- Ben Steward
This is a book review/commentary on C. J. Mahaney's Humility, which can be purchased here.
Josh Harris' foreword is, of course, intriguing, given the subsequent history. It's a fantastic model for leadership though, to look for leadership in your people and lift them up and entrust them with responsibility. It comes with risk, but those are risks that the humble take, who rely on God to care for His People in the ways we cannot micromanage ourselves.
It really resonated with me when C. J. said that he wrote the book from a compulsion to speak on the topic, not because he had mastered it, but because he realized how important it was. That shows more humility than one might intuitively think, because he is opening himself to a criticism from which he cannot escape, but he does it because the task is bigger than his own reputation. It also demands of him that he live up to what he wrote, to give credence to what was said.
The Promise of Humility
There's something you can do to attract God's gracious, unmerited, supernatural strength and assistance!
What a powerful oxymoronic statement. God's grace is indeed unmerited, but it is also something we can call down from heaven by the humble posture of our hearts. As E.M.Bounds said of prayer:
That power is prayer, which soars on high,
Through Jesus to the throne;
And moves the hand which moves the world,
To bring salvation down.
The Perils of Pride
The illogical nature of pride is found in its essence, which Mahaney points out is "to contend for supremacy with God." It is clearly foolish and contradictory to engage in such an attitude or behavior, and it rightly stirs up the anger and wrath of God against us. This is surely our just desert, and ought to be our chief source of grief. For tolerating my pride, I deserve condemnation and the guilty feelings of condemnation.
He also mentions the results of pride, when God's judgment lands on the unrepentant life of arrogance. The fall. This calls for watchfulness in my heart against the danger of pride. This is not a sin to sleep on. Pride is deadly.
Wow, this chapter hit so heavy. First of all, the stunning view of Jesus as the rightful, fully-capable, conquering king—voluntarily—stepping into the humble path of suffering and death. His disciples absolutely did not see this coming. They had every expectation that he would wield his omnipotence against every enemy of God’s people to establish a glorious and powerful kingdom in Jerusalem, maybe even just days hence. But Jesus sets them straight and presses on them the necessity of suffering. Then he emphasizes the preeminence of humility and service. What a powerful example!
The other heavy hitter in this chapter was the list of examples of modern day humility. CJ clearly had real people in mind, and that fact almost brought tears to my eyes to see God’s saints doing such humble and loving deeds and (eventually!) receiving from their Father the reward of their diligent service. “Well done, good and faithful servant” is the crown we will wear most proudly in our eternal home. May God help us learn how to walk in humility and self-sacrifice and achieve true greatness after the model of our Lord Jesus Christ.
I love the heroic prose used to describe Jesus in this chapter. Mahaney colorfully describes His bold resolution to save his disciples, present and future, by leading the way to the cross that awaited Him in Jerusalem. It moves my soul when I think about Jesus as a hero, a warrior-king, an inspiring figure drawing out my imaginative awe through His acts of bravery and love.
A Brief Aside on the Removal of Guilt
In the midst of this image of heroic deeds of salvation, my mind was drawn away from the book for a while to consider the effect of guilt being removed. I think this is one of the critical dynamics to understand about freedom, justification, and sanctification. Let me put it this way: when I feel the weight of guilt from my sin, my natural inclination is to run further away from God, which is to say (and you'll find this is true in practice), deeper into sin.
I think this is critical to understanding how we are enslaved to sin. Without having an objective removal of my guilt before God, I am left in a state of fear and resentment. I didn't sin by accident, I did it in rebellion! So when I realize that God has retribution for my misdeeds (this is fundamentally what guilt is in my view), all I feel is oppression, anger, fear (that he might take away from me what I took for myself wrongfully), and self-justification at his heavenly tyranny. Of course, my heart is all wrong—this is what having a sinful nature produces—but this process of guilt burns into the mind the desire to perpetuate the initial evil and multiply transgressions.
So, when Jesus gives his life as a ransom for many, I take instruction here that the paying of the price to remove my guilt is what saves me. And to the point of the chapter, it is thus what enables me to actually walk differently, to change. Now that I can see the objective removal of the guilt between me and God, where does my resentment go? With whom can I be bitter? Why multiply transgressions, when I no longer have a substantive record of any? Furthermore, I know full well what record I formerly had, and I can see the cost at which it was removed, thus in place of my anger at God's (perceived) oppression of me there pours in the love and mercy of a God who would sacrifice Himself for my sake. This isn't merely motivating—an objective liberation of the soul has taken place. It transcends subjective feelings. My perceptions are now actively being informed by what is real: I am free.
