Introductory Note:

This week we celebrate the release of Richard Foster’s newest book, Learning Humility. Richard looked to Christian witnesses from the past and the traditional values of the Lakota people to help him ponder, practice, and pursue the “vanishing value” of humility. This fall, Renovaré published a short booklet pairing excerpts from Richard’s Learning Humility and Andrew Murray’s 1884 classic, Humility. You can download that booklet here, and find Richard’s newly released book here.

Renovaré Team

Excerpt from Learning Humility

The Moon When the Wind Shakes off the Leaves1

For thus says the high and lofty one
who inhabits eternity, whose name is Holy:
I dwell in the high and holy place,
and also with those who are contrite and humble in spirit,
to revive the spirit of the humble,
and to revive the heart of the contrite.
—Yahweh (Isaiah 57:15)

Humility and fear of God surpass all other virtues.
—Abba John the Dwarf

This Persistent Integrity

The tenth Lakota virtue is Cantewasake, fortitude.”2 It is said of this virtue, After learning patience and inner endurance one gains the strength necessary to have fortitude. Emotional stability, being alert, and having determination can help in having this persistent integrity.

This brings to my mind the words of James about trials producing endurance: My brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of any kind, consider it nothing but joy, because you know that the testing of your faith produces endurance; and let endurance have its full effect, so that you may be mature and complete, lacking in nothing” (Jas 1:24). Endurance … fortitude … leading to humility of heart.

I would like to think about the ways humility and fortitude complement each other. I will live with this for the next few days and see if anything emerges.

The Birth of Obedience in the Heart

This morning I wake up to the first snow of the season. Only three or four inches but it’s enough to flock the woods out my study window. Wonder-filled! It will melt soon with our warm weather, but still … lovely, lovely, lovely.

No fire today since over the summer I have accumulated a generous stack of books and papers in front of the fireplace. Still, I sit in my rocking chair for some moments watching the snow come down gently. I punch up a Christmas CD and begin cleaning the books and papers away from the fireplace so that next time I will be ready for a roaring blaze.

As I work away I come across these words from Thomas Kelly of Testament of Devotion fame, humility and holiness are twins in the astonishing birth of obedience in the heart.” Is he saying that humility of heart and purity of life work together to produce obedience toward God? I think so. I will see what I can do to put this into practice and see what I learn.

Texture and Feeling Tones

A morning hike in a nearby canyon is utterly refreshing. The landscape has turned rust-colored brown almost overnight. All the plant life is preparing for the winter season that is soon to come. But today the sun warms me. Along the trail I can see little patches of snow that have effectively hidden from the sun.

Human hikers (except for me) are nonexistent, due I imagine to the snow of the other day. Hence, I am able to hike in complete silence. I hear only the twitter of the rosy finches in the trees and the gurgle of the creek below. The silence does me good. The brown” of plant and rock draw me down toward the earth. There is a kind of humility in my getting down close to the earth. Humility … humus. Hiking quietly, without a word. No one knows of my presence, except the mule deer and black squirrels … and they could not seem to care less.

These times provide texture and feeling tones to the word humility.

The Small Corners of Life

Early this morning I sense a divine nudge to learn about humility in the small corners” of life. Lord, show me ways to express a humble spirit in these small corners.

The first order of the day is to take Carolynn to a medical appointment. Once there I wait … and I wait … and I wait. It is not unusual, this waiting, but I am wondering if this is one way I am to learn humility today. Just wondering.

Then we decide we have time for me to get my flu shot for the season. So, off we go to my pharmacy. The lady who attends to us has difficulty with the computer system. Again, waiting. I sense her frustration and pray for her to find a way through the computer maze. Today, it is not to be. She finally gives up and asks me to come back another day. Okay.

Off we go to Carolynn’s pharmacy to see if we might have better success. Indeed, we do. She has no problem with the computer … but the interruptions in her labors are maddening. I wait … and wait … and wait again. I muse that by learning a patient waiting” I bring a humble spirit into my soul. On the other hand, a waiting that is filled with anxiety or anger thwarts humility of soul. So, I seek to orient myself to a patient waiting.” The pharmacist says it will be twenty minutes. Well, twenty minutes turns into thirty and thirty turns into forty. Perhaps more. I try not to check my watch.

At last we are rewarded and I receive my shot, thankful for the good care of the pharmacist. And everything is done in time to get Carolynn home so she can get to an afternoon appointment in time. So far so good.

I’m free now and I decide to go to the rec center for my exercise for the day. I make appropriate preparations and I am off. However, I forgot that this is late Friday afternoon and the freeway ten miles away has major construction delays and so traffic is diverted to our country roadway. I am five miles away from the roadway, and when I get to it I find traffic backed up for several miles behind the single light at our little intersection. I take one look at the long line of cars and decide I have learned enough about humility-that-comes-through-waiting” for one day. I turn around and drive home. I get my exercise by using the treadmill downstairs. I’m glad for what I have learned and humbled by the experience.

Tending the Fire of my Soul

A wonderful snow of perhaps twelve inches over two days has turned our home into a winter wonderland. I need to clear off the driveway three different times, but once that is accomplished I can enjoy our quiet woods … the woods are always especially quiet after a good snow.

