What are we to make of those who make much of their Humility?1
I’ve been reading through Jonathan Edwards’ classic treatise Religious Affections yet again and have been struck by his profound insights on the nature of true humility. Continue reading . . .
I’ve been reading through Jonathan Edwards’ classic treatise Religious Affections yet again and have been struck by his profound insights on the nature of true humility. True, godly humility, says Edwards, is “a sense that a Christian has of his own utter insufficiency, despicableness, and odiousness, with an answerable frame of heart.”
Edwards acknowledges that unregenerate people can feel a lowliness or smallness or natural humility when they are made aware of the greatness of God and their failure to honor him. But “they don’t see their own odiousness on the account of sin; they don’t see the hateful nature of sin. A sense of this is given in evangelical humiliation, by a discovery of the beauty of God’s holiness and moral perfection.” In other words, people often grovel and grieve when their sin is exposed, but it isn’t because of the intrinsic evil of having rebelled against and defied the God who is infinitely holy and immeasurably kind. They appear humble because they fear losing their family, losing their job, and losing their reputation. But losing their intimacy with Christ simply doesn’t register very highly with them.
Hypocrites are quite good at making much of their humility and speaking lowly of themselves and their attainments. Such folk loudly proclaim their lowliness and then expect others to praise them for it! They are quick to make known their failures and their humility but react with strong protest if someone in private should suggest that their claims to humility are feigned and superficial.
The fact is that "some who think themselves quite emptied of themselves, and are confident that they are abased in the dust, are full as they can hold with the glory of their own humility, and lifted up to heaven with an high opinion of their abasement. Their humility is a swelling, self-conceited, confident, showy, noisy, assuming humility. It seems to be the nature of spiritual pride to make men conceited and ostentatious of their humility.”
Although this sort of spiritual pride is insidious and often secret, there are at least two ways by which it may be seen.
(1) First, the person who is in the grip of spiritual pride is more likely to think highly of his attainments in spiritual growth when he compares himself with others. He is like the Pharisee who prayed, "God, I thank thee, that I am not as other men" (Luke 18:11). This is often manifested by how quick they are to assume the role of leader. They see themselves as uniquely qualified to teach and to guide and direct and manage and expect others to regard them as such and to yield to their authority in matters of faith.
The person of true humility, on the other hand, "is apt to think his attainments in religion to be comparatively mean and to esteem himself low among the saints, and one of the least of saints. Humility, or true lowliness of mind, disposes persons to think others better than themselves.” They are disposed to think others are eminently more qualified to teach and to lead. They posture themselves to hear and to learn rather than to speak and to instruct. When they do speak, it feels unnatural to do so boldly and with a masterful tone, for "humility disposes them rather to speak trembling.”
Those who are filled with spiritual pride are inclined to speak often of what they perceive to be the extraordinary nature of their religious experiences. This isn't to say that our experiences of divine mercy are anything less than wonderful and glorious. But if one is inclined to think his experiences are great in comparison with those of others or beyond what is ordinarily the experience of the average Christian, together with the expectation that others should admire and respect him for them, pride is assuredly at work.
Of course, they don't regard it as boasting or an expression of pride. After all, these are experiences of divine grace and mercy. These are things that God has done for them. But this was precisely the attitude of that Pharisee in Luke 18. He actually gives God the glory for making him to differ from others whom he regards as beneath himself! "God, I thank thee!" Says Edwards: "Their verbally ascribing it to the grace of God, that they are holier than other saints, doesn’t hinder their forwardness to think so highly of their holiness, being a sure evidence of the pride and vanity of their minds. If they were under the influence of a humble spirit, their attainments in religion would not be so apt to shine in their own eyes, nor would they be so much in admiring their own beauty.”
Those Christians who are truly most eminent and have experienced extraordinary effusions of divine grace humble themselves as little children (Matthew 18:4). They are actually more astonished at their low degree of love and their ingratitude than they are by the heights of spiritual attainment and their knowledge of God.
"Such is the nature of grace, and of true spiritual light, that they naturally dispose the saints in the present state to look upon their grace and goodness little, and their deformity great.” The truly humble soul is devastated by the smallest expression of depravity but nearly oblivious to great progress in goodness and obedience.
Again, Edwards explains: "That grace and holiness is worthy to be called little, that is, little in comparison of what it ought to be.” The truly humble soul is always looking not at what he has attained, even if it be by divine grace, but at the rule or standard or goal for which his soul is striving. It is the latter by which he estimates and judges what he does and what he has accomplished. Therefore his holiness and maturity will always appear small because it is compared, not with what others have attained, but with what is his own infinite obligation to attain.
It is the nature of God's grace in us that it opens our eyes to the reason why we should be holy. Thus, he who has more grace has a greater sense of the infinite excellency and glory of God and of the infinite dignity of Christ and the boundless length and breadth and depth and height of the love of Christ for sinners. This vision of God's infinite excellency only expands and grows with the increase of grace in the soul, to such a point that one is increasingly astonished at the measure of his duty to love and honor this God. "And so the more he apprehends, the more the smallness of his grace and love appears strange and wonderful, and therefore is more ready to think that others are beyond him.” What stuns his soul is not that he loves God much but that one who is truly a child of God does not love God more. This humble soul is likely to think such a reality unique to himself, for he only sees the outside of other Christians but sees the inside of himself.
