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PROVERBS xxviii. 26.

“He that trusteth in his own heart is a fool.”

BY these words the inspired writer condemns the folly of those who take counsel of no one but themselves. He means that whosoever trusts his own heart as his light, adviser, and guide, in the complex ways and actings of life, is a fool. Half the wisdom of the wise is in the choice of their advisers. Wise men discern wisdom in others, and call them to council: the wisest man is he who least trusts himself alone. He knows the difficulties of life and its intricacies, and gathers all the lights he can, and casts them upon his own case. He must, in the end, act on his own responsibility; but he seeks all counsellors, the experienced, and impartial, sometimes the opposed and unfriendly, 93that he may be aware on all sides; for “in the multitude of counsellors is safety.”4646   Prov. xi. 14.

There is wisdom in the choice of advisers, as there is also folly. This is noted as the folly of Rehoboam, that he passed by the aged, and took the counsel of the younger.4747   1 Kings xii. 8. Unwise men call in only those that will advise what they have already determined to do; that is, not to advise, but to supply pleas and excuses. This is a high pitch of folly; but the highest of all is, to have no counsellor; to take no advice; to act upon our own lights alone; to trust our own heart. This, Solomon says, is to be a “fool.”

In all the action and probation of life, the chief and universal element in our responsibility is our own character. It enters into every thing; into every deed, word, and thought. Our whole life, both active and passive, even to its remotest relations with those about us, our judgments, inclinations, and opinions, will be what we are. Like an instrument out of tune, or a rule out of square, any imperfection and the particular measure of it will be perpetually reproduced. A biassed wheel, if it run a thousand years, will never run true. So it is with our hearts. Whatever be our resolutions, convictions, wishes, intentions, all will come out at last just as we are ourselves.


Therefore we may take these words of the book of Proverbs for a warning to seek self-knowledge; and as a first step to self-knowledge, they bid us beware of trusting our own heart: or we shall but see ourselves, in a high moral sense, to be “fools,” at last.

But it may be asked: Is not the heart God’s creation and God’s gift? Did He not plant eyes in it, and give to it light, and discernment to guide our ways? Is it not our truest personal guide, given, to each one of us, by God Himself? Why must a man who trusts his own heart be a fool? Let us see why this is said; and why Holy Scripture, that is, God Himself, denounces self-trust with such condemnation.

