Pride or Promotion? Hiding or Humility?
Last month ended my tenure as president of ATS. I am so grateful for this privilege of working together with others to promote biblical scholarship that benefits both the academy and the church. But as I reflect on this and the 13-plus years I have worked as a biblical scholar, my heart is heavy with the pressure we all feel to promote ourselves. When I see the social media posts of others about their latest project, it is easy to feel jealous rather than excited. Or when someone else is chosen to write on something that is my expertise, my first feeling is often one of anger or frustration rather than solidarity. Because of these tendencies in myself, I often don’t publicly promote anything that I write. But this can sometimes lead to pride in my humility. So where is the line between promoting oneself and pride? Between hiding oneself and humility?
Pride in Scripture is multi-faceted. It can positively refer to the produce and fruit of God’s people (Ps. 47:4; Isa. 4:2). However, it is usually associated with sins, like contempt, scoffing, and lying (Ps. 31:18; 59:12; Prov. 3:4). Pride is portrayed as starting in the heart of individuals and usually leads to turning from God and wisdom (2 Chron. 32:26; Ps. 10:4).
In contrast, humility in the Bible is associated with the fruits of the Spirit, meekness, and repentance (Isa. 58:5; 2 Chron. 7:14; 2 Cor. 10:1; Eph. 4:2). Those who are humble consider others more than themselves, and humility leads to love, tenderness, and sympathy (Phil. 2:3; 1 Peter 3:8). However, God can also make people humble by testing them or bringing low the proud (Deut. 8:2, 16; Eze. 17:14), while at the same time giving grace and honor to the humble (Prov. 15:33; 1 Peter 5:6).
So how does one move from pride to humility? One of the biblical stories that portrays this most clearly is that of Nebuchadnezzar. The Book of Daniel follows his journey, which includes the following principles.
God never gives up on anyone. Nebuchadnezzar was full of arrogance and pride in the first few chapters of Daniel. In chapter 1, God gave Israel into Nebuchadnezzar’s hands, but he sought to indoctrinate Daniel and his three friends by giving them new names and a new diet (Dan. 1:5–7). God then gave him a dream in chapter 2 that was tailored specifically to him, with imagery and elements similar to well-known ancient Near Eastern myths.1 Yet Nebuchadnezzar did not even trust his counselors, and sought to kill all those who did not do his bidding. God then gave Daniel the interpretation, and Nebuchadnezzar was convinced by it and agreed that God is above all other gods (2:47). But, after a revolt in the Babylonian provinces, Nebuchadnezzar built a statue completely of gold in Daniel 3, likely indicating he believed his kingdom was to last forever.2 He was even willing to kill all those who would not bow to it, claiming that no god could deliver from him. Yet God still did not give up on him, working a miracle to save Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego (3:21–28). Despite all this, Nebuchadnezzar still chose to take the glory to himself for the construction of Babylon in Daniel 4. God then gave him another dream, and more interpretations through Daniel, followed by a humbling time that finally got through to him. God is in it for the long haul; patiently working over years and years to reach the hearts of even the most proud and powerful rulers.
God uses the humility and faith of others to impact the proud. Though Daniel and his three friends were innocent, they paid the price of the rebellion of their people and were taken into captivity (1:1–4). However, God was able to use their presence in Babylon to bring Nebuchadnezzar from pride to humility, and even to faith in Him. First of all, God gave them wisdom and understanding far above that of anyone else, meaning that the king chose them to work in close proximity to him. In Daniel 2, God gave Daniel the ability to interpret the king’s dream, and he told Nebuchadnezzar that only God can give these secrets. Even before Daniel interpreted the dream correctly, Nebuchadnezzar was willing to listen to him and paused the killing of the wisemen accordingly (2:16–19). Daniel’s humility was a testimony to the proud monarch, as he gave glory to God for the interpretation. Nebuchadnezzar then acknowledged that “‘God is God of gods and Lord of kings, and a revealer of mysteries’” (2:47).3
In Daniel 3, after the three friends of Daniel did not bow down to the statue, Nebuchadnezzar did not immediately kill them as he had threatened (3:13–15). Though their faith in God initially made the king furious, he recognized the supernatural character of the fourth man in the furnace. After the miracle of their salvation, the king blessed God, and decreed death for anyone who spoke against the God of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego (vss. 28, 29). Even though he was still trying to force obedience at this point, the humility and faith of Daniel and his three friends had made a significant impact on Nebuchadnezzar.
