C.S. Lewis on Pride and Humility

This is an excerpt from the Screwtape Letters written by C.S. Lewis. If you are not familiar with the book it is a fictional account of a demon named Screwtape who advises his nephew, Wormwood on how best to tempt a the man he has been assigned to into sin and, eventually, into hell. The book is comprised of Screwtape’s letters to Wormwood. This one captures the dynamic of humility and pride.

MY DEAR WORMWOOD,

The most alarming thing in your last account of the patient is that he is making none of those confident resolutions which marked his original conversion. No more lavish promises of perpetual virtue, I gather; not even the expectation of an endowment of “grace” for life, but only a hope for the daily and hourly pittance to meet the daily and hourly temptation! This is very bad.

I see only one thing to do at the moment. Your patient has become humble; have you drawn his attention to the fact? All virtues are less formidable to us once the man is aware that he has them, but this is especially true of humility. Catch him at the moment when he is really poor in spirit and smuggle into his mind the gratifying reflection, “By jove! I’m being humble”, and almost immediately pride—pride at his own humility—will appear. If he awakes to the danger and tries to smother this new form of pride, make him proud of his attempt—and so on, through as many stages as you please. But don’t try this too long, for fear you awake his sense of humor and proportion, in which case he will merely laugh at you and go to bed. 

But there are other profitable ways of fixing his attention on the virtue of Humility. By this virtue, as by all the others, our Enemy wants to turn the man’s attention away from self to Him, and to the man’s neighbors. All the abjection and self-hatred are designed, in the long run, solely for this end; unless they attain this end they do us little harm; and they may even do us good if they keep the man concerned with himself, and, above all, if self-contempt can be made the starting-point for contempt of other selves, and thus for gloom, cynicism, and cruelty.

You must therefore conceal from the patient the true end of Humility. Let him think of it not as self- forgetfulness but as a certain kind of opinion (namely, a low opinion) of his own talents and character. Some talents, I gather, he really has. Fix in his mind the idea that humility consists in trying to believe those talents to be less valuable than he believes them to be. No doubt they are in fact less valuable than he believes, but that is not the point. The great thing is to make him value an opinion for some quality other than truth, thus introducing an element of dishonesty and make-believe into the heart of what otherwise threatens to become a virtue. By this method thousands of humans have been brought to think that humility means pretty women trying to believe they are ugly and clever men trying to believe they are fools. And since what they are trying to believe may, in some cases, be manifest nonsense, they cannot succeed in believing it and we have the chance of keeping their minds endlessly revolving on themselves in an effort to achieve the impossible.

To anticipate the Enemy’s strategy, we must consider His aims. The Enemy wants to bring the man to a state of mind in which he could design the best cathedral in the world, and know it to be the best, and rejoice in the, fact, without being any more (or less) or otherwise glad at having done it than he would be if it had been done by another. The Enemy wants him, in the end, to be so free from any bias in his own favor that he can rejoice in his own talents as frankly and gratefully as in his neighbor’s talents—or in a sunrise, an elephant, or a waterfall. He wants each man, in the long run, to be able to recognize all creatures (even himself) as glorious and excellent things. He wants to kill their animal self-love as soon as possible; but it is His long- term policy, I fear, to restore to them a new kind of self-love—a charity and gratitude for all selves, including their own; when they have really learned to love their neighbors as themselves, they will be allowed to love themselves as their neighbors. For we must never forget what is the most repellent and inexplicable trait in our Enemy; He really loves the hairless bipeds He has created and always gives back to them with His right hand what He has taken away with His left.

His whole effort, therefore, will be to get the man’s mind off the subject of his own value altogether. He would rather the man thought himself a great architect or a great poet and then forgot about it, than that he should spend much time and pains trying to think himself a bad one. Your efforts to instill either vainglory or false modesty into the patient will therefore be met from the Enemy’s side with the obvious reminder that a man is not usually called upon to have an opinion of his own talents at all, since he can very well go on improving them to the best of his ability without deciding on his own precise niche in the temple of Fame.

