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The Loftiness of Humility

1 Peter v. 5. Be clothed with humility: for God resisteth the proud, and giveth grace to the humble.

This is St. Peter's command. Are we really inclined to obey it? For, if we are, there is nothing more easy. There is no vice so easy to get rid of as pride: if one wishes. Nothing so easy as to be humble: if one wishes.

That may seem a strange saying, considering that self-conceit is the vice of all others to which man is most given; the first sin, and the last sin, and that which is said to be the most difficult to cure. But what I say is true nevertheless.

Whosoever wishes to get rid of pride may do so. Whosoever wishes to be humble need not go far to humble himself.

But how? Simply by being honest with himself, and looking at himself as he is.

Let a man recollect honestly and faithfully his past life; let him recollect his sayings and doings for the past week; even for the past twenty-four hours: and I will warrant that man that he will recollect something, or, perhaps, many things which will not raise him in his own eyes; something which he had sooner not have said or done; something which, if he is a foolish man, he will try to forget, because it makes him ashamed of himself; something which, if he is a wise man, he will not try to forget, just because it makes him ashamed of himself; and a very good thing for him that he should be so. I know that it is so for me; and therefore I suppose it is so for every man and woman in this Church.

I am not going to give any examples. I am not going to say,-- 'Suppose you thought this and this about yourself, and were proud of it; and then suppose that you recollected that you had done that and that: would you not feel very much taken down in your own conceit?'

I like that personal kind of preaching less and less. Those random shots are dangerous and cruel; likely to hit the wrong person, and hurt their feelings unnecessarily. It is very easy to say a hard thing: but not so easy to say it to the right person and at the right time.

No. The heart knoweth its own bitterness. Almost every one has something to be ashamed of, more or less, which no one but himself and God knows of; and which, perhaps, it is better that no one but he and God should know.

I do not mean any great sin, or great shame--God forbid; but some weak point, as we call it. Something which he had better not say or do; and yet which he is in the habit of saying and doing. I do not ask what it is. With some it may be a mere pardonable weakness; with others it may be a very serious and dangerous fault. All I ask now is, that each and every one of us should try and find it out, and feel it, and keep it in mind; that we may be of a humble spirit with the lowly, which is better than dividing the spoil with the proud.

But why better?

The world and human nature look up to the proud successful man. One is apt to say, 'Happy is the man who has plenty to be proud of. Happy is the man who can divide the spoil of this world with the successful of this world. Happy is the man who can look down on his fellow-men, and stand over them, and manage them, and make use of them, and get his profit out of them.'

But that is a mistake. That is the high-mindedness which goes before a fall, which comes not from above, but is always earthly, often sensual, and sometimes devilish. The true and safe high- mindedness, which comes from above, is none other than humility. For, if you will look at it aright, the humble man is really more high-minded than the proud man. Think. Suppose two men equal in understanding, in rank, in wealth, in what else you like, one of them proud, the other humble. The proud man thinks--'How much better, wiser, richer, more highly born, more religious, more orthodox, am I than other people round me.' Not, of course, than all round him, but than those whom he thinks beneath him. Therefore he is always comparing himself with those below himself; always watching those things in them in which he thinks them worse, meaner than himself; he is always looking down on his neighbours.

Now, which is more high-minded; which is nobler; which is more fit for a man; to look down, or to look up? At all events the humble man looks up. He thinks, 'How much worse, not how much better, am I than other people.' He looks at their good points, and compares them with his own bad ones. He admires them for those things in which they surpass him. He thinks of--perhaps he loves to read of-- men superior to himself in goodness, wisdom, courage. He pleases himself with the example of brave and righteous deeds, even though he fears that he cannot copy them; and so he is always looking up. His mind is filled with high thoughts, though they be about others, not about himself. If he be a truly Christian man, his thoughts rise higher still. He thinks of Christ and of God, and compares his weakness, ignorance, and sinfulness with their perfect power, wisdom, goodness. Do you not see that this man's mind is full of higher, nobler thoughts than that of the proud man? Is he not more high-minded who is looking up, up to God himself, for what is good, noble, heavenly? Even though it makes him feel small, poor, weak, and sinful in comparison, still his mind is full of grace, and wisdom, and glory. The proud man, meanwhile, for the sake of feeding his own self-conceit at other men's expense, is filling his mind with low, mean, earthly thoughts about the weaknesses, sins, and follies, of the world around him. Is not he truly low-minded, thinking about low things?

Now, I tell you, my friends, that both have their reward. That the humble man, as years roll on, becomes more and more noble, and the proud man becomes more and more low-minded; and finds that pride goes before a fall in more senses than one. Yes. There is nothing more hurtful to our own minds and hearts than a domineering, contemptuous frame of mind. It may be pleasant to our own self- conceit: but it is only a sweet poison. A man lowers his own character by it. He takes the shape of what he is always looking at; and, if he looks at base and low things, he becomes base and low himself; just as slave-owners, all over the world, and in all time, sooner and later, by living among slaves, learn to copy their own slaves' vices; and, while they oppress and look down on their fellow-man, become passionate and brutal, false and greedy, like the poor wretches whom they oppress.

