I was first given Andrew Murray’s Humility: The Journey Toward Holiness while I was serving on a ministry team at a rather large church. It was a gift to each member on our team from our director – a really thoughtful one at that. Yet, this gift came at a time in my life where pride was my greatest quality trait. In fact, while I was thankful to receive a gift from our ministry director, I thought myself above reading this small, short book. After all, I didn’t need to read the same book that everyone else would read – I’m above that. I needed to read more challenging things – you know – more books that were actually worthy of my caliber. So, I set the book on my shelf and neglected it…until now.
In case you were wondering, that paragraph is laced with delicious irony, and you are meant to chuckle at me.
You see, I have a certain problem with desiring to be the “best.” When I was in high school, I was really into music – which meant that I absolutely needed to be the “best” musician that I knew. When I was in college, I was actively involved in martial arts – which meant I needed to be “better” than everyone that I knew. When I became a Christian and realized I love theology and religious thought, I needed to be the “best” and “smartest” Christian I knew – able to outsmart anyone I knew and “beat” people in debates that I started. All because I needed to be the “best.”
Some years ago, Pastor Timothy Keller gave a series of lectures at Gordon-Conwell called “Preaching to the Heart.” In one of these lectures, he tells the story of a football player whom he knew in college. This guy was the all-star football player on campus, and was known for being able to sleep around with any woman that he desired. By college standards, he was the “best” on campus. So it was a great shock to Keller and his friends in college when this individual converted to Christianity. Yet, what they soon came to find out was that the football player – while he now conformed to Christian morality – was still obsessed with being the all-star. He had to be the “best Christian” and the boss of everyone in the college ministry. He simply traded one idol for another.
For a long time, I was exactly like this football player. I traded one idol – the desire to be the best at my various hobbies – for another. Needless to say, this didn’t work out so well when I decided to enter into a path towards vocational ministry. What I thought I would be the “best” at, God had completely different plans for. He knew this would be the time when he would break me and teach me some of the biggest lessons that I’ve needed to learn.
Andrew Murray describes humility conceptually in this way, “When we realize that humility is something infinitely deeper than contrition, and accept it as our participation in the life of Jesus, we will begin to learn that it is our true nobility, and that to prove it in being servants of all is the highest fulfillment of our destiny as men created in the image of God.” He goes on to describe how pride is the most insidious and natural thing to our own human nature – it is the very presence of pride that made the act of redemption necessary.
Humility has never been one of my strongest attributes. When I became a Christian, theology became a means to be better than others and win at intellectual ascent. I had no desire to care for or minister to other people – if I had any concept of such things, it was only in the manner by which I could prove to them that they were wrong. Murray describes my particular form of pride perfectly when he says, “Let us consider how our lack of love, indifference to the needs, and feelings of others, even sharp comments and hasty judgements that are often excused as being honest and straightforward, are thwarting the effect of the influence of the Holy Spirit on others. Manifestations of temper and touchiness and irritation, feelings of bitterness and estrangement, have their root in nothing but pride. Pride creeps in almost everywhere, and the assemblies of saints are no exception.”
You see, the community of saints are no exemption to the insidious nature of pride. In fact, pride is probably our biggest blindspot as the church. How often do we genuinely pray for a real Christ-like humility? How often do we run from the very means by which God intends to humble us? Murray says it this way, “Many Christians fear and flee and seek deliverance from all that would humble them. At times they may pray for humility, but in their heart of hearts they pray even more to be kept from the things that would bring them to that place. They have not reached the level of seeing humility as a manifestation of the beauty of the Lamb of God.” He goes on to diagnose the problem, “Why is it that those who have joyfully given themselves up for Christ find it so hard to give themselves up for fellow Christians? It seems that the church has failed to teach its people the importance of humility – that it is the first of the virtues, the best of all the graces and powers of the Spirit. It has failed to show that a Christlike humility is what is needed and is also in the realm of possibility.”
I am grateful that the Lord has seen fit not to exempt me from his discipline (Hebrews 12). As a good and loving Father does, he has chosen the correct form of discipline to begin rooting out my otherwise unconquerable pride. For the sake of my humility, the Lord has placed several trials and afflictions in my life over the last few years. For the sake of my union with Christ, the Lord has often chosen times of severe mental anguish, anxiety and even depression to teach me some small aspect of what it means to be humble.
Were it not for Christ’s intervention in my life, I would likely be headed down a much different and darker path. Murray describes what could very easily become my future when he writes, “We find professors and ministers, evangelists and Christian workers, missionaries and teachers, in whom the gifts of the Spirit are many and manifest, and who are the channels of blessing to multitudes, but of whom, when tested, or close interpersonal relationships reveal their true characters, it is only too evident that the grace of humility, as an abiding characteristic, is rarely to be seen.”
