Leadership Qualities

This leadership series addresses the need for a more top-down approach to leadership that begins with the character, attributes, and actions of God rather than a biblical veneer added to worldly wisdom on the subject.

 Kenneth Boa

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Character

**The audio for this article is in two parts, click for part 1 and for part 2.**

 

People generally don’t like being called “Dummies.” And yet how can we explain the overwhelming success of a series of books aimed at dummies? Beginning with the November 1991 publication of DOS for Dummies, the series now has more than 100 million books in print, dealing with everything from exercise and nutrition to managing finances to planning a European vacation.

From the very beginning, the concept was simple but powerful: Relate to the anxiety and frustration that people feel about technology by making fun of it through books that are educational and humorous – books that make difficult material interesting and easy. Throw in a dash of personality and some entertaining cartoons and – presto – you have a …For Dummies book!

The Old Testament book of Proverbs does much the same thing (minus the cartoons). It takes the timeless wisdom of God and makes it easy to understand for regular people with no theological training. You could call the book of Proverbs Wisdom for Dummies.

The Old Testament proverbs were collected and written down to help us make one of the most vital and basic choices in life – the choice between wisdom and folly, walking with God or walking on our own. In the book of Proverbs both wisdom and folly are described as people who walk through the streets of the city and call out to us, hawking their wares and beckoning us to taste a sample (Proverbs 1).

Solomon, who is credited with authoring the book of Proverbs, provides us with an excellent jumping off point for developing the character qualities essential to good leadership:

My son, if you accept my words and store up my commands within you, turning your ear to wisdom and applying your heart to understanding, and if you call out for insight and cry aloud for understanding, and if you look for it as for silver and search for it as for hidden treasure, then you will understand the fear of the Lord and find the knowledge of God. For the Lord gives wisdom and from his mouth come knowledge and understanding. He holds victory in store for the upright, he is a shield to those whose walk is blameless, for he guards the course of the just and protects the way of his faithful ones.

Then you will understand what is right and just and fair – every good path. For wisdom will enter your heart, and knowledge will be pleasant to your soul. Discretion will protect you, and understanding will guard you.

Proverbs 2:1-11

Leaders cultivate character by acquiring wisdom and understanding. Of course, those possessions don’t come without a price. They require the kind of dedicated and patient labor exercised in mining for gold and silver. Leaders must diligently “search” for the wisdom that is buried within God’s Word like treasure covered by layers of earth and rock. That means using the right tools and exercising patience and diligence as we spend time immersed within this life-changing book. As Marjorie Thompson writes, “It would be nice if we could simply ‘practice the presence of God’ in all of life, without expending energy on particular exercises. But the capacity to remember and abide in God’s presence comes only through steady training.”1 You cannot pay someone else to develop your character strength any more than you can pay them to develop muscles for you. If you want to grow stronger, you will have to push the weight yourself.

Neither can you expect to have a muscular character overnight. It requires effort and time. Douglas J. Rumford says, “Character is like physical exercise or any form of learning; you cannot ‘cram,’ hoping to do in a day or week what can only be accomplished by months and years of consistent practice.”2 This is why the writer of Proverbs uses words that call his readers to energetic and passionate action.

As we dig, we must ask God to provide us with insight and understanding. Ultimately, only God can open our eyes to see spiritual truth and then enable us to apply that truth to our lives (Ephesians 1:18). As God fills our minds with wisdom, our character will develop so that we’ll possess the ability to consistently make right choices – choices that are just, fair and moral. As Henry Blackaby and Claude King note in their book Experiencing God:

Once you come to believe God, you demonstrate your faith by what you do. Some action is required…. You cannot continue life as usual or stay where you are, and go with God at the same time…. To go from your ways, thoughts, and purposes to God’s will always requires a major adjustment. God may require adjustments in your circumstances, relationships, thinking, commitments, actions, and beliefs. Once you have made the necessary adjustments you can follow God in obedience. Keep in mind – the God who calls you is also the One who will enable you to do His will.3

As we seek to possess God’s wisdom, we’ll be able to move beyond simply expressing the vision and values of a leader. We’ll possess the kind of character from which lofty visions and values flow, the kind of character that isn’t swayed by public opinion or fear but pursues true greatness and knows Who the real audience is. Our character will be truly godly, so that others will delight in following us.

God: He’s Quite a Character!

Think about the people you know and admire. Do you know any wise parents, mothers and fathers who demonstrate sound judgment in how they conduct their lives and raise their children? Do you know any grandparents who know when to cheer and when to rebuke, when to be tender and when to use force? Have you ever had a teacher who knew when to give advice and when to just listen, when to instruct and when to let life’s consequences be the teacher? Now try to put a value on those wise insights. How much are they worth?

We all esteem people who possess wisdom in their inward character. If we admire these quality people, how much more should we value the perfection of the living God from whom all wisdom, patience and discernment is derived?

When Moses asked God to reveal his glory to him, the Lord said, “I will cause all my goodness to pass in front of you, and I will proclaim my name, the Lord, in your presence” (Exodus 33:18-19). God had to shield Moses from the fullness of his glory by covering him in the cleft of a rock, and as he passed in front of Moses, God accompanied this awesome display by proclaiming the perfection of his own character:

And he passed in front of Moses, proclaiming, “The Lord, the Lord, the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness, maintaining love to thousands, and forgiving wickedness, rebellion and sin. Yet he does not leave the guilty unpunished; he punishes the children and their children for the sin of the fathers to the third and fourth generation.”

Exodus 34:6-7

When God revealed himself as the compassionate and gracious God who is slow to anger, who abounds in love and faithfulness, who maintains love to thousands and who forgives wickedness, rebellion and sin, he made it clear this his personal character is the absolute standard by which all of these qualities are defined. God is accountable to no one, and there is no higher standard to which he must conform. As the great thinker Anselm said in the 11th century: “God is that than which nothing greater can be conceived.”

Anselm originally made this statement in an attempt to prove God’s existence. But as Michael Witmer points out,

The real legacy of Anselm’s argument is not its attempt to prove God’s existence but rather how it teaches us to speak about God. If God is “that than which nothing greater can be conceived,” then we know there are certain things we must say about him. For starters, we must use only our best words to describe him. God must be righteous, powerful, loving, and kind – all the things that it is better to be than not to be. We may disagree about what items should go in the list…but we all agree that the list must include all the great-making properties we can imagine….

God is qualitatively superior to anything in his creation. There is nothing that compares with the greatest possible being. He is in a class by himself – literally.4

God’s own eternal and uncompromising character is the unchanging standard that gives ultimate meaning to love, graciousness, faithfulness and forbearance. And yet the incredible call of the gospel is that fallen creatures such as we are can now begin to reflect our Father’s character in our own lives. The One who is goodness in his essence, the One who defines virtue by his very being, promises to empower those who will trust him enough to live according to his will.

Character from the Inside Out

People are not impressed by façades or manipulation, but by authenticity and by those who are genuinely other-centered. Character is not a matter of outward technique but of inner reality. God is concerned with what you are really like when no one else is looking. Douglas Rumford, in discussing the sad situation of a Christian leader who lost his ministry due to sexual misconduct, explains that this kind of thing is bound to happen when we allow a “character gap” to develop in our lives. He writes,

The character gap is a weakness that will one day become apparent, when the circumstances or stresses of life converge and reach a breaking point. We may be able to coast for a while, and we may feel quite secure. But raw talent, personality, and fortunate circumstances cannot substitute for the forging of inner holiness, resilience, and the convictions that comprise integrity of character.5

Second Peter 1:5-8 lists the qualities of life and godliness that God wants for each of his children:

For this very reason, make every effort to add to your faith goodness; and to goodness, knowledge; and to knowledge, self-control; and to self-control, perseverance; and to perseverance, godliness; and to godliness, brotherly kindness; and to brotherly kindness, love. For if you possess these qualities in increasing measure, they will keep you from being ineffective and unproductive in your knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ.

The character qualities listed in these verses are admirable, but they are also overwhelming. We may aspire to these characteristics, but is it really possible for us to attain them? The answer, both from Scripture and from sheer human experience, is a resounding, “No!” In our own strength, this kind of character is not merely difficult to attain; it is impossible to attain.

If it were simply a matter of fitful human effort, the attempt would be futile. So what are we to do? Shall we simply throw up our hands and walk away from the text, claiming that it makes impossible requests? That would be foolish. What we should do is pay attention to the context into which Peter wrote those words.

The sentences just prior (2 Peter 1:3-4) provide the necessary key: In Christ we have been permitted to access God’s divine power and have been granted the incomprehensible privilege of participating “in the divine nature.” There is only one person who is able to live the Christlike life: Jesus Christ himself. You cannot live the life he calls you to without him (John 15:5). Only as you maintain your connection to him can he live this life through you. As Martin Luther said, “It is not imitation which brings about our sonship of God, but our sonship which makes possible imitation.”6 We have not only received a new nature in Christ (Romans 6:6-13), but we are also indwelled by the Holy Spirit, whose power within us makes it possible for us to manifest these qualities of Christlike character.

True spiritual and character transformation takes place from the inside out, not from the outside in. The attributes of faith, goodness, knowledge, self-control, perseverance, godliness, brotherly kindness and love flow from the life of Christ that has been implanted within us.

Peter: A Case Study in Character

It’s easy to read Peter’s inspirational words and wonder, “Who writes this stuff? Where do people with such ideals and insights come from?” Well, the man who wrote those inspiring words, the man who exhorted us on to such strength of character, didn’t always live up to those same ideals.

The man who called himself “a witness of Christ’s sufferings” (1 Peter 5:1) was not there when Jesus was hanging on the cross; he was hiding in fear. The man who calls us to be “eager to serve” (1 Peter 5:2) remained seated while Jesus washed the disciples’ feet. The man who tells us that we should “be clear minded and self-controlled so that you can pray” (1 Peter 4:7) fell asleep while Jesus was sweating blood. The man who so boldly tells us to “submit yourselves for the Lord’s sake to every authority instituted among men” (1 Peter 2:13) lopped Malchus’ ear off in the Garden (John 18:10-11).

None of this is meant to demean Peter. The point here is to give us hope. This man Peter, who was so impulsive and immature, grew into a great leader of the church. The Peter we read about in the four Gospels became the Peter we read about in the book of Acts and the Peter who wrote two epistles. It took time and effort, but God transformed him. And the same Holy Spirit who worked this transformation in Peter’s life is actively at work transforming those of us who have placed our faith in Christ.

The Gospels leave the reader with two impressions of Peter. The first is that he was at times a comically impulsive character. Twice he jumped out of perfectly seaworthy boats, fully clothed. He challenged Jesus; he spoke out of turn; at times, he seemed to demonstrate more energy and creativity than was appropriate for the moment. But it is that very energy and creativity that underlie the second impression of Peter.

Peter was the disciples’ unofficial leader. He often served as their spokesperson. He was one of the three disciples in Jesus’ “inner circle.” Certainly after Jesus’ departure, the disciples looked to Peter to give them direction. Luke’s record of the church’s early years (the book of Acts) leaves no doubt about Peter’s leadership.

This seemingly conflicting combination of qualities exists in many young leaders and may be identified by a term such as “high mental energy.” Peter was always thinking, and he always thought with a view toward action. When he heard “question,” he immediately thought “answer.” When he observed “problem,” he thought “solution.” When he encountered “options,” he thought “decision.” But he also demonstrated the unfortunate side of that same characteristic. When he heard “silence,” he thought “talk.” When he encountered “disagreement,” he thought “challenge.” “Error” (or at least Peter’s perception of error) sparked “correction.” But whatever the situation, at the very least he did think, and his thinking inevitably led to action.

In his younger years Peter exercised little constraint, and his answers, solutions, decisions and speech sometimes seemed buffoonish. At times his behavior was perceived as insensitive, unconsidered and immature. But like many great leaders, Peter survived himself. With Jesus’ guidance, Peter’s fertile and active mind matured. Through all of his experiences he developed a more-godly, Christlike character. This maturity led his thinking process into more productive channels. He collected, sorted and connected information. He honed his reasoning skills. Peter became a leader because he was not afraid to make a decision. And his godly character informed the decisions he made.

Anyone serving under a leader who suffers “paralysis by analysis” will appreciate Peter’s quick response time. Anyone working in an organization in which “decision by indecision” is the rule understands why people were drawn to Peter. As we follow Peter’s life through the Gospels and then hear his mature voice resonate throughout his two epistles, we appreciate this optimistic, energetic, highly intelligent man of action and deep character. In fact, the Gospel of Mark, which many believe Peter dictated to Mark, is the Gospel that portrays Jesus as a man of action and urgency. The Greek word translated “immediately” is used 42 times in Mark’s 16 chapters.

When the church was on the move, when both the Roman and Jewish leaders were opposing it, when Christians were being martyred for their faith, someone needed to make quick, Spirit-led decisions. And we can only imagine the kinds of issues that could have splintered this frail organization when the church leaped over its cultural boundaries to include Greek-speaking Jews, then Samaritans, then local Gentiles, then Asians and Greeks and Romans. Because Peter was a leader whose ego could endure the threat of disagreement, challenge or even a bad decision, he was not afraid to act. He was not careless, nor did he deal frivolously with critical matters. His godly character wouldn’t allow that. But he was not afraid to move, and under his leadership the church got things done. Peter was a leader who made decisions that mattered.

Loving Your Way to Good Character

It’s amazing what God can do with a person who wants to grow personally and develop character. The great news is that God wants you to grow as much as you can. He redeemed you for that purpose. To discover the lengths to which God will go to forge steel into our character, let’s walk through the smelting furnace along with Peter.

This man had denied Jesus at a critical time; yet later in his life he suffered beatings, imprisonment and eventually death rather than to deny him again. We all know that such character is not developed in a single event. We know that Jesus’ resurrection had a profound influence on Peter’s character transformation. But the manner in which Jesus helped Peter to recover from the worst failure of his life should afford us great encouragement about asking the same Lord Jesus to help us to develop strength of character as well.

Now Peter was sitting out in the courtyard, and a servant girl came to him. “You also were with Jesus of Galilee,” she said.

But he denied it before them all. “I don’t know what you’re talking about,” he said.

Then he went out to the gateway, where another girl saw him and said to the people there, “This fellow was with Jesus of Nazareth.”

He denied it again, with an oath: “I don’t know the man!”

After a little while, those standing there went up to Peter and said, “Surely you are one of them, for your accent gives you away.”

Then he began to call down curses on himself and he swore to them, “I don’t know the man!”

Immediately a rooster crowed. Then Peter remembered the word Jesus had spoken: “Before the rooster crows, you will disown me three times.” And he went outside and wept bitterly.

Matthew 26:69-75

To discover just what this event represented to Peter, perhaps we should go back and read a passage from earlier in the same chapter:

Then Jesus told them, “This very night you will all fall away on account of me….

Peter replied, “Even if all fall away on account of you, I never will.”

“I tell you the truth,” Jesus answered, “this very night, before the rooster crows, you will disown me three times.”

But Peter declared, “Even if I have to die with you, I will never disown you.” And all the other disciples said the same.

Matthew 26:31a, 33-35

At this earlier point, Peter’s strength of character could hardly be questioned. He said he was willing to die with Jesus if he had to. But the Son of God was right. That same night, Peter denied even knowing Jesus.

Following all of these events, Jesus was crucified and buried. Three days later he was raised from the dead and was seen briefly by Peter and the other disciples (John 20). But the first conversation between Jesus and Peter, recorded in John 21, shows how Jesus dealt with Peter’s failure:

When they had finished eating, Jesus said to Simon Peter, “Simon son of John, do you truly love me more than these?”

“Yes, Lord,” he said, “you know that I love you.”

Jesus said, “Feed my lambs.”

Again Jesus said, “Simon, son of John, do you truly love me?”

He answered, “Yes, Lord, you know that I love you.”

Jesus said, “Take care of my sheep.”

The third time he said to him, “Simon son of John, do you love me?”

Peter was hurt because Jesus asked him the third time, “Do you love me?” He said, “Lord, you know all things; you know that I love you.”

Jesus said, “Feed my sheep.”

John 21:14-17

Notice Peter’s sound theological affirmation in verse 17: “Lord, you know all things; you know that I love you.” Peter was correct. Jesus wasn’t asking Peter the question because he needed to know that answer but because Peter needed to know that answer. Why was it so important for Peter to come to grips with his own answer to that question? It is important for you as well to determine whether your love for Jesus Christ is strong enough to enable you to develop the character qualities his Word encourages and demands. These are the qualities Peter lists in 2 Peter 1:5-8.

In the first 12 chapters of the book of Acts we see Peter as the prominent leader in the fledgling church. His strength of character and conviction are a source of inspiration, challenge and encouragement to many. Our Lord is still seeking men and women who will answer, “Yes Lord, you know that I love you,” and who will then develop the character qualities needed to be a godly leader.

Such character is forged in the small things of life. The big events of life can be viewed as final examinations which reveal the true nature of our inward selves. It is in the seemingly unimportant decisions that our character is strengthened bit by bit. C. S. Lewis used the image of the “central core” within each of us that is formed and molded by our choices:

People often think of Christian morality as a kind of bargain in which God says, “If you keep a lot of rules I’ll reward you, and if you don’t I’ll do the other thing.” I do not think that is the best way of looking at it. I would much rather say that every time you make a choice you are turning the central part of you, the part of you that chooses, into something a little different from what it was before. And taking your life as a whole, with all your innumerable choices, all your life long you are slowly turning this central thing either into a heavenly creature or a hellish creature: either into a creature that is in harmony with God and with other creatures, and with itself, or else into one that is in a state of war and hatred with God, and with its fellow-creatures, and with itself. To be the one kind of creature is heaven: that is, it is joy and peace and knowledge and power. To be the other means madness, horror, idiocy, rage, impotence, and eternal loneliness. Each of us at each moment is progressing to the one state or the other.7

The choices we make today determine our character. And we’ll take our character with us into eternity. Choose wisely!


1Marjorie J. Thompson, Soul Feast: An Invitation to the Christian Spiritual Life (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox, 1995), p. 11.

2Douglas J. Rumford, SoulShaping: Taking Care of Your Spiritual Life (Wheaton, IL: Tyndale, 1996), p. 354.

3Henry T. Blackaby and Claude V. King, Experiencing God (Nashville: Broadman & Holman, 1994), pp. 147, 151, 153.

4Michael E. Witmer, Heaven Is a Place on Earth (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2004), p. 40.

5Rumford, Soul Shaping, p. 354.

6Quoted in Gordon S. Wakefield, The Westminster Dictionary of Christian Spirituality (Philadelphia, PA: Westminster Press, 1983), p. 209.

7C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity (New York: Macmillan, 1943), pp. 86-87.

 


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Commitment

A chicken and a pig were walking down the road together. They passed a sign for a local diner advertising its breakfast special: “Ham and Eggs – $2.95!” The chicken said, “That’s our whole contribution to society: breakfast food!” The pig replied, “For you, it may be a contribution. For me it’s a total commitment.”

Life in the modern world has programmed us to expect a life of ease. It’s not merely that we want everything to be easy; who wouldn’t want that? What is troubling is that we now expect to receive abundant rewards with minimal effort. If something requires effort or time, it must not be meant to be, and we feel thoroughly justified giving up. Worse yet are those who believe legitimate goals may be sought through illegitimate means, provided that those means offer a short-cut to the goal in mind.

Take, for example, the professional athlete who chooses to illegally enhance his performance through the use of steroids. Not only has he cheapened himself, he has robbed his fellow athletes of any kind of fair competition. He does this simply because he does not want to put in the time and effort necessary to better himself.

This is a dangerous road to travel. Common sense reveals that some of the best things in life demand effort and prove worthy of whatever amount of labor we endure in the pursuit. The best relationships require work. The best businesses have been built on the blood, sweat and tears of their leaders. Even our spiritual growth is reflective of our faithful investment. G.K. Chesterton once quipped, “The Christian ideal has not been tried and found wanting. It has been found difficult, and left untried.”1

Of course, this is nothing new. Thousands of years ago, God asked, “Who is he who will devote himself to be close to me?” (Jeremiah 30:21). We don’t want to hear it, but the fact of the matter is that following God involves sacrifice, effort, devotion. We much prefer the spiritual growth plans that guarantee complete maturity in “15 minutes a day!”

Mark Oppenheimer has written of the proliferation of these mistaken ideas regarding what is truly involved in personal life-change. These false notions can be found in everything from the Chicken Soup for the Soul books to WWJD bracelets to the awe-inspiring angelic visitations received in the lives of television characters. It all sounds good, but there’s never any kind of demand or call for commitment or life-change involved. “Just Do It” doesn’t really mean, “Just run 100 miles every week like marathon runners do.” “Just Do It” means, “Just buy the shoes – swift feet sure to follow.”2 As if you’ll become magically fit simply by purchasing the proper footwear.

Leaders know that this is not so. Leaders know that such behavior used to have a name; it was called sloth. In “The Other Six Deadly Sins,” Dorothy Sayers said,

In the world it is called tolerance, but in hell it is called despair. It is the accomplice of the other sins and their worst punishment. It is the sin which believes in nothing, cares for nothing, seeks to know nothing, finds purpose in nothing, lives for nothing, and only remains alive because there is nothing it would die for. We have known it far too well for many years. The only thing perhaps that we have not known about it is that it is mortal sin.3

Leaders know the truth of Theodore Roosevelt’s words: “Far better it is to dare mighty things, to win glorious triumphs even though checkered by failure, than to rank with those poor spirits who neither enjoy nor suffer much because they live in the gray twilight that knows neither victory nor defeat.” There is a great danger in our time of succumbing to mediocrity not through incompetence or a lack of integrity but simply from a lack of genuine commitment. To live without such commitment is to live in that “gray twilight that knows neither victory nor defeat.”

Godly men and women understand that effective leadership flows from being deeply committed to the right things. As followers of Christ, the single most important commitment of our lives is, obviously, to God. Any lasting success we experience as leaders will flow from that commitment. This is why the apostle Paul writes:

Therefore, I urge you, brothers, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God – this is your spiritual act of worship. Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is – his good, pleasing and perfect will.

Romans 12:1-2

The word “Therefore” points to all the apostle has written in the previous 11 chapters. In light of God’s mercy, which justifies, sanctifies and will someday glorify us, we are to offer ourselves as living sacrifices to him. In other words, we should allow God’s mercy to accomplish this additional work in our lives. We should let it drive us to absolute commitment.

Those who have been taken captive by the love of God will affirm the lordship of Jesus Christ in their lives by heeding this call to “offer your bodies as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God” (12:1b).

The word “offer” implies that this act, much like a wedding vow, occurs once. It may be renewed, but at some point we should be motivated by God’s mercy to devote ourselves to him. When we take this step, we’re acknowledging Christ’s leadership in our lives. We sacrifice our selfish desires and misguided ambitions as we strive to align ourselves with God’s will. Once this act of commitment occurs, our talents and dreams will be surrendered to his purpose. And the more we give ourselves to him, the more he will bless and use us.

The sequence here is vitally important. In the Old Testament, there are two broad categories of sacrifice that one might offer to God under different circumstances. There were atonement sacrifices and celebration sacrifices. Atonement sacrifices were for the covering of sin with blood and the reconciliation of men with God or one another. These sacrifices were offered as a response to sin and guilt.

On the other hand, the Law of Moses also made provision for sacrifices of joy. When the crops were harvested, when a child was born, when a great deliverance had occurred – the people would come before God to offer gifts of thanksgiving and celebration.

Christians acknowledge one and only one atonement sacrifice: Jesus himself. But we engage in perpetual sacrifices of celebration and thanksgiving to the God who has saved us. While it is true that we offer God our talents, abilities and money, the most fundamental sacrifice we give him is our very bodies. Paul, the writer of this text, will not abide abstract or ethereal religion. Our bodies are the instruments of all our actions in this world. Therefore, it is our bodies themselves which must be yielded to God in every area.

We naturally expect people to conform to their environment. The phrase most often used in this vein is, “When in Rome, do as the Romans do.” Those of us who have been justified, sanctified and consecrated to God, however, face a different set of expectations. People who have received God’s grace and been transported out of darkness into his kingdom of marvelous light will be shaped and molded by their new experience. Such an overwhelming experience is bound to have some impact on our lives. That is only logical, isn’t it?

In fact, the word translated “spiritual” is the Greek term logikos. The word fundamentally means “rational” or “reasonable.” In view of the mercy of God toward me, it is only rational or reasonable that I should give my heart, mind and body to be shaped by his gracious control. In view of the personal relationship God has purchased and established with me, no mere ceremony or ritual is enough to offer him; he deserves the intelligent and rational surrender of every fiber of my being to him.

The God Who Commits

Douglas Rumford makes a profound statement in his book SoulShaping. He writes, “We make our commitments, then our commitments make us. Once they are chosen, many other choices follow as a matter of course.”4 Once we commit to follow Jesus, many other decisions in life must fall into line or we overturn our prior commitment.

But how are we to know that our commitment to God will be honored? All of the commitments we make should flow from the commitment God has first made to us. Once God committed himself to our highest good, his will toward us was sealed. God tells us that he is committed to all who are in Christ, and that our relationship with him will last forever. Jeremiah 31:31-36 shows us the covenant of commitment the Lord made with his people:

“The time is coming,” declares the Lord, “when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah. It will not be like the covenant I made with their forefathers when I took them by the hand to lead them out of Egypt, because they broke my covenant, though I was a husband to them,” declares the Lord.

“This is the covenant I will make with the house of Israel after that time,” declares the Lord. “I will put my law in their minds and write it on their hearts. I will be their God, and they will be my people. No longer will a man teach his neighbor, or a man his brother saying, ‘Know the Lord,’ because they will all know me, from the least of them to the greatest,” declares the Lord. “For I will forgive their wickedness and will remember their sins no more.”

This is what the Lord says, he who appoints the sun to shine by day, who decrees the moon and stars to shine by night, who stirs up the sea so that its waves roar – the Lord Almighty is his name: “Only if these decrees vanish from my sight,” declares the Lord, “will the descendants of Israel ever cease to be a nation before me.”

The ultimate basis for security and significance in life relates to commitment (security) and to how long something will last (significance). In these six verses, God provides for his people a sense of both security and significance – a sure word that his commitment to them will never fail.

In spite of the rebelliousness of the people of Judah, the Lord assured them through the prophet Jeremiah that he was committed to their ultimate good. Judgment was inevitable because they had flagrantly violated God’s commands, but the prophet looked beyond this impending condemnation to a time of consolation. There will be a faithful remnant, and God’s people will eventually enjoy the blessings of forgiveness and complete renewal.

In this covenant, God commits himself to the welfare of the house of Israel and Judah and predicts a time when they will all know him and when his law will be written on their hearts. “‘For I know the plans I have for you,’ declares the Lord, ‘plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future’” (Jeremiah 29:11).

God’s grace is always previous to our respons e and demonstrates his unshakeable commitment to us. “This is how God showed his love among us: He sent his one and only Son into the world that we might live through him. This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins” (1 John 4:9-10). When we love God, it is “because he first loved us” (1 John 4:19).

Lewis Thomas, scientist and philosopher, described humans best when he said, “We are, perhaps, uniquely among earth’s creatures, the worrying animal. We worry away our lives, fearing the future, discontent with the present, unable to take in the idea of dying, unable to sit still.”5 God’s promise of abiding love and commitment to our well-being enables us to live above worry, above fear. His commitment to us empowers us to follow through on our commitment to him. As Martin Luther said, “It is not imitation which brings about our sonship of God, but our sonship which makes possible imitation.”6

Being Committed to God

Quality relationships are founded on the rock of commitment, not the shifting sand of feelings or emotions. God calls us to be people of commitment, first to him and then to others. As a great leader of Israel, Joshua’s entire life was marked by commitment. We even hear this in his final words:

“Now fear the Lord and serve him with all faithfulness. Throw away the gods your forefathers worshiped beyond the River and in Egypt, and serve the Lord. But if serving the Lord seems undesirable to you, then choose for yourselves this day whom you will serve, whether the gods your forefathers served beyond the River, or the gods of the Amorites, in whose land you are living. But as for me and my household, we will serve the Lord.”

Then the people answered, “Far be it from us to forsake the Lord to serve other gods! It was the Lord our God himself who brought us and our fathers up out of Egypt, from that land of slavery, and performed those great signs before our eyes. He protected us on our entire journey and among all the nations through which we traveled. And the Lord drove out before us all the nations, including the Amorites, who lived in the land. We too will serve the Lord, because he is our God.”

Joshua said to the people, “You are not able to serve the Lord. He is a holy God; he is a jealous God. He will not forgive your rebellion and your sins. If you forsake the Lord and serve foreign gods, he will turn and bring disaster on you and make an end of you, after he has been good to you.”

