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Don't Die with a Full Canteen

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This is one in a series of articles that have been written for COMPASS magazine, a publication published in Singapore and circulated worldwide. Bill Lawrence is a regular contributor.

“I’ve decided to sell my company. It’ll be worth more money in a couple of years, but I’ve decided to sell it now.”

With these words my long time friend showed an understanding of one of the most important principles of leadership reality: more means less.

My friend has been pouring himself into his company for more than twenty years. We meet several times a year to talk about the Lord, our families, his business, and my ministry. In recent times he’s told me he’s tired, tired of giving everything he has to get everything he wants. The reality that more means less has been kicking in – hard!

The Reason for Our Drivenness

What makes us give everything to get everything, only to end up with nothing that we truly want?

When I ask that question, I’m not asking it just of business leaders; I’m asking it of ministry leaders who are possessed by an emptiness that grips our souls, stirs our hearts, and shackles our hands. For such leaders, no matter what we get, it is never enough.

The thing that drives us is deep, unmet insecurity. We leaders, whether in business or in ministry, are driven by a need for more, a hunger to fill the void of significance in us, a longing for success, even fame, which we think will make us the somebody we’ve always longed to be.

We desperately long for the deep security that comes from knowing we are loved by God, so we do everything we can to win Him over to us. We become functional legalists, leaders who live as if God’s grace does not exist, as if our leadership is up to us and we are the authors and finishers of our ministry. For functional legalists, works is the way we get what we want – God on our side, His blessing, our success. The problem is we seem to still end up feeling like the same old nobody we’re running away from.

Striving to Get What We Already Possess

We act like a man I heard about whose uncle died and left him millions of dollars as his only heir. The executor of the estate set out to find the suddenly-rich nephew and discovered him to be a homeless man panhandling for money on a city street. He was going from person to person and saying, “Hey, Buddy, you got a quarter for a cup of coffee?” So he came to the executor and tried to grub a quarter from him. The latter explained to the heir that he was now a multi-millionaire and gave him a check for his first million. The man looked at the check, grunted, stuffed it in his pocket and moved on to the next person coming his way, saying, “Hey, Buddy, you got a quarter for a cup of coffee?” He had a full canteen, yet he continued to pursue the emptiness that could never satisfy.

When we act out of the depths of our insecurity with the fear and anger that accompanies it, we are like millionaires grubbing for a cup of coffee.

You see, we are millionaires, grace millionaires, with the unlimited assets of God’s mercy, love, and power hidden away deeply in our hearts. He is already for us. He already loves us, values us, and accepts us. All our striving to win Him over is futile. We already have a full canteen.

But our heads – our thoughts – drive our hands to earn what we already have. Whispers from the past fill our minds and we feel unloved, unvalued, and rejected. We fear we’re phantoms, empty holes, the appearance of leaders and not leaders at all, and all we do arises out of that fear – but only serves to increase that fear more and more. The more we try to fill the emptiness of our “soul hole”, as my friend Ramesh Richard puts it, the emptier it gets and the angrier we get. You see, more does mean less.

Striving to Do the Impossible

Ray Stedman used to tell a story about a man pushing a car, struggling and straining for all he was worth. Another man approached him and asked him what he was doing. “Taking my car to work,” he replied. “Can’t you see that? Why don’t you stop asking such dumb questions and help me push the car?” The questioner took him to the driver’s side of the car, opened the door, and pointed to the keys in the ignition. “You see these keys? Watch what happens when I turn them.” As he turned the keys, the car’s engine came to life, and the questioner said to the man, “You don’t take the car to work. The car takes you to work. It’s a lot easier that way.”

Many Christian leaders are like the man pushing the car. They are striving to succeed in their own strength, to fill their emptiness and earn their success, but what they’re working to do is impossible. Leadership is just too hard to push. What they don’t realise is that they already have the keys and a full gas tank – all they have to do is get in and drive. The keys are desperate dependence on the full tank of God’s grace that comes to us because Christ lives in us. We are striving for glory and missing the reality that Christ in us is our only hope of glory.

What happens when we lead this way? We get more of whatever we go after, but we end up with less of what we really want. We get more power, more control, more safety, but we end up with less respect, less trust, less response. Because more always means less.

We know this is happening; that’s why we take control and redouble our efforts. We direct and dominate others and make sure our demands will be met. Or we smile and scheme and deny that we are controllers – just subtle, smiling ones. But the effect is the same. We don’t welcome input from others. We don’t tolerate criticism. We may dispatch others with a smile, but we dispatch them just the same. And then we wonder why our followers refuse to support us. “Look at all I’m doing for them! Why won’t they stand with me?” One reason may be that they know we’re not doing anything for them; they realise we’re doing everything for ourselves by using them. They know they weren’t created to be used – they were created to be led. And we weren’t created to use others so they would exalt us; we were created to lead others by exalting them for God’s glory.

