Monday, 28 January 2008

Book Review: Humility, True Greatness

“Your friend bought you a book on humility? Someone thinks you’re proud!” Laughed my friend.
“Au contraire,” I boasted, “I’ve been asking for this book for Christmas for three years now!”

…It even took me a few seconds to realise quite how ridiculous I am! If I dare compliment myself at all, I can only say I have good taste in Christmas presents. I had a lot to learn, but C.J. Mahaney really has delivered us a gem with this one. I can honestly say this is probably the best short book I’ve read for a very long time indeed.

Humility, as Josh Harris says in the foreword, is a funny thing. Most Christians admire it in others, and are aware that they are supposed to at least appear to model it. Few put real time into thinking how best to cultivate this crucial virtue. This is curious given how many Christians know what an important trait it is. “This is the one to whom I will look: he who is humble and contrite in spirit and trembles at my word” says God in Isaiah 66:2. A multitude of passages could be collected to sum up this simple, but sobering truth “God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble” James 4:6

This book has a beautiful combination of the theoretical and the practical. C.J. provides a helpful, pithy definition of humility in “honestly assessing ourselves in light of God’s holiness and our sinfulness”, though things he says later in the book could suggest expanding it to cover God’s greatness and our dependence on His provision. He provides a convicting explanation about why God hates pride so much and why anyone who loves God would want to work to eliminate it in their lives: pride consists in competing with God for His glory. At the same time he gives practical tips on how to work towards greater humility from “begin your day expressing gratefulness to God” through to “encourage and serve others each and every day” and “laugh often, and laugh often at yourself”.

One of the best things about C.J. Mahaney is that in everything I’ve ever read or heard from him, he never lets one eye off the gospel, off the hope of being restored through Christ Jesus and his death on the cross. Sure you’re proud, and yes, that offends God greatly, but there is hope, go to Jesus, He will put you right. The effect of this is that, to quote something John Piper once said, he is a pastor who “pierces the heart with the truth, but like a surgeon and not an assassin”. That’s why the sounding note of this book, as with everything else I’ve ever read by C.J. is “Always reflect on the wonder of the cross of Christ”.

Reading this book was quite an emotional journey for me. At times I felt ashamed, at times I laughed my head off at myself. I think that, despite being reminded of quite how proud I am, C.J. keeps the reader hopeful throughout with his relentless focus on the Gospel. I was brought to see in ever more ways how pride, like a greasy slime, coats most of my actions and pervades deeply into who I am. But in my journey, I was reminded of one of the ways humility links into one of my other big struggles, that of legalism.

At the end of the day, the gospel revolves around humility. At its very core is the recognition that you’re getting your life horribly wrong, that you yourself are rotten to the core. It’s about admitting that you need Jesus to die an agonising, humiliating, soul destroying death to get you out of the mess you’ve got yourself into. It’s about realising you can’t do it yourself and joyfully accepting that someone else has graciously, freely, lovingly done it for you. Gospel driven humility promises freedom from the endless treadmill of self reliance in a world you can’t control, freedom from anxiety about the future, and a deeper joy and love for God as you realise the wonder, the scandal of His grace in coming for people like you, for people like me. Humility, honestly assessing ourselves in light of God’s holiness and our sinfulness would be Hell without the Gospel. With the Gospel, it is a key to untold joy in God. Humility is heavenly or hellish, depending on how well you hold to the Gospel.

You may not buy this book in the end, though I’d say it’s certainly worth considering. C.J. doesn’t have the last word on humility, and twenty centuries of Christians never had the opportunity to buy his book. I know this is one that I’ll want to reread and reread again. Whatever you do, though, don’t shy away from humility because it involves knocking yourself down a few notches. Don’t hold back, thinking that realising how bad you are might be depressing. Don’t recoil from the prospect of suffering from a constant malaise of low self-esteem. Trust God and push ahead with it. I pray that like me, though you’ll end the book with an awful long way to go, your heart will be filled with the same kind of joyful thoughts about the love and patience of God in the Gospel as mine was.

Amazing love!
How can it be
That thou my God
Should die for me?


Enoch said...

Attempting a J. Wesley pun here after reading your book review on "Humility":

"O give me that book!"--- J. Wesley

Hope everything is good at home.


The Reverend Dr Who said...


You can borrow it if you like, though I'm pretty sure Wesley was talking about an even better book...

I'll see you later