_My Utmost for His Highest_ —A Critical Look at the Classic Devotional

Standard

Oswald ChambersMy Utmost for His Highest is one of the best-selling Christian books, if not the outright champ of devotionals. The book was first published in 1935, 18 years after its author’s death, and has never been out of print.

That author, Oswald Chambers, was coverted in part through the ministry of Charles Spurgeon and later went on to be a chaplain in the military. Chambers passed away in his early 40s from a ruptured appendix, and his wife was the one who compiled some of his writings into the devotional book we know today. The book was first published in 1935, 18 years after Chambers’s death, and has never been out of print.

I wanted to write about My Utmost for His Highest because I decided this summer to look through an old copy that has been sitting in our library for years. Aware of the reputation of the devotional, I thought it might be a good adjunct for me over the course of the next year. I have used A.W. Tozer’s Renewed Day by Day as devotional reading in the past and thought it helpful.

I am no expert on the history of Christian devotional works, so I don’t know if My Utmost for His Highest pioneered the layout of contemporary devotionals, but it adheres to the now typical form of a short Scripture passage followed by thoughts by the author, all arranged into 366 entries that fit on a page each.

To begin, I want to say that whatever Christian Oswald Chambers was, he was certainly a more noteworthy one than I am. For that reason, readers are invited to disagree with what follows, if for no other reason than as a testament to Chambers and the sheer number of this tome that have been sold, and in 39 languages.

But in reading My Utmost for His Highest (hereafter MUfHH), I wonder if the legacy of this devotional hasn’t set the stage for some of the problems we see in contemporary Christianity in the West.

1. While Bible text opens the daily entry, there’s often just a few words of it—followed by a lengthy exposition.

The one thing a casual glance at MUfHH reveals are a lot of ellipses. Scriptures are often cut down to their barest essentials. The June 30 entry is nothing more than “Agree with your adversary quickly… (Matthew 5:25).” Believe it or not, some Bible text for a day is even shorter than that.

My concern: Unpacking such a short passage out of context can lead to reading one’s agendas and presuppositions into the text (AKA eisegesis). Chambers does not equivocate on anything in MUfHH, so he has a forceful voice. This acts against people questioning his interpretation of the limited text and what should be done with it. This also sets up a tendency in readers to accept “little text with big explanation” as a norm for Bible exposition. But should it be?

One could argue that many devotionals follow this format, but I wonder if it doesn’t contribute to a wider problem of saying more about a text than the text supports. Of course, this can lead us into error, especially when the context has no similar exposition.

2. Keswick.

An unfamiliar term for many, Keswick is/was the location in England of a notable Christian Holiness conference and movement dedicated to the “higher life.” This movement is marked by the following beliefs:

  • The baptism of the Holy Spirit (or “second work of grace”)
  • Mystical union with God
  • Holiness through Christian perfection

Some will recognize Wesleyan theology in these distinctives, but Keswick has been ecumenical in its reach. Nor was it an isolated theology, as many notable late 19th century Christians (including Andrew Murray, D.L. Moody, Hannah Whitall Smith, Hudson Taylor, and R.A. Torrey) were proponents.

Readers know I have written in support of the baptism of the Spirit and the positives (to a point) of Christian mysticism. However, it’s that third element of Keswickian theology…

My concern: MUfHH definitely shows the influence of Keswick on Oswald Chambers in that it is rife with Christian perfectionism. In fact, most of the entries contain some reference to the Christian working to perfect himself or herself to better experience God.

Some examples of how this manifests:

July 13: “My vision of God is dependent upon my character. My character determines whether or not truth can even be revealed to me.”

July 31: “Not only must our relationship to God be right, but our outward expression of that relationship must also be right. Ultimately, God will allow nothing to escape; every detail of our lives is under His scrutiny.”

August 2: “God does not give us an overcoming life—He gives us life as we overcome.”

