'Learn of Me, for I am meek and lowly in heart.'--Our Lord.
'Be clothed with humility.'--Peter.
'God's chiefest saints are the least in their own eyes.'--A Kempis.
'Without humility all our other virtues are but vices.'--Pascal.
'Humility does not consist in having a worse opinion of ourselves than we deserve.'--Law.
'Humility lies close upon the heart, and its tests are exceedingly delicate and subtle.'--Newman.
Our familiar English word 'humility' comes down to us from the Latin root humus, which means the earth or the ground. Humility, therefore, is that in the mind and in the heart of a man which is low down even to the very earth. A humble-minded man may not have learning enough to know the etymology of the name which best describes his character, but the divine nature which is in him teaches him to look down, to walk meekly and softly, and to speak seldom, and always in love. For humility, while it takes its lowly name from earth, all the time has its true nature from heaven. Humility is full of all meekness, modesty, submissiveness, teachableness, sense of inability, sense of unworthiness, sense of ill-desert. Till, with that new depth and new intensity that the Scriptures and religious experience have given to this word, as to so many other words, humility, in the vocabulary of the spiritual life, has come to be applied to that low estimate of ourselves which we come to form and to entertain as we are more and more enlightened about God and about ourselves; about the majesty, glory, holiness, beauty, and blessedness of the divine nature, and about our own unspeakable evil, vileness, and misery as sinners. And, till humility has come to rank in Holy Scripture, and in the lives and devotions of all God's saints, as at once the deepest root and the ripest fruit of all the divine graces that enter into, and, indeed, constitute the life of God in the heart of man. Humility, evangelical humility, sings Edwards in his superb and seraphic poem the Religious Affections,--evangelical humility is the sense that the true Christian has of his own utter insufficiency, despicableness, and odiousness, a sense which is peculiar to the true saint. But to compensate the true saint for this sight and sense of himself, he has revealed to him an accompanying sense of the absolutely transcendent beauty of the divine nature and of all divine things; a sight and a sense that quite overcome the heart and change to holiness all the dispositions and inclinations and affections of the heart. The essence of evangelical humility, says Edwards, consists in such humility as becomes a creature in himself exceeding sinful, but at the same time, under a dispensation of grace, and this is the greatest and most essential thing in all true religion.
1. Well, then, our Mr. Humble was a juryman in Mansoul, and his name and his nature eminently fitted him for his office. I never was a juryman; but, if I were, I feel sure I would come home from the court a far humbler man than I went up to it. I cannot imagine how a judge can remain a proud man, or an advocate, or a witness, or a juryman, or a spectator, or even a policeman. I am never in a criminal court that I do not tremble with terror all the time. I say to myself all the time,--there stands John Newton but for the preventing grace of God. 'I will not sit as a judge to try General Boulanger, because I hate him,' said M. Renault in the French Senate. Mr. Humble himself could not have made a better speech to the bench than that when his name was called to be sworn. Let us all remember John Newton and M. Renault when we would begin to write or to speak about any arrested, accused, found-out man. Let other men's arrests, humiliations, accusations, and sentences only make us search well our own past, and that will make us ever humbler and ever humbler men ourselves; ever more penitent men, and ever more prayerful men.
2. And then Miss Humble-mind, his only daughter, was a servant-maid. There is no office so humble but that a humble mind will not put on still more humility in it. What a lesson in humility, not Peter only got that night in the upper room, but that happy servant-maid also who brought in the bason and the towel. Would she ever after that night grumble and give up her place in a passion because she had been asked to do what was beneath her to do? Would she ever leave that house for any wages? Would she ever see that bason without kissing it? Would that towel not be a holy thing ever after in her proud eyes? How happy that house would ever after that night be, not so much because the Lord's Supper had been instituted in it, as because a servant was in it who had learned humility as she went about the house that night. Let all our servants hold up their heads and magnify their office. Their Master was once a servant, and He left us all, and all servants especially, an example that they should follow in His steps. Peter, whose feet were washed that night, never forgot that night, and his warm heart always warmed to a servant when he saw her with her bason and her towels, till he gave her half a chapter to herself in his splendid First Epistle. 'Servants, be subject,' he said, till his argument rose to a height above which not even Paul himself ever rose. Servant-maids, you must all have your own half-chapter out of First Peter by heart.
