Humilitas: A Lost Key to Life, Love, and Leadership Book Review

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John Dickson, in his book Humilitas, attempts to show how the virtue of humility can make any leader great, but he cautions the reader, “as soon as you think you have it, you probably do not.”[1] This paradox is the springboard to Dickson’s love-hate relationship with humility, yet the longer he contemplated humility, the more he came to love this virtue for both its aesthetic qualities and its practical benefits.[2] His goal is to show how humility demonstrates one’s inherent worth, while also seeking to better the lives of those around the individual. Dickson’s academic background is in the field of ancient history, so he uses this knowledge to analyze events and leaders from the past to ultimately learn from them, which he states, “is the ultimate exercise in democracy.”[3] His entire thesis is based on the assumption that the most influential and inspiring people are also those marked by humility. Having previously read Good to Great, by Jim Collins, this writer can attest to Collins’ level 5 leaders possessing the attributes of determination and an attitude of humility.[4] The definition Dickson assigns to humility is, “the noble choice to forgo your status, deploy your resources or use your influence for the good of others before yourself, [which is] a willingness to hold power in service of others.”[5] On the basis of this definition, Dickson asserts true humility assumes the dignity or strength of the one possessing the virtue. He then contrasts humility with humiliation, showing humility is willing, social, and a choice one makes for the sake of others, while humiliation is cast upon individuals.

Next, Dickson applies humility in the context of leadership by showing how humility is persuasive. He parallels how leadership and humility are all about others as leadership is essentially the art of inspiring others to contribute their best effort towards a common goal.[6] Leadership motivates, inspires, and at its core, Dickson believes that it is being able to cope with change, since change is inevitable, but growth is optional. Good leaders must possess ability, authority, persuasion, positive example, and sound character ethics, because these traits bring out the best in other people. Dickson then shows how leadership is fundamentally relational, so possessing these traits, as well as effective communication and building trust are essential. In the end, Dickson concludes humility is the key ingredient to enriching a leader’s effectiveness.[7]

In order to possess humility, Dickson offers six exercises to reflect on: (1) we are shaped by what we love; (2) we should reflect on the lives of the humble; (3) we should conduct thought experiments to enhance humility; (4) we should act humbly; (5) we should invite criticism; and (6) we should forget about being humble.[8] A truly humble person is never concerned about appearing humble, so in one’s pursuit of humility, Dickson illustrates the first step in the pursuit of humility is to recognize we are not humble by nature.

Critique

Overall, Dickson makes a solid attempt of defining humility and arguing why it is an important virtue to possess. Due to our nature, we are attracted to the good and repelled by the bad, so Dickson is correct in his conclusion that, “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.”[9] Despite the truth of this statement, the majority of society strives to succeed by any means necessary. While most may be repelled by pride, their inherent nature is rooted in their selfishness and pride.

Dickson’s use of prominent members of society was a great addition to this work, but some of his errors and omissions left one to question some of his other data and reasoning for including them.[10] Despite that, Dickson did include many great examples such as Albert Einstein, not known for being a religious believer nor an atheist, so this writer found his statement during a lecture in Vienna in 1921 to be most fascinating: “I do not believe in the God of theology who rewards good and punishes evil. My God created laws that take care of that. His universe is not ruled by wishful thinking, but by immutable laws.”[11] Einstein’s understanding of the harmony of God’s created nature humbled him. Dickson makes a very logical argument how, “the mysterious harmony of the laws of nature should lead thinking people – whether believer or otherwise – to an attitude not far off humility.”[12] He then demonstrates how humility involves both a sense of finitude and a sense of inherent dignity, which led to his conclusion that, “there is a certain logic to keeping pride in check and conducting ourselves, regardless of our various competencies, with humility towards others.”[13] Essentially, this means we will always trust the humble person more than we trust the proud to act in our best interest. Dickson also displays a comprehensive understanding of the importance of knowing the difference between society’s key axis points of: good vs. evil, honor vs. shame, pleasure vs. suffering, and prosperity vs. poverty. He rightly demonstrates how western-history is shaped by the event of Jesus’ crucifixion, which was regarded as the most shameful and most brutal form of capital punishment.[14] This humility revolution, caused by Christ’s crucifixion, led the Apostle Paul to write, “In humility, consider others better than yourselves… Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ.”[15]