First, because our hearts, that is, we ourselves, are ignorant of ourselves. If we knew ourselves, we should not trust ourselves; we do so because we do not know what we are. We are by nature, and still more by personal act, sinners. And sin blinds the heart; so that the more sinful, the less it knows its sinfulness: for like death, which is most evidently perceived by the living, not at all by the dead, and by the dying only in the measure in which their living consciousness is still retained; so it is with sin dwelling in us. The dulness and coldness which brood upon a soul where the love of God is not, make it insensible to sin. 95For what is sin? Is it not the rebellion of the will against the will of God? and the withdrawal of the creature from that service and end for which he was created? God made us for Himself, to love, serve, obey, and worship Him. This is our end, as much as the end or office of the sun is to give light by day. As long as creatures fulfil the end for which God made them, they conspire and meet in His presence and will; and so long they are full of light. They know themselves by knowing Him, and see themselves by seeing Him. He is the key of their being, the centre and interpretation of themselves. Such is the state of holy angels and of all spirits in heaven. And such was man before he fell. While he knew himself, he trusted in God; when he trusted himself, he became ignorant, and fell. And sin hid him from himself. He knew that he was naked; but he did not know that he had fallen from the end for which he had been created. And here is the great source of all sin, the chief productive spring of all evil upon the face of the earth. “Because they did not like to retain God in their knowledge, God gave them over to a reprobate mind.”4848   Rom. i. 28. “When they knew God, they glorified Him not as God, neither were thankful: but became vain in their imagination, and their foolish heart was 96darkened. Professing themselves to be wise, they became fools.”4949   Rom. i. 21, 22. They became ignorant that God was the end for which they were made,—that He created man for Himself. This is the state of every man who is not converted to God by the Spirit; and they who are so converted, always mistrust themselves: for habitual self-mistrust abides with true conversion. But for the rest, who are either wholly or in part turned from God to themselves, they make to themselves a new end, for which they imagine that they were created; and that end, in some form or other, is self. It may be gross indulgence of self, as in sensuality; or it may be refined, as in spiritual pride; but gross or refined, it is all one. Their being does not terminate upon God, and centre in Him, but in and upon themselves; and therefore they can have no true knowledge of sin, not knowing the terms, so to speak, of their creation. Not to love God, not to serve God, not to obey God, is no perceptible sin to them: at most it is only a negative sin. Not to love, serve, and obey Him supremely is no sensible sin, so long as they do so in some measure. The proportions of their duty in relation to Him are lost. Again, where His will is but faintly perceived, how can they be conscious of their own high and direct variance 97with it? In a contradiction there must be two opposites: where one is indistinct, the contradiction dies away. So, the less vividly they are conscious of God’s will, the less they can feel the contradiction of theirs to His. Their whole interior being is confusion and darkness, in which law and order are lost. This is the state of our hearts by nature, and even after our regeneration, if we fall into habitual sin, until we are turned to God by the Spirit of holiness and of repentance. So long as we live either in sin, or in a slothful, indevout, though pure and amiable life, we can never really know for what we were created; what is the office of our wonderful and fearful nature; what are its capacities and powers, its relations and laws; and what, founded on all these, are our duties, and, therefore, our sins. How, then, shall any man but a fool trust his own heart? It is ignorant of its own constitution, its own end, its own destiny. Apart from God it is darkness and disorder; all its powers and emotions cross and mislead each other: so that at last we come to believe that each man is a world in himself, created for self-guidance, which ends in self-worship. This may sound harsh and overstated; and yet what, I would ask, is a proud man but a self-worshipper? and what is self-trust but self-guidance? What are ambitious, or worldly, or 98covetous, or selfish people, but their own gods? Their chief love, will, and obedience, are given to themselves; and what but this is worship? Does this sound hard? So does all truth which is too stern to yield, and too real to compromise. Such being the state of all except those who, through a spirit of humiliation and self-abasement, mistrust their own hearts, what must we call them? what must we call the world—the lofty, splendid, overwhelming, gorgeous world—and all its million tribes of servants, followers, lovers, friends, and courteous observers? Do they, or do they not, know the end of their creation? If they do, how dare they revolt from it? If they do not, how can they know themselves? And who is there among them that does not trust his own heart, except when his money or his interest for this life is concerned? Where is the worldly man who, in matters of honour and dishonour, right and wrong, sin and duty, wisdom and folly, religion and faith, death and judgment, heaven and hell, does not with confident assurance trust his own heart? For these things, all are able, all are skilful, all are wise. To doubt it, is to impeach them in their loftiest capacity. The few who mistrust themselves in these things are in their eyes superstitious, slavish, unmanly. The world lives by self-trust, and each man keeps up 99his fellow: nothing is so disturbing as the falling away of a bold companion. It is like a passing bell in the music of a feast; or a sudden death in the full tide of revelling. Such is the state of this fallen world, even of people baptized and outwardly Christian. A deep ignorance both of God and of self broods in secret on their souls: even pure, blameless, upright, benevolent men—many, too, who pass for devout, and in the habit of their life are outwardly observant of religion—come under this alarming sentence. In the sight of God we are told that they are “fools.” And what is the sign? It is this: that in their judgment of God’s will and service, of their own intentions and motives, of their own state and character, they trust their own heart.

Let us take another reason. Not only is the heart ignorant of itself, but it deceives itself. Of course these cannot be altogether separated. Every one who is ignorant is, in one sense, a self-deceiver; and yet it may not be with any laboured illusion. Ignorance is absence of light: self-deceivers have light, and visions in that light; but those visions are illusions. Ignorance is the danger of unawakened minds; self-deceit of the awakened. It is chiefly, though not exclusively, a religious temptation; and we are only concerned, at present, to regard it in the latter form.


