I think it would be fair to say that in the world’s eyes showing off is usually seen as a minor vice. If someone has an opportunity to boast about something but refrains from doing so, people tend to think that they have acted well. If a person does boast about something, people tend to think that they have acted poorly, but not in a way that is of any great concern.
In this area, as in so many others, Christian values are very different from the world’s. In the eyes of God, pride is a very serious sin. The large number of biblical passages where we are instructed to be humble and avoid pride shows this. See, for example, 2 Chronicles 7:14; Job 22:29; Proverbs 16:19; Isaiah 57:15; Ezekiel 17:24; Matthew 18:4; 23:12; Luke 14:11; 18:14; Acts 20:19; Romans 12:3; Ephesians 4:2; Philippians 2:3, 8; Colossians 3:12; James 4:6, 10; 1 Peter 3:8; 5:5-6; Jude 1:16.
Paul’s thorn in the flesh
2 Corinthians 12:7-9 is a passage which shows especially clearly how much God hates pride. This is the well-known account of the apostle Paul being given a “thorn in the flesh.”
“7 And because of the surpassingly great revelations, therefore, so that I might not become conceited, there was given to me a thorn in the flesh, a messenger of Satan, to beat me, so that I might not become conceited. 8 Three times I implored the Lord about this, that it would leave me. 9 But He said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for My power is perfected in weakness.’”
We can’t be sure exactly what the thorn in this passage refers to, but it was certainly something that caused Paul suffering.
The words “was given” are what is known as a divine passive, meaning that God was the one who gave Paul the thorn. It is true that the thorn is also said to be a messenger of Satan, but there is no contradiction here. Although Satan was the direct cause of the thorn, at a higher level God was working out His purposes through Satan’s actions to such a degree that it was right for Paul to speak of being given the thorn by God.
It was God, then, who gave Paul this suffering. And not only so, but, despite Paul’s pleas, He then refused to take it away.
The passage tells us that Paul was given the thorn to stop him becoming conceited because of the great revelations that he received. In other words, Paul was tempted to show off about his spiritual experiences, so God gave him the thorn to humble him.
One thing that marked Paul’s life was an unusually high degree of suffering. In Acts we are told of a prophecy about him, given by the risen Jesus, which included the words:
“. . . I will show him how much he must suffer for My name’s sake.”
Acts and some of the New Testament letters reveal how this prophecy was fulfilled. The list of sufferings in 2 Corinthians 11:23-33 is a special case in point. There is no doubt that Paul was a Christian who suffered very deeply.
If becoming conceited about things were just a minor vice, then, in view of how much Paul suffered in other ways, we might well imagine that God would have spared him his thorn in the flesh. There is no doubt that God loved Paul very much and cared deeply about all the sufferings he experienced. Given that Paul suffered so much, God would surely only have given him extra suffering to humble him, and would only have refused to take that suffering away, if it was absolutely necessary. So it must have been necessary, which goes to show how seriously God views pride, conceit and the desire to show off about things.
Why is pride so bad?
Why is it, then, that the desire to show off is so horrible in God’s sight?
I would suggest that this desire goes to the heart of human sin against God, that it is actually a desire to be worshipped, and that God treats it so seriously because He alone is worthy of worship.
There are a couple of reasons for thinking that the desire to show off may well in reality be a desire to be worshipped:
(1) Given the nature of the desire to show off – i.e., that it is a desire to be exalted by other people – it is not difficult to imagine that it is really a desire to be worshipped.
(2) There is what we know about Satan to consider:
The first point to make here concerns the nature of Satan’s sin. In Matthew 4:9-10 and Luke 4:7-8 we find Satan asking Jesus to worship him. In the light of these passages and the phenomenon of Satanism, it makes sense to think that one way Satan sins is by desiring the worship of people that should be given to God alone.
The second point to make concerns the likely similarity between Satan’s sin and human sin. According to Genesis, Satan (symbolised by a snake) was the one who originally tempted people and led them into sin (Genesis 3:1-7). In view of this, it seems likely that Satan’s sinfulness is replicated in humans to a large degree.
Now let’s combine both points: If, as seems to be the case, Satan sins by wrongly desiring worship, and if, as seems likely, human sin replicates Satan’s sin to a large degree, it wouldn’t be at all surprising if humans sin by wrongly desiring worship. And nothing else in human experience would seem to better correspond to that desire than the desire to show off.
So what we know about Satan fits well with the idea that the desire to show off is actually a desire to be worshipped.
I admit that these arguments fall short of proving that the desire to show off is really a desire to be worshipped. But I think they make it quite plausible. There is something about people’s desire to boast about things that God really detests, and if this desire is in reality a desire to be worshipped as only God should be, I think that would make sense of His hatred of this sin.
Regardless of whether or not my theory is correct, however, it is still the case that God hates all forms of pride. So to seek the power of His Spirit to enable us to grow in humility is something that all Christians should do.