Contemporary Western society is post-Christian. “Christendom” – the time when Christian morality was accepted as good, and calling yourself “Christian” was equivalent to being an upright member of society – is well and truly in the past. Many books and articles discuss the advantages and disadvantages of this social change for Christian faithfulness. In this short series of blog posts, I want to focus on one strand of this social shift, and how it affects Christian life and testimony: the idea of pride.
Once, ‘pride’ used to mean ‘arrogance’. It used to mean that you had a big head – that you thought you were really smart, powerful, and important, and looked down upon everyone else. This is the complete opposite to Aussie egalitarianism. Tall poppies who are up themselves are likely to be cut down.
But ‘pride’ is no longer defined that way. ‘Pride’ now has a positive connotation: it means you’re confident – that you’re happy with who you are. It doesn’t necessarily mean you look down on anyone else.
I’m an immigrant. I came to Australia when I was thirteen. I don’t feel second-rate. I’m very comfortable. I’m ‘proud’ to be an immigrant. But that doesn’t mean I look down on locals! I don’t mock Aussies for being Aussie! It’s good to be a home-grown Aussie – as Aussie as Wheatbix, meat pies and Vegemite! Be Aussie and proud of it!
But this shift in language expresses a deep, but unacknowledged, shift in thinking about ourselves, each other, the world, and God. This shift that establishes, what Timothy Keller calls, a defeater belief. A ‘defeater belief’ is a deeply held, usually unacknowledged, belief which, although not explicitly held in order to reject Christianity, prejudices people away from Christianity. Such a belief ensures that Christianity sounds at the very least implausible, and at worst both bigoted and evil.
These days, we assume that to be a healthy person, we need a healthy sense of ‘self’. We need to believe we are valuable – that we matter, and make a difference in this world. This is usually set up against the opposite idea: if we are not valuable, if we matter to no-one, and no-one cares about us, then what’s the point of existing? If we don’t have a healthy sense of self, we’ll end up depressed. We’ll let people take advantage of us and bully us, because we think we ‘deserve’ it, or at least, don’t ‘deserve’ any better.
This kind of confidence, this sense of value, purpose, and direction in your life, is not automatically anti-Christian. The Apostles were absolutely convinced that they possessed God’s message and that they had the authority, and responsibility, to tell it to the world. They were so confident of their status as God’s messengers that they fearlessly faced religious and secular rulers and refused to back down on their claim that Jesus is the risen king (Acts 4:19-20; 24:25; 26:24-29). Peter wanted his readers to be confident that they were God’s special, chosen people. And he expected that confidence to work itself out in wholesome lives (1 Peter 2:9-12).
The question, though, is: where does this confidence, this sense of value and purpose, come from? Who says we’re valuable? Who establishes our purpose for existing? God or someone else?
‘Traditional’ cultures tend to be communal. So an individual’s sense of identity and value tends to come from belonging to the family, the clan, and the people-group. This is why Jesus’ claim to be more important than family was so shocking (Mark 3:31-35; Luke 14:26). He challenged people to find their identity, their sense of self, primarily with reference to him, not to their blood kin. Back then, that would’ve be seen as outlandish, if not downright rude and arrogant. Many cultures which continue this concept of traditional, communal societies still view Jesus in such a way. Who does this guy think he is? God or something?
But contemporary Western culture is the opposite. It tends towards radical individualism. We assume that our sense of identity and value comes from within. I’m happy because I’m <insert descriptor here>. I choose what makes me valuable, and if you don’t agree, then you can go jump in the lake, because you’re a bigot. We think that our value doesn’t depend on anyone – parents, spouse, lover, or boss, and least of all God! I love me, and that’s all that matters.Although if that’s the case, then pressure for the social acceptance of same-sex sexuality and same-sex marriage makes no sense. If self-love, self-confidence, and self-acceptance are what ultimately matters, who cares what the rest of society thinks? I don’t need social acceptance. I love me, I don’t care if no-one else does.
This is pride today. It’s not necessarily arrogance, because it doesn’t necessarily seek to put yourself above others. But it locates the source of value, confidence, and purpose within ourselves.
This is precisely the point where the Bible contradicts what contemporary society takes for granted. The Biblical view of sin is that our core person – the desires, attitudes, perspectives and preferences which constitute the invisible aspect of our ‘self’ – is deeply corrupted. Jesus himself said that corruption comes from our “hearts” – from our inner selves – and makes us “unclean”, unacceptable to God (Mark 7:21-23). Romans 3 is justifiably famous for Paul’s summary declaration that all people, Jew and Gentile, stand guilty before God. But notice how he mentions different parts of the body, from head (Rom 3:13-14, 18) to foot (Rom 3:15-17). Not only are all people guilty – all of us, our whole ‘self‘, rebels against God.
But this is really bad for our self-confidence. It implies that I’m ‘wrong’, ‘bad’, ‘evil’. It prevents me from feeling good about myself – it deflates my pride. And if that’s what the Bible says, then we can’t believe the Bible anymore. If that’s what Christianity says, then Christianity is evil and dehumanising. It makes people depressed.
This is how pride has become a taken-for-granted defeater belief in contemporary Western society.
- To be healthy, we need to be convinced that we have value and purpose in this world;
- That sense of value and purpose comes from within ourselves – pride is good;
- The Bible judges this kind of internally-defined self-determination – ‘pride’ – to be sin, to be an expression of our rebellion against God;
- But we know pride is good;
- Therefore, the Bible and Christianity are wrong.
The one thing no-one thinks of is that a healthy sense of value and purpose can come from outside ourselves – not just from our family and society (which is how ‘traditional’, ‘communal’ cultures operate) but from God himself, through Jesus Christ, by his Holy Spirit.
Over the next few posts in this series, I hope to show that
- Pride is actually dangerous – it destroys relationships with God and each other;
- God in Christ is not proud, he’s humble;
- This divine humility in Christ gives us confidence – it gives us an appropriate sense that we are valuable, and that our lives in this world have purpose and meaning;
- This confidence in Christ shows itself in the humility of serving God and others.
I hope this will encourage us all to be not ashamed – to be “proud” – of the gospel, and boast, not in ourselves, but in Christ (Rom 1:16; 1 Cor 1:31).
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|1.||↑||Although if that’s the case, then pressure for the social acceptance of same-sex sexuality and same-sex marriage makes no sense. If self-love, self-confidence, and self-acceptance are what ultimately matters, who cares what the rest of society thinks? I don’t need social acceptance. I love me, I don’t care if no-one else does.|