As we have said, it is one of the miserable effects of the loss of love to God, that sins are not naturally hateful to us. We commit them readily, and alas, eagerly, from our childhood; with no sensible pain, but with a fearful delight. If we loved God, every sin, even in thought, would be as a drop of molten lead: it would sear and pierce us with anguish. But through our sinfulness it is to us as the droppings of the honeycomb. And as we early begin to sin, so we lose the little fear which, at first, came over us. We get to sin freely and easily, and to form a ready habit, which grows into a second nature, and passes into the unconscious emotions of our minds. What we have done from childhood, we grow even to believe to be right, or at least not wrong; to be venial, or to be indifferent; or what is more likely, by custom we lose the consciousness of what we do; and so go on unawares in things which make others tremble; and, if we could do them now for the first time, would make us stand aghast. So sins grow up, little by little, towering unseen to a great height, but hiding themselves from our hearts. What is more common than to see men characteristically marked by some one sin, which they pointedly censure in others, and from which they believe themselves to be absolutely free? It has almost become a proverb, that a man’s besetting 101sin is that one sin which every body knows but himself. We find this, of course, in its broader and grosser forms among worldly and indevout people; but it is equally, though more secretly, true of persons in the main religious. What is more common than to say, “How wonderful it is that such a person cannot see what every body else knows; that he should sincerely believe himself to be not so much as tempted to faults which manifestly govern his whole mind?” These unsuspected sins are almost universally the faults of childhood and early youth, which have become habitual and unconscious: for instance, personal vanity, selfishness, a difficult and disputatious temper, impatience, resentment, unreality, and the like. And they who have these faults in them by long habit, generally excuse themselves by ascribing the same to others on whom they have inflicted them; as if the wind should chide the roughness of the sea for disturbing its repose, all the while believing itself to be at rest.

The same effect, which appears in casual temptations, is more dangerously produced in deliberate motives and lines of conduct. An early habit of personal vanity, or desire of wealth, sometimes unconsciously governs a person’s whole life. All thought, labours, sacrifices, aims, calculations, are made, not with a present sense of vanity or 102covetousness, but in a direction, along the whole course of which both these faults will be indulged: the aim of their whole life being just such as a vain and covetous mind would most desire to attain. And yet it may be that numberless secondary and contingent events may come in, to make such a line at least not unreasonable, and perhaps even a duty. But either way the besetting sin converts it to its own food and service. It feeds and serves itself of that which perhaps the providence of God has ordained for His own glory. The majority of people judge of such persons by the ordinary tests of life and of the world, and see nothing in them but what is straightforward; and they, of course, entirely believe the same themselves: but those who know them from within unravel the double fibre of their motives, and can clearly distinguish the seeming from the true thread which guides their whole life. The same also is true of worse passions, such as jealousy, envy, and resentment, which sometimes govern from a secret chamber, and unconsciously to the man himself, the career of a whole life.

Thus far I have spoken chiefly of the self-deceit we put upon ourselves in matters relating to this world and to our neighbour.—The gravest part still remains; I mean, the deceit we practise upon ourselves as to our state before God. The 103same unconsciousness which conceals from us our habitual sins, such as anger, or envy, and the like, conceals also the impatience and stiffness of our will towards God, and our want of gratitude and love, our indevotion, and sluggishness in the spiritual life. All these, having been upon us from our earliest memory, have become our natural, and, if I may use the word, our normal state. We have never known any other; we have no perception of any higher spiritual condition even by way of idea, than either our own as it is, or by advancing in degree, as it may become. The want of such a standard makes us to be a standard to ourselves. We confess, indeed, that we are not perfect; that we have many weaknesses and many faults; but we think them little and superficial, attaching loosely to the surface of our character. And this want of a quick sense of sin makes us slow to note what we do amiss. It has all our life long deadened our present consciousness of having done wrong; so that one of the effects of this unconsciousness is, a ready habit of forgetting our sins from childhood to boyhood, from boyhood to youth, from youth to age, from year to year, at last from day to day and hour to hour, until the insensibility becomes continuous, and is broken only by great falls; and even these are little appreciated. Such a heart becomes, at last, swathed 104in its own self-trust; and we watch it as we do the rash motions of a man who walks blindfold, reeling in the midst of dangers, which might sometimes, for a moment, provoke our mirth, if it did not always excite alarm. Such self-deceivers comfort themselves with the belief of habitual good intentions, being unconscious of their past and present self; and so go on before God, approaching Him without fear, even within the precincts of His altar. I am not describing the character of a gross sinner; but of many who are outwardly pure and upright; even of some who have lived from childhood without great falls, in a life fair and unmarked, while spiritual faults of a high and perilous kind have grown up unperceived, and wrought themselves into the texture of their whole character. So that what they most believe themselves to be, is furthest from the truth, and what they least suspect, they really are. But no power of man can persuade them of this fact. Though all the world beside see it at a glance, they still trust their own heart.

This deceit is often not only not corrected, but very much aggravated by the growth of religious knowledge and religious practices. But this leads us to another cause, which must be taken by itself.