You must try to exclude this reminder from the patient’s consciousness at all costs. The Enemy will also try to render real in the patient’s mind a doctrine which they all profess but find it difficult to bring home to their feelings—the doctrine that they did not create themselves, that their talents were given them, and that they might as well be proud of the color of their hair. But always and by all methods the Enemy’s aim will be to get the patient’s mind off such questions, and yours will be to fix it on them. Even of his sins the Enemy does not want him to think too much: once they are repented, the sooner the man turns his attention outward, the better the Enemy is pleased,

 

Your affectionate uncle SCREWTAPE

Wisdom from Bonhoeffer

Dietrich Bonhoeffer shares a nugget of wisdom in his Papers and Letters from Prison. The proper way to view other human beings is through a particular lens colored by humility, self-awareness and compassion. See what he has to see about the matter.

The man who despises another will never be able to make anything of him. Nothing that we despise in the other man is entirely absent from ourselves. Why have we hitherto thought so intemperately about man and his frailty and temptability? We must learn to regard people less in the light of what they do or omit to do, and more in the light of what they suffer. The only profitable relationship to others — and especially to our weaker brethren — is one of love, and that means the will to hold fellowship with them. God himself did not despise humanity, but became man for men’s sake.

An Unexpected Lesson on Humility

Tabletalk is a book that captures conversations between Martin Luther and his students. Many of these conversations were said to take place around Luther’s dinner table. In a section from Tabletalk below, Luther teaches a profound and unexpected lesson on humility. He argues that the angels are a living lesson in humility, one that should be emulated.

The acknowledgment of angels is needful in the church. Therefore godly preachers should teach them logically. First, they should show what angels are, namely, spiritual creatures without bodies. Secondly, what manner of spirits they are, namely, good spirits and not evil; and here evil spirits must also be spoken of, not created evil by God, but made so by their rebellion against God, and their consequent fall; this hatred began in Paradise, and will continue and remain against Christ and his church to the world’s end. Thirdly, they must speak touching their function, which, as the epistle to the Hebrews (chap. i. v. 14–“Are not all angels ministering spirits sent to serve those who will inherit salvation?”) shows, is to present a mirror of humility to godly Christians, in that such pure and perfect creatures as the angels do minister unto us, poor and wretched people, in household and temporal policy, and in religion. They are our true and trusty servants, performing offices and works that one poor miserable mendicant would be ashamed to do for another. In this sort ought we to teach with care, method, and attention, touching the sweet and loving angels. Whoso speaks of them not in the order prescribed by logic, may speak of many irrelevant things, but little or nothing to edification.

The Purest Theology

Martin Luther once said, “the cross of Christ is the only instruction in the Word of God there is, the purest theology.” For Luther, the cross was far more than a saving event though of course he affirmed that it was central to salvation. His argument went far deeper. He believed that the cross was the central event of theology, the definitive act of God’s revelation and self-identification.

Calvary was a game changer. The Triune God is now and forever the “God of the cross.” As Robert Kolb states, the cross is “where human beings can see what God’s experience, God’s disposition—even God’s essence— really are.” If we would find God, Kolb says we must look in the most unexpected places. We find him as a “child in a crib, as a criminal on a cross, and as a corpse in a crypt.”

Luther based these theological assertions on his reading of Paul, particularly the Corinthian correspondence. Paul argues in 1 Corinthians 1-2 that the cross destroys our perceptions of reality and redefines everything. Wisdom, power and glory are now foolishness, weakness and humility. The cross turns the world on its head.

If the cross becomes our center and we orbit about the Crucified God things will never be the same. We will see with a different lens. We will make decisions that won’t make sense to others. We will value things that are often despised. We will recognize God in places we’ve never seen him before. We will embrace a cruciform existence and in small ways reflect the heart of this humble God.

Absurd Grace

The Spirit is the quiet force behind the saving work of the Son. Yet, this unsung hero in our redemption refuses to sing about his contribution. He is fundamentally committed to singing the song of the Son (Jn 16:14). J.I. Packer gives a great illustration of this truth.

