No one has spoken with greater clarity on the nature of both pride and humility than Jonathan Edwards. Here are ten things we can learn from him. All citations are from Religious Affections (Yale).
(1) Hypocrites are quite good at making much of their humility and speaking lowly of themselves and their attainments. Such folk loudly proclaim their lowliness and then expect others to praise them for it! They are quick to make known their failures and their humility but react with strong protest if someone in private should suggest that their claims to humility are feigned and superficial.
The truly humble are not inclined to talk about it or to display it by means of eloquence or in any manner of living. True humility is not noisy, especially about itself. If you are inclined to say, “No one is as sinful and depraved as I am,” be careful that you don't think yourself better than others on this very account. Be careful lest you develop a high opinion of your humility. In essence, if you find yourself thinking often of your humility, it is likely that you have little of it.
(2) The person who is in the grip of spiritual pride is more likely to think highly of his attainments in religion when he compares himself with others. He is like the Pharisee who prayed, “God, I thank thee, that I am not as other men” (Luke 18:11). This is often manifested by how quick they are to assume the role of leader. They see themselves as uniquely qualified to teach and to guide and direct and manage and expect others to regard them as such and to yield to their authority in matters of faith.
(3) On the other hand, the person of true humility “is apt to think his attainments in religion to be comparatively mean [i.e, low] and to esteem himself low among the saints, and one of the least of saints. Humility, or true lowliness of mind, disposes persons to think others better than themselves” (320). They are disposed to think others are eminently more qualified to teach and to lead. They posture themselves to hear and to learn rather than to speak and to instruct. When they do speak, it feels unnatural to do so boldly and with a masterful tone, for “humility disposes 'em rather to speak trembling” (321).
(4) Those who are filled with spiritual pride are inclined to speak often of what they perceive to be the extraordinary nature of their religious experiences. This isn't to say that our experiences of divine mercy are anything less than wonderful and glorious. But if one is inclined to think his experiences are great in comparison with those of others or beyond what is ordinarily the experience of the average saint, together with the expectation that others should admire and respect him for them, pride is assuredly at work.
Of course, they don't regard it as boasting or an expression of pride. After all, these are experiences of divine grace and mercy. These are things that God has done for them. “Their verbally ascribing it to the grace of God, that they are holier than other saints, don't hinder their forwardness to think so highly of their holiness, being a sure evidence of the pride and vanity of their minds. If they were under the influence of an humble spirit, their attainments in religion would not be so apt to shine in their own eyes, nor would they be so much in admiring their own beauty” (322).
(5) Those Christians who are truly most eminent and have experienced extraordinary effusions of divine grace humble themselves as little children (Matthew 18:4). They are actually more astonished at their low degree of love and their ingratitude than they are by the heights of spiritual attainment and their knowledge of God. “Such is the nature of grace, and of true spiritual light, that they naturally dispose the saints in the present state, to look upon their grace and goodness little, and their deformity great” (323). The truly humble soul is devastated by the smallest expression of depravity but nearly oblivious to great progress in goodness and obedience.
(6) Edwards argues that the truly humble soul is always looking not at what he has attained, even if it be by divine grace, but at the rule or standard or goal for which his soul is striving. It is the latter by which he estimates and judges what he does and what he has accomplished. Therefore his holiness and maturity will always appear small because it is compared, not with what others have attained, but with what is his own infinite obligation to attain.
(7) It is the nature of God's grace in us that it opens our eyes to the reason why we should be holy. Thus, he who has more grace has a greater sense of the infinite excellency and glory of God and of the infinite dignity of Christ and the boundless length and breadth and depth and height of the love of Christ for sinners. This vision of God's infinite excellency only expands and grows with the increase of grace in the soul, to such a point that one is increasingly astonished at the measure of his duty to love and honor this God. “And so the more he apprehends, the more the smallness of his grace and love appears strange and wonderful: and therefore is more ready to think that others are beyond him" (324). What stuns his soul is not that he loves God much but that one who is truly a child of God does not love God more. This humble soul is likely to think such a reality unique to himself, for he only sees the outside of other Christians but sees the inside of himself.
When a believer discovers something of God, he is made immediately aware of something far more in God that he had not heretofore seen. In other words, “there is something that is seen, that is wonderful; and that sight brings with it a strong conviction of something vastly beyond, that is not immediately seen. So that the soul, at the same time, is astonished at its ignorance, and that it knows so little, as well as that it loves so little” (324).
(8) When we grow in our knowledge of something that is finite, we feel that in a sense we have “conquered” it or subdued it and that it is now within our control because we have knowledge of it in all respects. But if the object of knowledge is infinite, as God is, with every measure of knowledge we attain we are made aware not of what we now know but of the incomparable degree of what we don't. If I may quantify this point: assume that an object of knowledge tallies up to 100. As we gradually learn more about it, we gain 75 then 85 then 95 then 99 and finally 100% insight into what it is. But with something that is infinite, an increase of 50% of our knowledge in comparison with what we previously knew does not count for increase, because the object about which we are learning cannot be quantified or measured or ever ultimately attained.
