Rico Tice: Lessons from John Stott
I joined the staff at All Souls, Langham Place, on 15 August 1994, and so had the privilege of getting to know Uncle John as a colleague and friend from that date. When I was asked to write this piece about his legacy at All Souls, it took me no time to decide upon my theme. I was not going to focus on his preaching, his writing, his evangelism or his impact on student ministry, though I could happily write an article on each of those. No, I decided to write about something else which is so important at present – heartbreakingly, a number of Christian leaders have failed us in this area – and that is his personal godliness. This trait, more than anything else, is what struck me about him over the 17 years I knew him. And indeed, I think it’s true to say that as one got closer to him, one became more aware of his godliness, not less. So to those of you who read his books and commentaries, I want to reassure you that he lived what he taught. That indeed was what his secretary, Frances Whitehead, said about him at his memorial service in St. Paul’s Cathedral. “I worked alongside him for 55 years and I want you to know that he was authentic. He lived what he preached.”
I was at Keswick for Uncle John’s last public sermon on 17 July 2007 and will never forget his central point: Christlikeness is the will of God for the people of God. These lines from that talk are seared into my mind:
There was a Hindu Professor in India who once identified one of his students as a Christian and said to him, “If you Christians lived like Jesus Christ, India would be at your feet tomorrow.”
Uncle John went on:
I think India would be at their feet today if we Christians lived like Christ.”
From the Islamic world, the Reverend Iskandar Jadeed, a former Arab Muslim, has said, “If all Christians were Christians, that is Christlike, there would be no more Islam today.”
Uncle John’s great priority was Christlikeness and that is because he knew it is the great priority of God for his people. We are to be sanctified, to grow more like Jesus. And it seemed to me that the heart of his godliness lay in his humility, expressed in a desire to serve others. He had come from an immensely privileged family. The chauffeur would drive him to his boarding school at Rugby, where he was Head Boy. His father, Sir Arnold Stott, had rooms on Harley Street, where John lived as a boy. But having come to Christ as a 16-year-old, his longing was to lay aside his privileges and serve others as Christ had served him.
After he preached at All Souls, there would often be long queues of people waiting to meet him. And quite often these individuals were very demanding of his attention. He was an old man at the time and tired after preaching at two services, but one of his study assistants, John Yates, told me that he trained himself to say under his breath, “John, Christ died for them (those in the queue), they are, therefore, infinitely valuable to God. Now you must listen to them.”
And his key motto was that the other person is more important than you are. There was a constant reference to Philippians 2 verses 3 to 5: “Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others. In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus.”
Let me illustrate his humility from a couple of experiences in my first 18 months at All Souls, privately and publicly. First, I used to go around for tea with Uncle John every six months. I remember going at the beginning of 1995. He had watched me during those early months of my time at All Souls and asked me as I came into his study, “Have you read ‘The Christian Priest Today’ by Archbishop Michael Ramsey?” Actually it had been part of my ordination reading, so with a little pride I was able to say, yes I had. “Do you remember chapter 8?”, he asked. “No”, I replied. He said, “Let me read it to you.” The title of the chapter was “On Divine Humility” and I’ll never forget some of the marks of humility that he read out. Indeed as I sit at my desk now, I don’t need to turn to any book to recall them. They are seared into my brain from that meeting:
- Confession and thanksgiving are soil in which pride does not easily grow.
- Rejoice in your humiliations – they are good for you.
- Cultivate friends that laugh at you.
- Laugh at yourself.
I remember walking away from Weymouth Street that day knowing that we didn’t go through those points for Uncle John’s benefit!
Second, in terms of a public event, there was one particular sermon he preached, which, looking back, was the most powerful sermon I’ve ever heard. I was so convicted that halfway through I stopped taking notes and found myself face to face with my Creator. Again I don’t need to turn to my notes to recall what was said. The date was 11 February 1996, the passage was Mark 10 verses 35 to 45, the title was “The Servant of Many”. As I shut my eyes I can still hear Uncle John declaring, “We have to choose between two value systems and two lifestyles. There is one way of living and it’s the way of James and John, Mark 10 verse 35: “We want you to do for us whatever we ask.” The other way of living is in verse 45: “For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”
And then from the passage – his headings were so often key to his exposition – he called us to choose between the way of James and John, and by contrast, the way of Jesus. It’s a choice between:
- self-seeking and self-sacrifice
- power and service
- security and suffering
Uncle John declared that there is no middle ground, there is no harmonization, between the two. Then he called us to underline four words in red in our Bibles. Mark 10 verse 43: “Not so with you.”
