Across the local bookstore, a number of self-help and personal development books make bold promises from the shelf, many with a new and (supposedly) provocative trend of curse words in the title. You Are a Bad—, we’re promised. We should cultivate The Subtle Art of Not Giving a —. We need to Let That — Go.
If these titles suggest anything, it’s that self-help books require little of you—just be yourself and don’t worry about others. They also suggest, as I tell my three school-age sons, that cursing isn’t that shocking when everyone does it; instead, it reveals a deep inner insecurity.
If these books are supposed to help my self, why does none of them prescribe some kind of growth? Shouldn’t we aspire to become more than we are? I sure hope I’m not the same person in 30 years that I am now.
For Christians, the questions become more insistent: Where do we look for wisdom in a proud generation like this? Where might we find a guide for character formation in an anti-change culture? What kind of book will increase our humility in a dry and barren land?
We might look back 125 years.
Discover Andrew Murray’s Classic
In 1895, South African pastor and missionary Andrew Murray (1828–1917) wrote Humility: The Beauty of Holiness.
Born and raised in South Africa to missionary parents, Murray studied at Aberdeen and Utrecht before returning to South Africa to serve the remainder of his life in and around Cape Town. Murray was known as a premier Bible teacher and revivalist, and many of his books remain in print today.
I don’t commend Andrew Murray’s higher life theology, including the categories of carnal and spiritual Christians, but this perspective is not a significant theme in Humility. Although some of his other books promote this understanding of sanctification, readers will want to be wise in learning from his wisdom while also being attentive to this position.
I first read Humility when I was in high school and rediscovered it in my first few years of ministry. Since then, I have read it regularly, often more than once in a year. In my opinion, it’s the classic work on humility and one of the most important books of the last few centuries.
At a time when bookshelves are dominated by helpless self-help promises and humility is likewise sorely lacking in the Western church, Andrew Murray’s Humility is a timeless, prophetic call for us.
Humility: Soil of All Virtue
Humility is a radically God-centered book. To discover the importance of humility, Murray explains, we need to look to God and recognize we owe everything to him. True happiness, contrary to the dominant message of our day, is not found within ourselves. Happiness, now and for all eternity, will be found as we present ourselves before God as an empty vessel—so that he can dwell and manifest his infinite glory in this clay jar.
True happiness, contrary to the dominant message of our day, is not found within ourselves.
Humility, as Murray defines it, is “the place of entire dependence on God . . . the first duty and the highest virtue of the creature, and the root of every virtue.”
It follows that lost humility (pride) is the root of every sin and evil in our world. It was the serpent’s desire to be like God that plunged him into poisonous rebellion. It was our original parents’ ambition for knowledge and power apart from God that caused their removal from his garden. There’s nothing so natural as pride, and nothing so damaging.
Humility and the Way of Jesus
So what is the first step in discovering and developing humility? Murray suggests: “Let us study the character of Christ until our souls are filled with the love and admiration of his lowliness.”
Murray argues that humility is our Lord’s chief characteristic and the essence of all his character—a point he supports from Philippians 2:6–11.
- In the incarnation, we see the humility of the eternal Word becoming flesh and taking on the limits of life in an ordinary body, family, and community.
- In his life, we see his prayerful dependence on his Father and his mission to be a servant of all (v. 7).
- In his crucifixion, we see how our Lord “humbled himself and became obedient to death—even death on a cross!” (v. 8).
- And in his resurrection and ascension, we see that “God has exalted him to the highest place” (v. 9).
Each time we behold Christ, we see his humility.
There’s nothing so natural as pride, and nothing so damaging.
Humility is the way of Jesus. As his followers, we recognize that if Christ is the root of our tree, and humility our soil, then every branch and leaf and fruit will bear evidence of this humility. This becomes a test: How do I see the fruits of humility in my life? Would others—my friends, my spouse, my children—describe me as humble?
Where Is Our Humility?
This brings us to the difficult questions Murray would no doubt ask of our generation: Why don’t more of us Christians pursue humility? Why don’t we mention humility more often in our blogs, books, and conferences? Murray’s challenge stands:
Until a humility which will rest in nothing less than the end and death of self; which gives up all the honor of men as Jesus did, to seek the honor that comes from God alone; which absolutely makes and counts itself nothing, that God may be all, that the Lord alone may be exalted—until such a humility be what we seek in Christ above our chief joy, and welcome at any price, there is very little hope of a religion that will conquer the world.
Perhaps our soil has become polluted. Our culture’s highest prize is personal freedom—total autonomy, independence, and security. Yet the design of our nature—both by creation and redemption—is complete dependence upon and fidelity to God.
Do we recognize the problem set before us? To be fully accepted by our society, we must crucify humility. But to be fully human, we must crucify pride.
How to Cultivate Humility
But how do we cultivate the good soil of humility? Murray’s classic suggests at least three ways.
1. Focus on Christ
The majority of Murray’s meditations focus on the life of Jesus—especially chapters two through four, my favorites in the book. Jesus was humility incarnate:
There never was, nor ever will be, but one humility, and that is the one humility of Christ. . . . Humility, as it is the mark of Christ the heavenly, will be the one standard of glory in heaven: the lowliest is the nearest to God. The primacy in the Church is promised to the humblest.
2. Lose Yourself
The paradox of Christianity is that only in losing ourselves do we find ourselves. Only by lowering ourselves do we become exalted. Only in emptiness are we filled. Murray writes, “Just as water ever seeks and fills the lowest place, so the moment God finds the creature abased and empty, his glory and power flow in to exalt and to bless.”
To lose yourself is not to give up care of your soul and body; it’s to trust the Father’s power and goodness in us to be better than our own strength and character apart from him. We might be tempted to give only some of ourselves to Christ, yet humility only comes when Christ is all in all.
3. Humbly Serve
Murray reminds us, “Humility toward others will be the only sufficient proof that our humility before God is real, that humility has taken up its abode in us, and become our very nature.”
Humility doesn’t envy or boast. Humility gives up the comparison game. Humility seeks the lowest place. Humility serves.
Crying Need of the Hour
Humility is the message we need today. Its title might not be as catchy and provocative as our modern expletive-filled self-help books, but I doubt those titles will remain in print for 125 years. Into our world of shallowness and strategies to feel better now, Murray begs, “Oh for the humility of Jesus in myself and all around me!”
In a culture that despises humility, we make the subversive claim that true happiness isn’t found in being more of ourselves but more like Christ. The way up is down. The way to life is through death. The way of glory—the true and only glory that matters for all eternity—is the way of humility.