Overall, Dickson does a good job illustrating how humility keeps pride from rising up, why we are attracted more to those who are humble, how Jesus – the model of humility-caused a revolution, how humility is an inspiration to those around us, and even how humility allows us to respect someone with conflicting beliefs. What this writer has a hard time agreeing with Dickson on is the subject of tolerance, which he says is, “often the answer to the harmful effects of absolute truth claims.”[16] This writer agrees with Dickson regarding the importance of learning to respect even those with whom we disagree with, as this posture allows one to move past mere tolerance to humility, which is the key to harmony at the social level.[17] What does not track biblically is softening one’s convictions or relaxing claims to knowledge and truth. If something goes against the very nature of God, to do anything less than reject it would mean sin. Dickson claims tolerance means agreeing that all viewpoints are equally true or valid.[18] While perception is reality to each individual, that does not mean one’s convictions should be toned down or made to be more tolerant. While Dickson may be right stating the basic human values that unite us are stronger than the forces that pull us apart, his reasoning is problematic and illogical. There is a fine line between conviction and compassion and while an open mind is good, G. K. Chesterton best illustrates, “an open mind is like an open mouth: its purpose is to bite on something nourishing. Otherwise, it becomes like a sewer, accepting everything, rejecting nothing.”[19]

Evaluation

Humilitas is a great resource for anyone wanting to become a better leader. It would have had a much greater impact on those in pastoral ministry if there were more than one chapter dedicated to Christianity, more specifically Jesus and how He embodied the virtue of humility. Jesus in the parable of the wedding feast says, “For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted.”[20] This would have been a great place for Dickson to speak on what God is and is not impressed with. Throughout Humilitas, humility is framed in view of society and culture, but nowhere does it trace humility back to its source. Being Christ-like means reflecting the image of Christ and humility was a huge part of what He did and why He did it. In the parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector, Jesus again says, “For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted.”[21] This would have been a great place for Dickson to speak on the motives behind one’s actions, as this story represents someone who claims superior status for himself, while the other comes to God in humility and receives compassion and restoration. From Proverbs, we learn, “The fear of the LORD is instruction in wisdom, and humility comes before honor; and the reward for humility and fear of the LORD is riches and honor and life.”[22] Zephaniah 2:3 instructs to, “seek the LORD, all you humble of the land, who do His just commands; seek righteousness; seek humility; perhaps you may be hidden on the day of the anger of the LORD.” Paul instructs the Philippians to, “do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves.”[23] Colossians calls for voluntary humility and cautions against false humility. Achieving humility is a constant endeavor, just as one’s walk with Christ is, each with infinite rewards, both temporal and eternal.

Bibliography

Dickson, John. Humilitas: A Lost Key to Life, Love, and Leadership. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2011.

[1] John Dickson, Humilitas: A Lost Key to Life, Love, and Leadership, (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2011), 11.

[2] Dickson, Humilitas, 14.

[3] Ibid., 17-18.

[4] Ibid., 20.

[5] Ibid., 24.

[6] Dickson, Humilitas, 33.

[7] Ibid., 47.

[8] Ibid., 174-182.

[9] Ibid., 69.

[10] Aristotle 3rd vs. 4th Century BC? (p. 87 & 41); Opinionated views of Americans from an Australian

[11] Dickson, Humilitas, 61.

[12] Ibid., 61.

[13] Ibid., 66.

[14] Ibid., 105 & 109.

[15] Philippians 2:3-4

[16] Dickson, Humilitas, 164.

[17] Ibid., 170.

[18] Ibid., 164.

[19] Ibid., 170.