As Each Day Begins
I'll have to make my comments on this chapter personal, in the spirit of what C. J. is asking of his readers. Having a list of daily disciplines is an incredibly good idea, and one I should act on.
Reflect on the Wonder of the Cross
The only thing I will say to this section is that I believe this is so important, and that it should permeate every aspect of my thinking and life. It's a tough mental goal to achieve, but it is 1) rewarding, and 2) appropriate. All God's wisdom is found in Christ, and Christ is on fullest display at the cross. Thinking this way is the only way to truly live.
Begin Your Day Seeking, Thanking, and Casting Your Cares on God
Mahaney really hits the nail on the head with this section: each morning, sin is not waking up, it never went to sleep. And if I'm in a habit of listening to myself rather than talking to myself, I will fall prey to it before I've left my bed. Prayer is the antidote, however, and the surest way to confront my sin nature and supplicate the grace of God, without which I cannot walk in humility throughout my day.
On the topic of beginning the day, I'll also add that I think disciplined exercise is an important tool to use in the fight for mastery of the mind. The point here is not to be physically fit, though that's a wonderful by-product, but to be in the habit of telling my body what to do, rather than the other way around. It's cold in the morning, but I will tell my body to get out of bed and exercise. I'm tired and hungry, but I will tell my body to be patient and wait until a more appropriate time to eat and rest. These disciplines prepare my mind to be in control when my body (sinful flesh) tries to tell my mind to commit sinful acts. I have a leg up in that moment of temptation if I've developed the habit of telling my body what to do against its' own desires. This is no substitute for spiritual pursuits in God's presence, but it can be an important supplement.
Practice Spiritual Disciplines
...we used to sing in sunday school, and those timeless truths have never been more urgent than in adulthood.
[The Blessed Man]'s delight is in the Law of the Lord,
and he meditates in it day and night. He is like a tree planted by rivers of water which yields its fruit in its season, and its leaves do not wither. He prospers in everything he does.
I especially appreciate his mention of worship in the list of disciplines. Thinking about worship among the disciplines of prayer and Scripture study keeps the personal nature of these disciplines forefront in the mind. I never want to get to a place where I habitually read or pray and feel nothing in the way of awe, respect, and love toward my Savior, but if I'm careless in how I execute these disciplines, that's where I'll end up.
As Each Day Ends
As I am just about to lay my head on my own pillow now, I look forward to the sweet and refreshing time of worship that awaits as I assign all glory to God for every answered prayer, every good gift enjoyed, every new experience, every act of service. God is incredibly good to me, and as I engage in this ubiquitous act of creaturely dependence, I praise Him. He deserves it. And I am undeservedly blessed.
For Special Focus
This chapter resonated with me in the way that it reminded me of many personal experiences I've had engaging in the studies and activities he recommended. I can most certainly attest to the effectiveness of meditations on God's incommunicable attributes and the doctrines of sin and grace—they are transformative. You can't spend any prolonged time in the presence of The Holy God and walk away unchanged. Whatever illusions of grandeur you entertained about yourself will either be toppled over or at least mortally wounded at the foundation. Do this often enough and you will cry out with Isaiah, "Woe is me! I am undone!" and also with David you will say,
This poor man cried,
and the Lord heard and delivered him from all his troubles.
Truly, the steadfast love of the Lord is better than life!
I also appreciated his comments about golf and laughing at oneself. Though it's important to note that these activities require the right mindset at the outset or they will not produce the desired results. They may even exacerbate character flaws if not guarded against diligently.
Identifying Evidences of Grace
You really can't have this chapter without the preceding one, and I think that this chapter is inevitable if you have personally indulged in the previous one. Out of the doctrines of sin and grace comes the realization that we are all under the bondage and judgment to sin, and that Christ's mercy overcomes every one and anyone of us. Viewing the people of the world through that perspective leads to exciting discoveries! God is busy doing what He promised He would do: saving and sanctifying His church!
Focusing on the work of God in and among other people is a wonderful way to gain humility, but it also requires some humility in the first place. Lord, we believe, help our unbelief! Give us eyes to see and ears to hear your glorious salvation happening right in front of us!
Mahaney's comments on correction were timely for me. The solution to a correction that merely condemns is not to cease correcting, but rather to transform it into a correction that gives hope. I need this especially in how I lead at home, disciplining my children and providing guidance to my wife. My words are laden with potential, and I want that potential to be realized in the life-giving gospel of Christ.
Also humbling is the idea that my words reveal my heart. This truth provides a daily, even moment-by-moment, opportunity to get a spiritual reading on the state of my soul. Am I uttering kindness, truth, patience, and love? Or is it anger, bitterness, slander, and frustration? These words are not formed in a vacuum, and who they are directed to is irrelevant when it comes to diagnosing their origin and cause. God wants my heart to be humble, and therefore useful to Him. Studying my words can be a helpful tool in guarding it for His purposes.
