By David Hegg
More ethical ink has been used in discussions concerning pride than perhaps any other element of individual character and integrity. And even so, we are usually at a loss to define it. The problem is sometimes pride is a good and acceptable thing. Aren’t we supposed to be proud of our children? Isn’t it right to be proud of our country and what it stands for? And don’t we often champion the “pride of ownership” as something akin to taking good care of our stuff?
The solution is simply to understand that pride is really an umbrella term for a variety of self-appraisals, some of which are healthy. But under that label also lurks the destructive set of self-assessments that are poisonous simply because they are so far away from reality. These the ancients referred to as hubris.
Hubris is an ancient Greek term that originally signified a hurtful act by the powerful against the weak. In ancient Athens, there were actually laws against hubristic acts. Over time, the term came to describe the attitude of the strong more than the act, and eventually became synonymous with the belief on the part of the strong that whatever they did was acceptable simply because of their superiority. It was an over-inflated sense of their own importance, a hyper-realistic belief that they occupied the highest level of human intelligence and accomplishment, regardless of what anyone else thought.
Today hubris describes the bad kind of pride. It is the type of over-confidence that has lost its grip on reality, and presents itself as superior, and entitled. It is this sense of entitlement that is the surest sign of hubris in our day. More and more we are becoming a people who are proud of our pride, overtly overconfident and hilariously hubristic! After all, we’re great and deserve great things, great respect, and great rewards. We’re wonderful; just ask us.
But despite the hubris fest we mutually support in our day, there exists down deep in our souls the recognition that hubris is an ugly thing. We are sure it is ugly when we see it in others; not so much when someone sees it in us. But just the same, history continues to shout that this type of pride isn’t pretty, and in fact, is poisonous. The old saying “pride goeth before a fall” is really a compacted summary of Proverbs 16:18: Pride (hubris) goes before destruction, and a haughty spirit before stumbling. We all know that the best leaders, as well as the best friends, are those whose humility is authentic, evident, and consistent. History is full of examples.
And so it is always a good thing when our hubris is beaten down, its edges radically shaved, and the flower of humility is caused to grow in our hearts and minds. On Christmas a few years ago, I received two gifts that had just this impact. The first was a telescope, which I have wanted for some time. But with the telescope came a gift I was unprepared for. Looking at some stars, and the planet Venus, was a powerful reminder of just how vast our universe is, and correspondingly, how small I am. In a small world, I’m super important. But in God’s universe, which He has intimately superintended since the beginning of time, I am forced to admit my insignificance. And there is freedom in that admission, a freedom that comes from realizing my great dependence upon the One who rules over all.
But another of my gifts brought an even deeper sense of reality to me. I came home one day to find a box on my front porch. Addressed to me, the note said only that the gift was from Santa and was not to be opened until Christmas. On Christmas morning I opened the package to find a the latest, greatest iPad, the gift from a still anonymous friend. It was such an unexpected, undreamed-of surprise that I immediately felt as though there must have been some mistake. I had absolutely no sense of entitlement! But my name was on the box, and there was no way around it: Someone who preferred anonymity cared so much for me that they gave me an exquisite gift! To be the object of such love and care and friendship brought an immediate feeling of unworthiness. It was a lesson in the beauty of being humbled by circumstances beyond my control. That’s what deep, unconditional love does for the soul. And humility in the face of love’s reality is certainly among the greatest emotions.
And so, as we start the long hello to Christmas in this topsy turvy year, I can’t help but reflect on the fact that we Americans need a dose of humility. We need to get over ourselves, think outside ourselves and stop making everything about us.
Go outside and gaze at the stars. Feel small, and marvel at the magnificence God’s creation. Then, think about the Creator who is still holding everything together so that we puny humans can have another chance to make today and tomorrow something better than a monument to ourselves. We certainly were not entitled to the unconditional love of God, but He granted it through the humility of His Son. And that ought to humble us, and keep us mindful that we’re living in His universe as we seek to live honestly and compassionately with one another.
Local resident David Hegg is senior pastor of Grace Baptist Church. “Ethically Speaking” appears Sundays.