1 CORINTHIANS 8:2.—“If any man think that he knoweth anything, he knoweth nothing yet as he ought to know.”
IN reading this text, we must lay a strong emphasis upon the word “think,” if we would feel the force of it. St. Paul would teach certain members of the Corinthian Church, who were inclined to place a high estimate upon a philosophical comprehension of religious truth, and who therefore were liable to a spurious kind of knowledge, that if any one of them conceitedly supposed or imagined himself to comprehend the gospel mysteries, he was in reality utterly ignorant concerning them. This party in the Church claimed to possess a more profound apprehension of Christian truth than the rest of the brotherhood. They were filled with an intellectual pride and ambition that blinded them to the real and sanctifying meaning of the Gospel. They thought they knew.
The apostle tells them that such knowledge as this puffs up, but that real Christian love builds up; and adds, that “if any man think that he knoweth anything, he knoweth nothing yet as he ought to know.” The doctrine of the text, therefore, is, that pride vitiates religious knowledge. We proceed to mention some particulars in respect to which this appears.
I. In the first place, pride injures our religious knowledge in respect to its quantity or extent.
If this feeling be in the heart, we shall not see so much, nor so far. The apostle refers to that disposition which leads a man, when he has made some addition to his stock of knowledge, to stop and review it, and boast of it. He has in mind that self-complacent spirit which is not content with the apprehension of truth, but which must sally forth and tell the world how much it knows. These Corinthian disciples were anxious to make an impression by their supposed superior insight into Christian doctrine. They gloried in their attainments, real or reputed; and hence St. Paul says to them: “If any man among you seemeth to be wise in this world, let him become a fool, that he may be wise. For the wisdom of this world is foolishness with God. Therefore let no man glory in men.” Let no man plume himself upon his own personal acquisitions, or upon the knowledge of that particular human teacher—that Paul, or Apollos, or Cephas—whom he calls his master.
Such a self-complacent spirit as this tends to diminish the quantity or extent of a man’s knowledge, because it prevents him from surveying and traveling over the whole field. Having obtained a partial view, he stops to congratulate himself upon his discovery, and to inform others how much he has seen. His self-gratulation blinds his eye to the vast spaces that still stretch away in every direction, and that still remain to be explored. He is like a traveler among the Alps, who, having ascended the first range of hills, and seeing the lower valleys, should imagine, or “think,” that he had exhausted Switzerland—had taken up into his senses and soul that whole vast expanse of mountains, valleys, lakes, streams, chasms, verdure, and eternal snow, which constitutes the physical heart of Europe. That tarrying upon the heights already reached, and that self-congratulation upon the scanty view that first broke upon the eye, was fatal to a comprehensive vision. This man who “thinks” that he knows Switzerland, knows nothing yet as he ought to know.
This is especially true of the apprehension of divine things.
The instant a Christian begins to dwell upon his knowledge of God, or of himself, with any degree of self-complacency, he begins to stop his growth in knowledge. Take, for illustration, the knowledge of his own heart—of its corruption and its plague. So long as the Christian perceives indwelling sin with a simple and enlightened perception of its turpitude, and humbly mourns over it and confesses it, so long he makes advance in this species of knowledge. One shade or aspect of sin conducts him to the next, and so on in indefinite progression, until he becomes widely learned in the human heart, and profoundly abased before God. But the instant he begins to think of the extent to which he has gone in self-inspection, and to glory in his self-knowledge, that instant he brings the whole process to a stand-still.
He creates an eddy in the flowing stream of his self-reflection, and whirls round and round, instead of moving onward and onward. And unless the volume of water starts once more, and gets out of this whirlpool; unless the Christian ceases to think of how much he knows, and to boast of it; unless he returns to that simple perception that is accompanied with humility and sorrow; he will never know any more of his own heart than he now knows. And even this degree of knowledge will not stay by him. “To him that hath shall be given, and he shall have more abundance; but from him that hath not, shall be taken even that he hath.” These slight measures of self-knowledge, over which he has boasted, will themselves be absorbed in the pride of the heart, and disappear entirely from the experience.
We might select other features in the Christian experience, and apply the same reasoning to them, with the same result.
He who contemplates the character of God, with no side glances at himself in the way of pride at his fancied wisdom; he who simply beholds the glory of the Holy One, and bows down before it in reverence and awe; is carried forward from one vision to another. But the instant he begins to admire the results of his contemplation and study in this direction, the charm is dissolved. The face of God is veiled, and he sees it no longer. He, again, who, having perceived the adaptation of the atonement of the Lord Jesus Christ to the guilty conscience, begins to be proud of his perception, destroys the perception. If having seen the Lamb of God, he begins to feel meretorious because he has seen Him, and to glory in his spiritual discernment, his soul fills up with darkness, instead of a clearer and purer light. The knowledge of these divine things cannot be chased after, and boasted over in this style.
