Saturday, December 10, 2016

Book Review: Humble Roots

Humble Roots: How Humility Grounds and Nourishes Your Soul by Hannah Anderson
Moody Publishers, 2016

Hannah Anderson has a way of getting to the heart of certain struggles in my walk with God, so when I had the opportunity to review her latest book, I couldn't pass it up. Humble Roots is a continuation of the conversation started in her earlier work, Made for More, which is about being made in God’s image. (I shared some reflections on it here.) Her second book is about learning how to flourish as those created in God’s image, by being grounded in our dependence on Him.

To put it more directly, “The goal of Humble Roots is to understand how pride manifests itself in anxiety and restlessness; and how humility frees us from the cycle of stress, performance, and competition.”

In her own life, Anderson realized that, implicitly, she “believed that finding rest comes from both simultaneously learning to let go and keeping your act together.” As she reflected on Matthew 11:28-29, she saw that neither of those things yields rest. Humble Roots explores those things that cause restlessness and how becoming rooted in Jesus’ humility frees us from them. 

In chapter one, Anderson describes the familiar scenario of lying awake, feeling overworked and overwhelmed, and “also tired of knowing that I had absolutely no right to feel the way I did.” This was so painfully resonant for me: “The truth was that I had no large looming problems, only small ones that felt large. I had no major life crises, only minor ones that felt major. I had no monumental difficulties, only trivial ones that felt unbelievably monumental. I was stressed and unhappy with a very normal life.” She suggests that maybe the little things rankle us so much because they reveal our larger helplessness: “Failure at small things reminds us of how helpless we are in this great, wide world. When little things spiral out of control, they remind us that even they were never within our control in the first place.” Jesus understands these mundane sorts of worries and never shames us for having them. The only thing we can do is seek Him, trusting that He knows both our troubled hearts and our limits better than we do and that He will take care of the rest.

One of the things I’ve most struggled with since becoming a Reformed Christian is being told to rest in my identity in Christ. I find it difficult to know what this means in everyday life, especially when anxiety and shame continue to make themselves felt. Is it mainly a matter of (ironically) trying harder to think the right way?  I appreciated Anderson's sensitivity to this. She writes, “[I]f we’re not careful, telling someone to ‘seek God’ without explaining how and what that looks like can actually compound her stress…when she tries and, for whatever reason, doesn’t experience the rest she expects, she will feel more confused and more burdened. Apparently, not only is she incapable of finding time to cultivate her current relationships, she’s also incapable of finding the largest Being in the universe.” I can’t tell you how often that has been the story of my spiritual life over the years. So what does seeking Jesus’ kingdom look like?

It starts with humbling ourselves and submitting to His yoke. If we’re “plowing” under our own strength, it’s possible we are operating with a messiah complex. I admit that I struggled at this point in the book. Reading some of her diagnostic markers for pride, I found myself thinking that I’m not really a solve-other-people’s-problems, save-the-world kind of girl. The things that rob me of peace tend to lie much closer to home—I can’t even keep my own kitchen clean, much less worry about someone else’s. I’m not disputing that pride may be just as much at the root of that; however, I did wish that Anderson had unpacked this a bit more. Is it setting myself in God’s place to desire a baseline competence in “adulting,” and to grieve when I can't get there? In any case, I take her point that striving to have it all together does “reap stress, restlessness, and anxiety.” This year, for example, the more I have accepted that I’ll never get "on top" of things, the freer I’ve felt to serve Christ and my family in the midst of daily routine instead of longing to jettison my responsibilities. (To save space, I’ll just point to some of my perennial wrestling with striving, grace, and sanctification in this old post. If you have the answer, please spell it out for me.)

I appreciate Anderson’s repeated emphasis that humility is not a commodity, that there is no technique one can master in order to attain it. It comes of being grafted onto Christ such that His humility is truly ours, allowing us to walk in the knowledge of Whose we are and where we come from. It is a “correct sense of self.” It’s acknowledging that God is God and we are not. When we lose track of this, we begin to think of ourselves as deserving of greater glory and honor than others. This is counter to the way of Jesus, who never fought to prove His worth, sought to fulfill Himself, or pursued His own comfort (cf. Phil. 2:3-11). As Anderson puts it so well, “What Paul is describing is not simply a checklist of good human behaviors. Something about Jesus’ very existence—about the way He moved through the world as a human being—radically altered humanity.” In this sense, Jesus’ humility is not an ideal to be copied in our own strength, but a historical fact that is saving in the same way as His death and resurrection are saving. The more we are transfixed by who Jesus is, the less we will care about protecting our own glory. We will be able to appreciate God’s glory reflected in those around us rather than perceiving it as a threat to ourselves. 

