Pride and Humility

I remember the exact moment when I was called into vocational ministry. I was sitting at my desk in the middle of a Dallas high-rise when I heard God say, “You are going to work for me.” I don’t know if you would have heard it if you were sitting beside me, but I know I did. Now, here is something you should know about me: if you ask the people who know me best, they will tell you that I am not a big “I heard God say” guy. This time, however, was different. Even today, all these years later, I can only describe the experience as startling.

I called my friend Bo and asked if he could meet me at my house right away. Keep in mind this was during the middle of the workday.

“I’m at work,” he responded.

“Is there any way you can leave? Something big just happened, and I need to process it with you.” Being the good friend that he was (and is), Bo said he would find a way to make it happen.

We met at my house at 1:30 in the afternoon. As I paced nervously around the living room, I told him, “You are going to want to sit down for this.” He was confused (and probably equally nervous), not sure what I was about to tell him. “I think God just called me into ministry,” I said.

Bo wasn’t surprised at all. He responded with some encouraging words, letting me know that he had seen God move in my life and could affirm God was doing a new work in me.

Just a few years prior to this moment, I was a regular in the Dallas club scene. I was everything wrong with Dallas wrapped in one person. I was pretentious. I was materialistic. I loved to party. I routinely sought affirmation in shallow relationships and one-night stands. Jesus had saved me and changed my heart, and now it seemed he wanted to change my profession. I hastily decided to hire an attorney so I could start a nonprofit. I thought I would raise money and give it away for Jesus. Bo stopped me and wisely encouraged me to pray before doing anything. “If God is calling you to something, he will show you what in his timing,” he said.

So I prayed. I prayed every day. I prayed multiple times a day. “God, put me where you want me and help me find contentment there.” On the fifth day of praying that prayer, I was walking through the office foyer in Dallas when my phone rang. It was Rick, a pastor from my church. Rick said, “I have a job I want you to consider.” I thought he was talking about volunteering somewhere within the church.

“Sure,” I said. “Tell me where to be and when.”

Rick replied, “No, I mean a job. Here at the church.”

I sat quietly on the other end of the phone. Then it hit me. “Oh! I get it. You talked to Bo.”

Rick, now confused himself, responded, “Who is Bo?”

I said, “Did you know that five days ago I told my friend Bo I thought God was calling me to ministry?” Rick had no idea. As it turns out, Rick was simply praying over a job description, and he said God had brought me to mind.

At the time, almost twenty years ago, my wife and I were dinks (dual income, no kids). She was an elementary PE teacher, and I was in business development for a Fortune 15 company. We were bringing in hundreds of thousands of dollars annually and (sadly) managing to spend it all on whatever we wanted to have and experience. Also, she planned to stay at home when we started our family. This “calling into ministry” was really inconvenient for our plans. We would be transitioning to a single income—a pastor’s salary of $40,000. We had a mortgage and would soon have our first child on the way. But you know what? I had no question there was a God. I didn’t wonder if I believed in him. He was more real than he had ever been. If he were asking me to do something, why would I not do that?

He called me to something, and he made a way.

I went to work at that church as a small group pastor. Two years in, I started preaching. Over the next few years, a 150-person ministry grew into thousands of participants, with tens of thousands streaming online. Speaking engagement requests came in by the dozens. A publisher called and wanted me to write a book. I had an agent! Who knew pastors had agents?! I was being asked to speak on some of the largest stages in the world and was making close to as much money as I had in the corporate world, which I didn’t even know was possible.

One Friday morning I was meeting with the other men in my small group. It was common for us to confess sin to each other and offer prayer for one another. I told them, “I feel as though I’m becoming spiritually arrogant.” When I didn’t make much money and was the guy setting out chairs, God was so real and my motive was so pure. Now I wasn’t so sure. I loved being loved. I loved having fans and followers. Sin had crept in and was starting to wreak havoc throughout my life. I told those guys, “I think I need to wrestle God like Jacob in Genesis 32. He needs to knock my hip out of the socket.” So they prayed he would. You will read more about that later, but spoiler: he did.

Too Many Chairs

Have you ever had to put up chairs? I have moved a lot of chairs in the last twenty years. It is an unexpected part of ministry no one warns you about. When God called me to it, I wish he had said, JP, I want you to quit your job and go work in ministry. PS: make sure you work on your biceps and triceps. Just a little heads-up would have been nice.

Metal folding chairs, conference center chairs, hotel ballroom chairs . . . I’ve moved all of them over the years. Whenever it’s time to clean up after an event, the same situation unfolds. Different people carry different amounts of chairs. You always have the one guy who is there solely for the social aspect. He carries one at a time and is more focused on finishing his story than he is on getting the chairs on the rack. On the opposite end of the spectrum is the Gym Guy. You all know Gym Guy. He is there to show everyone that he has never missed arm day. He may even do CrossFit. You will have to ask him. Gym Guy is going to try to set a Guinness World Record in that moment. Everyone else is just doing their best and trying to carry as many as they can.