If you would see your shadow distinctly, stand still and look at it. The instant you begin to run after it, or grasp at it, you set it to wavering; you destroy its sharp outlines, and its exact parts and proportions. So, too, the instant you snatch at, and try to seize hold of your religious experiences and perceptions, that you may hold them up triumphantly before the eyes of men, and flaunt them before the world to your own praise—the instant you begin to review your knowledge for self-gratulation, you damage and vitiate it. You injure it in its quantity. You do not see so far, or so comprehensively, as you would had you the meekness of wisdom.
II. In the second place, pride vitiates our religious knowledge in respect to its quality, or depth.
Knowledge seems to have two properties that correspond with two of the geometrical dimensions. It extends out in every direction like a plane surface; and it runs downward, and reaches upward, like a right line. How natural it is to speak of a superficial knowledge—a knowledge that runs to the superficies or surface of things. And it is equally natural to speak of high thinking, and deep thinking—of a species of reflection that penetrates above and below the surface. In the first head of the discourse, we were engaged with knowledge as spreading out sidewise in all directions, and we saw that it was circumscribed and limited by the disposition to be conceited and boastful. Pride vitiated it, by reducing its compass and extent. We have now to notice how the same sin renders it less profound; preventing it from reaching up into the heights, and sinking down into the depths of divine truth.
The moment the mind begins to compute the distance it has gone, it stops going.
It cannot do two things together at the same instant. If, therefore, under the influence of pride, it pauses to see how profound it has become, to congratulate itself upon its profundity, and to tell the world its success, it adopts a suicidal course. It damages its knowledge in respect to quality. It ceases to be as pure and deep as it was while the mind was wholly absorbed in the contemplation of truth.
Take an example, for illustration. Suppose that a sinful man directs his thoughts to his own sinfulness. Suppose that he fixes his attention upon some one sinful habit, say covetousness, to which he is inclined, and begins to see plainly its odiousness in its own nature, and in the eye of God. The longer this process continues, the more intent and absorbing the application of his mind to this one subject, the deeper is his view. He goes down lower and lower into his own heart, and his knowledge becomes purer and more profound in its quality.
Now suppose that his attention is diverted from his sin itself, to the consideration of the fact that he has been exploring and probing his sin; suppose that he begins, as it were, to look over his own shoulder, and see what he has been doing; is it not evident that his sense of the iniquity of his sin will begin to grow more shallow, and that he will come up to the surface of his heart again, instead of penetrating its recesses? The sin of covetousness will not appear so odious to him, because he begins to “think” that he understands all about it; and in the end the assertion of the apostle is verified in his case: “If any man think that he knoweth anything, he knoweth nothing yet as he ought to know.”
III. In the third place, pride vitiates our religious knowledge, in respect to its practicality.
This is perhaps the greatest injury that is done to our apprehension of divine things, by our self-conceit and egotism. It is a great evil to have our knowledge diminished in its quantity and quality, in its extent and depth, but it is an even greater evil, to have its practical character and influence injured. The only purpose for which we ought to wish to understand religious truth is, that we may be made better by it. We ought not to desire to know God, except that we may become like him. We ought not to make any scrutiny into our own sin, except for the purpose of getting rid of sin. There is no species of truth or knowledge that is so purely practical, as religious truth and knowledge. The very instant, therefore, it loses this practicality, by any fault or wrong method of our own, it loses its most important element for us. It degenerates into mere speculation, and hardens the heart, instead of melting it into sorrow and love.
The first duty incumbent upon a man when he has obtained some new view of divine truth is, to apply it.
But there is nothing that so interferes with such a personal application as pride, or self-gratulation. He who seeks to understand the doctrines of Scripture only that he may admire himself, or be admired by others because of his knowledge of Scripture, will never bring them home to himself; will never employ them for purposes of self-improvement.
