The Danger of Religious Flesh in the Christian Life
By Richard Lovelace1
Edwards found one explanation for the aberrations of revival periods in the concept of mixtures of grace and carnality in the subjects of revival. Indwelling sin is a constant factor in earthly human experience, he argues, and it may erupt in spectacular ways at the time of conversion. It might appear that the outpouring of the Spirit should quench the fire of sin, and this is certainly true in some measure. But there are times when that outpouring causes sin to flare up like a fire which has just been drenched in kerosene. Sin, rather than being quenched, is merely diverted into new channels.
The convert who has turned his back on the patterns of the flesh which are common in the world may develop new and sublimated patterns of sin which are largely unconscious but extremely destructive, ugly forms of spiritual flesh, or fleshly spirituality. As John of the Cross points out, the seven deadly sins of the one-Christian have their spiritual counterparts within the growing Christian, as the gravitational field of self centeredness seizes and bends the elements of the new life into old carnal patterns. New Christians may envy the spiritual gifts of others and covet them. They may become preoccupied with the emotional side effects of Christian experience and lapse into spiritual gluttony, lusting after joy and ignoring its giver and the responsibility of an obedient walk of faith. Wrath may find its counterpart in censorious judgment. But the most dangerous form of religious flesh is spiritual pride.
Edwards takes up the effects of pride on the aftermath of revival in a classic section of Thought on the Revival in New England. He judges it to be the greatest single cause of the miscarriage of revivals because it affects those who are most zealous to promote them:
This is the main door by which the devil comes into the hearts of those who are zealous for the advancement of religion . . . the chief inlet of smoke from the bottomless pit, to darken the mind and mislead the judgment . . . the main handle by which the devil has hold of religious persons, and the chief source of all the mischief that he introduces, to clog and hinder the work of God.
Pride drastically hinders revival because it padlocks the spirit, shutting the soul off in its own darkness and blocking it from dealing not only with pride itself (for "those that are spiritual proud, have a high conceit of these two things, viz. their light, and their humility") but with every other area of the flesh. Because spiritual pride is so secretive, it is hard to detect except through its effects. Edwards proceeds therefore to analyze these effects, noting that they are generally opposite counterparts to the fruits of the Spirit:
Spiritual pride is very apt to suspect others; whereas an humble saint is most jealous of himself, he is so suspicious of nothing in the world as he is of his own heart. The spiritually proud person is apt to find fault with other saints, that they are low in grace; and to be much in observing how cold and dead they are; and being quick to discern and take notice of their deficiencies. But the eminently humble Christian has so much to do at home . . . that he is not apt to be very busy with other hearts . . . He is apt to esteem others better than himself, and is ready to hope that there is nobody but what has more love and thankfulness to God than he, and cannot bear to think that others should bring forth no more fruit to God's honour than he.
Pride magnifies the faults of other Christians and diminishes their graces, while it diminishes the faults and magnifies the graces of its subject. It is apt to treat the needs of others as occasions of contempt and laughter rather than as sources of concern or shock. All of this may seem conventional enough today until we begin to measure it against the history of American revivalism or the current behavior of both liberal and conservative leaders.
Under the guise of prophetic righteousness, pride can move awakened believers to censorious attacks on other Christians, a lack of meekness in rebuking to separate from those less holy or less orthodox. It can do things to Christians which make their religion grate painfully on the sensibilities of fellow believers. It can engender an unholy boldness before God which expresses itself in undue familiarity and effusive religious talk. It can make people proud to be weird for Jesus and grateful for the persecution this provokes. As Edwards says, "Spiritual pride often disposes persons to singularity in external appearance, to affect a singular way of speaking, to use a different sort of dialect from others, or to be singular in voice, countenance, or behaviour." Both the institutionalized strangeness of Fundamentalism and the invented strangeness of the Jesus movement come into view here, along with many things which pass for religious communication on radio. Edwards notes further:
Spiritual pride commonly occasions a certain stiffness and inflexibility in persons, in their own judgment and their own way; whereas the eminently humble person, though he be inflexible in his duty, and in those things wherein God's honour is concerned . . . yet in other things he is of a pliable disposition . . . ready to pay deference to others' opinions, loves to comply with their inclinations, and has a heart that is tender and flexible, like a little child
Dogmatic orthodoxy and heterodoxy, on the other hand, are generally proud of their inflexibility, mistaking it for conviction. Edwards goes on to say of the humble person:
And though he will not be a companion with one that is visibly Christ's enemy . . . yet he does not love the appearance of an open separation from visible Christians . . . and will as much as possible shun all appearances of a superiority, or distinguishing himself as better than others.
