When Humility is Pride

Some of us can tend to fall into the trap of overwhelming inward shame. For those who struggle with this, the remedy is not to hear the words of friends who would say, “Don’t be so hard on yourself.” The remedy is to look to Jesus and stop neglecting such a great salvation (Hebrews 2:3). The following is taken from Tony Reinke’s post, “When Humility is Pride” on CJ Mahaney’s blog:

    Rev. Joshua Symonds (1739–1788) was the pastor of a church in Bedford, England who suffered from frequent afflictions, temptations, and what we might call depression—“family cares and severe bodily affliction sometimes cast a gloom over his spirit and led him to take desponding views of himself” [1]. Symonds’s despondency and sense of personal worthlessness engrossed his life, which is made clear in the letters he exchanged with his friend John Newton.

    Symonds was aware of his own depravity and spiritual barrenness. But the bigger problem in Symonds’s life was not in thinking too lowly of himself, but in thinking too lowly of the Savior. He was sliding into legalism. He was aware of his own sinfulness, but unable to appreciate the all-sufficiency of the Savior.

    Writes Newton,

    You say, you find it hard to believe it compatible with the divine purity to embrace or employ such a monster as yourself. You express not only a low opinion of yourself, which is right, but too low an opinion of the person, work, and promises of the Redeemer; which is certainly wrong.

    And therein is the danger of understanding total depravity without understanding the sufficiency of the Savior.

    Satan’s School of Humility
    So what went wrong in his friend’s thinking?

    According to Newton, Symonds had been duped in Satan’s “school of humility,” where humility is twisted and distorted into prideful self-loathing that pushes the Savior away.

    Satan transforms himself into an angel of light. He sometimes offers to teach us humility; but though I wish to be humble, I desire not to learn in this school. His premises perhaps are true, that we are vile, wretched creatures—but he then draws abominable conclusions from them; and would teach us, that, therefore, we ought to question either the power, or the willingness, or the faithfulness of Christ.

    Indeed, though our complaints are good, so far as they spring from a dislike of sin; yet, when we come to examine them closely, there is often so much self-will, self-righteousness, unbelief, pride, and impatience mingled with them, that they are little better than the worst evils we can complain of.

    Tim Keller quotes and explains the significance of Newton’s words in his forthcoming book King’s Cross: The Story of the World in the Life of Jesus. Keller writes,

    There are two ways to fail to let Jesus be your Savior. One is by being too proud, having a superiority complex—not to accept his challenge. But the other is through an inferiority complex—being so self-absorbed that you say, “I’m just so awful that God can’t love me.” That is, not to accept his offer.

    And that is how Satan turns humility into false humility, false humility into despondency, and despondency into an inferiority complex that pushes away the gospel.

    Looking Directly to Jesus
    Newton was keenly aware that at the root of Symonds’s problems were his small thoughts about the Savior. Symonds was tempted to see himself as unworthy of the gospel, the very gospel that invites the most unworthy sinners.

    Newton writes,

    You have not, you cannot have, anything in the sight of God, but what you derive from the righteousness and atonement of Jesus. If you could keep him more constantly in view, you would be more comfortable. He would be more honored.…Let us pray that we may be enabled to follow the apostle’s, or rather the Lord’s command by him, Rejoice in the Lord always, and again I say, Rejoice [Philippians 4:4]. We have little to rejoice in ourselves, but we have right and reason to rejoice in him.

    And in a later letter Newton writes,

    The best evidence of faith is shutting our eyes equally upon our defects and our graces, and looking directly to Jesus as clothed with authority and power to save to the uttermost….Plead the Apostle’s argument (Romans 8:31–39) before the Lord and against Satan. [2]

    We find no eternal hope within ourselves. Revisiting personal depravity is not the solution. Revisiting past periods of spiritual strength is not the solution. Prolonged introspection is not the solution. The solution is to look outside of ourselves, and to gaze again and again at the all-sufficient Savior who welcomes sinners, forgives sinners, and saves sinners to the uttermost (Hebrews 7:25).

    In other words, Christ is powerful to save, he is faithful to save, and he is willing to save even the most “monstrous” of sinners.

    Primary source letter: John Newton, Works of John Newton (London: 1820), 6:185–187. Secondary sources: [1] Letters of John Newton (Edinburgh; Banner of Truth: 1869/2007), 167. [2] Letters, 173. [3] Letters, 168.