What is humility?

Andrew Murray (1828-1917) wrote many devotional books. I have only read one so far: his book entitled Humility: The Journey Toward Holiness. It has 105 small pages of conviction and encouragement. My reflections are not meant to replace reading this book. These thoughts I will share are a poor excuse for a reflection compared to Murray’s work. But I decided to write some reflections on this book for two reasons.

First, though Murray’s meditations are profound, I found myself wishing he dove deeper into the Scriptures. Surely the Bible permeated this man’s heart and mind, evidenced by the richness of his thoughts. However, I did wish, at times, that he made the biblical data he was working from more explicit. I hope to do a little more digging, looking at some of Murray’s thoughts and relating them to Scripture.

Second, my hope is that through this series you will pick up Murray’s work and read it for yourself. Perhaps you can read it alongside these reflections. If you have already read it, maybe these words will inspire you to read it again. Or, perhaps this will provoke you to recall some thoughts that you had when reading it. I’d love to hear those thoughts in the comments section.

In the end, I pray that these reflections will serve to strengthen you in your faith, refresh your spirit if it is weary, and spark a fire within you to proclaim with John the Baptist, “He must increase, but I must decrease” (John 3:30). 

Which leads to the overall discussion of what humility actually is. Can it really be summed up in a better way than what John the Baptist said? Murray states it this way in the preface to his book: “nothing is more natural and beautiful and blessed than to be nothing in order that God may be everything” (10-11). To be nothing in order that God may be everything. That is Murray’s definition of humility. And I dare say it was John the Baptist’s definition as well. 

In John 3:22, Jesus begins his ministry with his disciples, and they start to baptize people like John the Baptist had been doing before. Now it would become any human being at this point to wonder, “Why are people going to Jesus to be baptized, not me? I was baptizing first and I have some seniority here.” Some of John’s disciples may have felt this way, because, in John 3:26, they approach John and say, “look, [Jesus] is baptizing, and all are going to him.” 

Jesus is stealing John’s thunder.

But that’s what John wants. 

John’s answer to his disciples is so disappointing for someone who wants to be somebody. He says, “A person cannot receive even one thing unless it is given him from heaven … The one who has the bride is the bridegroom. The friend of the bridegroom … rejoices greatly at the bridegroom’s voice. Therefore, this joy of mine is now complete. He must increase, but I must decrease” (John 3:27-30).

I have three brief observations about John’s answer that I think are helpful in understanding what humility looks like.

  1. It’s utter dependence upon God. John says, “A person cannot receive even one thing unless it is given him from heaven.” Even one thing. All things come from God—there is nothing in this world that is completely ours. Everything we have, or ever will have, is a gift from God. We, like baby birds, sit in our nests with mouths wide-open waiting for God to provide for us. If He doesn’t, then we die.
  2. It’s taking the back seat. John gives an analogy of a groom and his friend. Any best man who tries to steal the show at his friend’s wedding is not only shown to be a fool, but he will also be mocked endlessly. Everyone knows that the day is for the groom and his bride. It is the job of the best man to make the groom look good. All eyes are to be off of the friend and on the groom and his bride.
  3. It’s emptying oneself of oneself. We’ll consider this more in following reflections. To decrease, as John puts it, is to become nothing—to be emptied of all self-centered pursuits. But it doesn’t stop with being emptied. It is also to be filled with the desire to see Christ increase. Murray calls it being an “empty vessel” (15), to be filled with Christ and His will. 

In the reflections to follow, I hope that we will come to a fuller understanding of what it means to be truly humble. And I pray that the Spirit will continually drive us to His word to see the unfathomable blessedness of humility, and that He will empower us to be empty vessels for His glory. 

About the Author

  • Jonathan Groves

    Jonathan is pastoral assistant at Church of the Good Shepherd, Binghamton, New York, and Deacon in the Anglican Diocese of the Living Word. He is a seminarian with passions for study in biblical languages, New Testament textual criticism, and the Reformed principles of Anglicanism.

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