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.

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