Brethren Archive

The Religion Of Self-Upbraiding

by John Dickie


WHEN Nature sets herself to imitate grace, she accomplishes not so much an imitation as a caricature. Gehazi, nourishing with the prophet's staff in his hand, seems to be rather the mocking mimic, than the imitator of the unostentatious Elisha; though, possibly, in his own estimate, Gehazi might perhaps think himself to be as earnest as he fancied his master to be. In another paper, we have been looking at Mr. Wet-Eyes with his constant spirit of godly sorrow; and it may perhaps be profitable to glance for a little at Nature's imitation of Wet-Eyes' special grace, as it is shown us in the person of "the complaining hypocrite," the appropriate term by which old Robert Trail designates the subject of our present study.

At a superficial glance, many a one might fancy that he could discover a striking family resemblance between Wet-Eyes and the "complaining hypocrite;" but a more careful scrutiny will gradually reduce the points of resemblance to a minimum. The two men, indeed, speak a good deal about sin, and they both use the most humbling expressions in their confession of their personal sinfulness; but beyond these, the agreement ceases, and the divergence widens into absolute contrast. It is said that there are few things so unlike an actual battle as a review; and, certainly, there are few persons in the world more completely, unlike a genuine Wet-Eyes in his life and spirit than a "complaining hypocrite." The word 'Nazarite' comes from a Hebrew root which signifies to separate, and the word, 'Pharisee' comes from another root which also means to separate; but the two classes of separatists were altogether unlike each other in their dispositions. The Nazarite represented God's separated man, set apart from the evils of an evil world for special service; the Pharisee had separated himself in his over-weening self-conceit, saying to his neighbour, "Stand by, for I am holier than thou." Now we venture to think that the self-upbraiding soul stands in pretty much the same relation to the genuine Wet-Eyes, that the ancient Pharisee used to occupy towards the Nazarite. God has had the making of the one; man has made the other.

The family of the self-upbraiders is very ancient; and many look on it as a very reputable one. The founder of it was Cain, who, envious of the favour in which his younger brother stood with their Creator, lifted a fratricidal hand, to rid himself by murder of his hated rival. When charged with his horrible crime, the wretched man thought at first to brazen it out; so in reply to the searching question, "Where is Abel thy brother?" he daringly said, "I know not, am I my brother's keeper?" Did the foolish man—for the sinner is in every case a fool—did he fancy that, because he had not seen God in visible presence on the scene of crime, God was therefore absent from it, and knew nothing of what had been done? If he thought so—and the sinner's thoughts about sin are generally as groundless as this—he was speedily made to know that the All-seeing One had been his witness, and would now be his righteous Judge. But when the crime and its results were thus brought home to him, the guilty man raised his complaining self-upbraiding cry, "Mine iniquity is greater than that it may be forgiven." He was thus the founder of the family of which we are now speaking.

Esau, too, was an eminent member of this family. In him and his brother Jacob was repeated the remarkable phenomenon already referred to in the case of Cain and Abel, of two brothers, each of whom was the leading member in these two rival families. Jacob, like Abel, was the chief Wet-Eyes of his day; while Esau, like Cain, was the leading complainer. "And Esau said unto his father, 'Hast thou but one blessing, my father? bless me, even me also, O my father.' And Esau lifted up his voice, and wept." Laban was another eminent member of the family; and eleven of his grandsons, the sons of Jacob, were at one time cadets in it. Moses, on one occasion, showed strong symptoms of a sneaking fondness for it; indeed so upbraidingly did he speak of himself—that is, self-upbraidingly, not because of his faith, but because of his unbelief—that, the anger of the Lord was kindled against Moses, and he said, "Is not Aaron the Levite thy brother? I know that he can speak well." Pharaoh was the acknowledged head of the house in his day; the same Pharaoh who called for Moses and Aaron in haste and upbraided himself before them in this fashion, "I have sinned against the Lord your God, and against you. Now therefore forgive, I pray thee, my sin only this once, and entreat the Lord your God, that he may take away from me this death only." Saul was another very eminent member of the family. "I have sinned," he said to Samuel; "yet honour me now, I pray thee, before the elders of my people." Ahab and Jehoram his son were each of them famous in his own day. Simon Magus was another supporter of the family honours—that Simon who said to Peter, "Pray ye to the Lord for me;" for he seemed to have more faith in the peculiar merits of Peter's asking, than he could place in the special readiness of God to give, in answer to a cry which had nothing to commend it but the greatness and the freeness of his own abundant mercy.