Better, better to be of a lowly spirit. Better to think of those who are nobler than ourselves, even though by so doing we are ashamed of ourselves all day long. What loftier thoughts can man have? What higher and purer air can a man's soul breathe? Yes, my friends; believe it, and be sure of it. The truly high-minded man is not the proud man, who tries to get a little pitiful satisfaction from finding his brother men, as he chooses to fancy, a little weaker, a little more ignorant, a little more foolish, a little more ridiculous, than his own weak, ignorant, foolish, and, perhaps, ridiculous self. Not he; but the man who is always looking upwards to goodness, to good men, and to the all-good God: filling his soul with the sight of an excellence to which he thinks he can never attain; and saying, with David, 'All my delight is in the saints that dwell in the earth, and in those who excel in virtue.'

But I do not say that he cannot attain to that excellence. To the goodness of God, of course, no man can; but to the goodness of man he may. For what man has done, man may do; and the grace of God which gave power to one man to rise above sin, and weakness, and ignorance, will give power to others also. But only to those who look upward, at better men than themselves: not to those who look down, like the Pharisee, but to those who look up like the Publican; for, as the text says, 'God resisteth the proud, but giveth grace to the humble.'

And why does God resist and set himself against the proud? To turn him out of his evil way, of course, if by any means he may be converted (that is, turned round) and live. For the proud man has put himself into a wrong position; where no immortal soul ought to be. He is looking away from God, and down upon men; and so he has turned his face and thoughts away from God, the fountain of light and life; and is trying to do without God, and to stand in his own strength, and not in God's grace, and to be somebody in himself, instead of being only in God, in whom we live and move and have our being. So he has set himself against God; and God will, in mercy to that foolish man's soul, set himself against him. God will humble him; God will overthrow him; God will bring his plans to nought; if by any means he may make that man ashamed of himself, and empty him of his self-conceit, that he may turn and repent in dust and ashes, when he finds out what those proud Laodicaean Christians of old had to find out--that all the while that they were saying, 'I am rich, and increased with goods, and have need of nothing,' they did not know that they were wretched, and miserable, and poor, and blind, and naked.

And how does God give grace to the humble? My friends, even the wise heathen knew that. Listen to a heathen; [Plutarch.] a good and a wise man, though; and one who was not far from the kingdom of God, or he would not have written such words as these,--

'It is our duty,' he says, 'to turn our minds to the best of everything; so as not merely to enjoy what we read, but to be improved by it. And we shall do that, by reading the histories of good and great men, which will, in our minds, produce an emulation and eagerness, which may stir us up to imitation. We may be pleased with the work of a man's hands, and yet set little store by the workman. Perfumes and fine colours we may like well enough: but that will not make us wish to be perfumers, or painters: but goodness, which is the work, not of a man's hands, but of his soul, makes us not only admire what is done, but long to do the like. And therefore,' he says, he thought it good to write the lives 'of famous and good men, and to set their examples before his countrymen. And having begun to do this,' he says in another place, 'for the sake of others, he found himself going on, and liking his labour, for his own sake: for the virtues of those great men served him as a looking-glass, in which he might see how, more or less, to order and adorn his own life. Indeed, it could be compared,' he says, 'to nothing less than living with the great souls who were dead and gone, and choosing out of their actions all that was noblest and worthiest to know. What greater pleasure could there be than that,' he asks, 'or what better means to improve his soul? By filling his mind with pictures of the best and worthiest characters, he was able to free himself from any low, malicious, mean thoughts, which he might catch from bad company. If he was forced to mix at times with base men, he could wash out the stains of their bad thoughts and words, by training himself in a calm and happy temper to view those noble examples.' So says the wise heathen. Was not he happier, wiser, better, a thousand times, thus keeping himself humble by looking upwards, than if he had been feeding his petty pride by looking down, and saying, 'God, I thank thee that I am not as other men are?'

If you wish, then, to be truly high-minded, by being truly humble, read of, and think of, better men, wiser men, braver men, more useful men than you are. Above all, if you be Christians, think of Christ himself. That good old heathen took the best patterns which he could find: but after all, they were but imperfect, sinful men: but you have an example such as he never dreamed of; a perfect man, and perfect God in one. Let the thought of Christ keep you always humble: and yet let it lift you up to the highest, noblest, purest thoughts which man can have, as it will.

For all that this old heathen says of the use of examples of good men, all that, and far more, St. Paul says, almost in the same words. By looking at Christ, he says, we rise and sit with him in heavenly places, and enjoy the sight of His perfect goodness; ashamed of ourselves, indeed, and bowed to the very dust by the feeling of our own unworthiness; and yet filled with the thought of his worthiness, till, by looking we begin to admire, and, by admiring, we begin to love; and so are drawn and lifted up to him, till, by beholding as in a glass the glory of the Lord, and the perfect beauty of his character, we become changed into the same image, from glory to glory: and thus, instead of receiving the just punishment of pride and contempt, which is lowering our characters to the level of those on whom we look down, we shall receive the just reward of true humility, which is having our characters raised to the level of him up to whom we look.

Oh young people, think of this; and remember why God has given you the advantage of scholarship and education. Not that you may be proud of the very little you know; not that you may look down on those who are not as well instructed as you are; not that you may waste your time over silly books, which teach you only to laugh at the follies and ignorance of some of your fellow-men, to whom God has not given as much as to you; but that you may learn what great and good men have lived, and still live, in the world; what wise, and good, and useful things have been, and are being, done all around you; and to copy them: above all, that you may look up to Christ, and through Christ, to God, and learn to copy him; till you come, as St. Paul says, to be perfect men; to the measure of the stature of the fulness of Christ. To which may he bring you all of his mercy. Amen.


Charles Kingsley