“For years, I’ve believed that finding rest comes from both simultaneously learning to let go and keeping your act together.” Christians from many backgrounds and seasons of life will likely identify with Hannah Anderson’s paradoxical admission. Yet this uneasy balance ultimately throws us back on our own resources. In Humble Roots, Anderson commends the easy yoke of Jesus as the only means of lasting peace.
Anderson’s first book, Made for More: An Invitation to Live in God’s Image, called Christian women to recover their basic, imago dei identity, and Humble Roots continues that conversation by exploring the truth that while humans are made in God’s image, we are not God. This accurate self-conception is the heart of humility. The goal, Anderson explains, “is to understand how pride manifests itself in anxiety and restlessness; and how humility frees us from the cycle of stress, performance, and competition” (12). To that end, she considers such topics as the Incarnation, embodiment, and human limitation, as well as the ways that humility informs daily attitudes and choices.
Each chapter of Humble Roots contains illustrations gathered from Anderson’s rural upbringing and her present home in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia. While such examples—things like seasonal plowing, local honey, and vine-ripened tomatoes—could come across as excessively clever in the hands of a less able writer, here they are never strained; even if readers do not share her Appalachian roots or her interest in things agricultural, the images are still uncommonly effective.
The first part of the book establishes what humility is and isn’t. Anderson starts with anxiety, observing that many of us have felt “stressed and unhappy with a very normal life” (21). She suggests that our failures in mundane things are meant to remind us of our ultimate helplessness. Deep down, we know we’re unequal to the task of managing our own existence. When pressed against our limits, we must seek Jesus. But what does this actually look like? As Anderson wisely notes, superficial counsel to “seek Jesus” can further burden a weary soul. Jesus doesn’t shame us for worrying or tell us to simply try harder; he calls us to stop relying on ourselves, learn of his humility, and submit to him. This is a welcome respite from a Christian culture that often calls us to “do great things for God”—an attitude which is fundamentally prideful.
Once we diagnose the pride that infects our lives, however, we often respond by seeing it as something to conquer and humility as a technique to master. That’s not how it works; it is, as Anderson emphasizes, treating the symptoms instead of the root cause. Humility is something attainable only in and through Christ, who is “both the model and the means of our own humility. Through His life, death, and resurrection, Jesus shows us our true identity as people dependent on God for life…He imparts this humble life to us once again” (57). We cannot strive for the ideal of humility apart from Christ’s humble person, asking, “‘What would Jesus do?’ but really [meaning], ‘What would Jesus do if He were me?’” (75) The key is found in worship—of keeping Christ at the center and ourselves in our God-given, creaturely position.
The remainder of the book explores how to inhabit our creaturely limits over a lifetime of learning from Jesus’ humility. This includes recognizing the goodness of our bodies, stewarding our resources as gifts we have been given, and trusting God as the giver and redeemer of our desires. Two especially insightful chapters are those dealing with emotions and learning. In Chapter 6, “Healing Herbs,” Anderson considers our cultural fixation on emotional authenticity. Because “God is greater than our heart” (1 John 3:20), we are freed from making our emotions the measure of reality. We are likewise freed from self-condemnation and unnecessary guilt; it is not our role to play the Holy Spirit in our own (or others’!) lives. Yet, neither are we to suppress our emotions—they are God-given and meant to draw us back to himself. In Chapter 7, “Vine-Ripened,” Anderson considers how humility informs learning and knowledge. Contrary to our information-saturated age, wisdom is not a matter of collecting and processing the right data. We are obsessed with achieving the right answers, but, thankfully, this is not the basis of God’s acceptance of us—he invites us rather to know the Truth himself. And Jesus is more concerned with the process by which we learn the answers—abiding in the true Vine—than in our ability to possess them. Anderson suggests that much Christian immaturity is due to the failure to allow faith enough time to “ripen” naturally. This surely has implications for the ways we catechize and disciple.
The closing chapters of Humble Roots include lovely meditations on foraging for the sweetness of grace amidst the thorns of life (188) and trusting in God’s “planting” of us as we look toward the ultimate humbling of death. Throughout the book, Anderson succeeds in pointing readers back to our God-ordained human limits. We find rest for our souls when we take Jesus’ yoke upon us and live as we have been made to do.
This points back to my lone reservation about Humble Roots. Though Anderson often refers to “Small Brick Church,” the rural congregation at the center of her family’s life, there is less direct discussion of churchly practices that train us in humility. Those who experience chronic anxiety know that the external means of grace are among the dearest anchors of the soul. How do the preaching of the Word, the sacraments, and Christian fellowship instill humility by imparting Jesus’ life to us? While Anderson distinguishes between the objective grounds of our peace in Jesus and our subjective perception of that peace, more emphasis on the concrete means of grace (by which God graciously accommodates our creatureliness!) might have helped to underscore that important difference.
Overall, however, Humble Roots offers a rich and balanced look at both the concept and application of humility. Men and women alike will find themselves invited to fruitful discussion, to prayer, and, finally, toward a more restful abiding in Christ.
Sarah Patterson White hails from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. She studied historical theology at Yale Divinity School and Saint Louis University.