Tuesday, September 06, 2005

An Interview with C. J. Mahaney

I recently had the privilege of interviewing C. J. Mahaney about his upcoming book Humility: True Greatness. For those who don’t know who C. J. is, here is a brief description:

C. J. Mahaney leads Sovereign Grace Ministries in its mission to establish and support local churches. After 27 years of pastoring Covenant Life Church in Gaithersburg, Maryland, C.J. handed the senior pastor role to Joshua Harris on September 18, 2004, allowing C.J. to devote his full attention to Sovereign Grace. He serves on the Council of the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals, and on the boards of The Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood (CBMW) and the Christian Counseling and Educational Foundation. He is author of The Cross Centered Life; Christ Our Mediator; and Sex, Romance, and the Glory of God: What Every Christian Husband Needs to Know. This month, Multnomah Publishers will publish his latest book, Humility: True Greatness. C.J. and his wife Carolyn have three married daughters and one son. They make their home in Gaithersburg, Maryland.

JT: C. J., it’s an honor and a privilege to have the opportunity to interview you about your new book, Humility: True Greatness. Thanks for making time to do this. Before I ask any questions, let me first say, on behalf of everyone who knows of you and your writing, that we so deeply appreciate your cross-centered ministry of writing, preaching, and discipling countless pastors.

You start your book in this way:

Writing about humility is a humbling experience. Who wants to volunteer to write on this subject? Not me. There’ve been countless times while completing this book when I’ve been inspired to think, You idiot! Why did you agree to do this? And I could entertain you for hours relating the comments and facial expressions of those who discovered I was authoring a book with this title. I understand their reaction. If I met someone presuming to have something to say about humility, automatically I’d think him unqualified to speak on the subject.

So the question has to be asked: Why did you write a book about humility? And doesn’t authoring a book on humility disqualify you from writing it?

CJ: Well, I think writing the book only confirms I am an idiot! But I certainly didn’t write the book because I consider myself humble. I am not humble. I am a proud man pursuing humility by the grace of God. The book is not based on my personal example of humility. I could not and would not have written the book if it was dependent upon my example. The book is written to remind the reader of the following astonishing promise: “God…gives grace to the humble (1 Peter 5:5). Though I can think of many who would be better guides for this study and subject, I hope what I have written will position the reader to experience the grace promised to those who humble themselves before God.

JT: How do you define “humility,” “pride,” and “true greatness”?

CJ: Humility is honestly evaluating ourselves in light of God’s holiness and our sinfulness. John Owen wrote, “Two things are needed to humble us. First let us consider God in his greatness, glory, holiness, power, majesty, and authority. Second, let us consider ourselves in our mean, abject, and sinful condition.”

Pride is an attitude of self sufficiency in relation to God and self righteousness in relation to others. My favorite definition and description of pride is from the pen of the Puritan Charles Bridges:

Pride lifts up the heart against God. It contends for the supremacy with him. How unseemly moreover is this sin. A creature so utterly dependent, so fearfully guilty, yet proud in heart.

True greatness according to the Savior is serving others for the glory of God (Mark 10:43-45).

JT: Many would agree with you up to this point. They would agree that humility is essential, and that looking to Jesus is essential. They would argue that what we need most from Jesus is his personal example of humble service. Do you agree with that?

CJ: Nope. We desperately need more than his personal example of humble service. Actually what we need is the ultimate expression of his humble service. We need his death. We need forgiveness through his substitutionary sacrifice on the cross for our sins. We need to be ransomed or liberated from the corruption of sin and our captivity to sin by his atoning death. Any and all humility and servanthood that is present in the life of a Christian is the effect of his death on the cross and should draw attention to our crucified and risen Lord who “came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Mark 10:45).

JT: One of the recurring themes in your book comes from a quote by John Stott: “At every stage of our Christian development and in every sphere of our Christian discipleship, pride is the greatest enemy and humility our greatest friend.” How do you cultivate humility in your own life?

CJ: I love that quote by Stott. And because I am convinced that pride is my greatest enemy and humility my greatest friend I have searched the Scriptures over the years for practices that would enable me to weaken pride and cultivate humility each day. And I devote much attention to practical application in the book because I am convinced that one does not grow in godliness apart from the grace motivated application of truth. So in the book I present a list of practical ways I seek to weaken pride and cultivate humility each day. My recommendations begin with practices for weakening pride and cultivating humility as each day begins, practices for throughout each day and as each day ends. These practices would involve everything from studying the attributes of God to playing golf as much as possible (for there is no more humbling or humiliating sport). There are 17 practices I recommend, but for me the most important is to daily survey the wondrous Cross on which the Prince of Glory died. When Dr. Don Carson interviewed the late Dr. Carl Henry and asked him how he had remained humble for so many decades, Dr. Henry responded, “How can anyone be arrogant when he stands beside the cross?” I want to stand as close to the cross as I possibly can, because it’s harder for me to be arrogant and easier for me to be humble when I’m there.

JT: You have sections in the book on sleep and laughter. What do they have to do with humility?

CJ: Surprisingly a lot! Sleep is a sweet gift from God but it is also a daily reminder that we are not God. Only God “neither slumbers nor sleeps” (Psalm 121:4). Each night as I confront my need for sleep I am reminded that I am a totally dependent upon God. Sleep is a gift but it’s a humbling gift. Don’t just fall asleep tonight but seize the moment before you fall asleep to weaken pride and cultivate humility by acknowledging you are not self-sufficient, you are not the Creator. Sleep is a daily humbling reminder that we are completely dependent upon God.

As for laughter, well, don’t get me started on that neglected subject. At some point I want to teach a series on this often misunderstood and misused gift. But now is not the time or place. I learned a lot about laughter as a means of weakening pride and cultivating humility from my Dad. He taught me to laugh at myself and he was skilled in pointing out all the material that was present in my life that was truly humorous and humbling. And reading C.S. Lewis has increased my understanding and appreciation for this gift as a means of weakening pride and cultivating humility. In his book Surprised by Laughter: The Comic World of C.S. Lewis author Terry Lindvall writes the following inspired by the example of Lewis:

Laughter is a divine gift to the human who is humble. A proud man cannot laugh because he must watch his dignity; he cannot give himself over to the rocking and rolling of his belly. But a poor and happy man laughs heartily because he gives no serious attention to his ego.

There is a chapter in this book titled “Humor and Humility” that I particularly enjoy. So I would encourage the appreciation and the appropriate cultivation of this gift as a means of putting to death pride and cultivating humility. I would encourage us to laugh, really laugh, because funny stuff is happening all around you and often because of you.

JT: C. J., you have been a wonderful encourager in my own life and in the lives of many. You are intentional about uncovering and praising “evidences of grace” in the lives of others. How do you offer encouragement to others and yet at the same time not encourage pride in their hearts?

CJ: You ask great questions Justin! My challenge is trying to be concise and brief. That is very difficult when it comes to this topic. The following is my attempt to be concise. In my every encounter with every Christian I do seek to discern evidences of God’s grace in their life. I know God is at work (Phil. 2:13) in their life and I try and discern how he is at work, draw their attention to how he is at work, and celebrate his work in their lives. Biblical encouragement is God-centered not man-centered, it is God-glorifying not man-exalting. I am drawing attention to God’s grace not human achievement. I hope by my encouragement to leave behind a humble, edified soul who is more aware of God’s grace in their life and less aware of themselves.

JT: The apostle Paul told the churches that they were to be imitators of him (1 Cor. 4:16; 11:1). Is that something only an inspired author of Scripture can say, or should pastors be saying the same thing today to their congregations?

CJ: Well, pastors should be able to say this but I wouldn’t recommend they proclaim this too often! But clearly biblical leadership is derived from authentic personal example. Obviously our example will not be flawless but it must be a genuine example of godliness to qualify for pastoral ministry (1 Tim. 3:1-7; Titus 1:5-9). Modeling precedes teaching. Teaching involves explaining to those we serve what they already observe to some degree in our lives. And we must provide not only an initial qualifying example for pastoral ministry but a progressive and growing example (1 Tim. 4:15) that is obvious to those we serve.

JT: Switching subjects a bit: next April, you join Albert Mohler, Ligon Duncan, and Mark Dever in hosting a conference called Together for the Gospel. Why did you guys decide to pull this conference together?

CJ: This conference is the fruit of Mark Dever’s initiative and leadership; the friendship between the four of us and our desire to serve pastors regardless of their denominational affiliation or lack thereof.

JT: After watching the promo videos, it’s obvious that there is a great friendship and camaraderie among the four of you. How did the four of you become friends—and how is it that a Presbyterian, two Baptists, and a Charismatic can get along so well?

CJ: What you see on those videos is no act or performance. What you see on those videos is what happens each time we are together. Mark, Al and Ligon were already friends and they kindly adopted me as a new friend. I suspect they viewed this as some form of outreach. I view their friendship as an expression of the humility that is present in their lives. They have served me as friends and teachers. And I am deeply grateful for their friendship and mentoring. And we get along so well because we have all been humbled by the gospel. We are all deeply and profoundly grateful for the Savior’s substitutionary sacrifice for our many sins. And we agree on the centrality of the gospel, reformed soteriology, the importance of sound doctrine, and the priority of the local church. For me it is a pure joy to spend time with these men, learn from them, and laugh together.

JT: Your wife and daughters are now blogging. Your friend Lig Duncan is blogging at two blogs. When he’s not leading a seminary, appearing on Larry King Live, teaching classes, reading a book a day, and writing an 800-word column a day, Al Mohler blogs. So everyone wants to know: when is C. J. Mahaney going to start blogging?

CJ: I think that all the gifted folks you have listed above should be blogging. And add your name to that list my friend. I love your blog and read it each day. I am honored so many have asked when I am going to begin to blog. But I am not convinced I have anything unique to add to the blogging world. What I would love to do is begin a blog providing a biblical perspective on professional and college football, basketball (I am a passionate U of Maryland fan), and baseball. I have asked Al Mohler to bring his world-class discernment to these areas but he shows no interest. Most of the really smart guys I know have little or no interest in the world of sports. And truth be told, most of them aren’t coordinated. Watching them throw a ball is not a pretty sight. It’s obvious they have devoted themselves to the academic world and neglected any athletic development. And for their devotion to the Savior, the Scriptures, scholarship, and the church I am deeply grateful for I have benefited immeasurably from their example, teaching, and writing. I just wish they were more athletic.

JT: C. J., thanks for making time for this interview.

CJ: Justin, this has been a joy and an honor!

I encourage everyone to get a copy of Humility: True Greatness. I also encourage you to get his next book, Living the Cross Centered Life: Keeping the Gospel the Main Thing, coming in February, which will be a combined, reworked edition of The Cross Centered Life and Christ Our Mediator.