Inviting and Pursuing Correction
Not only is the act of receiving correction vital to the development of humility, but it is a solid metric for gauging whether or not I am growing in humility. My posture before God and others should be chiefly informed by my sinfulness, which should really leave me biased in favor of any criticism leveled against me. I don't need to be a mopey-dopey downer every time someone says something negative about me, but I ought to always be in a frame of mind to consider the truth and helpfulness of such criticisms and never dismiss them out of hand.
Mahaney leaves a very helpful set of questions that I want to incorporate into my friendships and marriage:
- Do I confess my sin consistently?
- Do I confess specific instances of sin and not just general categories or general references to sin?
- Do others find it easy to correct me?
- Do others know the areas of temptation in my life at present?
- Do they know the most pronounced patterns of sin in my life at present?
That is a doozy of a list to work through with another person, but if you can imagine having enough humility to listen to the answers, not get upset, and endeavor to use that information to change for God's glory...well, I think you can also imagine that would be really ideal for any Christian!
In the process of that, it is so important that we keep in mind C. J.'s admonition regarding our own self-awareness: we never see ourselves for the sinners we truly are. And so an extra dose of humility and reliance on God's Spirit is critical to being able to self-evaluate and endure correction from others. Whatever portion of another's assessment of ourselves we think we agree with, it is all too likely that we could agree even more. And when we open up Scripture and experience the direct correction of God's Word, to be sure, it is only the tip of the iceberg. Truly, we need more grace from God, and more partnership from our brothers in Christ!
Responding Humbly to Trials
What you believe about God is the most important thing about you. — Many preachers, attempting to paraphrase A. W. Tozer
The only thing that cannot be taken from us in this life is our relationship with God. It is an unassailable reality in the midst of a host of things that are ephemeral and fading. And yet we feel so incredibly attached to the things of earth that will not last and are subject to momentary decay and dissipation. This even includes significant relationships we have with friends, family, and spouses. It includes our own bodies, in which we know all of our earthly experience, and which form much of our identity both explicitly and subconsciously. All of this that is so real to us could be gone or destroyed or twisted beyond recognition in an instant. What will we be left with then? Only what we had previously invested in our knowledge and worship of God.
Knowing God isn't just about unlocking tools for better living or finding an escape of happiness or "spiritual depth." It is about survival. It is about breaking your earth-bound soul upon the Rock of Truth and Reality. And oh how vital it is to break it on Him, because it will be broken eventually, as Mahaney points out: we all suffer eventually.
John Paton is an example of what earthly people like us should strive for: he had literally everything taken from him violently and was hiding in a tree from savages pursuing him to kill him, and in that terrifying moment he records:
Yet I sat there among the branches, as safe in the arms of Jesus. Never, in all my sorrows, did my Lord draw nearer to me, and speak more soothingly in my soul, than when the moonlight flickered among these chestnut leaves, and the night air played on my throbbing brow, as I told all my heart to Jesus. Alone, yet not alone! If it be to glorify my God, I will not grudge to spend many nights alone in such a tree, to feel again my Saviour's spiritual presence, to enjoy His consoling fellowship. If thus thrown back upon your own soul, alone, all, all alone, in the midnight, in the bush, in the very embrace of death itself, have you a Friend that will not fail you then? — John G. Paton, Missionary to the New Hebrides, p.200
To be this full of God, you must empty yourself.
He must increase, but I must decrease. John 3:30
A Legacy of Greatness
This chapter was like a gut-punch to my parenting. It is so incredibly convicting to think about how I am not passing on humility to my children and to consider what I am passing on to them!
The unguarded home can be a place of insidious selfishness because it is a place of comfort and rest from the daily struggle of work and community commitments. Here I may lay my weapons down and indulge in creature comforts and forget the war for a while, but it doesn't wait for me. And my children have a front-row seat to this display of complacency and self-service. What is true greatness? Does it only happen when I walk out the door? What would their answer be to the question in this book: "Whom do you most admire and why?"
One thing is clear, I need to fight harder for God-glorifying humility in my home and in my own soul—for my sake, for my family's sake, and for God's sake. I want to be truly great!
A Final Word
It is fitting, and a great relief to the soul, to conclude a book with such heavy admonitions with meditation on Christ: the only truly humble Person who ever lived. He is my only hope at growing in humility, as He lives through me by His Spirit and inspires me by His life-giving work on the cross. Truly, in Him I have been given "all things that pertain to life and godliness."
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