Humilitas—- John Dickson's Reflections— Part One— Get Low!

Let me say from the outset,  I like John Dickson’s work. He is one of my favorite Aussie Christian writers, and his  Christ Files DVD and guide book are great.  Here we will be reviewing however his latest little salvo on humility— just out in May 2011.  Weighing in at 208 pages and with pictures no less, it is an easy read, on a complex and compelling subject.    John begins the book with typical humor saying he thought of entitling the book ‘Humility and How I Achieved it’  and relates the tale of how, when he told a friend of 35 years  he was writing this book, the colleague quipped— “well at least John you will have the necessary distance from the subject to be objective about it”!!     He begins with the adage— “Humility stands alone among the virtues in that as soon as you think you have it, you probably don’t.”  On the other hand, “Not thinking yourself humble is no indication that you are. You might be right! Both the arrogant and the humble are unlikely to think of themselves as humble.”  (p. 11).   With this opening, we are already dealing with some of the complexities of humility from a Christian point view.

Dickson is not interested in this subject in the abstract.  Even though he is a historian and has a great love for history, researching on what the ancients say about humility is not an end in itself for him.    Is theory however or thesis that he pursues in this book is this— “The most influential and inspiring people are often marked by humility.”  (p. 19) an idea he is able to illustrate by various examples, famous and obscure, with Jesus being one such example.   But how will he define ‘humility’?

Dickson says “Humility is the noble choice to forgo your status, deploy your resources or use your influence for the good of others before yourself.”  (p. 24).  He adds “humility presupposes your dignity. The one being humble acts from a height, so to speak, as the lowering etymology makes clear” [he had just argued that the Greek/Latin. and Hebrew terms mean to put low or to lower yourself, or as I would prefer-- 'get low'].  “It is impossible to be humble in the real sense without a healthy sense of your own worth and abilities.” (pp. 24-25).  I absolutely agree.  What I don’t agree with is the misquoting of Phil. 2 as if it says “thinking not only of your own concerns but also of the concerns of others”.  In fact that is not what the Greek says— it says ‘thinking not of your own concerns but instead of the concerns of others’. Paul is calling for real self-sacrifice, not enlightened self concern plus compassion for others.  There is a difference.   Dickson is right however that humility is far more about how I treat others than about how I feel about myself.

At the end of the first chapter there is a disclaimer.  Dickson is not saying that humility naturally leads to greatness or great achievement or great success.   He says humility enhances the ordinary, and makes the great even greater. In the next chapter he will discuss leadership and humility.

  • David Gibbs

    Interesting. So are the lowly, downtrodden and those on the periphery of society called upon to be humble? What is the value of the ” stranger, poor and fatherless” being humble?
    in fact doesn’t James 1:9 say “let the brother of low degree rejoice in that he is exalted’?

  • Justin

    David -

    “Rejoicing” doesn’t negate the command to be humble. Every person has value and worth that comes from the Imago Dei, however corrupt that image may have become. Those who “have not” have a great dignity that can never be taken away.

    One answer to your question about “the value of the ‘stranger, poor and fatherless’ being humble” is that humility keeps one from bitterness.

    Every person is responsible for what they have been given, however great or small. And that is a humbling thought.

  • Carole

    The idea that the truly humble have “a healthy sense” of [their]own worth & abilities” struck a chord with me.Anyone I have known that I would call truly humble has had that sense, has been wrapped in their dignity.How humility came to be connected with being a doormat or spinelessness is beyond me but that is so often the connotation in our culture today.

  • ben witherington

    Hi David:

    Since humility has nothing to do with abject poverty, but is rather an attitude and action of service towards others, of course the poor came be humble towards others. There is a difference between humility and being humiliated and oppressed.


  • Jason Kehler

    Fascinating. Thank-you so much. I truly enjoy reading your book reviews, and have added various titles to my list of must reads because of them. This shall certainly move near the top.

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