Utmost and Highest
The Life and Biblical Hermeneutic of Oswald Chambers
Jeffery David Dean

“Don’t be clever; do be careful. Don’t be controversial; do be consecrated. Don’t be conceited; do be concentrated. Never choose a text, let the text choose you….When a text has chosen you, the Holy Spirit will impress you with its inner meaning and cause you to labor to lead out that meaning for your congregation.” (1) With words such as these, Oswald Chambers instructed students at his Bible Training College, and, while the implorations may seem unremarkable for a twentieth-century Holiness preacher, the story of how the words came to be spoken and to be published is remarkable, indeed. If ever a story embodied the ideals of Holiness Christianity, that life most certainly was Oswald Chambers’.

As early as his childhood, Oswald Chambers was believed to be called by God into some form of ministry. His brother Franklin once said that young Chambers’ prayers were such a joy to hear that members of the family would sit with ears pressed to the door of his bedroom, just to listen in on the five-year-old Chambers’ conversations with God. (2) Born next-to-last of eight children, Chambers grew accustomed to service within the household, as well as to personal reflection and intense spiritual introspection inside his soul. This introspection was intensified when the Chambers family moved to London from Aberdeen, Scotland, so that Reverend Clarence Chambers—Oswald’s father—might accept a position as the Traveling Secretary of the Baptist Total Abstinence Association. (3) In London, Oswald often found himself inspired greatly by the art and architecture; he composed numerous poems decrying Londoners’ ability to walk casually by their works of art and never stop to gaze in awe. Further, Chambers often found himself sitting and sketching those same landmarks of London: his passion for drawing continued until he declared to his parents a desire to attend the National Art Training School. After a struggle with his parents, and with his father maintaining that Chambers should take on practical work to help support the family, Oswald matriculated at the Training School in 1893. (4)

Simultaneous to the emergence of Chambers’ artistic talents was the burgeoning of his passion for God. He began attending the Rye Lane Baptist Chapel in London at age sixteen, and following a revival given by C.F. Spurgeon at the Metropolitan Tabernacle, he accepted Christ as his personal Savior that same year. He often reflected nostalgically on this time at which he said himself to be “born again” at his baptism. Even at this young age, Chambers was noted for always insisting upon discovering the practical application of the texts studied in his church Bible courses; though now living in London, the Scottish proclivity toward pragmatism would never be dispelled in Chambers. (5)

A third lingering aspect of Chambers’ life began while attending Rye Lane Baptist: he met and fell in love with Miss Chrissie Brian. The two began exchanging letters often during their teenage years, and this exchange continued even after Chambers moved from London to Edinburgh to attend a two-year arts program at the renowned University of Edinburgh. The separation from Chrissie and his family was exceedingly difficult for Chambers, but he was convinced that God was calling him to reclaim the world of art for Himself. He expressed this sentiment in a goodbye letter to Chrissie on April 22, 1895:

“Whom shall I send to proclaim the salvation of the aesthetic kingdom, who will go for us?” Then through all of my weakness, my sinfulness and my frailty my soul cried, “Here I am, send me.” I would as soon drown myself as undertake such a work unless He was with me, unless He called me, unless He sent me. Jesus Christ is my Savior, my Master, He is the hot coal from off the altar that has touched my soul, my eyes, my ears, my mouth—and I must. Pray for me. I do not know how this is to be done—but there is something wrong, else Christians and art, music and poetry would not in their training be so opposed to Christ….Again I say, I do not know how this is to be accomplished, but if God calls, God will guide and I know that this kingdom shall become the kingdom of His Son. (6)

Yet, despite an early confidence of God’s call, Chambers began to waver in his assurance that God’s desire was for him to reclaim the world of art on behalf of Christ, and he began to feel as though he may instead be called to church ministry. His journal entries from his time in Edinburgh reflect pleasure in his artistic work and lessons, but a lack of assurance that the Holy Spirit was driving his endeavors is evident: “No man by mere high human wisdom would dare undertake a step for Jesus’ sake unless he knew that the Holy Spirit has directly spoken to him; and until He comes, I shall not go.” (7) As he wrestled ever more with the possibility of ministerial calling, he spent many hours on long walks in the Scottish hills, praying and imploring God to show His will. After the most agonizing of such nights, Chambers returned to his room to find an unsolicited brochure for Dunoon College—a tiny Bible College held in the living room of a small town minister in Dunoon, Scotland. Chambers accepted this as a sign of God’s will for his life, and he soon felt himself to have no choice but to enroll at this school:

How can I dabble in art, pleasing my own artistic sense when that burdening cry of the human is ever rising, “What must we do to be saved?” “Who will show us any good?” How can I think of artistic comfort and high self-culture when the Voice of Jesus, the Spirit of Jesus constrains me to go and preach the gospel? Oh it is not my worth, my ability, my talents, it is God that impels me. (8)