The Holy Spirit’s distinctive new covenant role, then, is to fulfill what we may call a floodlight ministry in relation to the Lord Jesus Christ. So far as this role was concerned, the Spirit ‘was not yet’ (John 7:39, literal Greek) while Jesus was on earth; only when the Father had glorified him (see John 17:5) could the Spirit’s work of making men aware of Jesus’ glory begin.

I remember walking to a church one winter evening to preach on the words ‘he shall glorify me,’ seeing the building floodlit as I turned a corner, and realizing that this was exactly the illustration my message needed.

When floodlighting is well done, the floodlights are so placed that you do not see them; you are not in fact supposed to see where the light is coming from; what you are meant to see is just the building on which the floodlights are trained.

The intended effect is to make it visible when otherwise it would not be seen for the darkness, and to maximize its dignity by throwing all its details into relief so that you see it properly. This perfectly illustrates the Spirit’s new covenant role. He is, so to speak, the hidden floodlight shining on the Savior.

Or think of it this way. It is as if the Spirit stands behind us, throwing light over our shoulder, on Jesus, who stands facing us. The Spirit’s message is never, ‘Look at me; listen to me; come to me; get to know me,’ but always ‘Look at him, and see his glory; listen to him, and hear his word; go to him, and have life; get to know him, and taste his gift of joy and peace[1]

The Spirit’s divine condescension does not cease with the saving work of the Son. His humble service is ever present in the life of the church and her individual members. We could speak to his work of conviction, regeneration, guidance, comfort, empowerment, mortification, assurance and resurrection. All of these would reveal unique glimpses into God’s grace and humility.

As I mentioned in the previous post, I am interested in addressing one particular area of the Spirit’s gracious work: indwelling. The New Testament makes an absurd claim about God’s residence. After Christ’s ascension God makes his home in his people by his Spirit. The completion of God’s saving project in Christ is accompanied by a change of the Triune address.

Indwelling means that God moves beyond being with us and shocks us with the grace of being in us! If this does not capture amazing grace I am not sure what does. There are a few New Testament passages that capture the theme of indwelling. We will explore each of these texts and then work out some implications of this doctrine as we continue on in this series of posts.

  1. J.I. Packer, Keeping in Step with the Spirit: Finding Fullness in Our Walk with God. (Baker Books: Grand Rapids, 2005), p. 57.

The Majesty of Divine Selflessness

Sometimes, outrageous biblical truths become commonplace to us. God is constant in his kindness to bring these familiar truths alive to us again and again as we read the sacred script. Old truth becomes fresh truth as the he opens our eyes “to behold wonderful things from the word” (Ps. 119:18).

These are things that have always been there, things we have read many times. He awakens us to truth we know, but don’t know. This has been my experience this last month with one particular truth: the indwelling of the Holy Spirit.

There is a strange glory that surrounds the person of the Holy Spirit, a humble splendor. Graham Cole has said that the person and work of the Spirit is a window into “the majesty of divine selflessness.”

His posture is one of tireless condescension and self-effacing service all to the glory of Father and Son. The paradox of his glory is that you can’t really see it. He is not interested in drawing attention to himself. He always works behind the scenes.

This paradox is evident in his work of breathing life into creation through the Son’s speech. The wind blows where God wills but we do not know where it comes from or what it is doing.

We see this principle at work in his empowerment of prophets, priests, and kings. It is unclear to most where Samson gets his strength, where prophets get their words, and where kings get their wisdom.

The paradox is strong in the Spirit’s role as the helper of Christ. He miraculously brings about the birth of the God-man. He fills, empowers, and guides the Son throughout his life and ministry. He upholds the Son on the cross enabling him to offer a perfect sacrifice to the Father. He raises Jesus from the grave and secures his victory over death.

The humble work of the Spirit continues on in his work in our lives…the mind boggling reality of his gracious indwelling. In the next few posts we will explore this great theme.