3. But I have as many students of one kind or other here to-night as I have maid-servants, and they will remember where a great student has said that knowledge without love but puffeth a student up. Now, the best knowledge for us all, and especially so for a student, is to know himself: his own ignorance, his own foolishness, his blindness of mind, and, especially, his corruption of heart. For that knowledge will both keep him from being puffed up with what he already knows, and it will also put him and keep him in the way of knowing more. Self-knowledge will increase humility, and all the past masters both of science and of religion will tell him that humility is the certain note of the true student. You who are students all know The Advancement of Learning, just as the servants sitting beside you all know the second chapter of First Peter. Well, your master Verulam there tells you, and indeed on every page of his, that it is only to a humble, waiting, childlike temper that nature, like grace, will ever reveal up her secrets. 'There is small chance of truth at the goal when there is not a childlike humility at the starting-post.' Well, then, all you students who would fain get to the goal of science, make the Church of Christ your starting-post. Come first and come continually to the Christian school to learn humility, and then, as long as your talents, your years, and your opportunities hold out, both truth and goodness will open up to you at every step. Every step will be a goal, and at every goal a new step will open up. And God's smile and God's blessing, and all good men's love and honour and applause will support and reward you in your race. And, humble-minded to the truth herself, be, at the same time, humble-minded toward all who like yourself are seeking to know and to do the truth. A lately deceased student of nature was a pattern to all students as long as he waited on truth in his laboratory; and even as long as he remained at his desk to tell the world what he and other students had discovered in their search. But when any other student in his search after truth was compelled to cross that hitherto so exemplary student, he immediately became as insolent as if he had been the greatest boor in the country. Till, as he spat out scorn at all who differed from him we always remembered this in A Kempis--'Surely, an humble husbandman that serveth God is better than a proud philosopher that, neglecting himself, laboureth to understand the course of the heavens. It is great wisdom and perfection to esteem nothing of ourselves, and to think always well and highly of others.' Students of arts, students of philosophy, students of law, students of medicine, and especially, students of divinity, be humble men. Labour in humility even more than in your special science. Humility will advance you in your special science; while, all the time, and at the end of time, she will be more to you than all the other sciences taken together. And since I have spoken of A Kempis, take this motto for all your life out of A Kempis, as the great and good Fenelon did, and it will guide you to the goal: Ama nescia et pro nihilo reputari.
4. But of all the men in the whole world it is ministers who should simply, as Peter says, be clothed with humility, and that from head to foot. And, first as divinity students, and then as pastors and preachers, we who are ministers have advantages and opportunities in this respect quite peculiar and private to ourselves. For, while other students are spending their days and their nights on the ancient classics of Greece and Rome, the student who is to be a minister is buried in the Psalms, in the Gospels, and in the Epistles. While the student of law is deep in his commentaries and his cases, the student of divinity is deep in the study of experimental religion. And while the medical student is full of the diseases of animals and of men, the theological student is absorbed in the holiness of the divine nature, and in the plague of the human heart, and, especially, he is drowned deeper every day in his own. And he who has begun a curriculum like that and is not already putting on a humility beyond all other men had better lose no more time, but turn himself at once to some other way of making his bread. The word of God and his own heart,--yes; what a sure school of evangelical humility to every evangelically-minded student is that! And, then, after that, and all his days, his congregational communion-roll and his visiting-book. Let no minister who would be found of God clothed and canopied over with humility ever lose sight of his communion-roll and pastoral visitation-book. I defy any minister to keep those records always open before him and yet remain a proud man, a self-respecting, self-satisfied, self-righteous man. For, what secret histories of his own folly, neglect, rashness, offensiveness, hot-headedness, self-seeking, self-pleasing vanity, now puffed up over one man, now cast down and full of gloom over another, what self-flattery here, and what resentment and retaliation there; and so on, as only his own eyes and his Divine Master's eye can read between every diary line. What shame will cover that minister as with a mantle when he thinks what the Christian ministry might be made, and then takes home to himself what he has made it! Let any minister shut himself in with his communion-roll and his visiting-book before each returning communion season, and there will be one worthy communicant at least in the congregation: one who will have little appetite all that week for any other food but the broken Body and the shed Blood of his Redeemer. But these are professional matters that the outside world has nothing to do with and would not understand. Only, let all young men who would have evangelical humility absolutely secured and sealed to them,--let them come and be ministers. Just as all young men who would have any satisfaction in life, any sense of work well done and worthy of reward, any taste of a goal attained and an old age earned, let them take to anything in all this world but the evangelical pulpit and its accompanying pastorate.
