As the old saying goes: at the heart of pride, just as at the heart of sin, is “I.” There is nothing wrong with a healthy self-identity, of course, or with the use of personal pronouns, but the point the saying makes is that we can get into a world of trouble by making ourselves the center of the universe.
In that sense, it is as we begin to elevate the personal “I” above others, and ultimately place ourselves ahead of God in our view of things, that self-identity morphs into pride and pride into sin. Consider, for example, the words of the prophet Isaiah spoken against the king of Babylon. Since medieval times, at least, these verses have often been thought to be also spoken metaphorically against the power behind that king’s throne in the form of Satan himself, but the identity of the one addressed is not as important as the clear picture of pride the words give us, because the picture applies wherever pride is found:
“How you have fallen from heaven, morning star, son of the dawn! You have been cast down to the earth, you who once laid low the nations! You said in your heart, 'I will ascend to the heavens; I will raise my throne above the stars of God; I will sit enthroned on the mount of assembly, on the utmost heights of Mount Zaphon. I will ascend above the tops of the clouds; I will make myself like the Most High'” (Isaiah 14:12-14).
When we separate out the statements of the one whose attitude of pride is condemned in these verses, we get a striking picture of self-identity gone terribly wrong, of the personal pronoun out of control:
“I will ascend to the heavens”
“I will raise my throne above the stars of God”
“I will sit enthroned on the mount of the assembly”
“I will ascend above the tops of the clouds”
“I will make myself like the Most High.”
Wrongful pride always involves the expression of one or more of the four aspects of self-elevation – focus on person, possessions, position, or power. In this case, we see excessive focus on all four very clearly. The constant use of the first person pronoun is the first thing we notice, and although, as we said above, there is nothing wrong with use of the “first person” in speech, when we so obviously put our person first – before all others – there is clearly a problem.
The second thing we notice is the element of possession: "my throne" and the element of position. In every statement we see a dissatisfaction with present position and a desire to be elevated. The desire for position is not the same as that for power. Numerous studies have shown, for example, that office workers will often give up responsibilities and privileges they have – accept an actual loss of power – to gain a new title that gives them more status.
But power is also an aspect of pride which cannot be ignored. There is a clear lust for power in all of the statements of the prideful one, culminating in the desire to be not only elevated, but also to be like God himself, to have God-like power.
Throughout Isaiah 14:12-14 we see the focus on person, possessions, position and power that reveals the heart of sinful pride. Notice, too, that other than desire for power like God, there is not a single mention of anyone else in any of these statements – every statement begins with an expression of self-identity and ends in a goal of self-elevation.
By contrast, think of the many statements of Christ in his earthly life that reveal the very opposite attitude. “For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many" (Mark 10:45) and “… I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full” (John 10:10) are only two examples of this pride-less state of mind.
When we look at other individuals in the Bible who were close to God, we find the same attitude. Take King David, for example. David’s humility is often clear in his writings and the biblical books that speak of him. His position as king did not affect his view of himself relative to God, and David often doesn’t refer to himself as “I” or “me” but as “Your servant” (Psalm 119:23, etc.) – the very opposite attitude to that described by Isaiah.
For the Christian, this attitude is a vital one. If, like Paul, we are to say: “I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me” (Galatians 2:20), then the person whose identity we seek is not our own self, the position we seek is not an elevated one, our possessions are viewed as being for the benefit of others as well as ourselves, and the power we seek is only to help others.
Whenever we realize that the ongoing focus of our thoughts or speech is on our own self, our possessions, our position relative to others, or some power we may seek, we should remember the words of Isaiah, and that it is precisely these things that lie at the heart of wrongful pride.