One of the most quoted sayings from Proverbs is almost always transmitted inaccurately. The idea that “pride goes before the fall” lines up with biblical teaching, but Proverbs 16:18 has something more powerful to say when quoted in full.
“Pride goes before destruction, and a haughty spirit before a fall.” The words typically missing from this misquoted Proverb are “destruction and a haughty spirit.” Another error in the misquote is that pride goes before the fall.
Most translations say, “a fall,” using an indefinite article to generalize their comment, or “fall” is replaced by “stumbling” without an article. The Fall is a precise moment in human history, original sin. A fall or stumbling refers to sin, error, or humiliation more generally.
Destruction, or “sheber” in Hebrew, means “a breaking, fracture, crushing, breach, crash.” The Proverb says that haughty arrogance comes before a breach, a fracture between a person and God.
The Lord is Sovereign, but Adam and Eve wanted their independence from him. Sin corrupted the perfect unity between God and humans, which had existed before this first sin.
The first humans haughtily allowed Satan to undermine God’s trustworthiness and authority leading to a tragically fractured relationship.
“Sin when it is fully grown brings forth death” (James 1:15). The world started to fall apart from the smallest cell to the tallest mountain. Nature broke down.
Human beings began hurting, enslaving, and even killing each other. The breach did not start with that first bite, however; it started with pride.
What Is Pride?
Nicky Gumble comments that negative, sinful pride is “an excessively high opinion of one’s own worth or importance; it suggests arrogant or overbearing conduct. It is the independent spirit that says, ‘I have no need of God.’ Arguably, therefore, it is at the root of all sin.”
Whenever someone sins, this is a conscious decision to turn away from God. R.C. Sproul calls it “cosmic treason.” “Every sin, no matter how seemingly insignificant, is an act of rebellion against the sovereign God who reigns and rules over us and as such is an act of treason against the cosmic King.”
Proverbs 8:13 declares, “The fear of the Lord is hatred of evil. Pride and arrogance and the way of evil and perverted speech I hate.” If a person is prideful, he does not fear the Lord.
Unless one acknowledges and worships God as Sovereign, and our position as children made to love and obey him, one cannot recognize sin for what it is: rebellion.
The Opposite Is Humility
“Those whom I love, I reprove and discipline, so be zealous and repent” (Revelation 3:19). A repentant spirit turns to God, away from sin, confesses, and desires to be changed.
The process is often frightening because one must be willing to admit that he or she needs the Lord’s forgiveness. Sanctification is a threat to pride.
The Lord knows what a person has done, thought, or said; it’s at his or her heart. The humble penitent acknowledges sin, faces up to it, asks forgiveness of God, then authentically seeks spiritual refinement.
The individual who fills his or her heart with God’s Word and seeks the Lord’s will is more likely to act and speak from a place of love and humility.
When this person sins, the process of spiritual refinement enables him or her to more quickly recognize that sin and confess it.
Repentance becomes less frightening though no less important or serious. The humble individual truly seeks to be obedient. He or she sees sin as an unbearable weight, an obstacle to obedience, realizes what it cost Jesus, and wants to be rid of it.
Confessing the sin and receiving forgiveness is a huge relief. To the prideful person, however, obedience to God interferes with personal satisfaction.
There are usually many reasons why a Bible verse is misquoted:
1. It has been detached from its biblical context. Accidental or intentional, God’s purpose for those words is lost, distorted, or softened as in the case of Proverbs 16:18. Many proverbs are regarded as merely wise sayings with no spiritual association.
2. Pride and sin are closely linked when one adds “destruction” and a “haughty spirit.” Today’s audiences, both Christian and non-Christian, tend to avoid the word “sin.”
In an age when self-esteem is all-important, regarding oneself as a sinner is seen as destructive. Meanwhile, Paul wrote that “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23).
This is a leveling truth — one does not lose face in the sight of God according to his or her failings, although this also means one cannot be elevated in the sight of God according to earthly accomplishments.
3. Proverbs 16:18 quoted properly connects sin with destruction — death, hell. The topic of hell, like sin, makes even Christians uncomfortable.
“People often feel that hell is some great blemish on God’s love. The Bible presents it as the opposite. Hell magnifies for us the love of God by showing us how far God went, and how much he went through, to save us,” wrote J.D. Greear.
A growing number of Christians would like to argue that a loving God does not send people to hell, so they avoid the topic of destruction and pride, which prevents people from asking forgiveness for their sins.
Is the Misquoted Proverb Still Useful?
Pride does precede sin, and pride preceded the first sin. But misquoted, Proverbs 16:18 does not lead to Jesus. Instead, this saying has more in common with the karmic idea that a bad attitude will lead to finite earthly consequences, public failures, and mistakes, not destruction.
An arrogant person will miss out on a promotion or come last in a race. When someone brags and then fails, this is particularly humiliating.
Avoid bragging and failure will lose poignancy because no one will know but you. One might argue that the focus here is on the public face of failure, which leads to shame.
When the spiritual nature of this statement is attached as per a correct reading of Proverbs 16:18, however, we remember that pride is fundamentally an attitude towards God. The writer is not concerned with the public perspective but inward sin.
If one is privately haughty, God still knows even if there is no element of public failure. A prideful heart forms a barrier between the individual and God.
Jesus’ Response to Pride
The opposite of Proverbs 16:18 can be seen in Christ. Sometimes our pride rises up in response to unfair treatment and unjust accusations. Jesus was falsely accused and unjustly punished. He suffered a humiliating death.
His followers dispersed and it appeared for a short while that he was just one more fraudulent Messiah, or well-meaning but powerless and deluded. Jesus did not speak up for himself but allowed his resurrection to speak for itself.
Speaking up is often right when one desires to glorify and obey God. An eternal reward is offered to the one who puts God’s commandments ahead of any personal agenda. Sometimes, this means that truth does not come out right away, or maybe not this side of eternity.
Your Pride, Your Cross
Jesus told us to pick up our cross and follow him. Like our Savior, we must let go of pride, and this is no easy feat. We will be rejected, insulted, and humiliated the way he was. Much of our emotional suffering will stem from a yearning to be valued by a world that rejects us.
Instead of pursuing earthly happiness or success, our concern is an “eternal weight of glory” (2 Corinthians 4:17). Even if we are hurt by others through no fault of our own, we are still able to overcome pride, which doubts God’s goodness and his plan, and claim his promises with confidence.
This confidence prevents us from looking for justice or lamenting unfairness for our own sakes. We can be sure of our salvation if we have truly given our lives to Jesus, even when we are caught being prideful, but pride sets us up for emotional and spiritual disappointment.
A haughty spirit steals the peace we enjoy when we find significance not in public esteem but in our standing as children of God.
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Candice Lucey is a freelance writer from British Columbia, Canada, where she lives with her family. Find out more about her here.