[20] Luke 14:11 (ESV)

[21] Luke 18:14 (ESV)

[22] Proverbs 15:33 & Proverbs 22:4 (ESV)

[23] Philippians 2:3 (ESV)

The Marks of a True Believer

Love is What Sets Us Apart

Jonathan Edwards was a pastor, a philosopher, and a missionary and he was also a part of the church’s spiritual great awakening. To Edwards, biblical Christianity meant true religion and he sought to quantify what a true encounter with God would look like. In his endeavors, he contrasted the diverse experiences of those who claimed to have received a special revelation. He took the two opposing views suggesting an experience only pertains to head knowledge, truth, and non-emotional rational thinking, with the other extreme which argued the experience itself was more important by discounting the truth, duty, and obedience claiming they are not as important. In the end, Edwards would attempt to combine the experience of truth with the feelings, emotions, and affections we have as Christians and how both of these experiences can come together to create an exponential transformation.

Often, using I Peter 1:8 to define spiritual affections, Edwards illustrated there are two great outcomes that come out of the Christian faith, especially when enduring trials. The first is that it reveals one’s true love for Christ and second; it reveals one’s true joy in Christ. As Peter Davids illustrates in this passage:

The focus of their joy is not the inheritance nor the glory, but the returning Christ. Here one finds a paradox. Unlike Peter and others of the first generation who had seen Jesus, they have neither seen him in the past nor do they see him at present; their faith is not based on their perceptual experience… This paradox of faith without sight… [Is] the really important thing [because it] is not what they can see (e.g., the trials they have and their enemies), but whom they love and are committed to even though they do not see him.

Upon this realization of unspeakable joy is when Edwards realized there were specific spiritual affections, which he then sought after. Edwards would classify these spiritual affections as sensible exercises or inclinations of a person’s will or soul because they could be felt. Ultimately, one’s heart is always either moving away from God or towards Him and this was the hypothesis Edwards used to define which behaviors enhanced one’s relationship with God. By recognizing the heart is either attracted by something or repelled by it, Edwards showed how the things of the world attempt to pull people away from God, while the things that are holy and righteous draws one closer to Him and the more one is drawn towards God; the deeper the spiritual transformation will be. While he defined many specific emotions, alone these emotions could not guarantee someone being a Christian, so he would further attempt to define twelve ways or guidelines to demonstrate the true desire of one’s heart. For example, someone who is truly about serving the Lord would turn their pride into humility as they allowed their love for God to flow through them. As Dr. Dwayne Miliani concludes, “When God works within a believer, He does so from the inside out and true spiritual affection always corresponds to the compassion and purity of a believer’s emotions best expressed by an understanding of Christ; they soften us and move us to holiness by revealing the fruit of Christ in our life.”
Real Christian by Todd Wilson Todd Smith, in Real Christian, defines “real” as something you can see, playing off the same message in I Peter 1:8 and he picks up exactly where Edwards in Religious Affections left off by showing it is by the fruit we bear as Christians that defines our true faith. Living a life of discipleship, transformation, and pure joy, even in times of persecution and trials, should be the evidence of a true Christian. As Preston Sprinkle says, “With a heart for people and a mind for God – and a mind for people and a heart for God Wilson unleashes a challenging message for a church drunk on safety and security.” Wilson’s primary goal is showing what it means to be a genuine child of God, just as Edward’s primary goal was enlightening spiritual truths in the hearts and minds of others by understanding what God’s word calls disciples to do. Wilson then demonstrates how easy it is to fake being a Christian by merely learning doctrine or by changing behaviors, but he makes it abundantly clear that professing faith does not mean one possesses faith.

By combing both of these author’s thesis, a biblical warrant for the necessary and requisite marks of true affections for the maturing believer starts with being real. Wilson illustrates how, “The greatest threat to the church’s witness is one of our own making – an image problem. Many outside the church view Christians as unchristian in their attitudes and actions – bigoted, homophobic, hypocritical, materialistic, judgmental, self-serving, and overly political.” As a result, the world knows more what the church is against than for. While Edwards defined twelve signs of genuine faith, Wilson has condensed those down to six: humility, meekness, contrition, wholeness, hunger, and perfected love. These traits are never outgrown and are fundamental to authentic faith by making Christ the center of one’s life. Our heart demonstrates not only the wellspring of our actions, but also the foundation of our character.

