I first met C.J. Mahaney in an elevator.
C.J. wouldn’t remember me; I was just another pastor at a pastors’ conference. But I remember him. Trying to make small talk, I asked this other fellow in the hotel elevator, “How are you?”
He answered, “Better than I deserve.”
I didn’t know at the time that this was his trademark phrase, so I didn’t quite know how to respond. C.J. could sense my loss for words and added, “It’s just my way of preaching the Gospel to myself, brother.”
It is also a good way to practice humility.
In his most recent book, Humility: True Greatness, C.J. Mahaney teaches us about humility: why it’s important, what it looks like, where it comes from, and how to cultivate it in our lives. This is a very good little book: biblical, helpful, and practical. It’s also devastating for our pride (if we heed its message).
Mahaney defines humility as “honestly assessing ourselves in light of God’s holiness and our sinfulness.” He pulls no punches, doesn’t allow us to get cozy with pride, and yet writes as a fellow struggler with an engaging, self-deprecating humor that winsomely carries the reader right through.
The book is divided into three parts. The first part is motivational: why humility is “our greatest friend” and pride “our greatest enemy.” In the first chapter, Mahaney says that “humility draws the gaze our Sovereign God.” Sounds good to me! He gets this from Isaiah 66:2, “This is the one to whom I will look: he who is humble and contrite in spirit and trembles at my word.” That is a breathtaking promise.
The opposite is just as breathtaking: “God opposes the proud.” Chapter 2 is titled “The Perils of Pride” and none is worse than facing the active opposition of God. Mahaney helpfully defines pride as “contending for supremacy” with God. And God hates it. This chapter is full of the devastating consequences of pride for individuals, families, and churches. It is a sobering reminder of the destructive effects of our sin.
The second part of the book gets to the heart of humility: the Gospel. In chapter 3, Mahaney teaches that humility comes, first of all, with a paradoxical redefinition of greatness. The Lord Jesus, when confronted with his disciples’ prideful desire to be known and seen as “the greatest,” turns greatness on its head and tells them, “You know that those who are regarded as rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be slave of all. For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Mark 10:42-45). As Mahaney puts it, true greatness biblically redefined is “serving others for the glory of God.”
Mahaney makes the very helpful observation at this point that “Jesus does not categorically criticize or forbid the desire and ambition to be great. Instead, He clearly redirects that ambition, redefines it, and purifies it...” It is right to pursue greatness in a proper way. We were built for greatness. We were made for glory. But there is a right way and a wrong way to pursue it, and the world has it all wrong.
In the fourth chapter, Mahaney brings the Gospel to center stage. He argues that to be truly humble, we need a Savior, not just an example. C.J. Mahaney loves the Gospel. All of his previous books (especially The Cross Centered Life and Christ Our Mediator) were about the Gospel. This one is no different. Mahaney teaches from the Gospel of Mark that the Good News of a ransom-paying Savior is completely crucial for the crucifixion of our pride and the cultivation of our humility. Mahaney calls the Cross “the source of our serving” and exalts the Savior and His sacrifice.
Then in part three, the book becomes extremely practical. Mahaney offers seven chapters of helpful suggestions which flesh out the biblical truth he has been teaching. I really appreciated this section. Many books are either biblical or practical, and therefore, suffer in one crucial way or another. This book is both/and. This is one of the things I have appreciated the most from observing C.J. and the pastors and churches of their Sovereign Grace Ministries family. He and they seem to be uniquely able to “enculturate” sound doctrine. They seem to carefully build churches and ministries on biblical wisdom–not just having a correct doctrinal statement–but believing and valuing doctrine to the point of building everything on it and by it. This kind of “doing the word” application of truth is so needed in the Church today. It is, in many ways, what I’m trying to promote here at Hot Orthodoxy.
Mahaney begins this practical section with this piercing comment: “It’s possible to admire humility while remaining proud ourselves. I’m very aware that it’s possible for me even now to be teaching on humility while neglecting pride in my own heart. And at this moment you may be deceiving yourself into thinking that you are making progress against pride simply because you are reading a book about humility.” Ouch! What a good reminder that we don’t grow through insight but through applying insight. As our friends at CCEF like to say, “Change hasn’t happened until change has happened.”
