The Bible story, while singularly focused upon the theme of man’s sin and God’s redemption, is nonetheless replete with moral threads. Woven into the fabric of God’s efforts to save us from ourselves are character lessons, both good and evil. They may involve celebrated qualities such as the faith of Abraham, the meekness of Moses, or the unparalleled heart of obedience in David. Or, the threads may be of a less attractive hue – Cain’s selfishness and violence; Saul’s jealousy; Jonah’s nationalistic hatred.
One such negative quality which God includes over and over is pride. The illustrations are curiously numerous. Cain’s murder of his brother almost certainly involved his ego. Those who began the tower of Babel intended to “make a name for ourselves” (Gen.11.4). The twelve sons of Jacob were the outcome of the sibling rivalry and jealousy between Leah and Rachel, and the envy of those boys resulted in the captivity of Joseph (Gen.37.4,11). It was an absence of humility in Pharaoh that prompted God to plague Egypt. Pride drove Saul’s jealousy of David. Arrogance contributed to Absalom’s rebellion. Ego drove Rehoboam so that the kingdom was divided. Uzziah was stricken with leprosy when his heart was lifted up so that he entered the temple to burn incense to God (2 Chron.26.16f). When delivered from Assyria, Hezekiah succumbed to pride, setting the scene for the Babylonian captivity which eventually followed (2 Sam.19-20; 2 Chron.31.20f). In Esther, Haman’s ego was finally extinguished upon the gallows of his own building. Nebuchadnezzar was stricken with some form of mental illness for his self-glory (Dan.4) and Belshazzar fell with the city of Babylon because of his ego (Dan.5).
One would think that, by the time Jesus came to the earth, God’s people would have well learned that God really does hate “a proud look” (Prov.6.16). Nonetheless, Jesus regularly warns His followers about the ego-driven motives of the Pharisees. “…when you do a charitable deed, do not sound a trumpet before you as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, that they may have glory from men…they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the corners of the streets, that they may be seen by men…” (Mt.6.2-5). “…all their works they do to be seen by men…” (Mt.23.5). And in spite of His regular appeal for poverty of spirit and meekness, Jesus was still confronted by dispute among His own apostles because of their ambition about perceived positions in the kingdom of heaven (Mk.9.33-34; Mt.18.1f; Mt.20.20-28; Lk.22.23-24f). It is in the context of this recurring argument that Jesus offers some of His most memorable teaching. “Therefore, whoever humbles himself as this little child is greatest in the kingdom of heaven” (Mt.18.4). “…whoever desires to become great among you, let him be your servant. And whoever desires to be first among you let him be your slave, just as the son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life a ransom for many” (Mt.20.26-28).
Self-concern, and the obsession, ego, and pride which grow out of such, are almost inherent in us. As beings with free will, powerful desires (physical, psychological and emotional), and the self-awareness to recognize such, we are naturally given to our own concerns. We cannot help but measure the experiences of life by how they make us feel or by our resultant thoughts and attitudes. I am unsure if such self-concern is innate or if we learn it as infants. We spend our early years as the object of love, affection, and attention simply due to our complete dependance on our parents. Perhaps because of such, we then have to be taught to be selfless, sharing, and considerate of others. I’m neither a psychologist nor a sociologist so I really do not know where our own tendency toward selfishness originates. But it is present in us all, and is powerful. Even the Lord acknowledges such when He directs us to “love your neighbor as yourself” (Mt.22.39). To some degree and in some way, we all love our self and God offers such as a measuring stick of our regard for others. That divine recognition attests to the power of self concern, and it is therefore easy to see how the things of this world – “the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eye, and the pride of life” (1 Jn.2.16) are so appealing. They are fundamentally selfish.
As our culture drifts farther and farther away from the influence of God and Christianity, it should not be surprising that narcissism has become both commonplace and admired. Without question, such qualities as beauty, wealth, physical prowess, and influence have universally and historically been admired and lauded. Some men and women have accepted such recognition with a degree of modesty while others have been infamous for their hubris. But with the rise of social media and the universal immediacy of the internet, the potential for recognition is no longer limited to movie stardom, political advancement, or athletic success. Anyone can advance themself for any reason – and do so regularly. Cultural icons no longer need to have achieved anything more significant than the perfect angle for a “selfie”. Self-promotion has become an obsession which has engulfed everyone from the local fitness junkie to the President of the United States. “Look at me” is the mantra of our day. And somewhere in there, between the good hair pics, the glamorous mirror poses, the bigger biceps boasts, and the “look what I did” humblebragging is the subtle desire for praise and glory. Or so it appears (yes, I realize I’m not to question motives).
Throughout history, culture has powerfully impacted those trying to serve God. The present acceptability and promotion of egoism is no exception. Discipleship does not fully dismiss the temptation of ascendency and recognition. Just witness the modern “televangelist” era with its rank promotion of fame and fortune. The enticement of vain glory goes hand in hand with talent, recognition, appreciation, and publicity, even which such things are the result of spiritual work. Surely the issue in Corinth concerning spiritual gifts (1 Cor.12-14) was shot through with ego problems (thus the admonitions toward love in chapter 13). The warnings about the tongue in Jas.3.1-12 appear to grow out of a desire in some for recognition as teachers, thus the repeated warnings about “envy and self-seeking” (v.13-16f). Ananias and Sapphira met their end in the pursuit of admiration (Acts 4.32-5.11). In all honesty, the local church is the largest group of potential influence in the lives of most of us. Satan is thus pretty talented when it comes to the “big fish in a little pond” temptation.
There are myriad instructions about pride and humility in the teachings of our Lord. In Phil.2.3, Paul says, “Let nothing be done through selfish ambition or conceit, but in lowliness of mind let each esteem others better than himself.” He then proceeds to offer the Lord Himself as our example of humility, service, and self-sacrifice. Peter notes, “Yes, all of you be submissive to one another, and be clothed with humility, for God resists the proud, but gives grace to the humble. Therefore humble yourselves under the mighty hand of God, that He may exalt you in due time…” (1 Pet.5.5-6). Narcissism mitigates against faith – I cannot be obsessed with my own promotion and give myself completely to trust in God. Self-obsession destroys unity. Sooner or later, my ego will conflict with someone else’s needs or wishes and pride will inevitably divide me from my brother. And egoism is completely incompatible with the love demanded by our Lord. The love of God looks always to the good of others. Conceit looks only to self. And while I may fake it for a while, self-absorption will eventually rear it’s ugly head – probably in a selfie. I simply cannot be a disciple of Jesus Christ while enamored with myself. “If anyone desires to come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow me” (Mt.16.24).
It is easy to be caught up in the fads, fashions, and thinking of our world and our day. All around us, mankind is screaming, “Look at me.” As the people of God, however, our cry is to be “Look at Him.”