Humility

This summer (2017) my wife (Denise) and I took a two week trip to North Carolina, South Carolina, and Virginia.  We visited with transplanted California friends, member care (caring for Christian cross cultural workers) colleagues, and our son who is serving as a 2nd Lieutenant in the Marine Corp.

While on this vacation we stayed with a couple (Charlie and Frauke) in the Raleigh-Durham area and it was while visiting with Charlie that I came upon the book, Humilitas: A Lost Key to Life, Love, and Leadership by John Dickson.  Charlie was mid-way through the book himself and he strongly recommended it.  I deeply respect Charlie as a psychologist and as a Christ-follower—-so I ordered the book while on our trip.

Below you’ll find some excerpts from the book and my thoughts on those passages.  Humility does not get much play in our 21st century culture.  It seems that the factors of social media, the predominant entertainment culture, and the seeming self-sufficiency and self-satisfaction of U.S. culture have had the effect of pushing the virtue and characteristic of humility deeply into the background.


The Origin of the Word:  The origin of our English word humility is derived from the Hebrew (anawa), Greek (tapeinos), and Latin (humilitas). The origin of the word and its varied meanings over the centuries can give us insight and understanding into how the virtue of humility has been considered in the past and how it is relevant in the 21st century.

  • The word “humility” derives from the word meaning “low” as in “low to the ground.”  The word can be used in a derogatory way—“to be put low, to be humiliated.”  But, the word can also have a very positive connotation—“intentionally lowering one self.  The noble choice to redirect our power and influence toward (under) the service of others.”
  • “Humility is the noble choice to forgo your status, to deploy your resources, or use your influence for the good of others before yourself.”
  • “Humility is a willingness to hold power in the service of others.”

Humility as Virtue and Character:  Humility is an elusive character trait.  It cannot be pursued directly.  Rather, humility is a by-product of how we understand ourselves and how we see ourselves in relationship to others, creation, and history (what and who has come before us).

  • “Humility stands alone among the virtues in that as soon as you think you have it, you probably don’t.”
  • Humility is not dazzling.  “It is rather a low key virtue.  It often takes a while to spot humility in others, partly because the truly humble person is not at all concerned about appearing humble.  He is not thinking of himself at all.  He won’t be thinking about humility: he won’t be thinking about himself at all.”

Leadership: Leadership is usually considered to be the domain of the overtly powerful, the political, the flashy, or the wealthy.  Yet, a humble attitude and a humble posture toward others have the amazing ability to indirectly influence and persuade.

  • Dickson persuasively contends that, “The most influential and inspiring people are often marked by humility.  True greatness frequently goes hand in hand with a virtue that, on the face of it, might be thought to curb achievement and mute influence.  In fact, it does the opposite.”
  • “Leadership is not about popularity.  It is about gaining people’s trust and moving them forward.”  “Deep and abiding leadership (which can be thought of as shepherding and providing direction) has little to do with structural authority.  Rather, an enduring position of leadership is the result of providing a real and believable example coupled with trust that is earned over time.”
  • “Think of the people who have had the most influence in your life over the years.”  They are probably those who set a consistent and believable life example thus earning your deep and enduring trust.
  • “We are more attracted to the great who are humble than to the great who know it and want everyone else to know it as well.”
  • “We are repelled by pride.  However, greatness is enhanced by humility.”
  • “Arrogance is as ugly as humility is beautiful.” 

Humility and Others: Humility is about a right relationship with God, with myself, and with others.  Humility is basically about relationships.  Humility is about coming under, lifting up, and serving others.

  • Humility is more about how I treat others than how I think about myself.”
  • “Humility assumes the inherent dignity of the one humbling himself—-it is a lowering of oneself from a height.”
  • “The real power of effective leadership is maximizing other people’s potential, which inevitably demands also ensuring that they get the credit.”
  • “Humility is a key part of what moves others.  Few are considered more trustworthy than those who choose to use their power for the good of others above themselves.”
  • “It is a special kind of person who has so much to give, yet prefers to find out about others.”

Humility is Commonsense:  Knowing What We are Not and Knowing What we Don’t KnowThe notion of humility is not for the esoteric or academic.  Humility is blue collar, down and dirty, from the earth of the commoner.  Humility speaks to our shared and communal brokenness and our blessedness as His imager bearers.

  • “What we don’t know and can’t do far exceeds what we do know and can do.  A little humility then, is hardly rocket science.  It is common sense.”
  • “Knowing a lot in one area should, in theory, underline just how much there is to know outside your specialty.”
  • “Knowing a lot in fact demonstrates how much I don’t know.”
  • “It is a fact of our nature, it seems, that most of us have a grossly exaggerated sense of our own abilities.”
  • “The first step is to realize that one is proud.  And a biggish step, too.  At least, nothing whatever can be done before it.  If you think you are not conceited, it means you are very conceited indeed.”

Humility, Christ, and Christ-followers:  By its very nature the virtue of humility is a spiritual matter.  And humility is not always in fashion.  The message of the Bible contains the most radical claim concerning humility.  The Biblical account essentially contends that God humbled Himself as He took on human form as He sought to rescue those who had rebelled and turned away from Him.  He humbled Himself, and gave Himself as a sacrifice, for those who were infinitely below Him.  This is radical and sobering humility and grace.

  • “The western world’s fondness for humility at all almost certainly derives from the peculiar impact on Europe of the Judeo-Christian worldview.”
  • “The Old Testament prophets long spoke of the Almighty’s special concern for the crushed and humiliated—-for the poor and the oppressed.”  In the New Testament Christ spoke of being “humble of heart” and “poor in spirit.”
  • “Crucifixion was the ancient world’s summum supplicium (ultimate punishment) reserved for political rebels and slaves.  Following the resurrection and ascension Christ’s first followers (disciples) began to re-think the entire honor-shame paradigm in which they had been raised.  This brought about a humility revolution.  Christ humbled himself and was obedient to death—-even death on a cross.  Saint Paul urged his readers to “in humility consider others better than yourselves.”  Humility was turned from a source of embarrassment to a virtue modeled by God.
  • “If the greatest man we have ever known chose to forgo his status for the good of others, reasoned the early Christians, greatness must consist in humble service.”
  • “What to the ancient mind would have seemed a perverse symbol of accomplishment, to the modern mind make perfect sense: of course you would put a cross at the highest point of the world.”  How ironic that this shameful thing (the Cross) has been raised to such a high place.

Humility, Growth, and Maturity: Humility requires openness to correction and listening to and accepting feedback.  Humility assumes that you may not know yourself very well.  Humility assumes that you may be blind to the spaces of pride in your life.  Humility can be a place to grow and mature.

  • “Humbling places are often the places of growth.”
  • “Opening yourself up to the vulnerability of being wrong, receiving correction, and asking others how they think you could do better—-that is a low place that is a high place.”
  • “The humble person is reflective and careful to listen.”
  • “Mistakes of execution are rarely as damaging to an organization (company, family, church) as a refusal to apologize to those affected and redress the issue with generosity and haste.”

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