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Chapter 23

SERMON XXIII. PRIDE AND HUMILITY

Eversley, 1869. Chester Cathedral, 1870.

1st. Peter v. 5. "God resisteth the proud, and giveth grace to the humble."


Let me, this evening, say a few words to you on theology, that is, on the being and character of God. You need not be afraid that I shall use long or difficult words. Sound theology is simple enough, and I hope that my words about it will be simple enough for the worst scholar here to understand.

"God resisteth the proud, and giveth grace to the humble." Now, this saying is an old one. It had been said, in different words, centuries before St Peter said it. The old prophets and psalmists say it again and again. The idea of it runs through the whole of the Old Testament, as anyone must know who has read his Bible with common care. But why should it be true? What reason is there for it? What is there in the character of God which makes it reasonable, probable, likely to be true? That God would give grace to the humble, and reward men for bowing down before His Majesty, seems not so difficult to understand. But why should God resist the proud? How does a man's being proud injure God, who is "I AM THAT I AM;" perfectly self-sufficient, having neither parts nor passions, who tempteth no man, neither is tempted of any? "Why should God go out of His way, as it were, to care for such a paltry folly as the pride of an ignorant, weak, short-sighted creature like man?

Now, let us take care that we do not give a wrong answer to this question--an answer which too many have given, in their hearts and minds, though not perhaps in words, and so have fallen into abject and cruel superstitions, from which may God keep us, and our children after us. They have said to themselves, God is proud, and has a right to be proud: and therefore He chooses no one to be proud but Himself. Pride in man calls out His pride, and makes Him angry. They have thought of God as some despotic Sultan of the Indies, who is surrounded, not by free men, but by slaves; who will have those slaves at his beck and nod. In one word, they have thought of God as a tyrant. They have thought of God, and, may God forgive them, have talked of God as if He were like Nebuchadnezzar of old, who, when the three young men refused to obey him, was filled with rage and fury, and cast them into a burning fiery furnace. That is some men's God--a God who must be propitiated by crouching and flattery, lest he should destroy them--a God who holds all men as his slaves, and therefore hates pride in them. For what has a slave to do with pride?

But that is not the God of the Bible, my friends, nor the God of Nature either, the God who made the world and man. For He is not a tyrant, but a Father. He wishes men not to be His slaves, but His children. And if He resists the proud, it is because children have no right to be proud. If He resists the proud, it is in fatherly love, because it is bad for them to be proud. Not because the proud are injuring God, but because they are injuring themselves, does God resist them, and bring them low, and show them what they are, and where they are, that they may repent, and be converted, and turned back into the right way.

Remember always that God is your Father. This question, like all questions between God and man, is a question between a father and a child; and if you see it in any other light, and judge it by any other rule, you see it and judge it wrongly, and learn nothing about it, or worse than nothing. If God were really angry with, really hated, the proud man, or any other man, would He need only to resist him? would He have to wait till the next life to punish him? My dear friends, if God really hated you or me, do you not suppose that He would simply destroy us--get rid of us--abolish us and annihilate us off the face of the earth, just as we crush a gnat when it bites us?

That God can do; and more--He does it now and then. He will endure with much long suffering vessels of wrath, fitted to destruction: but a moment sometimes comes when He will endure them no longer, and He destroys them with the destruction for which they have fitted themselves. In them is fulfilled the parable of the rich man, who said to himself, "Soul, thou hast much good laid up for many years; take thine ease, eat, drink, and be merry. But God said unto him, Thou fool, this night thy soul shall be required of thee."

But for the most part, thanks to the mercy of our Heavenly Father, we are not destroyed by our pride and for our pride. We are only chastened, as a father chastens his child. And that we are chastised for pride, who does not know? What proverb more common, what proverb more true, than that after pride comes a fall? Do we not know (if we do not, we shall know sooner or later) that the surest way to fail in any undertaking is to set about it in self-will and self-conceit; that the surest way to do a foolish thing, is to fancy that we are going to do a very wise one; that the surest way to make ourselves ridiculous in the eyes of our fellow-men, is to assume airs, and boast, shew ourselves off, and end by shewing off only our own folly?