But why should we follow the family history, when we may make ourselves better acquainted with the characteristic differences between the Wet-Eyes and the Self-upbraiders, by comparing Mr. Wet-Eyes with his next-door neighbour, who happens to be a member of the self-upbraiding family? In their boyhood, youth, and early manhood, the two were as nearly as possible alike; but no two men could be more dissimilar in character and in spirit than these two have been since Wet-Eyes was converted. At that time Wet-Eyes passed through a very trying experience. Like Christian, he had been frightened out of his native town, the City of Destruction; but he had little more than started on his pilgrimage when he plunged over head and ears into the deepest part of the horrible Slough of Despond. Here he was nearly drowned outright; but in all his loud cryings and struggles for sweet life, he kept his face steadfastly set towards the further bank; and those who saw him were agreed in thinking that the resolute man had made up his mind either to perish in the Slough or to get fairly through it, and out on the side which lay furthest from his former home. Help came to the rescue, and pulled out the struggling man just in time; but he has been afflicted with a shortness of breath and a softness of voice ever since, which, it is thought, he caught at that time. He never thinks or speaks of his experience in the Slough, but his eyes begin to swim; more, however, from a renewal of his joy in being delivered, than from a renewal of his grief in being so nearly overwhelmed. But the complaining hypocrite has never been in the Slough at all. To look at his person, you might sometimes think that Help had just pulled him out of it, he is so bedaubed and plastered with its peculiar mire. But the fact is, in spite of appearances, he has never actually been in it in his life. He, too, has been frightened, from time to time, by the same alarming reports of the dangers which are imminent to all the dwellers in the City of Destruction; and these reports have occasionally startled him exceedingly. He has a good deal of valuable property, however, in the town, and this he is reluctant to leave, if it could by any means be avoided; while, during the time the religious fit lasts, he equally shrinks from the danger of perishing in the destruction of the city. Impelled by this fear, he has once and again started on pilgrimage, but he has never got further away from his home than the Slough of Despond. By the time he reaches this, second thoughts are beginning to look the wisest, his resolution rapidly evaporates; and so, after paddling about the margin of the marsh, like a child playing at the edge of the ocean, he finds that he cannot muster heart to venture further among unknown dangers. Help never has needed to pull him out when he was near his last gasp. He speaks, however, much more freely than Wet-Eyes does about his experiences of the Slough, and there is a good reason for his doing so; for while Wet-Eyes has fifty better subjects on which to think or speak, his neighbour's entire circle of religious experiences is limited to this occasional visit to the marsh, and this safe, though unseemly, besmearing of himself with its offensive mud. When he is very religious, he is to be found at the Slough; and when the religious fit has worn off, he is to be found again at his usual residence, in the finest square of the great City of Destruction.

From what has been mentioned, it will be seen that while the religion of Mr. Wet-Eyes is a continuous, or rather a steadily progressive thing, that of his neighbour is a periodical fit. The motion of the one is a steady progress in a uniform direction, slow but sure, though it occasionally varies in its rate of speed; the motion of the other is backward and forward like a door on its hinges, his extreme limits backwards being his own home, and his most advanced point heavenwards being the wrong side of the Slough of Despond. While the life of the one is, on the whole, a unity, every part of it being in tolerable harmony with every other part; the life of the other reminds one of the old dualistic theories on which early Oriental thinkers attempted to account for the mystery of the universe, one half of the phenomena being ascribed to a good spirit, while the remainder was ascribed to a being of an opposite character. There is no unity in the life of the complaining hypocrite. What the Apostle James says of his class is true of him, "A two-souled man is unstable in all his ways."

