Lewis and Edwards on the Layers of Self-Admiration

As a new Christian in 1930, C. S. Lewis was learning terrible things about his heart—the unfathomable layers of pride. It is astonishing how similar his description of his own heart was to the description Jonathan Edwards gave of our inscrutable strata of self-admiration.

Here is Lewis writing to his friend Arthur, amazingly within a year after his conversion:

During my afternoon “meditations,”—which I at least attempt quite regularly now—I have found out ludicrous and terrible things about my own character. Sitting by, watching the rising thoughts to break their necks as they pop up, one learns to know the sort of thoughts that do come.

And, will you believe it, one out of every three is the thought of self-admiration: when everything else fails, having had its neck broken, up comes the thought “what an admirable fellow I am to have broken their necks!” I catch myself posturing before the mirror, so to speak, all day long. I pretend I am carefully thinking out what to say to the next pupil (for his good, of course) and then suddenly realize I am really thinking how frightfully clever I'm going to be and how he will admire me...

And then when you force yourself to stop it, you admire yourself for doing that. It is like fighting the hydra... There seems to be no end to it. Depth under depths of self-love and self-admiration. (quoted in The Narnian by Alan Jacobs, 133)

Then we go back 200 years to the1740s when Jonathan Edwards was struggling to sort out what was wheat and what was chaff in the emotions of the Great Awakening in New England. In one of his greatest books, Religious Affections, he gives the most penetrating descriptions of Christian humility I have ever seen. The part that foreshadows Lewis goes like this:

If on the proposal of the question [Are you humble?], you answer, “No, it seems to me, none are so bad as I.” Don't let the matter pass off so; but examine again, whether or no you don't think yourself better than others on this very account, because you imagine you think so meanly of yourself. Haven't you a high opinion of this humility? And if you answer again, “No; I have not a high opinion of my humility; it seems to me I am as proud as the devil”; yet examine again, whether self-conceit don't rise up under this cover; whether on this very account, that you think yourself as proud as the devil, you don't think yourself to be very humble. (quoted from the online works of Jonathan Edwards)

One of the reasons these two are such giants of influence is the depths of their own biblically informed self-knowledge. Layer after layer until they despaired of knowing themselves humble. Humility, it turns out isn’t the kind of thing that can be spotted in oneself and prized.

Humility senses that humility is a gift beyond our reach. If humility is the product of reaching, then we will instinctively feel proud about our successful reach. Humility is the gift that receives all things as gift. It is the fruit not of our achievement but of the Holy Spirit (Galatians 5:22). It is the fruit of the gospel—knowing and feeling that we are desperate sinners and that Christ is a great and undeserved Savior.

Humility is the one grace in all our graces that, if we gaze on it, becomes something else. It flourishes when the gaze is elsewhere—on the greatness of the grace of God in Christ.

John Piper (@JohnPiper) is founder and teacher of desiringGod.org and chancellor of Bethlehem College & Seminary. For 33 years, he served as pastor of Bethlehem Baptist Church, Minneapolis, Minnesota. He is author of more than 50 books.