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.
No one has spoken with greater clarity on the nature of both pride and humility than Jonathan Edwards. Here are ten things we can learn from him. All citations are from Religious Affections (Yale).
(1) 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 truly humble are not inclined to talk about it or to display it by means of eloquence or in any manner of living. True humility is not noisy, especially about itself. If you are inclined to say, “No one is as sinful and depraved as I am,” be careful that you don’t think yourself better than others on this very account. Be careful lest you develop a high opinion of your humility. In essence, if you find yourself thinking often of your humility, it is likely that you have little of it.
(2) The person who is in the grip of spiritual pride is more likely to think highly of his attainments in religion 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.
(3) On the other hand, the person of true humility “is apt to think his attainments in religion to be comparatively mean [i.e, low] 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” (320). 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 ’em rather to speak trembling” (321).
(4) 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 saint, 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. “Their verbally ascribing it to the grace of God, that they are holier than other saints, don’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 an 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” (322).
(5) 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” (323). The truly humble soul is devastated by the smallest expression of depravity but nearly oblivious to great progress in goodness and obedience.
(6) Edwards argues that 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.
(7) 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” (324). 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.
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” (324).