The Puritans, apparently, were not preoccupied with self-esteem issues. John Owen’s opening thoughts in Chapter 12 of The Mortification of Sin demonstrate the great gulf between his mind set and present-day sensibilities. Even though it may be understood that, when compared with the God of the universe, yes, any mortal creature could be filled “at all times with self-abasement and thoughts of [one’s] own vileness,” we of the enlightened 21st century would just never say it that way. Owen’s point, however, is that in order to make much of God, it is essential to the human heart to put ourselves in our place, comparatively. This would include:
1. Mindfulness of God’s majesty and our “infinite distance from Him.”
2. Awareness of how little we really know of God. Even Solomon laments his lack of wisdom (Proverbs 30:2-4) when it comes to the knowledge of the Holy One. Paul’s glass through which we “see darkly” is not a telescope “to help us see things afar off.” Quite the opposite, I’m afraid. In fact, “all our notions of God are but childish in respect of His infinite perfections.”
Owen goes on to explain this lack of understanding.
“We know so little of God because it is God who is thus to be known; i.e. He who hath described Himself to us very much by this, that we cannot know Him.” These words make me smile with their delightful circularity, and remind me of the words of Andree Seu-Peterson: “All reasoning is circular at the fundamental level; e.g. ‘God does not exist because the universe evolved from nothing.'” Given that, it is heartening to remember, as Owen knew, that “we Christians have the better circle.”
There is a danger inherent in pushing to describe God out of our limited understanding, and it is this: we “make an idol to ourselves, and so . . . worship a God of our own making and not the God who made us. We may as well and as lawfully hew him out of wood or stone as form Him a being in our minds.” The distance between who we are and who God is seems to dictate that we will know God better by what He does than by what He is — “by His doing us good than by His essential goodness.” I can’t help but see our fallen-ness in this, for even in our attempts to gaze upon the myriad perfections of God, we struggle to avoid seeing them in relation to ourselves. Thanks be to God that in our best moments of spiritual lucidity, “to believe and admire is all that we attain to.”
4. “We know little of God because it is faith alone whereby here we know him. . . Faith is all the argument we have of ‘things not seen.'”It is though faith that we receive the “light of the gospel whereby now God is revealed” and, consequently, are given quite enough knowledge of God “to love Him more than we do, to delight in Him and serve Him, believe Him, obey Him, put our trust in Him above all that we have hitherto attained.” The believer cannot use lack of knowledge as an excuse for sin, and John Owen fends off any possible complaints with the wisdom that if we “used our talents well, we might have been trusted with more.” Furthermore, the point of gospel revelation is not to “unveil God’s essential glory,” but to be a foundation for our faith. We learn to depend on the indwelling Spirit to reveal the Father.
God’s greatness, His unfathomable other-ness, is intended to “fill the soul with a holy and awful fear of Him, so as to keep it in a frame unsuited to the thriving or flourishing of any lust whatever.” I am reminded of Elisabeth Elliot’s words (another great saint who was not preoccupied with the matter of self-esteem): “Until we live perfectly, which will not happen on this fallen planet, we must fear. Until perfect love casts it out, fear is a salutary thing. Fear saves us.” She knew whereof she spoke, and her words came from Moses:
“The fear of God will be with you to keep you from sinning, ” (Exodus 20:20)