Another reason why to trust our own hearts is a note of folly, is because they flatter us. 105Hitherto we have spoken of self-deceit as hiding from us our besetting faults. Self-flattery imposes upon us with the conceit of our own excellence. And this is specially the danger of such characters when they become affected by religion. The mature intellect is able to apprehend in outline, and with great fulness, the description of the spiritual life, and of the saintly character, which, under our common condition, it requires many years of devotion and discipline really to attain. By a sort of creative imagination, and a skill of poetry or oratory, people impress themselves, and others sometimes, with the belief that they are what they describe. High speculations, and the excitement of talking, carry minds upward into a height where they soar in religious fancies; broken only by the next slight temptation, or the next call to an irksome duty. But for this there is a ready provision. It is their unhappy lot, they think, being inwardly called to the contemplation of Mary, to be against their will entangled in the cares of Martha. In this way they dream on, investing themselves with fictitious characters; playing at saintliness, as children imitate their elders. Personal vanity, which in other characters takes the direction of ostentatious accomplishments, showy dress, egotistical conversation, or concealed invitation of flattery, secretly intoxicates itself, in 106 such people, by an imaginary participation in the mind of saints. We turn from it, perhaps, when it is thus nakedly expressed. But let us remember that to invest ourselves with any measure of sanctity which we do not possess, is a measure of the same self-flattery. It pleases our self-love. It soothes us. It allays the pain of thinking that we are sinners; that some of our past sins are hateful, many of our present faults shameful and odious. How long have we gone on persuading ourselves that we are meek, poor in spirit, makers of peace, merciful, patient, and the like, because we assent in desire and will to the Beatitudes, and would fain share in their benedictions! How long have we persuaded ourselves that we pray both often and enough, earnestly and with devotion; that we love God above all, and above all desire so to love Him; that our life is, on the whole, not unlike the great Example of humility; and that we know our own hearts better than any one can tell us! And yet, what does this last persuasion shew? Why are we so sensitive under a reproof? Why do we accuse ourselves freely of all faults but the one imputed? Why are we never guilty in the point suspected? Why do we wholly guide ourselves, and feel so great security in our own direction? but because we trust our own hearts. Out of this proceed our visions of devotion, our 107imaginations of sanctity. It is a forge never cold, always at work, ‘forming and fashioning devices, which please us by their fair and shapely forms, and flatter us, because they are a homage to ourselves.

Such is our heart; by nature blind, a deceiver, and a flatterer; always hiding its own face; shifting one motive for another, changing our intentions in the very moment of action, and our aim even when the wish is half accomplished; turning aside the reproofs of love, and filling us with soothing falsehoods; drawing a veil over sins past, and beguiling us with the thought of our present integrity; shrouding us in perfect ignorance of self, while it persuades us of our complete self-knowledge.

What a contrast before the Searcher of hearts was Mary the sinner and Simon the Pharisee! He was of no ill life, no sensual indulgence, no cherished, conscious sins: in his own eyes pure, upright, zealous, and devout; in the eyes of the Redeemer, thankless, loveless, self-deceived. “Seest thou this woman? I entered into thine house, thou gavest Me no water for My feet: but she hath washed My feet with tears, and wiped them with the hairs of her head. Thou gavest Me no kiss: but this woman since the time I came in hath not ceased to kiss My feet. My head with 108 oil thou didst not anoint: but this woman hath anointed My feet with ointment;”5050   St. Luke vii. 44-46. And all this becomes seven-fold more dangerous when, as often happens, such people believe themselves to know their own hearts by the light of God’s Spirit. The self-deceit then becomes intense. It is a part of their religion to believe that He has revealed their sin to them; a point of duty not to doubt that their view of themselves is the right one. Mere men of the world see through the delusion. The clear, strong, common sense of mankind is offended, not without just cause, at the proud and provoking unreality of religious self-deceit.

If this be so, if we be our own deceivers, what security shall we take against our own hearts? Out of many we can now take only two.

