Now listen, you who say, “Today or tomorrow we will go to this or that city, spend a year there, carry on business and make money.” Why, you do not even know what will happen tomorrow. What is your life? You are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes. Instead, you ought to say, “If it is the Lord’s will, we will live and do this or that.” As it is, you boast in your arrogant schemes. All such boasting is evil. If anyone, then, knows the good they ought to do and doesn’t do it, it is sin for them.
Now listen, you rich people, weep and wail because of the misery that is coming on you. Your wealth has rotted, and moths have eaten your clothes. Your gold and silver are corroded. Their corrosion will testify against you and eat your flesh like fire. You have hoarded wealth in the last days.
-James 4:13-5:3 (NIV)
Good news. I’ve found something new to be prideful about. It’s about time: I was tired of the same old things.
This newest source of egomania comes to me weekly in the form of an email. It’s from a company that has created a grammar-checker app that can be embedded in the web browsers, word processors, and email clients that you use. It works like a spell-checker, only it makes sure your participles aren’t dangling and your infinitives aren’t split. (Which sounds way worse than it is, by the way.)
Here’s the neat thing: this weekly email from the company gives me my statistics for the week.
These are last week’s:
I was more productive than 82% of the users of the app.
I was more accurate than 98%.
I used more unique words than 74%.
Now you see why I’m so proud of myself, don’t you?
I’m joking, of course. But, well, not entirely. I was really proud of that 98%. I was kind of disappointed…no, crestfallen…doleful…woebegone…about that 74% in usage of unique words. Part of me knows that the email is mainly a marketing gimmick to get me to buy the “pro” version of the app. But part of me is still unreasonably proud of how well it thinks I write.
It doesn’t take much, does it, to make us proud of ourselves? My grammar usage is just the silliest source of pride for me, and therefore the easiest to “confess.” I can sort of wink at it, poke a little fun at myself. But if I was really confessing I’d have to own up to other forms of pride — and their consequences — that aren’t funny at all.
You might reasonably ask if it’s even such a bad thing to take some pride in your work, your accomplishments, your success. Don’t we sometimes wonder at people who debase themselves? Don’t they have any pride in themselves? we ask. Don’t we tell our kids regularly that we’re proud of their accomplishments, their hard work, their character? Surely we do, and I wouldn’t want to tell you that expecting people to take pride in themselves or letting your kids know how proud you are of them or feeling good about the things you’re able to accomplish are negative things. In fact, I’d say a lack of appropriate pride can create as many problems as inappropriate pride does. To fail to tell a child she’s done well when she has or to recognize someone for a job well done is to cause resentment and undermine achievement.
That said, there are forms of pride that Scripture consistently and unanimously warns us against. What the Bible seems to mean with its frequent condemnations of pride is what we’d more often call arrogance. It’s one thing to be proud of the things you do well. It’s quite another to let that pride inflate your sense of self-importance to the point that you see yourself as superior to others. It’s quite another to let that inflated sense of self-importance make you blind to your dependence on God and to his call on your life.
James says that our calendar events ought to include the note, “if the Lord wills.” I knew a guy who used to attach that suffix to every mention he made of future plans. Sometimes he’d even do it for someone else: “I’ll meet you Thursday for lunch.” “Lord willing.” That might strike you as a little extreme. You may doubt that what James wanted was literally for people to attach a phrase like that to every plan they make. But this guy was trying to let the reminder that “we are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes” push against the human tendency to “boast in [our] arrogant schemes.” Scripture suggests that a misplaced confidence in our own competencies leads to a dismissal of the necessity of God’s grace in allowing us to live and carry out those plans.
If you don’t think it matters, look at what James thinks will happen when we become too proud of ourselves and fail to acknowledge God’s place at the center of all our plans and all our successes. He leads us to glimpse a future where all our accomplishments have rotted and corroded, and we’re left with nothing but misery. He warns us that the end of that kind of pride and arrogance is a life in which we line our pockets at the expense of others and live in luxury and self-indulgence. And that what that arrogance has caused us to withhold from those in need will “cry out against” us before God.
To hear some of us — and sometimes it is believers — argue against care for the poor by saying “no one ever gave me anything” is to be reminded that the arrogance James warns us about lives on. To believe in the grace and generosity of God, however, is to believe that none of us are self-made men and women. We have talents and abilities and strengths, but receiving them and having the opportunities to develop them are in one way or another the gift of God. We may earn our salaries or wages, but long before we had marketable skills that translate into those salaries and wages God was at work in our lives, providing opportunities to learn and grow despite the many variables that might have derailed us. And the moment we start to think that in some way or another we’re more deserving of success than anyone else is the moment we fall victim to arrogance.
It’s ingrained in our culture: we are the architects of our own prosperity. It lets us take the credit for all we accomplish while absolving us of the responsibility for those who aren’t so successful. It allows us to forget our relative weakness, our inability to predict even the nearest of futures, and the trivialities of most of our best-laid plans. To boast in any of that would be laughable if the stakes weren’t so high.
Instead of boasting in the plans we’ve made and the resources we bring to the table, James counsels patience. He reminds us of the way a farmer waits: he waits for the rain, he waits for the crop to grow and mature. He doesn’t mean, of course, that a farmer doesn’t work hard. Of course he does. But all his hard work is for naught if the rain doesn’t come, or the seed is bad, or pests or disease attack his fields.
So it is with us. Don’t boast of your achievements as though they make you better than anyone else. Don’t imagine that the plans you make or the work you do are the most important parts of the story of your life. As much as we’d like to think we’ve figured it all out, there is so much in our lives of which we have little or no control. And that’s why we trust in the God who is in control. That’s why we say, in everything, "If the Lord wills". And that’s why we wait for his coming, knowing that our lives will never be complete and our accomplishments will never find their true meaning and fall into their proper context until that day.
If only there was an app that could check for arrogance. I’d score high on that one too.