We may note that theological and social singularity, on the other hand, often function as masks and supports for a weak ego. Edwards further points out that "Spiritual pride takes great notice of opposition and injuries that are received, and is apt to be often speaking of them, and to be much in taking notice of their aggravations, either with an air of bitterness or contempt." The absence of genuine dialog between conservatives and liberals during this century is usually traceable to just such mutual contempt. Pride forces believers to either of two extremes in handling opponents: spiteful polemics or refusal to dialog. Edwards sees the problem and offers a motive for a change in behavior:
As spiritual pride disposes persons to assume much to themselves, so it also disposes them to treat others with neglect . . . Indeed to spend a great deal of time in jangling and warm debates about religion, is not the way to propagate, but to hinder it . . . But yet we ought to be very careful that we do not refuse to discourse with men, with any appearance of a supercilious neglect, as though we counted them not worthy to be regarded; on the contrary, we should condescend to carnal men, as Christ has condescended to us, to bear with our unteachableness and stupidity.
It has been said of some religions leaders that they have the unusual ability to be able to strut sitting down. Against this pattern of behavior Edwards sets out an ideal portrait of Christian humility:
The eminently humble Christian is as it were clothed with lowliness, mildness, meekness, gentleness of spirit and behaviour, and with a soft, sweet, condescending, winning air and deportment; these things are just like garments to him, he is clothed all over with them . . . Pure Christian humility has no such thing as roughness, or contempt, or fierceness, or bitterness in its nature; it makes a person like a little child, harmless and innocent, that none need to be afraid of; or like a lamb, destitute of all bitterness, wrath, anger, and clamour; agreeable to Eph. iv.31. . . . [Ministers] ought indeed . . . not to be gentle and moderate in searching and awakening the conscience, but should be sons of thunder . . . Yet they should do it without judging particular persons, leaving it to conscience and the Spirit of God to make the particular application. But all their conversation should savour of nothing but lowliness and good-will, love and pity to all mankind; so that such a spirit should be like a sweet odour diffused around them wherever they go. They should be like lions to guilty consciences, but like lambs to men's persons.
Unfortunately this description is that of a finished saint with some years of mellowing and maturing, and not a picture of a new convert in a religious awakening. But all too often a pattern of behavior which falls short of this ideal becomes an institutional norm for religious leadership, so that we stop striving to grow in this direction as we govern the church or seek to control and orchestrate a burst of renewal.
Responding to Edwards's analysis from a twentieth-century perspective, we can see that spiritual pathology and psychopathology are closely intertwined in producing aberrant revival. What we call pride is usually not an expression of serious self-appreciation but a defense mechanism compensating for unconscious feelings of inferiority. A new influx of spiritual life and gifts should ordinarily eliminate the psychological need behind compensatory egoism and thus attenuate the sin of pride in the believer. But where there is any tinge of guilt or insecurity present in the believer (and Evangelical Christianity can create them easily unless the depth of it challenge is held in exquisite balance with the doctrine of atonement), any unhealed traumas stemming from past rejections or any shade of hidden alienation from God, the graces which should become a support for the believer's legitimate self-regard are transformed into a shield for sin or a defense against inferiority feelings. Orthodoxies of one sort of another, Christian experience and spiritual gifts can all be abused in this manner, and much of the pathology of revival springs from this mismanagement of grace.
Much of the contention and lack of charity in the wake of revival is simply the necessary reflex of the soul which secretly doubts itself and seeks relief in casting doubt on others, as Cotton Mather long ago suggested:
The zeal of many is but a mere composition with conscience, for some favour unto some detestable ungodliness . . . A man does not keep his heart with all diligence; does not walk in the fear of God continually . . . does not lead a life of communion with heaven; does not love his neighbour, and seek his wellbeing, and rejoice in it. And now he compounds with his conscience, to make a mighty noise about something or other, that is not essential to Christianity. Oh! The deceits, the deceits, of wretched hypocrisy!
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