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I remark, then, in the first place, genuine modesty does not imply, strictly speaking, an undervaluing of one's own character and attainments. This is true in an absolute and a comparative sense. It is admitted that the apostle, in addressing Christians, enjoins them, in lowliness of mind each to esteem others better than themselves. But these expressions cannot bear a literal construction. Thus understood, they would inculcate on Christians the sweeping conclusion, that all around them were better men and better Christians than themselves; which, of course, would be false. Still the apostle's meaning is very plain; and he puts the guard in the right place. Knowing the pride of the human heart, and the proneness even of the partially sanctified to judge too unfavorably of others, and too favorably of themselves, he would have them reverse the proceeding. He would have them transfer to themselves that severity which they are prone to exercise toward others; and to others, that unbounded candor which they are apt to indulge toward themselves. Just as in the case of a staff, or wand, which has been much bent a particular way, we correct the obliquity, not simply by giving it a straight position, but by bending it the opposite way. Thus viewed, the apostle's direction will coincide with the idea of the ancient philosopher, who represented mankind as passing through the world with each a bag or wallet on his shoulder, in the fore part of which he placed the faults of his neighbors, and in the hinder part his own. "The business of philosophy," he adds, "is to turn the wallet." The business of Christianity is substantially the same. And what a delightful revolution would be witnessed in neighborhoods, in churches and communities, if all Christians, and all ministers, adopted these lovely principles of judgment.
If modesty does not consist in forming too low an opinion of our own characters and attainments, still less it found in the habit of verbally disparaging ourselves. Some persons never speak of themselves but in the most debasing terms. This, however, is a very equivocal proof of modesty. Rather, it is an artful, but ill-concealed attempt at self-exaltation. Believe the declarations of these very modest persons, and you bitterly disappoint them. Adopt their opinions, and you incur their resentment and hatred.
Nor is true modesty inconsistent with decision in opinions, or in character. The modest man, indeed, forms his opinions on great and interesting subjects with caution; for he investigates coolly; he sees difficulties, and feels the force of objections. But this caution is the parent of confidence-a just confidence, which, as it is not easily acquired, is not easily resigned. It is the superficial thinker, who never patiently examines, never doubts, and never hesitates. And as his opinions are formed in the dark, it is not unnatural that they should take flight at the first approach of daylight. A volume might be written on the emptiness and superficiality of these arrogant pretenders, in contrast with the modesty of real science.
And why should it be thought that modesty is incompatible with decision of character? Does it obliterate from the mind a sense of moral obligation-of the immutable distinction between right and wrong? Does it destroy the fear of God, and reverence for his laws? Does it efface the impression of his all-surrounding presence and all-seeing eye? These are the elements which go to constitute
genuine decision of character. And they all find a natural and welcome abode in the subdued and self-diffident mind.
Indeed it is the modest man alone who duly appreciates the difficulties as well as the motives of virtue; its obstacles, not less than its rewards. Of course, he alone is prepared to pursue a uniform and inflexible line of rectitude. Let the world, then, correct its estimate of things. Let it transfer to this unassuming class that praise of decision and energy which it has been too apt to bestow on the bold, the self-confident, and the reckless.
Nor is there any thing in genuine modesty which relucts from the loftiest enterprises, or the most vigorous efforts. The motto adopted by one of the most unassuming as well as energetic men of the age just passed, was, Expect great things; attempt great things. Animated by this simple but noble maxim, he pursued, through a long life, a course of action which has poured unnumbered blessings on the millions of India, and endeared his name to every friend of religion and humanity.
An example of consummate modesty, combined with the boldest enterprise and courage, has been furnished by our own country, in the case of her most illustrious son. The unaffected reluctance and self-diffidence with which Washington accepted the two highest offices in her gift could be surpassed only by the commanding power and success with which their diversified duties were executed. And to this moment the problem remains unsolved, whether as a hero or a magistrate he exhibited superior excellence.
But we ascend higher still. The great apostle of the Gentiles was as humble and modest as he was great. No man more perfectly familiarized the declaration of Jesus to his disciples: Without me ye can do nothing. Still we hear him declaring, with more than human courage, I can do all things through Christ strengthening me. And where is the page of history which records exploits or sacrifices in the cause of Christ, which can bear a comparison with his ?
