About 10 years ago I noticed a disturbing trend: My friends and family started pointing out my receding hairline. Once, when I was standing next to a guy with a full-blown case of male-pattern baldness, a mutual friend tried to take our picture by shouting, “Hey, you two bald guys, move a little closer.” Who are you calling a bald guy? I thought. I just had a little thinning up top.
But a month later, a barber held up the mirror to the back of my head, and there it was: a large bare spot. Ugh. But maybe the mirror was defective. Maybe it was just the light. Or maybe I finally saw what I could not and did not want to see: I was going really thin up there (but I still couldn’t call myself bald).
Philosophers and theologians have a simple word for our quiet but stubborn refusal to see the bad stuff about ourselves: self-deception. Pastor Tim Keller defines self-deception as “the almost infinite human capacity to hide the truth from ourselves if that truth is too uncomfortable.” We kind of hear God’s still small voice whispering the truth about our sin and brokenness, but the truth hurts. So rather than listen, we find creative ways to smother that voice. Jack Nicholson had it right when he shouted a famous line from A Few Good Men: “You can’t handle the truth!” That you is us. We can’t handle the truth about ourselves.
The Disease of Pride
According to the Bible, self-deception is a symptom of a far more serious spiritual disease—pride. Pride blinds or at least seriously distorts what we choose to see about God, others, and ourselves. As God warned the nation of Israel, “The arrogance of your heart has deceived you, you who live in the clefts of the rock … who say in your heart, ‘Who will bring me down to earth?’” (Obad. 1:3). When pride grips our soul, it feels as if we’re rising higher, when in reality a tragic crash is on the way; we’re entrenched in our seeming invulnerability, oblivious to the fact that God holds us with His infinitely strong mercy; we smugly rate ourselves a few notches above others, we who just qualified as “the chief of sinners” (1 Tim. 1:15 KJV). Jesus had a sharp warning for people with this kind of self-deceptive pride. You think you’re rich and prosperous and self-sufficient, He told the church of Laodicea, when you’re really “wretched and miserable and poor and blind and naked” (Revelation 3:17).
In other words, pride leads to a lethal form of self-deception that causes us to overestimate our spiritual progress and underestimate our sin and its consequences. Psychologists sometimes call this the Lake Wobegone Effect, named after the humorist Garrison Keillor’s fictitious Minnesota small town where “all the women are strong, all the men are good-looking, and all the children are above average.” In recent decades, studies have amassed to prove our alleged “above-averageness.” For instance, when researchers asked a million high school students how well they got along with their peers, almost none of the students rated themselves below average; 60 percent of students believed they were in the top 10 percent; 25 percent rated themselves in the top one percent. College professors are the worst: 94 percent of those surveyed claimed they had above-average teaching skills.
When pride grips our soul, we’re oblivious to the fact that God holds us with His infinitely strong mercy.
Of course, this is statistically impossible. Somebody has to be average. Christian psychologist Mark McMinn writes, “One of the clearest conclusions of social science research is that we are proud. We think we are better than we really are.”
You Are That Man
Having self-confidence, taking pleasure in a job well done, or admitting your strengths is not pride. The apostle Paul cautions us “not to think more highly of [ourselves] than [we] ought to think” but to “think so as to have sound judgment” (Rom. 12:3). I speak with “sound judgment” when I say that I know a lot about preaching. I’ve been studying and practicing the craft for nearly three decades. I’m a good preaching coach as well. But as soon as I start thinking that I am better than most preachers—or I’m entitled to special treatment because I’m a fine preacher, or I can rely on my own training and cleverness rather than on the Holy Spirit—I am thinking more highly of myself than I ought. Even worse, I’ve become a proud, hollow, Spirit-vacated preacher.
Eventually our pride-fueled self-deception wreaks havoc on our soul. Consider King David. At one point in the biblical story (2 Sam. 11), he’s at the top of his career. His approval rating hovers near 100 percent. Spring is in the air, and David decides he can finally let the young generals fight his battles. David feels as if he has arrived.
Then one afternoon, while taking a little stroll on the palace rooftop, David eyes a beautiful woman bathing. Suddenly, the king described as “a man after God’s own heart” plunges into a binge of self-deception that includes lust, adultery, murder, and a clever cover-up—all without remorse. Finally, the prophet Nathan dismantles this pompous charade with a missile of a one-liner: David, you are that man. In other words: You are the man who is utterly deceived about your sin; you are the man who has flaunted God’s Word and hurt others.
The same can be said of fictional characters. In her Pulitzer Prize-winning novel Olive Kitteridge, Elizabeth Strout weaves together 13 portraits of a self-deceived retired schoolteacher. Olive is a big, blunt, controlling woman who seems oblivious to the ways she plows over people. Her son tells her, “You can make people feel terrible,” but she doesn’t get it. An older woman from the town says, “Olive had a way about her that was absolutely without apology.” At one point, Olive’s long-suffering husband Henry says, “Do you know, Ollie, in all the years we’ve been married, all the years, I don’t believe you’ve once ever apologized. For anything.” Bristling with sarcasm and defensiveness, Olive retorts, “Well, sorry, sorry, sorry … I am sorry I’m such … a rotten wife.”
Both the historical David and the fictional Olive fit the definition of pride offered by C. S. Lewis. He called it a “ruthless, sleepless, unsmiling concentration upon the self, which is the mark of Hell.”
