It is one of the most distinguishing and lovely features of Christianity, that it not only inculcates — but actually produces and nourishes, the grace of humility. So remote is humility from the spirit of paganism, even in its least exceptionable forms, that the language of the nation more enlightened than any other at the time of Christ, did not have a word expressive of what we mean by humility! It belongs to the gospel to have made the discovery, that there is a species of self-abasement which, while it is befitting our character as sinners — is intimately connected with the highest moral dignity.
There is, however, much that more or less passes current in the world for humility — which does not deserve the name! And in respect to this, as of all the other graces of the Christian — it is important that you should be able to detect its counterfeits.
1. There is for instance, an abject spirit, which is groveling in its nature, and finds its appropriate element amidst a corresponding set of objects. Whereas true humility lifts the soul from the dust, and brings it in contact with some of the most glorious objects in the universe.
2. There is also a desponding spirit, which lives upon doubts and anxieties in respect to personal religious experience, and turns away from the promises as if they were made only for those who could appropriate them with absolute assurance. This cannot be genuine humility; for it is the legitimate offspring of unbelief — and humility is always connected with living faith.
3. There is, moreover, a timid spirit, which attempts little, and therefore accomplishes little, on the ground perhaps that there may be danger of overrating one’s own powers. But humility is perfectly consistent with forming large plans, and entering upon the most extensive field of action — provided it is from Christian motives.
It is a mistake into which many people fall, that pride is always the accompaniment of rank — and that humility is found almost of course among the lower classes. There may be more, I acknowledge in the one case than the other, to foster a spirit of pride; though even in this respect, on account of the different standards which exist among various classes, there may be less difference than might be imagined. But the truth undoubtedly is, that you may be very humble in any station to which Providence can raise you — or you may be very proud in the obscurest situation to which you can be reduced!
4. But there is nothing in which a spirit of false humility reveals itself more decisively — than in speaking more unfavorably of one’s self than facts will warrant. Expressions of this kind almost uniformly fail of their object; for it requires but little discernment to detect the unworthy motive.
If you attribute to yourself faults with which you and the world know that you are not chargeable — instead of being taken as a mark of humility — it will be regarded as an indication of a weak mind, and an unworthy attempt to provoke commendation which you do not deserve!
One of the most common, and to me one of the most painful exhibitions of this spirit, consists in the indiscriminate and often somewhat public confessions of professed Christians in respect to their own spiritual coldness and neglect of duty — when they manifest no disposition to be more active and faithful. All this kind of self-righteous gossiping is often found a most convenient substitute for doing one’s duty; and, if I mistake not, many a lukewarm Christian has found in these unmeaning confessions an opiate to his conscience, in the strength of which he has gone many days.
And I am constrained to express my conviction that this same base spirit frequently operates in prayer; and that acknowledgments of grievous backsliding are attempted to be poured into the ear of mercy — which are really very little felt, and which are scarcely designed to answer any other purpose (I almost shudder to say it) than to lessen the remorse which attends a habit of sinning! Wherever you see active efforts to forsake sin and to rise to a higher tone of pious feeling and action — there you may take it for granted is true humility. But where nothing appears but confessions of delinquency, however deep or often repeated, you may rely on it — genuine humility is not there!