Also, as we grow in our understanding of how infinite God is we are ever more made aware of what our souls should know if only our ignorance were removed. This causes the soul “to complain greatly of spiritual ignorance and want of love, and long and reach after more knowledge, and more love” (324-25).
The highest love and knowledge of God we might attain in this world are not worthy to be compared with the obligation to love and know him once we consider the revelation of his infinite glory in his Word and works and in the gospel of Christ. And in comparison with the capacity God has given us to know him, what we do know of him appears small and trivial.
Therefore, “he that has much grace, apprehends much more than others, that great height to which his love ought to ascend; and he sees better than others, how little a way he has risen towards that height” (325). This apprehension also reveals to him the depth and extent of his remaining corruption. “In order to judge how much corruption or sin we have remaining in us, we must take our measure from that height to which the rule of our duty extends” (325).
The principle here is that with the increase of our knowledge of God comes an increase in our knowledge of our sin and how vast is the discrepancy between what we know and what we ought to know, between what we love and ought to love.
This also causes us to see that the smallest degree of ugliness in the least of all sins is greater than or outweighs the highest degree of beauty in the greatest of all holiness. “For the least sin against an infinite God, has an infinite hatefulness or deformity in it; but the highest degree of holiness in a creature, has not an infinite loveliness in it: and therefore the loveliness of it is as nothing, in comparison of the deformity of the least sin” (326).
(9) Another infallible sign of spiritual pride is when a person is inclined to think highly of his humility. False religious affections have the tendency, especially when they are raised high and are intense, to make a person think that his humility is great. But truly spiritual affections have the opposite effect. They actually lead a person to regard his present humility as small and insignificant and his present pride as great and exceedingly abominable.
This is true because a person typically measures his/her own humility in the light of how much dignity they currently possess or the stature of their social standing. For example, if a powerful king should stoop to wash the feet of another powerful king who is his equal, he would regard it as an act of humility because of his own kingly stature. But if a poor slave should wash the feet of a great king, no one would take note of it or regard it as an act of humility.
“And the matter is no less plain and certain, when worthless, vile and loathsome worms of the dust, are apt to put such a construction on their acts of abasement before God, and to think it a token of great humility in them that they, under their affections, can find themselves so willing to acknowledge themselves to be so and so mean and unworthy, and to behave themselves as those that are so inferior. The very reason why such outward acts, and such inward exercises, look like great abasement in such an one, is because he has a high conceit of himself” (332).
On the other hand, if he thought more accurately of himself and considered his place in life he would be stunned by his pride and wonder why he was not brought even lower before God. If you ever find yourself saying, “This act of devotion or love or service is certainly characterized by great humility,” you obviously are in the grip of great pride, for you have an unduly and sinfully exalted view of your place vis-a-vis God. He thinks himself high and looks at his action in comparison with it and thus regards it as truly humble that he should have performed such a service.
But in the truly humble soul, it is the opposite. He knows his lowliness and sinfulness and thus “when he is brought lowest of all, it does not appear to him, that he is brought below his proper station; but that he is not come it: he appears to himself, yet vastly above it: he longs to get lower, that he may come to it; but appears at a great distance from it. And this distance he calls pride. And therefore his pride appears great to him, and not his humility. For although he is brought much lower than he used to be; yet it don't appear to him worthy of the name of humiliation, for him that is so infinitely mean and detestable, to come down to a place, which though it be lower than what he used to assume, is yet vastly higher than what is proper for him” (333).
In other words, the truly humble person will never consider an act to be beneath his dignity. Even if the act brings him lower than he has ever experienced before, he will always regard it as higher than he deserves.
(10) The truly humble person never thinks his humility is great, because he has a proper grasp of the cause of his humility. Knowing the cause to be infinite, his abasement and lowliness can never be too great. “The cause why he should be abased appears so great, and the abasement of the frame of his heart so greatly short of it, that he takes much more notice of his pride than his humility” (333).
Or to put it yet another way, the person who is greatly under the conviction for sin is not inclined to think that he is greatly convicted. The truly humble person attributes his conviction to the greatness of the cause of his conviction, not to his own sensibility of sin. “That man is under great convictions, whose conviction is great in proportion to his sin. But no man that is truly under great convictions, thinks his conviction great in proportion to his sin. For if he does, 'tis a certain sign that he inwardly thinks his sins small. And if that be the case, that is a certain evidence that his conviction is small. And this, by the way, is the main reason, that persons when under a work of humiliation, are not sensible of it, in the time of it” (334).