The journey to humility is lifelong, and includes conversion and a change of heart. Daniel 4 reflects the changed heart of Nebuchadnezzar. He begins his proclamation with an injunction: “‘Peace be multiplied to you!’” (4:1) This is opposite of his previous death threats and prideful words. He continues by noting that God has blessed him personally, and he wants to share it with everyone on earth (vss. 1, 2). Nebuchadnezzar uses language similar to that of the Exodus accounts, implying that he learned from Daniel about God’s “signs” and “wonders” for Israel and now sees that God has similarly delivered him (vs. 3). In sharing this personal testimony about his humiliation with his whole kingdom, Nebuchadnezzar exhibits a true change of heart, identifying now with God and God’s people, rather than trying to keep up an image of perfection and prosperity.
Through all of the events described above, God was working through the years of Nebuchadnezzar’s life. Daniel clearly had been working for the conversion of the king, as he did not wish the dream in Daniel 4 to be true for Nebuchadnezzar (vs. 19). At the end of his interpretation, Daniel called the king to repentance, implying that he had hoped and longed for this already (vs. 27). Even though the king still took credit to himself, God gently worked with him and protected him, as no one usurped his throne during his illness.
As an animal, Nebuchadnezzar was finally able to understand God’s sovereignty. After he was restored to humanity, it becomes clear that the king had become a true follower of God. He blessed God, praising and honoring Him, acknowledging that it is God’s kingdom that will last forever (vs. 34). Nebuchadnezzar does not even call himself king in these last verses, simply stating “‘I, Nebuchadnezzar’” (vss. 34, 37). At the same time, he chose to “‘praise and extol and honor the King of heaven,’” indicating that he now understood God as the true king (vs. 37). Nebuchadnezzar closes his treatise by stating that “‘those who walk in pride [God] is able to humble’” (vs. 37), fully embracing and testifying about his past mistakes, punishment, and restoration by God.
Certainly, this is a beautiful and powerful conversion story and an incredible example of a journey from pride to humility. But practically, what do we today have to do with an ancient king and his pride? Likely none of us is so wealthy or powerful. Yet this story gives us indications of steps we can take to limit the pride in our lives. They can be summarized with the following acronym:
Proportion—seek for balance when sharing about yourself, focusing less on accomplishments;
Relationships—seek to highlight others more than yourself, building community;
Identity—find your value and self-worth in God, not in your titles or achievements;
Direction—consider the trajectory of your work, whether advancing yourself or God’s kingdom;
Examination of your own heart—ask God to reveal where you need humility, rather than pointing out the pride of others.
From a proud and arrogant monarch, Nebuchadnezzar ended up as a humble follower of God. His journey to humility involves these same five elements, seen clearly in Daniel 4. Nebuchadnezzar focused on his testimony, not his accomplishments (proportion); he uplifted Daniel and promoted peace to all (relationships); he praised God and not himself (identity); he highlighted everything God had done, not his own greatness (direction); and he talked about his mistakes with honesty, rather than highlighting his power or the pride of others (examination of his own heart).
Ultimately, God will change our hearts if we let Him, just as He did for Nebuchadnezzar. God is patient in growing our humility and faith. God is in it for the long haul, seeking to transform our characters and remove pride from our hearts.
“Clothe yourselves, all of you, with humility toward one another, for ‘God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble.’ Humble yourselves, therefore, under the mighty hand of God so that at the proper time he may exalt you” (1 Peter 5:5, 6).