Without fail, something happens every single time: somebody drops some chairs. It makes a terrible noise. There is nothing worse than the sound of five metal folding chairs crashing onto a concrete floor. Why did they drop them? They were trying to carry too many. Eventually they lost their grip, one chair started to slide out of their hand, and then the whole stack tumbled to the ground. They thought they had the situation under control, but eventually the whole thing came crashing down on them. They were carrying more than they were meant to carry.

The Vice of Pride

Pride causes us to carry more than we are supposed to, and a crash is coming. Christians believe that pride is at the root of Satan’s sin. According to Satan’s origin story in Ezekiel 28:12–19, he was an angel—the most decorated and beautiful in God’s kingdom. But that wasn’t enough for him. He tried to grasp the same authority and power God had, so he was cast out of heaven and sent to earth. At the end of the day, Satan decided that merely being in a relationship with God was not enough. He wanted to be God. He did not trust God, and then he made it his mission to cause others to do the same. In Mere Christianity, C. S. Lewis wrote,

According to Christian teachers, the essential vice, the utmost evil, is Pride. Unchastity, anger, greed, drunkenness, and all that, are mere fleabites in comparison: it was through Pride that the devil became the devil: Pride leads to every other vice: it is the complete anti-God state of mind.1

The same desire that caused Satan to be cast out of heaven shows up in the garden of Eden in Genesis 3. What Satan offers Eve is not a briefcase full of money or unlimited pleasure; it is the opportunity to be just like God. Satan, from the very beginning of humanity, has used pride to tempt people to want to be like God. It is a consistent story arc throughout the Old Testament: God instructs his people to do something, they decide they know better, they do whatever they want, and then they have to deal with the repercussions of their sin. They loved the idea of playing God. And we do too.

This same theme plays out in the New Testament. In 1 Peter 5:5, Peter writes,

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.”

Here, Peter is quoting Proverbs 3:34 to drive a message home to his audience: God doesn’t just turn a blind eye to the prideful. He opposes them. A few years ago, I wrote this verse on my bathroom mirror and read it every morning to remind me of what is true (more on that later). The clothing metaphor Peter uses here is really easy for us to understand too: we are either wearing pride or we are wearing humility.

When we wear pride, we open ourselves up to sin. Our temptation is to read that sentence, nod our heads, and keep going about our days. But stop and think about that: when we wear pride, we open ourselves to sin. Wearing pride leads to us being devoured by sin. Do you remember when Lady Gaga wore a dress made out of meat to the 2010 MTV Video Music Awards? If you are unfamiliar, it was not a dress that looked like meat. She was basically wearing a rib eye. Now imagine placing Lady Gaga in her meat dress in a cage with a lion. How is that going to go? That is what happens when we wear pride.

We have an enemy, Satan, who is not of this world and wants nothing more than for our sin to devour us and destroy our lives. Proverbs 16:18 says, “Pride goes before destruction, a haughty spirit before a fall.” Pride is always the predecessor to destruction.

Satan is like a hungry lion. That’s interesting to me, because then we have options. So what can we do? We can refuse to feed him. Think of Satan like a stray cat (or stray lion, for the sake of this illustration). What happens when you feed a stray cat? It finds a home. You become a cat owner!

But if you starve him and say, “No, no, no. There’s nothing to eat here. I’m not doing that. I’m not looking at that. I’m not going there. I’m not thinking about that,” everything shifts. Satan says, “All right. I guess I’ll find someone else to feed me. I’ve got to eat.” When he doesn’t eat he becomes weak, and when he’s weak you can resist him. So don’t feed him. You have a choice to feed him or not.

How do you know if you are wearing pride? The easiest way is a self-diagnostic test. Ask yourself a lot of questions. Are you anxious? Are you critical of others? Are you defensive when someone points out the sin in your life? Are you quick to notice pride in others? Do you constantly seek out the approval of others? Are you critical of others? Are you insecure? Do you take advantage of God’s grace? Do you feel ashamed? Do you think your sin is bigger than God’s grace can handle? Do you believe you are worthless or unforgivable? Does a particular sin define you more than God’s claim on your life?

If your answer to any of those questions is yes, then welcome to the club. It is one thing to understand that we struggle with this sin, but it is another to seek healing and restoration from it. I believe this struggle, more than any other sin, can rob you of God’s favor, his blessing, his joy, and his grace. I have learned this from experience.

Excerpted from Why Do I Do What I Don’t Want to Do?, by JP Pokluda. Copyright © 2023. Used by permission of Baker Books. All rights reserved.