Theological Implications of the Humility of God

I have spent the last month discussing the topic of God’s humility. I have argued that God the Father, God the Son, and God the Spirit are equally and magnificently humble. Through viewing a variety of texts, exploring trinitarian doctrine, and drawing from a number of resources I have worked to show that humility is intrinsic to the Father as well as Son and Spirit.

In this post I want to spend a few moments teasing out the implications of a God who is humble. What does it matter that God is humble? How does it change how we think, live, and operate?

  • Humility is a Trinitarian attribute and dynamic. This means that humility occurs in community as it is fundamentally about engaging others. Humility does not occur in a vacuum, it is birthed in interaction with other individuals.
  • Humility as a Trinitarian reality implies that this attribute can be explored from two angles. First, we can look at the oneness of God and search out divine humility. Second, we can look at the diversity in God as we think about humility. Each of the Triune persons is characterized by humility and riches await us if we would search this out.
  • If God is humble then it follows that all he does will be informed by and marked with his humility. In other words, we will be able to discern humility in creation, revelation, historical engagement with Israel and the nations, the incarnation, cross, ascension, sending of the Spirit, birthing of the church, second coming, and establishment of the new earth. We will hear humility in his words where we have not heard it before. We will see it in his activity where we have not recognized it before.
  • The coming rule and reign of God will be a humble theocracy. Kings are not often characterized by lowliness and passion for service to others. The Triune God is quite the opposite. Yahweh is a humble sovereign, a sacrificing deity, an outward looking God. What a refreshing reality awaits those who will live under his kingship. Greg Haslam is right, “At the root of all present-day oppressive dictatorships, divided or monochrome societies, devaluation of certain individuals and the inability to cultivate loving community, is a denial of the Trinity.”
  • Visions of a humble God invoke repentance and worship. Beholding a God who gets on his knees to wash his creature’s feet must move us. Sacrifice and service from the Creator has a way of shattering hardness in our hearts and stirring us to song. The more we view God’s humility the more we will be moved.
  • Human beings are made in the image of a humble God. It follows that humility is a mark of genuine humanity. We are called to humility because we are called to reflect God. The saving humility of God manifest in Christ and the Spirit is the means to making this a reality.

Christmas Theology: Baby Boy and Humble Father

Jesus is true God and true man. As such, he reveals authentic humanity and authentic deity. Want to know about man? Go to Jesus. Want to know about God? Go to Jesus. The multi-faceted mission of Jesus included this crucial revelatory dimension. He came to explain God.

In Jesus God comes walking, speaking, touching, teaching, serving, dying, and rising. The wonderful collision of creature and Creator, this is the Christ event. What you see in Christ’s character is fundamentally true of God the Father. This is rich Christmas theology. A crucial chapter in God’s autobiography is written at the birth of Jesus. The title could very well be “The Humble God.”

In this post we discuss the connection of Christ’s humility to the Father’s humble nature. I believe we will find the old adage “like father like son” true of God.

The Son’s Revelation of the Humble Father

There are a number of texts we could look at to begin this discussion. I have chosen a brilliant passage from the book of Hebrews. The author clearly holds a high christology.

“He is the radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of his nature, and he upholds the universe by the word of his power” (Hebrews 1:3).

The language is magnificent. Paul Ellingworth in his NIGCT commentary states, “In the present verse, ‘exact imprint of his nature’ (χαρακτὴρ τῆς ὑποστάσεως αὐτοῦ) reinforces ‘radiance of glory’ (ἀπαύγασμα τῆς δόξης) in describing the essential unity and exact resemblance between God and his Son…In the present verse, God’s ‘nature’ (ὑπόστασις) is his essential being, ‘the reality of God.'”

The Son is a true representation of the Father as he shares an identical nature with him. It follows that the character/nature of the Son is always consistent with the Father. The second text comes from the book of Matthew.

“All things have been handed over to me by my Father, and no one knows the Son except the Father, and no one knows the Father except the Son and anyone to whom the Son chooses to reveal him” (Matt 11:27, cf Lk 10:22).

