William Law On Pride

6/14/15, by Clement Pulaski


[The following is an excerpt from A Serious Call to a Devout and Holy Life, by William Law (1686–1761).]

No people have more occasion to be afraid of the approaches of pride, than those, who have made some advances in a pious life: for pride can grow as well upon our virtues as our vices, and steals upon us on all occasions. Every good thought that we have, every good action that we do, lays us open to pride, and exposes us to the assaults of vanity and self-satisfaction. It is not only the beauty of our persons, the gifts of fortune, our natural talents, and the distinctions of life; but even our devotions and alms, our fastings and humiliations, expose us to fresh and strong temptations of this evil spirit. And it is for this reason that I so earnestly advise every devout person to begin every day in this exercise of humility, that he may go on in safety under the protection of this good guide, and not fall a sacrifice to his own progress in those virtues which are to save mankind from destruction.

Humility does not consist in having a worse opinion of ourselves than we deserve, or in abasing ourselves lower than we really are; but as all virtue is founded in truth, so humility is founded in a true and just sense of our weakness, misery, and sin. He that rightly feels and lives in this sense of his condition, lives in humility. The weakness of our state appears from our inability to do anything as of ourselves. In our natural state we are entirely without any power; we are indeed active beings, but can only act by a power that is every moment lent us from God. We have no more power of our own to move a hand, or stir a foot, than to move the sun, or stop the clouds. When we speak a word, we feel no more power in ourselves to do it, than we feel ourselves able to raise the dead. For we act no more within our own power, or by our own strength, when we speak a word, or make a sound, than the Apostles acted within their own power, or by their own strength, when a word from their mouth cast out devils, and cured diseases. As it was solely the power of God that enabled them to speak to such purposes, so it is solely the power of God that enables us to speak at all. We indeed find that we can speak, as we find that we are alive; but the actual exercise of speaking is no more in our own power, than the actual enjoyment of life. This is the dependent, helpless poverty of our state; which is a great reason for humility. For, since we neither are, nor can do anything of ourselves, to be proud of anything that we are, or of anything that we can do, and to ascribe glory to ourselves for these things, as our own ornaments, has the guilt both of stealing and lying. It has the guilt of stealing, as it gives to ourselves those things which only belong to God; it has the guilt of lying, as it is the denying the truth of our state, and pretending to be something that we are not.

Secondly, Another argument for humility is founded in the misery of our condition. Now the misery of our condition appears in this, that we use these borrowed powers of our nature to the torment and vexation of ourselves, and our fellow creatures. God Almighty has entrusted us with the use of reason, and we use it to the disorder and corruption of our nature. We reason ourselves into all kinds of folly and misery, and make our lives the sport of foolish and extravagant passions; seeking after imaginary happiness in all kinds of shapes, creating to ourselves a thousand wants, amusing our hearts with false hopes and fears, using the world worse than irrational animals, envying, vexing, and tormenting one another with restless passions, and unreasonable contentions. Let any man but look back upon his own life, and see what use he has made of his reason, how little he has consulted it, and how less he has followed it. What foolish passions, what vain thoughts, what needless labours, what extravagant projects, have taken up the greatest part of his life! How foolish he has been in his words and conversation; how seldom he has done well with judgment, and how often he has been kept from doing ill by accident; how seldom he has been able to please himself, and how often he has displeased others; how often he has changed his counsels, hated what he loved, and loved what he hated; how often he has been enraged and transported at trifles, pleased and displeased with the very same things, and constantly changing from one vanity to another! Let a man but take this view of his own life, and he will see reason enough to confess, that pride was not made for man. Let him but consider, that if the world knew all that of him, which he knows of himself; if they saw what vanity and passions govern his inside, and what secret tempers sully and corrupt his best actions; he would have no more pretence to be honoured and admired for his goodness and wisdom, than a rotten and distempered body to be loved and admired for its beauty and comeliness. This is so true, and so known to the hearts of almost all people, that nothing would appear more dreadful to them, than to have their hearts thus fully discovered to the eyes of all beholders. And perhaps there are very few people in the world who would not rather choose to die, than to have all their secret follies, the errors of their judgments, the vanity of their minds, the falseness of their pretences, the frequency of their vain and disorderly passions, their uneasiness, hatred, envies, and vexations, made known unto the world. And shall pride be entertained in a heart thus conscious of its own miserable behaviour? Shall a creature in such a condition, that he could not support himself under the shame of being known to the world in his real state, -- shall such a creature, because his shame is only known to God, to holy angels, and his own conscience, -- shall he, in the sight of God and holy angels, dare to be vain and proud of himself?

Thirdly, If to this we add the shame and guilt of sin, we shall find a still greater reason for humility. No creature that had lived in innocence, would have thereby got any pretence for self-honour and esteem; because, as a creature, all that it is, or has, or does, is from God, and therefore the honour of all that belongs to it is only due to God. But if a creature that is a sinner, and under the displeasure of the great Governor of all the world, and deserving nothing from Him but pains and punishments for the shameful abuse of his powers; if such a creature pretends to self-glory for anything that he is or does, he can only be said to glory in his shame. Now how monstrous and shameful the nature of sin is, is sufficiently apparent from that great Atonement, that is necessary to cleanse us from the guilt of it. Nothing less has been required to take away the guilt of our sins, than the sufferings and death of the Son of God. Had He not taken our nature upon Him, our nature had been forever separated from God, and incapable of ever appearing before Him. And is there any room for pride, or self-glory, whilst we are partakers of such a nature as this? Have our sins rendered us so abominable and odious to Him that made us, that He could not so much as receive our prayers, or admit our repentance, till the Son of God made Himself man, and became a suffering Advocate for our whole race; and can we, in this state, pretend to high thoughts of ourselves? Shall we presume to take delight in our own worth, who are not worthy so much as to ask pardon for our sins, without the mediation and intercession of the Son of God? Thus deep is the foundation of humility laid in these deplorable circumstances of our condition; which show that it is as great an offence against truth, and the reason of things, for a man, in this state of things, to lay claim to any degrees of glory, as to pretend to the honour of creating himself. If man will boast of anything as his own, he must boast of his misery and sin; for there is nothing else but this that is his own property. Turn your eyes towards Heaven, and fancy that you saw what is doing there; that you saw cherubims and seraphims, and all the glorious inhabitants of that place, all united in one work; not seeking glory from one another, not labouring their own advancement, not contemplating their own perfections, not singing their own praises, not valuing themselves, and despising others, but all employed in one and the same work, all happy in one and the same joy; "casting down their crowns before the throne of God"; giving glory, and honour, and power to Him alone. [Rev. iv. 10, 11] Then turn your eyes to the fallen world, and consider how unreasonable and odious it must be, for such poor worms, such miserable sinners, to take delight in their own fancied glories, whilst the highest and most glorious sons of Heaven seek for no other greatness and honour, but that of ascribing all honour, and greatness, and glory, to God alone? Pride is only the disorder of the fallen world, it has no place amongst other beings; it can only subsist where ignorance and sensuality, lies and falsehood, lusts and impurity reign. Let a man, when he is most delighted with his own figure, look upon a crucifix, and contemplate our Blessed Lord stretched out, and nailed upon a Cross; and then let him consider how absurd it must be, for a heart full of pride and vanity to pray to God, through the sufferings of such a meek and crucified Saviour! These are the reflections that you are often to meditate upon, that you may thereby be disposed to walk before God and man, in such a spirit of humility as becomes the weak, miserable, sinful state of all that are descended from fallen Adam. When you have by such general reflections as these convinced your mind of the reasonableness of humility, you must not content yourself with this, as if you were therefore humble, because your mind acknowledges the reasonableness of humility, and declares against pride. But you must immediately enter yourself into the practice of this virtue, like a young beginner, that has all of it to learn, that can learn but little at a time, and with great difficulty. You must consider that you have not only this virtue to learn, but that you must be content to proceed as a learner in it all your time, endeavouring after greater degrees of it, and practising every day acts of humility, as you every day practise acts of devotion. You would not imagine yourself to be devout, because in your judgment you approved of prayers, and often declared your mind in favour of devotion. Yet how many people imagine themselves humble enough for no other reason, but because they often commend humility, and make vehement declarations against pride!

Recent Posts>