August 9: “Are we living at such a level of human dependence upon Jesus Christ that His life is being exhibited moment by moment in us?”

August 24: “Don’t faint and give up, but find out the reason you have not received; increase the intensity of your search and examine the evidence. Is your relationship right with your spouse, your children, and your fellow students?…I am a child of God only by being born again, and as His child I am good only as I ‘walk in the light.'”

August 27: “The moment you forsake the matter of sanctification or neglect anything else on which God has given you His light, your spiritual life begins to disintegrate within you. Continually bring the truth out into your real life, working it out into every area, or else even the light that you possess will itself prove to be a curse.”

Does anyone else recognize how exhausting that perpetual self-examination is?

This kind of “I must strive to be perfect in order to receive anything from God” thinking extends from the idea that such perfection is possible this side of heaven. Sadly, it also counters the more biblical reality that Christ alone is the perfection of the born-again believer, and that Christ’s perfection is finished.

Even the title of the devotional itself offers a hidden conditional, that to get God’s highest requires one be perfect enough to deliver one’s utmost. MUfHH contains a LOT of this kind of idea, which leads to the next issue.

3. Talk of Grace, but followed by Law.

MUfHH talks much about God’s grace and how the believer can grow in it. In this, it reads like an instruction book on how to be a better Christian.

My concern: To talk of grace and immediately suggest something the believer must do to better his or her spiritual state isn’t the Gospel. Our sanctification is driven by God, not by relentless examination and working harder to be better Christians. Jesus alone is both the author and finisher of our faith (Hebrews 12:2). It is He alone we trust to finish the work He began in us (Philippians 1:6). If anything, our striving only gets in the way of genuine sanctification through God working His work in us.

MUfHH is loaded with striving. Almost every entry tells us what we’re not doing right and what we should do to fix it.

I offer the following little check of my own accord. You can take it for what it is worth. I believe it is in keeping with the Bible’s understanding of both Law and Gospel.

When I feel discouragement or despair in reading spiritual works, it is likely I am encountering the Law. The Bible makes it known repeatedly (and I will leave you to examine the many verses in support) that the Law illuminates every way in which I am deficient before God. How can one not feel despair in such a case?

But grace provides the opposite feelings: hope and joy. Christ overcame the curse of the Law. This is the heart of the Gospel.

Rather than being encouraged by much of MUfHH, my personal reaction has been discouragement in the form of “well, there’s just another spiritual discipline I’m not doing or not doing correctly.” Considering that nearly every entry in MUfHH consists of some way in which you and I are not being the best Christian we should be, it feels very Law-based, no matter how much grace is supposedly espoused. To begin an entry with talk of the grace of Christ but then to talk about how poorly I’m doing in apprehending it and what I should do to fix things, is not the best way to encourage Christian growth or the kind of freedom the Gospel delivers.

This is my greatest apprehension regarding this Christian classic. It’s not that it doesn’t encourage readers to go deeper in their faith in Christ, but it has a tendency to make a millstone out of this path to a deeper life in God.

To be entirely transparent, I’m unclear how most people can read My Utmost for His Highest and not despair at their inability to pull off the many solutions Chambers requires to counter the average Christian’s myriad failings. One day tells of what you are doing wrong, only to be followed by the next day telling something else you are doing wrong, and on and on. How this proves helpful to Christian growth is lost on me. What I come away with instead is a large burden that is my terribly practiced Christian life, which I appear to be performing atrociously despite God’s grace.

If anything, I see the striving that results at the heart of American Christianity. Do better. Work harder. Fix, fix, fix.

But where is the freedom of the Gospel in this? Where is the rest, in that a Christian can lay down all the striving, all the self-made righteousness and perpetual examination, and know that Jesus said on our behalfs, “It is finished”?

*****

I’m always willing to consider that perhaps I’m not reading My Utmost for His Highest correctly. Still, I cannot escape that it feels like just another set of Christian rules and suggestions that I will inevitably fail to do perfectly. Beginning each day that way—well, I’m not sure how encouraging that is.

