“We will never have enough confidence in God,” writes John Calvin, “unless we become deeply distrustful of ourselves.”
Think about this. If Calvin is right, there is a particular relationship between faith in God and faith in ourselves. They are inversely proportional. When one goes up, the other goes down.
Where does this leave the whole movement to help people by telling them to believe in themselves and have confidence in themselves? If Calvin is right, then it is exactly the wrong thing to do, to teach generations of children to believe in themselves, first because it doesn’t work (and hence the epidemic of anxiety and depression, which are, among other things, a complete lack of confidence in ourselves to be able to face the world), and also because it will make it harder for them to find the true source of strength–God Himself. We receive the strength we need from him by trusting him.
We will never have enough confidence in him unless we become deeply distrustful of ourselves;
We will never lift up our hearts enough in him unless they have been previously cast down in us;
We will never have consolation enough in him unless we have already experienced desolation in ourselves.
Therefore we are ready to seize and grasp God’s grace when we have utterly cast out confidence in ourselves and rely on the assurance of his goodness–“when,” as Augustine says, “forgetting our own merits, we embrace Christ’s gifts.”
(Institutes , III.12.8)
Now, this is not the Bible, but Calvin wrote from a Bible-saturated mental world and a deep reverence for God and scripture. And, he wrote hundreds of years ago, so we have the opportunity of hearing truth that is not influenced by any ideas of our time.
With those thoughts in mind, consider what a revolutionary and provocative idea this is: “We will never have enough confidence in him unless we become deeply distrustful of ourselves.”
Calvin says we must become deeply distrustful of ourselves. Don’t trust your heart. Don’t trust your deepest feelings. Stop trusting yourself.
That’s modern heresy. But it’s really just an application of words like these:
He who trusts in his own heart is a fool, But whoever walks wisely will be delivered. (Proverbs 28:26)
Thus says the LORD: “Cursed is the man who trusts in man And makes flesh his strength, Whose heart departs from the LORD. For he shall be like a shrub in the desert, And shall not see when good comes, But shall inhabit the parched places in the wilderness, In a salt land which is not inhabited. “Blessed is the man who trusts in the LORD, And whose hope is the LORD. For he shall be like a tree planted by the waters, Which spreads out its roots by the river, And will not fear when heat comes; But its leaf will be green, And will not be anxious in the year of drought, Nor will cease from yielding fruit. The heart is deceitful above all things, And desperately wicked; Who can know it?” (Jeremiah 17:5-9)
And so let’s remember the insight Calvin helps us towards. It’s not just that trusting yourself in bad. It’s that it robs you of the better, stronger thing–God’s strength.