Why is it so? Why has God so ordered the world and human nature, that pride punishes itself? Because, I presume, pride is begotten and born of a lie, and God hates a lie, because all lies lead to ruin, and this lie of pride above all. It is as it were the root lie of all lies. The very lie by which, as old tales tell, Satan fell from heaven, and when he tried to become a god in his own right, found himself, to his surprise and disappointment, only a devil. For pride and self-conceit contradict the original constitution of man and the universe, which is this--that of God are all things, and in God are all things, and for God are all things. Man depends on God. Self tells him that he depends on himself. Man has nothing but what he receives from God. Self tells him that what he has is his own, and that he has a right to do with it what he likes. Man knows nothing but what God teaches him. Self tells him that he has found out everything for himself, and can say what he thinks fit without fear of God or man. Therefore the proud, self-willed, self-conceited man must come to harm, like Malvolio in the famous play, merely because he is in the blackest night of ignorance. He has mistaken who he is, what he is, where he is. He is fancying himself, as many mad men do, the centre of the universe; while God is the centre of the universe. He is just as certain to come to harm as a man would be on board a ship, who should fancy that he himself, and not the ship, was keeping him afloat, and step overboard to walk upon the sea. We all know what would happen to that man. Let us thank God our Father that He not only knows what would happen to such men: but desires to save them from the consequences of their own folly, by letting them feel the consequences of their own folly.

Oh my friends, let us search our hearts, and pray to our Father in Heaven to take out of them, by whatever painful means, the poisonous root of pride, self-conceit, self-will. So only shall we be truly strong--truly wise. So only shall we see what and where we are.

Do we pride ourselves on being something? Shall we pride ourselves on health and strength? A tile falling off the roof, a little powder and lead in the hands of a careless child, can blast us out of this world in a moment--whither, who can tell? What is our cleverness--our strength of mind? A tiny blood vessel bursting on the brain, will make us in one moment paralytic, helpless, babblers, and idiots. What is our knowledge of the world? That of a man, who is forcing his way alone through a thick and pathless wood, where he has never been before, to a place which he has never seen. What is our wisdom--What does a wise man say of his?

"So runs my dream; but what am I? An infant crying in the night; An infant crying for the light; And with no language but a cry."

Yes. Our true knowledge is to know our own ignorance. Our true strength is to know our own weakness. Our true dignity is to confess that we have no dignity, and are nobody, and nothing in ourselves, and to cast ourselves down before the Dignity of God, under the shadow of whose wings, and in the smile of whose countenance, alone, is any created being safe. Let us cling to our Father in Heaven, as a child, walking in the night, clings to his father's hand. Let us take refuge on the lowest step of the throne of Christ our Lord, and humble ourselves under His mighty hand; and, instead of exalting ourselves in undue time, leave Him to exalt us again in due time, when the chastisement has told on us, and patience had her perfect work; casting all our care on Him, who surely cares for us still, if He cared for us once, enough to die for us on the cross; caring for God's opinion and not for the opinion of the world. And then we shall be among the truly humble, to whom God gives grace-- first grace in their own hearts, that they may live gracious lives, modest and contented, dignified and independent, trusting in God and not in man; and then, grace in the eyes of their fellow-men, for what is more graceful, what is more gracious, pleasant to see, pleasant to deal with, than the humble man, the modest man? I do not mean the cringing man, the flattering man, the man who apes humility for his own ends, because he wants to climb high, by pretending to be lowly. He is neither graceful or gracious. He is only contemptible, and he punishes himself. He spoils his own game. He defeats his own purpose. For men despise him, and use him, and throw him away when they have done with him, as they throw away a dirty worn-out tool.

Not him do I mean by the humble man, the modest man. I mean the man who, like a good soldier, knows his place and keeps it, knows his duty, and does it; who expects to be treated as a man should be, with fairness, consideration, respect, kindness--and God will always treat him so, whether man does or not: but who, beyond that, does not trouble his mind with whether he be private or sergeant, lieutenant or colonel, but with whether he can do his duty as private, his duty as sergeant, his duty as lieutenant, his duty as colonel; who has learnt the golden lesson, which so few learn in these struggling, envious, covetous, ambitious days, namely, to abide in the calling to which he is called, and in whatsoever state he is, therewith to be content. To be sure that in God's world, the only safe way to become ruler over many things is to be a good ruler over a few things; that if he is fit for better work than he is doing now, God will find that out, sooner and more surely than he, or any man will, and will set him about it; and that, meanwhile, God has set him about work which he can do, and that the true wisdom is to do that and do it well, and so approve himself alike to man and God, humbling himself under the mighty hand of God, that He may exalt him in good time, by giving him grace and strength to do great things, as He has given him grace and strength to do small things.

Am I speaking almost to deaf ears? I fear that few here will take my advice. I fear that many here will have excellent excuses and plain reasons, why they should not take it. Be it so. They cannot alter eternal fact. In one word, they cannot alter Theology. They cannot alter the laws of God. They cannot alter the character of God. And sooner or later, in this world or in the next, they will find out that Theology is right: and St Peter is right: that God DOES resist the proud, that God DOES give grace to the humble.


Charles Kingsley