1. The greatest security against deceiving ourselves by trusting our own hearts, is a careful information of conscience. But this plainly runs beyond the period of our responsibility into the account of those to whom our childhood was subject. Early training is the fountain from which good or evil chiefly flows. The conscience of children is their first and highest faculty. Blessed, so far as outward aid can make him, is the child who is early taught to know the nature of sin, not only as a thing simply wrong or shameful, but as a 109stain on our Baptism, a grief to the Spirit of holiness, a fresh wound in Him who was crucified, and a rebellion of our will against the will of God. The knowledge of sin in its principle is necessary to explain the nature of our temptations, and of the sins of our hearts. From this one truth, steadily applied to ourselves, comes a knowledge of our real dangers and inclinations. God alone can tell from what evils, committed in ignorance both of sin and of ourselves, such an early information of the conscience would restrain us. A knowledge of sin in itself would interpret to us the true moral character of our own conduct, and all its intricate facts of thought, word, and deed. We might, indeed, still deceive ourselves; but it would be harder to do so. And this knowledge of ourselves, beginning when as yet there is little to be known, makes clear the field in which the growth and changes of character are to be observed. Our chief difficulty is in the attempt to analyse the confused and hardened mass of self, neglected for twenty, thirty, half a hundred years; to unravel a world of knots and entanglements; to find the beginning of the clue. It is almost impossible to do by retrospect what it is even easy to accomplish by continuous watchfulness, beginning in early years. Self-examination begun late in life must remand the chief part of 110its discoveries to the day of judgment. It is a fearful thought that we may then remember, for the first time, sins of which we ought to have spent a life in repenting.

Another benefit of this early information of conscience is, that we should be preserved from the stunning and deadening insensibility which early sins bring upon us. There is, as we have seen, a sort of self-concealment, by which sin secretes itself the more invisibly while it becomes the more dominant in us, It would also be impossible for a conscience, early enlightened as to the nature of sin, to deceive itself with imaginations which, springing only from fancy and self-love, are contradicted by all the discernments of the higher spiritual judgment. But all this is both so self-evident and so full of thoughts, that we can do no more than touch upon it. No words too strong can be found to urge on parents and guides of children to begin the information of the conscience as early as the information of the reason; and in doing so, not to content themselves with repetitions of texts and catechisms, but to proceed to clear and detailed explanations of the law of God, the nature of sin, and the office of conscience itself. And further, let them remember that, when they offered their children to God in holy Baptism, they thereby committed them to His pastors. Perhaps one of111the greatest evils of this day, most fruitful of sin, and fraught with peril to the soul, is the neglect of parents in not putting their children, one by one, from the age of responsibility, under the guidance of their pastors. Until this be done, there can be no sufficient instruction of the conscience; no extensive security against self-trust and self-deceit; and no adequate cure of the unknown spiritual diseases which begin in childhood, and cling to the soul, it may be, for ever.

2. The other security is the only one which remains to those who have never enjoyed the first; and that is, to take the judgment of some other person, instead of trusting in themselves. It will be, no doubt, painful and distressing; it will bring shame and burning of face. But is not the stake worth the cast? And are we not in earnest to be saved? It is of little use, indeed, to advise people who are not in earnest. Let us speak only to such as know the weight of sin, the worth of one soul, the difficulty of the narrow path, the horror of the second death. If we would really know ourselves, we must begin by taking for granted that we are most likely to be deceived in our own case. We advise others better than ourselves; so would they us again. It is a proverb as wide as the world, that a man is not to be trusted in a case where he is a party. And when are we more of partisans 112 than in judging of our own character? However truly the needle may commonly point in the open sea, there are stations where allowance must be made; that is, it can be no longer trusted. So it is with our sincerest intentions. We acknowledge it in matters of this world’s honour and wealth: but there is no subject in which we are so unworthy of trust as in judging of our faults; partly because a misjudgment involves no present loss, and partly because self-love outweighs the whole weight of the soul. We may, indeed, take it as a test of sincerity and of reality, and all but assure ourselves, that a man who sticks to his own view of himself against the judgment of others, is either not in earnest, or, in the grave and divine sense of Holy Writ, “a fool;” that is, rash, blind, and self-deceiving. How little do we lay to heart, who he is that would fain stop our ears against all advisers. And the man who takes counsel of nobody is his easy prey. What a spectacle is a self-trusting heart in the sight of holy angels—of those whose eyes are open, and whose office of love it is to watch over us against the powers of darkness which hover on all sides, night and day. If in childhood we lost the blessing of guidance, let us not lose it now. We lost it then through no fault of ours; now the fault will be wholly our own. Let us do now what we shall 113desire that we had done when we come to die. At that day, it may be, we shall say, “Would God I had trusted all the world rather than myself; even my enemies would have taught me self-knowledge; from what sins and faults should I have been preserved; from what thoughts which haunt me now; from what fears which appal me; from what hindrances which slacken my repentance, and beat back my prayers. I see now what I might have seen from the beginning. I was warned, but I did not believe. I was lovingly withstood, but I would not be persuaded. Now all is too clear. God grant it be not all too late.”

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