It appears, then, that modesty is not that tame, spiritless, inefficient thing which many seem to imagine it. It is allied to the best and noblest qualities of the human mind and heart. It is a prominent and lovely attribute of some of the most estimable characters which have ever shone forth in our world. A vast proportion of the acknowledged ornaments and benefactors of their species have been genuinely modest men. A vast proportion of the solid good which has been effected for the interests of human society has been effected by the unassuming and unpretending part of mankind. We need not except the achievements of science and philosophy. Sciolists and semi-philosophers, it is confessed, have usually been vain, self-sufficient, and arrogant. But genuine and thorough-going philosophers, men of finished minds and finished learning, have been self-diffident and modest. Those who have conversed most intimately with the works of God, and the mysteries of nature, have found little time or inclination to admire themselves or their works. Those who have pierced the earth and scaled the stars, who have launched forth on voyages of discovery into the infinite regions of space, have returned but to confess the imperfection of their powers and their acquisitions. Of this we have a fine specimen in the case of the prince of philosophers. While Newton resided at the university, Roger Cotes was there, and a fellow of the same college
with himself. He was of kindred genius and pursuits, and died at the age of thirty-four. Newton, some time after his death, exclaimed, with his own touching simplicity, "If he had lived, we should have known something." What views this wonderful man had of his own powers and attainments may be gathered from another remark which he made toward the close of his life. "I do not know," said he, "what I may appear to the world; but to myself I seem to have been only like a boy playing on the seashore, and diverting myself in, now and then, finding a smoother pebble, or a prettier shell, than ordinary; while the great ocean of truth lay all undiscovered before me."
When speaking of that modesty which becomes the Christian, and especially the Christian minister, we are arrested by a thought which, if true, is deeply interesting. Modesty is not a mere appendage or ornament of religion, but enters into its very constitution and essence. If, in the Christian professor, modesty is absent, religion itself is absent. If, in this point, there is a flagrant defect, doubt and suspicion are thrown over his whole character. The importance of this thought gives it a claim to a careful development.
All religion has its foundation laid in humility. Humility, too, pervades the superstructure. The representation of the ancient father was scarcely too strong when he said, in reply to the question, What is the first thing in religion? Humility. What is the second? Humility. What is the third? Humility. The real Christian, by the light of God's spiritual and searching law, has found his own depravity-his deep and utter depravity, his guilt, his ruin, his helplessness, his exposure to the endless wrath of a just God. He has felt a repentance which breaks the heart with unutterable grief for sin, and inspires it with habitual self-abasement. If he has hope of pardon, that hope centres in atoning blood. Nor does he feel himself less indebted to the power of the Holy Spirit for a new heart and for every right disposition. These thoughts are familiar. They are engraved in his inmost heart. Let such a man be proud if he can. But it is impossible. He is laid under necessity-precious, absolute necessity, to be humble. And if humble, then modest. For what is modesty but humility looking out at the eyes, beaming in the countenance, and spreading itself over the whole deportment?
Farther real religion is progressive, and progress in religion is progress in humility. The Christian does not live, but Christ lives in him. All his attainments in holiness he owes, not to his own self-originated resolutions and independent efforts, but to the power and grace of his Master. If these are not facts, the gospel is a set of enigmas, and the Bible the most unintelligible of books. But the Christian feels these things to be facts. And this feeling is adapted to destroy every root and fibre of pride and self-complacency. If he differs from the vilest of mankind, he ascribes it to sovereign grace. If he makes any advance on his own attainments, he is but the more indebted to the same sovereign grace. Who sees not, then, that every advance of holiness will be an increase of humility and self-abasement?
We may take another view of things. Progress in religion is progress in pious sensibility, in delicacy of spiritual perception, taste, and feeling. The advanced Christian takes expanded and elevated views of the beauty and perfection of God, and of the mysteries of
his Saviour's love. These views impart a quickened sense of his own personal and infinite obligation; and thus he cannot compare what he has rendered to his God and Saviour with what he was bound to render, but with tenderness and grief. His warmest love appears cold; his tenderest gratitude, a kind of guilty ingratitude. His most ardent devotion seems too languid, and his best obedience scarcely worthy of the name. The mind which is occupied by such views as these can find no room for pride, or vanity, or ambition. It can be the abode of no feelings but those of the most subdued and humble character.
The Christian minister must hold habitual and intimate converse with the Bible. And of all books in the world the Bible maintains the most determined, uncompromising hostility with human pride. All its doctrines and precepts, all its warnings, promises, and threatenings are designed to subdue and eradicate this worst and most pernicious of all the vices of the mind. Especially do those mysteries of revelation which baffle our reason, and elude our comprehension, tend to promote modesty of intellect, as well as humility of heart. And there is no man who will fairly put his mind and heart to these sublime mysteries, without finding their auspicious practical influence. They will effectually subdue vanity and pride. They will inspire that humility which is the parent and nurse of every lovely virtue.
