In the same way, you who are younger, submit yourselves to your elders. All of you, clothe yourselves with humility toward one another, because, “God opposes the proud but shows favor to the humble.”

1 Peter 5:5

I’ve recently had some difficult experiences, relationally, that I can only associate with a lack of humility. Through several discussions about an individual’s sin in the church, it was determined that the primary source of their struggle was pride. This individual was unwilling to take a humble posture and apologize for their actions. Through these discussions the statement was made by a friend that they agreed this person struggled with pride, but they didn’t believe that it was a sinful pride. That raised the question: “Is there a Biblical category for pride that is NOT rooted in sin?”

So, today, I’d like to explore this idea a little further. Is there a good way to be proud? Through several conversations with friends, especially over the past several months, this notion that there is a category of pride that is NOT sinful has cropped up several times. But, what do we do with all the many passages in the Bible that warn against pride? Is there really a way to be proud that is not sinful?

I think in many ways there has always been the underlying idea in our culture that some pride is good. For example, taking pride in your work or being proud of someone else’s accomplishments. These are examples of some of the ways that we think of pride in a positive light. But, is it really “right” to think of any pride in a positive light? Is it possible to take pride in your work with humility? Is it really sinful to be proud of someone’s accomplishments? Let’s discuss the former first.

Let me set up the question: “Is it wrong or sinful to take pride in your work?”

I think that when most people hear the idea of taking pride in your work they usually assume that this simply means to take it seriously and to do your best. If you are able to feel a sense of pride in your accomplishments then it is a gratifying experience to know that you did this thing to the best of your ability. But, at the heart of this is a sense of self-accomplishment and self-worth that I don’t think can be done in a humble fashion. Inwardly you are telling yourself “I did that.” and while this might seem harmless enough it is, in fact, the opposite of humility.

A truly humble heart would rather give thanks to the Lord for enabling them to accomplish a job well done. This, I think is what Paul means when he says Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord… Colossians 3:23. We are to do all things as if we are doing them for the Lord, seeking only His approval and working out of a heart of humble gratitude. This posture better acknowledges that we, in ourselves, are not capable of doing anything on our own. Our gifts, talents, and very breath are all a gift from God.

Now for the second category: “Is it wrong or sinful to be “proud” of someone else?”

I think that this is an area where we redefine pride. We use it to convey that we are happy for someone in their accomplishments and feel privileged to be a part of or associated with their success in some way. Not that we take credit for their work or think they couldn’t have done it without us, but rather, that we are sharing in their joy. So in the end, I don’t think this is pride. This is love for another, which is never sinful. I would classify this as a turn of phrase that lacks accuracy. Much like saying “I love pizza” isn’t the same as saying “I love my wife”. It’s an inaccurate turn of phrase that can be unhelpful at times.

So, in the case of the individual who was struggling with sinful pride, people were being hurt by their actions and their pride was driving them to prefer themselves over others. Worse, as is always the case with pride, they had convinced themselves that their actions were not sinful, but everyone else just didn’t understand the reason for their actions. They had a good reason to behave the way they were and if everyone else would just understand that reason they would see that there is no “sinful” motivation behind their actions.

This, in part, was the argument I heard from a few others while discussing this individual’s actions. If they don’t see the wrong in their actions and their motivations and intentions are good, then are they sinning? Can they be held accountable for their actions if they truly believe they are doing the right thing? In other words, is their pride really sinful if they are convinced of the validity of their actions?

The problem here is that it goes against what God warns us about regarding the nature of our own hearts. Our own perception of what motivates our actions is irrelevant if it goes against God’s Word (see Jeremiah 17:9–10). If God says that something is sin, we cannot argue or claim that our motives nullify God’s definition of sin in some way. If we claim to love God, then we will humble ourselves before Him and evaluate our motives and actions based on His Word. As to the question of holding someone accountable, if someone unknowingly breaks the law, they can receive a warning. And if they continue, then they pay the penalty of the law.

However, if their actions cause harm to another, even if they did not know that their actions were illegal, they are still held accountable to the law and expected to pay the penalty. Why? Because whether it be through negligence or maliciousness, they have caused harm to their fellow citizen and justice demands that they make it right.

So, in the context of the church, we can lovingly encourage, exhort, and even rebuke someone in an attempt to point them to God’s Word. If they don’t believe their actions are sinful, then hopefully pointing out the effect that their actions are having on their fellow believers will be enough for them to re-evaluate and make a change. However, if they insist that those who are being hurt wouldn’t be hurt if they only understood, then the church has every reason to hold that person accountable and expect that they make it right and repent.

This is because understanding why you are being hurt by someone doesn’t make the hurt go away or magically transform their actions into something good. Some things are just simply abusive or hurtful and understanding the motivation behind them doesn’t change that. That’s like saying that if an assault victim only understood the reason for their attacker’s actions they would somehow no longer carry any wounds and the attacker’s actions would be justified. But, God says that it’s sinful to intentionally cause harm to another so it doesn’t matter if the victim is able to justify it in their own mind or what the attacker’s motives are. It is sin, therefore the attacker is accountable for that sin. Further, the wounds are still there and the victim has to deal with those wounds, even if they have been convinced that their attacker had a valid reason for inflicting the wounds in the first place.

In summary then, I would say that no, there is no such thing as pride that is not sinful. All pride, no matter how minor, is self-glorifying and self-indulgent. You cannot elevate yourself above others and still maintain humility. So, my prayer for myself and for my bothers and sisters in Christ is that we can all lay down our own self-interest at the feet of the cross and follow in Jesus’ footsteps—elevating others even if that makes us vulnerable or costs us everything.