These seven chapters are an exposition of Mahaney’s “life list” of ways he cultivates pride. They are not to be followed legalistically but as wise suggestions. He encourages us to develop our own list and to purposefully put it into action. Heading his list is “1. Reflect on the wonder of the cross of Christ.” Thankfully, Mahaney hasn’t stopped “preaching the Gospel to himself,” and neither should we.
Chapter 5 is about practices which kill pride and cultivate humility at the beginning of each day:
2. Begin your day by acknowledging your dependence upon God and your need for God.
3. Begin your day expressing gratefulness to God.
4. Practice the spiritual disciplines—prayer, study of God’s Word, worship. Do this consistently each day and at the day’s outset, if possible.
5. Seize your commute time to memorize and meditate on Scripture.
6. Cast your cares upon Him, for He cares for you.
These two chapters are all daily practices (#1-8). Some take a little time, some do not. But what a difference it would make if we practiced each of them! In chapter 9, Mahaney lays out what he calls, “Practices for Special Focus.” These require time set aside for concentrated work:
9. Study the attributes of God.
10. Study the doctrines of grace.
11. Study the doctrine of sin.
12. Play golf as much as possible.
13. Laugh often, and laugh often at yourself.
Chapters 8 through 11 develop one practical suggestion apiece:
14. Identify evidences of grace in others. (Chapter 8)
15. Encourage and serve others each and every day. (Chapter 9)
16. Invite and pursue correction. (Chapter 10)
17. Respond humbly to trials. (Chapter 11)
The book ends with a chapter (12) entitled “A Legacy of Greatness.” Here Mahaney develops what “true greatness” looks like into the next generation. He talks about building humility and service into our children and churches for the Day of Judgment. This was a very helpful chapter to me. Mahaney writes, “As I understand it, parenting is about preparation. Preparation for our children’s future and preparation for the fast-approaching final day of judgment. If you are a father or mother, let me ask you: How’s the preparation going? What is your plan for preparing your child? What are the content and goals of your preparation? What kind of legacy will you be leaving for your son or daughter? Have you given this much thought? You should. 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.”
We create this legacy through personal example of humility, defining greatness like Jesus did, and teaching our children to admire true greatness and to serve. Mahaney provides page after page of relevant, practical counsel on how to do this. One suggestion really jumped out at me, and I’ve already begun to do it regularly with my family: Mahaney says to point out to our children that “true greatness is living under the same roof with you. True greatness is right there in the form of your dad and your mom who serve you.” I’ve begun to direct my children’s attention to the way that Heather humbly serves them, especially at mealtimes. She is modeling it; I am showcasing it; they are learning it.
This is a truly great book (by Jesus’ definition)! It truly serves the reader by handling the Word of God carefully and applying it robustly. I think it achieves its aim. If I were to assign a weakness to the book, it would be that there is no development of “false humility,” which is really just pride in a different dress. Joshua Harris refers to it in the foreword, but there is no unpacking of it in the body of the book. Of course, the entire book is a picture of true humility so false humility is negated by it, but in my experience, what passes for humility is a big problem in the church and should be exposed in the same revealing way. I’m also not impressed by the cover design, but the content is pure gold.
Humility: True Greatness is an easy book to recommend for everyone to read. It is, however, a little difficult to hand to someone as a gift–“Here, you really need this.” But of course, we all do. That is why the book ends with a call to repentance: “If in reading this book you have been convicted of pride in any form, of failing to humble yourself or failing to glorify God, take time now to flee to the cross. Flee immediately to the cross and receive forgiveness for this sin of pride that God hates.”
I’m glad C.J. hasn’t stopped “preaching the Gospel to himself.” You and I need it, too. Let’s join C.J. at the Cross and receive the grace of the humble and the gaze of the Holy One. Humility: True Greatness (Multnomah, 2005, 176 Pages, ISBN 1590523261) Read more about it at Albert Mohler, Justin Taylor, Tim Challies, and Aron Gahagan and preview a chapter online.) Full disclosure: I get a free copy for reviewing it here. It has been worth all the effort to get this review posted.