Brother, if any man thinks ill of you, do not be angry with him; for you are worse than he thinks you to be. If he charges you falsely on some point, yet be satisfied, for if he knew you better he might change the accusation, and you would be no gainer by the correction. If you have your moral portrait painted, and it is ugly, be satisfied; for it only needs a few blacker touches, and it would be still nearer the truth.
—Charles Haddon Spurgeon
If the fear of the Lord is the beginning of both knowledge and wisdom, Spurgeon’s insight is the beginning of the fear of the Lord. This is in part because it’s the beginning of self-realism, and thus clears the decks for true knowledge of ourselves, and thus for true knowledge of God. As Calvin wrote in the beginning of the Institutes of the Christian Religion1,
Our wisdom, in so far as it ought to be deemed true and solid Wisdom, consists almost entirely of two parts: the knowledge of God and of ourselves. But as these are connected together by many ties, it is not easy to determine which of the two precedes and gives birth to the other.
In developing this, Calvin argued that
the infinitude of good which resides in God becomes more apparent from our poverty. In particular, the miserable ruin into which the revolt of the first man has plunged us, compels us to turn our eyes upwards; not only that while hungry and famishing we may thence ask what we want, but being aroused by fear may learn humility. . . . We are accordingly urged by our own evil things to consider the good things of God; and, indeed, we cannot aspire to Him in earnest until we have begun to be displeased with ourselves. For what man is not disposed to rest in himself? Who, in fact, does not thus rest, so long as he is unknown to himself; that is, so long as he is contented with his own endowments, and unconscious or unmindful of his misery? Every person, therefore, on coming to the knowledge of himself, is not only urged to seek God, but is also led as by the hand to find him.
At the same time, it’s only as we see ourselves in the light of God that we can see ourselves clearly and ruthlessly.
Man never attains to a true self-knowledge until he have previously contemplated the face of God, and come down after such contemplation to look into himself. For (such is our innate pride) we always seem to ourselves just, and upright, and wise, and holy, until we are convinced, by clear evidence, of our injustice, vileness, folly, and impurity. Convinced, however, we are not, if we look to ourselves only, and not to the Lord also—He being the only standard by the application of which this conviction can be produced. For, since we are all naturally prone to hypocrisy, any empty semblance of righteousness is quite enough to satisfy us instead of righteousness itself. . . .
Hence that dread and amazement with which as Scripture uniformly relates, holy men were struck and overwhelmed whenever they beheld the presence of God.
A realistic view of ourselves is also necessary for true wisdom because it is the font of humility. Pride breeds folly, but humility enables wisdom. We cannot be wise if we are unwilling to learn, and we cannot learn unless we are humble enough to admit we are wrong.
It should also be noted that realism about our own sin also makes us realistic about those around us. It leaves us no room to feel superior to others, on the one hand, but it also disabuses us of the romantically foolish idea that we can expect to find people who aren’t broken. We will never meet another person who doesn’t have significant wounds in their life and significant evil in their heart.
Certainly some of those around us are significantly better people than others, but even the best human being we know—by whatever standard we might use to measure that—has landmines buried in the soul and is capable of hurting us terribly. I am a sinner in desperate need of grace; you are a sinner in desperate need of grace; and so is everyone we know and everyone we will ever encounter. None of them are good enough to be our savior—there has only ever been one Savior, because there has only ever been one human being who was more than merely human; none of them deserve grace any less than we do. Which is to say, none of them deserve grace at all—but neither do we. We should extend grace to others because we ourselves cannot live without it.
Image: still from video “Deep Abyss Background” by Loki 3D. Reuse permitted under Creative Commons Attribution license.