But the people said to Joshua, “No! We will serve the Lord.”

Then Joshua said, “You are witnesses against yourselves that you have chosen to serve the Lord.”

“Yes, we are witnesses,” they replied.

“Now then,” said Joshua, “throw away the foreign gods that are among you and yield your hearts to the Lord, the God of Israel.”

And the people said to Joshua, “We will serve the Lord our God and obey him.”

On that day Joshua made a covenant for the people, and there at Shechem he drew up for them decrees and laws. And Joshua recorded these things in the Book of the Law of God. Then he took a large stone and set it up there under the oak near the holy place of the Lord.

“See!” he said to all the people. “This stone will be a witness against us. It has heard all the words the Lord has said to us. It will be a witness against you if you are untrue to your God.”

Joshua 24:14-27

Joshua told the people that even if they chose not to serve the Lord, they would still not be exempt from service. If we do not serve the Creator, we will unavoidably serve some part of the creation. But the gods of success, position and possessions are cruel taskmasters and never deliver the profound satisfaction they promise. God alone is the worthy object of our total commitment, and if we direct our highest commitment to anything else, we commit idolatry. We were designed to serve God and to find our deepest satisfaction in him, but we will be half-hearted at best if we try to play by two sets of rules and serve two masters (Luke 16:13).

In the 1991 movie City Slickers, Billy Crystal plays Mitch – a confused, dissatisfied man with a vague sense that life is passing him by. Jack Palance plays the ancient sage Curly – “a saddlebag with eyes.” At a critical moment in the film, Curly asks Mitch if he would like to know the secret of life.

“It’s this,” Curly says, holding up his index finger.

“The secret of life is your finger?” asks Mitch.

“It’s one thing,” Curly replies. “The secret of life is pursuing one thing.”

Something about this strikes a chord deep within Mitch. His life is a mess; he feels pulled by his obligations to his family and his desire for fulfillment at his work – torn between his need for security and his longing for excitement. Like many men, Mitch is divided. His life is about too many different things. Thus, he feels it is about nothing.

He asks Curly to tell him what that one thing is, but the best Curly can do is to tell Mitch, “You have to find it for yourself.”

Believe it or not, the wise, old cowboy is parroting Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard, who saw double-mindedness as the primary affliction of modern man. His book Purity of Heart Is to Will One Thing is a meditation on the biblical statement: “Purify your hearts, you double-minded” (James 4:8). The sickness, according to Kierkegaard, is really a failure to achieve an integrated life, a life that is focused on one thing. It is the failure to make an ultimate commitment to “the Good,” to “seeking first the kingdom of God.”7

Many of those who followed Jesus were merely curious. Others were convinced of the truth of what he was teaching, but only a few were fully and personally committed to him. When his uncommitted followers began to leave him in response to his difficult sayings, Jesus turned to the 12 and asked if they wanted to leave with the others. Although it is doubtful that they understood the Lord better than those who were leaving, they realized that once having committed themselves to him, there was no turning back (John 6:60-69). As disciples of Christ, we are called to remain committed to him, even when we don’t fully understand all of his plans for us. Failure to do so leads to misery and a lack of effectiveness in ministry. As François Fénelon wrote,

Woe to those weak and timid souls who are divided between God and their world! They want and they do not want. They are torn by desire and remorse at the same time…. They have a horror of evil and a shame of good. They have the pains of virtue without tasting its sweet consolations. O how wretched they are.8

As a godly leader, “You are [a witness] against [yourself] that you have chosen to serve the Lord” (v. 22). Have you assessed how that commitment has been played out in your life? In what ways has your level of commitment to the Lord been conditioned by your understanding of what he is doing in your life? The call to commitment is a call to constant vigilance in maintaining and understanding the standards of that commitment. No matter what distractions a godly leader may encounter, he or she needs to maintain his or her focus on serving the Lord.

Committing vs. Bargaining

How on earth do leaders establish and retain committed followers? How, in some cases, do we get ourselves committed enough to pay the high price of success? God knows how, and the prophet Habakkuk models an essential truth about God-focused commitment:

Though the fig tree does not bud and there are no grapes on the vines, though the olive crop fails and the fields produce no food, though there are no sheep in the pen and no cattle in the stalls, yet I will rejoice in the Lord, I will be joyful in God my Savior.

Habakkuk 3:17-18

What a refreshing statement! Many leaders would love to have followers who are this committed to the cause. In fact, many leaders would love to have this level of commitment to their own cause. The key ingredient to Habakkuk’s statement is that it is unidirectional; he promised to maintain his attitude regardless of the payback.

That’s really what “commitment” is. The statement, “I will be committed if” isn’t commitment-making; it’s deal-making. It’s not committing; it’s bargaining. In Habakkuk chapter 2, God explained his justice and his majesty to the prophet. The passage above is the prophet’s response to that revelation of God’s character.

In the absence of a life-consuming ideal, asking for the level of commitment Habakkuk expressed is absurd. Leaders must identify what it is within their organization that is genuinely worthy of commitment. Until leaders complete this definition, they sound rather shallow even talking about it. No sane person will commit to things that don’t really matter. But when an organization’s goals and outcomes are properly related to the living God and its activities honor him, then commitment makes sense. Instead of asking, “How do we get commitment?” effective leaders will begin by asking, “To what (or whom) are we committed?”

The Rewards of Commitment

What does commitment look like in a leader, and how can we practice it? Jesus reveals his standard of deeper commitment in Matthew’s Gospel:

Then Jesus said to his disciples, “If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me will find it. What good will it be for a man if he gains the whole world, yet forfeits his soul? Or what can a man give in exchange for his soul?

Matthew 16:24-26

Jesus spoke these words to his disciples, but they still call us to action today. Through these living words, Jesus makes it clear that he requires total commitment of his followers. He said that unless one commits everything, one loses everything. For the Christian leader, that commitment must remain strong until the end of our earthly walk. Inspirational and motivational speaker Og Mandino expands on the necessity of strong, long-term commitment.

One of Mandino’s 10 common causes of failure is “quitting too soon.” Mandino tells the story of Raphael Solano and his companions, who were looking for diamonds in a dry river bed in Venezuela. Discouraged, and facing the thought of returning home to his very poor family empty-handed, Solano claimed he had picked up about 999,999 rocks and was quitting. His companions said, “Pick up one more and make it a million.” That “millionth” rock was the 155-carat “Liberator,” the largest and purest diamond ever found. Mandino writes,

I think he [Solano] must have known a happiness that went beyond the financial. He had set his course; the odds were against him; he had persevered; he had won. He had not only done what he had set out to do – which is a reward in itself – but he had done it in the face of failure and obscurity.9

Jesus urged his followers, “Take up your cross and follow me.” He knew better than anyone else how elusive the great prize is. But he also knew that anything less than a total commitment to achieving the prize would not suffice. In the Christian life, as in the leader’s organizational life, total commitment to the cause facilitates success.


1 G.K. Chesterton, The Collected Works of G.K. Chesterton ed. George Marlin (San Francisco: Ignatius, 1987), 4:61.

2 Mark Oppenheimer, “Salvation Without Sacrifice,” Charlotte Observer, 30 October 2000, sec. 11A.

3 Dorothy Sayers, “The Other Six Deadly Sins: An Address Given to the Public Morality Council at Claxton Hall, Westminster, on October 23rd, 1941,” (London: Methuen, 1943).

4 Douglas J. Rumford, SoulShaping: Taking Care of Your Spiritual Life (Wheaton, IL: Tyndale, 1996), p. 91.

5 The Medusa & the Snail, quoted in Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations, 15th ed. Emily Morison Beck (Boston: Little, Brown, 1980), p. 884.

6 Quoted in Gordon S. Wakefield, The Westminster Dictionary of Christian Spirituality (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1983), p. 209.

7 Soren Kierkegaard, Purity of Heart Is to Will One Thing (New York: Harper Bros., 1938).

8 François Fénelon, Christian Perfection, quoted in Richard Foster and J.B. Smith, eds., Devotional Classics (San Francisco: Harper Collins, 1993), p. 48.

9 Adapted from Og Mandino’s University of Success (New York: Bantam Books, 1982), pp. 44-45.


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Courage and Risk Taking

The following is a modified transcript of the audio teaching by Dr. Ken Boa from the leadership series on the subject of courage and risk taking.

Today we’re going to be looking at the important leadership principle of courage and risk taking and God’s perspective on what it means to be a man who takes risk, who lives with courage in this world, a world of ambiguity and uncertainty.

We’re called to live our lives in a way that manifests real courage. C.S. Lewis wrote, “Courage is not simply one of the virtues but the form of every virtue at the testing point.” That means at the point of highest reality a chastity or honesty or mercy which yields to danger will be chaste or honest or merciful only on conditions. Pilate was merciful until it became risky. The fact is courage is a powerful quality that animates all the other virtues in your life because to have the courage of your convictions and to follow through requires then a measure of risk in this world, particularly if your convictions are based upon revelation. Particularly also if they’re based upon a transcendent reference because then it’s going to invite us to pursue and treasure the invisible and the not yet more than the visible and the now. That is a tremendous risk for man to take because to obey God means that we treasure the unseen. The things that are seen are temporary. The things that are unseen will endure forever.

I want us to turn first to a central passage in scripture for courage and risk taking. In Joshua 1, God encourages Joshua before the conquest of the Promised Land and He repeatedly gives him this word of comfort and encouragement to be strong and courageous. This has to do with the transition of leadership from Moses to Joshua.

Joshua 1: 5-9, “No man will be able to stand before you all the days of your life. Just as I have been with Moses, I will be with you; I will not fail you or forsake you. Be strong and courageous, for you shall give this people possession of the land which I swore to their fathers to give them. Only be strong and very courageous; be careful to do according to all the law which Moses My servant commanded you; do not turn from it to the right or to the left, so that you may have success wherever you go. This book of the law shall not depart from your mouth, but you shall meditate on it day and night, so that you may be careful to do according to all that is written in it; for then you will make your way prosperous, and then you will have success. Have I not commanded you? Be strong and courageous! Do not tremble or be dismayed, for the LORD your God is with you wherever you go.”

I want you to notice some things that God gives him here on this verge. They’re on the verge of conquering fortified cities and armies. These are people who were not really well equipped. They were a people who were nomadic shepherds and for them to go against this kind of opposition would require and enormous amount of courage. There are 3 things God gave him in this text.

The first thing God said, He reminded Joshua of His faithfulness to keep all His promises. God reminds Joshua how He had been faithful in keeping covenant and in keeping His promises with His people from the very beginning. God’s saying; I’ve pledged to give this land to my people and I’m going to fulfill that pledge. Yet your success will not rest indeed on a military strategy or even on a well-trained army but your success will rest on the faithfulness of My promises. That’s the main idea.

The second thing that God does is He commands Joshua to meditate on His word. You cannot really take risks of obedience if your mind is not being renewed in this world. If you are not embracing an eternal perspective in this temporal world your mind will be conformed to the world system and you will not be able to go against the current culture. To obey God means that you go against the current of the culture. It is often counter cultural, counter intuitive, for us to follow these things that He commands us to do for our good. Unless we are renewing our minds with this transcendent biblical perspective, you’re not going to do it and you’ll buckle under the pressure and give way to the ambient call of the world. You will not be a different man. You will be a man who is conformed not transformed. Conformed not to Christ but to the image of this passing world and that will not really give you the kind of courage, the greatness, the dignity, to which you’ve been called. You’re called to more than what this world invites you to pursue. He says; I want you to be a man of wisdom and encouragement and that you gain your insight and wisdom and stability and shalom from the word.

Besides the fact that God keeps His promises and is faithful and beside the fact that He has given us this word, this treasury so that you can begin and continue to renew your mind, He promises to be personally present with Joshua. In that promise He says; I, Myself, will go with you. I’m not just going to send you out there but I will be with you in the midst. You read this book and you discover the reality and He guides him along the way.

My point is that we have the same 3 sources of courage in our lives today. God’s made some clear indications of His fidelity to His people. He has given you a history in your life as well when you review what He has done. God really is faithful to keep His promises when we look back. Secondly, God has invited us to also be men of the word so we have an eternal perspective in this temporal world. Thirdly He invites us to realize that He’s with us. He’s always present with us. We do not go it alone. Those sources of encouragement are summarized again in Joshua 1: 9 “ Have I not commanded you? “Be strong and courageous! Do not tremble or be dismayed, for the LORD your God is with you wherever you go.”

I want us to turn to a passage that embeds this idea of courage in the character of God and it is Hebrews 6: 13-20. There is, as you know in this world no such thing as a sure thing. In this world nothing appears to be certain. We cannot really control the outcome of a single day. When we think we are in control we have only bought an illusion. We’re never in control. We may think we are but we’re really not. What will happen this day you really can’t control the entire out comes. Even if all your meetings make, the details and all kinds of things that transpire will be different from anything you could’ve planned. It’s just that way. We can’t control as much as we’d like to suppose.

Paul Tourney used an analogy about the idea of life as sometimes like a trapeze act where you can swing on the bar. You can exercise and build muscle all you want but if you want to excel, what do you have to do? You have to let go of the bar. You can keep working out on the bar but you’re not going to excel by staying on the bar. That would be a boring act to just watch the guy and he doesn’t go from one bar to the other. The point is you have to let go with nothing beneath you and reach out for the next trapeze bar. I think that’s a very good way of understanding there’s a point at which we let go. The fact is that a turtle never moves forward until he sticks his neck out. You have to move forward and you have to take some risks.

This passage in Hebrew 6 tells us about two reasons why God’s promises are certain. The first reason why His promises are certain is the unchanging character of His purpose. In verse 16 He talks about His promises to Abraham and He swore since there was nothing greater for Him to swear by, He swore by Himself. It’s an interesting idea. He can’t say I swear to God. The fact is He doesn’t have a higher thing to swear by than Himself. There is no higher authority. So He basically swears by Himself. Hebrews 6: 16-20, “For men swear by one greater than themselves, and with them an oath given as confirmation is an end of every dispute. In the same way God, desiring even more to show to the heirs of the promise the unchangeableness of His purpose, interposed with an oath, so that by two unchangeable things in which it is impossible for God to lie, we who have taken refuge would have strong encouragement to take hold of the hope set before us. This hope we have as an anchor of the soul, a hope both sure and steadfast and one which enters within the veil, where Jesus has entered as a forerunner for us, having become a high priest forever according to the order of Melchizedek.”

There’s a fundamental security in these two things. First of all, God does not break His promises. Secondly, God Himself doesn’t change His character. His character is immutable which means it will not change. He will not be in a good mood or a bad mood in the sense of vacillating. His character and integrity will not change. His immutable character and promises flow out of His unchanging character and become the two things then that this text invites us to see that gives us real stability. We find our feet are not on shifting sand but on the rock of God’s promises.

Now as inhabitants of this world it takes still real courage to risk everything on the promises of God. At least if you hope in the promises of this world you have something tangible and visible that gives you the illusion of bolstering confidence. When you hope in God’s promises you’re really staking your life on something that you haven’t seen and what is not yet. So it says in Romans 8: 24-25, “For in hope we have been saved, but hope that is seen is not hope; for who hopes for what he already sees? But if we hope for what we do not see, with perseverance we wait eagerly for it.”

That’s the reality then that faith and hope go together. Hebrews 11: 1, “Faith is being sure of what we hope for and certain or what we do not see.” The reality is we have a certain fixed hope. Frankly it doesn’t take any faith to believe that 100 people of 100 people will die. There’s no faith involved in that. One hundred out of 100 people will die on this planet. There’s no ambiguity about that. You understand that. We realize not only the brevity of this earthly sojourn but we also recognize there are powerful evidences that would cause us to see that embracing Christ is not a leap in the dark but a step in the light.

Some of you know I wrote a book called “Twenty Compelling Evidences That God Exists”. That book deals with the reality that there is very good evidence for us to believe. The book starts with a skeptical stance and assumes that a person is not even sure you can know anything. It’s written specifically to a skeptic or a seeker with that in mind before it even talks about the bible. It talks about the whole issue of reality and what the natural world teaches. It builds a case for the resurrection of Christ at the end and argues that embracing Christ is not a leap in the dark it’s a step into the light. A step it still is and there’s a choice to be made.

I’m going to suggest though that there’s a risk involved in obeying God but that risk is always worth what happens there as a consequence. Frankly when it comes to taking risks most of us are curiously irrational. I just think about the fact that millions of people buy lottery tickets even though we are 3 times more likely to be struck by lightening but we continue to do that. Remember the movie Bruce Almighty? He doesn’t know what to do with these millions of prayer requests he’s hearing. It turns out it was only a small part of Buffalo but he thinks it’s the whole world. He gets millions of prayer request and doesn’t know what to do. He finally turns them into e-mail requests and hits select all and says yes! Imagine if all your prayer requests were answered the way you want them. You’d be a ruined man! In any case when he says yes to all these people, 400,000 win the lottery and they all complain because they only get $17.00 each. They are all outraged. There are many unintended consequences. The fact is we do all kinds of things, spend money on extreme and improbable odds and blithely ignore the relatively shorter odds that concern our health and well being whether it has to do with various habits like smoking and drinking or whatever. We distress ourselves worrying about all kinds of things that really can’t change the thing itself. When it comes to risk we are often idiots.

Risks are a part of life though and there’s a reality to this. This reminds me of the parachute packers during WWII. They had to repack parachutes once a month to make sure they would work. They would have to sign a card and put it in the parachute pocket that they had packed. They would be required to randomly pick three of their chutes and use them themselves during the month. I promise you if you know you are going to be baling out on your own packs every month then you’re going to pack them very well. That’s the point you don’t want to take the risk of being careless. There are some risks that are going to be calculated and some are foolish.

I want us to turn to Numbers14, which is one of the saddest parts in the scriptures because it causes us to realize that we can make some very bad decisions. The fact is we can stake everything on the wrong card in the end and it would be a tragic thing for you to put everything and stake it on something that’s going to be deadly in the end. I want us to think about the context of Numbers 14. This is the transitional point in the career of Israel, the conquest of the land. Remember the generation of the exodus was supposed to become the generation of the conquest. They were being led out by Moses, being prepared in the wilderness and they were going to go in and conquer the land. They were murmuring, griping and complaining quite a bit during those first two years in the wilderness. They whined about the water, the quail, and the manna and so forth although God continued to sustain them, for example their clothes didn’t wear out. But there was one point where they sent out spies to check out the land from the wilderness of Zin as far as Rehob, at Lebo-hamath and when they came back 10 out of the 12 spies said they couldn’t conquer the land. These people had fortified cities, they’re giants and we are like grasshoppers in comparison to them. We can’t conquer the land and if we try our children will perish. It was one thing for them to murmur, gripe and complain but it was another thing entirely to disbelieve God. They drew back in disbelief and said we can’t do it; we’re not going to follow God any more. When they chose to do that in Numbers 13 and 14 this is the pivotal point in the book because that generation of the exodus lost their opportunity to be the generation of the conquest. That was a sad thing.

In fact what was going to take place as a result of their disbelief was that they would be consigned literally to kill time for 38 more years. They were ready to go into the land, right on the edge and then He said you’re heading back into the wilderness and you’re not going to conquer the land. It was a great tragic moment.

You recall when Joshua and Caleb, the 2 spies who believed God, warned the people not to rebel against God. Numbers 14: 9, “ Only do not rebel against the LORD; and do not fear the people of the land, for they will be our prey. Their protection has been removed from them, and the LORD is with us; do not fear them.” The whole assembly talked about stoning them because they were terrified by what they saw. They failed to believe God despite the fact that God was miraculously leading them in the wilderness. They had the pillar of cloud by day and a pillar of fire at night that He had miraculously promised them. This is the generation that saw the parting of the water.

Again in that movie, Bruce Almighty, he parts his soup. What I liked about that movie for all its flaws, it does tell us a couple things. The bottom line message of the movie is, I’m God and you’re not. You don’t want to be Me; you couldn’t be like Me and besides you’ll use that power stupidly and selfishly which is exactly what happens.

Don’t rebel. They rebel. The tragedy and irony is that they said our children will perish and who conquered the land? It was their children. They literally spent 38 years killing time. What happens when you kill time? You kill life. They perished one after another until everybody 20 years old and upward perished in the wilderness except for 3 people; Moses, Joshua and Caleb. It would be the Isralites’ children who would be the generation of the conquest.

It’s a tragic thing when we chose to say God, I don’t believe, when He invites us, nudges us, prompts us to move in a direction that’s going to require some risk. It’s the sin of unused potential. I don’t think I can trust You for that. There will finally come a point if you’re not careful where He’ll say, okay have it your way. Then you’ll look back and now you’ve reached a point of no return and the sin of unused potential will be there. The reality is then that by pursuing a pain avoidance strategy, playing our cards close to our chest because we’re afraid to trust God, the irony here is that you actually inflict greater pain upon yourself when you try to avoid the so called pain of obedience. In seeking to avoid what appears to be pain associated with obedience to God you will bring greater pain upon yourself.

As a result of their lack of courage they missed out and as a result of our lack of fortitude and courage we too can miss out on opportunities He calls us to. I do believe obeying God and obeying principles of scripture will require significant risk because to trust God is to pursue the invisible over the visible. It is my belief that ultimately God will honor that and cause us to be a people that combine these things together.

We also have had the gospel preached to us. Hebrews 4: 2, “For indeed we have had good news preached to us, just as they also; but the word they heard did not profit them, because it was not united by faith in those who heard.” There comes a point where you have to know the truth but you also have to live it and obey it.

This book was not written for our information but our transformation. It was not written to inform us but to transform us. Therefore it is a formational tool so that your don’t just read it to learn truths, you do learn many propositional truths, but you read it so that you can be transformed and come to know God in a relational way and not just a propositional context. We apply it and embed it in our lives. I believe therefore that we are called to take steps in faith to trust in His presence.

In another text, Ezekiel 28, we see an interesting sort of risk prophets engaged in consistently. In this kind of risk they would go against the kings. They were powerful men often in the context of their success and the prophets would tell them they were doing something that was ultimately going to lead to their own destruction. Ezekiel 27 describes the glory that was Tyre. It was a powerful city that through it’s trade and through its’ shipping acquired an immense wealth, prestige and power in its time. But then this word of the LORD comes to the king of Tyre and challenges him. Ezekiel 28: 6-10, “Therefore thus says the Lord God, “ Because you have made your heart like the heart of God, therefore, behold, I will bring strangers upon you, the most ruthless of the nations. And they will draw their swords against the beauty of your wisdom and defile your splendor. They will bring you down to the pit and you will die the death of those who are slain in the heart of the seas. Will you still say, “I am a god,” in the presence of your slayer, though you are a man and not God, in the hands of those who wound you? You will die the death of the uncircumcised by the hands of strangers, for I have spoken!” declares the Lord God.” The point here is that Ezekiel is doing something rather strong. It’s one thing to criticize someone when things are not going well or say correct things to make it better but this king is being extremely successful and he comes against him. He’s taking a huge risk and it requires tremendous conviction for you to go against what seems to be successful in this world.

I believe that great conviction requires great truth. When you combine real truth with conviction then you have the power of courage. In this text here’s a man who had courage because he was convinced of the promises of God and he knew he was a man who was called to communicate great truth. It’s a matter of challenging people in their own arenas and in their own lives to take the risks that are necessary, the risks of obedience and pursuit and to model that in our own lives.

It’s been said that failure’s the back door to success. I’d like to suggest that risk can also be a back door to success. Jesus took a huge risk in John 2: 12-22 when He cleared the temple. It describes how when it came time for the Passover He went up to Jerusalem. “He found in the temple those who were selling oxen and sheep and doves, and the money changers seated at their tables. And He made a scourge of cords, and drove them all out of the temple, with the sheep and the oxen; and He poured out the coins of the money changers and overturned their tables; and to those who were selling the doves He said, “Take these things away; stop making My Father’s house a place of business.” His disciples remembered that it was written, “Zeal for Your house will consume me.” The Jews then said to Him, “What sign do You show us as your authority for doing these things?” Jesus answered them, “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.” The Jews then said, “It took forty-six years to build this temple, and will You raise it up in three days?” But He was speaking of the temple of His body. So when He was raised from the dead, His disciples remembered that He said this; and they believed the Scripture and the word which Jesus had spoken.”

This was a huge risk taking adventure here for Him to take a bunch of ropes and turn them into a scourge and then to chase these people out of the temple. This was a profitable business and there were thousands of people who were buying and selling. He was taking the risk of rejection by the crowds. He risked them taking Him aside and killing Him. He risked misunderstanding and any number of things. But His zeal for His Father’s house was consuming Him. He ultimately chose to cleanse this, symbolic of the reality of Israel’s own religious externalism and folly.

Again as I see it here, I see a man who takes calculated risks and we are also called to take calculated risks. One businessman put it this way; having the faith to attempt something new or different even though it might be hard or lead to failure maintains that risk is not recklessness. Recklessness involves little or no forethought. In contrast those who take risks are aware that they face enormous obstacles to achievement yet the rewards seem well worth the effort. Reality is that there are going to be risks involved in any real venture and something that’s going to require some endeavor. Donald Rumsfield years ago said, “ Success tends to go not to the person who is error free because he also tends to be risk adverse rather it goes to the person who recognizes that life is pretty much a percentage basis. It isn’t making mistakes that is critical, it’s correcting them and getting on with the principle task.” Babe Ruth, the strike out king, was required to take risks to make mistakes in order to do as well as he did. The fact is that we make mistakes; that we take risks but they’re calculated risks. We make adjustments, we learn from our errors; we learn from our mistakes and we go on from there.

As we have all admitted in this room we typically learn a great deal more from our mistakes any way than we do from our successes. They teach us more about ourselves, more about reality in any case. That pain often does that. So as I evaluate these thoughts then as I cultivate your leadership skills, don’t be afraid to take those calculated risks and understand that actually if you commit your ways to God, your business, your endeavors, your family, wherever you are at the end of the day you’re going to at least be putting everything based upon the promises and commitments of God.

There’s no assurance that He’ll bale us out of the mistakes we’ve made in this life, there will be consequences to foolish mistakes but at least we have the assurance that He is with us and can even redeem the falling. He can take that and He can transform that and make it the substance of our own growth.

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Dependence on God

**The audio for this article is in two parts.

 

In C.S. Lewis’ Prince Caspian, a child named Lucy encounters Aslan, the Christ-figure of the Narnia stories, after not seeing him for a long while. “Aslan, you’re bigger,” she says.

“That is because you’re older, little one,” answered he.

“Not because you are?”

“I am not. But every year you grow, you will find me bigger.”1

The more mature in the faith we are, the bigger God will be for us. As our vision of God becomes clearer and we understand his enormity, we learn to rest in him. We grow in our ability to depend completely on him and know that with a God as competent as the God we find in the pages of Scripture, the universe in which we find ourselves is truly a safe place for us.

At least, this is as it ought to be. Reality, for far too many of us, is quite the opposite. In spite of this large and competent God who cares for us and promises to never abandon us, we often find ourselves beset by worry, anxiety and fear. It is only the most mature leader who understands that as we come to rely on God, we find rest in this world.

Worry-free Living

All people who lead others or carry organizational responsibility find more than enough reasons to worry – deadlines, financial pressures, market instability and other pressures (you fill in your own blanks here) make stomachs churn and account for many a sleepless night. But Jesus cautions us against worrying about anything – even the food we eat or the clothes we wear:

“Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink; or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more important than food, and the body more important than clothes? Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they? Who of you by worrying can add a single hour to his life?

“And why do you worry about clothes? See how the lilies of the field grow. They do not labor or spin. Yet I tell you that not even Solomon in all his splendor was dressed like one of these. If that is how God clothes the grass of the field, which is here today and tomorrow is thrown into the fire, will he not much more clothe you, O you of little faith? So do not worry, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ For the pagans run after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them. But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well. Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own.

Matthew 6:25-34

In this passage, Jesus gives his disciples (and us) six reasons for trusting in God rather than worrying.

First, the same God who gives us the greater gift of life will certainly supply the lesser gifts of food and clothing. In typical Jewish fashion, Jesus reasons from the greater to the lesser: If God has given us life, won’t he be faithful to give us the things that will sustain that life and make it rich and rewarding? If God can be trusted to take care of big things, can we also trust him with the small details? The answer is: of course. God never begins something he does not plan to see through to completion.

Second, the God who cares for birds will care for his people. After all, humans are of much greater value than any bird. “Look at the birds” implies “Look and Learn.” We can learn much from these flighty little fellows. They are industrious yet carefree. Without the benefit of barns they manage to find food each day. That is God’s provision for them. For us, God’s provision is greater. We have been given the ability to manipulate our environment. To grow crops, raise animals and preserve food. Not only are we more capable than the birds to provide food for ourselves, but we are also more valuable in God’s eyes (Matt. 10:29-31). How much less, then, we should worry.