Chambers clearly was beginning to feel as though his life would amount to little in God’s eyes unless he answered to God’s very specific plan for him

At Dunoon, Chambers found himself under the tutelage of the Reverend Duncan McGregor, an old Scottish preacher who endeavored to train his students through personal experiences rather than through books and lessons. McGregor was often known to say, “My aim is not sending forth ministers, but men with prophetic fire—men who cry, ‘Give us souls, or we die!'” (9) Chambers was not accustomed to this method of trial by fire, having previously studied under world-renowned professors in Edinburgh, but he warmed to it quickly. He wrote to Chrissie in 1897, “It is surely better for young men to be taught and personally influenced by godly men long in the work than to be crystallized to clear cold cultural concerns in a University curriculum.” (10)

Yet the torment in Chambers’ soul had in no way subsided. In fact, his time at Dunoon only intensified the tumultuous questioning in his heart regarding God’s call on his life. After graduating from Dunoon, Chambers accepted a position there as a professor of philosophy. He engaged with many students during his tenure, as well as continuing to learn from Reverend McGregor. Most challenging for Chambers, however, was a lecture given by a guest minister, Dr. F.B. Meyer, who spoke about Baptism of the Holy Spirit and the futility of the Christian life without it. Chambers was greatly troubled by these words, and he immediately began to pray that God would fill him with His Holy Spirit. But, instead of the spiritual power and peace promised by Meyer, Chambers was immediately confronted by the most difficult emotional challenges of his life. For four years, he grew increasingly cold and cynical. He spurted off angry letters to the local newspaper about his own artistic superiority. He positioned himself in key leadership positions in his local church. He even severed ties with Chrissie.

Thus, despite being ordained in 1899 and outwardly seeming to be in peak spiritual condition, Chambers was struggling greatly in his own personal “dark night of the soul.” He was increasingly convicted by the hypocrisy evident in his life—by the disconnect between who he seemed to be and whom he knew he really was. But a speaker at Dunoon College cited a verse that Chambers began to carry as his own: “And you must be sure to ask Him why this came.” Chambers began begging God to show His purpose and make His grace and Holy Spirit known, but a year went by with little answer from above. (11)

Around this time of desperation, Chambers was asked to preach at a revival in Dunoon. Though he felt himself unfit for the task, he accepted the request and delivered a rather lackluster sermon. Much to his surprise, forty individuals came to the altar to dedicate their lives to Christ at the invitation. Chambers was greatly shocked and troubled by this—he wondered why his words had been so efficacious when he had such little confidence in his own ability to preach them. The Reverend McGregor rebuked him for his frustration, and reminded Chambers that he had asked for the baptism of the Holy Spirit. Chambers realized then that, despite no glorious moment of revelation by which he knew himself to have received tongues of fire, the baptism of the Holy Spirit had indeed come at the same moment in which Chambers felt himself most useless and worthless with respect to God’s call. According to biographer David McCasland, “Chambers never looked back on this spiritual experience at Dunoon with the smug satisfaction of having ‘arrived.’ Instead…, he spoke of it as a new beginning; a gateway instead of a goal.” (12)

Thenceforth, Chambers was fully devoted to his calling as a minister of God under the authority of the Holy Spirit. He traveled through America, Japan, and England on a voyage that circumnavigated the globe. On this voyage, Chambers met Miss Gertrude Hobbs. The two fell in love and were married only a brief time before opening the Bible Training Center together in London.

The importance of Oswald’s marriage to Gertrude and the relationship of their marriage to Oswald’s future ministry cannot be overstated. Gertrude, whom Oswald affectionately called Biddie, had often been quite ill as a child, and thus had taken up shorthand to amuse herself while confined to her bedroom. She honed her skill to such an extent that she could not listen to Chambers’ sermons without taking accurate shorthand transcriptions of them. These transcriptions would later play a great role in the story of Oswald Chambers’ ministry.

In September of 1915, Chambers was called into service in Zeitoun, Egypt, where he served as a YMCA chaplain. He delivered countless sermons day and night, and he worked diligently upon the arrival of Biddie and their young daughter Kathleen to transform the dilapidated YMCA camp into a comfortable place of rest for the soldiers. Countless men devoted their lives to Christ as a result of Chambers’ compassionate zeal.

Chambers’ ministry was not to last long, however. Having suffered from a recurring lung disorder as a child, his health was never ideal. The desert climate did not agree with him any more than his intensive work schedule, and he soon was stricken with appendicitis. He died on November 15, 1917, of complications resulting from an emergency appendectomy. Despite Biddie’s wishes that he be buried as quietly as he had lived, the soldiers from the camp insisted on burying Chambers with full military honors at the British Military Cemetery in Old Cairo, where he continues to rest today.