Wilson not only says humility is hard to define but also that it is often misunderstood. Perhaps C.S. Lewis offers the best definition as, “Humility involves being a sort of greasy, smarmy person, who is always telling you that, of course, he is nobody.” Wilson goes on to insist humility is not merely lowly thoughts of self, but it is, “self-forgetful… [And] transcendent self-confidence [with its] purpose [not being] to make you think less of who you are, but to enable you to love others regardless of who they are.” The ultimate goal of humility is to have the mind of Christ, which Wilson demonstrates, “Means not holding on to status in a way that hinders love.” As followers of Christ, we can ask and pray for humility, which is vital so pride is not allowed to set in. True humility only comes from one’s genuine faith in God and it always has a cost.

The second mark of a maturing believer is meekness, which is not to be confused with weakness. Jesus said, “Blessed are the meek” and He is speaking to followers who were facing extreme suffering and persecution. One’s meekness must also flow out of one’s love for Christ as you respond with forgiveness instead of vengeance and as you remain patient and eager to learn in times of rejection or criticism. Meekness means obeying what Paul instructed the Romans to do, “Repay no one evil for evil, but give thought to do what is honorable in the sight of all.” As Wilson says, “To become meek you must entrust yourself to the sovereign goodness of God.”

The third mark of a maturing believer is contrition and Wilson demonstrates that a broken and contrite heart is something God will never despise and is another mark of true authentic faith. Wilson shows how one’s response to sin may manifest itself in the form of guilt, embarrassment, or even regret, but how these responses are not truly contrition. Instead, Wilson portrays contrition as, “Not a fear of punishment, [but] it is a fear of displeasing the one who ought to be obeyed.” King David is one of the best examples of someone who grew to have contrite heart and as believers we have the assurance there is no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. A true change of heart is required of a contrite person because as Wilson illustrates, “Only a real Christian grieves over sin because it is sin rather than because it brings with it shame, embarrassment, guilt, regret, or punishment.” Another interesting paradox presents itself in this stage as Wilson shows, “While the fear of punishment decreases, if not altogether ceases, conviction of sin increases… As your fear of punishment decreases, your dread of sin and your dislike of it increase… While the fear of hell is removed, the fear of sin is enlarged.”

The fourth mark of a maturing believer is wholeness, which brings the full image of Christ into focus. Wilson demonstrates how, “Wholeness is one of the marks of a real Christian, because when you are real, you have received not half of Christ, but the whole Christ.” Wilson warns that those who are not real may love God’s justice, but care little for His grace. Wholeness means balance in thought, words, and action while bearing the image of Christ. The full image of Christ should permeate in every area of a believer’s life because as you allow Christ to fill you up, the only thing you can do is reflect the image of Christ in everything you do. Once again, Jesus is the perfect model for believers to follow as Wilson illustrates how balanced Jesus was, “He was meek before accusers, yet bold before Pharisees. He was compassionate toward the hurting, yet forthright with the crowds. He was patient with His disciples, yet overturned tables in the Temple. He blasted hypocrisy, yet humbly received scourging. He was eaten up with zeal for God, yet would often slip away quietly to pray.” Ultimately, real Christians should have wholeness by desiring a personal relationship with God as they seek to bear the image of Christ in all they are and in all they do.

The fifth mark of a maturing believer is hunger and as Wilson illustrates, “There is a difference between real hunger and what I will call ‘fake’ hunger. A real Christian’s hunger may begin slowly, but it will grow over time, so that by the end of life a real Christian is hungrier than ever for God.” However, those who are not real in their faith may start off with a strong hunger to know God more, but over time their hunger diminishes as they settle, instead of pursuing God with reckless abandonment even after they have found Him. The initial hunger starts off as wanting to know God more, but the more you begin to know the person of God, the more you will desire to do His will. God’s word is the wellspring of life, so continually reading scripture and meditating on it is paramount to creating and quenching your hunger for more. It is in this stage Wilson cautions that many downplay the importance of maintaining a hunger for God because apathy, complacency, and contentment will set in when one is satisfied with what they find. Ultimately, sin destroys one’s hunger for God, while worship breaths new life into a believer as a deer pants for flowing streams, so should a believer’s soul pant for God.