But even when the religious fit is at the warmest, he is, if possible, still less like Wet-Eyes than he is when irreligious and worldly. Sometimes in a meeting of believers, he will lead their united prayers; but, though his excitement and vehemence pass for earnestness with those who are very ignorant, no intelligent Christian is ever humbled, or comforted, or stimulated by his devotional fervours. In the most excited manner, and in the most exaggerated terms, he will give utterance to the company's self-upbraidings in expressions which are generally so extreme, that perhaps no one present is able to say Amen to them except himself. Wet-Eyes never does anything like this. What may be the language which he is in the habit of using when he is making his own secret confessions in his closet no one can tell, but anyone can easily guess; but he remembers that when a company is praying, it is the condition of the company, and not his own private personal condition, that the leader is to consider, since he is to regard himself as nothing more than the mouth-piece of the meeting. He therefore uses every care to speak no words in prayer which do not seem to him to befit the condition of the company whose prayers he is leading. In his private approaches to the throne of grace, he may, and he ought to make his own personal condition of soul the standing point from which he regards and arranges all his petitions, confessions, and utterances of every kind; but in social prayer, he feels that he must consider himself as being only one of the units; and when he happens to be the unit who speaks in name of the rest, he does not willingly allow himself to project his individual feelings any further forward than they are likely to be shared by all who are present. He is the tongue of the meeting only, the meeting itself is the heart; and, in social prayer no less than in secret, the tongue must be watched, lest it run glibly forward further than the heart can follow. When Wet-Eyes happens to be unduly downcast in spirit, and feels therefore that he is unable to step out of his narrow centre, and to take this enlarged estimate of the experiences and wants of his fellows, he invariably declines to lead in social prayer, on the ground that he feels himself unfit to do it. Of course, when he does lead the prayers of others, his own spirit at the moment gives a tone and a character to the supplications which he modestly presents in the name of the company; but these petitions are always such as a gracious soul can readily appropriate, nay, they are such as everyone will sympathize with in proportion as he himself is a gracious man. No one is ever chilled or stumbled by self-upbraiding or even scolding exaggerations from his lips, such as form the staple of the complaining hypocrite's public prayers when he is in his most fervent religious moods.

Of all the men in his neighbourhood, Wet-Eyes is in disputably the humblest; but no one who has had any intercourse with the complaining hypocrite ever mistook him for a humble man. In spite of the extraordinary terms in which he speaks of himself, he is uncommonly self-righteous. In fact, his self-upbraidings come out of his spiritual pride, and they minister towards its enormous increase. When he is forced to look at his sins, he is never led by the sight of them to submit humbly to the righteousness of God, to confess his guilt, and to accept with modest gladness the proffered mercy. So, he is merely mortified to find that he should be in such a condition; he does not confess it at all; he merely upbraids himself, and that with bitterness. "That I should act in such a way," he says; "it is too shocking, it is intolerable, it is incredible!" Wet-Eyes is ashamed, too, at his continual failure, but the humble shame of Wet-Eyes operates very differently. He has already discovered such a perennial fountain of evil in his very nature, that though he is often grieved, he is never surprised at any new outflow from the evil heart within. Instead of thinking it incredible that such as he should do so or so, he gives hearty thanks to God daily for his most gracious keeping, that a man like him has been kept back from plunging into every open sin. Every discovery of his own evil heart, then, inflicts only another stab on the dying carcass of his fleshly self-confidence, which he nailed up on the cross years ago when he took the Lord Jesus for his Saviour, and which has been slowly, slowly dying, in painful crucifixion, ever since; and he turns again, with renewed faith and gladness, to hide from himself in the bosom of his great Redeemer. But the self-upbraidings of the complaining hypocrite never tend to draw him in this direction. They neither cast him upon Christ for comfort, nor bring him nearer unto God in filial fear. His pride grows as much on his fancied humility, as the genuine humility of Wet-Eyes is promoted by the discoveries of his lamented pride; for it is a fact worthy of remembrance, that wherever humility is not genuine, the affectation of it is the most powerful provocative to increased self-conceit.

After all, it is not for sin in the heart that he upbraids himself, but for sins in the life; and these sins so gross that half-blind eyes like his can easily discover them. And it is solely for the effect which these sins have upon himself that he feels distress; so far from cherishing a generous, unselfish jealousy for God's glory, as affected by his sin, he knows not what it means. And so far from bewailing, like Wet-Eyes, the guilt of his holiest things, he is well enough pleased with them, and would be quite satisfied with himself if he could only keep them up. Wet-Eyes casts all his own doings and feelings into a single heap, from which he flees with mingled grief and joy to Jesus; but his neighbour divides his life into two heaps, the one of which he contemplates with immense satisfaction, while over each item of the other he bitterly upbraids himself. His grief arises from the terrible severity of the holy law of God. He would be contented with himself if he were only under a law that he could easily keep, while Wet-Eyes loves the holy law even while it is making his sin exceedingly sinful; and he loves above all the gracious Saviour, who reconciled him to the law when he reconciled him unto God. All that the good man wishes further, is the grace to enable him to respond worthily to the graciousness of such a Saviour.

