CNN founder Ted Turner once remarked, “If I only had a little humility, I would be perfect.” In a strange and almost perfectly ironic sense, this statement encapsulates the spirit of our age–an attitude that gives lip service to humility while celebrating self-promotion. Humility is hardly a hallmark of our age.
From the playing fields of athletics to the trading floors of Wall Street, humility appears to be an accessory few persons believe they can afford. The dominant personalities and cultural icons of our day are most often individuals adept at self-promotion and projection. Sadly, this confusion about the true calling of humility is found even in the church, where humility is too often seen as a gift granted to the few, rather than as the command addressed to all.
C. J. Mahaney seeks to set the record straight in his new book, Humility: True Greatness. The leader of Sovereign Grace Ministries–a group of highly-committed gospel churches–C. J. served for twenty-seven years as pastor of Covenant Life Church, located in the Maryland suburbs of Washington, D.C. C. J. is a friend from whom I have learned much, and in his newest book he has much to teach us about the nature of true humility.
One of the central problems of our times is the fact that our reflex is to define humility in basically human terms. Thus, humility can dissolve into an endless and pointless process of comparing ourselves with others. C. J. understands that this is just not the right place to start.
Instead, C. J. defines humility as “honestly assessing ourselves in light of God’s holiness and our sinfulness.” That sets humility in an entirely new light. “That’s the twin reality that all genuine humility is rooted in: God’s holiness and our sinfulness,” C. J. explains. “Without an honest awareness of both these realities . . . all self-evaluation will be skewed and we’ll fail to either understand or practice true humility.”
From the onset, C. J. admits the awkwardness of writing a book about humility. “If I met someone presuming to have something to say about humility, automatically I’d think them unqualified to speak on the subject,” he observes. So, just why did C. J. write this book? “I’m a proud man pursuing humility by the grace of God,” he explains. “I don’t write as an authority on humility; I write as a fellow pilgrim walking with you on the path set for us by our humble Savior. I can only address you with confidence in the great and gracious God who has promised to give grace to the humble.”
The eclipse of humility can be traced to our celebration of human pride. “The sad fact is that none of us are immune to the logic-defined, blinding effects of pride,” C. J. instructs. “Though it shows up in different forms and to differing degrees, it affects us all. The real issue here is not if pride exists in your heart; it’s where and how pride is being expressed in your life. Scripture shows us that pride is strongly and dangerously rooted in all our lives, far more than most of us care to admit or even think about.”
In making this argument, C. J. is solidly within the Western tradition of theology, perhaps most magisterially represented by Augustine, the greatest of the Church Fathers. According to Scripture, pride is not simply one sin among others. In a very real sense, it is the very root of all sin–demonstrating the ambition of the human heart to assert the human will over God’s will.
C. J. helpfully defines pride as “when sinful human beings aspire to the status and position of God and refuse to acknowledge their dependence upon Him.” Of course, pride did not begin with human beings. C. J. helpfully points to Satan’s rebellion as explained in Isaiah 14:13. “Led by the prideful Lucifer,” C. J. explains, “powerful angelic creatures possessing beauty and glory far beyond our comprehension arrogantly desired recognition and status equal to God Himself. In response, God swiftly and severely judged them.”
Thus, pride stands at the very core of sin. As C. J. explains, pride is directed towards one solitary end–self-glorification. “That’s the motive and ultimate purpose of pride–to rob God of legitimate glory and to pursue self-glorification, contending for supremacy with Him. The proud person seeks to glorify himself and not God, thereby attempting in effect to deprive God of something only He is worthy to receive.”
The knowledge and confession of pride is rare in our times. Most modern persons would be hard pressed to identify with Jonathan Edwards, who once acknowledged his own sin by confessing, “What a foolish, silly, miserable, blind, deceived poor worm am I, when pride works.” To the modern prophets of self-promotion and self-esteem, this looks like a sick-souled individual in need of therapy. To the contrary, Edwards understood the deadly danger of pride and his own inclination to self-deceit.
