Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Charity and Its Fruits - charity is an humble spirit

 Charity and Its Fruits
Lecture VII, part one

(This week we continue our discussion of the Jonathan Edwards' classic, Charity and Its Fruits. We have just concluded reading the "Doctrine" portion of Lecture Seven through Roman Numeral One. We will complete the rest of Lecture Seven in next week's reading. The notes below follow Edwards' outline directly, with all direct quotes from the text in italics. My goal is to make each post edifying on its own, even for those who are not reading along with us. I will welcome your questions or comments in the form below.)

The Spirit of Charity is an Humble Spirit
"Charity vaunteth not itself, is not puffed up, doth not behave itself unseemly." 1 Cor. 13:4,5

In our last reading we learned that Christian love prevents us from envying others what they have. In this lecture we will learn how charity "keeps us from glorying in what we possess ourselves" as well as how it keeps us from behavior which provokes envy in others. It is a very unloving thing, indeed, to behave in such a way as to make others more uncomfortable or unhappy with their circumstances than they might otherwise be.
"Christian love, or charity, tends to make all behave suitably to their condition, whatever it may be; if below others, not to envy them, and if above others, not to be proud or puffed up with the prosperity."
The thesis of our lesson is this: That the spirit of charity, or Christian love, is an humble spirit.

I. I would show what humility is...

Edwards begins by defining humility: "Humility may be defined to be a habit of mind and heart corresponding to our comparative unworthiness and vileness before God, or a sense of our own comparative meanness in his sight, with the disposition to a behavior answerable thereto." In other words, humility is the habit of thinking of oneself rightly in relation/comparison to God and man, and the behavior which stems from such an attitude.

1. A sense of our own comparative meanness...
Edwards' definition for meanness would have been along these lines: "The state of being inferior in quality, character, or value; commonness."
"...humility is an excellence proper to all created intelligent beings, for they are all infinitely little and mean before God, and most of them are in some way mean and low in comparison with some of their fellow creatures."
Humility is appropriate to all created beings, because all created beings are infinitely smaller and inferior to God, who upholds them...for 'In him we live and move and have our being' and "...he is before all things, and in him all things hold together." (Acts 17:28, Col. 1:17)

Keeping that in mind, take a moment, if you will, to reflect on the words of Bill Bryson in his secular work, A Short History of Nearly Everything:
"...for you to be here now trillions of drifting atoms had to somehow assemble in an intricate and intriguingly obliging manner to create you. It's an arrangement so specialized and particular that it has never been tried before and will only exist this once. For the next many years (we hope) these tiny particles will uncomplainingly engage in all the billions of deft, cooperative efforts necessary to keep you intact and let you experience the supremely agreeable but generally underappreciated state known as existence.

Why atoms take this trouble is a bit of a puzzle. Being you is not a gratifying experience at the atomic level. For all their devoted attention, your atoms don't actually care about you - indeed, don't even know that you are there. They don't even know that they are there. They are mindless particles, after all, and not even themselves alive. (It is a slightly arresting notion that if you were to pick yourself apart with tweezers, on atom at a time, you would produce a mound of fine atomic dust, none of which had ever been alive but all of which had once been you.) Yet somehow, for the period of your existence they will answer to a single overarching impulse: to keep you you.

