Dramatic Humility (Excerpt)
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(The following article is an excerpt from Dramatic Humility, an essay in Fides Quaerens' July 2017 Issue. Subscribe here.)
In his Treatise Concerning Religious Affections, 18th Century colonial Puritan, Jonathan Edwards, initially defines humility as, “a sense that a Christian has of his own insufficiency, despicableness, and odiousness, with an answerable frame of heart” (Jonathan Edwards. The Works of Jonathan Edwards, Vol. 2: Religious Affections, 311). For Edwards, humility can be divided into the two distinct categories of legal and evangelical humility. Legal humility comes apart from gracious affections, assists the conscience, and increases one’s sense of the things of God, “particularly of the natural perfections of God, such as his greatness, terrible, majesty, etc” (Religious Affections, 311). Evangelical humility comes through a special influence of the Spirit, implants “supernatural and divine principles,” and creates a greater awareness of the majesty and the beauty of God (Religious Affections, 311). One who has legal humility can rightly acknowledge the power and magnitude of God. He can see God and his grandeur and he can be convinced of his wickedness and sinful nature, but according to Edwards, “they don’t see the hateful nature of sin” (Religious Affections, 311). On the day of judgement, all men will bow before the power of God and believe that they are wretchedly sinful, but this does not mean that all men will possess evangelical humility. Evangelical humility demands that one not only be convinced of their sinfulness, but also that they be convinced of the odiousness of sin itself.
Seeing sin as odious comes only by, “a discovery of the beauty of God’s holiness and moral perfection” (Religious Affections, 311). Legal humiliation cannot lead to this conclusion because it knows only guilt. Those who possess legal humiliation must come to guilt because the combined knowledge of God’s power and one’s own sin begets despair. Men who possess legal humility can feel themselves abased and deplorable, but this does not necessitate seeing the odiousness of sin, for Edwards says, “Men may be legally humbled and have no humility” (Religious Affections, 312). Edwards contrasts this state with those of evangelical humility who, by seeing the odiousness of their sin, “are brought voluntarily to deny and renounce themselves” (Religious Affections, 312). Evangelical humility understands its sin and readily surrenders itself to the mercy of God. Unlike those of legal humility, they are not drawn into despair, but rather compelled to bow to their exalted God, which is the posture of true humility.
To Edwards, true humility consists in large part of self-denial. Self-denial is the rejection of both worldly inclinations and self-exaltation. By a denial of worldly inclinations he means, “forsaking and renouncing all worldly objects and enjoyments” (Religious Affections, 315). He does not mean to imply that there ought not be joy in the world, but rather that joy should not be grounded in or terminate in worldly objects. This first kind of denial is simply a rejection of disordered affections. By a denying his natural self-exaltation, he means, “renouncing his own dignity and glory” (Religious Affections, 315). In saying this he cannot mean that men are utterly void of dignity or glory, therefore it seems as though he is putting great stress on the word “natural.” By saying it this way he brings out the sinful inclination of all men to exalt themselves over other men and God, which is usually referred to as simple pride. This sort of denial of self-exaltation is a denial of personal autonomy.
Edwards frames humility’s primary posture as Godward. But this posture carries with it the necessary effects of denying one’s self of inordinate worldly pleasures and self-exaltation. In his descriptions of humility, Edwards appears to be harsh and unnervingly negative since humility is expressed primarily by rejecting the sin of pride. His severity in this area comes in-part from righteous disgust and repulsion to pride. The idea of pride is more nuanced in the famous 20th Century writer, C.S. Lewis, who provides more precision by creating a category for what could be called righteous pride. A man can rightly be “proud” of his son and not be in sin. According to Lewis, when we use pride in this manner we more rightly mean that someone, “has warm hearted admiration” for something outside of himself (C.S. Lewis. Mere Christianity, 127). This kind of affection can easily go astray, but pride of this nature does not necessarily entail a sinful heart.
While he does allow for a kind of righteous pride, Lewis agrees with Edwards when referring to pride, the vice. Lewis describes pride as “enmity to God” and “Spiritual cancer: it eats up the very possibility of love, or contentment, or even common sense.” For Lewis, the best test of pride comes when ones enters into the presence of God. It becomes easy for a man to masquerade as a humble person when he lives in a world ruled by a false god of his imagining, but when he approaches the presence of the true God, false humility falls away and he is left with only two options: “you either forget about yourself altogether or see yourself as a small dirty object” (Mere Christianity, 127). Edwards encourages the second option. Lewis disagrees with Edwards by simply saying, “it is better to forget about yourself altogether” (Mere Christianity, 127). Lewis’s correction of Edwards suggests that humility ought to be primarily characterized by self-forgetfulness, rather than by the suppression of pride.