Soon after, Gertrude returned to England. Devoted to Oswald even after his death, she refused to allow her husband to be forgotten, despite the somewhat inauspicious circumstances of his ministry. She immediately went to work with her notes, and after three years of labor, compiled and edited the final selections for a piece she entitled My Utmost for His Highest—her husband’s personal motto. Nowhere in the book did she tell the story of her hours taking notes and her years spent typing sermons. In fact, the world only discovered that My Utmost for His Highest—the most popular devotional guide in history—was written posthumously when an article to that effect was published in Christianity Today in 1974! (13)

 

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Chambers’ life may seem unremarkable—indeed, were it not for his sermon collections, we would have undoubtedly long ago forgotten his name. But understanding Chambers’ life is essential to understanding his work—Chambers continually emphasized the need for one’s words to be congruent with one’s actions. Chambers truly did live out what he preached, and that is in fact his ultimate message to us: that we are not called to live partly for Christ, or even mostly for Christ. We are to give our utmost.

Approved unto God, a collection of Chambers’ sermons, begins with a talk entitled “The Worker’s Spiritual Life,” in which Chambers divulges his high opinion of scripture: “The mere reading of the Word of God has power to communicate the life of God to us mentally, morally, and spiritually. God makes the words of the Bible a sacrament, i.e. the means whereby we partake of His life, it is one of the secret doors for the communication of His life to us.” (14) Yet despite believing fully that the text was the instrument by which God spoke to mankind, he warned against the improper use of it: “Never use your text as a title for a speculation of your own; that is being an impertinent exploiter of the word of God.” (15) Rather, he says, “Let the text get such hold of you that you never depart from its application.” (16) But how is this holding to take place? Chambers claims only through constant mediation on the text’s message:

Our Lord wants to give us continuous instruction out of His word; continuous instruction turns hearers into disciples. Beware of “spooned meat” spirituality, of using the Bible for the sake of getting messages; use it to nourish your own soul. Be a continuous learner, don’t stop short, and the truth will open to you on the right hand and on the left until you find there is no problem in human life with which the Bible does not deal. But remember that there are certain points of truth Our Lord cannot reveal to us until our character is in a fit state to bear it. The discernment of God’s truth and the development of character go together. (17)

Thus we see that Chambers believed fully that the preparation of the minister is infinitely more important than the preparation of the sermon. He quotes 1 Timothy 4:14, which reads “Neglect not the gift that is in thee,” before expounding the importance of the minister’s reliance on the Holy Spirit for guidance: “In immediate preparation, don’t call in the aid of other minds; rely on the Holy Spirit and on your own resources, and He will select for you.” (18)

Here we see a glimpse of the struggle with which Chambers dealt while studying in Edinburgh. He was a talented artist—so talented as to be selected by the crown for a royal tour of the great art of Europe in hopes of becoming an artist of the Empire. Yet he came to realize that his plan to minister to the aesthetic realm was a plan devised of his own resources, and not through the ministry of the Holy Spirit. Furthermore, though Chambers’ relationship to Chrissie Brian had been a happy one, and though their compatibility and long relationship led many to believe they were secretly engaged, Chambers knew God had not called him to that relationship. They would have been happy together, but Chambers’ sermons would never have been recorded, Biddie never would have published My Utmost, and the Christian realm would never have been given its most beloved devotional guide. To claim these occurrences were the actions of the Holy Spirit is in no way logically verifiable, but Chambers would have readily accepted them as being from the Hand of God.

Despite his assurance that the Holy Spirit was the true minister of the pulpit, Chambers endeavored to steer his students away from styles of Biblical interpretation that were not devoted to personal holiness. He exhorted them:

Don’t be clever. Never choose a text, let the text choose you. Cleverness is the ability to do things better than anyone else. Always hide that light under a bushel. The Holy Ghost is never clever. In a child of God the Holy Spirit works as naturally as breathing, and the most unostentatious choices are His choices. Unless your personal life is hid with Christ in God, natural ability will continually lead you into chastisement from God. When a text has chosen you, the Holy Spirit will impress you with its inner meaning and cause you to labor to lead out that meaning for your congregation. (19)

This passage illustrates Chambers’ belief that any effort of ministry not called upon by the Holy Spirit is invariably doomed to failure.