The bad news is that atoms are fickle and their time of devotion is fleeting - fleeting indeed. Even a long human life adds up to only about 650,000 hours. And when that modest milestone flashes past, or at some other point thereabouts, for reasons unknown your atoms will shut down, silently disassemble, and go off to be other things. And that's it for you..."
Humbling thoughts indeed! Now Edwards will break it down a bit further.
  • First, Humility doth primarily and chiefly consist in a sense of our meanness as compared with God, or a sense of the infinite distance there is between God and ourselves. We are little, despicable creatures, even worms of the dust, and we should feel that we are as nothing, and less than nothing, in comparison with the Majesty of heaven and earth.....we are not truly humble unless we have a sense of our nothingness as compared with God." (emphasis mine) In other words, we who are made from nothing, are as nothing compared with the One who made us from nothing. Humility remembers that.
  • Secondly, A sense of our own meanness as compared with many of our fellow-creatures....He that has a right sense and estimate of himself in comparison with God, will be likely to have his eyes open to see himself aright in all respects. Even before the fall of mankind, such an attitude was appropriate, but it is even more so now that "his natural meanness has become much greater since the fall, for the moral ruin of his nature has greatly impaired his natural faculties..." And so, we are now both "naturally" and "morally" mean in relation to God: "His natural meanness is his littleness as a creature; and his moral meanness is his vileness and filthiness as a sinner." We see this attitude illustrated in Scripture as Isaiah said upon seeing God exclaimed,"Woe is me! For I am lost; for I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips; for my eyes have seen the King, the LORD of hosts!" Is. 6:5 And as Job confessed, "I had heard of you by the hearing of the ear, but now my eye sees you; therefore I despise myself, and repent in dust and ashes." Job 42:5-6
Now Edwards takes us a step further. As he says,
"...it is not only necessary they we should know God, and have a sense of his greatness, without which we cannot know ourselves, but we must have right sense also of his excellence and loveliness. The devils and damned spirits see a great deal of God's greatness, of his wisdom, omnipotence, etc....However unwilling they are to know it, God makes them know how much he is above them now, and they shall know and feel it still more, at and after the judgment. But they have no humility, nor will they ever have, because, though they see and feel God's greatness, yet they see and feel nothing of his loveliness. And without this there can be no true humility, for that cannot exist unless the creature feels his distance from God, not only with respect to his greatness, but also his loveliness....From such a sense of their comparative meanness, persons are made sensible how unworthy they are of God's mercy or gracious notice."
Devils and rebels may recognize that God is omnipotent, and yet hate Him. That is not humility, as the very fact that they rise up to judge Him and declare Him unworthy of their love, and their moral value as superior to His. It is the vision and recognition of His loveliness which leads us to acknowledge our comparative vileness. If we despise God's goodness and moral beauty, we will not regard ourselves properly in relation to Him.  It is not enough to recognize only that He is great. We must recognize that He is lovely. To acknowledge that He is great, but not lovely, is to declare ourselves more lovely than Him, and our values more valuable than Him. Only, a clear vision of the loveliness of His moral perfection will cause us to see how great a thing His mercy to us filthy sinners really is.


2. A disposition to a corresponding behavior and conduct - without this there is no true humility.

The example Edwards gives us of the "humility" of devils should give us pause. It is possible to "obey" God, but with no true humility. We learn from the story of Job that the devil, though he would like to utterly destroy Job, is not permitted to. We can also see this in the authority Christ and His apostles exhibited over demons in the New Testament narratives. Satan and his minions obey; they do not cross the boundaries God prescribes for them. This, however, does not mean that God is pleased with the obedience of the devil. What Satan does within the limits God has constrained him to, is not done from love for God, nor does it please God. It is done only in acknowledgment of God's superior power, not willing subjection in loving recognition of God's moral worthiness to be obeyed.
"...not knowing and feeling his loveliness and excellence, their wills and dispositions by no means comply with and conform to what is becoming their meanness; and so they have no humility, but are full of pride."
A sight of God's greatness may lead us to "surrender" to His will out of fear, but only a view of His loveliness will bring our hearts into loving repentance. And so it is that the Scripture tells us that "...God’s kindness is meant to lead you to repentance..." (Rom. 2:4) And from it we also learn that even the terrors of God's wrath are not enough to inspire humility or loving obedience. (See Rev. 9:20; 16:9; 16:11.) Although it might bring about outward compliance, fear of wrath and pain do not inspire loving obedience - kindness and mercy do - something to keep in mind in our own relationships.

Regarding this behavior and conduct, Edwards first lists four dispositions of a humble heart toward God:
  • The humble heart readily and even happily recognizes its littleness and vileness in relation to God, and its unworthiness of God's mercy.
  • The humble person relies solely upon God and not its own strength or abilities. The proud man, on the other hand, "has a high opinion of his own wisdom, or strength, or righteousness, is self-confident."
  • The humble soul really does give all glory to God
  • The humble heart readily and without murmuring submits to God's commands and providence.

