By Bill Delvaux, Crosswalk.com
Hubris is not an everyday word in our vocabulary, but it is a significant word because of the menace it represents.
Hubris is also a word used by the ancient Greeks with the same basic spelling and pronunciation we have today.
The Meaning of Hubris in Mythological and Biblical Context
In short, hubris is excessive pride. It is it arrogance on steroids.
There are many examples of hubris from the Greek myths, for it was the recurrent tragic flaw in the main characters. The most famous example is Achilles from Homer’s Iliad.
As a prize for victory in war against the Trojans, he is awarded a Trojan woman, only to have her stolen from him by King Agamemnon. The king is later sorry and seeks to make amends with Achilles, but Achilles refuses to accept the apology.
He is too proud to accept such apologies even though they were a part of the social code of the day. Instead, he remains furious with Agamemnon. His uncontrolled anger leads to a series of tragic events that culminates in the death of his best friend.
Achilles’ story is also memorialized in the term Achilles heel. When he was born, his mother held him by the heel and dipped him in the River Styx so that he would become invulnerable everywhere the water touched him. But that left his heel exposed.
Later in life, this is the place where he was pierced by a poisoned arrow and died. So the Achilles heel is any flaw that leads to a person’s downfall. For Achilles, as for many others throughout history, it was hubris.
Moving from Greek myths to the Bible, we find the same idea.
Although there are other words used for pride, when the Greek word hubris is used, it denotes an excessive pride that is insolent and mocking.
In a broader theological sense, hubris is the result of falling prey to Adam’s temptation to become godlike on our own. We set ourselves up as better, higher, and grander than others. We elevate ourselves into the place of God and then become the judge and jury over others.
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Hubris Represents the Wreckage Caused by Pride
Hubris is thus the final outworking of continually caving into the more common temptation of pride. And the result is always tragic. Much of this involves the trail of relational wreckage that is left behind.
Those unfortunate enough to be around such a person are used, mistreated, abused, and then tossed aside. In today’s psychological parlance, such a person is called a narcissistic personality.
But whatever the nomenclature, the result is the same. There is a downfall. One who lives a life of hubris will eventually topple into tragedy. All the ancient myths and biblical stories say the same thing. We live in a moral universe. We don’t break those moral laws. They end up breaking us.
Two Classic Examples of Hubris in the Bible
The first one is Samson from the book of Judges.
When the Spirit of God comes on him, he is given herculean strength against Israel’s enemies and delivers them from foreign domination. But the rest of his character is shot through with hubris. He is insolent toward friends and family.
He is used to getting his way. And he lets anger and revenge drive him. But in the end, he is captured by the Philistines and blinded.
The other classic example of hubris is Satan himself.
Hints of his shocking arrogance are described in the denunciations of enemy kings in the Old Testament. Here is one example from Isaiah: “I will ascend to heaven; I will raise my throne above the stars of God…I will make myself like the Most High” (14:13-14).
The great angel, Lucifer, whose name means bringing light, gives in to hubris and seeks to usurp God Himself. Instead of being a reflection of God’s light, he becomes a black hole of insolence, mockery, depravity, and atrocity.
His spiritual downfall becomes the paradigm for all who follow in his train. He is cast down from heaven into a place of utter desolation—into hell. Milton in Paradise Lost, best summarized Satan’s hubris with this statement he uttered: “Better to reign in hell than serve in heaven.”
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Can Anyone Fall Prey to Hubris?
All of this may be interesting and even instructive, but what about us? We all struggle with pride of one sort or another. But what about hubris? Can we fall prey to this as well?
I think the answer I must give is yes, even though I do so with sadness. Here is one way I have seen it happen. A pastor with a great gift for oratory captures the hearers of his congregation. The church grows by leaps and bounds. His authority and influence grow in like measure. But he has no accountability and persistently resists attempts to rein him in.
His power and fame have seduced him, and he gives in to hubris.
