospel in our fellow Christians, however much we may strive for it ourselves. There would be no church if we set a standard of absolute perfection, for the best of us are still far from the ideal, and we would have to reject many who have made only small progress. Perfection must be the final mark at which we aim, and the goal for which we strive. But let everyone proceed according to his given ability and continue the journey he has begun. Let us not cease to do the utmost, that we may incessantly go forward in the way of the Lord; and let us not despair because of the smallness of our accomplishment.  Though we fall short, our labor is not lost if this day surpasses the preceding one. The one condition for spiritual progress is that we remain sincere and humble. Let us keep our end in view, let us press forward to our goal. Let us steadily exert ourselves to reach a higher degree of holiness till we shall finally arrive at a perfection of goodness which we seek and pursue as long as we live, but which we shall attain then only, when, freed from all earthly infirmity, we shall be admitted by God into his full communion.


* Calvin, Jean. Golden Book of the True Christian Life; a modern translation from the French and the Latin by Henry J. Van Andel. (Baker Book House; Grand Rapids, MI, 1952).

God gives grace to the humble…

“Clothe yourselves, all of you, with humility toward one another, for ‘God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble.'”
(1 Peter 5:5)

As I prepare for this Sunday’s message from 1 Peter 5:1-5, I realize that there’s just not enough time to go into full detail on everything that is touched upon in this passage.  The final point that Peter makes, urging all to humility in their relationships with one another, is a vital aspect of our life together as the body of Christ.  In all honesty, this one verse could occupy an entire series of sermons on what it means to be humble, how and why God opposes the proud and gives grace to the humble, and how humility is demonstrated in the life of faith.  That series isn’t in the works, yet, but perhaps it should be.

In the midst of study on this passage, I read again a prayer from the Valley of Vision, a collection of Puritan Prayers and Devotions.  I’ve shared prayers from this collection before. I’ve even read them in worship on occasion.  The prayer I read today is called “Humility in Service.”  It’s written primarily for the Elder in service of the church, but could be applied to everyone who aspires to serve the Lord in faithfulness.

The prayer, as with most of the Puritan Prayers, is devastating in its candor and vulnerability, and is absolutely Christ-centered in its hope.  I offer it to your for prayer and reflection today.

Humility in Service *

Mighty God,

I humble myself for faculties misused,
opportunities neglected, words ill-advised,

I repent of my folly and inconsiderate ways,
my broken resolutions, untrue service,
my backsliding steps, my vain thoughts.

O bury my sins in the ocean of Jesus’ blood
and let no evil result from my fretful temper,
unseemly behavior, provoking bitterness.

If by unkindness I have wounded or hurt another,
do thou pour in the balm of heavenly consolation;

If I have turned cold from need, misery, grief,
do not in just anger forsake me;

If I have withheld relief because of my poverty and pain,
do not withhold thy gracious bounty from me;

If I have shunned those who have offended me,
keep open the door of thy heart to my need.

Fill me with an over-flowing ocean of compassion,
the reign of love my motive, the law of love my rule.

O thou God of all grace, make me more thankful, more humble;

Inspire me with a deep sense of my unworthiness
arising from the depravity of my nature,
my omitted duties, my unimproved advantages,
thy commands violated by me.

With all my calls to gratitude and joy
may I remember that I have reason for sorrow and humiliation;

O give me repentance unto life;

Cement my oneness with my blessed Lord,
that faith may adhere to him more immovably,
that love may entwine itself round him more tightly,
that his Spirit may pervade every fibre of my being.

Then send me out to make him known to my fellow-men.

Amen

* Bennet, Arthur. The Valley of Vision (The Banner of Truth Trust, Carlisle, PA, 2009) Pg. 178.

Defeating Pride by Showing Honor

“Outdo one another showing honor…”
(Rom 12:10)

The attitude of pride and arrogance is like a cancer in the body of Christ.  A prideful spirit focuses all the attention on itself, sucks up all the body’s resources, and if unchecked will, ultimately, spread throughout the body bringing death in its wake. That is the power of pride.

Pride comes in all shapes and sizes.  It is the arrogant and boastful person who likes to be the center of attention; never really listening to what others have to say, only waiting for another opportunity to speak.  It is there in the unyielding, undisciplined spirit that refuses to submit to the authority of God’s Word, and certainly not to the authority of the elders.  Pride is at the heart of the disaffected member who clings to the bitterness of past offenses and refuses to forgive and be forgiven.  It is pride that keeps us from confessing our sins that we may be reconciled, sharing our sorrows that we may be comforted, revealing our needs that we may be supported, and withholding our gifts so that others may be built up.