Pride is indeed ruthless. It hurts others and damages my soul. When pride infects an ethnic or national group, it leads to the “our people are superior to your people” mindset behind all forms of “group pride”—nationalism, tribalism, racism, and genocide. It is sleepless. It never stops trying to wheedle its way into the hearts of even good, religious people. All of a sudden, I’m proud of my strong faith, my virtue (as opposed to your lack of it), or, even more outrageously, I’m proud of my humility. It is unsmiling. The proud person just isn’t fun—unless he’s the center of attention or he wins the argument or he is the most _______ (wealthy, good-looking, intelligent, athletic, or spiritual) person in the room.
When I know that my pride is too much for me, that I will struggle with it for the rest of my life, I can turn to God.
Look at the cast of proud people in the Bible—the braggarts in Genesis 11 who thought their little tower could barge into heaven (God had to “come down” to see it), Nebuchadnezzar demanding everyone hit the dirt and worship him whenever a musical tune was played (Dan. 3:1-7), Herod strutting around in his “royal apparel” while an angel prepared to strike him dead (Acts 12:20-23). Even Peter was clueless about his own nature and had no idea he was about to deny his Lord three times (Luke 22:31-34).
They all were blithely unaware of how ridiculous they looked, especially from God’s perspective. Proud people act like a human pufferfish, blowing themselves up with air so they look big or fierce or important. Pride makes buffoons out of all of us.
Healing the Disease
But if we can’t handle the truth, if prideful self-deception is so common and devious and destructive, how can any of us diagnose and then heal this raging spiritual disease? The short answer is, we can’t. But God can.
As the early Christian leader Augustine observed, “My sin was all the more incurable because I thought I was not a sinner … But you, O Lord … stood me face-to-face with myself.” Only God can help us confront our real self with all its sin and brokenness.
When I know that my pride is too much for me, that I will struggle with it for the rest of my life, I can turn to God. Turning to Him is the first step and the next step and the next on the long road to humility.
Praying for Truth
If God is really there for me, I can actively and humbly seek out the truth about my life. That’s the spirit behind the beautiful prayer at the end of Psalm 139. David begins the psalm with a tender declaration: “O Lord, You have searched me and known me” (Psalm 139:1).
But David can’t achieve this kind of knowledge about himself, so he prays, “Such knowledge is too wonderful for me; it is too high, I cannot attain to it” (Psalm 139:6). Of course this is the issue behind our self-deception—we can’t see ourselves. The admission leads to David’s closing prayer in Psalm 139:23-24: “Search me, O God, and know my heart; try me and know my anxious thoughts; and see if there be any hurtful way in me, and lead me in the everlasting way.”
I’m continually startled by how God gives us the prayers we’d rather not pray. It’s as if He says, “I know this prayer will upend your pride, and I realize that’s scary. But let Me get you started: Take these words and just pray them back to Me.”
So every time I open the Bible to hear from God, every time I enter a worship service, every time I wake up or go to bed, every time I’m in a conflict with someone, I should have the words or at least the spirit of Psalm 139:23-24 in mind. God wants to answer this prayer.
Seeking Good Counsel
According to Scripture, there’s another downside to pride: It makes us unteachable about the things that really matter in life, especially our relationship with God and our moral character. In Proverbs, we see that proud people stay stuck in their pet sins because they are “wise in [their] own eyes” (Prov. 26:12). The book also emphasizes one particular way to stifle our pride: We should let others speak truth into our life even when it hurts (Prov. 9:9; Prov. 13:18).
There’s an old Yiddish saying that goes like this: If someone calls you a donkey once, ignore it. If someone else calls you a donkey, start pondering his words. If a third person calls you a donkey, you better get a saddle because you’re probably a donkey. About 10 years ago an older man whom I admire spoke some hard truth into my life. He identified a sinful pattern I was too proud to address. “It’s not that bad,” I kept saying. “Besides, I have it under control.” But he told me, “Matt, you do not have it under control, and you must deal with this.” A few weeks later, another older man I admire told me exactly the same thing. I am happy to report that I didn’t wait for a third wise man to call me a donkey. I bought the saddle. In other words, I admitted the sinful pattern and started to get the help I’d kept postponing.
Pride never stops trying to wheedle its way into the hearts of even good, religious people.
Wise people—unproud people—get feedback constantly, even about the deepest, most personal areas of their life. They seek out correction, and when it’s appropriate, they radically adjust their life based on that counsel.
Standing in Grace
Every Christian has the best resource to heal the disease of prideful self-deception: the gospel. Why are we so proud and self-deceived? Why do we get defensive, when our sin (including our pride) gets exposed? Why do we blow up like a pufferfish to ward off God and others? It’s because we don’t comprehend or accept the lavish grace of God given to sinners through Jesus Christ. The gospel tells us that, spiritually speaking, we’re all chronic sinners, enmeshed in pride and self-deception. But the gospel is also the story of how Jesus lived and died and rose again to save the whole lot of us spiritually below-average people.
I realize Olive Kitteridge is a fictional character, but I can’t help imagining a better life for her. What if she (and everyone like her—including me) could hear hard but honest words about her sin and respond by speaking the gospel to herself: I am clothed in the righteousness of Jesus Christ. So, like Him, I am the beloved of God. Christ has borne all of my sin on the cross. In all my brokenness, God the Father has lavished me with grace. And then, freed from defensiveness and sarcasm, what if Olive could simply say to those she has hurt, “I am truly sorry. Tell me how to love you better.”
C. S. Lewis said that freedom from pride is like finally taking off the “silly, ugly, fancy-dress” clothes we’ve worn all our lives so we can stop “strutting about like the little idiots we are” with all our “posing and posturing.” The gospel strikes a blow to our pride, but it doesn’t wound our dignity. Instead, we get grounded in reality, and that sets us free beyond anything we could imagine.
Illustrations by Nishant Choksi