Secondly, he describes the effect of true humility in our behavior toward our fellow-man by addressing seven kinds of behavior it prevents:
  • Humility tends "to prevent an aspiring and ambitious behavior amongst men." The humble man is content with the position in life in which God has placed him and "is not greedy of honor, and does not affect to appear uppermost and exalted above his neighbors."
  • "Humility tends to prevent and ostentatious behavior. If the truly humble man has any advantage or benefit of any kind, either temporal or spiritual, above his neighbors, he will not affect to make a show of it....it is a small thing with him what men may think of him...he is content that the great Being who sees in secret beholds and will approve it." This is not to be confused, however, with the arrogant and insensitive attitude so prevalent today which speaks this way: "I've got to be myself, and I don't give a damn what anyone thinks, or who gets hurt."  What Edwards is talking about it a person who really lives day to day seeking no one's approval but God's. For the humble soul, it is God's opinion which sways decisions and motivates actions. A humble person may in fact speak very boldly at times, risking great risk of harm and insult from others, finding courage in the knowledge that God would have him do just that.
  • "Humility tends also to prevent an arrogant and assuming behavior...His behavior does not carry with it the idea that he is the best amongst those about him, and that he is the one to whom the chief regard should be shewn, and whose judgment is the most to be sought and followed....he gives all due deference to the judgment and inclinations of others...he has not the air, either in his speech or behavior, of one that esteems himself one of the best saints in the whole company..."
  • "Humility tends also to prevent a scornful behavior. Treating others with scorn and contempt is one of the worst and most offensive manifestations of pride toward them....They are not found treating with scorn and contempt what others say, or speaking of what they do with ridicule and sneering reflections, or sitting and relating what others may have spoken or done, only to make sport of it."  We live in scornful times.  Contempt is so embedded in the dialogue of American media outlets that we can easily become oblivious to it, absorbing such attitudes and regurgitating them.  It's not without cause that so much of the world views Americans as arrogant. In the name of Christian love, we who name the name of Christ must guard ourselves against such attitudes and displays of arrogance and superiority over others, both in public and in the privacy of our homes and hearts.
  • "Humility tends also to prevent a willful and stubborn behavior....They will not be stiff and inflexible, and insist that everything must go according to what they happen first to propose, and manifest a disposition by no means to be easy, but to make all the difficulty they can, and to make others uneasy as well as themselves, and to prevent anything being done with any quietness, if it be not according to their own mind and will...always bent on carrying their own points, and, if this cannot be done, then bent on opposing and annoying others....A truly humble man is inflexible in nothing but in the cause of his Lord and Master, inflexible, because God and conscience require it; but in things of lesser moment, and which do not involve his principles as a follower of Christ, and in things that only concern his own private interests, he is apt to yield to others. And if he sees that others are stubborn and unreasonable in their willfulness, he does not allow that to provoke him to be stubborn and willful in his opposition to them..." (emphasis mine)
  • "Humility prevents leveling behavior. Some persons are always ready to level those above them down to themselves, while they are never willing to level those below them up to their own position." A humble man "will be willing that all should rise just so far as their diligence and worth of character entitle them to; and on the other hand, he will be willing that his superiors should be known and acknowledged in their place, and have rendered to them all the honors that are their due...."
  • "Humility also tends...to prevent a self-justifying behavior." A humble person "will be willing to acknowledge his fault, and take the shame of it to himself. He will not be hard to be brought to a sense of his fault, or to testify that sense by a suitable acknowledgment of his error....It is pride that makes men so exceedingly backward to confess their fault when they have fallen into one.... But humility in the behavior makes men prompt to their duty in this respect, and if it prevails as it should, will lead them to do it with alacrity and even delight."
I found it helpful to review this final list by looking at it in light of love.  How is it that love brings about humble behavior? When we love someone, we do not want to drag them down, dominate them, make them feel unhappy about their lives - or unhappy at all. We do not want someone we love to feel stupid, low, ugly, demeaned, accused, guilty, poor, unwelcome, unloved, unrewarded, or unwanted. We want the ones we love to have all the joy and peace we can contribute to them. Thus love teaches us to behave humbly.

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