To be honest, pride is the sin that I struggle with most.  I think this is one of the great hazards of the ministry.  It’s difficult to stand in front of a congregation Sunday after Sunday, preaching the Word, and not letting the appreciation and praise from the congregation go right to your head. When the congregation is growing, and people are responding to the gospel, the temptation for the pastor is to think that this is his work, and to revel in the glory.

Add to that my disposition toward those activities that highlight individual achievement.  I love to run, and when I cross the finish line, that’s one more thing to boast about.  I love the theater, to stand front and center in the spotlight, leading the show and hearing the applause of the crowd.

All of these things feed the prideful spirit.  And yet, when you feed pride, it’s a lot like eating Chinese food.  You get filled up quickly, but an hour later you’re hungry for more.  There’s never enough praise, never enough attention, and the successes of others is a threat to your achievement.

So how do we root out this pernicious and perilous pride?  I believe the apostle Paul is addressing this in Romans 12:10 when he tells the Christian, “Outdo one another showing honor.”  It almost sounds like a sport.  Make a competition of honoring one another.  If you are going to excel at something, if you want to show off, then show your mad skills in honoring those around you.  If you want to stand in the spotlight, use your time there to bring glory to God and to honor others.

In order to truly honor others, you have to begin by humbling yourself.  Paul writes in Philippians 2:3, “Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves.”  Humbling yourself simply means having a right understanding of your own situation in relation to God and to others.

Here’s the humbling truth: Standing in the presence of God apart from Christ you are a wretched and wicked sinner in desperate need of salvation. It doesn’t matter how eloquent you might be, or what achievements you’ve had in work or in play – all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God (Rom 3:23). And the Good News is just as humbling, for it is by “grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast.”  There is no place in the body of Christ for pride, and if we are to boast, let us boast only in the cross of Christ our savior (Gal 6:14).

Once we have a true measure of ourselves in the light of God’s Word, and when we come to trust in His sovereign work for our eternal security, then we can have the confidence and strength to seek the honor of others before ourselves.  Pride is really nothing more than a defense against a perceived threat. When we rest secure in the promises of God, then pride serves no purpose, and we can honor God and one another as we are commanded.

Let us then root out this pride that so easily disrupts the Christian life, the arrogance that keeps us from being reconciled and united in the Lord.  Trusting in God’s grace, let us confess our sins, seek forgiveness, and preach the Good News of Salvation in Jesus Christ for all eternity. Resting secure in His work, may we outdo one another in showing honor.

SDG

Only wretches need grace…

“Therefore it says, ‘God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble.'”
(James 4:6)

Whenever I am asked to do a funeral for someone who is not a member of my church, I always remember my first “non-member” funeral.  It was a sad, sad, story.

After 75 years of marriage, a loving wife who had cooked every meal, done all the laundry, and handled all the bills was gone, leaving a husband who didn’t know how to care for himself.  Within a month he committed suicide.  He could bear to live without her, he didn’t know how to go forward on his own.

The pastor of the church they belonged to was out of town, and I was asked to lead the service.  I met with the family to find out about his life, his faith, those things in his life that made others better for knowing him.  No one had anything positive to say.

The children of this couple remembered their father as angry and quick-tempered.  Not even the man’s pastor could offer anything for a eulogy.  The only thing she could offer was that he had been in church a couple weeks back, and had come forward to recieve communion.

The funeral came, and I was struggling to find the words to say.  So I said what everyone knew, but was afraid to say out loud (I was in someone else’s church, officiating a sermon for a stranger in a sanctuary filled with strangers – I could pretty much say whatever I wanted.)

I said that the deceased was a hard man to love.  He was often angry and quick-tempered, and he seldom evidenced the fruit of a life of faithfulness.

And then I said something no one expected – He is just like everyone of us.  The man we had gathered to remember was a sinner in need of salvation, a sheep who had strayed from the fold.  While some of us may deal better with our sins, putting on a good front, pretending that its not really all that bad, we are each of us unloving and unlovable, in desperate need of help.

Then I finished with something like: The bottom line is, the grace that saves us is the same grace that saves those around us.  If anyone has any hope for salvation, it is not in our goodness, our commitment to the cause, our abiliy to make it seem like everything is okay.  Our hope for salvation is in the atoning work of Christ, who while we were still sinners proved his love for us in dying for us on the cross so that by faith we may live in Him and with Him a life that glorfies God.  There is no difference in the fare.  There is no difference in the grace.  The grace that covers me is the same grace that covers you, the same grace that covers the lowliest of all.