Most of all I am ready for a good, steady fire down in my study. The wood and the flames are good companions. In the late afternoon I think back to when I was a child of eight. We had wintered at an uncle’s cabin deep in the Rocky Mountains. I slept in front of the generous fireplace. As this was our only heat source through the night, we needed to keep it burning. In time I became the person who tended the fire through the night. Tonight I am reminded that I need to be constantly tending the fire of my soul.

The Voice of the True Shepherd

Today I go back to an old friend, John Woolman, and his famous journal. I am considering a passage where he is dealing with materialism and his relationship to this thorny subject. He brings up humility amid a discussion of simplicity of life: I saw that an humble man, with the blessing of the Lord, might live on a little, and that where the heart was set on greatness, success in business did not satisfy the craving; but that commonly with an increase of wealth the desire of wealth increased. There was a care on my mind so to pass my time that nothing might hinder me from the most steady attention to the voice of the true Shepherd.”

For Woolman the most important thing is a steady attention to the voice of the true Shepherd.” May this become true for me more and more … as I am ready and able to receive it.

The Wise Apostle Paul

I am seeking to settle into the writings of the wise apostle Paul and especially his words on humility. They read like a rat-a-tat-tat of concern for the spirit of humility.

  • Romans 12:10 — Outdo one another in showing honor.”

  • Romans 12:16 — Do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly.”

  • Galatians 5:13 — For you were called to freedom, brothers and sisters; only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for self-indulgence, but through love become slaves to one another.” 

  • Ephesians 4:12 — Lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love.”

  • Ephesians 5:21 — Be subject to one another out of reverence for Christ.”

  • Philippians 2:3 — Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves.”

  • Philippians 2:58 — Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus.… He humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death — even death on a cross.”

  • Colossians 3:12 — Clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience.”

And to top it all off we have Paul’s magnificent essay on agape love in 1 Corinthians 13. Here we find humility hidden inside agape as an essential ingredient: Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.”

How is it that Paul learned the spirit of humility so deeply in his soul? Did he learn lessons in humility as he stood watching Stephen’s death? The many disciples of Jesus that Paul persecuted surely taught him about a life of humble service. I rather imagine that his dramatic encounter with the risen Christ (strong enough to knock him off his donkey and blind him for a time) and his conversion experience with Ananias who addressed him as brother Saul” taught him the ABCs of humility. Even more important were his three years in the deserts of Arabia, where I rather imagine he was constantly learning directly from his divine Teacher Jesus. Most certainly Paul learned well what a life of humility in the interior chambers of the heart looks like. Oh, may I too learn the supreme value of humility of heart.

The Most Gracious Ecumenical Spirit

Andrew Murray was a Scottish preacher and pastor of the nineteenth century. Virtually all of his ministry years were spent in South Africa. We know him today because of his many books of Christian devotion, perhaps the most well-known being With Christ in the School of Prayer. My early training in the life of devotion came to a large extent from Andrew Murray’s writings.

I single him out here because of a slender volume (just over a hundred pages) he wrote with the simple title Humility. Indeed, the title is so unassuming that more recent editions of the book have sought to embellish it a bit with subtitles like True Greatness or The Beauty of Holiness or The Journey Toward Holiness. These are justified only because Murray devotes chapter seven to humility in relationship to holiness, especially the Keswick holiness movement in his day, sometimes called the Higher Life movement. But the central focus of Murray’s book is the Christian virtue of humility.

I appreciate many things about this small book. One emphasis of Murray’s we can easily miss is the ease with which he uses epigraphs from Roman Catholic writers of devotion to begin many chapters. Remember, in the nineteenth century the Dutch Reformed Church in which Murray was ordained was not especially warm toward the Church of Rome … to put it mildly. Add to this that Murray’s mother was a descendent of the French Huguenots who had been so severely persecuted by Rome, almost to extinction. Yet, in this small book I find Andrew Murray showing the most gracious ecumenical spirit, drawing from a breadth of sources:

  • Thomas Aquinas — If you are looking for an example of humility, look at the cross.”

  • Thomas à Kempis — The more humble a man is in himself, the more obedient toward God, the wiser will he be in all things, and the more shall his soul be at peace.”

  • Bernard of Clairvaux — It is no great thing to be humble when you are brought low; but to be humble when you are praised is a great and rare achievement.”

  • Augustine of Hippo — Should you ask me: What is the first thing in religion? I should reply: the first, second, and third thing herein is humility.”

Lovely. I like the quotations and, even more, I like that Murray used them.

The Root of All

Andrew Murray himself says: Humility is the only soil in which virtue takes root; a lack of humility is the explanation of every defect and failure. Humility is not so much a virtue along with the others, but is the root of all.”

Again, The call to humility has been too little regarded in the church because its true nature and importance have been too little apprehended.”

Then Murray shares with us his own lack and learning about humility: I had long known the Lord without realizing that meekness and lowliness of heart are to be the distinguishing feature of the disciple, just as they were of the Master.”