So how do we begin to pursue genuine Christian humility? Simply put, it is coming to understand that Christ’s humility “became our salvation. His salvation is our humility.” We must understand what it means to truly press in to our union with Christ in both his sufferings and afflictions, his compassion for others, and most of all his desire to exalt the Father in all that he did. Murray writes, “It is only in the possession of God that I lose myself. As it is in the height and breadth and glory of the sunshine that the smallest speck dancing in its beams is seen, even so humility is taking our place in God’s presence to be nothing but a speck dancing in the sunlight of His love.”
Oh Lord, I ask that you would have mercy upon me, a sinner. I pray that you would see it fit to discipline me in the ways I need discipline, humble me even if it comes at the greatest cost to me. For in humility, your Son was spared no cost for my sake. Teach me and guide me in the ways of humility – the path to true holiness. Forgive me for my pride, my lack of empathy, and the ways in which I have forsaken the identity of Christian for my own vain glory. Exalt your name in my life not because of me, but in spite of me.
*See below to explain the picture
It is a universal problem that exists in all academic fields: the more one knows, the more one is likely to boast in their knowledge. This is very dangerous territory for the Christian, however. While on the one hand there is room for being thankful for our achievements, we must realize that pride is antithetical to the gospel and therefore there is absolutely no room for it. There should be a difference between how a Christian doctor sees her training in comparison to the non-Christian. All of our knowledge and wisdom should be seen as a gift from God and used for service towards others.
Unfortunately, seminary students in training are not exempt from this area of pride in their knowledge. If anything – because pastors and ministry leaders are held in high esteem by their communities – seminary students might be in even more danger than other professions when it comes to being tempted by pride. As the Apostle Paul tells us, knowledge puffs up but love builds up (1 Corinthians 8:1).
This problem of pride amongst future church leaders is an epidemic that is largely going unnoticed. I myself have suffered and continue to suffer with it, but I am thankful that by God’s grace he has revealed the areas of my heart that have wrongfully been prideful in my seminary pursuits. To that end, I want to list five signs that you might be a prideful seminarian and the corresponding real gospel truths that go along with them.
1) Because you are in seminary, you think the church owes you a ministry position.
Whoever desires a position in ministry desires a noble task (1 Tim. 3:1). However, it is entirely possible to desire a ministry position with the wrong motives. A good sign that you are filled with pride in your seminary pursuits is that you believe simply because you are taking or have taken seminary classes you deserve a position in ministry. This might be subtle in that you work behind the scenes to elevate yourselves above others. Perhaps you subconsciously criticize the way your current leaders do things and think you could do it better. It could also be obvious in the way you talk to your community or your leaders. You might even outright confront your leaders and make demands to be in a leadership position.
The gospel truth is that no one is qualified for a ministry position. It is only by the grace and mercy of God that anyone is qualified to lead. If you want to even begin pursuing qualifications for ministry, start with the guidelines laid out in 1 Timothy and Titus. True qualification for ministry begins at the cross and remains at the cross. Your seminary education should lead you into a deeper understanding of the state of your wickedness and your need for Jesus. It should lead you to a deep desire to serve God’s people with all that you’ve been trained and equipped in. Only then may we begin to think ourselves even remotely ready for ministry leadership.
2) You want everyone to know how much you know, so you needlessly quote things that don’t need quoting.
One of the surest signs that you are a prideful seminarian is that you want others to know how much you know. For you it is not so much important that others understand what you know, so much as that they know you know things (how much wood would a woodchuck chuck…). If you are prideful in this area, you go out of your way to quote a bunch of dead dudes in random conversations. If you’re educated in the original languages, you want everyone to know so you unnecessarily use it (*see the cover picture for this article…ironnyyyyyy!). Your theological knowledge is not a way for you to serve others, but to be superior to them.
The gospel reality is that every single word we read and learn in seminary is to be used for the church. Any gift we are given in the areas of teaching or knowledge are to be used for the Body of Christ, not ourselves (1 Corinthians 12). Nobody cares how much theology you know, the only thing that matters is how you serve your brothers and sisters with what you know. The duty of a ministry leader or pastor is to take their seminary knowledge and make it applicable to the heart of the Christian such that it draws them closer to Jesus.
3) You want everyone to know that you’re in seminary.
Another strong piece of evidence that you are a prideful seminarian is that you want everyone else to know you are in seminary. Because you think seminary makes you a somebody, everyone else needs to know that you are taking seminary classes. You might even try to drop this fact through the art of the #humblebrag, which really means you just want to boast and brag over your brothers and sisters.
The gospel truth is that without Jesus we are nothing (Eph 2:1-10). Jesus makes us a somebody, not our seminary classes or the books we are reading. Again, nobody cares that you’re in seminary if you aren’t using it to serve the church.
4) You are overly critical of your peers.