If you have differing thoughts, please comment below.

21 thoughts on “_My Utmost for His Highest_ —A Critical Look at the Classic Devotional

  1. Bob Aarhus

    Well, Dan, I’ve been using “My Utmost for His Highest” for decades during my daily quiet times. I can’t think of a single year where I haven’t spent at least half of it reading the relevant page. I’ve come to the point where I’ve started to recognize passages and phrases from the previous year(s), often fondly.

    I can appreciate your concerns about the Law and the Holiness Movement and how they both conspired to influence Chambers’ works. That said, I think your concerns are largely unfounded. What I take away from Chambers is not so much “I’ve failed here” than “God is a very different Being than I am, and I need to conform my ideas to Him more than He needs to conform to my personal agenda”. There are many places in MUFHH where Chambers recognizes our sinful nature and the office of God’s grace.

    I think MUFHH (which, by the way, was edited and compiled by his wife from portions of his lectures, so if there is a thematic tendency, it is just as much her work as his) challenges me not to be comfortable and fall into a pattern of self-sameness that plagues some believers. Even though I’ve read each of his entries multiple times, I frequently find new ways of seeing our infinite and omnipotent God in Chambers’ writing.

    So, no, I never fall into despair reading Chambers. I never have. Jesus said “It is finished.” He also said, “I tell you the truth, anyone who believes in me will do the same works I have done, and even greater works, because I am going to be with the Father.” (Greater here meaning “more”, not necessarily “better”.) Even for believers, a large gap spans between our experiential knowledge of God, and God’s true Nature. “Now this is eternal life: that they know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom you have sent.” Chambers encourages us never to give up on striving to know God better through His Spirit and the circumstances that God sends us.

    • Bob,

      Thank you for the counterpoint.

      I do not disagree with you that MUfHH does a fine job pointing us to a deeper life that comes from knowing God. For me at least, I find it hard to follow through on all the things Chambers says we should be doing but aren’t. Given that this happens almost daily in the devotional, it seems overwhelming. Again, I realize that this is probably the minority view, seeing how beloved the devotional is.

    • dwcasey,

      I noticed your Luther Rose gravatar. I think it may be that people who come to MUfHH from a Lutheran or Reformed background will have more issues with the perpetual nature of self-examination and “you must do this” that is found throughout the devotional. Perhaps those who come from an Arminian or RCC background will feel it less.

  2. Coming from a Holiness background, I had a lot of useless and stultifying striving in my life. What Would Jesus Do is a terrible book. For Conservatives, it is a common problem that leads to false guilt and false shame. So, many devotions are strongly invested in works rather than mercy and grace, so MUfHH is not much different.

    • Gary,

      Interesting thoughts on the nature of devotionals. I wonder if it is an inherent flaw in the daily aspect of them that forces the format into a “today, try to do this” necessity so that it makes the devotional feel more active (and therefore—as the reasoning goes—useful) than thoughtful. There’s something in American Christianity that forces us into a “well, I’ve got to be doing more” mentality that wars with grace and with the simple reality of being in Christ, not doing for Christ.

      That kind of thinking might get me labeled as antinomian, but the last year or so of my life has really shown me how entrenched this personal perfecting is within American Christianity, and I think it’s a major reason why people are flaming out.

      • As you know, I have Coached Leaders for years and see many burned out, worn out, people who try to over function for Jesus rather than rest in Jesus. I have never ministered to a leader involved in moral failures that was resting in the finished work of Jesus. I have sometimes taught on “How to be Burned Out for Jesus” and laid out the rules for striving and trying to be holy. Despite my obvious paradoxical focus people are really confused because it sounds so much like what they hear every week in Sunday school and sermons and devotions. I also have a paper on “How to Drive Yourself and Others Crazy” that you can have if you ask.