The final mark of a maturing believer is a perfected love and this is the surest evidence of authentic faith. God’s love is perfected in the believer , it casts out all fear and as Wilson concludes, “Perfected love is the goal of [all] the other marks.” Perfected love is at the core of the Godhead and it is visible, tangible, and sacrificial. As evidence by I John 3:16, “Perfected love is the person of Christ” as Christ laid down His life for us. Because perfected love comes from God, it must not have any conditions or motives attached. Instead, perfected love as Wilson defines it is, “To love God for no other reason than because God is lovely.” In one’s efforts to reach perfected love, many fall short by adhering only to imperfected love. Wilson contrasts the two by showing, “Imperfected love is love in thought, but not in practice. Imperfected love is not bad; it is just incomplete. It is good in principle; it just has not reached its goal.” Like a seed yet to be planted, it wants to grow, but has not yet been planted or watered. To turn imperfected love into perfected love, Wilson stresses the importance of prioritizing and protecting it by learning to abide in Christ. Wilson concludes by showing, “Often what hinders love from reaching its goal in our lives is [our own] insecurity.”

We all fall short of the glory of God at some point. Our righteousness is compared to filthy rags and our holiness is only found in Christ Jesus, but our perseverance is proof that we are real and that God and His promises are real as well. Wilson illustrates how, “Our perseverance vindicates God’s sustaining grace, proves God has given you a new heart, and proves you have been born again.” Charles Spurgeon said it best, “If you trust yourselves to God, He will preserve you; but if you try to keep yourselves, you will fail.”

Humility, Meekness, Contrition, Wholeness, Hunger, and Perfected Love all lead to becoming a real Christian. This book has illuminated several areas in my life, which will help lead me to a closer relationship with the Lord, and in my pursuit of holiness. My need for significance and approval if not kept in check can lead to looking to world for fulfillment. In addition, by appearing to have it all together, you are only fooling yourself, as it is nothing more than a façade, so maintaining transparency is crucial to staying humble. Real faith in Jesus Christ should change us from the inside out, so in the area of meekness I must always remember to forgive those who trespass against me, so that Christ will also forgive me. Holding un-forgiveness against someone only imprisons you to them, so giving everything to God removes the burden and need for retribution or revenge off of your shoulders. In the area of contrition, I must remind myself of the grace God has shown me with a spirit of gratitude. I also must not let past sin make me feel guilt, embarrassment, or regret. We can do nothing about the past, but we can do something about today and the best way to do that is by allowing God to use whatever mistakes may be in our past to advance the kingdom of God and bring Him glory. In the area of wholeness, I must continually allow God to fill me up daily with the intent to pour that love, compassion, and truth out in the lives of the people I interact with. When people see me, they should see Christ in me. My hunger for God must be unquenchable and the more I know Him, the more I should seek to do His will by allowing Him to work in and through me. Finally, in the area of perfected love I must allow my love for God and others to be visible, tangible, and sacrificial. In the Great Commandment, Jesus told His disciples; it was by their love for others that the world would know they were His disciples. The only motive behind our love should be because Christ first loved us and died on the cross for our sins while we were still sinners. My perfected love must be the priority in my life and my motivation in all I do. It also must be protected by the distractions, deceptions, and the illusions of the world. Out of perfected love comes the assurance that God is who He says He is, He can do what He says He can do, and that I am a child of His.

Bibliography

Davids, Peter H. The New International Commentary on the New Testament – The First Epistle of Peter. Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1990. WORDsearch CROSS e-book.

Lewis, C. S. Mere Christianity. 1952; repr., New York, NY: Macmillan, 1960.

Spurgeon, Charles. “The Preservation of Christians in the World.” Spurgeon’s Expository Encyclopedia, vol. 12. 1951; repr., Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1996.

Wilson, Todd. Real Christian: Bearing the Marks of Authentic Faith. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan. 2014.