Someone might object by saying that love for God increases in proportion to our knowledge of God, so how can this person's growth in knowing God lead him to regard his love for God as less, rather than more?
But when a believer discovers something of God, he is made immediately aware of something far more in God that he had not heretofore seen. In other words, "there is something that is seen, that is wonderful; and that sight brings with it a strong conviction of something vastly beyond, that is not immediately seen. So that the soul, at the same time, is astonished at its ignorance, and that it knows so little, as well as that it loves so little.”
When we grow in our knowledge of something that is finite, we feel that in a sense we have conquered it or subdued it and that it is now within our control because we have knowledge of it in all respects. But if the object of knowledge is infinite, as God is, with every measure of knowledge we attain we are made aware not of what we now know but of the incomparable degree of what we don't. If I may quantify this point: assume that an object of knowledge tallies up to 100. As we gradually learn more about it, we gain 75 then 85 then 95 then 99 and finally 100% insight into what it is. But with something that is infinite, an increase of 50% of our knowledge in comparison with what we previously knew does not count for increase, because the object about which we are learning cannot be quantified or measured or ever ultimately attained.
Also, as we grow in our understanding of how infinite God is we are ever more made aware of what our souls should know if only our ignorance were removed. This causes the soul "to complain greatly of spiritual ignorance and want of love, and long and reach after more knowledge and more love.”
The highest love and knowledge of God we might attain in this world are not worthy to be compared with the obligation to love and know him once we consider the revelation of his infinite glory in his Word and works and in the gospel of Christ. And in comparison with the capacity God has given us to know him, what we do know of him appears small and trivial.
Therefore, "he that has much grace, apprehends much more than others that great height to which his love ought to ascend; and he sees better than others how little a way he has risen towards that height.” This apprehension also reveals to him the depth and extent of his remaining corruption. "In order to judge how much corruption or sin we have remaining in us, we must take our measure from that height to which the rule of our duty extends.”
The principle here is that with the increase of our knowledge of God comes an increase in our knowledge of our sin and how vast is the discrepancy between what we know and what we ought to know, between what we love and ought to love.
This also causes us to see that the smallest degree of ugliness in the least of all sins is greater than or outweighs the highest degree of beauty in the greatest of all holiness. "For the least sin against an infinite God has an infinite hatefulness or deformity in it, but the highest degree of holiness in a creature has not an infinite loveliness in it. Therefore the loveliness of it is as nothing in comparison with the deformity of the least sin.”
Since our obligation to God is infinite, the least failure to fulfill it (i.e., the least sin or failure to perform our duty) is infinitely ugly. This is because "our obligation to love and honor any being is in some proportion to his loveliness and honorableness, or to his worthiness to be loved and honored by us.” In other words, "we are surely under greater obligation to love a more lovely being, than a less lovely: and if a being be infinitely lovely or worthy to be loved by us, then our obligations to love him, are infinitely great, and therefore, whatever is contrary to this love, has in it infinite iniquity, deformity and unworthiness.”
The point is that, contrary to the objection, as we grow in grace and knowledge and love of God we continue to see more of our corruption and failure to properly honor God than we do of our sin and our success in worshiping him.
If one's religious affections in any way or to any degree incline one to think that their sins are gone or that they are free from evil, this is a sure sign that the alleged "revelation" they have experienced is false. When God makes himself known to the soul, it is true that it serves to help restrain our sins. But it also and equally brings to light the extent of our corruption and depravity, disclosing to us the lack of humility and love and gratitude.
None of this is to deny that a person may know when he is the recipient of much divine grace. "But he won't be apt to know it; it won't be a thing obvious to him" that he has advanced beyond others in spiritual growth. In fact, "he must take pains to convince himself of it.” Even then "it will hardly seem real to him, that he has more grace than they.” Therefore, if a person easily persuades himself that he is, compared with others, an eminent and blessed saint, one who has experienced greater and more extraordinary things than others, he is certainly mistaken. He is, in fact, "under the great prevailings of a proud and self-righteous spirit.” And if this turns out to be a habitual thing that is the prevailing temper of his mind, it indicates that he is not and never was a true believer in the first place.
Furthermore, whatever experiences have the tendency to elicit such self-evaluation are themselves vain and delusive. "Those supposed discoveries that naturally blow up the person with an admiration of the eminency of his discoveries, and fill him with conceit, that now he has seen, and knows more than most other Christians, have nothing of the nature of true spiritual light in them. All true spiritual knowledge is of that nature, that the more a person has of it, the more is he sensible of his own ignorance.”
We’ve been looking at the first of what Jonathan Edwards identifies as two infallible signs of spiritual pride. In the next article we’ll look at the second.