Friends, we are saved by grace, and that is a humbling thought.  For grace is only necessary for the wretched, healing is only needed for the sick, salvation is only for those who are doomed.  We are none of us above it, we all stand in desperate need of God’s grace.

Since we are covered by the grace of Jesus Christ, and because it is the same grace for each of us that gives us hope, should not that same grace lead us to be gracious to one another?  Let’s be honest, we all long to be treated with compassion, grace, and mercy.  We all know our shortcomings, we know our own faults.  We pray that when we spread ourselves too thin and things start falling apart, when our old nature, the way of the flesh, creeps up again, we pray that God will be gracious and renew, restore, and redeem us in Jesus Christ; and we hope that other Christians, other sinners saved by grace, will bear with our shortcomings.  Shouldn’t we, especially in the church, treat each other with the same patience and grace that we desire for ourselves?

I supposed I’ve said all of this just to be reminded, and to remind you, dear reader, of the golden rule, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”  If you want people to treat you graciously, be gracious.  If you are looking for encouragement, encourage others.  If you want to be loved, be loving.

SDG

A Holy Paradox

It is those who feel their sin with hurt and penitence who are the truly righteous, and it is those who are sure they are righteous and need no repentance who are the real sinners. It is the dispirited who live before God, and it is the marvelously spiritual who often ex(s)pire from God’s presence. (Dale Bruner, The Christbook, pg 161)

Pride and the Pastorate

As a pastor, I am keenly aware of the sins with which I struggle.  It makes me a little more tolerant when those around me struggle in sin.  I spend a good amount of time in prayer every Sunday morning, asking that God would somehow use this earthen vessel, with all its blemishes, to bring Him glory and to proclaim His goodness.  I beg that my sins won’t come in the way of the Holiness of God.  I so identify with Isaiah, standing in the presence of the Almighty God, who said, “Woe is me.   For I am lost; for I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips.”

Fortunately for me, I struggle with those sins which are more socially acceptable.  I don’t struggle with any addiction, I’m not tempted to cheat on my wife, nor have I any plans to commit murder.  But do I get angry easily, I hold grudges well, I’m quick to judge and slow to forgive.  The longer I deal with these sins, the more I find that while they may be “respectable sins,” they still run deep, they stain every little thing I do, and the “old man” within me will fight tooth and nail to keep them in his arsenal.

At the heart of it all is my pride.  It is easy for pastors to grow proud.  We have a captive audience every week as we delve into the deep waters of Scripture and speak to the hearts and minds of our congregations.  People come to us for counsel.  Our opinions are respected because of our position in the community.  We accept this calling humbly, knowing that it is God’s work, not ours; we are but sheep-dogs for the Good Shepherd.  Humility comes with being a pastor, but a pastor can still take great pride in his own humility.  “Look how humble I am!  I don’t need your praise for all my accomplishments; just knowing you know how humble I am is enough for me.” 

So when God goes about curing me of the sin of pride, it is a painful process.  Like drawing poison from a deep wound, God draws pride out of my heart, but I find the healing worse than the sickness.  Losing my selfish pride means learning to live only for the glory of God; can I live without the praise of man?  Losing my selfish pride means learning to live without being in control of my life (as if I ever was); can I trust God with my life?  Losing my selfish pride means learning to suffer the same shame and humiliation as my Savior; do I love him enough to be so identified with him?

All I know is that I cannot overcome this sin on my own, and I will not overcome it quickly.  Even in my pride I recognize the fact that I am too weak to overcome sin on my own, I need and trust in the power of God’s Holy Spirit to strengthen me for this battle.  Still, I take comfort in the teaching of the Westminster Confession:

They who are effectually called and regenerated, having a new heart and a new spirit created in them, are further sanctified, really and personally, through the virtue of Christ’s death and resurrection, by his Word and Spirit dwelling in them; the dominion of sin is destroyed, and the several lusts thereof are more and more weakened and mortified, and they more and more quickened and strengthened, in all saving graces, to the practice of true holiness, without which no man shall see the Lord.
This sanctification is throughout the in the whole man, yet imperfect in this life: there abideth still some remnants of corruption in every part, whense ariseth a continual and irreconcilable war, the flesh lusting against the Spirit, and the Spirit against the flesh.
In which war, although the remaining corruption for a time may such prevail, yet, through the continual supply of strength from the sanctifying Spirit of Christ, the regenerate part doth overcome: and so the saints grow in grace, perfecting holiness in the fear of God.

Lord, how I need your Holy Spirit to continue your healing and sanctifying work in my life.  May I take up arms in this battle against the sin in my heart, strengthened by your Word and Spirit, so that I may grow in grace, perfecting holiness in the fear of your holy name.

SDG