A French rhetorician relates the following anecdote, to show how impenetrable the vainglorious mind is to the sharp arrows of truth, and how exceedingly difficult it is to induce such a mind to allow any practical turn or application of a moral idea. “One day,” he says, “the Abbé de St. Cyran happened to touch, in the presence of Balzac, upon certain religious truths which he developed with great force. Balzac, intent upon gaining from this some beautiful thought to enshrine at some future time in a page of his own, could not help exclaiming, ‘That is admirable;’ contenting himself with admiring, without applying anything to himself. ‘Balzac,’ said the Abbé, ‘is like a man who, standing before a superb mirror which shows him a stain on his face, should content himself with admiring the beauty of the mirror, without removing the stain.’ Balzac was delighted more than ever with this, and still forgetting the practical lesson altogether, in his attention to the pertinence of the illustration, cried in a yet louder tone, ‘Ah, this is more admirable than all the rest.’ ”
“Seest thou a man wise in his own conceit,” says Solomon, “there is more hope of a fool than of him.”
When a man is destitute of knowledge, and feels himself to be so, he can be approached by a teacher, and instruction can be imparted. But when it is the thought of his heart that he comprehends the whole subject, and that no one can teach him, the prospect of his becoming enlightened is hopeless. Precisely so is it in regard to the practical application of divine truth. He who listens to the teaching of the sanctuary, with the notion or imagination that he has completed the work of applying it to himself, and therefore hears merely for others, or for merely intellectual improvement, is in a most unfavorable position to receive salutary impressions.
This is the hazard that accompanies a steady attendance upon public worship, without faith, repentance, and a Christian profession. The mind of such a person becomes filled with the doctrines of the gospel, and they command his unhesitating assent. They are so true for his intellect, that he never thinks of disputing them. And, at the same time, he never thinks of applying them to himself practically. There is a species of mental pride, a pride of knowledge, perhaps a pride of orthodoxy, that hinders him from listening with a tender conscience, and a meek and lowly heart. Perhaps it would be better, if such a hearer might, for a time, be brought into skeptical conflict with the truth.
Perhaps there might be more hope of his conversion, if, instead of this cold and undisturbed assent to the Christian system which is accompanied with so much self-complacency, and so little self-application, there might rush in upon him some of those obstinate questionings that would destroy his ease of mind, and bring him into serious collision with the law and truth of God. He might then, perhaps, realize that the Word of God is the most practical, because it is the most truthful and searching, of all books; that there is not a teaching in it that does not have a bearing upon the most momentous interests of the human soul; and that the question which every man should put to himself, whenever he reads it, and whenever he listens to it, is the question: “What is it to me? What shall I do in reference to it?”
Thus have we seen, that “If any man think that he knoweth anything, he knoweth nothing yet as he ought to know”—that pride vitiates our knowledge of religious truth, in respect to its quantity, its quality, and its practicality.
That is a very instructive chapter in the Old Testament history which records the punishment that came upon David, because he numbered the people. We are not informed, by the sacred historian, what was the particular wickedness of which the king of Israel was guilty, in this instance. It was not the mere taking of a census. Moses had twice numbered the people, without any rebuke from God; and upon the face of the transaction, there does not seem to lie any harm. It was well, that the ruler of a kingdom should know the number of his army; it was well, that the shepherd of Israel should count up his flock. The most probable explanation is, that the monarch took this census of his kingdom from pride, as Hezekiah showed the treasures of his palace to the ambassadors of the king of Babylon. Therefore God punished him. It is the same spirit that numbers up spiritual attainments, and the same disapprobation of God attends it. What is the moral difference between showing the heathen king the silver, and the gold, and the spices, and the precious ointment, in order to make an impression upon him for purposes of self-aggrandizement, and showing to one’s own self, or to others, the mental treasures, for purposes of pride and vanity? What is the difference in the motive, between David’s boastful counting up of his men of war, and the Christian’s boastful counting up of his knowledge, his graces, and his good deeds?
1. In deducing, therefore, the lessons which this subject suggests, we remark, in the first place, that spiritual pride is the most subtle of sins.
“Now the serpent was more subtle than any beast of the field which the Lord God had made.” The species of sin which is rebuked in the text, and which we have been considering, does not approach the Christian from the outside. It does not issue from flesh and sense, but from the intellect itself. It is the sin of Lucifer, the Son of the Morning. That archangel was not tempted to revolt against the authority and government of the Most High, by the low and flesh-born solicitations which are continually assailing the sons of men. His substance was incorporeal, and his nature ethereal. The five senses, which are the avenues through which many enticements to sin approach the children of Adam, formed no part of his constitution. He fell from a purely intellectual temptation, and his wickedness was what the apostle denominates “spiritual wickedness.”
The sin of pride, to which the believer is liable, is a sin of the same species whereby the angels fell. In wrestling against it, we “wrestle not against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this world, against spiritual wickedness in high places.” (Eph. 6:12.) There is every reason to believe, that when the child of God becomes sinfully self-conscious and egotistic; when he ceases to be an actor, and converts himself into a spectator; when he reviews his conduct with self-complacency and is puffed up with knowledge, instead of built up with charity; when he thinks more highly of himself than he ought to think; he is particularly the victim of the wiles of Satan, that Old Serpent, that subtlest of the creatures of God.
