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One of Life’s Great Secrets

In my new book, The Power of a Humble Life I talk about our responsibility to pursue humility and cultivate a humble heart. I address the various ways that we can humble ourselves.

One of the ways has to do with what John Ortberg calls “impression management.” Think about all the ways we seek to impress others.

We may casually name drop, mention our child’s accomplishments, or talk about an exotic place where we have vacationed in the past. This happened even back in New Testament times, as Jesus says of the Pharisees, “They do all of their deeds to be noticed by men” (Mathew 23:5).

Sociologist George Herbert Mead explains this principle in a concept called “The generalized other.” In our minds, there are certain people on whose judgement we measure our success and failure. Our lives are validated by what they think of us. However, the problem is that we never know in totality what any one person actually thinks of us.

Jesus provides some great instruction on this issue. He says,

Beware of practicing your righteousness before men to be noticed by them; otherwise you have no reward with your Father who is in heaven. So when you give to the poor, do not sound a trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, so that they may be honored by men. Truly I say to you, they have their reward in full. But when you give to the poor, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your giving will be in secret; and your Father who sees what is done in secret will reward you (Matthew 6:1-4).

The philosopher Dallas Willard has written some thoughts on what he calls “the discipline of secrecy.” He says that we should intentionally abstain from seeking to make our good deeds and qualities known, although it should never involve deceit. He believes we should look to God to enable us to tame our hunger for fame and trying to gain the attention of others. Over time, as we practice this discipline, we will learn to embrace anonymity without the loss of our peace, joy, or purpose.

Willard goes on to say the discipline of secrecy, rightly practiced, enables us to place all our public relations in the hands of God. By doing this, we allow Him to decide when our deeds need to be known.

Back in the 1930s and 1940s, the most popular English novelist was a man by the name of Lloyd C. Douglas. He began his adult life as a Christian pastor and then became a writer.

Five of his books were made into movies. One of the most popular, The Robe, was made into a movie, which starred Richard Burton. It won two academy awards and was nominated for best picture. He also wrote an incredibly popular novel in 1929 entitled Magnificent Obsession which was made into a movie, twice. I had the opportunity to read this novel three or four years ago, and it was a fascinating book. (I read that this was one of John Wooden’s favorite novels.)

The story is about Dr. Wayne Hudson who is struggling with deep depression and is on the edge of failure in his work. His wife has just died, and he goes to purchase a marker for her grave. As he looks at the various monuments, he encounters an eccentric but very talented sculptor by the name of Clive Randolph. They begin to engage in a conversation, and over time as they become more comfortable with each other, Randolph imparts to him a secret that he claims will transform the doctor’s life.

Though Randolph does not completely lay out this wonderful secret all at once, when you piece it together it goes like this: Most people live depleted lives; they are weak, zestless, and have very little energy. The reason, he contends, is that when we perform a good deed or some worthy achievement we want the world to know about it. We seek to advertise it and receive all the credit for it. On the other hand, when our lives are not going well and we are floundering, we carefully hide our problems or look for ways to deny them if we can. Randolph says that people, therefore, spend their lives pretending, always insecure and afraid of being found out.

Randolph tells Dr. Hudson that to remedy this situation and find power in his life, the simple secret is to reverse the strategy. In other words, he needed to keep his great deeds and accomplishments a secret and find people with whom he was willing to be vulnerable and share with them his struggles, fears, and secrets. Dr. Hudson began to apply this in his own life, and his depression lifted and he later became a famous brain surgeon.

Dr. Hobart Mowrer was a famous American psychologist who was fascinated by this novel, particularly with Randolph’s secret formula. Dr. Mowrer decided to conduct some research into the life of Lloyd C. Douglas. He spent time interviewing Douglas’s daughter, seeking to determine if her father had actually practiced Clive Randolph’s secret formula for power.

Mowrer said it was not surprising “that until he was 50 years old, Douglas was a good but not outstanding minister and then, suddenly, became and remained to the end of his life the most widely read novelist in the English language.” Mowrer concluded that if all the facts were known, Lloyd C. Douglas’s own life would dramatically testify to the power of this principle which he called “the magnificent obsession.”

Clearly, there is power in the humble life!


This blog is an excerpt from Richard’s newest book: The Power of a Humble Life which can be found on our website at www.thecenterbham.org and Amazon.com.

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