The Son holds exclusive knowledge of and access to the Father. It is grace that grant others that access and knowledge. The mission of the Son aims to make both a reality in the lives of sinful man. The text continues with an invitation to God and a revelation of his character. Jesus says, “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls (Matthew 11:28-29).”

John Nolland in his commentary on Matthew makes some insightful observations. “Matthew 11:25–27 has dealt with both the revealing and the concealing activity of the Father and the Son. Where the failure of response in vv. 20–24 corresponds to the concealing activity, the fresh invitation in vv. 28–30 is probably intended to correspond to the revealing activity.” When Jesus is talking about his humble heart he is revealing the Father’s heart as well. He is doing exactly what he said he came to do in the previous verses.

Nolland goes on to discuss the significance of humility in this revelatory statement. “Moderation and other-centredness fit the context in Mt. 11:29. Matthew’s interest in Jesus as gentle (πραΰς) is reflected in his use in a fulfillment citation in Mt. 21:4–5 of Zc. 9:9 with its identification of the coming king as gentle (πραΰς). Matthew does not use humility (ταπεινός) elsewhere. The word normally designates a person who is in or has been reduced to a lowly position. But like gentle (πραΰς), it also has an ethical use. An ethical use is signalled here by the addition of τῇ καρδίᾳ (‘in heart’), which performs much the same role as τῷ πνεύματι (‘in spirit’) in Mt. 5:3. The one who is ταπεινός τῇ καρδία is unassuming and demonstrates humility.”

Nolland’s discussion on the original languages is important as this verse explicitly ties humility to the character of Christ. Theologically the text is significant as it draws an exegetical and contextual link between the Son’s humility and the Father’s character.

I end this post with a quote by Athan Smith. Note particularly the language of the Triune God entering human existence through the mediation of the Son. In the Son we do indeed see the Trinity.

“There and then, before creation, it was decided that the Son would cross every chasm between God and humanity and establish a real and abiding relationship—union. He was predestined to be the mediator, the one in and through whom the very life of the Triune God would enter human existence and human existence would be lifted up to share in the Trinitarian life. The gospel is the good news that this stunning plan of the Triune God has now become eternal fact in Jesus Christ. In his incarnate life, death, resurrection and ascension, he laid hold of the human race, took us down in his death, recreated us in his resurrection, and lifted us up into the embrace of the Father in his ascension.”

The Father’s Humility in the Ascension

Humility is magnetic. We are all drawn to people who consistently honor others and draw little attention to self. This magnetism increases with power. In other words, people in positions of authority who engage with humility are especially drawing. Why? Because they have influence and an ability to use their authority in other ways. I experience this on a personal level every day. I have some of the most humble leaders imaginable in my place of work. Their use of authority is a breath of fresh air.

Consider the difference between humble and proud people in these positions: landlord, boss, CEO, judge, mayor, governor, president. Humility is all the more compelling when experienced in those who have greatest influence. Now consider this, the most powerful and influential being in the universe is also the most humble. Humility marks everything he does.

We have observed the way the Father honors the Son in eternity past, in creation, in the incarnation, and at the cross. In this post we take it a step further to the ascension. In this event, will see compelling humility yet again.

The Father’s Humility in the Ascension

The Father’s pleasure in the Son marks the beginning and end of his earthly ministry. At his baptism the Father’s audible voice is heard: “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased” (Matt 3:17). When he has accomplished his saving task the Father is greatly pleased. 

“Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father” (Philippians 2:9-11).

“Being therefore exalted at the right hand of God, and having received from the Father the promise of the Holy Spirit, he has poured out this that you yourselves are seeing and hearing” (Acts 2:33).

In these texts the language of exaltation is taken up to describe what happens in the ascension and the seating of Jesus at the right hand of the Father. The physical rising into heaven is a tangible expression of the Father exalting the Son. He is literally and figuratively lifted up. It is the Father’s passion that “all may honor the Son, just as they honor the Father” (Jn 5:22).

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