Third, worry expends energy pointlessly – it doesn’t change the reality of the situation a single bit. Worry is kind of like a rocking chair. It gives you something to do, but doesn’t get you anywhere.

Fourth, worry ignores God’s demonstrated faithfulness in our lives. The same God who so wonderfully clothes the flowers of the field is responsible to care for them. Every blossoming flower is a reminder of God’s faithfulness to us. A field of wild flowers sprinkled across a bed of fresh spring grass is a remarkable sight indeed. These little beauties do not labor or spin (probably a reference to both men’s and women’s work respectively). But even Solomon’s wardrobe paled in comparison. If God is so generous with something as transitory as kindling for the fire, what do you suppose he will do for us? No wonder Jesus rebukes us, “O, you of little faith,” when a mere glance out our bedroom window should teach us the futility of worry. As R.H. Mounce has said, “Worry is practical atheism and an affront to God.”2

Fifth, we are God’s children. God will never treat us as orphans who need to fend for themselves. Failure to grasp this will lead inevitably to worry and failure in our moral lives. In fact, it is not an overstatement to say that the most important thing about us is what comes to mind when we think of God, as A.W. Tozer clarifies:

That our idea of God correspond as nearly as possible to the true being of God is of immense importance to us. Compared with our actual thoughts about Him, our [doctrinal] statements are of little consequence. Our real idea of God may lie buried under the rubbish of conventional religious notions and may require an intelligent and vigorous search before it is finally unearthed and exposed for what it is. Only after an ordeal of painful self-probing are we likely to discover what we actually believe about God. A right conception of God is basic not only to systematic theology but to practical Christian living as well. It is to worship what the foundation is to the temple; where it is inadequate or out of plumb the whole structure must sooner or later collapse. I believe there is scarcely an error in doctrine or a failure in applying Christian ethics that cannot be traced finally to imperfect and ignoble thoughts about God.3

If we view God as a cosmic killjoy, we will likely be plagued with guilt and shame over every sinful thought or angry moment. If God is seen as some kind of doting grandfather who turns a blind eye at our shortcomings, we will be likely to excuse our wrong actions. If we think God is looking for a good bargain, we will expect him to come through for us when we have done something good for him. Our quality of life will always rise and fall on our view of God and our expectations of him. Once we come to know God as the faithful Father he is, worry simply does not make sense.

Sixth, when we worry about tomorrow we miss out on today. Jesus recognizes that our days will be filled with trouble. We simply cannot afford the luxury of worrying, casting our eyes on future affliction. Each day will demand our best attention. Any problem we face can be handled, with God’s help, one day at a time.

As leaders who want to reach our generation for Christ, we need to lead in a way that allows others to see our faith in God. One way we can do that is by depending on God in the face of our daily pressures. The next time you’re under pressure, pray for the grace you need to depend on God, who is perfectly and eternally worthy of your trust. Remember that those you lead will see how you respond to such pressures and will follow your actions.

Those who have not placed their faith in God often live only for the moment. Their peace of mind or anxiety is tied to their circumstances. But those whose faith is secure in the One who is secure are able to live above the worries of this world. As Dallas Willard points out:

People who are ignorant of God…live to eat and drink and dress. “For such things the ‘gentiles’ seek” – and their lives are filled with corresponding anxiety and anger and depression about how they will look and how they will fare.

By contrast, those who understand Jesus and his Father know that provision has been made for them. Their confidence has been confirmed by their experience. Though they work, they do not worry about things “on earth.” Instead, they are always “seeking first the kingdom.” That is, they “place top priority on identifying and involving themselves in what God is doing and in the kind of rightness…he has. All else needed is provided” (6:33). They soon enough have a track record to prove it.4

This is not to say that believers in Christ will be exempt from the usual troubles of this world. Worry-free does not mean trouble-free. Sometimes it may be our faith which actually brings on troubles as we navigate our way through a world that insists on flying upside-down. Still, in spite of our circumstances, those who depend on God will find out for themselves the truth the psalmist discovered long ago: “A righteous man may have many troubles, but the Lord delivers him from them all” (Psalm 34:19).

Seeing Old Faithful

We live in a time when all forms of external authority are being challenged in favor of subjective, inner authority. The quest for autonomy rather than accountability has become rampant. Yet the Scriptures tell us that an autonomous mindset is a mark of foolishness, since it ignores our fundamental need for dependence on God.

Jeremiah struggled with occupational hazards faced by many effective leaders. Because he knew that Israel’s behavior was destructive, he needed to function as a constant agent for change. He preached and counseled and urged his followers to turn from sin and to practice righteousness.

As he prodded, Jeremiah lived with opposition and persecution, and one wonders whether Jeremiah ever asked himself the question that confronts many leaders today: “Since change arouses opposition, why not back off and let things remain as they are?” That wouldn’t have been a good option for Jeremiah. It rarely is for a leader, because change is intrinsic to the nature of leadership. And that led to the second hazard: Since the changes were essential to Israel’s survival, he was compelled to live with the hard knocks he was taking as the agent for change.

No one has ever found a way to improve anything without changing it in some way. Our second dilemma could be phrased: “Since change arouses personal opposition, I have to steel myself against the way people feel about me. But I can’t stop caring about what they think or feel. If I do, some of those I am supposed to lead might become my ‘enemies.’” The second leadership hazard, then, is that the leader may become so hardened to opposition that he or she no longer hears or cares about the personal concerns behind it. The resentment of opposition can turn followers into opponents.

Jeremiah knew that what he was doing was right and necessary, and he continued pushing for change even though he took a beating for it. He was attacked by kings, priests, false prophets and, most painfully, his friends (Jeremiah 20:10) and family (12:6). How does a leader survive such hardships and still maintain his integrity? That leader must come to depend on God above anything else. That leader must, like Jeremiah, remember:

Because of the Lord’s great love we are not consumed, for his compassions never fail. They are new every morning; great is your faithfulness. I say to myself, “The Lord is my portion; therefore I will wait for him.” The Lord is good to those whose hope is in him, to the one who seeks him; it is good to wait quietly for the salvation of the Lord.

Lamentations 3:22-26

The horror of the complete destruction of Jerusalem at the hands of the Babylonians was still vivid in Jeremiah’s mind when he wrote a series of five lamentations. Nevertheless, these verses, placed as they are in the middle of this short book, are words of hope and not of despair. They remind us that our only real hope is in the character and promises of God.

The Lord’s lovingkindness, great compassion and complete faithfulness make him the supremely worthy object of personal reliance. He is always good to those who seek him and who put their hope in him. Everything God asks us to do is for our ultimate good, and everything he tells us to avoid is harmful to us, even when we may think otherwise.

The problem may be that God’s faithfulness is too faithful. Philip Yancey writes:

I remember my first visit to Old Faithful in Yellowstone National park. Rings of Japanese and German tourists surrounded the geyser, their video cameras trained like weapons on the famous hole in the ground. A large digital clock stood beside the spot, predicting twenty-four minutes before the eruption.

My wife and I passed the countdown in the dining room of Old Faithful Inn overlooking the geyser. When the digital clock reached one minute, we, along with every other diner, left our seats and rushed to the windows to see the big, wet event.

I noticed immediately, as if on signal, a crew of busboys and waiters descended on the tables to refill water glasses and clear away dirty dishes. When the geyser went off, we tourists oohed and aahed and clicked our cameras; a few spontaneously applauded. But, glancing back over my shoulder, I saw that not a single waiter or busboy – not even those who had finished their chores – looked out the huge windows. Old Faithful, grown entirely too familiar, had lost its power to impress them.5

It seems faithfulness often goes unappreciated – especially the faithfulness of God. His presence is so regular, so commonplace, that we tend to overlook the very quality that separates him from all other gods. In fact, one of the few things God cannot do is be unfaithful (he also cannot remember our sins once they’ve been cleansed!).

Still, we are often tempted to complain that “my way is hidden from the Lord; my cause is disregarded by my God” (Isaiah 40:27); but doing so means judging according to appearances and not according to reality. There are only two possible perceptions of God’s character and our circumstances; each of us will choose one when we encounter trouble. We will either view God’s character in light of our circumstances, or our circumstances in light of God’s character. If we choose the former, we will tend to look away from God and look to ourselves. Instead of leaning on the Rock, we will lean on a broken reed (2 Kings 18:21; Isaiah 36:6).

Everyone Lives by Faith

Faith is a universal experience – everyone, including the atheist, lives by faith. The issue is not whether we will trust in a belief system or trust in people or things, but whether we are placing our trust in that which is reliable or untrustworthy. Faith is only as good as the object in which it is placed. The prophet Jeremiah provides us with a look at two conflicting sources of personal dependence:

This is what the Lord says:

“Cursed is the one who trusts in man, who depends on flesh for his strength and whose heart turns away from the Lord. He will be like a bush in the wastelands; he will not see prosperity when it comes. He will dwell in the parched places of the desert, in a salt land where no one lives.

“But blessed is the man who trusts in the Lord, whose confidence is in him. He will be like a tree planted by the water that sends out its roots by the stream. It does not fear when heat comes; its leaves are always green. It has no worries in a year of drought and never fails to bear fruit.”

Jeremiah 17:5-8

Jeremiah draws a sharp contrast between those who depend on human strength and those who depend on the living God. He makes it clear that we cannot look to both as our supreme basis of trust; we will either put our hope in the promises and power of people, or we will look beyond human capability to the person and promises of God. When we make people the basis of our confidence we experience rejection and disappointment again and again. But when God becomes the ultimate source of our confidence, we are never let down.

Willy Loman is the central character in Arthur Miller’s brilliant and moving play Death of a Salesman. Willy Loman personifies failure and broken dreams as he spends his life chasing the ever-illusive dream of being an irresistibly successful salesman. He lives in denial, tossed back and forth between the notion that tomorrow will bring great success and the heart-wrenching desperation of feeling utterly worthless. He continually tortures himself with the belief that if he just tries harder, believes in himself more, persists long enough, he will find success. His biggest mistake is the belief that success will fulfill his deepest longings.

If only Willy Loman could have found the courage to face the pain of failure and his emptiness, perhaps he might have realized that he was pursuing the wrong dream. In the end, he commits suicide. His son, Biff, comes to see the truth his dad could not face:

There were a lot of nice days. When he’d come home from a trip; or on Sundays, making the stoop; finishing the cellar; putting on the new porch…. You know something, Charley, there’s more of him in that front stoop than in all the sales he ever made…. He had the wrong dreams. All, all wrong…. He never knew who he was.6

Habakkuk learned that “the righteous will live by his faith” (Habakkuk 2:4), and he was not talking about faith in men. “Fear of man will prove to be a snare, but whoever trusts in the Lord is kept safe” (Proverbs 29:25). Those who put more confidence in themselves or in other people than in God will find bitterness and disappointment in the end. They may appear to prosper for a season, but the journey will not get them to their desired goals. But those who transfer their trust from themselves or the promises of others to the Lord will discover that their lives are deeply rooted in well-watered soil. The Lord declares that “Those who honor me I will honor, but those who despise me will be disdained” (1 Samuel 2:30).

How Things Really Get Done

Zerubbabel must have felt overwhelmed. His task was so huge he needed a prophet of God to give him perspective. The Babylonians had destroyed Jerusalem and its temple 70 years before, and now Zerubbabel was in charge of the group that had come back to rebuild it. When Solomon first built the temple, he had the optimal situation – nearly unlimited resources and a motivated workforce. Zerubbabel now faced strong opposition, a demoralized workforce and limited resources.

God’s word to him in Zechariah 4 is everlastingly and universally true: Work hard and smart. But if God doesn’t look favorably on your work, it will result in nothing significant. The text reads: “This is the word of the Lord to Zerubbabel: ‘Not by might nor by power but by my Spirit,’ says the Lord Almighty” (v. 6).

Zerubbabel had to make tough decisions, wrestle with personnel problems, sit in long meetings, listen to grievances – everything other leaders do. But the prophet Zechariah’s message to him was that the job ultimately depended on God’s Spirit, not on his or anyone else’s might or power. The wonderful truth of this is that all of our activities are now infused with meaning as we work in the power supplied by God’s Spirit. We can now join in the prayer of Blaise Pascal: “Lord, help me to do great things as though they were little, since I do them with your power; and little things as though they were great, since I do them in your name.”7

Leaders are responsible to manage their resources well and to lead their people effectively. But prayer to God and dependence on him for the outcome is the wise leader’s constant strategy for success.

An Everlasting Guarantee

Every leader will discover that there are times when it’s hard to trust in God. In an effort to help us do that R.C. Sproul reminds us of the absolute dependence of God as demonstrated in his promise to Abraham:

So the Lord said to [Abram], “Bring me a heifer, a goat and a ram, each three years old, along with a dove and a young pigeon.”

Abram brought all these to him, cut them in two and arranged the halves opposite each other; the birds, however, he did not cut in half. Then birds of prey came down on the carcasses, but Abram drove them away….

When the sun had set and darkness had fallen, a smoking firepot with a blazing torch appeared and passed between the pieces. On that day the Lord made a covenant with Abram and said, “To your descendents I give this land, from the river of Egypt to the great river, the Euphrates….

Genesis 15:9-11, 17-18

Legal counselors are some of the highest paid executives in business because they protect us from each other. We find it so hard to depend on anyone’s word that we have to close all the loopholes in any transaction. In business, doing so is more than smart – it’s essential.

But Sproul reminds his reader that there is One on whom we can always depend. Commenting on this passage, he wrote:

The meaning of the drama is clear: As God passed between the pieces His message was, “Abraham, if I fail to keep my promise to you, may I be cut asunder just as those animals have been torn apart.” God put His eternal being on the line. It was as if He were saying, “May My immutable deity suffer mutation if I break My promise. May My infinite character become finite, My immortal essence suffer mortality. May the impossible become possible if I lie.”

The author of Hebrews reflected on this event when he wrote, “Since there was no one greater for him to swear by, he swore by himself” (Hebrews 6:13).

The surety of God’s promise is God Himself. All that He is stands behind His promise. It would not do for God to swear by the temple or by His mother’s grave. He has no mother. The temple is not sacred enough to confirm the oath of God. He must swear by His own integrity, using His divine nature as an everlasting guarantee.8

In spite of the great and wonderful promises, in spite of the centuries of proven faithfulness, in spite of mounting evidence, empirical and anecdotal, demonstrating the folly of trusting in ourselves, people still reject the faithfulness of God. Perhaps because of their status, leaders are more acutely prone to lean on their own understanding. But God calls each of us – especially those of us in positions of leadership – to lean on him.

Such trust is difficult. It requires humility. It requires commitment. It will demand a constant vigilance. We will need to regularly review and renew our commitment, but if we train ourselves to trust in the only One who is worthy of our dependence, we may find, as Lucy in Narnia found, that our God is bigger than we ever imagined.


1 C.S. Lewis, Prince Caspian, The Chronicles of Narnia (New York: Collier/Macmillan, 1985), p. 136.

2 R.H. Mounce, Matthew (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 1991), p. 80.

3 A.W. Tozer, The Knowledge of the Holy (New York: Harper & Row, 1961), p. 8

4 Dallas Willard, The Divine Conspiracy (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1998), p. 212.

5 Philip Yancey, “What Surprised Jesus,” Christianity Today, 12 September 1994, p. 88.

6 Arthur Miller, Death of a Salesman (New York: Penguin Books, 1949), pp. 110-11.

7 Quoted in Bill and Kathy Peel, Discover Your Destiny (Colorado Springs, CO: NavPress, 1996), p. 215.

8 R.C. Sproul, One Holy Passion (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1987), pp. 154-157.

 


 

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Humility

Woody Allen is credited with saying, “If you want to make God laugh, tell him your plans.” We could add to it, “If you want to hear him laugh even louder, tell him how much you know.” Just because it’s true, however, doesn’t make it easy to accept. It’s hard to admit that we do not know as much as we think we know. And we certainly aren’t in control of as much as we’d like to think. We make our plans, but it is God who controls the outcome. We make our plans, but we understand that, if the Lord wills, we shall live let alone do this or that (James 4:13-15).

John Ruskin said, “I believe that the first test of a truly great man is his humility. I don't mean by humility, doubt of his power. But really great men have a curious feeling that the greatness is not of them, but through them. And they see something divine in every other man and are endlessly, foolishly, incredibly merciful.”

The modern notion of the “self-made” man, pulling himself up by his own bootstraps and, by the sweat of his own brow, climbing to the pinnacle of success is so deeply imbedded in our consciousness that any other possibility seems foreign. It’s humbling to recognize that God is more responsible for the achievements of our lives than we are, that we are people who have been given our abilities, time and opportunities. These things are not our possession; they are gifts from God and we will ultimately give an account for what we do with what we have been given.

Everything in us strains against this notion, for to accept this as fact is to be humbled. And humility naturally leads to submission. That’s really the issue, isn’t it? We don’t want to admit that God is the giver of every good gift, because that would mean that we have to yield to his agenda. Humility, submission and obedience go together.

This doesn’t come easily, and it is certainly not natural; we need help to learn how to live this way. This is one reason why we have the Bible. In the pages of Scripture we find many examples of humility. From them we can gain insight and assistance as we endeavor to be the kind of leaders God desires and our world so desperately needs.

The Humility of God

Let us first examine the supreme biblical example of humility: the incarnate God who made himself known in our world. In Philippians 2, we learn about Christ’s self-emptying servant nature. Here we find an important principle in Scripture: before honor comes humility. The cross comes before the crown; the person who seeks honor will ultimately be humiliated, but the person who humbles himself will later be honored (Matt. 23:12).

Humility is such an illusive virtue, isn’t it? As soon as you think you’ve got it, you don’t. That’s part of the problem: When I finally achieve humility, I get proud of myself. My humility cries out for recognition. Humility is terribly fragile.

Part of the reason for this elusiveness is that humility has a difficult time co-existing with self-awareness. True humility comes when we are consumed with awareness of Another. According to Thomas Alexander Fyfe’s book Who’s Who in Dickens, Uriah Heep, one of Dickens’ characters in David Copperfield, is “a hypocritical plotter who feigned humility; a swindler and forger who was ultimately exposed.” He is fond of quoting his father, “Be umble, Uriah, says father to me, and you’ll get on.” Yet, at one point in the book he says to Master Copperfield, “Ah! But you know we’re so very umble…. And having such a knowledge of our own umbleness, we must really take care that we’re not pushed to the wall by them as isn’t umble.”

Saying you’re humble or thinking of yourself as a modest man is actually a perverted form of pride. The key to humility is to get your eyes off yourself and onto the one from whom and for whom and through whom all things are (cf. 1 Cor. 8:6; Col. 1:16-20).

The church in Philippi was experiencing some tension, and in Philippians 2, Paul tells us that one of the keys to unity in the church is being focused on the same thing.

If you have any encouragement from being united with Christ, if any comfort from his love, if any fellowship with the Spirit, if any tenderness and compassion, then make my joy complete by being like-minded having the same love, being one in spirit and purpose. Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit, but in humility consider others as better than yourselves. Each of you should not look only to your own interests, but also to the interests of others.

Philippians 2:1-4

To avoid disharmony in the body of Christ, we must all have “the same love” – Jesus Christ. The more we love Jesus, the more we have a capacity to love one another. Then, and only then, can there exist a united sense of purpose. Then we can refrain from manipulation or self-serving actions. Then we can serve others selflessly.

These are not easy things to do. It isn’t natural for us to consider the needs of others before our own. The only way you’ll be able to do that is if you follow the model of Christ. Jesus was able to serve others without regard for receiving service in return because he was so completely secure in his identity. We see this clearly in John 13 where Jesus performs the visual parable of washing the feet of the disciples.

The Scriptures tell us that he understood three things before he assumed the role of a lowly servant and began to wash the feet of the disciples: Jesus understood where he had come from, that all things had been given to him and where his final destiny would lead Him (John 13:3). In other words, he understood his true identity, true dignity and true significance. He knew who he was, why he had come and where he was going.

Likewise, you and I, as new creations in Christ, can have the same security. We have transferred our trust from ourselves to him, and in so doing we receive the abundant life he promised us (John 10:10). We are no longer in the line of Adam; we are in the line of Christ (Rom. 5:12-21). The significance of this may escape us, but this means nothing less than that we have come forth from God (John 1:12-13; 3:6). It means that every spiritual blessing has been given to us (Eph. 1:3). It means that our eternal destiny is at home in heaven (Phil. 3:20-21).

One of the motifs of C.S. Lewis’ life was Sehnsücht, which means longing, this sense of desire that he had. I recently read a book called The Question of God by Dr. Armand Nicholi, who teaches both at the Harvard Medical School and Harvard University. He’s been teaching a course for the last 25 or 30 years on Sigmund Freud, comparing Him with C.S. Lewis in terms of God and religion. Both of the men talk about this issue of Sehnsücht, of yearning for something that we cannot seem to attain in this life.

From a biblical and theistic perspective, we understand that this longing is really something that is God-given (Eccl. 3:11). “When God wants to carry a point with his children,” Emerson said, “He plants his arguments into the instincts.” We each carry this desire, this nostalgia for heaven. It’s an instinct for a place we have not yet seen. We don’t have any memories of heaven, yet we long for it. And we realize that the great joys and pleasures of this life are only hints of home, “‘patches of godlight’ in the woods of our experience” as Lewis called them. There are little patches here and there, but they’re not meant to be confused for home. They are not the thing itself; they point beyond themselves, like signs, to the thing we long for.

As pilgrims, aliens and strangers in this world, we must realize that we long for something this world cannot provide or sustain. Once you admit that, then you will understand that the most foolish thing we can do is put all the freight of our desires upon a world that was not designed to sustain them. If you look to the world for fulfillment, it will let you down every time. There is always something that is not quite enough, and we long for more. We long for a security, a significance, a satisfaction that this world simply cannot provide.

Jesus knew this. That’s why Paul writes,

Your attitude should be the same as Christ Jesus: Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself and became obedient to death – even death on a cross!

Philippians 2:5-8

So far, it’s not a very inspirational text. But that’s just the first part. Exaltation follows the humility:

Therefore God exalted him to the highest place and gave him the name that is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.

Philippians 2:9-11

From this beautiful passage we learn three things about our Lord that model for us the essence of true humility. First, Jesus didn’t selfishly cling to the outer expression of his divinity. Instead, he took the form of a servant. Richard Foster, in his book Celebration of Discipline, writes: “More than any other single way, the grace of humility is worked in our lives through the discipline of serving.” One of Foster’s friends, the late Jamie Buckingham, took this sentiment a bit further saying, “You really know you are a true servant when you have a positive reaction toward people when they treat you like one.”

In other words, the true test of humility comes when you are treated like a servant. It is one thing to choose to serve others, but it’s another thing entirely to choose to be a servant. A servant is often to be taken for granted, overlooked, unnoticed. A servant gives up the right to be in charge of whom they serve, when they serve and how long they serve. Everything in us screams out against service like this, especially if this service is rendered in secret. Our society has trained us well in the art of assertiveness, and we fear anything that even remotely resembles passivity. The notion of being taken advantage of is abhorrent to us, and we most fear becoming like the old comic strip character, Casper Milquetoast, a walking doormat with no assurance or strength.

On the contrary, humility, biblically speaking, actually comes from disciplined strength and others-centered power. It is, in fact, the strength and understanding of one’s great dignity and identity in Christ. It is only through our willingness to serve that we may avoid manipulating people to get our needs met. Because of our new identity in Christ, we can serve and we don’t need to be noticed or rewarded here on earth. We understand that we serve one who always sees and who has promised to reward us in eternity (Eph. 6:8).

The second thing we see in this passage is that Jesus demonstrated his humility through obedience to the Father. Instead of trying to impose our will on God, we submit to God’s will for us, knowing that his agenda is better than what we would have chosen. When you trust God enough to take him at his word, you know that God’s plans for you are “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you a hope and a future” (Jer. 29:11).

God longs to bless and reward his people, but it is essential that we be willing to turn to him and repent of our unfaithfulness and disobedience. “You will seek me and find me when you seek me with all your heart” (Jer. 29:13, emphasis added). We serve a God who “rewards those who earnestly seek him” (Heb. 11:6). God actually enjoys bestowing benefits on those who turn to him in dependence and trust.

Third, we learn the necessity of patiently waiting for God’s timing. Jesus waited for his Father to lift him up. We don’t grab for power; we patiently wait for God to provide the increase in his time. Jesus didn’t come as a king, but as a helpless infant (Luke 2). Although he was perfectly God and perfectly human at the same time (John 1:14), he lived his life as a humble laborer. After he began his ministry, he demonstrated humble service to others in the miracles he performed, as well as in his instructions to his disciples. When the time came for him to die, he submitted to his Father’s divine will (Mark 14:36). And now, seated in power at the right hand of God, he intercedes on our behalf (Acts 5:29-32). As the perfect model for godly leadership, Jesus set the perfect example of humility.

Jesus’ Surprising Self-description

The Bible does not contain any physical descriptions of Jesus. However, there is an interesting passage where Jesus tells us what his character was like. In Matthew 11:28 Jesus says, “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest.” Most people are, to some extent, weary and burdened; they carry a lot of unnecessary weight on their shoulders. This is nothing new. People have been hurried and harried since the Fall, no doubt, and far too often, religious leaders hinder, rather then help, people in their search for peace and rest.

Unlike the Pharisees and other religious teachers of his day who added so many rules to God’s Law that it had become a terrible burden (Luke 11:46), Jesus invites us to walk in peace and in rest, even in the context of turmoil and adversity, even in uncertainty. In fact, since we are completely helpless in our pursuit, Jesus offers to give his followers rest and peace (John 14:27). In placing our trust in him, we trade our incompetence for Christ’s overwhelming competence. And if he is as competent as the Bible paints him to be, then the universe is, in Dallas Willard’s words, a perfectly safe place for us to be.

Of course, this is only a comfort once we realize how little control we have. There is tremendous instability and uncertainty in this world. Most of the stress we endure comes because we don’t know the outcome of things. There are any number of things that could happen in the course of the day – most of them are completely out of our control. If we buy into only that which we see and hear, we will become weary and burdened, because the anxieties, the uncertainties, the tensions of life can impose themselves upon us and make us anxious and fretful. But Jesus invites us, instead, to take all our anxieties to him, and he says, “In exchange for your worries and troubles I will give you rest.”

But the offer of rest for our weary souls is open only to those who will come to him and learn from him: “Take my yoke upon you and learn from me” (v. 29a). In the ancient Middle-east they would train an animal by yoking it with a stronger animal. They’d yoke the two animals together, but it would be the larger of the two animals that would really carry the burden of the plowing. The other would be built up and trained so, eventually, it could take its full load. The imagery of this light yoke is that Jesus says, “Unlike the yoke of the Pharisees who want to burden you down with all sorts of excesses and dos and don’ts and regulations, I’m offering you something different. This is not loyalty to some code; this is dedication to a Person.”

He says, “Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart.” There aren’t many people who can say, “I am gentle and humble in heart” and get away with it! If I were to say such a thing, you’d wonder, “Who does this guy think he is?” Yet when Jesus makes this audacious claim, it has the ring of authority. “Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.”

In Hebrews 5:8 we read that Jesus “learned obedience from what he suffered.” Christ’s humility was evident in his perfect obedience to the authority and will of his Father. His mission statements from Luke 19:10 and Mark 10:45 portray the servant nature he so clearly modeled, “For the Son of Man came to seek and to save what was lost;” and, “For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”

Anyone can claim to be a servant, but Jesus Christ, the Son of the living God, was treated as one and never complained about it. Jesus Christ, the most powerful man ever to walk on the face of the earth, was also the most humble man who ever lived. His agenda was never to promote himself, but to please his Father by loving and serving others. We are called to emulate that humility.

The Humility of Moses

If Jesus was the perfect example of humility in the New Testament, Moses personified humility in the Old Testament. In Numbers 12:3 there is a parenthetical statement that was inserted into the text, “(Now, Moses was a very humble man, more humble than anyone else on the face of the earth.)” Moses was a man of authority and power and charisma, but he manifested this disciplined strength through his utter willingness to be pleasing to the Father.

In Isaiah 57:15 God says, “I live in a high and holy place, but also with Him who is contrite and lowly in spirit, to revive the spirit of the lowly and to revive the heart of the contrite.” Later in Isaiah 66:2, we read, “This is the one I esteem: he who is humble and contrite in spirit, and trembles at my word.” The Bible repeatedly emphasizes that God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble (Ps. 138:6; Prov. 3:34; Matt. 23:12; James 4:6; 1 Pet. 5:5). Those who are proud have an inappropriate and inflated view of themselves. They attribute their accomplishments to their own efforts and fail to acknowledge that everything they are and have comes directly from God’s hand.