Christian leadership is to be by example not by coercion. In this passage James and John reveal their longing for power and status and, as we feel that same pull in our own hearts, we must look at Jesus, who took the towel of a servant and washed the feet of his disciples. Is that what characterises the leadership in your church? If it doesn’t, be warned, because servant leadership is right at the heart of authentic Christian leadership. So how do we cultivate this humility? In Uncle John it came from his sense of his own sin. “Humility is honesty” was his heartbeat. When we see the reality of our own sin and what the Holy Spirit has to put up with as he seeks to sanctify us, then what can we be but humble. Uncle John’s own sense of sin caused him to genuinely disengage from the high opinion others had of him. As he said in an address to clergy and ministers at the Keswick Convention in 1975: “I describe myself as always a sinner and often a failure”.
I vividly remember the time after he had accidentally fallen and broken his hip in 2006. In the morning he was meant to be preaching at All Souls. The subsequent hospitalisation and loss of independence was a huge shock and strain. He really did desperately struggle to cope with the limitations. That Christmas he could not go to his beloved Hookses in South Wales and so was in his flat in Bridford Mews for the Christmas holidays. On the 28th of December I let myself into the flat, having been given a key, and went up the stairs to see him. I got us both cups of tea and sat down, at which point Uncle John burst into tears and exclaimed, “Rico, I’ve not been godly coping with my broken hip. I’ve been irritable and bad tempered. Would you please be my chaplain and pray that the Lord would forgive me?” So I prayed as he wept, “Father God, Uncle John has not behaved well after this injury. He has been bad tempered and irritable. Please forgive him.” And then I quoted the words of assurance in 1 John 1 verses 8 and 9: “If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness.”
As I left that afternoon, having confessed his sin, you can only imagine how I felt about my own! This sense of sin was right at the heart of his spirituality. He was much impacted by his hero, Charles Simeon, who described the key to the spiritual growth of a disciple as “growing downwards”.
These words from the “Memoirs of the Life of the Rev. Charles Simeon” would have found their echo in Uncle John’s heart:
With this sweet hope of ultimate acceptance with God, I have always enjoyed much cheerfulness before men; but I have at the same time laboured incessantly to cultivate the deepest humiliation before God. I have never thought that the circumstance of God’s having forgiven me was any reason why I should forgive myself; on the contrary, I have always judged it better to loathe myself the more, in proportion as I was assured that God was pacified towards me. There are but two objects that I have ever desired for these forty years to behold; the one, is my own vileness, and the other is, the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.
Uncle John had really grasped the golden chain of effective Christian discipleship: Sin => Grace => Joy => Discipleship => Service => Evangelism. So in the morning, in your quiet time, you see your sin afresh as the Bible reveals your depravity. Then you are reminded of God’s grace – and that brings joy. And Christian service comes out of that self-understanding.
Uncle John loved the words of Bishop Alf Stanway, who said this to some men who were getting ordained in Pittsburgh in the 1950s:
If other people knew you like God knows you – all your faults, all your vain thoughts, all your sins, all the things in your heart, all the wrong thoughts you ever had – would they trust you with the kind of work God trusts you with? Here is the supreme confidence that God has in his own grace. He’ll take the likes of you and me and give you the privilege of being his saints.
Uncle John’s last lesson in service came for me on the day he died. There was a bit of a rota amongst the staff to visit him in his home, The College of St Barnabas in Lingfield, and on 27 July it happened to be my day to go. I took the train down that morning and got there at about 10am. Frances Whitehead was sitting in the room, as was his beloved niece, Caroline. The doctors had told them that he was dying, and so having slipped out to ring Chris Wright, who was at a conference, I came back in and sat with him. At one point I remember reading through John 14. He barely acknowledged me, but that was not the case when one of the Filipino cleaners from the college came in to say goodbye. He was a young man and had obviously heard that John was dying. With a monumental effort, John took his hand and rose up out of his bed to kiss it, and then slumped backwards. As I was leaving, Uncle John’s inner circle began to arrive, but I noted that none of them were given anywhere near the greeting that he gave that young man. As I shut my eyes I can see him giving everything he had to serve the person who had the lowest status. He was a Christian servant to his last breath and I’m so deeply grateful to God for his example.
Senior Minister (Evangelism) at All Souls Church
Rico Tice is Senior Minister (Evangelism) at All Souls Church, Langham Place in London. He is founder of Christianity Explored Ministries and is a regular speaker at missions and evangelistic events around the world, and author of several books including Capturing God, Finding More, and Faithful Leaders.