Grace, pride, and humility

Some of you know that I grew up in the San Francisco area, across the bay in Oakland. Naturally, I’m a fan of the Golden State Warriors, and particularly of Steph Curry, who is regarded by many as the greatest shooter the game has ever seen.

Curry is a believer who routinely points a finger skyward to give glory to God when he makes a shot, and is known as a humble player with an unusually unselfish, team-first mentality. Perhaps nowhere was this more evident than in Curry’s readiness to relinquish his starting role at the beginning of this year’s playoffs, something a player of his caliber and competitiveness would never be expected to do.

Naturally, I was delighted to watch the Warriors win their fourth championship this year, after two injury-plagued seasons that left people wondering if they’d ever reach the top of the mountain again. Their victory silenced the nay-sayers, particularly those who predicted they couldn’t win after the departure of Kevin Durant.

Still… as much as I enjoy rooting for the Warriors, I’m not so fond of the gesture Steph spontaneously adopted during the playoffs: in the waning minutes, after sinking another dagger of a shot, he’d place his hands next to his head like a pillow and mime going to sleep. And in case anyone missed the meaning of the gesture, Curry tweeted two simple words after dispatching the Boston Celtics in six games with an MVP-caliber performance: “Night night.” The tweet went viral, and so has the gesture: Warriors fans can even get it on a t-shirt to show off their pride.

I get it: the energy, the emotion, the competitive spirit. This year’s NBA Finals was great basketball and entertaining theater. No one can question Steph’s greatness as an individual player, and equally importantly, as a supportive and trustworthy teammate. He richly deserves every accolade he’s received, and then some.

But honestly, I could do without the nighty-night.

. . .

James, as we’ve seen in previous posts, chides his readers for the way their selfish ambition and thirst for status is at the root of church conflict. He goes as far as to call them “adulterers” for the way they’ve sold out to the worldly values of the Roman Empire, implicitly spurning their covenant relationship with God.

Not to worry, though. God’s grace is always available to those who will humble themselves to receive it:

But God gives all the more grace; therefore it says, “God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble.” (James 4:6, NRSVUE)

He seems to be freely quoting Proverbs 3:34 — “Toward the scorners he is scornful, but to the humble he shows favor.” In context, “the proud” would be the double-minded believers who seem to care more about increasing their social status than loving their neighbor. This is not a matter of having a sense of fulfillment or satisfaction in a job well done, as in “taking pride in one’s work.” Nor is it the kind of pride we take in our kids when they’ve worked hard and diligently in school (regardless of their grades), or have shown they have strong moral fiber.

The kind of pride James is addressing is a pride infected by arrogance, the satisfaction found in being bigger, more powerful, more influential, more celebrated than someone else. It’s a pride that raises a person up by pushing someone else down.

The alternative, of course, is humility. But we have to be careful not to get this twisted. James isn’t saying, “God doesn’t like it when you toot your own horn. So just shut up about it, and let God toot your horn instead.” He isn’t talking about a display of modesty, and certainly not about humblebragging (I love that there’s finally a word for this).

Rather, the Hebrew word translated as “humble” in Proverbs 3:34 is the one we’ve seen repeatedly in our study of the Psalms, and most recently in our meditations on Psalm 74: the anawim are not so much the “humble” as they are the “humiliated,” the oppressed, the poor, the afflicted.

James, in other words, is not telling people to merely dial down the arrogance. He wants them to see clearly the way their behavior has hurt others. He wants them to grieve what God grieves. He wants them to do a spiritual gut check: how much do they really want the things of God?

His grace is freely available, even in the face of their adulterous ambition.

But if they don’t want it humbly, James suggests, they don’t really want it, and shouldn’t expect it.