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


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.

Is “Missional” Sending People to Hell?


American Church leaders love buzzwords. Toss a buzzword around long enough and you seem smarter, more with it. “He uses that word a lot. He must be an expert.”

Past buzzwords of note include these “winners”:




Best of breed


Organic growth

Long tail

For the past five years or so, the American Church has fallen over itself to let potential local church members and disaffected believers looking for an “active” church know that it groks its mission to the world. The answer it offers is missional.

The word missional came from the title of a 1998 book assembled under the auspices of the World Council of Churches that sought to rediscover the true mission of the Church in the 21st century. It outlined de-emphasizing the Church as an institution and instead concentrating local church purposes on the “gospel mission,” doing the things the Bible depicts the Church doing in Acts.

All that sounds great—well, except for the World Council of Churches’ involvement.

Cerulean Sanctum exists to help Christians consider what it means to be New Testament believers living in 21st century America. When someone mentions the Book of Acts, my ears prick up. Missional appears to align perfectly with this blog’s intent.

But as I’ve watched churches scamper to redo their mission statements to include the word missional, even as church after church rejiggers its advertising to ensure people know it’s missional, I get a bad feeling about this swing to focusing on mission.

Missional church?Serving the poor is great. Healing the sick is a beautiful calling. Living simply is a must. Putting the mission of Jesus central in all we do is wonderful.

Or is it?

The problem  with the massive move to missional in the Church is that Christians ARE doing a much better job of putting the gospel activities of the Church central. More and more churches are effective at being less institutional and more missional.

So how is that a problem?

Making the activities of Christian mission central is subtly distinct from making Christ Himself central.

In the midst of all this missional hubbub, I wonder if we have forgotten Jesus.

A couple weeks ago, a friend mentioned that he was seeing a massive shift in the local church ecosystem. Large churches known for their programs were banding together to be more aggressive in missional practice, uniting under the banner of a missional program known as 3DM.

On the surface, this sounds amazing. Never mind that unifying under something calls into question that something’s ultimate message, Christians have long seen a need to be both more ecumenical and more mission-focused. This looks like a possible answer.

But as my friend described what was actually playing out, it sounded to me like a lot of great work done, but without a lot of “being.” in other words, this missional thrust looks super as an action, but what is going on in the spiritual depths of the people doing all those missional activities?

One of the most startling verses in the Bible, spoken by Jesus:

And this is eternal life, that they know you the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent.
—John 17:3 ESV

Jesus gives us the very definition of eternal life: Knowing God and knowing Jesus Himself.


Knowing is distinct from doing. It is possible to do and not to know. One can take part in activities that look and feel godly without knowing God. Fact is, this is what Protestants have accused Catholics of since the Reformation.

Is it possible to be missional and yet not know God and Jesus Christ whom God sent?

Sadly, I believe it is.

Consider the source of the word missional, a World Council of Churches book. Does a more doctrinally suspect organization exist? While that may be a “guilt by association” argument, researching the beliefs of those most ardent about missional uncovers compromises, usually with regard to traditional orthodoxy. The most missional-focused folks on the national stage often seem fuzzier about who Jesus is or what He says. They sometimes make statements that it’s OK to be a Muslim-Christian or a Buddhist-Christian. Or that the Church must embrace whatever the latest spirit of the age is to stay relevant. Relevance seems to be critical to being missional. As long as one stays relevant, one stays missional, so it doesn’t matter what happens to 2,000 years of Christian doctrine.

But if people who claim to know Jesus don’t track true to what His entire word says, in what way are they really following Him?

If a person does Gospel-looking activities but doesn’t adhere to everything in the Gospel, how can it be said that person is a Christian? How can the argument be made that such a person knows the real Jesus at all?

