POSTED - 12/12/2001
The Spirit of Charity is a Humble Spirit - Part I
- Jonathan Edwards
"Charity vaunteth not itself, is not puffed up, doth not behave itself unseemly." — 1 Corinthians 13:4, 5
HAVING shewn the nature and tendency of charity or Christian love, in respect to our receiving injury, and doing good to others—that it "suffering long and is kind;" and also with respect to the good possessed by others as compared with that possessed by ourselve—that charity, "envieth not;" the apostle now proceeds to shew, that in reference to what we ourselves may be or have, charity is not proud—that "it vaunteth not itself, is not puffed up, doth not behave itself unseemly." As, on the one hand, it prevents us from envying others what they possess, so, on the other, it keeps us from glorying in what we possess ourselves. Paul had just declared that charity was contrary to a spirit of envy, and now he declares that it is equally contrary to that spirit which specially provokes men to envy others, and which they often make a pretence or apology for envying them, viz. that they are puffed up with their honours and prosperity, and vaunt themselves on their possession of these things. When men have obtained prosperity, or are advanced, and others observe that they are puffed up and vaunt themselves in it, this tends to provoke envy, and make others uneasy at the sight of their prosperity. But if a man has prosperity or advancement, and yet does not vaunt himself or behave in an unseemly manner on account of it . this tends to reconcile others to his high circumstances, and make them satisfied that he should enjoy his elevation. As already observed, when men envy another, they are prone to excuse and justify themselves in so doing, by the pretence that he does not make a good improvement of his prosperity, but is proud of it, and puffed up on account of it. But the apostle shews how Christian love, or charity, tends to make all behave suitably to their condition, whatever it may be; if below others, not to envy them, and if above others, not to be proud or puffed up with the prosperity.
In the words of the text, we may observe, that a spirit of Christian love is spoken of as the opposite of a proud behaviour, and that two degrees of such a behaviour are mentioned. The higher degree is expressed by a man's "vaunting himself," that is, by his so carrying himself as to shew plainly that he glories in what he has, or is; and the lower degree is expressed by his " behaving himself unseemly," that is, by his not conducting himself in a becoming and decent manner in the enjoyment of his prosperity, but so acting as to shew that he thinks the mere fact of his being prosperous exalts him above others,. And the spirit of charity or love is spoken of as opposed not only to a proud behaviour, but to a proud spirit, or pride in the heart, for charity "is not puffed up." The doctrine we are taught, then, in these words, is this:
THAT THE SPIRIT OF CHARITY, OR CHRISTIAN LOVE, IS AN HUMBLE SPIRIT.
In speaking to this doctrine, I would shew—I. What humility is; and, II. How a Christian spirit, or the spirit of charity, is an humble spirit. And,
I. I would shew what humility is.—Humility may be defined to be a habit of mind and heart corresponding to our comparative unworthiness and vileness before God, or a sense of our own comparative meanness in his sight, with the disposition to a behaviour answerable thereto. It consists partly in the understanding, or in the thought and knowledge we have of ourselves; partly in the will: partly in the sense or estimate we have of ourselves; and partly in the disposition we have to a behaviour answerable to this sense or estimate. And the first thing in humility is,
1. A sense of our own comparative meanness.—I say comparative meanness, because humility is a grace proper for beings that are glorious and excellent in very many respects. Thus the saints and angels in heaven excel in humility; and humility is proper and suitable in them, though they are pure, spotless, and glorious beings, perfect in holiness, and excelling in mind and strength. But though they are thus glorious, yet they have a comparative meanness before God, of which they are sensible; for he is said (Ps. 113:6) to humble himself to behold the things that are in heaven. So the man Christ Jesus, who is the most excellent and glorious of all creatures, is yet meek and lowly of heart, and excels all other beings in humility. Humility is one of the excellencies of Christ because he is not only God, but man, and as a man he was humble; for humility is not, and cannot be, an attribute of the divine nature. God's nature is indeed infinitely opposite to pride, and yet humility cannot properly be predicated of him; for if it could, this would argue imperfection, which is impossible in God. God, who is infinite in excellence and glory, and infinitely above all things, cannot have any comparative meanness, and of course cannot have any such comparative meanness to be sensible of, and therefore cannot be humble. But humility is an excellence proper to all created intelligent beings, for they are all infinitely little and mean before God, and most of them are in some way mean and low in comparison with some of their fellow-creatures. Humility implies a compliance with that rule of the apostle (Rom. 12:3), that we think not of ourselves more highly than we ought to think, but that we think soberly, according as God hath dealt to every one of us the measure, not only of faith, but of other things. And this humility, as a virtue in men, implies a sense of their own comparative meanness, both as compared with God and as compared with their fellow-creatures. And,
First, humility doth primarily and chiefly consist in a sense of our meanness as compared with God, or a sense of the infinite distance there is between God and ourselves. We are little, despicable creatures, even worms of the dust, and we should feel that we are as nothing, and less than nothing, in comparison with the Majesty of heaven and earth. Such a sense of his nothingness Abraham expressed, when he said (Gen. 18:27), "Behold now, I have taken upon me to speak unto the Lord, which am but dust and ashes." There is no true humility without somewhat of this spirit; for, however sensible we may be of our meanness as compared with some of our fellow-creatures, we are not truly humble unless we have a sense of our nothingness as compared with God. Some have a low thought of themselves as compared with other men, from the meanness of their circumstances, or from a melancholy and desponding temperament which is natural to them, or from some other cause, while still they know nothing of the infinite distance there is between them and God; and, though they may be ready to look upon themselves as humble-spirited, yet they have no true humility. That which above all other things it concerns us to know of ourselves, is, what we are in comparison with God, who is our Creator, and the one in whom we live, and move, and have our being, and who is infinitely perfect in all things. And if we are ignorant of our meanness as compared with him, then the most essential thing, and that which is indispensable in true humility, is wanting. But where this is truly felt, there arises from it,
Secondly, a sense of our own meanness as compared with many of our fellow-creatures.—For man is not only a mean creature in comparison with God, but he is very mean as compared with multitudes of creatures of a superior rank in the universe; and most men are mean in comparison with many of their fellow-men. And when a sense of this comparative meanness arises from a just sense of our meanness as God sees it, then it is of the nature of true humility. He that has a right sense and estimate of himself in comparison with God, will be likely to have his eyes open to see himself aright in all respects. Seeing truly how he stands with respect to the first and highest of all beings, will tend greatly to help him to a just apprehension of the place he stands in among creatures. And he that does not rightly know the first and greatest of beings, who is the fountain and source of all other beings, cannot truly know anything aright; but so far as he has come to a knowledge of the former, so far is he prepared for and led unto the knowledge of other things, and so of himself as related to others, and as standing among them.
All this would apply to men considered as unfallen beings, and would have been true of our race if our first parents had not fallen, and thus involved their posterity in sin. But humility in fallen men implies a sense of a tenfold meanness, both before God and men. Man's natural meanness consists in his being infinitely below God in natural perfection, and in God's being infinitely above him in greatness, power, wisdom, magesty, &c. And a truly humble man is sensible of the small extent of his own knowledge, and the great extent of his ignorance, and of the small extent of his understanding as compared with the understanding of God. He is sensible of his weakness; how little his strength is, and how little he is able to do. He is sensible of his natural distance from God; of his dependence on him; of the insufficiency of his own power and wisdom; and that it is by God's power that he is upheld and provided for, and that he needs God's wisdom to lead and guide him, and his might to enable him to do what he ought to do for him. He is sensible of his subjection to God, and that God's greatness does properly consist in his authority, whereby he is the sovereign Lord and King over all ; and he is willing to be subject to that authority, as feeling that it becomes him to submit to the divine will, and yield in all things to God's authority. Man had this sort of comparative littleness before the fall. He was then infinitely little and mean in comparison with God; but his natural meanness has become much greater since the fall, for the moral ruin of his nature has greatly impaired his natural faculties, though it has not extinguished them.
The truly humble man, since the fall, is also sensible of his moral meanness and vileness. This consists in his sinfulness. His natural meanness is his littleness as a creature; his moral meanness is his vileness and filthiness as a sinner. Unfallen man was infinitely distant from God in his natural qualities or attributes: fallen man is infinitely distant from him also as sinful, and thus filthy. And a truly humble person is in some measure sensible of his comparative meanness in this respect, that he sees how exceedingly polluted he is before an infinitely holy God, in whose sight the heavens are not clean. He sees how pure God is, and how filthy and abominable he is before him. Such a sense of his comparative meanness Isaiah had, when he saw God's glory, and cried out (Isa. 6:5), "Woe is me! for I am undone; because I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips: for mine eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts." An humble sense of our meanness. in this respect implies self-abhorrence, such as led Job to exclaim (Job 42:5, 6), "I have heard of thee by the hearing of the ear; but now mine eye seeth thee: wherefore I abhor myself, and repent in dust and ashes." It implies, also such contrition and brokenness of heart as David speaks of when he says (Ps. 101:17), "The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit; a broken and a contrite heart, O God, thou wilt not despise;" and such, too, as Isaiah contemplated when he declared (Isa. 117:15). "Thus saith the high and lofty One that inhabiteth eternity, whose name is Holy; I dwell in the high and holy place, with him also that is of a contrite and humble spirit, to revive the spirit of the humble, and to revive the heart of the contrite ones." And both the sense of our own littleness, and the sense of our moral vileness before God, are implied in that poverty of spirit which the Saviour speaks of when he says (Matt. 5:3), "Blessed are the poor in spirit: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven."
And in order to this sense of our own meanness and unworthiness that is implied in humility, it is not only necessary that we should know God, and have a sense of his greatness, without which we cannot know ourselves, but we must have the right sense also of his excellence and loveliness. The devils and damned spirits see a great deal of God's greatness, of his wisdom, omnipotence, &c. God makes them sensible of it by what they see in his dealings, and feel in their own sufferings. However unwilling they are to know it, God makes them know how much he is above them now, and they shall know and feel it still more, at and after the judgment. But tney have no humility, nor will they ever have, because, though they see and feel God's greatness, yet they see and feel nothing of his loveliness. And without this there can be no true humility, for that cannot exist unless the creature feels his distance from God, not only with respect to his greatness, but also his loveliness. The angel, and ransomed spirits in heaven see both these things; not only how much greater God is than they are, but how much more lovely he is also; so that, though they have no absolute defilement and filthiness, as fallen men have, yet, as compared with God, it is said (Job 15:15, and 6:18), "The heavens are not clean in his sight," and "his angels he charged with folly." From such a sense of their comparative meanness, persons are made sensible how unworthy they are of God's mercy or gracious notice. Such a sense Jacob expressed, when he said (Gen. 32:10), "I am not worthy of the least of all the mercies, and of all the truth which thou hast shewed unto thy servant;" and David, when he exclaimed (2 Sam. 7:18). "Who am I O Lord God? and what is my house, that thou hast brought me hitherto?" And such a sense have all who are truly humble before God. But as humility consists in a sense of our comparative meanness, so it implies,
2. A disposition to a corresponding behaviour and conduct.—Without this there is no true humility. If it could be so that our understanding could be enlightened to see our own meanness, and at the same time the will and disposition of the soul did not comply with and conform to that which is answerable to our sense of it, but opposed it, then there would be no humility. As was just now said, the devils and damned spirits see much of their comparative littleness before God in some respects. They know that God is infinitely above them in power, and knowledge, and majesty. And yet, not knowing and feeling his loveliness and excellence, their wills and dispositions by no means comply with and conform to what is becoming their meanness; and so they have no humility, but are full of pride. Without pretending to mention everything in our behaviour answerable to a proper sense of our meanness and vileness to which humility would dispose us—for that would include the whole of our duty toward God and man—I would specify some things that are worthy of notice, both in reference to God and in reference to man. And,
First, some things in our behaviour toward God, to which humility will dispose us. As the first of these, humility disposes a person heartily and freely to acknowledge his meanness or littleness before God. He sees how fit and suitable it is that be should do this; and he does it willingly, and even with delight. He freely confesses his own nothingness and vileness, and owns himself unworthy of any mercy, and deserving of all misery. It is the disposition of the humble soul, to lie low before God, and to humble himself in the dust in his presence. Humility also disposes one to be distrustful of himself, and to depend only on God. The proud man, that his a high opinion of his own wisdom, or strength, or righteousness, is self-confident. But the humble are not disposed to trust in themselves, but are diffident of their own sufficiency; and it is their disposition to rely on God, and with delight to cast themselves wholly on him as their refuge, and righteousness, and strength. The humble man is further disposed to renounce all the glory of the good he has or does, and to give it all to God. If there be anything that is good in him, or any good done by him, it is not his disposition to glory or vaunt himself in it before God, but to ascribe all to God, and in the language of the Psalmist (Ps. 65:1) to say, "Not unto us, O Lord, not unto us, but unto thy name give glory, for thy mercy and thy truth's sake." It is the disposition, again, of the humble person, wholly to subject himself to God. His heart is not opposed to a full and absolute subjection to the divine will, but inclined to it. He is disposed to be subject to the commands and laws of God, for he sees it to be right and best that he who is so infinitely inferior to God, should be thus subject; and that it is an honour that belongs to God, to reign over, and give laws to him. And he is be subject to the providence and daily disposal of God, and to submit cheerfully to his will as manifested in what he orders for him; and though God orders affliction, and low and depressed circumstances, as his lot in the world, he does not murmur, but feeling his meanness and unworthiness, he is sensible that afflictive and trying dispensations are what he deserves, and that his circumstances are better than he merits. And however dark the divine dealings, with the faith which we so often see manifested in those who are eminent in grace, he is ready to say with Job (Job 13:15), "Though he slay me, yet will I trust in him." And as humility implies a disposition to such a behaviour toward God, so,
Secondly, it disposes to a behaviour toward men answerable to our comparative meanness. And this I shall shew by pointing out what kind of behaviour humility tends to prevent. And it tends, in the first place, to prevent an aspiring and ambitious behaviour amongst men. The man that is under the influence of an humble spirit, is content with such a situation amongst men as God is pleased to allot to him, and is not greedy of honour, and does not affect to appear uppermost and exalted above his neighbours. He acts on the principle of that saying of the prophet (Jer. 45:5), "Seekest thou great things for thyself? Seek them not;" and also of that injunction of the apostle (Rom. 12:16), "Mind not high things." Humility tends also to prevent an ostentatious behaviour. If the truly humble man has any advantage or benefit of any kind, either temporal or spiritual, above his neighbours, he will not affect to make a show of it. If he has greater natural abilities than others, he will not be forward to parade and display them, or be careful that others shall know his superiority in this respect. If he has a remarkable spiritual experience, he will not be solicitous that men should know it for the sake of the honour he may obtain by it; nor does he affect to be esteemed of men as an eminent saint and a faithful servant of heaven; for it is a small thing with him what men may think of him. If he does anything well, or does his duty in any respect with difficulty and self- denial, he does not affect that men should take notice of it, nor is he careful lest they should not observe it. He is not of the behaviour of the Pharisees, who, it is said (Matt. 23:5), did all their works to be seen of men; but if he has done anything in sincerity, he is content that the great Being who sees in secret beholds and will approve it.
Humility tends also to prevent an arrogant and assuming behaviour. He that is under the influence of an humble spirit is not forward to take too much upon him; and, when he is amongst others, he does not carry it toward them as if he expected and insisted that a great deal of regard should be shewn to himself. His behaviour does not carry with it the idea that he is the best amongst those ibout him, and that he is the one to whom the chief regard should be shewn, and whose judgment is most to be sought and followed. He does not carry it as if he expected that everybody should bow and truckle to him, and give place, to him, as if no one was of as much consequence as himself. He does not put on assuming airs in his common conversation, nor in the management of his business, nor in the duties of religion. He is not forward to take upon himself that which does not belong to him, as though he had power where indeed he has not, as if the earth ought to be subject to his bidding, and must comply with his inclination and purposes. On the contrary, he gives all due deference to the judgment and inclinations of others, and his behaviour carries with it the impression, that he sincerely receives and acts on that teaching of the apostle (Phil. 2:3), "Let nothing be done through strife or vain-glory; but in lowliness of mind let each esteem other better than themselves." In talking of the things of religion, he has not the air, either in his speech or behaviour, of one that esteems himself one of the best saints in the whole company, but he rather carries himself as if he thought, in the expression of the apostle (Eph. 3:8), that he was "less than the least of all saints."
Humility tends also to prevent a scornful behaviour. Treating others with scorn and contempt is one of the worst and most offensive manifestations of pride toward them. But they that are under the influence of an humble spirit are far from such a behaviour. They do not despise or look down on those that are below them with a haughty supercilious air, as though they were since worthy to come nigh them or to have any regard from them. They are sensible that there is no such vast difference between themselves and their fellow-men as warrants such a behaviour. They are not found treating with scorn and contempt what others say, or speaking of what they do with ridicule and sneering reflections, or sitting and relating what others may have spoken or done, only to make sport of it. On the contrary, humility disposes a person to a condescending behaviour to the meekest and lowest, and to treat inferiors with courtesy and affability, as being sensible of his own weakness and despicableness before God, and that it is God alone that makes him in any respect to differ from others, or gives him the advantage over them. The truly humble will (Rom. 12:16) always have the spirit to "condescend to men of low estate." Even if they are great men, and in places of public trust and honour, humility will dispose them to treat their inferiors in such a manner as has been spoken of, and not in a haughty and scornful manner, as vaunting themselves on their greatness.
Humility tends also to prevent a wilful and stubborn behaviour. They that are under the influence of an humble spirit will not set up their own will either in public or private affairs. They will not be stiff and inflexible, and insist that everything must go according to what they happen first to propose, and manifest a disposition by no means to be easy, but to make all the difficulty they can, and to make others uneasy as well as themselves, and to prevent anything being done with any quietness, if it be not according to their own mind and will. They are not as some that the apostle Peter describes (2 Pet. 2:10), presumptuous and self-willed, always bent on carrying their own points, and, if this cannot be done, then bent on opposing and annoying others. On the contrary, humility disposes men to be of a yielding spirit to others, ready, for the sake of peace, and to gratify others, to comply in many things with their inclinations, and to yield to their judgments wherein they are not inconsistent with truth and holiness. A truly humble man is inflexible in nothing but in the cause of his Lord and Master, which is the cause of truth and virtue. In this he is inflexible, because God and conscience require it; but in things of lesser moment, and which do not involve his principles as a follower of Christ, and in things that only concern his own private interests, he is apt to yield to others. And if he sees that others are stubborn and unreasonable in their wilfulness, he does not allow that to provoke him to be stubborn and wilful in his opposition to them, but be rather acts on the principles taught in such passages as Rom. 12:19; 1 Cor. 5:7; and Matt. 5:40, 41: "Dearly beloved, avenge not yourselves, but rather 'give place unto wrath." "Why do ye not rather take wrong? why do ye not rather suffer yourselves to be defrauded?" "If any man will sue thee at the law, and take away thy coat, let him have thy cloak also. And whosoever shall compel thee to go a mile, go with him twain." Humility will further tend to prevent a levelling behaviour. Some persons are always ready to level those above them down to themselves, while they are never willing to level those below them up to their own position. But he that is under the influence of humility will avoid both these extremes. On the one hand, he will be willing that all should rise just so far as their diligence and worth of character entitle them to; and on the other hand, he will be willing that his superiors should be known and acknowledged in their place, and have rendered to them all the honours that are their due. He will not desire that all should stand upon the same level, for he knows it is best that there should be gradations in society; that some should be above others, and should be honoured and submitted to as such. And therefore he is willing to be content with this divine arrangement, and, agreeably to it, to conform both his spirit and behaviour to such precepts as the following: "Render therefore to all their dues: tribute to whom tribute is due; custom to whom custom; fear to whom fear; honour to whom honour" (Rom. 13:7); "Put them in mind to be subject to principalities and powers, to obey magistrates, to be ready to every good work" (Titus 3:1).
Humility also tends, once more, to prevent a self-justifying behaviour. He that is under the influence of an humble spirit, if he has fallen into a fault, as all are liable at some time to fall, or if in anything he has injured another, or dishonoured the Christian name and character, will be willing to acknowledge his fault, and take the shame of it to himself. He will not be hard to be brought to a sense of his fault, nor to testify that sense by a suitable acknowledgment of his error. He will be inwardly humbled for it, and ready to shew his humility in the manner which the apostle points out, when he says (James 5:16), "Confess your faults one to another." It is pride that makes men so exceedingly backward to confess their fault when they have fallen into one, and that makes them think that to be their shame which is in truth their highest honour. But humility in the behaviour makes men prompt to their duty in this respect, and if it prevails as it should, will lead them to do it with alacrity and even delight. And when any one shall give such a person a Christian admonition or reproof for any fault, humility will dispose him to take it kindly, and even thankfully. It is pride that makes men to be so uneasy when they are reproved by any of their neighbours, so that oftentimes they will not bear it, but become angry, and manifest great bitterness of spirit. Humility, on the contrary, will dispose them not only to tolerate such reproofs, but to esteem and prize them as marks of kindness and friendship. "Let the righteous smite me," says the Psalmist (Ps. 141:5), "it shall be a kindness; and let him reprove me, it shall be an excellent oil, which shall not break my head."
Having thus shewn what humility is in its nature, and to what it will lead us both in spirit and behaviour, in respect both to God and to our fellow-men, I proceed, as proposed, to shew,
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