Some Calvinists ask with perturbation, “Isn’t it so, that freely chosen faith and freely surrendered humility would be a source of pride in us?” The question is probably an indication of the sort of ironic self-absorption we humans can fall into. Perhaps the best response would be for the inquirer and inquiree to be amused at the irony, have a quick laugh, and move on with a life of joy toward God. Suggesting that humility and faith in God could be a source of pride in us is identical to that horror which the demon “Screwtape” suggests to “Wormwood” in CS Lewis’ satirical book:
The most alarming thing in your last account of the patient is that he is making none of those confident resolutions… [He has] 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.(1)
Demons may try to draw our attention to humility and make us become self-absorbed upon it — fellow Christian, do not make this your aim as well! The whole point of faith and humility is to value others and to value God; to be grateful for His gracious work in our lives; to live a life of honest self-forgetfulness as we are caught up in the enthusiasm of loving God and others.
Can one imagine anything more harmful to joy and humility than having an associate who always lurches in at your most thankful moments to demand that you introspect? “See here, you seem very thankful about that gift. You must be a rather arrogant person, pleased with how grateful you are.” Or: “Now then, you were very nice to that person to express your gratitude — but if you look deep inside, I’m sure you’ll see you were doing it for selfish motives… an ingratiate, yes?” Or: “Ha! You threw yourself on the mercy of the court, and the judge did not hang you — stop your vain praise of the judge and your proclaimed delight in God’s mercies… you must be very proud of yourself for such a performance of abject desperation!”
Just by asking this bizarre question and demanding an answer, it takes a person’s mind off of outwardly-directed joyous gratitude and places them into thinking inwardly and trying to psychoanalyze themselves.
Humility is self-forgetfulness, not self-obsession. And so even such a question is — in itself — a spiritual disaster. The question, “Am I humble enough?” or, “In the midst of my gratitude to God, am I being proud in some secret way?” are ridiculously self-defeating. To engage in forming an answer is to enter the enemy’s trap. (Since some people go around asking these questions, we do need to have answers for the people genuinely inquiring, but the exercise is a rather painfully annoying one, rather like trying to answer, “Have you stopped beating your wife yet?” with “I have never beaten her,” and hearing in reply, “Ah, so, you say you never stopped beating her, eh?”)
Worse than the wife-beating question, once the question is asked, one wonders, what is the acceptable answer? Shall we say, “I direct my thanks to God for not making me like other men,” and echo the proud Pharisee? Or shall we say, “I myself have made myself humble enough to merit God’s blessings,” and ignore prevenient grace? God forbid either of these answers. Let us merely say, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner.” God may answer, “Your faith has saved you,”(2) but we will always say, “You, God, have saved me in your graciousness.” No further attempt to enter into the flawed question should be made.
So following C.S. Lewis’ advice here is key. When you find yourself wondering how humble you are (rather than how great God is), or whether you think your gratitude to God hides some sinister bit of pride (rather than waiting moment-by-moment to continue to drink from His fountain of blessings), or you begin to compare yourself to someone else (and then try to talk down to… yourself?) just laugh at your own folly. Immediately direct your soul to God. Call out in bemused sincerity, “Lord, have mercy,” and refocus your gratitude on God… the Lover of mankind and Fount of all blessings.
And if someone else tries to ask such questions to attack your faith in God and make you think about yourself rather than God, perhaps invite them to appreciate with you the irony of suggesting that genuine faith and humility might be sources of pride. Invite them to appreciate the irony of them suggesting their view is more humble and therefore greater than your view. Invite them to look at God’s saving grace rather then trying to dissect human faith and humility. After all, as one Christian has said, “The humility and choice of faith in Christ is composed of abandonment of all hope of self merit and the acknowledgment of being worthy of damnation. This is accompanied by trusting only in Christ for salvation as an undeserved gift. The idea that faith involves worthiness or merit on our part is an obviously ridiculous idea.”(3)
Indeed, as Paul says, even if we were justified by works, we would have nothing to boast about to God (Romans 4:2 — we would still see ourselves before God as but “unprofitable servants”). Much less, then, would we have anything to boast about humility and faith! The idea is not only ironic but ridiculous. Indeed, there can’t be a “much less” than “nothing to boast about.”
Thinking about God shows why this is so: He created us, sustains us, died on the cross for the whole world even though we were his enemies, places us in the times and locations where He desires us to seek him, frees our will to be able to respond to Him, invites us to partake of Himself, pours out His Spirit, and promises to glorify believers in Heaven with himself!
(1) You can read all of the satirical advise from Screwtape to Wormwood here: http://lylemook.com/…/01/17/screwtape-on-pride-and-humility/ ).
(2) Luke 7:50, 17:19, 18:42.
(3) John Smith, member of SEA.