Jesus had a response to this:

Now as they went on their way, Jesus entered a village. And a woman named Martha welcomed him into her house. And she had a sister called Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet and listened to his teaching. But Martha was distracted with much serving. And she went up to him and said, “Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to serve alone? Tell her then to help me.” But the Lord answered her, “Martha, Martha, you are anxious and troubled about many things, but one thing is necessary. Mary has chosen the good portion, which will not be taken away from her.”
—Luke 10:38-42 ESV

In many ways, missional is a reaction against a moribund Church that sat at Jesus’ feet and soaked up the goodness—without doing anything with what was soaked up. But like so much that happens in the American Church, fleeing to one polar extreme after dwelling at the other is not the way to achieve balance.

Christians can’t just do works that look Christian. We must know Jesus. We must sit at His feet and dwell there.  It is as important to be as it is to do. In fact, as we see in the above passage from Luke, it may be MORE important.

We can do everything that looks like Christian mission and yet not know Jesus. The Muslim world has studied how Christian ministry works and now models many new Islamic charities off their Christian counterparts, which is winning converts to Islam. In short, missional success, just without Jesus.

Jesus is the difference. We must know Him. We must know what is truth. A Christianity that acts like the early Church but doesn’t know Jesus well—or at all—will fail because it is the arm of flesh and not the working of the Spirit.

How tragic to someday find yourself before the Lord and hear Him say He never knew you, despite all the missional things you did.

People are dying to know Jesus. Really, that’s all that matters. If our churches neglect to give Jesus to people in ample measure, all the missional in the universe will not save them.

Church of the Missing Words


One of the truths that has struck me in recent years, and one not every Christian is willing to consider, is that nearly every tribe, tongue, and nation has some concept of sin. Those tribes, tongues, and nations may view sin in a way that does not conform to orthodox Christian theology, but the acknowledgment that you/me/us has somehow done something wrong to anger “the gods” remains.

Where the divide comes is how you/me/us deals with that sin, and this makes for the most obvious differences between Christians and everyone else. In nearly all religions, some element of works righteousness exists, and while none should in Christianity, I’d say the majority of the world’s Christians are still trying to earn their way out of their sin or the consequences of it.

But that huge topic is another post.

This morning, I read the Outreach Magazine newsletter and an article in it, “5 Things Jesus Says to the Gay Community.” I’d like to say that I resisted considering what that article would NOT say, but I am weak and came to it expecting not to see a few Things Jesus Says even if He did, in reality, say them.

I wish I could say the article surprised me. I wish I could say that.

If anyone questions our status in the Last Days before the return of Christ, it is enough to know that while ancient pagans who participated in all manner of perverse activity still maintained some concept of personal sin, we don’t seem to have any concept of this today. Sin seems to be relegated to the other guy OR to political parties OR to groups with bad public relations departments OR to jerks who can’t manage their carbon offsets properly.

Reading “5 Things Jesus Says to the Gay Community,” one does not get the sense that at any time Jesus wants to say “stop sinning” or “repent, or you will all likewise perish.” Those statements of His are in the Bible, though. While it’s true they are not aimed at any one sin, the fact is that they are aimed at everyone and they cover every sin is what should make them an obvious addition to anything Jesus says.

Gagged and silencedThe problem for the Church today is that some elements within it seek to silence those words that accompany those concepts that make people uncomfortable. Or those same folks dance around truth like it’s a primed hand grenade, hoping that some other poor schmuck will take the risk to stick the pin back in. This is happening because we have become purposefully dishonest about Mankind’s status before God. We find it impossible to say without caveats, “Actually, I am a bad human being,” and have that badness mirror what God says is bad rather than what Man says is bad (“You wore white after Labor Day? For shame!”) Even the ancients knew that something was grossly wrong within them, yet in declaring ourselves immune to such gross wrongness today, we see the language associated with that wrong decay and go missing. In the end, we find we can’t express truth in any way that makes life uncomfortable for anyone, and every Gospel appeal sounds like little else than salve for bruised egos.

When the Church can’t bring itself to state the obvious, then it has lost whatever force God has endowed it with. And Jesus had something to say about that:

“You are the salt of the earth, but if salt has lost its taste, how shall its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything except to be thrown out and trampled under people’s feet.”
—Matthew 5:13 ESV