Text: 1 Peter 5:5-7
For the last several weeks, I’ve mentioned that Trinitytide is the season that focuses on our Sanctification as we battle vice and build virtue in our walk with the Lord. The first two weeks of the season built the foundation with God’s love for us. That is, we get nowhere in our Sanctification unless we are those who are first loved by God and then learn to love God and our neighbor in response. Today, the Third Sunday after Trinity we pick up our spiritual weapons and move onto the battlefield. Two weeks ago, I mentioned that we will be seeing a three-fold cycle in this process, rooted in early Christian philosophy and monastic practice: purgation of sin, illumination by the Holy Spirit, and union with Christ. Today begins the purgation part of this cycle with battling the sin of pride. Please turn in your Bibles to 1 Peter 5:5 (page 192 in your Prayer Book):
Clothe yourselves, all of you, with humility toward one another, for “God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble.”
Earlier in the season we mentioned that our English word “love” has such a wide range of meanings that it’s easy to get confused when Scripture says, for example, “God is love.” We needed to look deeper into what the Bible means by love and what St. John meant in that particular passage.
We encounter something similar with the concept of pride in today’s epistle. When St. Peter says, “God opposes the proud,” does “pride” mean the same thing as when I say that I’m proud of my daughter for what she’s done in her swimming lesson, or when a carpenter takes pride in making a high-quality piece of furniture? Just like with “love,” we need to properly define our terms if we are to understand what God’s word is telling us.
While we do see the Old Testament occasionally uses a word translated into English as “pride” that connotes dignity, the New Testament gives us three main concepts with three different words that get translated as “pride.”
First, we have a pride that speaks of loftiness or high-mindedness. The Old Testament version of this can also speak of majesty or glory. But in the New Testament, we’re generally talking about people who are metaphorically “standing taller” than they ought. In Romans 11, St. Paul uses this sense of pride when he tells the Gentile Christians not to be proud in relation to the Jewish unbelievers who were cut off for their unbelief. Rather the Gentiles are to realize that their belief is only by God’s grace.
Second, we have a pride that speaks to boastfulness or something of which one has cause to boast. This is the pride St. Paul speaks of in Romans 15 when he says, “In Christ Jesus, then, I have reason to be proud of my work for God.” This kind of pride can be a good thing, but even then we realize that its causes ultimately come from Christ. Our pride, our boasting, is really in Christ, not ourselves.
Finally, we have pride that is arrogance or haughtiness. That is the sense of pride in our Epistle. In Classical Greek literature, this kind of pride was often called “hubris” wherein a person exalted himself above the gods. For example, in one of the Greek myths, a wicked king named Salmoneus in his pride develops a machine to make thunderclaps, orders his subjects to worship him if he were Zeus, and consequentially is severely punished by Zeus and the other gods. Even the pagans realized that one ought not have excessive pride before the gods.
If we look at some other passages of Scripture where this same Greek word is used, we can see how the same concept of blasphemous hubris is attached to this kind of pride:
In Luke 1:51, in the Magnificat (one of the Canticles we sing every Evensong), the Blessed Virgin Mary sings that God, “hath shown strength with his arm; he hath scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts.”
In Romans 1:30, when speaking of people who rejected God and then were given up to “a debased mind,” St. Paul describes them as, “slanderers, haters of God, insolent, haughty, boastful, inventors of evil, disobedient to parents.”
In 2 Timothy 3:2, when St. Paul is speaking of the godlessness in the last days, he says, “For people will be lovers of self, lovers of money, proud, arrogant, abusive, disobedient to their parents, ungrateful, unholy.”
In all of these things, we see that the arrogant, haughty kind of pride described in today’s epistle is antithetical to a life that is united to Christ.
4th Century monk, John Cassian, who helped introduce Egyptian-style communal monasticism (from whence we get our “purgation, illumination, unification” cycle) wrote the following about pride:
There is then no other fault which is so destructive of all virtues, and robs and despoils a man of all righteousness and holiness, as this evil of pride, which like some pestilential disease attacks the whole man, and, not content to damage one part or one limb only, injures the entire body by its deadly influence, and endeavors to cast down by a most fatal fall, and destroy those who were already at the top of the tree of the virtues.
Whereas other sins and vices attack just one virtue, pride attacks all the virtues. This is the very sin that caused Lucifer’s fall from being one of the chief Archangels to becoming Satan, the chief of the devils.
With all that in mind we can indeed see why God opposes the proud, as our verse says. But it also says that God gives grace to the humble.
The Greek word translated in this passage as humble speaks to being lowly, undistinguished, of no account, and is usually used in a derogatory manner in other Greek literature. In fact, humility often causes one to loose face in Greco-Roman society.
Nevertheless, throughout the New Testament, God values humility in his people. Consider for example, the following verses:
Again, we have our Lord’s Mother in the Magnificat (Luke 1:52): “he hath put down the mighty from their seats and has exalted the humble and meek.”
Or, we have our Lord’s invitation to would-be disciples from Matthew 11:29: “Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.”
Or St. James’ exhortation to his flock: “Let the lowly brother boast in his exaltation.”
Yes, throughout the New Testament, Christians are called to a humility that does not come natural to human beings. We’re called to a humility that is counter-cultural. Indeed, we’re called to a humility that is supernatural.
In the next verse of our Epistle, we see some of the reasoning behind this calling. 1 Peter 5:6-7:
Humble yourselves, therefore, under the mighty hand of God so that at the proper time he may exalt you, casting all your anxieties on God, because he cares for you.
Rather than exalt ourselves with haughtiness, arrogance, or hubris, we’re to humble ourselves and let God do the exalting. With his characteristic turn of phrase and bluntness, the Reformer John Calvin has this to say about these verses:
We are to imagine that; God has two hands; the one, which like a hammer beats down and breaks in pieces those who raise up themselves; and the other, which raises up the humble who willingly let down themselves, and is like a firm prop to sustain them. Were we really convinced of this, and had it deeply fixed in our minds, who of us would dare by pride to urge war with God? But the hope of impunity now makes us fearlessly to raise up our horn to heaven. Let, then, this declaration of Peter be as a celestial thunderbolt to make men humble.
This is a good caution, and speaks to the problem with pride: “who of us would dare by pride to urge war with God?” We do indeed need a true, godly humility. But if we’re honest, we all know what it’s like to be around folks who have a false humility, a feigned lowliness. Isn’t that just another form of pride? In fact, you may have heard of the term “humble-brag,” where a person disguises a boast with false modesty.
True humility, by contrast, comes from realizing our true state before God and each other. We realize that we do need God to sustain us. In our Collect, for example, we see a humble prayer that recognizes our need not only for God’s “mighty aid” from “all dangers and adversities,” but also our need for God to supply the desire to pray in the first place!
We also see humility illustrated in our Gospel lesson. The passage begins with Jesus losing face in the sight of the religious leaders and other important people in society because he received sinners and ate with them. Jesus responds to their criticism by telling two parables about the rejoicing that comes when a sinner repents. Repentance always requires humility. Repentance always requires us to see ourselves as we really are and to put aside pride, arrogance, and hubris. There are no humble-brags before God!
But also notice that Jesus was willing to humble himself to eat with the sinners. Jesus put aside his glory and humbled himself to become one of us, to live in perfect obedience and submission to his Father, even to the point of suffering and dying for the sake of those whom he had created from dust!
And this is, of course, a big part of our call to humility: we’re following in Jesus’ footsteps. Just as he was exalted when he rose in a glorified body and then ascended to the right hand of the Father, so too will we be raised in glory and brought before his throne.
In the meantime, we cast our cares, our anxieties on Christ, for he cares for us. It’s true that humility isn’t valued before the World. Indeed, we may sometimes get taken advantage of. We may be seen to be foolish or weak in the world’s eyes. But Jesus can shoulder that burden. We know his love. We know that the cost of discipleship in this world is no match to the glories and joys of the World to come. This is, of course, a process. This is something that we need to pray for, work for, and trust God for. Our flesh prefers pride. The Devil prefers pride. The World prefers pride. But our spirit, our “new man” who has been born again by God’s Spirit knows the value of humility.
And sometimes, just sometimes, the world takes note. Sometimes the Holy Spirit uses our true humility to convict the unbeliever and light a spark that brings them to Jesus in faith and repentance, humbling themselves also so that we are all raised up by Christ and with Christ together.
In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen