Humility: True and False
For the Christian, humility is absolutely indispensable. Without it there can be no self-knowledge, no repentance, no faith and no salvation.
The promises of God are made to the humble: the proud man by his pride forfeits every blessing promised to the lowly in heart, and from the hand of God he need expect only justice.
We should not forget, however, that there is a pseudo-humility which can scarcely be distinguished from the real thing and which passes commonly among Christians without their being aware that it is false.
True humility is a healthy thing. The humble man accepts the truth about himself. He believes that in his fallen nature dwells no good thing. He acknowledges that apart from God he is nothing, has nothing, knows nothing and can do nothing. But this knowledge does not discourage him, for he knows also that in Christ he is somebody. He knows that he is dearer to God than the apple of His eye and that he can do all things through Christ who strengthens him; that is, he can do all that lies within the will of God for him to do.
Pseudo-humility is in truth only pride with a different face. It is evident in the prayer of the man who condemns himself roundly before God as weak, sinful and foolish but who would angrily resent the same thing being said about him by his wife.
Nor is such a man necessarily hypocritical. The prayer of self-condemnation may be completely sincere, and the defense of self as well, though the two appear to contradict each other. Where they are alike is in their being born of the same parents, self-love being the father and self-trust the mother.
The man filled with high self-regard naturally expects great things of himself and is bitterly disappointed when he fails. The self-regarding Christian has the loftiest moral ideals: he will be the holiest man in his church, if not the saintliest one in his generation. He may talk of total depravity, grace and faith, while all the time he is unconsciously trusting self, promoting self and living for self.
Because he has such noble aspirations, any failure to reach his ideals fills him with disappointment and disgust. Then comes the attack of conscience which he mistakenly believes to be evidence of humility but which is in fact no more than a sour refusal to forgive himself for falling below his own high opinion of himself. A parallel is sometimes found in the person of the proud, ambitious father who hopes to see in his son the kind of man he himself had hoped to be and is not, and who when the son fails to live up to his expectation will not forgive him. The father's grief springs not from his love for his son but from his love of self.
The truly humble man does not expect to find virtue in himself, and when he finds none he is not disappointed. He knows that any good deed he may do is the result of God's working in him, and if it is his own work he knows that it is not good, however good it may appear to be.
When this belief becomes so much a part of a man that it operates as a kind of unconscious reflex he is released from the burden of trying to live up to his own opinion of himself. He can relax and count upon the Spirit to fulfill the moral law within him. The emphasis of his life shifts from self to Christ, where it should have been in the first place, and he is thus set free to serve his generation by the will of God without the thousand hindrances he knew before.
Should such a man fail God in any way he will be sorry and repent, but he will not spend his days castigating himself for his failure. He will say with Brother Lawrence: "I shall never do otherwise if You leave me to myself; it is You who must hinder my falling and mend what is amiss," and after that "give himself no further uneasiness about it."
It is when we read the lives and writings of the saints that false humility becomes particularly active. We read Augustine and know that we have not his intellect, we read Bernard of Clairvaux and feel a heat in his spirit which is not in our own in anything like equal degree; we read the journal of George Whitefield and are forced to confess that compared with him we are mere beginners, spiritual tyros, and that for all our supposed "busy lives" we get little or nothing accomplished. We read the letters of Samuel Rutherford and feel that his love for Christ so far outstrips our own that it would be folly to mention the two in the same breath.
It is then that pseudo-humility goes to work in the name of true humility and brings us to the dust in a welter of self-pity and self-condemnation. Our self-love turns on us angrily and reproaches us in great bitterness for our lack of godliness. Let us be careful here. What we believe to be penitence may easily be a perverted form of envy and nothing more. We may simply envy these mighty men and despair of ever equaling them and imagine we are very saintly for feeling cast down and discouraged.
I have met two classes of Christians: the proud who imaging they are humble and the humble who are afraid they are proud. There should be another class: the self-forgetful who leave the whole thing in the hands of Christ and refuse to waste any time trying to make themselves good. They will reach the goal far ahead of the rest.
~A. W. Tozer~