5. But humility is not a grace of the pulpit and the pastorate only. It is not those who are separated by the Holy Ghost to study the word of God and their own hearts all their life long only, who are called to put on humility. All men are called to that grace. There is no acceptance with God for any man without that grace. There is no approach to God for any man without it. All salvation begins and ends in it. Would you, then, fain possess it? Would you, then, fain attain to it? Then let there be no mystery and no mistake made about it. Would any man here fain get down to that deep valley where God's saints walk in the sweet shade and lie down in green pastures? Well, I warrant him that just before him, and already under his eye, there is a flight of steps cut in the hill, which steps, if he will take them, will, step after step, take him also down to that bottom. The whole face of this steep and slippery world is sculptured deep with such submissive steps. Indeed, when a man's eyes are once turned down to that valley, there is nothing to be seen anywhere in all this world but downward steps. Look whichever way you will, there gleams out upon you yet another descending stair. Look back at the way you came up. But take care lest the sight turns you dizzy. Look at any spot you once crossed on your way up, and, lo! every foot-print of yours has become a descending step. You sink down as you look, broken down with shame and with horror and with remorse. There are people, some still left in this world, and some gone to the other world, people whom you dare not think of lest you should turn sick and lose hold and hope. There are places you dare not visit: there are scenes you dare not recall. Lucifer himself would be a humble angel with his wings over his face if he had a past like yours, and would often enough return to look at it. And, then, not the past only, but at this present moment there are people and things placed close beside you, and kept close beside you, and you close beside them, on divine purpose just to give you continual occasion and offered opportunity to practise humility. They are kept close beside you just on purpose to humiliate you, to cut out your descending steps, to lend you their hand, and to say to you: Keep near us. Only keep your eye on us, and we will see you down! And then, if you are resolute enough to look within, if you are able to keep your eye on what goes on in your own heart like heart--beats, then, already, I know where you are. You are under all men's feet. You are ashamed to lift up your eyes to meet other men's eyes. You dare not take their honest hands. You could tell Edwards himself things about humiliation now that would make his terribly searching and humbling book quite tame and tasteless.
Come, then, O high-minded man, be sane, be wise. If you were up on a giddy height, and began to see that certain death was straight and soon before you, what would you do? You know what you would do. You would look with all your eyes for such steps as would take you safest down to the solid ground. You would welcome any hand stretched out to help you. You would be most attentive and most obedient and most thankful to any one who would assure you that this is the right way down. And you would keep on saying to yourself--Once I were well down, no man shall see me up here again. Well, my brethren, humiliation, humility, is to be learned just in the same way, and it is to be learned in no other way. He who would be down must just come down. That is all. A step down, and another step down, and another, and another, and already you are well down. A humble act done to-day, a humble word spoken to-morrow; humiliation after humiliation accepted every day that you would at one time have spurned from you with passion; and then your own vile, hateful, unbearable heart-all that is ordained of God to bring you down, down to the dust; and this last, your own heart, will bring you down to the very depths of hell. And thus, after all your other opportunities and ordinances of humility are embraced and exhausted, then the plunges, the depths, the abysses of humility that God will open up in your own heart will all work in you a meetness for heaven and a ripeness for its glory, that shall for ever reward you for all that degradation and shame and self-despair which have been to you the sure way and the only way to everlasting life.
* LECTURE DELIVERED IN ST. GEORGE'S FREE CHURCH EDINBURGH