One way to summarize the Bible’s message is that it is God telling us, “I am God, and you are not.” The quality of humility flows out of a proper assessment of ourselves before God. Moses was a powerful man, but he was also a humble man because he saw himself in the light of God and sought God’s honor and reputation, not his own.

When people come to grips with their desperate need for the grace and mercy of God, there are three characteristics that become evident. First, they have a teachable spirit. They understand that they are constantly under construction. When we’re young, we struggle with focus and direction and foolishness. In our middle years, we struggle with double-mindedness and entanglement. But the struggle of our older years is that we have a tendency to become unteachable. We suppose we know it all. People like that are very difficult to be around.

If anything, as the years go by, we should begin to realize how little we know and be astounded at our ignorance. It takes a certain measure of knowledge to know how little we know. That’s ironic, isn’t it? But the best authorities in any given field are the ones who know enough to know how little they know. When it suddenly becomes clear that you don’t have it all down, it can be a difficult adjustment, especially for people who have enjoyed a modicum of success as the world defines it. Still, the first quality of true humility is a teachable spirit.

The second quality we see in a humble person is a willingness to seek wise counsel. Humble people are never too proud to seek out the wisdom of others before making important decisions. The Bible advises, “Plans fail for lack of counsel, but with many advisers they succeed” (Prov. 15:22).

The third quality of humble people is that they are willing to be under authority. This is a difficult concept, especially if you’re an entrepreneur, a leader, a “self-made” man. Ultimately, we all must submit to the authority of God, but we must also yield to the authority of those he has placed us under – pastors, elders, governmental leaders. In some mysterious way, to rebel against them is to rebel against God.

Peter, as an older, wiser leader in the church writes, “Humble yourselves, therefore, under God’s mighty hand, that he may lift you up in due time. Cast all your anxiety upon him because he cares for you” (1 Peter 5:6-7). Anxiety builds up in all of us from time to time. When it does, we’ve taken a burden back on ourselves that we were never meant to carry. We can give it back to God and put ourselves under his mighty hand, knowing that he cares for us and will take care of recognition at the proper time. Nothing that we do for his pleasure will go unrecognized.

Solomon’s Homily on Humility

Perks and privileges usually accompany successful leadership. Many leaders enjoy being in charge, making decisions that affect the organization, delegating implementation of those decisions to others, “running the show,” having others defer to them in meetings and the like. As one gets ahead, it’s hard not to get a big head!

As a leader, King Solomon enjoyed all these perks and much more. Like few leaders before or since, he had wealth, power, wisdom and plenty of servants. Other rulers traveled long distances to listen to his wisdom, and other entrepreneurs came to marvel at his wealth. Yet from this lofty position Solomon cautioned, “It is not good…to seek one’s own honor” (Prov. 25:27). Doing so, he says, is like eating too much honey. Sweet as it is, and healthy as it is in proper amounts, too much of this good thing will make you sick – and sick of it.

Honor accompanies a job well done. If a leader is effective, he or she will get all the honor he or she can stand. But a person who has to go looking for honor has his or her hand in the wrong hive. Solomon learned that focusing on a job well done is the way to earn honor. Focusing on honor cuts into the time and energy needed to do the job well.

Most of our lives we have a hidden impact. Most of our lives, we don’t know our impact. Every so often, God will give show you your impact – through a word of encouragement, maybe a note, maybe somebody will tell you something when you’re down. Every so often, you may get a little feedback just to let you know you’re on the right course. But if he gives you too much of that, you’ll start to live for it. That’s a dangerous path to walk. Jesus asks a pointed question in John 5:44 that we would do well to wrestle with, “How can you believe if you accept praise from one another, yet make no effort to obtain the praise that comes from the only God?”

Honor comes from God, and it comes – as counter-intuitive as this seems – as the result of downward mobility. Jesus chose downward mobility, a descent from the heights of heaven to a teenager’s womb to a cattle trough to a peasant home to a dusty road to a cross to a tomb. Jesus didn’t surrender a little; he surrendered everything completely, confident that his Father would take care of the outcome. The most powerful person who ever walked on the planet calls us and says, “I served you, and now I’m asking you to serve others. A servant is not greater than his master. If I did this for you, you must do this for one another. I’ll take care of your dignity. You don’t have to take yourself so seriously, because I take you seriously.”

If a man does not understand that, he will live in constant insecurity. We all know what insecure people look like. Always searching for approval, they cannot relax. They’re driven. They never reach the mark, so there’s a perfectionism that torments them and everyone around them. Often, their self-esteem is tied to their material possessions, and it’s so important to always have something a little bit newer, a little bit better than the other guy. Because insecurity and envy often go together, they relentlessly find faults with others. Pride seeks the higher place; envy has to do with resenting others’ good fortune. An insecure person is so focused on image rather than substance that they have a persona. They have an image that they have to sustain, and our culture supports that. Proud people are defensive. They cannot handle criticism or rebuke. They cannot receive it, and, therefore, it’s hard for them to be teachable, because they always have to defend that image, that position.

Humility in the Face of Prosperity

Israel’s pride led them to disobey God’s commands, so God invested 40 years in developing their humility and obedience. God took them into the desert to show them how vulnerable they were (and how vulnerable we are). In Deuteronomy 8, we see the relationship between prosperity and humility and between difficulty and pride:

When you have eaten and are satisfied, praise the Lord your God for the good land he has given you. Be careful that you do not forget the Lord your God, failing to observe his commands, his laws and his decrees that I am giving you this day. Otherwise, when you eat and are satisfied, when you build find houses and settle down, and when your herds and flocks grow large and your silver and gold increase and all you have is multiplied, then your heart will become proud and you will forget the Lord your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery…. You may say to yourself, “My power and the strength of my hands have produced this wealth for me,” But remember the Lord your God, for it is he who gives you the ability to produce wealth, and so confirms his covenant, which he swore to your forefathers, as it is today.

Deuteronomy 8:10-14, 17-18

Moses exhorts the people to remember, after they take the land and flourish, that everything they have has come to them as a gift from the Lord. They are to walk in humility before their God and not think they have achieved these things themselves. One of the great dangers of success is that we deceive ourselves into the arrogant belief that we ourselves have brought it about. We are like Bart Simpson who prays at the dinner table, “Dear God, we paid for all this stuff ourselves, so thanks for nothing.”

God can give wealth, and he can give poverty. He can raise you up; he can take you down. Sometimes it is the severe mercy of God to impoverish you because you were getting too cocky. He may need to take away some of your toys until you get the message.

We are all born with closed hands. Babies come into the world with their hands balled up into tiny, little fists. As we get older, we learn to hold tightly to things – handlebars and lunchboxes, bats and balls, other people’s hands. When we start out in the business world, we grab the lowest rung on the corporate ladder, and we hold on for dear life until we can clutch the next one. We clutch and scrape for whatever position or prestige we can garner. Perhaps one day we’ll find ourselves hanging on to canes and walkers or even the edge of a hospital bed. We cling tightly to life itself until we die. Then, perhaps because our focus will no longer be on ourselves and this earthly realm, we can finally relax our grip.

What a contrast between our hands and the hands of God. Throughout the Bible story God opens his hands to provide food, protection, blessing, love and support. The Psalmist writes, “You open your hand and satisfy the desires of every living thing” (Ps. 145:16). When God came to this earth in the person of Jesus of Nazareth, he taught, loved and blessed. But mostly he opened his hands and touched. He refused to clutch or cling tightly to his rights and privileges. Instead, he opened his hands and, in the most startling example of humility the world has ever known, stretched out his arms to pay for our failures.


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Integrity

After surveying thousands of people around the world and performing more than 400 written case studies, James Kouzes and Barry Posner identified those characteristics most desired in a leader. In virtually every survey, honesty or integrity was identified more frequently than any other trait.1

That makes sense, doesn’t it? If people are going to follow someone, whether into battle or in business or ministry, they want assurance that their leader can be trusted. They want to know that he or she will keep promises and follow through with commitments.

The Integrity of Samuel

In light of this research, Israel’s high regard for Samuel comes as no surprise. Samuel was a man who exuded integrity. Nowhere is this best illustrated than in 1 Samuel 12:1-4:

Samuel said to all Israel, “I have listened to everything you said to me and have set a king over you. Now you have a king as your leader. As for me, I am old and gray, and my sons are here with you. I have been your leader from my youth until this day. Here I stand. Testify against me in the presence of the Lord and his anointed. Whose ox have I taken? Whose donkey have I taken? Whom have I cheated? Whom have I oppressed? From whose hand have I accepted a bribe to make me shut my eyes? If I have done any of these, I will make it right.”

“You have not cheated or oppressed us,” they replied. “You have not taken anything from anyone’s hand.”

During his farewell speech, after having led Israel for decades, Samuel promised to repay anything he had unjustly taken from anyone. What a promise! Even more impressive was the people’s response. Not one person rose up to make a claim against Samuel.

Samuel’s honesty and personal integrity permeated every area of his life. These two characteristics directed how he regarded his possessions, his business dealings and his treatment of those who were weaker than himself. Samuel held himself accountable to the people he led. He opened himself up to the scrutiny of everyone with whom he had ever had dealings. As a result of this practice, Samuel’s leadership has become legendary as this story has been told and retold throughout the centuries.

People want to know that their leader can be trusted. They want to know that leaders will keep promises and follow through on commitments. Promises and commitments are significant, though, in our day of Machiavellian ethics, it seems that they have become optional. We often seem more concerned with convenience and performance. We give lip-service to the importance of character, but we have the idea that when things get tough, the rules can be changed and commitments and covenants may be discarded at will.

But the Bible makes clear just how important our covenants are. Throughout the Scriptures, God focuses on the fact that he is a God who makes and keeps his covenants, that he can be trusted (1 Chronicles 16:15; Psalm 105:8). God can be trusted because he is trustworthy. That’s the point: it always comes down to the issue of character, not just words. Biblical integrity is not just doing the right thing; it’s a matter of having the right heart and allowing the person you are on the inside to match the person you are on the outside. This is how God is. This is how his people should be.

Perhaps a good word to think of is “consistency.” There must be consistency between what is inside and what is outside. God is totally consistent. His actions and behaviors always match his character and nature. And his goal for us is nothing less. Christ’s objective for his disciples is to make us disciplined people. In the words of John Ortberg, “Disciplined people can do the right thing at the right time in the right way for the right reason.” Just like God.

The God Who Never Changes

Is there anyone we can trust? People let us down again and again, because there is often a discrepancy between what they claim to believe and how they actually live. But God will never let us down, because he never changes. His promises are as good as his unchanging character: “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today and forever” (Hebrews 13:8).

Jesus does not change. The Living God does not change. His love, his truth and his goodness are not governed by external circumstances or conditions – they never vacillate. Therefore, God’s character and the promises he makes are supremely worthy of our trust and commitment. He does what he says, and his covenant love is always dependable.

This is fundamental. What can I lean against? What can I trust in? What can I pursue with reckless abandon? So many of us have been burned by relationships, by people going back on their word, claiming that they said something when they did not say it. It can make you cynical if you’re not careful. But when we come back to the character of God, we realize, “He is the unchanging standard.”

Because it is impossible for God to lie (Hebrews 6:18; Titus 1:2), he is the ultimately reliable source of hope. His changeless character is the foundation of all of his promises. Whatever he says he will do is as good as done, and when we hope in his promises, this hope becomes an anchor for the soul, both firm and secure (Hebrews 6:19). Unlike many parents, God’s yes is always yes, and his no is always no (James 5:12). When God says yes, it stays yes; when he says no, it stays no. This has both negative and positive ramifications. Negatively, there is no getting God to change his mind through bribery or whining. Positively, when God makes a promise, he can be counted on to fulfill that word.

The sting remains of broken promises from parents – ballgames missed, trips never taken. The writer of Proverbs accurately diagnoses much of our present malaise when he says, “Hope deferred makes the heart sick” (Proverbs 13:12a). Much of the heartache we experience is directly related to the unreliability of people.

But God’s actions flow perfectly out of his character: “He who is the Glory of Israel does not lie or change his mind; for he is not a man, that he should change his mind” (1 Samuel 15:29). There is no possibility of manipulating or bribing or bargaining with God, because he will never compromise his perfect integrity. God himself has testified, “I the Lord do not change” (Malachi 3:6). God’s perfect and constant character allows us to trust in his promises and timing.

God is integrity. He does not merely act with integrity; integrity is his character. But what about us? The biblical virtue of integrity points to a consistency between what is inside and what is outside, between belief and behavior, our words and our ways, our attitudes and our actions, our values and our practice.

The Dis-integration of Isaiah

When the prophet Isaiah had a vision of the glorious and awesome Creator of the universe, he was overwhelmed by the holiness of God.

In the year that King Uzziah died, I saw the Lord seated on a throne, high and exalted, and the train of his robe filled the temple. Above him were seraphs, each with six wings: With two wings they covered their faces, with two the covered their feet, and with two they were flying. And they were calling to one another:

“Holy, holy, holy is the Lord Almighty; the whole earth is full of his glory.”

At the sound of their voices the doorposts and thresholds shook and the temple was filled with smoke.

“Woe to me!” I cried. “I am ruined! For I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips, and my eyes have seen the King, the Lord Almighty.”

Then one of the seraphs flew to me with a live coal in his hand, which he had taken with tongs from the altar. With it he touched my mouth and said, “See this has touched your lips; your guilt is taken away and your sin atoned for.”

Isaiah 6:1-7

R.C. Sproul comments on Isaiah’s encounter with the holiness of God:

To be undone means to come apart at the seams, to be unraveled. What Isaiah was expressing is what modern psychologists describe as the experience of personal disintegration. To disintegrate means exactly what the word suggests, “dis integrate.” To integrate something is to put pieces together in a unified whole…. The word integrity…[suggests] a person whose life is whole or wholesome. In modern slang we say, “He’s got it all together.”2

Isaiah says, “I’m undone. I’m torn apart,” which is just the opposite of integrity. To have integrity is to be integrated, to be whole, to have it all together in a sense, to be consistent. Isaiah finds himself torn apart, and this forces him to realize his own deficiency. When faced with the awesome holiness of God, Isaiah becomes aware of his own uncleanness. Throughout the Bible, man’s encounters with God are very consistent in this way.

For example, when Peter realizes the power of Jesus he falls to his knees and says, “Go away from me, Lord; I am a sinful man!” (Luke 5:8) Peter knows that what has just happened is not natural; it is, in fact, supernatural. This is not the way things work, but instead of saying, “How did he do that?” he says, “Depart from me, I’m a sinful man.” Peter is not only aware of Jesus’ power, but of holiness and his own sinfulness. An encounter with holiness is traumatic. The holiness of God becomes a standard to which we can never measure up, and this is traumatic for people who so desperately want to fool themselves into thinking they are self-sufficient.

In John 18, a cohort of 600 armed soldiers comes to arrest Jesus and have their own traumatic encounter with holiness:

Jesus, knowing all that was going to happen to him, went out and asked them, “Who is it you want?”

“Jesus of Nazareth,” they replied.

“I am he,” Jesus said. (And Judas the traitor was standing there with them.) When Jesus said, “I am he,” they drew back and fell to the ground.

John 18:4-6

Six hundred soldiers fall to the ground, and the word that is used implies that they were sort of held there, pinned to the ground. There are many speculations as to what exactly happened, but it appears as if the veil of his flesh lifted, and that pre-incarnate glory that he had before the foundation of the world was opened up for a microsecond. It was sufficient to overwhelm them. R. Kent Hughes, in his commentary Behold the Man suggests:

Jesus’ answer was one of his last uses of the power by which he calmed the seas, stilled the winds, and healed the sick. The cohort didn’t arrest Jesus – he arrested them. His words were a gracious warning that they were in over their heads.3

They must have known something wasn’t quite right. Six hundred armed men are now more afraid than the one they came looking for.

Throughout the Bible, men discover just how traumatic an encounter with holiness is. The transfiguration scared Peter so much he didn’t know what to say (Mark 9:6). John, on the isle of Patmos, sees Jesus and is so overwhelmed he “fell at his feet as though dead” (Revelation 1:17). This is the same John who had leaned on Jesus in the upper room (John 13:25). John would often sit next to Jesus. There was an intimate bond between them. But when he saw that holiness, he was overwhelmed. The conversion of Saul on the road to Damascus (Acts 9:4), Moses’ reaction to the burning bush (Exodus 3:6), Joshua’s interaction with the commander of the army of the Lord (Joshua 5:14), Jacob’s response after his dream at Bethel (Genesis 28:17), Gideon realizing he’s been interacting with the angel of the Lord (Judges 6:22). The list goes on and on of people who are absolutely terrified and overwhelmed by the awe-inspiring holiness of God.

God’s holiness is truly awesome, and our natural reaction to him is one of fear. But there is another side of his nature, his closeness to us, that somehow allows us to have this relationship with him. Jesus, the mediator between God and man, makes it possible for us to avoid being consumed by his awesome holiness, and instead to be declared righteous. That is amazing. The Living God is willing to say that you are righteous. How is that possible? It’s because Christ himself is in us.

When we live our entire lives before the face of God (corem deo) and practice a constant abiding in his presence, we realize that being people who do not manifest integrity is inconsistent with the dignity and destiny we’ve been called to. We have been called to live on a higher plane than that, to “live a life worthy of the calling [we] have received” (Ephesians 4:1), because, now, Christ is in us. He wants to live his life through us (Galatians 2:20); we are not only his representatives (2 Corinthians 5:20), as members of his church we are, in some mysterious way, his body (Ephesians 1:23; Colossians 1:24).

Now, that’s impossible unless he dwells in us, but therein lies the solution. In fact, this is the genius of the Christian life. Christianity is not a religion; it’s a relationship. Christianity is not about rules and regulations. Instead, it is the presence and power of a person who indwells us and promises to never leave us or forsake us (Hebrews 13:5).

As fallen men and women, we realize how disintegrated we are when we come face to face with God’s perfect integration. And, like Isaiah, it forces us to recognize our deep need for personal reconstruction. Isaiah realized the depth of his own sin in the process of catching a glimpse of God’s perfect holiness, and he acknowledged those areas in which he had turned from his commitments as a priest and a prophet. But his commitment and his life as a faithful prophet demonstrate for us the possibility of framing a life of integrity with God’s help.

The Hypocrisy of the Pharisees

If we fail to face up to our inadequacy, we fall into the trap of the Pharisees: hypocrisy. Hypocrisy is the opposite of integrity, and this is precisely what Jesus accuses the Pharisees and teachers of the law of in Matthew 23. Six times in this sermon, he uses the stinging word “hypocrites” (vv. 13, 15, 23, 24, 27, 29). Originally, a hypocrite meant an actor who put on a mask to assume a false identity while he played for the audience. This accusation would be particularly offensive to the Pharisees who hated all forms of Hellenization, including the Greek theatre. In essence, Jesus was calling them the very thing they hated.

Anyone who has ever labored under the false notion that Jesus was some kind of quiet, nice man will have trouble with these verses:

“Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You travel over land and sea to win a single convert, and when he becomes one, you make him twice as much a son of hell as you are….

“Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You are like whitewashed tombs, which look beautiful on the outside but on the inside are full of dead men’s bones and everything unclean. In the same way, on the outside you appear to people as righteous but on the inside you are full of hypocrisy and wickedness….

“You snakes! You brood of vipers! How will you escape being condemned to hell?”

Matthew 23:15, 27-28, 33

This is not, to use Philip Yancey’s expression, “Mr. Rogers with a beard!” Jesus’ language reveals the depth of his righteous anger. Notice that each verse that includes the word hypocrite begins with the words: “Woe to you.” This word “woe” (ouai) can contain pathos, anger, warning and derision; and may include all of these at the same time. In this passage, Jesus lambasted the Pharisees for saying one thing and doing another. Their lack of integrity was not only substandard for those who would follow Christ, as religious leaders they were guilty of misrepresenting God the Father.

We have already discovered that integrity – the direct opposite quality of hypocrisy – is the quality that people want most in a leader. Clearly, the Pharisees and teachers of the law in Jesus’ day failed to live up to that standard. When we talk about integrity today, we generally use other, closely related terms such as ethics and morality. But a clear understanding of the concept of integrity requires clear thinking about all three words. Each has a distinct meaning. When properly used, they bring clarity to a crucial but often misunderstood leadership essential:

  • Ethics refers to a standard of right and wrong, good and evil. It’s what the Pharisees said they believed was right.
  • Morality is a lived standard of right and wrong, good and evil. It’s what the Pharisees actually did.
  • Integrity means “sound, complete, integrated.” To the extent that a person’s ethics and morality are integrated, that person has integrity. To the extent that a person’s ethics and morality are not integrated, that person lacks integrity.

Let’s look at this another way. If your friend John tells you he will lie, cheat and steal, he has a low ethic. If he does business that way, he also has a low morality. John is unethical and immoral, but he has integrity – twisted as it may be – because the morality is consistent with the ethic. If John claims to cheat and steal but doesn’t cheat and steal, he is moral in practice but lacks integrity, because his morality doesn’t match his ethic.

You can have a high or low ethic. You can be moral or immoral. The choice is yours. But if you want to have integrity, you must choose your ethic and live to match it. Anyone who wants to lead at least owes it to prospective followers to let them know what they are getting into.

The Bible teaches a high and holy ethic. A person who claims to be a Christian and to live by biblical standards makes an ethical statement. He or she has committed to a certain morality. For that person to have integrity, then, he or she must live by the biblical ethic. Jesus makes it unequivocally clear that the worst choice is the hypocritical one. This is serious business. When we find our walk not matching our talk, the probing question of Jesus should echo in our hearts: “Why do you call me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ and do not do what I say?” (Luke 6:46). If we imagine the holy eyes of Jesus Christ, Lord of the universe, as he asks this question, we ought to be at least a little frightened.

The Process of Integration

It’s self-evident that a hypocrite is unqualified to guide others toward attaining higher character. No one respects a person who talks a good game but fails to play by the rules. What a leader does will have a greater impact on those he or she wishes to lead than what a leader says. A person may forget 90 percent of what a leader says, but he or she will never forget how the leader lives. This is why Paul tells Timothy:

Be diligent in these matters; give yourself wholly to them, so that everyone may see your progress. Watch your life and doctrine closely. Persevere in them, because if you do, you will save both yourself and your hearers.

1 Timothy 4:15-16

In this life, we never attain perfection. But there should be progress toward the upward call of God in Christ Jesus. We will never attain it this side of eternity, but the there should be visible progress, evident to others. Notice the two things Paul exhorts Timothy to watch: your life and your doctrine. In other words, give careful attention to your behavior and your belief. Make sure they match. Constantly examine yourself to see whether or not your walk matches your talk.

Bill Hendricks encountered an illustration of this principle in the go-go days of the real estate market of the 1980s. He met a developer who claimed to have woven what he called “biblical principles of business” into his deals. But when the market went south, he skipped town and left his investors to pick up the pieces – and the debts.

Another of Bill’s friends stands in sharp contrast to the first. He too was a land developer. He too talked of integrating biblical principles into his business. And when the market crashed, so did his empire. But unlike the man who ran away, this land developer, as a matter of conscience, worked out a plan to pay back his investors.4

Money tends to bring out what’s really inside, doesn’t it? When it comes to financial matters, you really discover what a man is made of. Which of those two men would you rather follow? Which one demonstrated integrity? David writes about the man “who keeps his oath even when it hurts” (Psalm 15:4b). He is the man who “will never be shaken” (v. 5b). There is simply no substitute for a man or woman of consistent Christ-like character.

That doesn’t imply that any of us will be perfect. In fact, the New Testament doesn’t call for perfect leaders; it calls for those who are models of progress in their faith. We will all stumble in many ways, but our desire is to see progress toward the integration of our claims and our practice.

Secrecy and Small Things

The best way to discern whether or not we are making progress is to ask ourselves, “How do I live when no one’s looking?” It’s easy to look like a person of integrity when people are watching, but do I live my private life with the same level of consistency as I live my public life? So much of our lives are consumed with what might be called “image maintenance.” We spend vast amounts of energy trying to get people to think about us the way we want to be thought about. John Ortberg suggests, “Human conversation is largely an endless attempt to convince others that we are more assertive or clever or gentle or successful than they might think if we did not carefully educate them.”5 Jesus’ words in Matthew 6:1 are hard to get around: “Be careful not to do your acts of righteousness before men, to be seen by them. If you do, you will have no reward from your Father in heaven.”

It’s possible to live one life publicly and another life privately. That’s not integrity; it’s an invitation for God’s discipline. We are to live with consistency in public and in private, because our Father “sees what is done in secret” (Matthew 6:4). Since this is the case, being faithful in small, secret things is a big deal. It may be the case that God is far less concerned with your public persona than he is in your private character. He may be more concerned with how you manage your personal checking account than how well you administer the books on a big business deal. It’s in the small, secret places of self-evaluation that God’s grace changes you and shapes you into the image of his Son.

In the end, we become what our desires make us. Who we become reveals what we really desire. If you desire the praise of men, then you will become a certain kind of person. But if you desire the praise of God, then integrity will need to become a priority. As you sense the overwhelming holiness of our Creator, you will understand how unraveled you are. But as you focus on the grace of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, you will recognize that even though you may feel undone, you are not undone because he has made you whole. His grace is sufficient, for his power is made perfect in your weakness (2 Corinthians 12:9).


1 Kouzes, James M., and Posner, Barry Z. Credibility: How leaders gain and lose it, why people demand it (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1993), 14.

2 Sproul, R.C. One Holy Passion (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1987).

3 R. Kent Hughes, Behold the Man (Wheaton, IL: Victor Books), 129-130.

4 Adapted from Howard Hendricks and William Hendricks, As Iron Sharpens Iron (Chicago: Moody Press, 1995), 67-69.

5 John Ortberg, The Life You’ve Always Wanted (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1997), 164.

 


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Leader Qualifications

Timothy stands out in Scripture as a stereotypical misfit for a leadership position. From what we know about him, he was timid, a bit sickly and perhaps reticent to do the work he’d been called to do. But when Paul wrote to this young man, his letters reflected the heart of a mentor who perceived his protégé’s leadership potential despite the younger man’s naturally timid disposition (2 Timothy 1:7).

Throughout his ministry with Paul, Timothy proved his mettle. Paul regarded him as “my true son in the faith” (1 Timothy 1:2) and “my son whom I love, who is faithful in the Lord” (1 Corinthians 4:17). This young man overcame his natural limitations to become one of the early church’s most significant leaders. His leadership character (Philippians 2:19-22) far outweighed the limitations of his physical presence.

Titus, like Timothy, was an associate of the apostle Paul’s. Titus, like Timothy, was identified by Paul as “my true son” in the faith (Titus 1:4). Titus, unlike Timothy, was a go-getter, a passionate leader, one who was eager to take on a tough assignment.

What was true for Timothy and Titus is still true today. Character and hard work are essential for anyone who wants to lead. When God looks for leaders, he doesn’t necessarily look for the tallest, best looking, most articulate or most charismatic among us. Paul told his two young associates to closely examine those who aspired to leadership. He required that such candidates pass the test of character.

Now the overseer must be above reproach, the husband of but one wife, temperate, self-controlled, respectable, hospitable, able to teach, not given to drunkenness, not violent but gentle, not quarrelsome, not a lover of money. He must manage his own family well and see that his children obey him with proper respect. (If anyone does not know how to manage his own family, how can he take care of God’s church?) He must not be a recent convert, or he may become conceited and fall under the same judgment as the devil. He must also have a good reputation with outsiders, so that he will not fall into disgrace and into the devil’s trap.

Deacons, likewise, are to be men worthy of respect, sincere, not indulging in much wine, and not pursuing dishonest gain. They must keep hold of the deep truths of the faith with a clear conscience. They must first be tested; and then if there is nothing against them, let them serve as deacons.

In the same way, their wives are to be women worthy of respect, not malicious talkers but temperate and trustworthy in everything.

A deacon must be the husband of but one wife and must manage his children and his household well.

1 Timothy 3:2-12

Before stepping into a leadership role ourselves, or elevating others to leadership positions, we need to do some testing to see how well we or they measure up to the qualifications God has for leaders. While the traits identified by Paul refer specifically to leaders in the church, any leader who possesses them would have the kind of leadership character of which God approves.