The self-upbraider never suspects that he is so wholly vile, that his fleshly good, in which he glories, is in reality, no whit better than the evil with which he upbraids himself. With all his complaining, he does not weep much; if he only could weep, what a world of merit he would make out of a single tear! Even as it is, he places almost the whole of his religion in his complaints; and on the very denial of all claim to merit, he builds his claim to be regarded by God and by man as one who is peculiarly devout. If he does not decorate himself with the fantastic ornaments of his own righteous doings, he wraps himself in the mantle of his self-accusations, and he hopes that for sake of them, it shall yet be well with him. Alas! he knows not that even genuine spiritual sorrow for sin cannot, of itself, procure forgiveness, much less can the haughty self-upbraidings of an unhumbled soul. It is the taking of the sins to Jesus, it is the application made by the loathsome leper to the great Physician that secures his unfailing help. Conviction of sin, even when it is genuine, is useful so far, but only so far, as it constrains such resorting to Christ for pardon, life, and peace. While the apostle informs us that circumcision availeth nothing, he tells, in the same breath, that uncircumcision equally availeth nothing. It is to be feared that while some are trusting to their circumcision, their formal law-keeping for acceptance, others, apparently a little mere evangelical, are trusting to their uncircumcision, their vehement rejection of a law-merit of their own, as if, in itself, the one were a whit more trustworthy than the other. Both are alike worthless in themselves; and nothing avails the guilty soul but the faith which vitally unites it to the Saviour, and which, in proof of its vitality, worketh by humble love.

There is another sad circumstance connected with the self-npbraidings of the complaining hypocrite, and that is his deplorable want of sincerity. Spiritually, he has made no progress, except indeed in this direction of insincerity. Twenty years ago there was much more reality of feeling about his self-upbraidings than there is now. The little capacity for feeling which he originally possessed has been almost completely exhausted by these profitless spasms of morbid religiousness; and if he be not speedily recovered from the frightful spiritual condition in which he now is, the whole matter will degenerate into the most heartless, soulless grimace. Nay, the very truths of Scripture which were wont to awaken some degree of feeling are steadily becoming, more and more, objects of almost unconscious dislike; and it can scarcely be otherwise, since these truths have done nothing better for him than afflict him periodically with painful paroxysms of resultless terror.

Of the insincerity of these self-accusations, any one will soon be satisfied who takes the complaining man at his own self-upbraiding word. It is told of a Romish ecclesiastical dignitary, that he was once confessing his sins to a monk. His Eminence accused himself of monstrous crimes, to which confessions the simple monk listened with manifest horror. "You fool!" continued the penitent, "you surely cannot believe that I am really guilty of all that I have mentioned!" "Not guilty!" replied the monk; "then your Eminence wishes me to understand that, in addition to what you have already confessed, you are also a liar?" Our friend, if similarly treated, would manifest a similar spirit. If any one were to say of him, or even to receive from him, what he says of himself, he would feel indignant, as if made the innocent subject of an unworthy slander. Far otherwise is it with modest Mr. Wet-Eyes. He means every word of his lowly confessions to be believed; and however low may be the estimate which any one forms of him, his own estimate of himself is always much lower. He never defends himself, as his complaining neighbour invariably does, excusing the very faults for which he had just been upbraiding himself.

It is to be feared, however, that the complaining hypocrite is indebted for much of his religious peculiarity to his acquaintanceship with Wet-Eyes. In some respects, he is to be regarded as merely a bad imitation of Wet-Eyes; doubly bad, indeed, for the artist who made the copy was incompetent, and the material with which he wrought was unsuitable. Instead of God for a workman, we have a sinful man attempting to make a true penitent; and instead of a soul renewed by the Holy Ghost for material, we have the unchanged human heart, deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked. With such an artist, and with such material, what better could be looked for than a groaning hypocrite, instead of a genuine Wet-Eyes?