Finding True Security

Our yearning for security leads us to search for glory, to prove our significance. But don’t you see how tragic this is?

We will never find security through success; we only find security through trust.

Paul tells us that Christ in us is our only hope of glory. We already have a full canteen – a canteen full of grace. Why do we keep trying to get what we already have? The answer is because we’re afraid to trust Christ, to take God at His word, to release all to Him and rely on the Holy Spirit.

Some may be thinking, “I know all of this.”

Of course you do. But it’s one thing to say it, another thing to get it, and still another thing to live it. You see it isn’t what we know that counts; it’s what we live. More specifically, it’s who we trust – ourselves or Christ.

Here’s the problem.

Large numbers of leaders live as if they have everything to lose and nothing to gain if they don’t have total control over everyone and everything. But in Christ we have nothing to lose and everything to gain because we already have everything in Him. When we live in the reality that we have nothing to lose, we gain everything we seek: trust, respect, and response. Our followers become true followers, not because they must (because we’re forcing them), but because they want to. And all of this has come as a free gift of grace from God. We did nothing to get it; we can do nothing to lose it. Even when we disobey we never lose the fullness of God’s grace and Christ in us. As Peter says, “His divine power has granted to us everything pertaining to life and godliness” (2 Pet 1:3). Everything! Everything!

One question I always get when I talk like this is, “But don’t we have to be in control? Aren’t we as leaders responsible for what happens in our ministry? How can we be responsible and not maintain control?”

Of course leaders must have control. I believe there are six areas of legitimate control:

Self: temper, ambition, lust, all that is transformed through the fruit of the Spirit.

Vision/accountability: what we have agreed God is calling us to do and how we stay focused on this alone.

Doctrine: what our followers learn and believe concerning the truth of God’s word.

Immaturity/disobedience in our followers: the flesh, sin, and how we learn to trust the Spirit.

Ministry practices: how we act to serve God in the ministry we lead.

Finances: handling money legally, ethically, morally, and without self-interest.

If you’re a business leader, in addition to having self-control, vision/quality accountability, and financial accountability in all your dealings, you must also control the bottom line of your company, the financial life blood of your business.

Often when we are exercising legitimate control, others will accuse us of using them to meet our needs; they will say our control is illegitimate. We must search our souls to make certain our critics are wrong and then we must act to correct them by confronting them as false teachers or unfaithful followers or immature accusers as Paul wrote in the Pastoral Epistles. However, since we can’t always be sure what our motives are, we must surround ourselves with truth-tellers who will keep us accountable by holding a mirror of our souls up to us to show us what we’re really doing no matter what we think.

But ultimately, we must understand what we never control, in fact what we never can control: we never control what God controls. We never control others to protect, promote, or advance ourselves; we never use others to fill our soul hole, to make us safe and secure; we never control the results of our ministry. It is God who gives the increase. Only God controls this, and we can never take God’s place. We can’t take charge of life – only God can.

Drinking from God’s Full Canteen

When my friend told his family about his decision to sell his business, his son-in-law expressed great delight. He described a concern he had about him. He said, “I’ve had this picture of you in my mind. In this picture you were crossing a desert in search of an oasis. You were looking desperately for water, yet you had a full canteen of water on your belt. You struggled greatly searching for the oasis, and it looked as if you weren’t going to make it, but then you saw an island of green in the desert just ahead of you – you were nearly to the oasis. You set out for it with all your energy, but just as you got there you fell over dead. You died with a full canteen.” The point my friend’s son-in-law was making was that he could always get more money for his company, but his current return was already all he needed. If he kept sacrificing his life for more money, he would die with a full canteen. More certainly would mean less for him.

Think about this as a Christian leader. You are struggling to get to an oasis – the oasis of security and significance – everything you are seeking for as a leader. Yet you already have a full canteen; you don’t need the oasis. God has already given you everything you seek in Christ. He has made you secure; you are significant simply because of His love and the value He places on you. You need nothing more than to drink from this full canteen of grace and serve in His strength.

Remember this: you don’t need an oasis – you don’t need control or dominance or power over others to meet your deepest longings. Christ in you has already done that. You have a full canteen. Please – don’t die with a full canteen.

Related Topics: Spiritual Life, Careers