Having established the roots of humility, the remainder of the book explores what it looks like to be transformed by humility. As Anderson puts it, “This is no quick fix. What we’re after is sustainable growth.” (Though I couldn’t help observing that she uses the word “suddenly” often in this book! Though I don’t think it was always being used in a temporal sense.)

Anderson devotes chapters to our physical bodies, our resources, our desires and gifting, suffering, and death. While I could pull wonderful excepts from any of these, there are two areas I want to comment on in a little more detail. First, when it comes to our emotional lives, we don’t overcome distress by focusing on our feelings, which only reinforces our angst; instead we remember that God is greater than our heart, that “we don’t have to obey our emotions because the only version of reality that matters is God’s.” He is the only one who really understands our hearts and sets us “free to see the world from a perspective larger than my own heart,” to continually refocus on the Object of our faith instead of our shifting subjectivity. After all, “When you play Holy Spirit in your own life, you’ll quickly become comfortable playing Holy Spirit in other people’s lives as well.” (Talk about convicting!) Anderson does not endorse stoicism, arguing that bringing our feelings before God frees us to enjoy the depth and variety he gifts us in our emotional lives. Perhaps this, more than any other chapter, contains the most fodder for another whole book. I would love to read further discussion of how humility liberates us from emotional turmoil, and I’m sure I’m not alone! It would also be great to see more interaction with Christian forebears who wrestled with these questions—to begin with, many Puritan pastors wrote extensively on the relationship between faith and the “affections.”

Secondly, humility trains our intellect, insight, and perspective. A humble person is teachable, aware of the limits of her own mind. It’s so easy to fall into the trap of defining ourselves by our grasp of the right answers—but if, instead, we are accepted by God on the basis of Jesus’ rightness (and righteousness), then we are safe. We can be okay with our inability to know everything—“your mind can be at ease. You don’t have to worry and fret and stay up late searching out every possible detail before you make a decision.” It’s not that arriving at the “right” answers is unimportant, but—here Anderson uses the rather brilliant metaphor of vine-ripening tomatoes—in humility, we can be less concerned with knowing the answers and more concerned with learning the answers.  Jesus did not want his disciples to have all the answers at once, and the same is true of us; he has set things up such that “the very process of learning binds us to Him in a way that simply knowing the answers cannot.” We may never know everything we yearn to know—but we know the One who does know. This may have been the most freeing and satisfying chapter for me. I love the idea of “[letting] knowledge ripen on the vine,” and this could have such interesting implications for discipleship and pedagogy!

Throughout, Anderson keeps with the “roots” theme by drawing on images and metaphors native to her Appalachian upbringing (she’s Pennsylvania-raised like me and currently lives in the Blue Ridge Mountains in which I spent a blessed season). I won’t dwell on this, except to say that it does work uncommonly well—each chapter is framed by a concept, story, or historical anecdote related to something like heirloom vegetables, herbal remedies, local honey, and berry foraging. These frames are sometimes brilliant and never strained, even when I wasn’t particularly excited about them for their own sake.

This is a lovely and challenging book I certainly recommend. I like that, for Anderson, humility isn’t solely a matter of mental habit—one can certainly pick up on bodily and social dimensions throughout the book. I would have liked to see some of this teased out more, since I am so prone to get stuck inside my internal world.

In that vein, one of the things I appreciated most is that this is a quietly churchly book. Woven throughout are illustrations drawn from the small country church pastored by Anderson’s husband. As much as I appreciated Anderson’s avoidance of “technique,” I wondered if more discussion of the concrete means of grace—the practices of corporate worship, the sacraments, and Scriptural study—could have bolstered her rightful emphasis on focusing on Jesus. How do these things work to ground us in Christ’s humility, even when we are subjectively ravaged by anxieties?

I admit, when I read, "Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest," I still feel a clench of anxiety, not peace. It rarely feels true, and I feel guilty that I somehow can't let it "work." But Hannah Anderson cuts through that knot of self very effectively, and I suspect her book will be working on me (ripening) for a long time. I hope it will do the same for others who long for rest.

I received an electronic copy of this book via Netgalley in exchange for my honest review.