A guaranteed sign of pride in your seminary education is that you believe it makes you entitled to critique and “offer advice” to your peers…all the time. If this is a problem for you, then you never stop to listen for advice because you’re always the one giving it. You speak when you’re not spoken to and offer criticisms when they’re not warranted. You probably critique your leaders behind their backs. Every time you learn something new in the classroom you twist conversations to make it apply to someone else. Your own heart isn’t being changed because you’re too busy trying to change others.
The hard gospel truth is that every piece of knowledge you learn in the classroom needs to impact your own heart before it can impact someone elses. Your time in seminary should be a time of increased listening and heart transformation (Prov. 12:15), not increased criticism of your peers. Don’t be a know-it-all. Instead, confess your sins to your peers and show them how your heart is being changed by your seminary education.
5) You constantly want to best yourself over your seminary brothers and sisters.
While there is always room for healthy competition, the seminary classroom can quickly turn into a place of unhealthy and unhelpful boasting. Because you are prideful, you want to be better than your peers in the classroom. You don’t like it if they get better grades than you, so you come up with excuses. You probably brag about your opportunities to speak outside the classroom. You want everyone to know that you’re smart (or so you think), so you find ways inside and outside the classroom to boast in your knowledge.
The gospel truth is that the seminary classroom should be a place for humility and encouragement of one another. There is no room for boasting in our knowledge or education – is that not contra-gospel? Instead, our seminary classrooms should be marked by a deep sense of humility and grace, constantly seeking to build one another up (1 Thess. 5:11). You should not seek to prove your intelligence, but build up your peers that they might be strong in their own pursuits. If you’re getting ministry opportunities that your peers aren’t getting, then you should be building up your peers in preparation for those experiences. If we can’t be graceful towards one another in the classroom, then how are we going to be graceful to the men and women in the church that we serve?
If you struggle with pride in any of these areas, my encouragement to you is not to feel down and out. Jesus died for prideful sinners like us. Read, meditate, and pray Philippians 2:1-11. Pick up a copy of Valley of Vision and pray through “Man A Nothing” and “Humility in Service.” They will wreck your face. Confess your sins to your church, and resolve to serve them with your whole heart.
Humility is a tricky subject. To say that we’ve ever arrived at being humble would in fact just be pride in ourselves. To try and teach how to become humble without coming off as prideful is an incredibly difficult task. I have no solutions – every day I pray for God to grant me grace and humility towards others, and every day it continues to be a struggle. I think this will always be a thorn for me, as pride and arrogance were a huge problem for me prior to becoming a Christian. Even today, the very doctrines that should humble me – that Christ came into the world to save the worst of sinners like me – creates puffed up conceit and pride over being able to dominate others in discussion. I’ve heard it said that seminaries are often a breeding ground for pride, as we can often tend to academize the faith throughout our studies. Even while I do my basic exercises or readings, I have to consistently stop and pray and remind myself why I am doing these studies.
The Scriptures explicitly warn against teachers who are prideful, arrogant, conceited and think too highly of themselves. Even worse, they teach that such people are not qualified for leadership. I often fear that due to this depravity in my nature I will never be able to lead as I should. My only comfort has been consistently to pray through the following prayer and passage from Philippians 2:1-11. I thank God that he has exposed this pride within me, and now I only know how to continue to ask him to take it from me.
I humble myself for faculties misused, opportunities neglected, words ill-advised, I repent of my folly and inconsiderate ways, my broken resolutions, untrue service, my backsliding steps, my vain thoughts.
O bury my sins in the ocean of Jesus’ blood and let no evil result from my fretful temper, unseemly behaviour, provoking pettiness.
If by unkindness I have wounded or hurt another, do thou pour in the balm of heavenly consolation; If I have turned coldly from need, misery, grief, do not in just anger forsake me: If I have withheld relief from penury and pain, do not withhold thy gracious bounty from me.
If I have shunned those who have offended me, keep open the door of thy heart to my need.
Fill me with an over-flowing ocean of compassion, the reign of love my motive, the law of love my rule.
O thou God of all grace, make me more thankful, more humble; Inspire me with a deep sense of my unworthiness arising from the depravity of my nature, my omitted duties, my unimproved advantages, thy commands violated by me.
With all my calls to gratitude and joy may I remember that I have reason for sorrow and humiliation;
O give me repentance unto life;
Cement my oneness with my blessed Lord, that faith may adhere to him more immovably, that love may entwine itself round him more tightly, that his Spirit may pervade every fibre of my being.
Then send me out to make him known to my fellow-men.
-Valley of Vision, “Humility in Service”
So if there is any encouragement in Christ, any comfort from love, any participation in the Spirit, any affection and sympathy, complete my joy by being of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others. Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, 10 so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.
-Philippians 2:1-11, ESV