In our day, C. J.’s assertion that humility makes for true greatness runs against the very maxims by which our culture measures greatness. In essence, this is just one more indication of how deeply pride has infected humanity. In the culture at large, pursuing greatness amounts to a projection of the self. In C. J.’s words, this comes down to individuals who are “motivated by self-interest, self-indulgence, and a false sense of self-sufficiency,” who are pursuing “selfish ambition for the purpose of self-glorification.” This is contrasted with true greatness which is biblically defined as “serving others for the glory of God.”
The awareness of sin is a necessary corrective. “That’s why we need to stay close to the doctrine of sin–because it helps us to see the presence of pride and protects us from those hardening effects,” C. J. explains. “The doctrine of sin was specifically designed for this, and it’s sufficiently potent to put pride to death in our lives by the power of the Holy Spirit.”
Of course, sin is a problem we can’t solve. The only antidote to the problem of sin is the grace and mercy of God demonstrated in the cross of Jesus Christ. “Our situation couldn’t be more serious,” C. J. reminds us. “Prior to our conversion we were sin’s prisoners, and even after our conversion we continue to fight the presence of sin, though we’re freed from the power and penalty of sin. And if you aren’t aware of this danger, you’ll never sufficiently appreciate the significance of His death. It’s this captivity to sin and continued tendency to sin that necessitates the Savior’s death as a ransom for many. That’s the price the ransom requires: the life of God’s only Son.”
Throughout the book, C. J. offers helpful suggestions about how Christians can seek and find true humility. With wonderful pastoral advice, C. J. suggests that believers should begin and end the day in a spirit of gratitude to God. “I found that it’s possible for me to charge into my day motivated by self-sufficiency,” he admits. “But I’ve also learned that the very act of opening my Bible to read and turning my heart and mind to prayer makes a statement that I need God.” Likewise, the end of the day “offers us a unique opportunity to cultivate humility and weaken pride, as well as to sense God’s pleasure. How? By reviewing our day and carefully assigning all glory to God for the grace we’ve experienced that day.”
Most helpfully, C. J. also points to the necessity of finding humility through participation in the life of the local church. “We’re all in need of grace. There’s no one you know who doesn’t need more of it. And God has so composed His church that when we’re together in a larger corporate gathering or in a small group or even in casual conversation, we can both receive grace and communicate grace through the exchange of edifying and appropriate words.” Christians inculcate humility by giving and receiving correction as a demonstration of God’s grace.
“Never forget that others see what you do not,” C. J. advises. “Where you’re blind to sin their vision is often twenty-twenty. And by God’s grace they can impart clarity to help protect you from the hardening effects of sin. Others can exhort you, encourage you, and correct you. They are a gift from God in your battle against sin. And you never grow out of this need. Never.”
One of the most important sections of Humility: True Greatness focuses on the need of parents to call out humility in their children. Readers will note that C. J. has dedicated this book to his twelve-year-old son, Chad, in whom he finds obvious delight. At the same time, C. J. understands that the Christian parent’s responsibility is not to make their children into objects of pride, but rather to prepare them for the demonstration of true humility. “If humility is to endure in our families and churches, it must be cultivated by parents and pastors and passed on to our families and churches,” C. J. helpfully instructs.
Far too many parents fall into the trap of making their children into projects of self-expression. These children are pampered, pushed, and transformed into objects of their parents’ self-projection. C. J. gets right to the heart of the problem: “Do your ambitions for your son or daughter include a certain vocation or a certain level of education? Graduation from a certain college? Professional or athletic or artistic recognition? If so, let me ask this: Are any of these ambitions in line with true greatness as defined in Scripture?”
In this new book, C. J. Mahaney has given his fellow Christians a real gift, even as he has dared to confront the self-delusions of our times. To know C. J. is to know that God has prepared him to write this book and to serve as an example of the very humility he commends. Humility: True Greatness is truly a tract for our times.