Still, had there been no Wet-Eyes, there would probably have been no Self-upbraiders; just as there would have been no base sovereigns if the Mint had never sent out genuine coins. For this deplorable perversion of his excellent example, Wet-Eyes is, of course, not to be blamed; though the knowledge of the fact that his example may be thus fatally abused ought to make him somewhat more careful than he frequently is, as to the terms in which he speaks of himself in the presence of those who are spiritually unable to enter into his meaning. Putting the upbraidings of his own conscience, and the strong statements of Scripture, and the self-abasing deportment of Wet-Eyes confusedly together, his unhappy neighbour has, out of this jumble, concocted the sadly mistaken fancy that true religion lies very much in self-upbraiding, and that he is holiest who is most severe. Instead of learning from Wet-Eyes, his spirit of true humility because of what he himself is—instead of rejoicing always in the Lord, rooted and grounded in the confiding faith that Jesus has been made of God to him wisdom, and righteousness, sanctification, and redemption—he has caught only the outward guise of his neighbour's humiliation, and he has set himself to copy this in the most legal and self-righteous spirit. As for faith, he has none; his self-upbraiding stands for faith. He has no Saviour, even his hypocritical groanings because of his sins are his saviour. As for joy in the Holy Ghost, childlike liberty to love and serve his heavenly Father, or Christ-like devotion to that Father's will, he knows not of them; he does not even seek to know.

We learn from early Church history, that the severe discipline inflicted upon penitents, as scandalous back-sliders were then called, went to foster, in an unhappy degree, the spirit of exaggerated and Pharisaical self-upbraiding. In our own day, though the severity of discipline does not operate in this direction, the severity of orthodox doctrine frequently does, and when doctrinal truth of a certain kind has been thrown for a lengthened time into the understanding, to the partial awakening of the conscience, while yet the unrenewed, sin-loving, world-loving heart is spiritually unable to assimilate it, nothing is more natural than that the issue of the whole should be a complaining hypocrite. That noble-minded man, the Rev. William C. Burns, speaking of one of his evangelistic tours before he left his native country, says, "I noticed two things among the people as affording an index to the nature of the privileges they had enjoyed. Some seemed to have full knowledge of a kind that is only to be got by hearing the most spiritual and systematic of our Scottish preachers; and one woman I met on the road, who seemed to me a perfect specimen of the groaning hypocrite (perhaps I am doing her injustice, the Lord pardon me if I am); as soon as I began to speak to her she wrung her hands and twisted her features, as if trying to manufacture symptoms of repentance, &c. They have had, under some ministers, the very best preaching; and some of the people retain not only the mould of the doctrine taught them, but a recollection of the deep and overpowering emotions which it produced in the hands of the Spirit upon many minds at a former period." This, of course is only one among the many forms of groaning hypocrisy;—the groaning man being not unfrequently more sincere, though not a whit more truly religious.

To be perfectly candid, we are forced to confess that Wet-Eyes occasionally stands chargeable with something more than merely giving ostensible countenance to the groaning hypocrite's peculiar devoutness—the good man has, once and again, been seduced into a moderate and temporary subjection to the same evil spirit. The unbelief of a believer often works in this way; and, like Peter, he is tempted to say to his Saviour, "Depart from me, for I am a sinful man, O Lord." The genuine gospel, however implicitly it may be believed, never diminishes a man's sense of personal blame-worthiness; it comforts the broken heart by revealing Jesus to it in his person and his offices, but when Wet-Eyes allows himself, as he has occasionally done, to turn away his eyes from his Saviour to the healed and healing scars of his own leprous sores, then a morbidly melancholy spirit begins to steal over him, a spirit sufficiently similar to that of the groaning hypocrite; and he gets no relief from this unbelieving fear which hath torment, till he betakes himself again, as a needy, guilty sinner, to the infinite grace of God in Jesus Christ the Saviour. For, both in believer and unbeliever,

"Sense of sin doth only harden,
All the time it works alone;
'Tis a free, a blood-bought pardon,
Which dissolves the heart of stone."

