Practical Hints from a Father to His Daughter
William Sprague, 1835
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.
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.
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.
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!
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!
True Christian humility is one of the effects of divine grace operating upon the heart. The apostle has beautifully described it in few words, as a disposition which leads us not to think more highly of ourselves than we ought to think. True humility reveals itself in heartfelt expressions of abasement before God — and in the modesty of our appearance, conversation, and pursuits, before the world.
The motives for the cultivation of humility are so numerous, that I can only glance at a few of them. One of them is to be found in the fact that this grace is an essential and prominent part of Christian character; and that you have so much and only so much of true religion — as you have of true humility. One of the fathers said, "If I were asked, what is the first grace of the Christian, I would say, Humility. If I were asked, what is the second, I would say, Humility. If I were asked, what is the third, I would still say, Humility."
No doubt pride in some form or other, is the ruling principle of the corrupt heart. If then you would reach a high point in sanctification, guard against pride in all its forms, and be always clothed with the garments of humility. "All of you, clothe yourselves with humility toward one another, because God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble." 1 Peter 5:5
And if humility is so important a part of Christian character, I hardly need say, that it is essential to the Christian's comfort. Everything in the universe is part of a system; and when it is in the place appointed for it, it is either at rest or in harmonious motion. This is true of ourselves; but pride disturbs this harmony, and by removing the soul out of its proper sphere, makes it restless and unhappy. The great secret of true happiness in any station, is to have a principle of humility introduced, and in exercise, which will restore harmony to the passions, and will relieve us from the conflicts and tumults they occasion.
Not a small part of the unhappiness which exists in the world, results immediately from the operation of pride. Where in the annals of woe — will you find characters that have been subjected to deeper suffering than Pharaoh, and Nebuchadnezzar, and Herod? But, in each of them, pride was emphatically the ruling passion, and to it they sacrificed everything valuable in time and eternity.
And a similar result, we have seen in many cases that have fallen under our own observation: people who have gloried in their imagined superiority to those around them — a superiority perhaps which has been conferred by the glitter of wealth, or the breath of applause — have at length been permitted to fall, not only into entire insignificance — but the deepest degradation; thus verifying the divine declaration that 'he who exalts himself — shall be abased.'
On the other hand, wherever genuine humility appears, whatever the external circumstances may be — there you may look with confidence for true happiness. Even under the darkest cloud of adversity, humility diffuses a sweet peace, and sometimes an unutterable joy through the soul. Who has not seen the humble Christian breathing out his life in triumph? Who has not seen the proud worldling dying without consolation, and without hope?
Let me say too that a spirit of humility will go far towards rendering you acceptable and useful in your interaction with the world. The conduct in which a proud spirit reveals itself, is almost sure to revolt even the proud themselves, when they witness it in others. And as for the humble, they cannot fail to regard it as an odious quality, though they may pity those who are the subjects of it. The usefulness of the proud man must be limited, not only because his pride will probably keep him within a narrow sphere — but because the efforts which he actually makes, being prompted by a wrong spirit, will not be likely to draw down upon them the blessing of God. It were worth while to be humble, if it were only for the advantages which humility secures in the present life.
Remember that a proud spirit cannot be concealed. If it exists in the heart — all the means you can use to conceal it from the world, will be in vain. It will reveal itself in your conversation and deportment, and will give a complexion to your whole character. I have known instances in which the manners of people have been formed in the morning of life under the influence of a principle of pride; and though they afterwards gave evidence of true piety, the haughty and overbearing manner which they had early acquired, in spite of all their exertions to the contrary, continued to the close of life. Wherever this proud spirit is acted out in the manners — it is always odious; but where it appears in the manners of a female, it receives, from the world at least, a double condemnation.