I just came back from a week of teaching biblical counseling to a group of pastors-in-training. Some are church planters; some will be serving as staff pastors; some are awaiting assignment. It was a privilege and joy to work with them on both the theology and the practical ministry of biblical counseling, and they were eager and grateful for the training. There are times when ministry is really fulfilling, and this was one of those times.
Then an interesting thing happened in my devotions the next day. I’m reading through Augustine’s Confessions (just because I’ve never actually gotten through it), and I happened to drop into a section where he addresses the issue of pride. I haven’t thought about pride much lately. There was a time in my ministry where biblical counseling meant identifying where pride was lurking in the human heart and calling for repentance. Over time I began to realize that pride is so common in our hearts that it really didn’t move the level of insight very far to point it out. But now I wonder if I sometimes get too sophisticated in how I help people discern what’s happening in their lives. Do I ignore pride even if it seems to be the elephant in the room? Do I ignore it if it is the elephant in my own room?
When the Elephant in My Room is Pride
The Bible is pretty clear on pride. Pride is not from God but from the world (1 John 2:16). Pride will bring us down (Prov. 29:23; 16:18) and bring disgrace (Prov. 11:2). Jesus said that it is one of the defiling expressions of a heart opposed to God (Mark 7:22). It is one of those pervasive heart problems that can drive a life like few other struggles can. It can even drive good things we do in ministry.
Coming off a week that I’d count as a ministry high point, Augustine’s own ponderings on pride are a timely adjustment on the love of ministry success. Augustine was a man of profound gifts and abilities that he used to serve God’s people. Yet he was aware of the allure of ministry success, and maybe even more so of the tricky tendency to find self-worth in the gifts that make ministry possible. He located in his heart a particular pride that drove him to use his gifts to increase his esteem. Augustine laid this before the Lord in confession this way:
If a person is lauded for some gift that you have given him, and he derives more joy from being praised than for possessing the gift which earns the praise, he too is accepting praise which in your sight is a sham. Even the one who extols him is better off than the one so esteemed, for the former at least appreciates God’s gift in a human being, whereas the other prizes what humans give him more than the gift of God.
Read that again slowly. What Augustine is identifying is the tendency to find satisfaction in the esteem others place in our ministry. We talk about valuing the Giver more than the gifts. But Augustine takes it one step deeper. We can actually value the praise of others for our gifts in a way that drives how we use them. Oh, this is a tricky, slippery slope for me. I know how to say humble words, how to give praise to God for any human praise that comes my way. But if I’m doing what I’ve been trained to do, what I’ve been gifted to do, pride in my heart begins to expect plaudits and to want those affirmations. For me to feel fulfilled in ministry my flesh needs the esteem of others.
Hankering for Praise
Sometimes the only way I can see this in my life is when I’m not affirmed for what I’ve done in ministry. Augustine says it this way:
If a good life characterized by noble works inevitably and rightly entails being commended, neither the good life nor the resultant commendation can be renounced. Yet only when something pleasant has been withdrawn can I be sure of my ability to live without it, either contentedly or perhaps with reluctance… a hankering for praise will garner every little tribute of approval it can beg, to bolster some fancied pre-eminence of its own. This is a real temptation to me.
And to me as well. And to you. The further we go in ministry, the more we’re susceptible to the kind of pride that can access the approval of others through the skillful deployment of our gifts and talents. You don’t need to be a bishop (like Augustine), a preacher, or church leader to experience this. Counselors and shepherds of people can know how to wield words and wisdom to “garner every little tribute of approval.”
I am truly grateful for the blessing of God that allows my gifts and experience to be used for his glory. I’m equally grateful for the words of Augustine so well placed in my path by the Holy Spirit the day after a ministry success. I’m thankful for the regular failures and ineptitude in ministry that remind me that getting good at this is not the answer. And I’m needful of the gospel call in passages like 1 Peter 5:5-7, which reminds me that there is provision of grace under the mighty hand of God even for pride-challenged people like me.
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, casting all your anxieties on him, because he cares for you.
Join the Conversation
How do you navigate success or affirmation in your ministry? Would you have an awareness of the snare of pride? How do you guard yourself against using your gifts and skills for your own esteem?
Note: The quotations above are from The Confessions, translated by Maria Boulding (New City Press, 1997).