Humility: True greatness
Multnomah, Colorado Springs, 2005, 176pp.
Humility and pride are funny things. It’s amazing how often I catch myself taking pride in my humility. Actually, I catch myself taking pride in my public displays of humility. When someone pays me a compliment, I know just how to affect the right degree of nonchalance—the right shrug of the shoulders—the right words to deflect the glory away from me—while, on the inside, I am proud that my efforts have been recognized—proud (and perversely so) that they think I’m humble. At the same time, I convince myself that pride is not that serious—certainly not as bad as other more obvious sins. In my sophistry, I convince myself that surely pride is a good thing (when it is deserved); it’s arrogance that is the sin. Yet, when I read the Bible, I know I am kidding myself: as Proverbs 16:5 makes clear,
The Lord detests all the proud of heart. Be sure of this: They will not go unpunished (NIV).
God takes my pride very seriously indeed.
For this reason, CJ Mahaney has done us a great service with his book Humility: True greatness. Using a simple style, Mahaney strikes at the heart of the issue, exposing our sinful, perverse hearts to the light of the Scriptures, and then giving us practical help in how to combat pride and cultivate humility.
Part I of the book defines the problem. As with all sin, the problem is ultimately theological: pride comes from having too high a view of ourselves and too low a view of God. In that light, Mahaney defines humility as “honestly assessing ourselves in light of God’s holiness and our sinfulness” (p. 22). In his helpful survey of Scripture, Mahaney convinces us that pride is not just an issue of character, it’s the very essence of sin:
Stronger language for sin cannot be found in Scripture …
Why does God hate pride so passionately?
Here’s why: Pride is when sinful human beings aspire to the status and position of God and refuse to acknowledge their dependence upon Him.
When we understand pride in that way, we begin to realize why God takes it so seriously.
In Part II, Mahaney shows us how Jesus redefines true greatness: it is “[s]erving others for the glory of God” (p. 44; emphasis in original). This is how we see and show true humility—giving up our rights and even our lives to serve others in order to bring glory to God. I question Mahaney’s suggestion that Jesus does not forbid the desire or ambition to be great in Mark 10, but instead redefines, redirects and purifies it (p. 43). Surely this misses the point of what Jesus is saying—namely, that we find true greatness only when we do not seek it for ourselves. However, this is a minor quibble, and it doesn’t take away from Mahaney’s challenge to follow Christ by serving others rather than ourselves.
Part III (which constitutes the majority of the book) is then concerned with “the practice of true humility”. Mahaney’s concern is to provide practical advice on how to combat pride and cultivate humility. The beauty of this section is that Mahaney recognizes that the problem is theological, and so his “disciplines” are aimed at changing the heart and mind, not simply the external practice. At its heart, Mahaney sees that what we need to do is understand God better—especially the cross of Christ—while at the same time cultivating a realistic view of our own sinfulness. Mahaney goes through his godly disciplines in detail. Of particular help to me was his section on “inviting and pursuing correction” (chapter 10) and his encouragement to have Christian brothers and sisters truly challenge us on our godliness. This final section is helpful to all believers, whether or not they struggle with pride and humility, as these disciplines are the way to combat all forms of sin and cultivate all forms of godliness.
I recommend this book wholeheartedly. Mahaney’s great strength is that his theology is thoroughly shaped by the cross. In addition, his book is saturated in Scripture, but not in the proof-texting style that passes for biblical in most popular Christian literature today. Instead, Mahaney takes the time to grapple with the key texts in detail, and model for us his approach to the Bible. At the same time, his writing is simple and practical without being simplistic. The book is easy to read, but still challenging. Finally, what I found so helpful about the book was that Mahaney is obviously a lot like me—a man saved by the cross of Christ, even though he doesn’t deserve it, who struggles daily with taking for himself the glory and honour that are God’s alone. The fact that he so clearly struggles with this himself makes him eminently qualified to help his fellow sufferers.