Finally, Murray deals with pride, which he considers the crux of our problem:

Let us at the very outset … admit that there is nothing so natural to man, nothing so insidious and hidden from our sight, nothing so difficult and dangerous as pride. And acknowledge that nothing but a very determined and persevering waiting on God will reveal how lacking we are in the grace of humility and how powerless we are to obtain what we seek. We must study the character of Christ until our souls are filled with the love and admiration of His lowliness.

Satan at the Headwaters of Pride

Murray sees pride as the great enemy of humility. And he stresses repeatedly that Satan is at the headwaters of pride. In one significant passage Murray speaks of the pride Satan breathed into humankind.”

The epigraph to lead off chapter eight (“Humility and Sin”) contains a quote from Jonathan Edwards that I had never read before: Nothing sets a person so much out of the devil’s reach as humility.”

The theme of pride originating in Satan is sprinkled throughout Humility. It is probably not the way we would write about the issue today, but for this very reason it has unusual punch. It underscores for me the need to be aware that the Enemy of our souls uses pride as his chief weapon. So, all the more need for me to cultivate humility of heart.

The Best of All the Graces

On this subject Murray was keenly aware of the failure of the church in his day: 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.”

If Murray’s words are an accurate description of the church in the nineteenth century … how much truer of us today. Precious little in today’s culture encourages humility of heart. Pastors find it exceedingly difficult to address the subject in their preaching. And the average Christian has so few living examples of how to live quietly and humbly.

O Lord, forgive us for our lack. Teach us a good way forward.

Every Kind and Form and Degree of Pride

Murray concludes his slender book with an experimental prayer for humility.

I will here give you an infallible touchstone that will test all to the truth: retire from the world and all conversation for one month. Neither write, nor read, nor debate anything with yourself; stop all the former workings of your heart and mind, and with all the strength of your heart stand as continually as you can in the following form of prayer to God. Offer it frequently on your knees; but whether sitting, walking, or standing, be always inwardly longing and earnestly praying this one prayer to God: that of His great goodness He would make known to you, and take from your heart every kind and form and degree of pride, … and that He would awaken in you the deepest depth and truth of that humility which can make you capable of His light and Holy Spirit.

I am not sure I could manage Murray’s one-month time frame … but his prayer for humility most certainly speaks to my condition. O Lord, God of all mercy, take from my heart every kind and form and degree of pride. Awaken in me the deepest depth and truth of that humility which can make me capable of your light and Holy Spirit. Amen.

A Simple Prayer

A simple prayer has been drifting in and out of my consciousness in recent days. I haven’t gotten the wording quite right and so decided that writing it out might help me articulate the inner yearnings.

Loving Lord Jesus, I humbly ask that you would …
Purify my heart,
Renew my mind,
Sanctify my imagination, and
Enlarge my soul.

I think it would be good to stay with this prayer for a while.

The Human Side and the Divine Side

Took a hike today with my little prayer as my companion and sensed that there are two sides to its answer: the human side and the divine side.

On the human side

  • With regard to heart purity, I am to consider tenderly the crucifixion of our Lord Jesus Christ. I am to see his heart as an open wound of love toward all humanity. And I am to feel the divine love pouring out of his wounded heart for me.

  • With regard to a renewed mind, I am to think on whatever is true and honorable and just and pure and pleasing and commendable (Phil 4:8). Not all the time, but whenever I am able.

  • With regard to a sanctified imagination, I am to picture the new heaven and the new earth, the new Jerusalem, the river of the water of life bright as crystal, and the tree of life on either side of the river whose leaves are for the healing of the nations (Rev 21 – 22). Imagine that! Picture this, not constantly, only as I can.

  • With regard to an enlarged soul, I am to find people I can serve. In small ways, and even large ways. Whenever possible.

On the divine side

  • With regard to heart purity, God alone purifies the heart. God alone will straighten out the twistedness of all desires. God alone will radiate light into every dark corner.

  • With regard to a renewed mind, God alone will train the mind into deep habit patterns of righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit (Rom 14:17).

  • With regard to a sanctified imagination, God alone slowly, slowly, slowly channels all the imaginings into that pure stream which is comprised of the good and the true and the beautiful.

  • With regard to an enlarged soul, God alone will place deep within the subterranean chambers of the heart and the mind and the imagination an understanding of the overwhelming preciousness of every single person.

Then came this authoritative word: remember that God is …

  • quick to forgive
  • eager to heal
  • glad to restore.

Related Podcast

  1. October 8 – November 4. Out of respect for Native Americans’ nature-informed way of marking time, Richard organizes his year of journal entries in Learning Humility according to the thirteen months and moons of the Lakota people of the northern plains. ↩︎
  2. While researching the Lakota calendar, Richard discovered that there are twelve traditional Lakota virtues— the first of which is humility. Learning Humility includes his reflections on Lakota values as quite consistent with a Christian understanding of the moral life” and helpful in enriching our understanding and practice of humility. ↩︎

Adapted from Learning Humility by Richard J. Foster. Copyright © 2022 by Richard J. Foster, LLC. Used by permission of InterVarsity Press.

Photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash

Text First Published December 2022 · Last Featured on December 2022