It Is Better To Be Humble And Simple Than Prideful In Knowledge

It Is Better To Be Humble And Simple Than Prideful In Knowledge June 8, 2020

Fra Angelico: Thebaid / Wikimedia Commons

St. John of Karpathos reminded his readers, who, because they could read, were among the learned elite, that God has many ways to save people, including ways for those who are simple (and could not read):

God saves one man through spiritual knowledge and another through guilelessness and simplicity. You should bear in mind that ‘God will not reject the simple’ (Job 8:20 LXX).[1]

St John did not reject the value of “spiritual knowledge,” which could be attained through several means, including and especially, scholarly studies. But what he wanted his readers to understand is that they should not vainly puff themselves up and glorify themselves to others because of what they have learned. They should not presume salvation exclusively comes out of such learning, though if someone studies with the proper spirit of humility, it certainly can be the means God has chosen to save them. What is important is not the knowledge in and of itself, but the way one lives. Knowledge, when applied properly, can help us live correctly. Studies are not necessary for this. Many have lived great and holy lives while being illiterate, with circumstances having rendered them incapable of engaging such pursuits.

Those who simply follow after God out of love will have their share of the God who is love. Their simplicity does not prohibit them from being saved. On the other hand, those who pursue knowledge often get sidetracked and seek glory for what they know instead of seeking God. And many, armed with such vanity, approach God with such self-love that they think God must reward them for what they have attained; they think God should acknowledge them with honors for what they have done. They will find, however, that God, who is the source of real glory, will not acknowledge such pride. Thus, if anyone feels called to pursue God through the search for knowledge, they must engage wisdom, acting out of humility instead of pride, lest they end up presumption and find God turning away from them:

If we truly wish to please God and to enjoy the grace of His friendship, we should present to Him an intellect that is stripped bare — not weighed down with anything that belongs to this present life, with any skill or notion or argument or excuse, however highly educated we may be in the wisdom of this world. God turns away from those who approach Him presumptuously, puffed up with self-esteem. People who suffer from futile conceit we rightly describe as bloated and puffed up. [2]

Thus, when we seek after God, we must do so with great humility. The simple, because they are not self-conceited, easily find their way to God and God welcomes them with his love. This is true, of course, so long as they remain humble; it is possible for those who are simple to end up prideful and ignore the wisdom which the learned have for them.

This is not to say no one should pursue knowledge. It is a way to salvation, but it is a perilous route, capable of being diverted as people become puffed up from what they think they know and understand. True wisdom will lead someone to know they do not know, and so they will be humble; but many who begin with such wisdom, often lose sight of it as they accumulate knowledge and begin to grow comfortable with what they think they know and use it to judge others who do not know like they do. It is for this reason that all who pursue knowledge should remember, though it is indeed an aid for their own salvation, it is not needed for all, and it is better to pursue God in simplicity than it is to pursue knowledge and become haughty from it.

This is true in regards of other aspects of the spiritual life. What is important is for us to reject presumption. We should remember the gifts of God are just that: gifts. They are given out of love, and they are not for us alone, but for everyone. We are to share with everyone the bounties which he has given us instead of selfishly holding it onto ourselves for ourselves alone. Nonetheless, if and when we do share with others the bounties of God’s grace, we must do so humbly, remembering God is the source and foundation of those gifts. Thus, when we come to God in thanksgiving with the eucharist, we should not think of it something which we hold to as an absolute right, nor as something which we selfishly partake of at the expense of others, but rather, it is something which is meant to lift us up beyond ourselves, beyond our selfish attitudes. The eucharist is to take us out of ourselves so we can join in with others in a communion of love. We are to lift up our neighbor in communion; if we, on the other hand, only lift ourselves up as we partake of it, we come puffed up before God and risk the consequences of our haughty demeanor when we consume the eucharist with such selfishness.

There are many ways to pursue God. We are to love the Lord our God with all our being. Each aspect of our being contains a way in which we can pursue God. We can pursue him with love-devotions even as we can pursue him with our intellect. Obviously, we should contain elements of each devotion within ourselves, but because of our particular character, our particular qualities, we will find some devotions to God more in tune with who we are than others. Even those who are uneducated and simple still use their mind to pursue God, even as those who are trained to be scholars, if they continue to pursue God, must follow God with their heart. We should not judge others for not being like us; the learned should not feel contempt with the unlearned, for God himself raises them up and has a path of salvation open up to them.  Indeed, when we become haughty in our supposed learning, we must look to the so-called simple and imitate them, divesting ourselves of all our so-called glory so that we can once again pursue God in the simplicity of the heart – although this should not be surprising for those who are learned, because this is something they should have  seen the saints discuss in their writings.


[1] St. John of Karpathos, “Texts for the Monks in India,” in The Philokalia: The Complete Text. Volume One. trans. G.E.H. Palmer, Philip Sherrard, and Kallistos Ware, et. al. (London: Faber and Faber, 1983), 307 [#40].

[2] St. John of Karpathos, “Texts for the Monks in India,” 309-10 [#49].

 

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