G.K. on “The Sin of Self-Confidence”


“Complete self-confidence is not merely a sin; complete self-confidence is a weakness.  Believing utterly in one’s self is a hysterical and superstitious belief like believing in Joanna Southcote.” –G.K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy, p.10

[Southcote was a self-proclaimed but deluded prophetess in late eighteenth century England].

When asked by a publisher friend: “Well, if a man is not to believe in himself, in what is he to believe?” Chesterton responded after a long pause:

“I will go home and write a book in answer to that question.”  Orthodoxy is that book.

I have owned an attractive hardback copy of it for years and have started reading it more than once, but I’ve always gotten weighed down with heights of logic I couldn’t quite scale and paradoxes I couldn’t quite swallow.  But Michele Morin of Living our Days has resolved to get through her copy this year which was just the encouragement I needed to attempt the same. So I’m back at it, hoping to share tidbits here of the parts I think I understand and hoping to gain greater understanding in the process!

As for Chesterton’s statement about self-confidence, it is just the sort of thing Chesterton delights in.  In his writing he seems to push common thinking to its extreme in order to show how implausible it is.  Sometimes I find myself nodding in agreement; other times his case seems exaggerated and I find myself frustrated, or to use a more apt word: ‘flummoxed’. How can I disagree with such a brilliant man?  What am I not understanding?  Has he overstated his case or is it my thinking that is contorted?

In this case I’m glad to concur with Chesterton on the foolishness of self-confidence, even if it is a virtue the world holds dear, and one I sometimes bemoan missing in my own personality.  Scripture is full of admonitions to beware of where our hearts may lead us and to always cling to God for understanding and direction.  It seems that we humans were not designed to rely on ourselves but on our Creator.  Any measure of apparent ‘self-confidence’ must be grounded in ultimate God-reliance or we’re in for trouble.  The human heart is a wily thing to manage apart from divine intervention.

The human heart is the most deceitful of all things, and desperately wicked. Who really knows how bad it is? Jer 17:9 NLT

Among frequent heart-related admonitions in Scripture I see none that commends a self-confidence that plunges ahead following one’s own heart.  Instead I read:

Watch over your heart with all diligence, for from it flow the springs of life. —Beware that your hearts are not deceived, and that you do not turn away and serve other gods and worship them. —Serve only the LORD your God and fear him alone. Obey his commands, listen to his voice, and cling to him.—Wherever your treasure is, there the desires of your heart will also be. —’You must love the LORD your God with all your heart, all your soul, and all your mind.’— Show love to the LORD your God by walking in his ways and holding tightly to him. —Trust in the LORD with all your heart; do not depend on your own understanding.

 Prov.4:23 NASB; Deut.11:16 NASB;  Deut.13:4 NLT; Mt 6:21 NLT; Mt. 22:37 NLT; Deut. 11:22 NLT; Prov. 3:5 NLT

Fortunately there is a change of heart made possible by God’s Spirit to the humble and repentant Somebody who rests his case with Christ (See: Rom.2:29; 10:9; I Tim.1:5), resulting in a testimony like this one:

The LORD is my strength and shield. I trust him with all my heart. He helps me, and my heart is filled with joy. I burst out in songs of thanksgiving. Ps. 28:7 NLT

 This is the best sort of confidence to have. May it be the true testimony of my own heart!

I can’t close without tucking in a poignant illustration from Jeremiah that brilliantly depicts what Chesterton has said about the folly of self-confidence.

This is what the LORD says: “Cursed are those who put their trust in mere humans, who rely on human strength and turn their hearts away from the LORD. They are like stunted shrubs in the desert, with no hope for the future. They will live in the barren wilderness, in an uninhabited salty land.  But blessed are those who trust in the LORD and have made the LORD their hope and confidence. They are like trees planted along a riverbank, with roots that reach deep into the water. Such trees are not bothered by the heat or worried by long months of drought. Their leaves stay green, and they never stop producing fruit.” Jer.17:5-8 NLT

I wanna be that tree!


Here’s the link to Michele Morin’s first in a series of monthly posts drawn from Orthodoxy by G.K.Chesterton, Harold Shaw Publ.,2001




11 thoughts on “G.K. on “The Sin of Self-Confidence”

  1. I wouldn’t be doing this without you, Michele! Yancey says this book would be his choice if stranded on a desert island with only one book… He commends that we proceed (if we enjoy this one) to Chesterton’s Everlasting Man and his biographies of St. Francis of Assisi and St. Thomas Aquinas:The Dumb Ox. And if we want a biography of the man, Yancey says there is none so entertaining as G.K.’s own Autobiography. But for now, I’ll see about getting through this one ( : My self-confidence is at a low ebb. May God get us there!

    1. Gaspilng for breath at the thought of a quick follow up into another of Chesterton’s books, but maybe I’ll gain confidence as we progress. Just wanted to let you know that I’m going to link to this good collection of thoughts in my March Orthodoxy post.
      Thanks for reading along!

      1. ( : I won’t be reading another Chesterton too soon. No worries. Just thought you might be brave and strong! Ha! I see you’re tackling a pretty heavy one with Karl Barth! I haven’t waded there yet.

      2. Phew. I wrote the review for that yesterday, feeling the sharp poke from the horns of the dilemma: great thoughts alongside false teaching and intermingled with adultery. Oh, how complicated are the lives of even the best theological thinkers, and how prone to wander I am myself. (And prone to choosing books that are too hard for a housewife to frame adequately between loads of laundry. . .)

      3. I will also need moral support to dive into that one. It will not be in the near future ( : but it is one I aspire to read in my lifetime! ( :

  2. First of all, I am experiencing book envy over this edition with the forward by Philip Yancey.

    I’m so glad you wrote about Chesterton’s clarification of the folly of self-confidence. The very thing that is extended to us as the “fix” for all our woes ends up becoming an obstacle to our knowledge of God and His ways.

    I’m so glad to know that I’m not the only one who has struggled to finish this book. Trusting for perseverance to get through it this year! (And I’m gonna need the whole year at the rate I’m going!)

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