There is nothing, alas! to which man is by nature so backward as a genuine and hearty repentance. He will rather groan and upbraid himself; nay, he will rather do any conceivable thing, than simply repent and believe the gospel. When Cain had been shown wherein he had failed, and how the failure could even yet be remedied, instead of repenting, he preferred to go away and murder his brother. When conscience upbraided Judas with his awful crime, rather than repent, he found it easier to wreak his Cain-like vengeance on himself. By nature, man is inconceivably averse from becoming a genuine Wet-Eyes; and as he cannot rid himself of his sense of sin, rather than repent of it, and betake himself to the blood of Jesus for cleansing, he will lay hold on any preposterous substitute which offers itself as an easier equivalent. Rome's terrible penances are just human substitutes for the bitter and loathed exercise of true repentance; and in the lives of many of her so-called saints, we see how much a man will endure rather than truly repent, and cast himself joyfully on the abundant mercy of God through the blood of his Son. It is, therefore, not to be wondered at, that the complaining hypocrite finds it much more agreeable to his natural likings to upbraid himself bitterly, rather than to humble himself penitently. The one, he feels, would cost his selfishness too much; the other can be had for nothing. Nay, possibly, among some of our extreme Evangelicals, the extent to which this subject of repentance has of late become ignored, and the laboured diminution of what is comprehended in the term, are owing, in a great measure, to their practical dislike of it; and hence they make faith in Christ, or, perhaps sometimes, faith in their own faith, a substitute for the genuine repentance which is so very difficult and so unpleasant to the natural heart. But how truly blessed is it to have the heart broken before God in a penitent sense of its own exceeding sinfulness, while yet the broken heart is more than comforted by its sweet experience of Christ's free and tender grace!

The only remedy for the disease of sin is the gospel of the grace of God; Jesus known, Jesus trusted, Jesus loved, and Jesus followed. Our humbling knowledge of our true condition, as sinful men, is useful to us only as it serves to make wider room in our hearts for Christ. Such self-knowledge can be valuable to us only as a means; it never can, of itself, become a final end. Through our knowledge of ourselves, the Holy Spirit means to lead us into a profounder knowledge of our Saviour. Where, through unbelief and pride, we fail to make use of our convictions of sin in this way, it might have been as well; it might often have been better indeed, if we had not looked very much to sinful self at all. It is this state of soul, this possession of so much light in the understanding as serves to alarm the conscience, while the heart is left still unchanged—it is this which has filled Christendom, in all ages, with crowds of superstitious professors, who have had no more religion than served to torment them occasionally, and who have thus become the ready dupes of a designing priesthood.

The kingdom of God is not eating and drinking, and just as little, does it consist of groaning, and complaining, and self-upbraiding; the true reign of God in the heart is righteousness, and peace, and joy in the Holy Ghost. The gospel has been given to accomplish in us what the law could not do; and self-emptied faith finds in Christ everything that can tend towards the increase of its humble joy. He is not only bread to stay our hunger, and water to quench our thirst, but he is also wine to cheer our hearts; nay, he is a bundle of myrrh to regale us with his sweet perfume. In him the soul is furnished, not only with a full supply of every necessity, but with every lawful luxury as well. There is not, on our part, a single capacity of receiving holy enjoyment which is not met and satisfied by a something in Christ that corresponds to it. And it is the joy of the Lord that constitutes our strength—the joy of the Lord, and not the legalist's humiliation because of his own sin. Let us rest nowhere short of Jesus; nay, let us rest nowhere short of the highest measure of joy that a creature can find in him. Our most humbling discoveries of our own sinfulness and weakness have been revealed to us, in order to break up our obstinate and ruinous rest of heart in ourselves, and to send us, weary and heavy-laden, to Christ for rest. Few mistakes could be more serious than that which the complaining hypocrite makes, when he fancies that it is because of the severity of the self-condemning epithets which he has heard Wet-Eyes apply to himself, and which he has seen more than paralleled in the Bible, that God takes pleasure in those who use them. No; it is the peculiar disposition which, in the case of Wet-Eyes, has given birth to these expressions, and which, at the same time, has given birth also to certain other phenomena which he contrives to overlook—it is this disposition that is precious in God's sight; but for a man merely to employ similar expressions without the possession of the gracious disposition, this is only an offence to the God of truth, and worse than unprofitable to the complaining man himself.






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