One of the greatest snares to the souls of men is the snare of measuring ourselves by ourselves and comparing ourselves among ourselves (2 Cor. 10:12). When we allow pride to fester and take root in our hearts, we begin to think, act and speak as if we are more holy than others. When we do so, we make that at which we think we excel our standard of holiness, rather than God’s Law with all of its unattainable depths and requirements. Once we begin to do this with regard to spiritual disciplines or biblical principles, we have succumbed to spiritual pride. John Owen once wrote, “spiritual pride is the worst sort of pride.” He went on to explain,
“Pride, or carnal confidence in our own wisdom and ability of mind for all the ends of our duty towards God either keeps the souls of men under the bondage of darkness and ignorance, or precipitates them into foolish apprehensions or pernicious errors…”
The more religious a man or woman may be, the more in danger he or she is to succumbing to the temptation to spiritual pride. This was the error of Pharisaism. Pharisaism was a biblical holiness movement. Pharisaism was fueled by a legal zeal for holiness and biblical justice. Owen, quite intuitively, noted that men and women who profess the grace of God in Christ can equally fall into the snare of spiritual pride and begin to measure their holiness or sanctification against that of others. He wrote,
“Known holiness is apt to degenerate into self-righteousness. What God gives us on the account of sanctification we are ready enough to reckon on the score of justification…We have so much of the Pharisee in us by nature, that it is sometimes well that our good is hid from us. We are ready to take our corn and wine and bestow them on other lovers. Were there not in our hearts a spiritually sensible principle of corruption, and in our duties a discernible mixture of self, it would be impossible we should walk so humbly as is required of them who hold communion with God in a covenant of grace and pardoning mercy. It is a good life which is attended with a faith of righteousness and a sense of corruption. While I know Christ’s righteousness, I shall the less care to know my own holiness. To be holy is necessary; to know it, sometimes a temptation.”
We can begin to identify spiritual pride in our lives by considering what sorts of things we talk about respecting spiritual disciplines. As Jesus explained, “Out of the abundance of the heart, the mouth speaks.” A couple believes that they have excelled at parenting and so they speak often about the failure of parenting and education in the Christian church. One tithes faithfully, so he frequently speaks about the widespread lack of giving in the church at large. One serves in various capacities in a local congregation and so he begins to complain about how others are not serving to the same degree. When we speak in these ways, we can be sure that we have taken our eyes off of Christ–and our need for His blood and perfect righteousness–and have placed them on our performance, our knowledge or our achievements.
It is hard for our souls to come off of spiritual pride. Sometimes, God allows a believer to fall into some particular sin for a time in order to humble him and to bring him back to a place of humility and dependance. As the Westminster Confession of Faith states,
“The most wise, righteous, and gracious God doth oftentimes leave, for a season, his own children to manifold temptations, and the corruption of their own hearts, to chastise them for their former sins, or to discover unto them the hidden strength of corruption and deceitfulness of their hearts, that they may be humbled;t and, to raise them to a more close and constant dependence for their support upon himself, and to make them more watchful against all future occasions of sin, and for sundry other just and holy ends” (WCF 5.5).
At other times, God allows us to fixate on our failures, our natural depravity and our uncleanness so that any of the goodness He is working in us is hidden from us. As Owen explained, “We have so much of the Pharisee in us by nature, that it is sometimes well that our good is hid from us.”
However we come to terms with the spiritual pride that ever seeks to gain control of our hearts and minds, we must turn to the crucified Savior in brokenness and humility, crying out for him to cleanse us from this evil. There is no room for pride at the foot of the cross. When we see that Christ was crucified for my spiritual pride, no less than for our lusts, we will want to mortify it as quickly as possible. And, we can be sure that until we are in glory, spiritual pride will most rear its ugly head again and again the moment we allow ourselves to think that we are excelling in holiness. Don’t be deceived, “spiritual pride is the worst sort of pride.”
1. John Owen, The Works of John Owen, ed. William H. Goold, vol. 4 (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, n.d.), p. 179.
2. Ibid., p. 179.
4. The Works of John Owen, vol. 6, pp. 600–601.