Commensurate with their creatureliness and their need for salvation, the humble will ask and receive gratefully what they need from God. But the proud will not ask and will not receive. Moreover, the proud will oppose God and his laws, and in so doing they will inevitably oppress the humble. When opposition is combined with power and wealth, it's even more dangerous, hence the cry of the orphans and widows. That's why God needs to oppose the proud to protect the humble.
First of all, what do Peter and James mean by being proud and humble? What are the Biblical definitions of pride and humility?
Like in the parable of the Pharisee and the Publican, the proud don't think they need God or God's mercy. In contrast, the humble know their status before God as CREATURE and their deficiency as SINNER.
Both 1 Peter 5:5-7 and James 4:6-10 quoted Proverb 3:34: "He mocks proud mockers but gives grace to the humble" (NIV). Let's look at a few other connotations of "proud" in the Old Testament, especially in our relationship to God:
- Ps 119:81-88: The proud hate God's instructions, and in fact try to trap and hunt down the psalmist (v. 85-86) who in contrast refused to abandon God's commandments (v. 87) and who is waiting for God to protect him (v. 86, v.88)
- Ps 138:6: In this verse, God keeps his distance from the proud. Why? Possibly in response to them keeping God away from their lives (cf. Ps 10:4: "The wicked are too proud to seek God"). Thus James 4:8 advise us to draw near to God.
- In 2 Kings 18:28-30,33 the Assyrian chief of staff boasted that the Assyrian god is more powerful than the gods of nations Assyria has already defeated, and why not the God of Israel too. In response, Isaiah called this "arrogance" (2 Kings 19:28) because they thought their power came from their own gods instead of from the God of Israel who allowed them to defeat those nations (2 Kings 19:25-26). The connotation here is that the proud forget that their achievements ultimately came from God.
In contrast, the humble acknowledge that:
- they are grateful beggars before God (needing God's sustaining their very existence), since they are mortal creatures like dust, grass and wildflowers (cf. Ps 103:14-16)
- they are dependent on God's wisdom (needing God's revelation), since they realize the limit of their knowledge and thus value God's revealed laws (cf. Ps 19:7-11) , and
- they are penitent sinners before God (needing God's mercy), since they realize their nature as law breakers (cf. Ps 19:12-13)
Why does God oppose the proud but give grace to the humble? What is the logic behind this principle/law?
Imagine a teenager that doesn't think she still need to learn from her teachers/parents, that she knows everything she needs in order to live in the world, that she can create her own rules, etc. This teenager has an unrealistic view of herself, and thereby closes herself from people who want to help her. Moreover, this "I don't need you" attitude turns off even those who want to disabuse her (for her own good) of this conceit. In the end, she will gravitate toward bad people around her who instead of correcting her they flatter her and thus making her susceptible to being used, leading to her ruin.
THE LOGIC: God honors human's free will. If we declare our independence from God, He will likewise maintains his distance from us. He doesn't give us grace if we don't want it. But the proud usually will do more than declaring independence. The proud will set up their own rules that are not Godly, and will end up persecuting the humble. Therefore, God will need to oppose the proud to protect the humble.
Is there something inherently wrong about being proud? Why is pride a bad thing?
Remember that 'proud' has several meanings in English. An example of an OK proud (meaning 2b) is when we are satisfied with our hard work in producing good, quality work such as raising a kid well, performing a piano piece well, etc. If it remains as satisfaction of a work well done, then all is well.
It is also OK to be pleased when we are praised for our accomplishment (meaning 1b, 1c). Don't confuse pride with vanity. Vanity is a much lesser sin in wanting excessive praise. Actually if we think receiving praise (when praise is due) is beneath us, it can be a sign of pride (see C.S. Lewis's insight on this in Mere Christianity).
This good-pride in our achievement becomes a sin-pride (meaning 1a, or 'prideful' meaning a) when:
- we become haughty, belittle, or refuse to associate with those who are beneath our achievement instead of helping them succeed
- we don't acknowledge the help we receive to get to where we are. That's why Oscar award ceremonies are replete with acknowledging parents, mentors, colleagues, etc.
- we refuse to accept defeat to a better competitor, especially in sports (lacking sportsmanship)
- we are jealous or envious to those who are better than we are
C.S. Lewis also points out that sin-pride is never just about satisfaction with ourselves, but always in competition with another. Why sin-pride is bad? If the other person is God, this pride results in our competing with God! It is both ridiculous and terrifying; ridiculous since as creature everything good we do God can do better, terrifying since God can quash us like a gnat. The higher one's achievement, the bigger the risk of forgetting that God is better, like the Assyrian chief of staff or like the Jerusalem proud and wealthy. That is also why Lucifer fell, as he is one of the higher ranking angels.
Is there something inherently good about being humble? Why is humility a good thing?
Humility is not lowering ourselves unnecessarily, but about
- having the correct assessment of oneself, including as creature before God, and
- being able to recognize and praise excellence in other people without being envious or jealous, including praising God.
Biblical humility before God has been described in my answer to your first question. It's a good thing because it opens ourselves to what we need, which God only gives to those who want them. Remember the beatitudes. More specifically:
- realizing we are mortal and frail like grass, we pray for protection
- realizing we cannot find the whole truth by ourselves, we obey God's revealed wisdom and law in the Bible instead of setting up our own moral laws or theology that doesn't give a place to God according to what He deserves
- realizing we continue to sin, we repent, which is the prerequisite for forgiveness
Another good thing for being humble is exaltation mentioned in the 2 passages you cited, which will happen when we are given our glorified bodies and reward in heaven (1 Pet 5:4). In the meantime, as a practical application of our humility before God:
- Peter reminds us to accept the authority of our church elders (1 Pet 5:5)
- James reminds us NOT to entertain evil desires coming from the world (James 4:1,4)
Resources for further study
- C.S. Lewis's Mere Christianity Book 3, Chapter 8
- C.S. Lewis Institute web article Pride and Humility (pdf version)
- crosswalk.com web article 6 Insights from C.S. Lewis on Why Pride is the Greatest Sin