The true minister is eminently a man of prayer. And what is prayer but the immediate approach of a frail, impure, erring child of dust, to the high and holy One? Must not such an approach be almost necessarily attended with an entire prostration of spirit? In company with a fellow-mortal, a man may too easily find materials for pride, arrogance, and self-sufficiency. But can a man be proud, arrogant, and self-sufficient in the presence of spotless purity and infinite majesty? And must not such an intercourse leave behind it an impress on the mind, the countenance, and whole demeanor? Can the man or the minister who is habitually vain, self-conceited, self-satisfied, be a man of prayer? We cannot follow him to his retirement. His closet may reveal no secrets. But does not such a demeanor reveal secrets of the most affecting and appalling kind?
In a word, the true minister of Jesus resembles his Master. If it be true, that without the spirit of Christ no man can be a Christian, it is emphatically true, that without the spirit of Christ no man can be a Christian minister. Learn of me, says the Saviour, for I am meek and lowly. Humility, then, is the first lesson that he teaches. Until this lesson is learned, nothing is learned. A prayerless and profane minister is a solecism indeed. And why not a vain and proud minister too?
We have now had opportunity to perceive that modesty, though confessedly a bright ornament of the Christian character, is not a mere ornament, but rather a constituent part of that character. In other words, we have seen that without it a man can scarcely be a real Christian, and much less a consistent and exemplary one. In our discussion we have had in immediate view the minister of the gospel. In our farther remarks on the subject, we shall have a still more particular reference to this order of men.
Let us then glance at some considerations which evince the value and importance of modesty to the Christian minister.
It cannot but exercise a salutary influence on his investigation of truth and the formation of his religious opinions. Not, as we have seen, that it will impart an indecisive air to his speculations. Not that it will repress the spirit of the freest inquiry. Not that it will preclude the mind from any accessible source of information, or any legitimate instrument of knowledge. But the modest man, in all his inquiries, will bear in mind the imperfection of his faculties and the necessarily limited sphere of their operation. He remembers that error is often found on the surface, while truth must be sought many degrees below it; that error is artful, insinuating, obtrusive; while truth is simple, modest, and retiring. Above all, he remembers that the author of truth has established certain boundaries which mortals may not pass; which to transcend is fraught with numberless evils. These are maxims which are obvious to common sense, but which philosophers and divines have often overlooked. If modern France has proved that the principles of civil and political liberty, when pushed to excess and extravagance, issue in folly, madness, and ruin, modern Germany has proved that the principles of philosophical investigation may be so perverted and overdone as to originate the most monstrous errors and absurdities. Many of its metaphysicians and theologists, taking leave of sober reason, and bursting away extra flammantia monia mundi, have found themselves in regions of darkness never before explored. A little common sense and common modesty would have saved themselves the disgrace, and the world the annoyance, of these deplorable exhibitions. Still the actual influence of these wandering stars on the interests of religion and literature has been unspeakably disastrous. So much parade of learning, and affectation of philosophy, combined with so much cold-blooded, heartless infidelity, could not fail to produce wide-spread and destructive effects. The human mind has been unhinged; the most settled principles of belief have been undermined, and the wildest of vagaries have assumed the solemn garb of reason and philosophy. Our own country has sustained a shock in its most vital interests, and especially in its religion. There was a time when the infidelity of Germany, under the name of an improved theology, threatened to deluge our land like a flood. And even now, when the evil is somewhat checked at its source, its transmitted and deleterious influence is far from being unfelt in our country. A bold and reckless spirit of speculation, a contempt for long-established opinions, and a preference of new error to old truth, are still but too prevalent. While these temptations beset our young ministers and students, and while many are actually ensnared, there are others, it may be confidently believed, who have taken a salutary alarm. Looking through the emptiness of false philosophy, and perceiving the wretched impotence of reason as a religious guide when unaided by light from heaven, they feel the absolute necessity of implicitly submitting the understanding to heavenly illumination, and of seeking religious truth at its divine source. It is in the exercise of this meek and modest spirit alone that religious truth is found, and here is the only security from the wildest and most pernicious errors. So far as this spirit prevails, ministers become safe and instructive guides to their fellow-men. So far as it prevails, the church is the pillar and ground of the truth; the light of a darkened and erring world.