Destructive relationships are not merely failures of behavior and response. Destructive relationships arise from sinful themes in our hearts. “Destructive behavior,” says Leslie Vernick, “is merely the outward fruit of a deeper root that must be identified and uprooted” (The Emotionally Destructive Relationship, 113). Vernick, a licensed clinical social worker and Biblical counselor, examines seven destructive heart themes in her helpful book. Getting to the bottom of our destructive behavior requires us to identify the sinful desires in our hearts. The first of these sinful desires is Pride.
The Proverb holds out an important truth to each of us when it states: Pride goes before destruction, and a haughty spirit before a fall (Prov. 16:18). Pride leads to destruction. Even more startling the Scriptures tell us that God hates pride (Prov. 8:13; 16:5). Gregory the Great called pride the “root of all evil,” and later theologians identified it as the “queen of sins.” The danger of pride is that it actually elevates our own importance to such a degree that it squeezes out any room for love of others and even love of God. Augustine said that pride is “the love of self, even to the contempt of God” (City of God, 282). Cornelius Plantinga helpfully defines pride as follows:
A blend of self-absorption – that is, narcissism – with an overestimate of one’s abilities or worth – that is, conceit. So a proud person things a lot about herself and also thinks a lot of herself. (Not the Way It’s Supposed to Be, 84)
That is to say, pride causes us not simply to think about ourselves often, but to think highly of ourselves often. Such self-focus takes hold of our heart and elevates us well above others. We have no patience for others, no need of them, and no real interest in them. Such a perspective flies in the face of Paul’s counsel to the Philippians. He writes:
Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. (Phil. 2:3)
Pride cultivates destructive relationships because it sees others as a means to gratifying our own selfish pleasures. People exist to stroke my ego. Others exist to feed my needs. People are objects to fuel my own passions. I have seen in my own life how destructive this heart-theme can be, and I have seen it in those I counsel. Pride will destroy your relationships even as it destroys you.
Brian Hedges helpfully outlines three common fruits of pride: self-promotion, self-pity, and self-righteousness. All these fruits will destroy our relationships with others and will ultimately lead to self-destruction as well. A quick look at each fruit will illustrate the point.
Self-promotion. There are two kinds of self-promotion. There is a kind of self-promotion that is necessary for employment, for seeking to be helpful to others. We must, sometimes, communicate our credentials, publicize events, and promote our ideas (this is an excellent piece on the first type of self-promotion). But there is a second, sinful kind of self-promotion that flaunts and boasts in self. It is this kind of self-promotion which seeks to elevate oneself above others. Hedges states that the “biblical word for this is boasting.” He continues:
When Scripture targets pride, it often sets boasting in the crosshairs. “Thus says the LORD: ‘Let not the wise boast in his wisdom, let not the mighty boast in his might, let not the rich man boast in his riches'” (Jeremiah 9:23). (Hit List, 25)
Likewise, Paul says that man has nothing to boast in before God (1 Cor. 1:26-29). God chose what is lowly, weak, foolish, and despised (i.e. us). Self-promotion is often easy to spot in others, and when we see it usually repels us. Think of the arrogant individuals who can’t stop talking about themselves, who constantly have to “one-up” someone else, who incessantly name-drop. These are individuals that few want to be around. And it’s not just that they ruin their relationships, ultimately they are boasting before the Lord as though they have something to impress him. Paul writes to the Corinthians to correct this very attitude, saying:
26 For consider your calling, brothers: not many of you were wise according to worldly standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth.27 But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; 28 God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are, 29 so that no human being might boast in the presence of God. 30 And because of him you are in Christ Jesus, who became to us wisdom from God,righteousness and sanctification and redemption, 31 so that, as it is written, “Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord.” (1 Corinthians 1:26-31)
We have nothing to boast in before the Lord. Attempts to do so undermine the very gospel that is our hope.
Self-Pity. This may seem a strange one. We don’t usually associate self-pity with arrogance. Rather we tend to suggest that people have too low a view of themselves, and that’s where self-pity comes from. Yet, there is every reason to see this as a fruit of the root of pride. Hedges identifies pride as “excessive self-focus,” which can easily manifest as self-pity. He quotes John Piper helpfully on this point. Piper writes:
Boasting is the response of pride to success. Self-pity is the response of pride to suffering. Boasting says, “I deserve admiration because I have achieved so much.” Self-pity says, I deserve admiration because I have sacrificed so much.” Boasting is the voice of pride in the heart of the strong. Self-pity is the voice of pride in the heart of the weak. Boasting sounds self-sufficient. Self-pity sounds self-sacrificing. The reason self-pity does not look like pride is that it appears to be needy. But the need arises from a wounded ego and the desire of the self-pitying is not really for others to see them as helpless, but as heroes. The need self-pity feels does not come from a sense of unworthiness, but from a sense of unrecognized worthiness. It is the response of unapplauded pride. (Future Grace, 94-95)
It is right and good to seek comfort and counsel in the midst of sorrow and suffering. But there is a way to do this that is not too different from self-promotion. It keeps the attention on me, seeks any ear, anywhere to gain sympathy, and simply refused to be comforted or consoled. This is simply sinful pride.
Those stuck in cycles of self-pity are never prepared to serve others. They are always too needy to be of use to another. They are too self-focused to see how they can love another. And they can often accept no comfort from others precisely because they believe their pain is too unique. “No one knows what it’s like in my world,” they say. And if you haven’t experienced their specific sorrow you can’t be of any help to them. Furthermore, their neediness leads them to begin to question God, to refuse even His comfort and consolation as revealed in the truths of Scripture. Their own suffering becomes the defining mark of their existence.
Finally, self-righteousness. While this fruit is the most obviously sinful, it’s also the most subtle. Self-righteousness is the belief that you have made yourself better than others, and you have done so apart from any help. It is subtle because it often masks itself with false humility and hard work. In relationships this often manifests as judgmentalism, and looking down on others. A self-righteous person will look down on those less educated, with less prestigious jobs, or more obvious moral failings and suggest that they are better. They will fail to see the advantages and privileges that they have had, that others have not, and will condemn others for not being like them. In relation to God this manifests as an arrogant assumption that they have earned God’s love, that they are better Christians than others, that God in fact needs them.
In this Scriptures this fruit most frequently evidences itself in the religious leaders of Israel. Luke tells the story of the Pharisee who “thanked God” that he was not like the tax collector (Luke 18:9-14). We, when we read these Gospel accounts, are inclined to thank God that we are not like those arrogant Pharisees. See, pride is subtle. If we are not careful it will not only cause us to be judgmental of others in our relationships with them, but it will cause us to be presumptuous with God in our relationship with Him.
The proud heart is always destructive because it can never be confronted. The proud heart is always right, it never sees any sin itself – though it is perfectly able to see the sins of others. In relationships a proud heart will become a tyrant. The person with a dominate prideful theme will become controlling and demanding. The corrective to such a heart is humility. Brian Hedges helpfully suggests that the proud heart needs to “be humbled,” not simply that it needs to be humble. The proud person will be inclined to set the terms of their repentance, but they must be brought low. Correcting this trend means owning guilt before others, being forced to express to those we’ve wronged and to another person in authority over us our sins. It involves submitting to authority and allowing others to set the terms of our repentance (so long as they are biblically expressed). I have seen the benefits of this in my own life. An unwillingness to submit to others, to be humbled, means I am not really repentant and the proud heart still holds sway in my life.
Pride goes before the fall. It always does. This destructive theme can, however, be exposed and treated by the gospel and the humbling power of the Spirit of God working through His church. There is hope for the proud.