As he continues down this path, those who work with him are increasingly manipulated and anyone who crosses his path is maligned. The outcome of such a course is the tragic downfall of pastors in large churches that have garnered so much recent media attention.
It grieves me every time I see this.
But this same scenario can be played out by the believer who is the CEO of a large company, or the doctor with great healing skill, or the elite athlete, or the gifted musician, or the well-known author.
These examples all have in common the temptations of fame and power that can lead to hubris.
But hubris can even happen with the father who is so preoccupied with his reputation and career that he cannot see or respond to the needs of his wife and children. He may be a stellar employee on the upswing in his company, but at home he is a nightmare.
How to Avoid Hubris
Here are a few ways we can keep ourselves from playing out this tragedy:
1. Humble yourself before God. Admit your sins daily and receive His forgiveness.
2. Humble yourself before others. We all need at least one or two friends to whom we can admit our deepest flaws and sins.
3. Receive correction. When you are confronted about something, listen before defending yourself. Even if what is said is not accurate, often there is a grain of truth to consider. We all have a hard time seeing the effect we have on others, both good or bad.
4. Spend a few minutes in thanksgiving every day. It’s impossible to stay in a state of hubris and thanks at the same time. They are oil and water. To give thanks is to acknowledge the God who is above you, to whom you owe your very existence, and from whom you receive innumerable and unbidden blessings.
5. Be intentional about asking questions of others and then listening. Listening itself is another antidote to the poison of hubris. It helps us get outside of our small world and into the worlds of others.
Verses Addressing Hubris in the Bible
Remembering some of these classic verses on hubris from the Bible can also help:
When pride comes, then comes disgrace, but with humility comes wisdom. – Prov. 11:2
Pride brings a person low, but the lowly in spirit gain honor. – Prov. 29:23
God opposes the proud but shows favor to the humble. Humble yourselves, therefore, under God’s mighty hand, that he may lift you up in due time. – 1 Peter 5:5-6
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The Difference between Hubris and Humility
It is important to note the contrast between hubris and humility as depicted in these verses. The excessive pride that leads to hubris also leads to a downfall. That downfall is not only the necessary consequence of such a lifestyle, but it is also due to God’s active opposition. He will push back against such insolence.
But note the other side. Humility is a willingness to let God be God and to enjoy being His child. With humility comes wisdom and honor and God’s favor.
What more could we want in this life? Here is the way I like to remember it:
When we choose hubris, we may set our sights on going up, but we set ourselves up for falling down.
When we choose humility instead, we let ourselves go down and find that God lifts us up.
A Prayer for Protection against Hubris
Use these words to make your own prayer. We all need to pray against hubris. None of us is above the temptation.
Father, I know that you are Lord of all and Lord over all. You sent your Son to set up Your kingdom of light and love on this earth. With all of my heart, I long to be a part of that kingdom, where you are King and I am your servant, where you are Father and I am your child, where you are Lover and I am your beloved.
I know that pride and hubris move me in the exact opposite direction, where I seek to become my own king and lord, to the destruction of my soul and the destruction of those around me. You have promised to make me like Jesus, in whom there was no pride, no insolence, no hubris. He was your Servant, your Son, your Beloved. And through His humility, the world has been forever changed.
Make me more like Him. Shape me into His image of humble love. I know that this is my truest self. And I believe that this is my truest joy. Amen.
However you may have seen hubris operate around you or however much you have felt the temptation, you do not need to succumb to a tragic downfall.
Go ahead and go down now. Choose the path of humility. What awaits you is a life of blessing and beauty, one that reflects Jesus to a restless and aching world.
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Bill Delvaux is a graduate of Duke University and Trinity Evangelical Divinity School. He has been a church planter, a high school Bible teacher, and a running coach. Seven years ago, he pioneered Landmark Journey Ministries to help men find their guide, own their identity, and discover their quest through Christ. His latest book is Heroic: The Surprising Path to True Manhood. His greatest claim to fame is being married to Heidi for 34 years and having two amazing daughters. He and his wife currently reside in Franklin, TN. Bill can be reached at [email protected].