  3. Chris E

    Hi Dan –

    I think you are right. I think there is also a related tendency to demand that all teaching be ‘practical’ in some way – after all what practical use is ‘mere’ theology.

    It’s interesting that reading large chunks of scripture and trusting in the Spirit to do the rest wouldn’t pass the smell test from congregations who purport to believe in the work of the Spirit.

    • Toby,

      In the post I mentioned Renewed Day by Day by A.W. Tozer.

      I recently bought a copy of Experiencing God: Day by Day by Henry Blackaby for a high school grad after I paged through it. Not an in-depth analysis, but the sampling I did showed it had some good things to say, especially for someone who is more at the beginning of the journey than the end or middle. YMMV.

      Jeff (in the comments) mentioned Morning & Evening by Charles Spurgeon. I know that has many proponents.

      I’m not saying to avoid MUfHH because it’s doctrinally suspect, only that Chambers does throw out many admonitions to do such and such better. How you feel about that will dictate how well his devotional will benefit you.

      Anyone else here want to add a good devotional?

  4. Jeff

    Thanks for writing on this Dan. It’s been awhile since I’ve read through this devotional, but your analysis rings true and helps explain why I ended up putting it down.

    For a season, it was very helpful and challenging. Chambers’ writing voice is very different than most other Christian authors I’ve encountered and initially the call/push to a holier life was refreshing. But after awhile, I started feeling weighed down after most readings — especially at times in my life when I was struggling and in need of grace.

    I’ve only used a few devotionals, but the best one from my perspective is Spurgeon’s Morning and Evening.

    • Jeff,

      It’s interesting that you say “for a season.” More and more, the Christian books that really guided me in my younger life don’t hold up in my older years. A few do, but not many. I think that each of us goes through seasons when a book will really hit us between the eyes, but when we revisit it years later, it may lack that same oomph. I think it’s because we’re in a different season. Doesn’t make that book suddenly bad, only that God has something else to say to us in that moment.

      Tozer, Nee, Willard, and Lewis are a few of the authors whose books never seem to get old for me, but even then, I’ll never have that same initial discovery as I did that first time I read this title or that from them. It’s the nuances that grab you later and less so the big ideas.

  5. Eetu

    I listened a lot to a fellow Christian who had been reading this book. I agree with everything stated in the text above. What that fellow Christian said sounded like we should sanctify ourselves but only Jesus can do that.

