Unless the LORD builds the house,
those who build it labor in vain.
Unless the LORD watches over the city,
the watchman stays awake in vain.
It is in vain that you rise up early
and go late to rest,
eating the bread of anxious toil;
for he gives to his beloved sleep.
In truth, Rome, which was founded and increased by the labours of these ancient heroes, was more shamefully ruined by their descendants, while its walls were still standing, than it is now by the razing of them.
City of God, 2.2, Augustine
Yes, 'tis sweet to trust in Jesus,
Just from sin and self to cease;
Just from Jesus simply taking
Life, and rest, and joy, and peace
‘Tis So Sweet, Louisa M.R. Stead
We are all proud. I don’t think this is terribly surprising. We want to see the effects of the work of our hands. It is quite nice when what you’ve envisioned comes to reality. I built the girls their playset. It’s almost there, maybe I’ll put some finishing touches on it next spring. It looks fine. I’ve set up my gardens, and I’m starting to like how they look. Ami has beautified my random plantings in the perennial beds. They’re quite lovely. I’ve split wood by hand that I’m now using to heat our home. You could probably list things that you are naturally proud of. I don’t think it’s wrong per se, there’s a natural satisfaction to working hard and seeing the result of that. Our goal, though, must be that our pride is properly placed. I’m glad to have built the playset, but it will come crumbling down one day. It’s not permanent, and the spiritual good of it is pretty low on the charts. What is essential is that we see the glory of the hand of the Lord in our lives as he builds our home and city. This isn’t necessarily the physical thing itself (although it can’t exclude it!). Instead, it is the whole kit and kaboodle. We can be proud of our grown-up child who is actually building a life devoted to God, and we can also acknowledge that this is all gift, it is all of grace. And at the end of the day, this is the sweetness of trusting in Jesus.
But our wrongful pride gets pricked and I think it gets pricked often. And we can often reel because of it. Perhaps this is a clue to whether our pride is in God or in ourselves. The Romans had this problem. Their city got destroyed by the Goths. The walls were torn down. The pride of the glory of Rome (which had some truly glorious achievements according to worldly standards) had come crumbling down. Who was to blame? Was there any understanding that it was their own immorality that led to their downfall (the Romans were very concerned about morality in a certain fashion)? No. Instead they blamed the Christians. To them, Rome fell because the Christians weren’t revering the Roman god who supposedly could protect them from disasters.
Now Augustine doesn’t say that it was Rome’s immorality that led to their downfall. He’s clear to note both God’s common grace and his permission of trials to both pagan and Christian. But he also wants the Romans to have clarity for themselves: you are totally missing it. You think that the piety of Christians had something to do with the downfall of your city? Because they don’t worship your gods? I think Augustine might have said something like this: you’re blinded by your own pride. There were plenty of other times Rome was captured, there were plenty of other times when Rome was wholly devoted to the gods but still suffered. Yet they were blind to the regular difficulties of the past and blanket blame the Christians as a scapegoat. No, it is your immorality, Rome, that has been terrible for centuries, and that ruined you long before there was this physical destruction.
So then. We shouldn’t be too quick to blame disaster on specific sin nor success on morality. Rome’s monarchy and her empire each lasted longer than the American experiment. Yet we apply this false legalistic worldview on the world around us. We think we built our world, and we can build our future. We think we hold our destiny in our hands, and with enough ingenuity and financial planning we’ll get to the end with ease. But Christ calls us to a different ethic. Shrewd faithfulness for the sake of the gospel. David Gooding said, ‘If when accounts are rendered and it becomes known in heaven that it was your sacrificial giving that provided the copies of the Gospel of John which led a whole tribe out of paganism to faith in Christ, will not that whole tribe show towards you an eternal gratitude which they will not show towards me who spent my spare cash on some luxury for my own enjoyment?’ This isn’t at the expense of paying our bills, but we shouldn’t neglect to give sacrificially. We act in a way to glorify God. We use our resources to make his name known. Jesus says in Luke 16, what’s going to happen when money dies out? What if we we’re not faithful with the unrighteous stuff here? Will we be entrusted with the true thing? Here is the joy of it all. As we live our lives, we labor trusting in God to build our house. Although this doesn’t negate planning for the future, it does alleviate the burden that we have to have all the right answers.
I think that is why our pride gets pricked. We’ve convinced ourselves that we have to have the right answers or that we can fully explain why we’re here today and what five things are essential for tomorrow. The author of Ecclesiastes found out that didn’t work too well, and said, the end of the matter is this. Fear God and keep his commandments. This is the sweetest place we can find ourselves in.