When other artifices fail; when the believer proves to be on his guard against the more common and outward temptations of earth; then the Arch Deceiver plies him with one that is purely mental, and spiritual. He fills him with the conceit of holiness, and the conceit of knowledge. This puffs him up, and leads him to commit that great sin which is condemned in the declaration of God, through the prophet Isaiah: “I am Jehovah, that is my name, and my glory I will not give to another.” Under the impulse of this temptation, the creature defrauds the Creator of the glory which is his due, and comes short of the chief end of his own creation. Spiritual pride is thus the last resort of the Tempter, and whoever is enabled by divine grace to foil him at this point, will foil him at all points. “That which first overcomes man,” says St. Augustine, “is the last thing man overcomes.”
The pride by which the angels fell, and which was the principal quality in the Adamic transgression, lingers longest and latest in the experience of the Christian. “Some sins,” remarks an old divine, “may die before us, but this hath life in it as long as we. It is, as it were, the heart of all other sins; the first to live, and the last to die. And it hath this advantage, that whereas other sins are fomented by one another, this feeds even on virtues and graces, as a moth that breeds in them, and consumes them, even in the finest of them, if it be not carefully looked into. This hydra, as one head of it is cut off, another rises up; it will secretly cleave to the best actions, and prey upon them. And therefore is there so much need that we continually watch, and fight, and pray against it; and be restless in the pursuit of real and deep humiliation—to be nothing, and desire to be nothing; not only to bear, but to love our own abasement, and the things that procure and help it.”
2. And this carries us to the second lesson suggested by the subject, which is, that spiritual pride especially requires the aid and influence of the Holy Ghost to overcome it.
No spirit is a match for the subtlety of Satan but the Eternal Spirit. When the mystery of iniquity worketh; when “that Wicked is revealed whose coming is after the working of Satan, with all power, and signs, and lying wonders, and with all deceivableness of unrighteousness;” St. Paul tells us that “the Lord shall consume him with the Spirit of his mouth, and shall destroy him with the brightness of his coming.” (2 Thess. 2:7–10.) The believer will fall a victim to these arts of the Deceiver, unless he is both enlightened and empowered. His very virtues and graces themselves are, oftentimes, the egg out of which spiritual pride is hatched. With Cowper he can say:
“When I would speak what thou hast done
To save me from my sin,
I can not make thy mercies known,
But self-applause creeps in.”
The believer, therefore, needs to have that singleness of eye which is never dazzled with any of the flatteries of either his own heart, or of Satan himself. He needs to have his whole body full of that heavenly light which will chase out every lingering remnant of darkness, and of egotism. And who but the unerring Spirit of God is the author of such a spiritual illumination as this?
The discourses of our Lord are full of solemn injunctions to be single-eyed, single-minded, and not to let the left hand know what the right hand doeth. Simplicity and godly sincerity, he continually emphasizes; and these are the exact contraries of self-deception and pride. But who can attain to this, as a steady and spontaneous habit and frame of soul, without the teaching of the Holy Ghost? And by that teaching it can be attained. There is a power in God, the Creator of the human soul, and the Searcher of the human heart, to produce within it a guileless simplicity—that beautiful trait which Christ saw and praised in Nathanael, when he said: “Behold an Israelite indeed, in whom there is no guile.”
It is that holiness which is so simple, childlike, and ingenuous, that it is unconscious of itself. It is that divine knowledge which is so pure, and deep, that it never reviews itself, and never inflates in the least. It is that mental absorption in God and divine things, of which the Old Mystics say so much, whereby the will of the creature and the intellect of the creature are so completely subject to those of the Creator, that the difference between them cannot be distinguished in the religious experience. It is that union with Christ which is so intimate and central, that the instant the believer says with St. Paul, “I live,” he is obliged with him to add immediately, “yet not I, but Christ liveth in me.”
Such a union as this, resulting in the extinction of self-assertion and vainglory, is the product of the Holy Spirit working in us to will, to feel, to think, and to act. It results from walking in the Spirit, and praying in the Spirit; yea, praying that prayer of which the apostle remarks: “The Spirit helpeth our infirmities; for we know not what to pray for as we ought; but the Spirit itself maketh intercession for us, with groanings which cannot be uttered.”
William G. T. Shedd, Sermons to the Spiritual Man, (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1884), 272–285.