  6. David45th

    Hellow, I am Nazarene and come from the holiness movement. I would like to share how I feel about MUFHH. I just picked up and so my opinion does not need to be taken with much weight. Nonetheless, my opinion does have some weight because I am Nazarene and already struggling with it. As a Nazarene, I would say that many times my Calvinist brothers have a strong misunderstanding about we Arminians. For one, people in the holiness movement do not believe that if you just “work hard enough or strive hard enough” you will enter into this perfect state of never sinning again–like you achieved super-Christian level or something. Whether the word perfect needs to be understood in the original Hebrew/Greek language and the many meanings/times it is used. When we use the word perfect in English it typically means flawless, but I highly doubt the Bible means this when it states it. Yet, I don’t have time tonight as it very late to mention the Scripture passages supporting a Christian-perfection in Biblical terms right now. What holiness guys do commonly believe (but some circles portray the typical stereotype of holiness guys) that a Christian gets to a point that they say, “Lord have all of me. Take the blank check. Then God cleans your heart but it does not stop there. His Spirit helps us to continue to grow but we must respond in faith/trusting Him daily.” And yes. Holiness guys do believe we can stop trusting and fall away. But it is really hard to fall away from God since God is always like a Dad keeping us on the right path. Now to move on from the falling away stuff, we as holiness guys me simply that a Christian can also get to the point that desire (the heart motive) to not sin willfully anymore (this NOT mean that they cannot still choose to sin willfully anymore), but the entire sanctified (perfect/utmost) believer can still unintentionally sin often (meaning we still believe we are imperfect Christians in that sense). So many of us would agree with the statement that you said, “If anything, our striving only gets in the way of genuine sanctification through God working His work in us.” I have to remind myself of that daily. Now with Oswald Chambers–he could possibly be communicating this mindset too. However, I am little getting the same feeling every time I open an entry. I haven’t read it long and there is always a reminder of how I am still missing the mark and need to shape up. Entry Feb 3 is strange. He quotes Psalm 97:2 and I can partly see his point–kind of. However, Psalm 97 is kind of praise song with some instructions, though. But his first statement about thinks the teachings of Jesus are simple, “then must not be a real Christian!” Is kind of weird, to be honest. I felt as someone just told me my salvation is based on if I ever thought Jesus’ teachings are simply–in which I have said that. So the statement is kind offensive. Of course, it depends on what he means by that. If he means practically Jesus’s teachings being simple, then that does make sense. If he is speaking about simply stating that Christ’s teachings are simple compared to man’s teachings, then I strongly disagree. I tend to read into things. But what I do notice so far is this continual–you got another thing to work on buddy, I guess your not a believer bud or haven’t arrived at the Utmost Highest. Maybe I need to keep reading, but it could be that I need ask the Holy Spirit what devotional I need to read this year. Last year, I was reading Billy Graham devotions and got tired of the out-context Scripture quoting. I know even Great Billy Graham makes mistakes. So I tried MUfHH and now seeing something similar to Billy Graham’s. Perhaps, devotionals should do a better job at checking their context. Also, a good reminder is that these MUfHH’s entries are taking from His sermons. If you read the full text it would make more sense. On the other hand, some (sometimes well-meaning) pastors can be the worst at taking Scripture out-of-context. I believe I may try dc Talk’s Jesus Freaks for fun this year.

    • David45th

      If he is speaking about simply stating that Christ’s teachings are simple compared to man’s teachings, then I strongly disagree.*** Let me restate that. I mean “If he is speaking about simply stating that Christ’s teachings are simple (meaning they are not complex or burdensome) compared to man’s teachings, then I strongly disagree.”

      • David45th

        EETU said: “What that fellow Christian said sounded like we should sanctify ourselves but only Jesus can do that.”

        I totally agree with you. Only by God’s grace can we be changed. The only differences with Armenian are we believe we have free will, therefore, our only part is being in a relationship with God by trusting in Him daily. Without God’s grace in the first place, there would be no ability to trust Him and be sanctified, to begin with.

  7. I recently heart Bishop Wright speak about this. He said,

    “What is Grace? It is Jesus the Messiah. Grace is not a thing but a person.”
    How? Worship/Prayer/Meditation not a devotional.

    I love to sit and pray in the Spirit to learn how to rest in God/Jesus/Holy Spirit. After some scripture, maybe a chapter or two, I can rest, relax, allow the Spirit to float people and ideas from my heart to God. Songs will arise and I worship in Spirit and truth.

    During a time of high blood pressure I saw a drop of 10 to 20 points when I did this.
    That proves. I am resting.

  8. Sam

    Hi. I happened across your blog post, and I agree with it. I haven’t read MUfHH all the way through or anything, but I have encountered a lot of his teachings/quotes throughout the years.

    Often, Chambers is right on. But in so many other ways, I feel he misses the mark. His thinking seems to be very black and white, and he frequently offers up pat answers for complicated situations. He just comes across as a prim know-it-all to me in a lot of ways. Yes, he does seem very legalistic.

    Anyway, I respect his work, and think he has many good ideas. But he’s not one of my favorite authors. In a nutshell, he should be treated like any other writer—test what he says, keep what’s good, and discard the rest. He should definitely not be placed on a pedestal or anything: “Well, if Oswald said it, it must be true!!” ;). In the end, it’s always important to think for yourself.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *