Book review: "Humility: The Journey Toward Holiness" by Andrew Murray

I had never heard of Andrew Murray before, but his gospel insights are spot on. I believe his book here on humility popped up on my Goodreads feed, and I was surprised to find how many books of his had 2000+ reviews and 4+ ratings (OK, so I don’t judge a book SOLELY by its Goodreads reviews, but when a book is that widely respected, there has to be something to it, right?). When I began reading, there were points here and there that felt like they didn’t fit in totally 100% with the faith of a Latter-Day Saint. For instance, this passage:

God, as the ever-living, ever-present, ever-acting One, who upholds all things by the word of His power, and in whom all things exist, meant that the relationship of His creatures to himself would be one of unceasing, absolute dependence.

Murray essentially defines humility as this entire dependence on God, acknowledging one’s place as creature to the Creator. This dependence by itself isn’t new– King Benjamin in the Book of Mormon teaches the same thing, saying Can ye say aught of yourselves? I answer you, Nay. Ye cannot say that ye are as much as the dust of the earth; yet ye were created of the dust of the earth; but behold, it belongeth to him who created you. But Latter-Day Saints fit this in to a different anthropology. Man and God are of the same kind, and we can become like him. I don’t know how this exactly fits together, because we absolutely rely on God’s grace here on earth. But somehow in the eternities, there is a possibility of man’s perfectibility.

But quotes like this one:

The highest glory of the creature is in being a vessel, to receive and enjoy and show forth the glory of God.

do sound very similar to ones like this one from Elder Maxwell:

So many of us are kept from eventual consecration because we mistakenly think that, somehow, by letting our will be swallowed up in the will of God, we lose our individuality. What we are really worried about, of course, is not giving up self, but selfish things– like our roles, our time, our preeminence, and our possessions. No wonder we are instructed by the Savior to lose ourselves. He is only asking us to lose the old self in order to find the new self. It is not a question of one’s losing identity but of finding his true identity! Ironically, so many people already lose themselves anyway in their consuming hobbies and preoccupations but with far, far lesser things.

I believe both Murray and Maxwell are onto something here, and the profoundness of humility is because it seems opposite to what the world teaches, about self-esteem and authenticity and being yourself. Perhaps it is just the context though? I really like this more recent quote from Elder Uchtdorf who introduces the nothing-ness of man in a paradox:

This is the paradox of man: compared to God, man is nothing; yet we are everything to God. While against the backdrop of infinite creation we may appear to be nothing, we have a spark of eternal fire burning within our breast. We have the incomprehensible promise of exaltation– words without end– within our grasp. And it is God’s great desire to help us reach it.

The other thing that makes me suspicious about efforts to cultivate humility is how easy it is to develop a false humility, or a false understanding of what humility is. It brought back memories of Preach My Gospel Chapter 6: Developing Christlike attributes. The chapter itself is good– it asks the missionary to try to faith, virtue, patience, and humility. But in my feeble attempts to implement it as a nineteen-year-old, I approached it in the same way I tried to get a 4.0 GPA. I insisted on perfection now, and I thought I could do it by checking off boxes. I needed to complete tasks and move on to the next thing, with no conception that being a disciple of Christ would be a life-long process. I would never be “done.”

When I think of efforts to cultivate humility, the first book that comes to mind is C. S. Lewis’s The Screwtape Letters. This quote struck me with such profoundness, I still come back to it time and again. Screwtape, a higher-up in the bureaucracy of hell, writers to his nephew, a minor tempter,

I see only one thing to do at the moment. Your patient has become humble; have you drawn his attention to the fact? All virtues are less formidable to us once the man is aware that he has them, but this is especially true of humility. Catch him at the moment when he is really poor in spirit and smuggle into his mind the gratifying reflection, ‘By jove! I’m being humble’, and almost immediately pride– pride at his own humility– will appear. If he awakes to the danger and tries to smother this new form of pride, make him prouder of his attempt– and so on, through as many stages as you please.

The danger in efforts to be more humble, to me, will always suffer from this. I won’t say that Murray doesn’t address this either in his book; it too comes up. I like how he interprets the parable of the Pharisee and the publican:

Pride can lift its head in the very temple of God and make His worship the scene of its self-exaltation. Since the time Christ so exposed his pride, the Pharisee has put on the garb of the tax collector. The confessor of deep sinfulness and the professor of highest holiness must both be on watch. Just when we are most anxious to have our heart to be the temple of God, we will find the two men coming to pray. And the tax collector will find that his danger is not from the Pharisee beside him, who despises him, but the Pharisee within, who commends and exalts himself.

Humility will come, but I have more of a doing attitude now. If I focus on doing good to those around me, I may not have pure intentions right now. But the more I keep doing them, I hope that my intentions will be purified. My family just watched the new Christmas movie on Netflix, Klaus, and its portrayal of this is so beautiful. The story focuses on Jesper, a selfish and self-absorbed son of a postal businessman. His father sends him to be a postman on an island way, way up north, and says he will be cut off unless he can post 6000 letters in the next year. In a turn of events, Jesper gets the idea of convincing children to send letters to Klaus, a reclusive woodsman who for some reason has a large stash of toys. If the children will send letters, then Klaus will bring toys. And Jesper will get his letters and he can get off the island. Jesper’s initially impure motives blossom into something beautiful, as he changes lives and brings a spirit of love and peace to the town that wasn’t there previously. Somehow, his selfishness had been changed to goodness– and it wasn’t entirely by his own efforts. It is such beautiful examples of grace that our hearts are changed.

So I think it is with humility as well. The Screwtape Letters continue, with what I think is as yet my favorite understanding of humility:

Let him think of it not as self-forgetfulness but as a certain kind of opinion (namely, a low opinion) of his own talents and character. Fix in his mind the idea that humility consists in trying to believe those talents to be less valuable than he believes them to be. No doubt they are in fact less valuable than he believes, but that is not the point. The great thing is to make him value an opinion for some quality other than truth, thus introducing an element of dishonesty and make-believe into the heart of what otherwise threatens to become a virtue. By this method thousands of humans have been brought to think that humility means pretty women trying to believe they are ugly and clever men trying to believe they are fools.

Humility doesn’t isn’t thinking poorly about ourselves; it isn’t thinking about ourselves at all– focused outwards on others.

I don’t mean this as a criticism of Murray’s book– and I apologize the long rant on humility. It was just the thoughts that came to my mind in response to the text. Murray doesn’t present a false idea of humility either00 to the contrary, he tries to challenge what he saw as false understandings of humility in his own day. I really liked this passage that helps turn us outward:

It is a solemn thought that our love for God is measured by our everyday relationships with others. Except as its validity is proven in standing the test of daily life with our fellow-men, our love for God may be found to be a delusion. It is easy to think that we humble ourselves before God, but our humility toward others is the only sufficient proof that our humility is genuine.

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