Additionally, Chambers asked his students to be careful to discover spiritual truth for themselves with their own relationship to God, and not to just rely on the text for answers. He begged them not to be controversial, for “The spirit that chooses disputed texts is the boldness of impudence, not the fearlessness born of morality. Remember, God calls us to proclaim the Gospel….Never denounce a thing about which you know nothing.” (20) He exhorted his students to be concentrated on the Gospel—to be true “workmen” for God. He called upon his students to never be conceited: “Conceit makes the way God deals with me personally the binding standard for others. We are called to preach the Truth, Our Lord Jesus Christ, and we get decentralized from Him if we become specialists.” (21)

Most importantly, Chambers implored his students to be consecrated: “Never forget who you are, what you have been, and what you may be by the grace of God. When you try and re-state to yourself what you implicitly feel to be God’s truth, you give God a chance to pass that truth on to someone else through you.” (22) He explained the possibility of this consecration in his passion for personal holiness by the sanctification of the Holy Spirit:

The doctrines of the New Testament as applied to personal life are moral doctrines, that is, they are understood by a pure heart, not by the intellect….My spiritual character determines the revelation of God to me….The Gospel of the New Testament is based on the absoluteness of revelation, we cannot get at it by our common sense. If a man is to be saved it must be from outside, God never pumps up anything from within. As a preacher, base on nothing less than revelation, and the authenticity of the revelation depends on the character of the one who brings it. Our Lord Jesus Christ put His impress on every revelation from Genesis to Revelation.

This passage, based on what we know about Chambers’ struggles with faith in Dunoon and his ministry thereafter, leads us to see that his hermeneutic, like that of most twentieth century Holiness ministers, was largely New Testament Biblical in nature. Like Paul, Chambers saw ministers as passing on the Good News they had received in an accurate way. The litmus test, Chambers felt, was the personal testimony of the minister: Was his message of salvation from sin exemplified in his life? If not, then his message was of no importance and may be ignored. If so, then his message is the hope for relief from the existential woes of life and must be believed and passed on at all costs.

However, we do see a bit of a confusion regarding the authority of scripture. Journal entries record admiration for the fundamentalist ministers whom he encountered in America, but Chambers never considered himself to be a fundamentalist. He never pronounced the text to be inerrant, and his plea that ministers avoid controversial passages seems to imply a belief that either the text was inaccurate or that the accuracy therein could not be understood by mankind. Furthermore, he speaks of the revelation in terms of Jesus Christ, not in terms of the words of the Bible: Chambers often clearly delineates between the “word” and the “Word.” While his beliefs were certainly evangelical, Chambers never actually referred to himself as anything more than a Scottish Christian.

Chamber’s hermeneutic, then, seems to be one in which the text is merely the mouthpiece of the Holy Spirit. Such a belief necessitates the idea that the text is, in the words of the Catholic theologians, “deaf and dumb” outside of the influence of the Spirit’s power. Thus, one who has not received the baptism of the Holy Spirit will receive nothing when reading the text except the earliest broken accounts of two religions in the Middle East. One who has received the baptism of the Holy Spirit, however, will receive the Word of God and His plan for the reader’s life.

Thus, Chamber’s hermeneutic delineates mankind into those who are under the influence of the Holy Spirit, and those who are not. Furthermore, the delineation can be seen with respect to the personal holiness of the individual interpreter. That is, those who preach the Gospel and live the gospel are to be praised. Conversely, those who use the Gospel and never allow it to change their lives are the greatest threat to Christianity.

Though Chambers’ standards for personal holiness and his insistence upon the actual day-to-day influence of the Holy Spirit may seem pre-modern and illogical, the fact that My Utmost for His Highest has grown to become one of the most important books in Christianity outside of the Bible itself may speak to something higher than modernist logic. That Chambers gave up a promising career in art, a happy marriage to a childhood sweetheart, and the possibility of gaining renown in the academic world seems lamentable. That he died in the Egyptian desert, leaving his wife and young daughter no means of support, seems even worse. But that his life and words have managed to be a vessel for the Holy Spirit to speak to millions since his death indicates that the utmost sacrifice on the part of Oswald Chambers may have indeed reaped the highest reward of God.

 


1. Chambers, Oswald. Approved Unto God. The Complete Works of Oswald Chambers. Gertrude Chambers, ed. Grand Rapids: Discovery House Publishers, 2000. p. 13

2. McCasland, David. Abandoned to God. Grand Rapids: Discovery House Publishers, 1993. p.27

3. Ibid. p. 29.

4. Ibid. pg. 42.

5. Ibid. pg. 37.

6. Ibid. pg. 41.

7. Ibid. pg. 51.

8. Ibid. pg. 59.

9. Ibid. pg. 67.

10. Ibid. pg. 70.

11. Ibid. pg. 86.

12. Ibid, pg. 85.

13. Wirt, Sherwood E. “Oswald and Gertrude Chambers: Their Utmost for His Highest.” Christianity Today.
June 21, 1974. pg. 17.

14. Chambers. pg. 5.

15. Ibid. pg. 7.

16. Ibid. pg. 7.

17. Ibid. pg. 11. Emphasis mine.

18. Ibid. pg. 11.

19. Ibid. pg. 13.

20. Ibid. pg. 13. Emphasis Chambers'

21. Ibid. pg. 13.

22. Ibid. pg. 13.

Jeffery David Dean '06 is a Religion concentrator in Adams House.