The list of qualifications Paul sends to Titus is similar:

An elder must be blameless, the husband of but one wife, a man whose children believe and are not open to the charge of being wild and disobedient. Since an overseer is entrusted with God’s work, he must be blameless – not overbearing, not quick-tempered, not given to drunkenness, not violent, not pursuing dishonest gain. Rather, he must be hospitable, one who loves what is good, who is self-controlled, upright, holy and disciplined. He must hold firmly to the trustworthy message as it has been taught, so that he can encourage others by sound doctrine and refute those who oppose it.

Titus 1:6-9

Notice that Paul is focused more on qualities of the heart than abilities. Skill-sets are important, but, ultimately, who you are is more fundamentally important than what you do. Of course, what we do is important, but our behavior ought to flow out of who we are. Rather than being a reservoir, we ought to be a river. We draw our life from Christ and allow his life to flow through us on an ongoing basis.

The summary statements for each of the lists above say, “the overseer must be above reproach” (1 Timothy 3:2) or the “elder must be blameless” (Titus 1:6). Leaders in the church are to have no moral or behavioral handles that others can grab onto and say, “This disqualifies this person from leadership.” A careful examination of the leader’s qualifications reveals someone who has his or her private (family) and public life in balance. This person exercises moderation and humility while maintaining a good reputation with those outside the church.

One more thing. Paul believed those who enter into the initial leadership role (deacon) should “first be tested.” (1 Timothy 3:10). The time to discover if someone can lead isn’t after they’ve assumed the role, but before. That’s still the best policy today. This level of character takes time to develop. It takes years to develop a good reputation. While nobody perfectly measures up to the leadership qualifications in these passages, we should all strive to achieve them.

Take Me to Your Leader

Who in Scripture best displays the qualities of true leadership? We might look to people such as Moses, David, Nehemiah or Paul and overlook the greatest Leader of all – God himself. From a biblical point of view, true leadership and authority are derived from the hand of God. Let’s turn to Isaiah 40 to look at God as the Sovereign Leader of all creation. As the unchanging absolute standard for truth, beauty and goodness, we understand that the immutability of God, that unchanging nature of God is such that there are no perfections that he lacks. “God is light; in him there is no darkness at all” (1 John 1:5). There is nothing that is ugly or impure or dishonorable in him.

So, when we look at Isaiah 40, we find a text that provides comfort for the people of God. After we read about the judgment and condemnation that will come as a result of Israel’s sin, as a result of Judah’s rebellion, we find a word of consolation, that God himself will provide a hope and a future for them.

See, the Sovereign Lord comes with power, and his arm rules for him. See, his reward is with him, and his recompense accompanies him. He tends his flock like a shepherd: He gathers the lambs in his arms and carries them close to his heart; he gently leads those that have young.

Isaiah 40:10-11

The passage begins with a picture of one side of God’s character, his authority and his sovereign power. But the next verse shifts to a different aspect, a view of his care and tenderness. God is both supremely powerful and supremely compassionate. He has tremendous authority and command on one hand, but he has incredible tenderness and affection on the other hand. These are marks of divine authority and leadership.

God is not a divine despot but a gracious and merciful Father who nurtures, guides and protects his people as a good shepherd cares for his flock. Because of his greatness and goodness, we do well to trust him and willingly surrender the control of our lives to him.

In comparing himself to a shepherd in John 10:11-18, Jesus evoked an image that was familiar to his audience and reminiscent of Isaiah’s description of the Sovereign Lord. Jesus is the ultimate example of servant leadership. He led his followers by serving them.

Isaiah continues and asks a series of questions to illustrate God’s tremendous power:

Who has measured the waters in the hollow of his hand, or with the breadth of his hand marked off the heaven? Who has held the dust of the earth in a basket, or weighed the mountains on the scales and the hills in a balance? Who has understood the mind of the Lord, or instructed him as his counselor? Whom did the Lord consult to enlighten him, and who taught him the right way? Who was it that taught him knowledge or showed him the path of understanding?

Surely the nations are like a drop in a bucket; they are regarded as dust on the scales; he weighs the islands as though they were fine dust.

Isaiah 40:12-15

Isaiah goes on to talk about how God orders the cosmos, the sun, the moon and the stars, the constellations. He calls all the stars by name, which is impressive, since there are approximately 200 billion stars in the Milky Way galaxy alone. Yet God knows them all by name and holds them in their courses. He rules all things with authority.

The question we must ask ourselves is this: “If he can do that, can he also be trusted to take care of your life as well?” The answer is, “Of course!” God is incomparable; he has no needs. He is intimately acquainted with his created order and sustains it in ways we cannot imagine. God requires no counselor, and he is in complete control. “He brings princes to naught and reduces the rulers of this world to nothing” (v. 23).

As Daniel observed, “[W]isdom and power are his. He changes times and seasons; he sets up kings and deposes them” (Daniel 2:20-21). After a lengthy lesson, the Babylonian ruler, Nebuchadnezzar, discovered the same thing:

His dominion is an eternal dominion; his kingdom endures from generation to generation. All the peoples of the earth are regarded as nothing. He does as he pleases with the powers of heaven and the peoples of the earth. No one can hold back his hand or say to him: “What have you done?”

Daniel 4:34-35

There is no authority to which God is accountable, nothing other than his own word to which he must be judged or held responsible. He himself is the unchanging authority for all things. He rules history. He rules nations. He does things for his own purposes and pleasure.

Frankly, we can’t understand many of the things he does. How is it, for example, he allowed Hitler to continue as long as he did? We know of tyranny and horrors and brutality in the last century that seem to be unparalleled in terms of cruelty and the numbers of people who have been assassinated, murdered, persecuted. One wonders how God can allow this to happen. And yet the Scriptures assure us that when we see him we will know fully as we are fully known (1 Corinthians 13:12). This is not to say that we will become omniscient like God is, but we will see that he has done all things well, and he has created and crafted a world where this amazing combination of human responsibility and freedom can somehow co-exist with his divine sovereignty.

God rules over all, and there is a deep and profound mystery that we have to hold in tension, because we simply cannot sort it all out. But, should I expect to understand the mind of God? Can I really plumb the mysteries of the trinity or of the dual nature of the God-man? Can I understand these mysteries? God transcends us all, but the startling thing is that he calls us all to become like him.

This is an intriguing issue of leadership. The qualifications of leaders, as they are laid out in the Bible, are nothing more than what God expects out of everyone who claims to be a follower of Christ. Biblical leadership is built on the foundation of being the person God expects every one of his children to be. Leaders are simply those men and women who are a little further along in the process of spiritual living than the rest of us. Their character, reputation and life skills are seen as exemplary. They live out what the rest of us are aiming for.

That’s the Next King?!

Often this is evident to all. Sometimes, however, the leaders God raises up are not the same people that our world system would elevate to positions of leadership. A classic case in point is found in 1 Samuel 16. At this point in the Bible story, Israel has a king, but Saul has become a great disappointment. He started well enough but succumbed to folly and arrogance. He is no longer God’s man because he chooses to walk in disobedience and rebellion. So Samuel is sent to anoint a new king:

The Lord said to Samuel, “How long will you mourn for Saul, since I have rejected him as king over Israel? Fill your horn with oil and be on your way; I am sending you to Jesse of Bethlehem. I have chosen one of his sons to be king.”

But Samuel said, “How can I go? Saul will hear about it and kill me.”

The Lord said, “Take a heifer with you and say, ‘I have come to sacrifice to the Lord.’ Invite Jesse to the sacrifice, and I will show you what to do. You are to anoint for me the one I indicate.”

Samuel did what the Lord said. When he arrived at Bethlehem, the elders of the town trembled when they met him. They asked, “Do you come in peace?”

Samuel replied, “Yes, in peace; I have come to sacrifice to the Lord. Consecrate yourselves and come to the sacrifice with me.” Then he consecrated Jesse and his sons and invited them to the sacrifice.

When they arrived, Samuel saw Eliab and thought, “Surely the Lord’s anointed stands here before the Lord.”

But the Lord said to Samuel, “Do not consider his appearance or his height, for I have rejected him. The Lord does not look at the things man looks at. Man looks at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart.”

1 Samuel 16:1-7

Even the prophet Samuel was fooled. When he looked at Jesse’s oldest son Eliab, he naturally assumed that God must have chosen this noble and sturdy young man to be the Lord’s anointed leader. But the Lord makes it clear in this passage that the people he chooses to do great things for him are called on the basis of inward character, not on the basis of outward impressiveness. In fact, the things that impress us aren’t impressive to God. The thing that God looks for is the quality of the heart.

We find later in the same story that Jesse, David’s father, didn’t even include David in the line-up of his sons (vv. 8-11). He was an afterthought to Jesse. But qualification for leadership is not measured by inches or pounds or degrees or background. What does God look for? Why is it that when Jesse and Samuel were looking at Eliab, God was looking at David? God’s qualifications for leadership are evident in verse 7: “Man looks at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart.”

Why is the condition of a person’s heart such a big deal? Don’t we often hear about the difference between a leader’s private life and their ability to perform well on the job? All we have to do is look one generation removed from David to see the tragedy that awaits a leader whose heart is not right before God. In 1 Kings 3:6, Solomon is engaged in a conversation with the Lord. Solomon says, “You have shown great kindness to your servant, my father David, because he was faithful to you and righteous and upright in heart. You have continued this great kindness to him and have given him a son to sit on his throne this very day.” Clearly Solomon began his reign well, but he was half-hearted. Just a few chapters later we read:

As Solomon grew old, his wives turned his heart after other gods, and his heart was not fully devoted to the Lord his God, as the heart of David his father had been…. So Solomon did evil in the eyes of the Lord; he did not follow the Lord completely, as David his father had done…. So the Lord said to Solomon, “Since this is your attitude and you have not kept my covenant and my decrees, which I commanded you, I will most certainly tear the kingdom away from you and give it to one of your subordinates.

1 Kings 11:4, 6

Whatever else qualifies people for leadership, no one is qualified for greatness – by God’s standard – until his or her heart is ready. The leader’s prayer and focus of effort must center here. Skills, intelligence and hard work are all a part of the package, but God reminds us that, in the final analysis, one thing makes the difference. God looks at the leader’s heart.

David had a whole heart for God. In spite of the fact that he often succumbed to infidelity and foolishness, he always returned to God. He continually pursued God. Being described as a man after God’s own heart does not have to mean that David pursued God’s heart (though, in fact, he did). Perhaps it means that David’s heart was like God’s. That was the best part of David’s heart, its unwillingness to give up on God. Lynn Anderson, in his book The Shepherd’s Song, writes:

Because he was a man after God’s own heart, David never gave up on his relationship with God. This is precisely what is godlike about David’s heart. God did not give up on His relationship with David, either. Nor does He give up on us. No matter where we are, or what we have done, or where things appear to be headed at this point in life, He is calling us on. All we have to do is follow.1

We have said before that in the end, you become what your desires make you. This is why Jesus stresses the importance of the pure heart and the clear eye (Matthew 5:8; 7:5). Kierkegaard saw double-mindedness as the essential disease of the human heart. His book Purity of Heart Is to Will One Thing is a meditation on the statement from James: “Purify your hearts, you double-minded” (James 4:8). The disease diagnosed by Kierkegaard is the failure to have a life that is focused on one thing. It is the failure to make an ultimate commitment to what Kierkegaard calls “the Good” – what Jesus spoke of as “seeking first the kingdom of God” (Matthew 6:33).

When you have a divided heart, you have divided loyalties. You become like the man James describes: “like a wave of the sea, blown and tossed by the wind” (James 1:6). Jesus tells a story about a man who went out to sow seeds. Some of the seeds, you’ll remember, fell among the thorns and were choked out by “the worries of this life, the deceitfulness of wealth and the desires for other things” (Mark 4:19).

A life characterized by ambivalence is painful. We are pushed and pulled in many directions, longing for intimacy with God and running from it at the same time. We want to be generous but find ourselves hoarding and covetous. We try to be servants, but our service is often driven by arrogance and a desire to be recognized. It is a life expressed in Augustine’s famous request, when he both longed for purity and innocence and yet was unready to change his lifestyle and feared losing pleasure: “Lord, give me chastity, but not yet.” Even the apostle Paul faced this dilemma: “I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do” (Romans 7:15). The capacity of the human heart for duplicity is staggering.

And yet it is possible, with the help of the Holy Spirit, to achieve a heart united in its passion for God. Clifford Williams writes:

We possess singleness when we are not pulled in opposite directions and when we act without wanting something further for ourselves. Our inner drives do not conflict; they are aimed in one direction. The motives we appear to have are the ones we really have. Our inner focus is unified and our public posture corresponds with it. We are not, in short, divided.2

We can hear the echo of this sentiment in a piece of advice Jesus gave to a friend named Martha. She was “distracted by all the preparations that had to be made” and resented her sister, Mary, who had chosen to just sit in the presence of Jesus. “Martha, Martha…you are worried about many things, but only one thing is needed” (cf. Luke 10:38-42). If we get caught up in seeking the finite rather than seeking the one for whom we were made and meant to pursue, the result will always be misery. “You have made us for yourself,” Augustine said, “and our hearts are restless until they find their rest in you.”

The Positive and Negative Aspects of Leadership

In a utilitarian society such as ours, people frequently want to quantify things. How many good deeds does it take to convince us that we (or others) are qualified for leadership? The apostle Peter would say, “That’s the wrong question to ask.” So what’s the right question? Peter tells us in 1 Peter 2:1-3, “Rid yourselves of all malice and all deceit, hypocrisy, envy, and slander of every kind. Like newborn babies, crave pure spiritual milk, so that by it you may grow up in your salvation, now that you have tasted that the Lord is good.”

Here Peter provides a standard for leadership qualifications. In verse 1, he lists things to weed out of our lives. That’s an essential list. When evaluating a leader, we need to be aware of what things should scare us – what we don’t want. But we also need to identify what we do want. What are the qualifications we examine when we hire or educate or evaluate leaders?

Peter didn’t give us that list. Instead, he provided a standard and a process. Peter said, “get rid of the negative” (v. 1). Stop practicing malice, deceit and the like. Your heart must be emptied of these things so it can, in turn, be filled with the things of God. In other words, if the vessel is full, God cannot fill it with himself. He must determine the content of my life, which is a dangerous and frightening concept. It requires true repentance, not just a turning away from my own direction but also a release of that to which I cling so tightly. I must let go of my own agenda in order for God to fill me with what he desires for me. Inviting him to do this is a wrenching process, and it’s not a one-time event. It has to happen regularly, because the truth is, I let go of things only to pick them back up again. There is a consistent pattern called the law of undulation. We go through peaks and valleys; we take two steps forward and one step back.

So, there is a negative aspect to this: I must rid myself of certain things. On the other hand, there is a positive aspect. Like a baby craves his or her mother’s milk, so I must crave pure spiritual milk. More than following a laundry list of good deeds or qualities, the leader must be passionate about his or her spiritual health.

The leader qualifies on the positive side of the equation by showing a passion for spiritual goodness. He or she isn’t identified so much by a checklist of good deeds as by a quality of goodness. Peter also emphasizes the need for growth (v. 2).

Leaders aren’t qualified merely because they practice good deeds (although they must do that). They’re qualified by possessing a passion and a craving for high spiritual qualities and exhibiting a consistent pattern of growth in those qualities. Often, this growth will occur in spurts followed by long plateaus. Frequently, we will find ourselves struggling with weights we thought we had laid aside long ago. But if the focus of our hearts is to return to God, we can say honestly that we are growing in the things of God.

To Do or To Be? That is the Real Question

Leaders do need to cultivate both skills and qualities. Sid Buzzell helps us understand the difference between the two and why we should never neglect the development of personal character. He suggests that as we read the list of nine “fruits” God’s Spirit produces in a life (Galatians 5:22-23), we can draw a line down the center of a page and list skills on one side and qualities on the other: “But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. Against such there is no law.” If we were to do the same experiment with 1 Timothy 3:1-12 or Titus 1:6-9, we would find similar results. The “do” list is very short and the “be” list is very long in comparison.

Leaders, under God’s good hand, must never stop cultivating leadership qualities. In fact, regardless of how well a person masters any skill, the choice of whether to use that skill appropriately is a character issue more than a skill issue. I may, for instance, develop great listening skills because I know listening is important to effective leadership. But unless I address my impatience and arrogance, I won’t listen. In this case I have the qualifying skill, but I don’t use it because I don’t have the more important character qualification. I haven’t become others-centered.

Paul, when listing what Timothy and Titus should look for in leaders, said a leader is qualified by character more than by skill. Leaders, in their personal development and in leadership education, need to develop skills. But they cannot, under any circumstances, neglect the more important focus on life qualities (1 Timothy 3; Titus 1) or the essential relationship with God’s Spirit that is the wellspring of those qualities (Galatians 5).3

All leadership relates to ministry. There is a false dichotomy that causes people to believe that business leaders should be different from ministry leaders. But from a biblical perspective, there is no distinction between the sacred and the secular. Rather, we are to view life holistically. This is the only way we can live an integrated life, where our beliefs and our behaviors align and every area of life is brought under the lordship of Christ.

So, the mindset that says, “I’m not a minister; I’m a business leader” is opposed to Scripture. Ministry is not something that is reserved for professional clergy, nor is it something that only happens on certain days of the week. All those who are called to follow Jesus Christ are called to minister to others. These ministry opportunities usually come in unexpected ways at unexpected times, but they are always around us – even in the business arena. If the Spirit of God is living in you, then you are enough to minister to others. If your heart is open and receptive to the Spirit’s leading, then you will find yourself being used to further God’s kingdom purposes.

Your ministry may seem small and insignificant at first, but this is often how God begins. Through the prophet Zechariah, he tells us not to “despise the day of small things” (Zechariah 4:10). He tells us in the same chapter that things that really matter get accomplished “not by might nor by power, but by my Spirit” (v. 6). Bethlehem was a small little backwater town, and yet it became the birthplace of the Savior. David was the youngest son of a poor family, yet he became the greatest king in the history of Israel. Moses had a speech impediment. Paul wasn’t very impressive as a public speaker. But God has a way of taking small things, seemingly insignificant people and turning them into leaders who forcefully advance his kingdom.

It’s not a question of size or skills; it’s a question of fidelity. And the level of our fidelity is largely determined by the degree of our trust. Do we really believe that God can take something small and insignificant and turn it into something of great value and beauty? If we believe that little is much when it’s placed in the hands of Jesus, then we will freely offer him our meager gifts, expecting him to expand them and empower them. We will no longer be satisfied to be spectators; we will become participants in this grand adventure that is life between the advents. We will look for ministry opportunities on this day and each day and welcome our God-given significance. We will seek ways to sharpen and hone our God-given gifts.

God’s work will be done regardless, but if we don’t get involved, we will miss out. God’s work will be done without us. He has invited us to participate with him in his work; that is completely amazing. Mother Teresa was frequently asked, “How can you possibly feel that you are successful? Look at the number of people that you cannot minister to in the streets of Calcutta.” She would reply, “God doesn’t require us to succeed; he only requires that you try.” Other times she would say, “I do not pray for success; I ask for faithfulness.”

Mother Teresa knew that to measure her success in numbers was folly. Success has more to do with being faithful with the things God has placed before you than it has to do with converting the great masses. Most effective ministry is done one person at a time. There’s nothing wrong with being a little idealistic and wanting to change the world, but the world is changed slowly, gradually, one person at a time.

The Messiness of Ministry

Ministry is messy. Mess is an integral part of ministry, because ministry has to do with people and people are messed up. Our perfect model of ministry is none other than Jesus himself, and his ministry was messy. He touched lepers. He wept with grieving families. He hung out with the lowly: children, gentiles, tax collectors, hookers, even gentiles. Ministry is, ultimately, about Jesus living in you and through you. Ministry is being his hands and feet, sacrificially serving others today as he did 2,000 years ago.

Nothing we will be called to do in service to others will be as messy as what Christ did on our behalf. He will never call us do to something for others that he hasn’t done, to a far greater extent, for us. Recognizing this changes our perspective.

When a person decides to take seriously the challenge to be an ambassador for Christ, to develop a mindset of ministry, he takes one of two approaches. Either he tries to learn and impart skills, or he focuses on allowing the Spirit of Christ to change his thinking and character. Only the latter approach will allow him to serve from a Christlike spirit of humility and selflessness. Yet how few seminaries concentrate on development of character even half as much as they concentrate on development of skills or knowledge? Ministry should flow out of who we are. Ministry must come out of our relationship with Christ as we respond to God’s invitation to join him in what he is doing.

A true ministry mindset understands how dispensable we are, and that it’s only because of God’s grace that we are invited to join him in his work. Realizing that the work is his allows us to take great risks. As he calls us to step out in faith, esteeming his agenda above our own, we can respond like children jumping into the arms of a Father who has promised not to drop us, will not drop us, cannot, in fact, drop us.

This kind of adventure is truly rewarding. It’s not always fun. It’s certainly not convenient. But it is the only sure path to contentment and joy. To play a part in altering another person’s eternal destiny…can anything compare to that kind of fulfillment? It causes a sense of enormous gratitude to well up inside our otherwise miserly hearts.

I often ask myself the question, “What would I like to say to God the night before I die?” Think about that for a moment. If you knew you were going to die tomorrow morning, what would you like to say to God tonight? We have a record of such an event in the Gospel of John. The night before he would hang on a cross to pay for the sins of the world, Jesus says to his Father, “I have finished the work that you gave me to do” (John 17:4). I pray that I have the fidelity to finish the work God has given me to do, that my investments don’t die with me, that the things I devoted myself to live on after I’m gone.

Ministry requires discipline. But we must be careful about the motivation behind practicing the disciplines. Doing the disciplines as ends in themselves results in death in the long-run. Dallas Willard wrote, “Spirituality wrongly understood or pursued is a major source of human misery and rebellion against God.”4 Reading the Bible and praying and going to church won’t help you much if you’re just doing them to do them. But if you’re showing up to meet with God, that’s another matter. Disciplines may be more a matter of choice than feeling. So part of discipline is to show up when you don’t feel like it. However, spiritual disciplines are not necessarily unpleasant. After all, if a disciplined life is a life characterized by love, joy and peace, we may assume that some of the disciplines might actually be pleasant.

What we do today has eternal consequences. Our actions ripple forever. Because our value system is so vastly different from heaven’s value system, it could be that what turns out to be our most significant day of ministry will seem to us to have been a day wasted. Odds are, your most effective time of ministry will not appear on your daily calendar. It won’t be in your appointment book. You might think that it was an inconvenience. But from God’s perspective, that’s the moment you’ll be remembered for. Unless you live with margin, being attentive to the prompting of the Holy Spirit, you might just miss your moment of greatest impact.

Let’s close these reflections on leader qualifications with a prayer by Mother Theresa.

Dear Jesus, help us to spread your fragrance everywhere we go. Flood our souls with your Spirit and life. Penetrate and possess our whole being so utterly that our lives may only be a radiance of yours. Shine through us and be so in us that every soul we come in contact with may feel your presence in our soul. Let them look up and see no longer us but only Jesus. Stay with us, and then we will begin to shine as you shine, to so shine as to be light to others. The light will be all from you. It will be you shining on others through us. Let us, thus, praise you in the way you love best, by shining around us. Let us preach you without preaching, not by words but by our example, by the catching force, the sympathetic influence of what we do, the evident fullness of the love of our hearts bare to you. Amen.


1 Lynn Anderson, The Shepherd’s Song. West Monroe, LA: Howard, 1996, 191.

2 Clifford Williams, Singleness of Heart. Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1994, 10.

3 Adapted from Sid Buzzell, Leadership and Management Course Syllabus, Denver Seminary, 1996.

4 Dallas Willard, The Spirit of the Disciplines. San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1988, 91.


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Obedience

Along with the costs of leadership come many opportunities – some positive, some negative. Many leaders have access to information or financial resources that they could use to their personal advantage. Others travel widely and almost anonymously, and have ample opportunity to compromise their purity. Still others may be tempted to use their position to unethically crush the competition – whether internal or external. Whether the temptation is about money, sex or power, many leaders sell themselves out. We read about the higher profile cases on the newspaper headlines every day.

What’s Your Price?

The television show Fear Factor is based on the idea that everyone has a price. If the price is right, anyone will do anything at any given time – from eating live slugs to being placed in a glass coffin with thousands of snakes, worms and hissing cockroaches. Every week millions of viewers tune in to see if people just like them would be willing to conquer their fears for money. Quantifying revulsion has proven to be amusing and profitable for network television.

It’s one thing to ask someone how much it would cost for them to wear a silly outfit in public or parachute out of an airplane or eat something gross. These things are morally neutral. But there are some things that shouldn’t ever have a price – things like integrity, honesty, morality, our commitment to God and to our family. These things are not a game. Every leader should periodically ask, “Do I have a price? What would it take for me to compromise?”

It would be nice to think that followers of Christ do not have a price; that with an initial one-time commitment to Jesus comes a lifelong, resolute loyalty. And yet, it is not uncommon to find people who claim to be Christians cheating on their taxes, padding their expense accounts and stealing from their workplace. A godly leader’s commitment to God should be such that he or she will obey him no matter what he or she is offered to compromise. Unfortunately, Saul – the leader who had everything a nation would want – lacked such commitment. When the pressure was on, instead of obeying God’s command to completely destroy the Amalekites, Saul spared the king and the best of the livestock (1 Samuel 15:9). That was Saul’s price – a defeated king to gloat over and expanded wealth through owning animals, one of the major contemporary wealth indicators. Saul thought he could rationalize away God’s clear instructions. But notice how the Lord responds:

Then the word of the Lord came to Samuel: “I am grieved that I have made Saul king, because he has turned away from me and has not carried out my instructions.” Samuel was troubled, and he cried out to the Lord all that night.

Early in the morning Samuel got up and went to meet Saul, but he was told, “Saul has gone to Carmel. There he has set up a monument in his own honor.”

1 Samuel 15:10-12

Many of the great characters in the Bible struggled with major character flaws. Moses wrestled with his anger, Solomon with narcissism, Samson with his lack of self-control. For King Saul, it was insecurity. He was more concerned about gaining honor and prestige in the eyes of men than in pleasing God. It is this insecurity that causes Saul to rationalize his rebellion:

When Samuel reached him, Saul said, “The Lord bless you! I have carried out the Lord’s instructions.”

But Samuel said, “What then is this bleating of sheep in my ears? What is this lowing of cattle that I hear?”

Saul answered, “The soldiers brought them from the Amalekites; they spared the best of the sheep and cattle to sacrifice to the Lord your God, but we totally destroyed the rest.”

1 Samuel 15:13-15

Saul is layering lie upon lie upon lie. He said he had carried out the Lord’s instructions. But he hadn’t. Saul said it was the soldiers who had done the wrong thing. Maybe, but they were doing so with Saul’s permission. It was his fault, not their sin. And then he has the gall to say, “We’re saving these animals to sacrifice them. They’re an offering to God, Samuel!” The animals weren’t taken as offerings to God; they were taken to expand the king’s wealth.

Finally, he makes this telling comment, “Samuel, we’re going to give them to the Lord your God.” From his heart, Saul speaks, and from his heart, he cannot speak of “the Lord my God.” Saul’s disobedience has led to lying; a lifetime of rebellion has killed Saul’s relationship with a loving God.

It’s always fascinating to hear people rationalize their disobedience. Perhaps the worst example is Moses’ brother Aaron. Moses went up the mountain to get the law, and the people grew impatient. They became rebellious and wanted some idols so that they could worship:

When the people saw that Moses was so long in coming down from the mountain, they gathered around Aaron and said, “Come, make us gods who will go before us. As for this fellow Moses who brought us up out of Egypt, we don’t know what has happened to him.”

Aaron answered them, “Take off the gold earrings that your wives, your sons and your daughters are wearing, and bring them to me.” So all the people took off their earrings and brought them to Aaron. He took what they handed him and made it into an idol cast in the shape of a calf, fashioning it with a tool. Then they said, “These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of Egypt.”

Exodus 32:1-4

When Moses came down from the mountain and saw what was going on, he asked his brother, “How did this happen? Where did this thing come from?”

Aaron answered, “You know how prone these people are to evil. They said to me, ‘Make us gods who will go before us. As for this fellow Moses who brought us up out of Egypt, we don’t know what has happened to him.’ So I told them, ‘Whoever has any gold jewelry, take it off.’ Then they gave me the gold, and I threw it into the fire, and out came this calf!”

Exodus 32:22-24

It’s unbelievable the lengths to which people will go to rationalize their rebellion. “I just threw the gold in the fire, and out came this calf! What could I have done?” The idea is so preposterous. We want to grab Aaron by the collar and shake him, “Do you really expect Moses to buy that? How stupid do you think God is?” But before we get too puffed up with righteous indignation, perhaps we should examine some of our own rationalizations. Our excuses probably sound just as lame when they are spoken out loud. “But God wants me to be happy.” “She just wasn’t meeting my needs.” “The Lord helps those who help themselves, doesn’t he?” Try saying those at the foot of the cross and you’ll hear how absurd they sound.

The Bible never says God wants you to be happy; he wants you to be holy. He wants you to be like Christ. That may lead to happiness ultimately, but it doesn’t work the other way around. The quest for happiness will never lead to a life of holiness, but the quest for holiness leads to a life characterized by love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. These come as a byproduct of pursuing God above all else.

Saul tries to justify his sinful behavior by blaming the soldiers, but Samuel stops him short:

“Stop!” Samuel said to Saul. “Let me tell you what the Lord said to me last night.”

“Tell me,” Saul replied.

Samuel said, “Although you were once small in your own eyes, did you not become the head of the tribes of Israel? The Lord anointed you king over Israel. And he sent you on a mission, saying, ‘Go and completely destroy those wicked people, the Amalekites; make war on them until you have wiped them out.’ Why did you not obey the Lord? Why did you pounce on the plunder and do evil in the eyes of the Lord?”

“But I did obey the Lord,” Saul said. “I went on the mission the Lord assigned me. I completely destroyed the Amalekites and brought back Agag their king. The soldiers took sheep and cattle from the plunder, the best of what was devoted to God, in order to sacrifice them to the Lord your God at Gilgal.”

1 Samuel 15:16-21

Saul has, in his own mind, redefined the command God gave. He’s changed it to fit with what he actually did. Saul says, “I did obey God. I did everything he told me to do. I went there. I destroyed everyone. I brought back the king. Isn’t that what God told me to do?” When we rationalize, we can end up believing our own lies. Here is Samuel’s response to Saul’s lame excuse:

“Does the Lord delight in burnt offerings and sacrifices as much as in obeying the voice of the Lord? To obey is better than sacrifice, and to heed is better than the fat of rams. For rebellion is like the sin of divination, and arrogance is like the evil of idolatry. Because you have rejected the word of the Lord, he has rejected you as king.”

1 Samuel 15:22-23

As important as it is to perform the ritual correctly, Samuel says, it would be better to not do it at all than do it with a rebellious heart. It is not externalism that pleases God; it’s the internal attitude and inclination of the heart. It is possible to perform religious activities and still be in rebellion against God. This is why religion has always been appealing to people. We can hide the true nature of our hearts behind religious activities. But if Christianity is a relationship, the old rules no longer apply. God doesn’t want what is ours; he wants us. Why? Because when God has us, he also has what is ours.

So what is your price? What would it take for you to disobey God? Hopefully, your commitment is nonnegotiable. Such commitment is a crucial element in the character of a leader. If you ever find your commitment waning, reread the tragic story of Saul’s disobedience to God and think through the tragic consequences of his failure.

The Purpose of God’s Commands

A brief overview of Israel’s history shows that the fundamental problem of God’s covenant people was their repeated failure to obey God’s commands. God always blessed their obedience, but their habitual disobedience was the cause of their misery and their eventual downfall. Clearly, there is a basic principle here that applies to our own lives as well. In Deuteronomy 10:12-13, we find God’s loving requirements for his people:

And now, O Israel, what does the Lord your God ask of you but to fear the Lord your God, to walk in all his ways, to love him, to serve the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul, and to observe the Lord’s commands and decrees that I am giving you today for your own good?

God’s requirements in this passage relate to trust and the obedience that flows out of trust. Since our natural disposition is to trust in the visible rather than in what we can’t see, we will engage in a spiritual conflict as long as we walk on this earth.

This conflict between the call to obedience and the lure of disobedience is well illustrated in the lives of the kings of Judah. Of the 42 kings of Israel, there were only nine of whom it was said that they did what was right in God’s sight, and even they struggled with the issue of obedience. Six of the nine slipped into disobedience in the latter part of their lives. Whenever this slippage occurred, it happened because the kings decided to trust in something or someone other than the Lord.

In one sense, God’s requirements of us are quite simple: fear him, walk in his ways, love him, serve him, obey his commands. All these things are facets of one thing: a growing personal relationship with the God who has already demonstrated his unflinching commitment to our best interests. Note well the stated purpose behind the commands in this passage: they are “for your own good.”

God doesn’t just give us a bunch of commands because he’s interested in restricting our freedoms. He gives us his commands for our own good. In the book Experiencing God, the authors use the following illustration:

Suppose you had to cross a field that was full of land mines. A person who knew exactly where every one of them was buried offered to take you through it. Would you say to him, “I don’t want you to tell me what to do. I don’t want you to impose your ways on me”? I don’t know about you, but I would stay as close to that person as I could. I certainly would not go wandering off. His directions to me would preserve my life. He would say, “Don’t go that way, because that way will kill you. Go this way and you will live.”1

The more we realize in our thinking and experience that God always seeks our good, the more we will be willing to trust and obey him in what he asks us to do and to avoid. Trust and obedience are intricately bound together.

Eugene Peterson, in his book A Long Obedience in the Same Direction, tells about working on his lawnmower in his front yard one day. He wasn’t a very mechanically inclined person, but he was trying to get the blade off because it needed a new blade. It was all chewed up, dented and banged. He got the biggest wrench he could find and started working on the one nut that was holding the blade on. He worked and strained, but it wouldn’t budge. He got a four-foot pipe and stuck it on the end of the wrench to try to gain more leverage, but it would not budge. When that didn’t work, he actually picked up a rock and started banging on it. He was beginning to get emotionally involved in the process when a neighbor came over and said, “I used to have a mower like that; and seems to me I remember that the nut on that thing turns the opposite direction.”

So he got his wrench and his pipe extender and in a few minutes he had it off – because somebody came along and said, “You’re going the wrong way. That’s not the right direction to go.”2 Sometimes it’s hard to be told we’re going the wrong way. But when we disobey God, that is precisely what we’re doing. We’re like Eugene Peterson banging, pushing, straining to get the nut off the wrong way. God doesn’t come along to make fun of us or shame us; he comes alongside to say, “It’s not designed to turn that way.” He knows how we are designed. He is, after all, the architect of life. If anyone knows how things are supposed to work, it’s him.

Sometimes people say that they wish there was some sort of instruction manual for life. Well, there is. It’s called “The Bible.” Imagine if someone read the owner’s manual on their car and objected to the fact that it says, “Never put anything other than unleaded fuel in the car’s gas tank.” How strange it would seem to us if the person said, “Unleaded fuel only? They’re so narrow-minded and restrictive. Water is so much cheaper, and I can get it right out of my garden hose. These automobile manufacturers just want more money from me. I bet they’re in league with the oil companies!” We know that the reason the manual says “unleaded fuel only” is because that’s how the car was designed. To put water in the gas tank would damage the car. Likewise, to live outside of God’s will is detrimental to our well-being. It’s opposed to the way we were designed.

Obedient and Loving It

Even when God’s revealed will runs counter to our culture and counter to our intuition, it is not only the right way to live, it is the best way to live, the only sane way to live. We may run the risk of being considered out of step with society, but in the long run, obedience pays huge dividends. According to Scripture, a fundamental factor of the quality of this life and of the next is our response to God’s initiatives and claims on the choices we make. Response is unavoidable; we may ignore, resist or reject God’s initiatives and requirements, or we may respond in positive obedience. But as we respond in obedience to God’s loving commands, his word assures us: “This is love for God: to obey his commands. And his commands are not burdensome” (1 John 5:3).

Despite appearances to the contrary, God’s commands are not burdensome. The word the apostle John uses for “burdensome” literally means “heavy.” This is not to imply that the commandments of God are easy to keep. Rather, it means that they do not impose an encumbrance when they are kept. Childbirth is a difficult and weighty process for any woman to go through, but it is not viewed as a burden. Most women rejoice when they are pregnant because, while it is difficult, pregnancy is primarily thought of as a blessing. So it is with the commandments of God. Far from being hardships, they are consistently beneficial, because obedience to God’s will inevitably leads to divine blessing. In fact, it can be stated categorically that in the long run, disobedience to God always produces more pain than obedience to God. This is ironic, since the reason we usually disobey God is because we think that obedience will be more painful to us than following our own desires.

If God really is loving, the things he asks us to do are best for us. If God is sovereign, he alone can order our circumstances to bring about what is best for us. Thus, obedience is not burdensome if we are committed to the truths of God’s goodness and sovereign purposes.

Jesus told his disciples that obedience to him was the clearest demonstration of their love for him:

If you love me, you will obey what I command…. If anyone loves me, he will obey my teaching. My Father will love him, and we will come to him and make our home with him. He who does not love me will not obey my teaching.

John 14:15, 23-24

Obedience flows out of love for God and leads to greater intimacy with him. Think about this for a minute. Have you ever regretted an act of obedience to God? Have you ever regretted an act of disobedience?

Disobedience to God will lead to a life of regret. So, why in the world do we wait? We often have this silly notion that somehow we’ll wake up a very religious and spiritual person when we are a little older. But the reality is that as we get older we become more of the person we are now. The habits of today shape the person we will become. Habitual disobedience will make us more foolish and set in our ways and rebellious. And there is a scary “point of no return” that we can reach. Ann Spangler and Robert Wolgemuth pose an interesting question: “Think about the condition of your heart. Would you want God to harden it right now, that is, to set the attitude of your heart in stone for the rest of your life?”3 Could it be that a person gets to the point where he’s hardened his heart so much that God starts hardening it for him? Certainly that happened to the Egyptian Pharaoh in Exodus.

The more we know about God, the more we can trust him. The more we trust him, the more we love him. The more we love him, the more we will obey him. The more we obey him, the more we will learn about the trustworthiness of God. It becomes a cycle, an upward spiral, as opposed to the downward spiral of compromise and disobedience. We are either spiraling up or down, drawing nearer or moving away from God.

So I must ask myself, “To what degree are the choices I make based on right thinking (a biblical worldview), on wrong thinking (a temporal view of the world) or on emotions (the subjective tensions in my life)? Those are the three options. I can make decisions based upon right thinking, wrong thinking or emotions. Only the first option will result in good choices.

We have said that God doesn’t want what is ours as much as he wants us. He knows that if we are surrendered to him, then everything we have is surrendered to him as well. Conversely, we might ask ourselves the question: “Do we really want God, or do we merely want his blessings?” If we seek God only for the good things he can give to us, we will miss out on the relationship he invites us into. However, if we seek his face, we will have access to whatever is in his hand.

The High Cost of Obedience

If we are only concerned with obeying God as long as he blesses, what will we do when obedience to God is costly? If we do not see immediate blessing from obedience to God, why bother? All of us had better have an answer to that question before we find ourselves in the vise of a tough decision. Three young men in the Bible put their lives on the line rather than disobey God. We see why in Daniel 3:16-18:

Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego replied to the king, “O Nebuchadnezzar, we do not need to defend ourselves before you in this matter. If we are thrown into the blazing furnace, the God we serve is able to save us from it, and he will rescue us from your hand, O king. But even if he does not, we want you to know, O king, that we will not serve your gods or worship the image of gold you have set up.”

If they had stopped with the first part (“He will rescue us from your hand”), what would have been the problem with that? Well, it demonstrates a lot of faith, but is that a biblical promise? Many times we pin our hopes to things God never promised. There will be times when we don’t know what the outcome will be. In Hebrews 11 we see several people of faith who were rescued from tremendous persecution. We also see others who were not delivered.

Most of what God requires is so obvious and beneficial to his followers that we do it without even thinking about it. It makes good sense to comply with God when he says, “Do not lie.” What kind of society would we have if everyone broke that command? It would be foolish to violate God’s will on truthfulness. But there are other commands that are not so obvious. It will require discipline, commitment and accountability to love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us. Periodically a leader may find himself or herself backed into a corner. That’s when it’s crunch time: “Obey God and lose the deal,” “Obey God and kill the chance for a promotion.” For Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego it was, “Obey God and lose your life.”

For these three young men – and for all of us – obedience at that level requires a clear conviction, a thought out resolution. At that level, obedience is never based on what’s at stake, what’s to be gained or lost. It is only based on what’s real. To these three men the furnace was real. The threat on their life was real. The choice they faced was real. But, more importantly, so was the Sovereign God.

For Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego, this issue was highly focused. Although two conflicting orders were given, the issue wasn’t so much, “What was the order?” but “Who gave it?” For these three, the order of a king who could take their lives would never take precedence over the will of Almighty God. Their story of courage has inspired untold numbers of believers who have faced the fire – both literally and figuratively – over the centuries. Let their courage work its way into your life as well.

The Gethsemane Mindset

No one said this would be easy. There will be times when obedience to God means saying no to our personal desires. Jesus modeled such obedience in the Garden of Gethsemane.

Going a little farther, he fell with his face to the ground and prayed, “My Father, if it is possible, may this cup be taken from me. Yet not as I will, but as you will.”

Matthew 26:39

This is the ultimate statement of obedience. What Jesus wanted at this moment was not in line with what his Father wanted. Following the Father’s will led Jesus to an agonizing death and unimaginable separation from God. Jesus was fully aware of that, yet he still professed his conviction that God’s will was best. This is precisely the opposite of Adam. Adam was in a garden of his own, but he determined “My will, not yours.” In so doing, his garden became a desert. Here, the second Adam is in a garden at his moment of temptation, and he turned that garden into the entry to paradise, because of the choice he made to trust God.

Although no human will ever know the depth of suffering that Jesus faced in that quiet garden, his statement in this moment of decision should be every leader’s response to the Almighty God. Author Vernon Grounds helps us appreciate the mindset that enabled Jesus to obey his Father even when it meant going to the cross, when he calls this attitude of obedience “the Gethsemane mindset.”4

The Gethsemane mindset is the attitude of trustful self-surrender demonstrated by Jesus as he prayed to his Father, “Not as I will, but as you will.” It is the renunciation of our own human feelings, desires, hopes, dreams and ambitions so that God’s purposes may be accomplished. We develop this mindset as we follow Jesus’ example. We set our minds on doing the will of God, obeying him even though obedience involves denying self and surrendering anything that would interfere with the fulfillment of the divine purpose. We do this in the confidence that, as we follow our Lord’s example, we are going to experience, beyond loss and loneliness and pain, the joy and blessing and glory which mean unimaginable self-fulfillment.

Jesus Christ ultimately fulfilled his glorious purpose only through obedience to his Father. The ultimate test of any leader is his willingness to obey the same Father to whom Jesus entrusted himself.

Incidentally, in the Gospels there is never a command to self-denial without a promise of greater gain. God knows that we desire profit; he made us that way. His concern, then, is that what we pursue is worthy of our pursuit, that we not sell ourselves cheaply.

The Game of Life

God invented the game of life. He constructed the cosmos and breathed life into the laws of physics. He designed the human psyche, so he knows how we’re wired. Because he loves us so much, he gives us a rule book and begs us, “Please, don’t try to change the rules. It will only result in your inability to make things work. It will lead to frustration and confusion.”

Sometimes parents will let their children change the rules of a game or make them up as they go along. But when the child grows up and finds that things don’t work that way, that rules cannot be altered or abandoned, the child can become embittered towards the parents who left him or her ill-equipped for life. Life has its rules, and God set them up. There is a glorious purpose to which we have been called. But this glorious purpose can only be achieved through a steadfast willingness to trust God enough to follow his rules, in spite of appearances to the contrary.

Joseph Stowell reminds us of the importance of “followership” when he writes:

I don’t know whether kids still play Follow the Leader, but I can remember spending some of my wasted youth in the pursuit. Interestingly, I always wanted to be the leader. In fact, so did just about everyone else. The reason? The leader was always right, never caught off guard, and never embarrassed by having to imitate others. It is like playing Simon Sez: The leader always looks good, and the followers are the ones who stumble and can’t quite keep up.5

Unfortunately, getting older doesn’t necessarily change our understanding of the difference between being a leader and a follower. As we get older, the stakes only get higher. But life is not a child’s game, where the worst thing that can happen is looking silly or being made fun of. Eternity hangs in the balance. The outcome of our lives rises and falls based on whether we choose to determine our own destiny or follow someone far wiser and better equipped to lead. When it comes to the things that matter most in life, we have a tendency to resist yielding. We’re concerned that someone might think we’re unable to figure out by ourselves that the nut screws the other way. We’re afraid that someone might think we’re unwise or weak.

But it is precisely in our weakness that God is strongest. And it is in our obedience to him that we are made strong.


1 Henry T. Blackaby & Claude V. King, Experiencing God. Nashville, TN: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 1994, 13.

2 Adapted from Eugene H. Peterson, A Long Obedience in the Same Direction. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2000, 38.

3 Ann Spangler and Robert Wolgemuth, Men of the Bible, Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2002, 93.

4 Vernon Grounds, Radical Commitment. Portland, OR: Multnomah, 1984, 42.

5 Joseph M. Stowell, Following Christ. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1996, 14-15.


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Priorities

He was Europe’s 350-pound wrestling champ a little over two generations ago. His name was Yussif, but people called him the Terrible Turk because of his massive size and awesome strength. After he won the championship in Europe, he sailed to the United States to contend with our champion – Strangler Lewis – a much smaller man who weighed just over 200 pounds.

Strangler Lewis had a simple plan for defeating his opponents. He’d put his arm around the neck of his competitor and cut off the oxygen at the Adam’s apple. Many an opponent had passed out in the ring with Strangler’s tactics. The problem Lewis discovered when it came time to fight the Terrible Turk was that the European giant didn’t have a neck! He just went straight from his head down to those massive shoulders. In the ring, Strangler Lewis couldn’t even get a hold, so it wasn’t long before Yussif flipped Lewis over on the mat and pinned him.

After winning the championship, the Terrible Turk demanded that every bit of his $5,000 prize money be given to him in gold. After he wrapped the championship belt around his vast, equator-like middle, he stuffed the gold into the belt and boarded the next ship back to Europe. He had not only captured America’s glory, but he possessed her gold as well. He had won it all – except immortality!

Yussif set sail on the SS Bourgogne. Halfway across the Atlantic, a storm struck and the ship began to sink. The Terrible Turk went boldly over the side with his gold still strapped around his body. The added weight was too much, even for the heavyweight champion, and he sank like an anvil before crew members could get him into a lifeboat. He was never seen again.

We hear stories like this – a true story – and think, “How on earth could anyone be so foolish?” But, the truth of the matter is, we all tend to grasp the things of this world and hold onto them even while we’re sinking. The story of Yussif the Terrible Turk shows us the tragic consequences that can overwhelm us when we lose our perspective and our priorities.

God calls out to us, “Let go of the things of this world and you will float, you will rise, you will live.” But if we fail to recognize that this world is not our ultimate destination, then we will never be able to risk letting go of the things this world prizes. We will never be able to handle the pressures of this life. Without a clarity of purpose and a proper sense of priorities, our lives will be shaped by the pressures around us rather than by a divine call.

The Richest Fool in the World

Jesus wanted his followers to understand this, so he did what he usually did when he really wanted us to understand something: he told a story. The story is found in Luke 12 about a rich man whose priorities were completely mistaken:

And [Jesus] told them this parable: “The ground of a certain rich man produced a good crop. He thought to himself, ‘What shall I do? I have no place to store my crops.’

“Then he said, ‘This is what I’ll do. I will tear down my barns and build bigger ones, and there I will store all my grain and my goods. And I’ll say to myself, “You have plenty of good things laid up for many years. Take life easy; eat, drink and be merry.”’

“But God said to him, ‘You fool! This very night your life will be demanded from you. Then who will get what you have prepared for yourself?’

“This is how it will be with anyone who stores up things for himself but is not rich toward God.”

Luke 12:16-21

Every leader lives under the influence of the Law of Limited Resources. Time, in particular, is one of those precious commodities. The time invested in any project is taken away from some other place in life. The energy invested in one job won’t be there for another one. Particularly as we get older, we realize how precious these commodities are. We discover that our energy is not what it once was, and the time it takes to complete things often grows longer as the days grow shorter. No leader will ever lack for things to occupy his or her time and energy. Because that’s the case, every leader must answer an important question: “Where should I invest my time and energy?” Or to put it differently, “What should be my priorities?” The real issue, as we will see, has to do with the degree to which we have aligned our will with God’s will.

In telling this story Jesus not only warned against the danger of greed, but also pointed out the futility of priorities that are not in line with God’s will. The man in the parable had clear priorities. First, he wanted to accumulate wealth. Second, he wanted to use his wealth to secure his own future. Now, any retirement investment consultant will tell you that saving for the future is a good – even necessary – pursuit. But the rich fool, as he is called in this parable, started with the wrong motives and unfortunately failed to achieve either priority. He died before he could either expand his business or enjoy retirement. Jesus applied this parable to anyone whose priorities reveal a heart absorbed with self instead of God.

Many of us presume that there will be time to take stock of eternal things later in life. But there are two fatal flaws in this thinking. First, how do we know there will be a “later” in life? The man in Jesus’ story had no idea how close his death was. He had no idea that his life would be demanded of him that very night. The reason God calls him a fool is not because God is into abusive language. God chooses his words carefully; he does not call the man evil or wicked, necessarily. He calls the man a fool, because, in all the man’s planning, everything is accounted for except the one inevitability that faces every human being: death. The man failed to consider that at some point, he might actually die. He neglected to plan for the most obvious and predictable event in human existence: We’re all going to die, and we don’t know when.

The second flaw in this thinking is that when the time comes and we want to turn to the eternal, we may not actually be able to do so after having cultivated a habit of avoidance. It’s a naïve assumption that a pattern of steadily avoiding God’s claims will suddenly be overturned just before it’s too late. Our character is shaped by the decisions we make. The longer we allow the habits of our youth to remain unchanged, the harder they are to change.

Ultimately, our purpose for living should be to bring recognition (honor and glory) to God rather than to bring pleasure to ourselves (see 1 Corinthians 10:31). With that purpose in mind we can set our priorities by discovering what will bring the greatest recognition to God. If we do that, unlike the fool in the parable, we’ll be rich in God’s eyes.

The promise of God is, “You will seek me and find me when you seek me with all your heart” (Jeremiah 29:13). A half-hearted search for God will yield a harvest of bitterness, disappointment and despair. You will not find God with a divided heart. The search for God requires a singleness of purpose.

Summum Bonum

As important as success, security and significance are, there is something far more meaningful than these. Philosophers and theologians call it the summum bonum, the “supreme good,” and they tell us that to miss this is to miss everything. In Revelation 1:8 we find the biblical vision of the summum bonum. The apostle John writes, “‘I am the Alpha and the Omega,’ says the Lord God, “who is, and who was, and who is to come, the Almighty.”

Just as the Lord God calls himself “the Alpha and the Omega, who is and who was and who is to come, the Almighty,” so Jesus, at the end of the Revelation, says of himself, “I am the Alpha and the Omega, the First and the Last, the Beginning and the End” (22:13). Nothing and no one preceded the Lord, and nothing will follow him. He is the supreme Author of matter and energy, of space and time. The infinite and personal I AM is the ultimate reality, and everything else is derived from him.

If the utmost reality is a timeless, unchanging Person, then the summum bonum, the supreme good of humanity, is to know and be known by this Person. The wisest thing we can do is to seek him with whole hearts. He wants to be found, but he also wishes to be sought. He says through the prophet Jeremiah, “You will seek me and find me when you seek me with all your heart” (Jeremiah 29:13).

Scripture reveals that the Son of God has made it possible for us to enter into a genuine relationship with the Father. “All things have been committed to me by my Father. No one knows the Son except the Father, and no one knows the Father except the Son and those to whom the Son chooses to reveal him” (Matthew 11:27).

This is why it is possible for someone to attain the wildest fantasies of humanity and still lose everything in the end. Howard Hughes was the wealthiest man of his day. He had success, money and the power that comes with it. Yet he died a shriveled husk of a man, insane by all reasonable accounts. Marilyn Monroe was the most adored woman of her time. Every woman envied her. Every man wanted her. She had beauty, fame and the adoration of millions, but she died alone at her own hand. How many more names must we list? Ernest Hemingway, Vincent van Gogh, Janis Joplin, Kurt Cobain, Lenny Bruce, Virginia Woolf, John Belushi – these men and women were not considered modest successes. They were hugely celebrated artists, having achieved what this world would consider the pinnacle of achievement. And yet can you imagine a more miserable company? The penetrating insight of Jesus rings throughout the centuries to our own generation: “What good will it be for a man if he gains the whole world, yet forfeits his soul” (Matthew 16:26).

There is a simple two-word question people who cling tightly to the things of this world tend to avoid asking: “Then what?” That’s the question the rich fool in Jesus’ story never asks. When the barn is finally full, when the finances are secured, then what? After the ultimate promotion, the ultimate purchase, the ultimate home, after the ladder of success has been scaled to the highest rung, after the thrill wears off – and it will wear off – then what?

There is a great danger in our society of avoiding or denying ultimate reality. So, I should frequently ask myself, “If tonight was my night, if this was the day my life was going to be demanded of me, what words would I want God to use to summarize my life?” I don’t want them to be “You fool!” I don’t want to get to that point and realize that I’ve wasted my life on stuff that doesn’t matter – cheap baubles and cut glass. The soul does not long for something that’s material. The soul longs for more than that, that for which it was created.

Solomon tells us in Ecclesiastes 3:11 that God “has also set eternity in the hearts of men.” Mark Buchanan says,

Our deepest instinct is heaven. Heaven is the ache in our bones, the splinter in our heart. Like the whisper of faraway waves we hear crashing in the whorls of a conch shell, the music of heaven echoes, faint, elusive, haunting, beneath and within our daily routines….

The instinct for heaven is just that: homesickness, ancient as night, urgent as daybreak. All your longings – for the place you grew up, for the taste of raspberry tarts that your mother once pulled hot from the oven, for that bend in the river where your father took you fishing as a child, where the water was dark and swirling and the caddis flies hovered in the deep shade – all these longings are a homesickness, a wanting in full what all these things only hint at, only prick you with. These are the things seen that conjure in our emotions the Things Unseen.1

Even the atheist has this longing. When people pursue the things of this earth exclusively, they end up with bitterness at the end of their journey. Life seems empty because they long for more than this life can provide. They long for the one who made them, whether they acknowledge it or not.

The Good vs. The Best

There is nothing wrong with wanting raspberry tarts or saving for retirement. However, these can never become the summum bonum of life. When they do, the good becomes the enemy of the best. Effective leaders have the ability to discern not only the difference between the good and the bad, but also the difference between the good and the best. Since we cannot do everything well, we must carefully choose a few things on which we will concentrate. In 1 John 2:15-17 we find the competing claims of the world and of the Father.

Do not love the world or anything in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him. For everything in the world – the cravings of sinful man, the lust of his eyes and the boasting of what he has and does – comes not from the Father but from the world. The world and its desires pass away, but the man who does the will of God lives forever.

Often we claim to have certain priorities, but our practice reveals something is out of alignment. Our practices reveal what our true priorities are. And the determining factor is our perspective. Our perspective should determine our priorities, and our priorities should determine our practice. Do we have an eternal perspective? Or have we settled for an earthly, temporal perspective?

A biblical perspective informs us that anything which keeps us away from the love of the Father is idolatrous, no matter how “good” is appears to be. In one sense, it is not strictly correct to say that a Christian’s priorities should be God first, family second and career and ministry third. If Christ is our life (Colossians 3:3-4), he is our all, and he brooks no competition or even comparative ranking. A Christ-centered life means that everything else must be seen in relation to his lordship:

Since, then, you have been raised with Christ, set your hearts on things above, where Christ is seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things above, not on earthly things. For you died, and your life is now hidden with Christ in God.

Colossians 3:1-3

This talk of setting our minds on things above sounds impractical in our day-to-day world. Many of us have even been warned by well-intentioned people that if we become too heavenly minded, we are of no earthly good. How is it possible to set our minds on things above rather than earthly things? More to the point, is it possible to do so without becoming a hermit and living in isolation? Thomas Kelly’s insight is helpful:

There is a way of ordering our mental life on more than one level at once. On one level we may be thinking, discussing, seeing, calculating, meeting all the demands of external affairs. But deep within, behind the scenes, at a profounder level, we may also be in prayer and adoration, song and worship and a gentle receptiveness to divine breathings.2

In other words, God has created us with the ability to be aware of two levels at one time, but many of us are content to think only on one plane at a time. We suffer from a lack of attentiveness – a spiritual attention deficit disorder.

In George Bernard Shaw’s play St. Joan, one of the characters asks Joan of Arc why God doesn’t speak to him the way she claims God speaks to her. She replies, “The voice speaks to you all the time. You just fail to listen.” This kind of listening requires us to acknowledge the fact that Immanuel, “God with Us,” is, in fact, with us at all times and in all circumstances. Merely acknowledging his continual, abiding presence is a huge step toward setting our minds on things above and allowing those things to order our steps, our words and our thoughts. So this ordering of our minds on more than one level at once, is a skill that can be learned.

Like Martha (Luke 10:38-42), it is easy for us to become distracted by the anxieties and concerns of the world and to miss out on the one thing that is most needful. “‘Martha, Martha,’ the Lord answered, ‘you are worried and upset about many things, but only one thing is needed. Mary has chosen what is better, and it will not be taken away from her’” (vv. 41-42). The worries of this life, the deceitfulness of wealth and the desire for other things have a way of choking the Word in us and making it unfruitful (Mark 4:19).

Any time we allow our hearts to be divided, we will be choked. We will miss out on the best, and we will be worried and upset about many things. James tells us that “a double-minded man,” a man whose trust is divided between God and the world, is “unstable in all he does” (James 1:8). Unless we are diligent and watchful, we will miss out on the best in our quest for the good.

“This One Thing I Do”

Life gets confusing and conflicted. We have to decide what matters most, or we become victims of the loudest or latest demands. Paul, whose focused life made him, literally, a world-changer, discovered the key to a prioritized life and shared that key in Philippians 3:10-14. For the godly leader, this is the finish line of the rat race:

I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the fellowship of sharing in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, and so, somehow, to attain to the resurrection from the dead.

Not that I have already obtained all this, or have already been made perfect, but I press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me. Brothers, I do not consider myself to have taken hold of it. But one thing I do: Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus.

Paul is a man who had much of what this world would say is honorable and good to have. He accomplished an amazing amount in the approximately 20 years he functioned as a leader in the early church. The communities of faith he planted and the letters he wrote have helped shape Western culture. Part of Paul’s ability to accomplish so much is defined in this phrase: “But one thing I do….”

The book of Acts and Paul’s epistles reveal that he lived a real life in real circumstances with real options to choose from. He, like everyone else, had to decide what to do and what not to do. He obviously made wise choices. He pursued matters that mattered. When options conflicted he had the ability to choose well. But priorities have to begin with a “This one thing I do.” Without a defining, central Priority, there can be no sensible priorities in leading or in life.

Life is too complex to live it by lists of priorities. Paul knew what one thing gave definition to his life, and all his priorities grew out of that central focus. Priorities help us say “yes” and “no” to things that matter and don’t matter. Far more, having a consuming priority redefines how we say yes and how we live to make that “yes” a reality. Our lives are to be given over completely to something bigger than ourselves. As George Bernard Shaw said:

This is the true joy in life, the being used for a purpose recognized by yourself as a mighty one; the being thoroughly worn out before you are thrown on the scrap heap; the being a force of nature instead of a feverish selfish little clod of ailments and grievances complaining that the world will not devote itself to making you happy.3

God has a purpose, a calling, a destiny for each of us. Our work is to strain for it, to stretch for it and pour out our lives in pursuit of that one great and glorious thing for which Christ Jesus has taken hold of us. In doing this, we will not find ourselves missing out on anything other than trivial pursuits. God’s desire for us is better than anything we would choose on our own. We lack the vision, imagination and creativity to see what he has in store for us (2 Corinthians 2:9).

Often, in our rush to pursue our own desires, we become like a dog whose leash is wrapped around a telephone pole. We pull harder and harder to free ourselves only to get more and more tangled and choked in the process. The master, in order to free us, must move us in precisely the opposite direction around the pole. Rather than viewing the master as liberator, we mistakenly think he is hindering us in our pursuit of joy and fulfillment. But if we will patiently trust the master enough to obey his calling, we will find that his is the only path to real freedom.

God’s call is mysterious. We don’t know where he’s taking us. We don’t know how long the journey will be; it may take a week, a year, a decade, a lifetime. We don’t know. The one thing we can know is that his ways are infinitely better than ours. The wise thing, then, is to allow him to guide you in this journey, and resign yourself to the fact that God tends to reveal things on a “need-to-know” basis.

Choosing Wisely

So, how can you choose which task you should devote your time to? Peter F. Drucker gives us some practical guidelines aimed at helping us choose priorities. He observes that “there are always more productive tasks for tomorrow than there is time to do them and more opportunities than there are capable people to take care of them – not to mention the always abundant problems and crises.”4 Drucker urges leaders to determine which tasks deserve priority rather than allowing the pressures to make the decision.5

How can leaders make such choices? Drucker provides the following guidelines:

  • Pick the future over the past.
  • Focus on opportunities rather than problems.
  • Choose your own direction – rather than climbing on the bandwagon.
  • Aim high, for something that will make a difference, rather than something that is safe and easy to do.6

Choosing our priorities rather than allowing the pressures to choose them is important in the marketplace. In the spiritual arena, it’s crucial. God had harsh words for the ancient religious, military and financial leaders who boasted about their wisdom, strength and wealth.

As we consider his advice we need to be sure to order our priorities according to the words of Jeremiah 9:23-24:

This is what the Lord says:

“Let not the wise man boast of his wisdom or the strong man boast of his strength or the rich man boast of his riches, but let him who boasts boast about this: that he understands and knows me, that I am the Lord, who exercises kindness, justice and righteousness on earth, for in these I delight,” declares the Lord.

Their arrogant words revealed that their priorities were out of order. Perhaps they had allowed the pressures of their world to dictate their focus. God urged them to evaluate their lives and rearrange their priorities. They should have chosen to focus first on knowing and understanding God and pleasing him. A leader who applies Drucker’s guidelines to his or her spiritual and business life will discover he or she is choosing what’s important rather than allowing the pressures of life to make the choices.

The spiritual life involves risks. God frequently calls us to do things that seem uncomfortable, risky and downright painful. Generally speaking, the people we find in Scripture who were called by God did not feel up to their calling. Whether it was Abraham’s call to leave home, Gideon’s call to lead an army, Esther’s call to approach the king or Mary’s call to give birth to the Messiah, none of them responded, “Sure, I can do that.” The first response to a calling from God is usually fear. Henry Blackaby writes,

Some people say, “God will never ask me to do something I can’t do.” I have come to the place in my life that, if the assignment I sense God is giving me is something that I know I can handle, I know it is probably not from God. The kind of assignments God gives in the Bible are always God-sized. They are always beyond what people can do, because he wants to demonstrate his nature, his strength, his provisions, and his kindness to his people and to a watching world. This is the only way the world will come to know him.7

Think about that: The only way the world will come to know God is if the people he calls actually take him up on the challenge to live the life of faith! God calls us to a grand adventure, a life of trust and risk and fulfillment, a life whose priorities are shaped by God’s divine agenda. But if we allow ourselves to be distracted from pursuing God’s best plans and, instead, chase after myriad “good” things, we will fail to display the nature, strength, provision and kindness of God to the world. And our world will suffer for it.


1 Mark Buchanan, Things Unseen. Portland, OR: Multnomah, 2002, pp. 29-30.

2 Thomas Kelly, A Testament of Devotion. New York: Harper Bros., 1941, 12.

3 George Bernard Shaw, introduction to his play Man and Superman.

4 Excerpt as submitted from The Effective Executive by Peter F. Drucker. Copyright © 1966, 1967 by Peter F. Drucker. Copyright renewed 1994, 1995 by Peter F. Drucker. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc., 632.

5 Ibid., 633.

6 Ibid., 635.

7 Henry Blackaby, Experiencing God. Nashville: Broadman & Holman, 1994, 138.

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Purpose and Passion

“Just turn right after the railroad tracks. You can’t miss it.” Locals have a quaint way of giving directions to lost motorists. They make a lot of assumptions. “Go past the Johnson’s old farm to where the grocery store used to be.” They forget about the fork in the road or the new traffic signal. “You can’t miss it,” they insist. But the problem is that while they may not be able to miss it, we often do. And, after traveling 15 or 20 miles out of our way, we have to turn around, go back to that last intersection and ask for directions again.

Sometimes we move through life thinking we can’t miss it. The next turn will be so obvious. There can’t be any doubt which way to go at the next junction. But how many times have we discovered, to our chagrin, that we’re completely lost and should have taken the other fork 20 miles back?

There’s an old story about a pilot who came over the intercom and said, “Good news, ladies and gentlemen: We’ve got a very strong tailwind and are making excellent time. The bad news is that our navigation equipment has gone down, so we have no idea where we are.” Perhaps this is a fitting analogy for many of us. We’re making great time on a road to nowhere. We’re on the fast track, but we don’t really know where all of this is headed. When we finally get what we’ve wanted all these years, we discover that it wasn’t really what we wanted after all. So, we hop on another treadmill, but it leads to the same disillusionment. How far do we have to travel, before we turn around, go back to that last intersection and ask for directions again?

A well-known poem whose author’s identity has been forgotten says it like this:

Across the fields of yesterday,
He sometimes comes to me
A little lad just back from play –
The boy I used to be.
He looks at me so wistfully
When once he’s crept within
It is as if he hoped to see
The man I might have been.

It is interesting to go back to the days of idealistic youth and recall the things we hoped for, the kind of person we thought we might become. But such nostalgic recollections can be depressing. We wonder where the years have gone and what happened. Could it be that we took the wrong turn somewhere along the line? Is it too late to rectify an error in judgment?

As followers of Jesus, we say that the answer is, “No! It’s never too late.” We always have the opportunity of turning back and getting on the right track. Our source of direction is far greater than the people who say, “You can’t miss it.” There is a source that can tell us what life is really about. Found in the pages of Scripture, particularly the wisdom literature, are directions not just to “live and learn” but to “learn and live.” The promise of skillful living is made to all those who will “listen to advice and accept instruction” (Proverbs 19:20). God has revealed truths about life; the Bible is a guidebook of sorts, a blueprint to living, the foundation of a well-built life and a roadmap through the maze of confusion that our days often resemble. There is purpose and meaning, clarity and fulfillment in this life. But it is only found as we navigate by the wisdom contained in the word of God.

The Secret to Paul’s Productivity

The apostle Paul accomplished an astounding amount in two decades of ministry. What made him tick? What drove him to carry out the work that he did? We find the secret in Philippians 3:7-9:

But whatever was to my profit I now consider loss for the sake of Christ. What is more, I consider everything a loss compared to the surpassing greatness of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things. I consider them rubbish, that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which is through faith in Christ – the righteousness that comes from God and is by faith.

This passage explodes with Paul’s passion for his calling. Effective leaders, like Paul, are those who have figured out what they stand for. They have identified their purpose and pursue it with a passion.

Before his dramatic conversion (Acts 9), Paul followed a different purpose in life. As a Pharisees, Paul had attained the highest levels of status. In this instance he could have boasted about his religious training, heritage and practice. He had been, in every sense, a “Hebrew of Hebrews,” and his credentials would have impressed the most devoted Jew. He was a passionate man, but he was passionate about the wrong things. After his encounter with the risen Lord, Paul considered all he had attained through religious effort to be garbage when compared with the value of knowing Christ. Paul was more than happy to throw away all he had attained in order to know Christ.

Paul preached that in Christ he and all believers possess all the righteousness of God. We can have peace with the one who created us, the one for whom we were made. Because of the infinite worth of knowing Christ, Paul devoted his life to knowing the Savior. That was his purpose and his passion. And that purpose and that passion shaped all he did and influenced all he led.

This is not to say that our purpose eliminates all other concerns. Bills must still be paid; food and shelter do not miraculously fall from the sky. It is even legitimate for us to desire success in business and career aspirations. However, Benjamin Hunnicutt, an authority on the history of work at the University of Iowa, notes that work has become our new religion, where we worship and give our time and energy. As our commitment to family, community and faith shrink, we begin to look to our careers to provide us with meaning, identity and esteem.1 We must be ever watchful to keep our calling (something we do for God) from becoming a career (something which threatens to become god).

Compared with knowing Christ, my activities from 8 to 5 Monday through Friday don’t matter very much. In the end, what will matter is whether or not we know him, regardless of what else is on our resume or in our portfolio. When we stand before God and hear him ask the question, “Why should I let you into heaven?” what will we say? I was a vice president in my company? I did well in the market? I was on the board of the country club? I was active in my church? None of these answers are satisfactory. Only one will suffice: Jesus forgave my sins and gave me his righteousness.

The greatest achievements of this world are fine. There is nothing inherently wrong with them, but in the eternal scheme of things, Paul says, they are rubbish. Compared with the value of knowing Christ, they are trash. Actually the Greek word is skubala. It’s a hard word to translate, and it’s a word that makes a lot of church people uncomfortable. The King James Version renders it “dung,” but even that is a mild form of what Paul is saying. Paul is using bumper-sticker language: Skubala happens!

The Great Purpose of a Great God

Rubbish? Dung? How did the world get like this? It certainly wasn’t God’s purpose in creating the universe. Does Scripture reveal God’s intention when he created humans who bear his image? If so, how can we discover God’s deep passion and participate in it? Before we get too deep into this, let us recognize that even if God did tell us explicitly why he does what he does, we wouldn’t understand.

In the book A Little Book of Coincidence, geometer John Martineau reveals the exquisite orbital patterns of the planets and the mathematical relationships that govern them. Through the movement of the Moon, Venus, Mars and Mercury, it becomes clear that Earth is much more special than simply being the right distance from the Sun. From looking into the heavens we realize that we have no idea just how complex the designer of all this must be. Nothing in the universe is random.

So, it’s no wonder this magnificent designer would tell us, “‘For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways,’ declares the Lord. ‘As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts’” (Isaiah 55:8-9). One other Scripture to keep at the forefront of our thinking is 1 Corinthians 13:12: “Now we see but a poor reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known.”

These passages highlight the huge knowledge gap between what God intends and what we know of God’s intentions. Basically, the difference between God and human beings is greater than that between angels and insects. We simply do not have the capacity to grasp God’s ultimate purposes in creating the cosmos. Scripture does, however, reveal fragments of God’s purposes that relate to our lives in this world. One such fragment is found in Ephesians 3:2-11. Here we gain a perspective on the purpose and passion of the God of creation.

Surely you have heard about the administration of God’s grace that was given to me for you, that is, the mystery made known to me by revelation, as I have already written briefly. In reading this, then, you will be able to understand my insight into the mystery of Christ, which was not made known to men in other generations as it has now been revealed by the Spirit to God’s holy apostles and prophets. This mystery is that through the gospel the Gentiles are heirs together with Israel, members together of one body, and sharers together in the promise in Christ Jesus.

I became a servant of this gospel by the gift of God’s grace given me through the working of his power. Although I am less than the least of all God’s people, this grace was given me: to preach to the Gentiles the unsearchable riches of Christ, and to make plain to everyone the administration of this mystery, which for ages past was kept hidden in God, who created all things. His intent was that now, through the church, the manifold wisdom of God should be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly realms, according to his eternal purpose which he accomplished in Christ Jesus our Lord.

God’s eternal purposes reflect his perfect and eternal wisdom, and he had designed the world in such a way that we are most happy when God is glorified in our lives. For reasons that are incomprehensible to us, God has a passion for intimacy with his people, and we participate in his eternal purposes when we pursue him with an undivided heart.

Sometimes we just read over a statement like that last one and fail to be struck by just how profound and breathtaking it is. God has a passion for intimacy with his people. Singer-songwriter Michael Card put it in fundamental terms when he sang, “Could it be that You would really rather die than live without us?” That’s the length to which God will go in his pursuit of fellowship with us. His desire was more than mere words; it prompted him to enter into human history. The apostle John writes, “This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son to be an atoning sacrifice for our sins” (1 John 4:10). God believes intimate fellowship with us to be worth the death of his own son. Who could possibly comprehend that?

You are beautiful beyond description,
Too marvelous for words
Too wonderful for comprehension,
Like nothing ever seen or heard
Who can grasp your infinite wisdom?
Who can fathom the depth of your love?
You are beautiful beyond description,
Majesty enthroned in love.2

This is the God who wants to know us. This is the God who gave his Son as a ransom for us. The God who created billions and billions of stars, the God who arranged the heavens with the ease of an interior decorator hanging curtains, desires intimacy with us to the point that he would enter our world with all its limitations and allow us to crucify him. If that’s true, life can only be truly meaningful when we find that God glorified in our lives.

The obvious question that begs to be asked is: “If a God could create and sustain a universe as amazingly complex as ours, if that same God could put together a plan to redeem lost and fallen humanity, if that God would go to such great lengths to rescue people who don’t even know they’re in peril, could that God be trusted? Could it be that his purpose for our lives is better than that which we could construct on our own?” The answer is, “Of course!” But before we pat ourselves on the back for having answered correctly, the follow-up question looms large: “So what?” What are the implications of this? How are our lives reflecting this belief?

Practice reveals priorities and beliefs. We can have a cognitive affirmation that God has a better purpose than anything I could come up with, but does it show in our practice? Contrary to public opinion, in releasing ourselves to God’s purposes and giving ourselves wholeheartedly and unreservedly to him, we’re not sacrificing anything other than the illusion of self-sufficiency. We’re embracing something altogether wonderful.

Three Dimensions of God’s Purpose for Us

While Scripture provides us only glimpses of God’s ultimate purposes in creating the cosmos, the Word does reveal God’s universal purpose for believers. In short, this purpose is to know Christ and to make him known. God does not want anyone to perish, but desires that everyone come to repentance and enter into a relationship with him through the new birth in Christ (2 Peter 3:9). Once a person is born again as a child of God, God wants that person to grow in Christ and be “conformed to the likeness of his Son” (Romans 8:29). Thus, God’s purpose for each of us is edification (spiritual growth) and evangelism (spiritual reproduction).

God also has a unique purpose for each of us, and this relates to our distinctive temperaments, abilities, experiences, spiritual gifts, education and spheres of influence. Why do you get out of bed in the morning? What is your life purpose? Few people can articulate a clear purpose statement for their lives. It is ironic that people tend to put more effort into planning a two-week vacation than they do in thinking about the destiny of their earthly journey. In Paul’s second letter to the church at Corinth we find more of an eternal perspective on this temporal journey:

Therefore we do not lose heart. Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day. For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all. So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen. For what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal.

2 Corinthians 4:16-18

This passage provides the context for God’s unique purposes for our lives, and reminds us to develop an eternal perspective so that we will have a passion to give our lives in exchange for the things that God tells us will endure.

Biblically speaking, there are two things on this planet that are going to endure: people and the word of God. If we take God’s eternal word and invest it in eternal people, then we’re leveraging the temporal for eternity. We’re actually sending something ahead of us into eternity. It’s not what we leave behind that’s important; it’s what we send ahead.

Our little piles of goods will fall into someone else’s hands after we’re gone. Someone else will take our possessions and our positions. The world will go on without us, and we will be quickly forgotten. This might be a major cause of depression if it weren’t for the fact that God calls us to place our hope on that which lasts and to invest in that which will endure. It’s not enough for leaders have purpose and passion; they need to be passionate about the right things. Leaders must come to view this world from eternity’s perspective.

With this perspective, we will place more value in people than in possessions. Rather than using people to gain possessions, we will use our possessions to gain people. The marketplace becomes an arena in which we can accomplish things that will last forever. Our associations become areas of influence where we can alter a person’s eternal trajectory. There is no secular part of life. When we view others the way God views them, every place becomes holy ground, a place where God is working in us and through us to accomplish his universal purpose of bringing about the abundant life of Christ in men and women. We become people who minister to others by manifesting eternal values and by loving and serving people with eternal things in mind.

Relationships are the currency of heaven. Being rightly related to God and rightly related to others – this is true righteousness. God, who loved us first, makes it possible for us to love him. Loving him makes it possible for us to love others and dwell in a community of believers, united in our love for Christ and one another.

What is your purpose for being on this planet? If you have not developed a purpose statement for your life, ask God to guide you in the process of creating one that fits with your passion and gifts. A biblical purpose is an unchanging reason for being. Your purpose statement must include something of the transcendent. Don’t settle for a purpose that only includes excellence in the temporal arena. This is something that will animate you whether you’re young or old, single or married, have children or not. This is not something that ends in retirement or changes according to circumstances or season of life. Put this purpose in a transcendent context by adding a spiritual dimension to why you’re doing what you’re doing. Then you can be sure you’re embracing the things that are worth embracing.

God’s Promises Breed Passion

What is it about some leaders? They seem to have that extra “Oohmph!” Their people are unusually productive, grievances from their area are infrequent and quality is high. People from other areas want to be transferred to their departments. What is their secret? Passion! Enthusiasm! These leaders have a clearly defined purpose that transcends merely pushing product out the door.

One man who lived a hard life found this secret, and at the age of 85, was passionate about his purpose-driven life. No retirement community with shuffleboard for him. His story is a must-read. His name was Caleb, and we find his story in Joshua 14:6-14:

Now the men of Judah approached Joshua at Gilgal, and Caleb son of Jephunneh the Kenizzite said to him, “You know what the Lord said to Moses the man of God at Kadesh Barnea about you and me. I was forty years old when Moses the servant of the Lord sent me from Kadesh Barnea to explore the land. And I brought him back a report according to my convictions, but my brothers who went up with me made the hearts of the people melt with fear. I, however, followed the Lord my God wholeheartedly. So on that day Moses swore to me, ‘The land on which your feet have walked will be your inheritance and that of your children forever, because you have followed the Lord my God wholeheartedly.’

“Now then, just as the Lord promised, he has kept me alive for forty-five years since the time he said this to Moses, while Israel moved about in the desert. So here I am today, eighty-five years old! I am still as strong today as the day Moses sent me out; I’m just as vigorous to go out to battle now as I was then. Now give me this hill country that the Lord promised me that day. You yourself heard then that the Anakites were there and their cities were large and fortified, but, the Lord helping me, I will drive them out just as he said.”

Then Joshua blessed Caleb son of Jephunneh and gave him Hebron as his inheritance. So Hebron has belonged to Caleb son of Jephunneh the Kenizzite ever since, because he followed the Lord, the God of Israel, wholeheartedly.

There is the key. Three times his brief biography states that Caleb “Followed the Lord…wholeheartedly” (vv. 8, 9, 14). He embraced God’s promise and followed him with a holy abandon. Now, in his twilight years, at a time when most people might think it’s too late, Caleb is enthusiastic, gutsy and passionate about proving what the Lord could do through one who trusted him completely. In the end, Caleb does lay hold of that for which he was laid hold of!

Passion and clear purpose served Caleb well for his many years. And these two qualities are still an essential part of great leadership. For Caleb, that purpose and its consequent passion were transcendent. They were greater than any product of promotion or profit. He found a life-consuming passion: “I followed the Lord my God wholeheartedly.” No higher purpose and no greater passion exist. This purpose gives maximum meaning to whatever a leader does.

Purpose and Strategy for This Life

We’ve learned that, as godly leaders, our purpose in life needs to be directed toward God and his kingdom. Does that mean we sit idly by and wait for Christ’s return? No. The apostle Paul tells us in 2 Corinthians 5:9 that we need to please God both in this life and the next: “So we make it our goal to please him, whether we are at home in the body or away from it.”

Paul knew that one day the Lord would replace his earthly body with a resurrection body. While Paul didn’t want to be separated from his present body, he longed to be clothed with his new one. Such a longing didn’t lead the apostle to try to escape life or dismiss it as meaningless. On the contrary, that hope spurred him to please Christ.

As followers of Christ our passion for the Savior needs to both drive and define our purpose for living. Brennan Manning, in his book The Lion and the Lamb, writes about two ways of discerning our passion and purpose. First, he advises us to recall what has saddened us recently. He asks,

Was it the realization that you don’t love Jesus enough, that you don’t seek his face in prayer often enough, that you can’t honestly say that the greatest thing that ever happened in your life is that he came to you and you heard his voice? Or have you been saddened and depressed over a lack of human respect, criticism from an authority figure, financial problems, lack of friends or your bulging waistline?3

Then he asks the question,

What has gladdened you recently? Reflection on your election to the Christian community, the joy of praying, “Abba, I belong to you?” The afternoon you stole away with the gospel as your only companion, the filling awareness that God loves you unconditionally, just as you are and not as you should be? A small victory over selfishness? Or, were the sources of your gladness enjoying a new car, a suit, a movie and a pizza, a trip to Paris?4

By asking ourselves these questions we come face-to-face with what makes us tick as individuals. What are the primary motivations in our lives? Then we can begin to take our personal passion and purpose and apply it organizationally.

In his excellent book The Purpose Driven Church, Rick Warren articulates the importance of translating our purpose into practical strategies. Among other things, he suggests the following:

  • Program around your purposes. Design a program to fulfill each of your purposes.
  • Educate your people on purpose. Change doesn’t happen by chance; it occurs as leaders cultivate settings and procedures that facilitate the education of those they serve.
  • Start small groups on purpose. Rather than forcing everyone to conform to a “one size fits all” mentality, he urges people to choose the type of small group that best fits their needs.
  • Add staff on purpose. Rather than just hiring people who possess character and competence, he urges leaders to look for staff with a passion for the purpose of the church. People are self-motivated about an area where they have passion.
  • Structure on purpose. Develop structures or teams that work together to systematically fulfill the purpose of the church.
  • Evaluate on purpose. Consistent effectiveness in an ever-changing world requires continual evaluation. Warren notes that “in a purpose driven church, your purposes are the standard by which you evaluate effectiveness.”5

There is a lot of talk about vision in leadership circles these days and rightly so. However, much of the organizational malaise found in companies, churches and families is not caused by a lack of vision but by a lack of strategy. If we fail to strategize according to an overarching purpose, we will never accomplish the things God wants for us.

The overall purpose of our lives must match up with his agenda. Otherwise, we will live out our lives in frustration and futility. God has structured reality so that when he is honored first and foremost, satisfaction comes as a byproduct. May he grant us the courage and grace to honor him in all our ways.


1 Benjamin Kline Hunnicutt, Work Without End: Abandoning Shorter Hours for the Right to Work. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1988.

2 Mark Altrogge, “I Stand in Awe,” 1987, PDI Praise.

3 Brennan Manning, The Lion and the Lamb. Grand Rapids: Revell, 1986, 43.

4 Ibid.

5 Adapted from Rick Warren, The Purpose Driven Church. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1995, 137-152.

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Self-Discipline

Mischa Elman, one of the greatest violinists of the twentieth century, was walking through the streets of New York City one afternoon when a tourist approached him. “Excuse me, sir,” the stranger began, “could you tell me how to get to Carnegie Hall?” Elman sighed deeply and replied, “Practice, practice, practice.”1

Gary Player, one of the most successful international golfers of all time, lost count of how many times someone said to him, “I’d give anything if I could hit a golf ball like you.” After one particularly grueling day on the links, Player couldn’t resist correcting the person, “No, you wouldn’t. You’d give anything to hit a golf ball like me, if it were easy.” Player then listed the things one would have to do in order to achieve his level of play: “You’ve got to get up at five o’clock in the morning, go out and hit a thousand golf balls, walk up to the club house to put a bandage on your hand where it started bleeding, then go and hit another thousand golf balls. That’s what it takes to hit a golf ball like me.”2

Another professional golfer, Chi Chi Rodriguez, put it this way. He said, “Preparation through steady practice is the only honest avenue to achieving your potential.” Octavia Butler, in an essay for aspiring writers, says, “First forget inspiration. Habit is more dependable. Habit will sustain you, whether you’re inspired or not…. Habit is persistence in practice.”3

Whether in the concert hall, the playing field or the classroom, the steadiness of practice is crucial for realized potential. It is an even more critical issue when it comes to living the spiritual life. We achieve great things by training ourselves. Through proper training, we form proper habits; we can intentionally choose those habits that are desirable for the formation of character. Habits and practice seem obvious, ordinary, pedestrian; there aren’t many books that deal with this positively. But without proper habits, we will never build forward momentum as we strain toward the goal of the high calling of Christ. This momentum is built through a steady obedience – as Eugene Peterson calls it, “a long obedience in the same direction.”4

Inspiration and talent will only carry you so far. The habits you form will sustain you. One fall, in the panhandle of Texas, the local high school football team was enduring a terribly embarrassing season. Week after week, the hometown would show up and cheer to no avail; it was abysmal. Finally, a wealthy oil man could take it no longer. The week before the homecoming game against their arch-rivals, he asked to address the team. “Boys,” he began, “when I wore the green and gold, we won nearly every single game. Now look at you. You’ve become a joke! You need some motivation. So here’s my proposition. You win this one game, and I will personally buy each of you a brand new pickup truck.”

Those student-athletes began to think and dream about how fine they would look driving around in their new trucks. They obsessed over which girls they would ride in them and whether or not they would get bumper stickers. They were so excited about the prospect of driving a truck with that “new car” smell. They hung a big poster of a truck in the locker room. And they went out and lost the game 38-0.

Enthusiasm does not make up for preparation. Exuberance doesn’t translate into a single point on the scoreboard. Seven days of hurrah and whoop-de-do will never compensate for lack of discipline, conditioning, practice, coaching, experience and character. Those are the things that will sustain you, whether it’s in the locker room or the board room. We need more than passion. We need self-discipline.

In the book Renovation of the Heart, Dallas Willard uses the acronym V.I.M. to discuss the simplicity of discipleship.5 Our passion can often reveal to us a vision. That vision will show us our intention. But we must devise a means, a strategy for accomplishing that vision. Vision, intention and means – these are the keys to accomplishment for any individual or organization. But means involves discipline.

The Discipline of Training

The apostle Paul understood the importance of discipline. In 1 Corinthians 9:24-27 he emphasizes that, as followers of Christ, our spiritual lives form the core of our character:

Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one gets the prize? Run in such a way as to get the prize. Everyone who competes in the games goes into strict training. They do it to get a crown that will not last; but we do it to get a crown that will last forever. Therefore I do not run like a man running aimlessly; I do not fight like a man beating the air. No, I beat my body and make it my slave so that after I have preached to others, I myself will not be disqualified for the prize.

The crown first-century athletes won was a laurel wreath. This is a wonderful illustration for the things of this world that we attempt to reach. A laurel wreath wilts in just a few hours. It would never be worn a second day. Likewise, the victories and plaudits of this world are short-lived. It’s not long before the world wants to know, “What have you done for me lately?” As leaders with an increasingly eternal perspective, however, we know that our prize will not fade or wear out.

As we spend time in the disciplines of the spirit, Paul says we’re to be like runners. During the course of a race, runners don’t stagger from one lane to another. They rivet their attention on the finish line and run a disciplined race toward it. At the start of a marathon, all the runners are crowded together. But over the course of the race they spread out. And an interesting thing happens – fewer people finish than start. The race of life is not to be compared with a sprint. Let’s not deceive ourselves. Life is a marathon. And in the marathon, it’s not how you start, it’s how you finish that matters most.

So also boxers train with purpose so they can absorb powerful blows without falling down. They build up their physical stamina so that their legs will hold out for the final rounds. How tragic to be ahead on the judges’ scorecards but run out of gas in the end and collapse in defeat. Yet this is how we often are. We have 200 meters of training for a 400-meter race. We have five good rounds in us, but the fight is scheduled for 12 rounds. We start so well only to end so poorly. Lack of adequate training may not show up at first, but enthusiasm and passion will eventually give way to fatigue.

Paul trained for his daily spiritual journey like a world-class athlete. Why? Because he wanted to have the self-control to finish the race without being disqualified. Godly leaders need to cultivate this same kind of spiritual fitness. Doing so can and will affect other areas of leadership life – how we treat others, where we go for answers to major decisions and the skills we use in accomplishing our daily tasks.

If you want to be an effective leader, identify the habits you need to build into your life so you can lead with diligence – habits such as physical fitness, balance between work and home, financial and personal accountability, proactivity in the workplace and the like. Strap on your shoes and get going. Disciplined habits will give you the momentum you need to not only move forward, but also to run your earthly race with strength and purpose.

Power and Restraint

History has repeatedly witnessed the combination of great power without moral restraint, and the results have always been disastrous. Our ability in the U.S.A. to develop increasingly powerful weapons and technology seems to be growing exponentially, but moral accountability and the development of character actually seems to be going in reverse. This is a volatile combination. We have a group of people growing up with more knowledge and technology available to them, but they’ve been led to believe that there are no absolute moral standards. Power without restraint is frightening.

The only reassurance we have is the knowledge that the ultimate power behind all things is also the supreme source of good who demonstrates patience and mercy toward humanity. Through the prophet Jeremiah, we see God’s loving forbearance and restraint in action:

This is the word that came to Jeremiah from the Lord: “Go down to the potter’s house, and there I will give you my message.” So I went down to the potter’s house, and I saw him working at the wheel. But the pot he was shaping from the clay was marred in his hands; so the potter formed it into another pot, shaping it as seemed best to him.

Then the word of the Lord came to me: “O house of Israel, can I not do with you as this potter does?” declares the Lord. “Like clay in the hand of the potter, so are you in my hand, O house of Israel. If at any time I announce that a nation or kingdom is to be uprooted, torn down and destroyed, and if that nation I warned repents of its evil, then I will relent and not inflict on it the disaster I had planned. And if at another time I announce that a nation or kingdom is to be built up and planted, and if it does evil in my sight and does not obey me, then I will reconsider the good I had intended for it.

“Now therefore say to the people of Judah and those living in Jerusalem, ‘This is what the Lord says: Look! I am preparing a disaster for you and devising a plan against you. So turn from your evil ways, each one of you, and reform your ways and your actions.’ But they will reply, ‘It’s no use. We will continue with our own plans; each of us will follow the stubbornness of his evil heart.’”

Jeremiah 18:1-12

This passage gives us keen insight into God’s dealings with his people. In spite of the spiritual and moral rebellion of his people, the Lord offered to avert the disaster of impending judgment if his people would only repent and return to him. In his eleventh-hour appeal, God told the people of Judah through his prophet Jeremiah that he could reshape the clay of their destiny. Instead of uprooting and destroying them, God wanted to build up and establish them, but he would not do so unless they repented of their evil and disobedience. “Look! I am preparing a disaster for you and devising a plan against you. So turn from your evil ways, each one of you, and reform your ways and your actions” (v. 11). Sadly, the prophet could predict with certainty that the people of Judah would stubbornly turn down the Lord’s gracious offer.

The Lord is compassionate, gracious and slow to anger (Numbers 14:18; Psalm 103:8). His willingness to endure and to forgive our frequent acts of disobedience is nothing short of amazing. His patience is stunning. Peter says, “The Lord is not slow in keeping his promise, as some understand slowness. He is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance” (2 Peter 3:9). His patience and forbearance are evident throughout the Scriptures and exemplify the essence of perfect self-discipline. He is the supreme example of moral restraint. If God is this way, and his ultimate goal for my life is that I become more like him, then this should become evident in the way I live.

The Source of Self-Discipline

Composure, presence of mind, cool-headedness, patience, self-possession, restraint – only a few people display these qualities, and those who do usually make effective leaders. People who demonstrate the fruit of self-control are productive, dependable and influential. The apostle Paul demonstrated these qualities, and he wanted his coworker Timothy to demonstrate them as well. He advises his young associate: “God did not give us a spirit of timidity, but a spirit of power, of love and of self-discipline” (2 Timothy 1:7).

Because of Timothy’s natural inclination to timidity, Paul was prompted to encourage his fellow worker to maintain a holy boldness and assurance in his position of spiritual leadership. Paul had commissioned Timothy to oversee many of the churches in the Roman province of Asia, and this task required “a spirit of power, of love and self-discipline.” Self-discipline is needed to stretch us beyond our own comfort zones and areas of personal inertia. For some, the needed discipline will be more in the realm of the emotions; for others the focus of self-control will be in the realm of the mind or of the will.

Writing to the Galatians, Paul said that “the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control” (Galatians 5:22-23). Like the apostle Paul, we live in an undisciplined time. People seek freedom through excess, but they find only bondage. They seek pleasure through passion but find pain instead. Self-discipline, as a fruit of the Spirit, allows us to experience freedom and pleasure as we grow in our faith and walk in obedience.

While people without Christ can demonstrate self-control, this quality in its fullest expression of character transformation is a part of the spiritual fruit that only the Holy Spirit can produce in us. Jerry Vines writes:

There’s no way to gain control over self by one’s self. The Stoics taught a type of self-mastery. It was about a morbid suppression of the desires. They came to the point of worshiping their own self-will…. Christian legalism does the same thing. In Colossians 2 Paul mentions those who worship their own self-will. He points out in Colossians 2:23 how futile it is to try to live the Christian life by one’s own power of will. This is why Christian legalism really doesn’t work. It emphasizes what we do or what we fail to do instead of the power of the Holy Spirit, who can control our passions and desires.

Self-control is really about bringing our whole life under the Holy Spirit’s control. It is not the outward result of self-repression but rather the inward result of the Spirit’s work.6

Self-discipline is seldom easy. Paul’s words to Timothy revealed that this young man probably struggled with it in his ministry. And most leaders who come across the need for more self-discipline in their lives struggle at times as well. Many of us can relate to Shakespeare’s tragic character Hamlet in his difficulty determining a course of action. His lines from the famous “To be or not to be” speech resonate with us:

And thus the native hue of resolution
Is sicklied o'er with the pale cast of thought,
And enterprises of great pith and moment
With this regard their currents turn awry,
And lose the name of action

Hamlet, Act III, Scene I

What the young Prince of Denmark is saying is that he waffles back and forth. He vacillates between two options and cannot take action. Such overly introspective inaction drains a person of power. We all come to challenges which require bold, decisive action. If we have not trained ourselves to do this, we will find ourselves lacking the momentum to accomplish it. God’s Spirit is the power source behind self-discipline. Timothy evidently found that out, and so can we.

The Rewards of Self-Discipline

Self-discipline may be defined simply as that quality that allows a person to do what needs to be done when he or she doesn’t feel like doing it. Success in leadership often comes by simply doing what no one else is willing to do: toughing it out, risking an opinion, making a decision when everyone else is paralyzed by uncertainty. In many situations other people know what to do, but are too tired or afraid or apathetic to act. That’s when someone who is equally tired and equally afraid steps forward and does what’s needed. This person has that elusive quality called self-discipline. And whether from a formal or informal position in the organization, that person provides leadership.

From that basic understanding of self-discipline we look at an example of a woman who exhibited great self-discipline in her own life, and reaped the rewards of her efforts – the “wife of noble character” described in Proverbs 31:10-31. She may be a literal woman, or she may be Wisdom personified. Either way, she teaches some important things about self-discipline and leadership. As you read through the following list, think about how you can integrate some of her character traits into your own life as a leader.

A person who disciplines his or her character is one who:

  • Is noble and greatly valued (v. 10).
  • Gets the job done regardless of what it takes, and has the full confidence of others (v. 11).
  • Works hard enough to make a profit (vv. 11-15).
  • Delays gratification and pleasure to invest his or her profits and then tirelessly works his or her investments for maximum return (vv. 16-19).
  • Generously participates in the larger community by sharing his or her profits with the needy (v. 20).
  • Has no fear of the future (vv. 21-27).
  • Is honored, respected, admired, praised and rewarded (vv. 28-31).

Self-Disciplined Relationships

The need for self-discipline applies in a leader’s personal life as well as in the workplace. Scripture tells us, “A righteous man is cautious in friendship, but the way of the wicked leads them astray” (Proverbs 12:26). Henry Cloud and John Townsend offer some specific advice regarding how this can be done in their book Boundaries:

Sarah heaved a long sigh. She’d been working on major boundary issues in her therapy and was seeing real progress in resolving responsibility conflicts with her parents, husband, and kids. Yet today she introduced a new issue.

“I haven’t told you about this relationship before, though I guess I should have. I have tremendous boundary problems with this woman. She eats too much, and has an attacking tongue. She’s undependable – lets me down all the time. And she’s spent money of mine and hasn’t paid me back in years.”

“Why haven’t you mentioned her before?” I asked.

“Because she’s me,” Sarah replied.7

That story illustrates the need we all have to place boundaries around our lives. We need to form borders that will protect us and enable us to develop. Yet identifying, erecting and living within those boundaries requires personal understanding and self-discipline, especially when those boundaries have to do with changing our own behavior.

Solomon warned about the danger of not exercising self-discipline as we examine our close association with others. He spoke about the “righteous man” who is cautious in friendship. The man to whom Solomon referred was intentional about choosing his friendships with care, then continued to examine the nature of those friendships. He tells us, for example, “A man of many companions may come to ruin, but there is a friend who sticks closer than a brother” (Proverbs 18:24). Then he warns us, “Do not make friends with a hot-tempered man, do not associate with one easily angered, or you may learn his ways and get yourself ensnared” (Proverbs 22:24). Solomon knew the harm that could come to a person who chose not to closely examine the personal effects of a negative, destructive, or even “wicked” friendship.

Our associations are influencing factors in shaping our character, particularly in our youth. Very often, in our youthful naiveté, we find ourselves desperate to be accepted by the popular crowd. Without discernment, this can lead us to activities we would never have imagined being engaged in on our own, but as part of a group it becomes acceptable behavior. Having an overabundance of loose acquaintances without the depth of a quality friendship can be a dangerous thing.

It would be nice to think that all this clears up along with our complexion as we enter adulthood. But that’s not the case. Many of us can think of toxic relationships that are still present long into our middle years. Perhaps there is someone in your life who is so perceptive and clever that you have been unaware of the effects of his razor tongue. You enjoy your time with him, but his humor always comes at someone else’s expense. That’s a toxic relationship. We all enjoy putting others down; it makes us feel better about ourselves. But this is not only detrimental, it is diametrically opposed to our spiritual growth as believers in Christ.

This kind of self-discipline is challenging because it involves evaluating relationships with other people – some of which are extremely difficult to manage – recognizing their destructive attributes, and then acting to change the nature of the relationship or to cut it off. Doing so requires a great deal of personal self-evaluation and self-discipline, because more often than not a good deal of the relationship dynamic – for good or for ill – has to do with us.

There are two extremes to be avoided: One is total independence, and the other is co-dependence. The balance is interdependence, and I can move toward this as I become more aware of the true source of my security. If my sense of worth is tied to self and selfish desires, I will move toward the extreme of independence. I will run from community at the first sign of difficulty and shut others out. If my sense of worth is tied to other people, I will move toward the extreme of co-dependence. I will avoid all conflict, even when I need to confront people. However, if my foundation for security and worth is deeper than that, I can stand in the tension of interdependence.

Those who hold leadership positions find themselves in need of establishing boundaries on a daily basis. The constant demands placed on leaders force them to analyze and then prioritize their time and energies. Self-discipline is a character trait that helps leaders evaluate what they’re doing, stop doing what’s harmful, and start doing what’s constructive.

This process is not always pleasant. It is far easier to drift in and out of relationships haphazardly, without putting this much thought and effort into them. But the Bible is clear when it warns, “Do not be misled: ‘Bad company corrupts good character’” (1 Corinthians 15:33). We can choose to believe the Bible and do the hard things it requires, or we can choose to live foolishly and suffer the consequences. It comes down to a question of faith and will. Are we willing to live as if the Bible is true in spite of whatever feelings we may have to the contrary? What would it look like if we lived as if we believed 2 Timothy 1:7 was a divinely inspired message to us from God? How would that affect our business appointments? How would that affect time spent with family? How would that affect the jokes we tell on the golf course? How would that affect how much we eat, drink, sleep, watch television or exercise?

So much of what we do is rooted in fear. We’re afraid of rejection, so we put up a façade or we compromise our ethics. We’re afraid of being weak, so we put on a false bravado. We do and say things we know aren’t part of who we are or who we are called to be – all because we’re so desperate for the approval and affirmation of others. We fail to grasp the fact that if God accepts and affirms us, we have the greatest source of security imaginable.

But if we chose to live as if 2 Timothy 1:7 is true, in spite of our feelings, we would do things differently. We would view people differently. We would work differently. We would spend our time differently. We would probably sleep differently. Imagine knowing that God has given us a spirit of power, love and self-discipline. He gave that to us. We don’t have to earn it. We don’t have to be afraid. We don’t have to view people with suspicion. We don’t have to be slaves to our own appetites. We can live in freedom. Self-discipline allows us to live in freedom.

Self-Discipline and Spirit-Dependence

Many people think self-discipline is simply a matter of trying harder. Yet the Bible speaks of self-discipline as a fruit of the Spirit. Plants don’t produce more fruit by trying harder. Transformation is the work of God done with our cooperation. God supplies the power, but there is a direct correlation between the amount of transformation taking place and the types of activities a follower of Christ engages in. John Ortberg uses an illustration that may help us understand this better:

Consider the difference between piloting a motorboat or a sailboat. We can run a motorboat all by ourselves. We can fill the tank and start the engine. We are in control. But a sailboat is a different story. We can hoist the sails and steer the rudder, but we are utterly dependent on the wind. The wind does the work. If the wind doesn’t blow – and sometimes it doesn’t – we sit still in the water no matter how frantic we act. Our task is to do whatever enables us to catch the wind.8

This is how spiritual transformation works. Discipline and dependence go hand in hand. We can pursue it, but we can take no credit for it.

It feels awkward to engage in something in which we have so little control. It’s difficult to let go of the results of our activities. This is the life of faith, and it grows as we walk in humble obedience. How willing are we to live as if the Bible is true, even when our feelings run contrary to what Scripture would have us do?

Perhaps that’s the wrong question to begin with. A better starting point may be a line from the Spice Girls: “Tell me what you want, what you really, really want.” What do we really want out of life? That’s the first question. The next question is, “What will that cost?” Finally, we come to the most pertinent question of all, “Are we willing to pay the price in order to get what we say we really, really want?” These questions must be asked from time to time, because we don’t want to come to the end of life and find that we’ve just lived in the heat of the moment with no real intentionality. We want to be people who have a genuine sense of calling and purpose. Let us pray that we have the grace to run with endurance the race that’s set before us.


1 Source unknown.

2 Adapted from James Emery White, You Can Experience…a Spiritual Life. Nashville: Word Publishing, 1999, p. 201.

3 Octavia Butler, Bloodchild: And Other Stories. New York: Seven Stories Press, 1996, p. 138.

4 Eugene Peterson, A Long Obedience in the Same Direction. Downers Grove, IL: 1980.

5 Dallas Willard, Renovation of the Heart. Colorado Springs, CO: NavPress, 2002, 85.

6 Jerry Vines, SpiritFruit. Nashville: Broadman & Holman, 2001, pp. 131-132.

7 Dr. Henry Cloud and Dr. John Townsend, Boundaries. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1992, p. 208.

8 John Ortberg, The Life You’ve Always Wanted. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1997, pp. 55-56.


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Values

**The audio for this article is in two parts, click for part 1 and for part 2.**

Values are essential to effective leadership. They are the uncompromisable, undebatable truths that drive and direct behavior. They are motivational, giving us the reason why we do things; and they are restrictive, placing boundaries around behavior. Values are those things that we deem important and that provide direction and guidance in spite of our emotions.

Authors writing on the subject of leadership are paying increased attention to the importance of consistent values to a leader’s effectiveness over the long haul.1 Businesses, organizations, families and individuals all benefit from knowing and living by their core values. In business, core values are “the organization’s essential and enduring tenets – a small set of general guiding principles; not to be confused with specific cultural or operating practices; not to be compromised for financial gain or short-term expediency.”2 Jim Collins observes that all enduring visionary companies have a set of core values that determine the behavior of the group.3

King David demonstrated value-driven behavior in Psalm 15:

Lord, who may dwell in your sanctuary? Who may live on your holy hill? He whose walk is blameless and who does what is righteous, who speaks the truth from his heart and has no slander on his tongue, who does his neighbor no wrong and casts no slur on his fellowman, who despises a vile man but honors those who fear the Lord, who keeps his oath even when it hurts, who lends his money without usury and does not accept a bribe against the innocent. He who does these things will never be shaken.

Notice that he said the person who enjoys the presence of God and lives a blameless life is the one who “speaks the truth from his heart” (vv. 1-2). Because this person values truth in his heart, his words express truth. Because he values kindness, he “does his neighbor no wrong” (v. 3). Because he values honesty, he “keeps his oath even when it hurts” (v. 4). Because he values justice, he “does not accept a bribe against the innocent” (v. 5).

Leaders who are driven by values reap a great benefit from the Lord. David said they “will never be shaken.” Regardless of what may happen around them, they can live with full confidence that the right principles have shaped their values and have guided their decisions. That confidence will give them emotional and spiritual stability. It will enable them to be leaders whom God can use for his glory.

Consider what values drove the psalmist’s behavior. As you examine your own life, what values do you see as driving your behavior? Many of us hold certain values, but our actions are not governed by the things we say we hold dear. Perhaps we should start by asking ourselves what values we want to have driving our behavior. Unless we become intentional about this, we will be shaped by the values of others. We cannot have a set of values for the office, another set for the home and a completely different set for church activities. Our goal should be to completely integrate godly values into all spheres of life.

God: The Source of All Values

God is accountable to no one, and there is no higher principle to which he must conform. He himself is the absolute of truth, beauty, goodness, love and justice. His perfect character is the essence of what the Bible calls “righteousness.” In a universe without God, what we call “good” would have no ultimate referent.

Habakkuk was a righteous prophet in the Old Testament. He struggled, as we all do from time to time, with the goodness of God in light of the fact that wicked people often prosper. Unlike many of us, however, Habakkuk was wise enough to know that when you have a question or a problem with God, the best thing to do is to go to God directly. So, he cried out, “Your eyes are too pure to look on evil; you cannot tolerate wrong. Why then do you tolerate the treacherous? Why are you silent while the wicked swallow up those more righteous than themselves?” (Habakkuk 1:13).

Habakkuk’s first complaint to God questioned why the Lord was allowing the people of Judah to continue in their wickedness and injustice. When the Lord answered that he was preparing the Babylonians as his weapon of judgment on Judah’s unrighteousness (vv. 5-6), Habakkuk made a more strenuous objection. The Babylonians were even more wicked than the people of Judah; how could God allow such a people to judge his people? God’s response overcame the prophet’s objections, but notice that Habakkuk was confused by an apparent incompatibility between God’s character and God’s actions.

As we look at the progressive revelation of the person of God from Genesis to Revelation, we discover him to be the immutable foundation upon which moral concepts such as goodness, love and justice are based. As did Habakkuk, Abraham struggled briefly with God, saying, “Far be it from you to do such a thing – to kill the righteous with the wicked, treating the righteous and the wicked alike. Far be it from you! Will not the Judge of all the earth do right?” (Genesis 18:25). Paul added, “Let God be true, and every man a liar. As it is written: ‘So that you may be proved right when you speak and prevail when you judge’” (Romans 3:4; compare Psalm 51:4).

Habakkuk learned that God’s plan for the purification of his people went far beyond what he could understand. Although God’s actions seemed unjust and out of line with eternal values, this prophet realized that God’s actions were a small part of his larger, and perfectly sovereign, plan. In the end, Habakkuk says,

Though the fig tree does not bud and there are no grapes on the vines, though the olive crop fails and the fields produce no food, though there are no sheep in the pen and no cattle in the stalls yet I will rejoice in the Lord, I will be joyful in God my Savior.

Habakkuk 3:17-18

Essentially, the prophet is saying that even though he doesn’t understand, he trusts that God’s goodness is unchanging. Habakkuk trusts God, even when things don’t seem to make sense. Habakkuk wanted to understand the way things are; he ended up learning about the way God is.

We may never find a satisfactory answer to the problem of evil and suffering in our world. But when we have a fuller revelation of God, those questions seem to fade away. What we see is such a tiny piece of the puzzle. God is the only one who sees the whole picture.

We should be careful not to judge that which we don’t understand. Otherwise we’ll end up like the couple in the story about Rembrandt. It seems there was a special exhibition of the Dutch Master’s paintings, and a couple was speaking very critically of his work. Upon their leaving, a guard nearby whispered, “Here it is not the artist but the viewers who are being judged.” In other words, our failure to grasp God’s plan reveals more about us than it does about God’s plan. It is not the plan that is inferior; it is us.

God’s moral structures and values are built into the created order. The Bible affirms that even those who have not been exposed to God’s law have a conscience – a moral law – within them (Romans 2:14-16). God is not only revealed in nature, but also in the human heart. Our hearts and consciences reveal the fingerprints of a moral God. C.S. Lewis used the idea of an omnipresent, self-evident law as the starting point for his classic, Mere Christianity, what he calls the Law of Nature or the Moral Law. A few years later, in The Abolition of Man, he simply calls it the Tao that is in all cultures and societies. There is a surprisingly uniform moral absolute in most cultures – Babylonian, Egyptian, Persian, Chinese. None of these, for example, honor treachery or selfishness, cowardice or deceit. These standards are there because God has placed his natural law, his moral law in our hearts. Try as we might, we simply cannot deny it.

Lewis also said, “Unless we allow ultimate reality to be moral, we cannot morally condemn it.”4 By that, he means that unless there is some agreed upon standard for the true, the beautiful and the good, there can be no absolute standard by which we can condemn “evil” behavior. In other words, people who use the presence of evil and suffering to denounce God are really appealing to God to condemn God. In fact, when people talk about evil in this world they imply the existence of the God of the Bible, because if there is no God, then the idea of evil is arbitrary. One man’s meat is another man’s poison, so to speak. Even our notions of good and evil come to us because we bear the image of the one who initially determined the categories.

If our world continues to denounce the idea of moral absolutes, it cannot also continue to denounce the misappropriation of power and the misconduct of rich and powerful people. In a world that fails to acknowledge God as the final absolute, self-serving pragmatism will rule. The fact that people are seduced by power and wealth should not be surprising; what should surprise us is that it’s not more widespread than it already is. Christian counselor Larry Hall says:

As long as our morality continues to be based in our humanistic pride, moral consistency will elude us. We will go on being bundles of self-contradiction, wildly judging each other while vehemently demanding that no one judge us. We can forget about arriving at a consensus ethic. There is virtually no consensus in a society as pluralistic as ours. About the most we can hope for is some sense of political correctness, and who in their right mind would hope for that? Even if true consensus were possible, history has proven repeatedly that such a consensus can be very immoral. When ethics are based on self and pride, all objectivity is lost. Things are no longer right or wrong. Instead, they are feasible or impractical, desirable or unappealing, agreeable or nonnegotiable…. Indeed, the very concepts of virtue and vice become meaningless.5

Godly Values for Godly People

As human beings, the crown of God’s creation, God has “set eternity in the hearts of [people]” (Ecclesiastes 3:11). As such, godly leaders seek to live by God’s eternal values of truth, beauty, goodness, love and justice, set forth in the biblical record. If we look to the world for our moral values, we will be confused by self-interest, social conditioning and situational ethics. The values of our culture are shallow and subjective, but the moral standards of Scripture reflect God’s absolute and unchanging character. Exodus 20:1-17 shows us the clearest summary of God’s values for his people:

And God spoke all these words:

“I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery.

“You shall have no other gods before me.

“You shall not make for yourself an idol in the form of anything in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the waters below. You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I, the Lord your God, am a jealous God, punishing the children for the sin of the fathers to the third and fourth generation of those who hate me, but showing love to a thousand generations of those who love me and keep my commandments.

“You shall not misuse the name of the Lord your God, for the Lord will not hold anyone guiltless who misuses his name.

“Remember the Sabbath day by keeping it holy. Six days you shall labor and do all your work, but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the Lord your God. On it you shall not do any work, neither you, nor your son or daughter, nor your manservant or maidservant, nor your animals, nor the alien within your gates. For in six days the Lord made the heavens and the earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but he rested on the seventh day. Therefore the Lord blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy.

“Honor your father and your mother, so that you may live long in the land the Lord your God is giving you.

“You shall not murder.

“You shall not commit adultery.

“You shall not steal.

“You shall not give false testimony against your neighbor.

“You shall not covet your neighbor’s house. You shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, or his manservant or maidservant, his ox or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbor.”

God’s moral law for his people is an expression of his own changeless perfection. In the Ten Commandments, God is actually calling his covenant people to be like him. “I am the Lord who brought you up out of Egypt to be your God; therefore be holy, because I am holy” (Leviticus 11:45).

The Ten Commandments begin with our demonstrated relationship with God and end with our relationships with others. In Scripture, righteousness is always realized within the context of relationships; it consistently relates to loving behavior toward God and others. “Love does no harm to its neighbor” (Romans 13:10). “The entire law is summed up in a single command: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself’” (Galatians 5:4).

It is one thing to know the right things to do and another to consistently do them. Jesus called us to be perfect as our heavenly Father is perfect (Matthew 5:48), but this is unattainable apart from the power of the indwelling Holy Spirit. Larry Hall asserts, “Indeed, achieving transcendent virtue while denying transcendence is as absurdly impossible as grabbing my own collar and lifting myself off the ground.”6 Only as we live by the Spirit are we empowered to “put skin on” biblical values and make them real in our own lives.

Moving From Theory to Practice

Values are interesting to discuss in the abstract, but sometimes “values” get in the way of valuable decisions. Maintaining one’s values can cost a leader dearly. So how do we decide what matters most when we’re weighing the bottom-line costs against our bottom-line convictions?

The first step in effective leadership is defining core values. Until that is done, the ship the leader is trying to steer has no rudder. Vision, mission, strategy and outcomes are difficult – if not impossible – to define until values are clear. Jesus knew that. Early in the process of developing his team of disciples, he forced them to confront this foundational issue.

Matthew records Jesus’ primer on values in Matthew 6:1-34. Jesus focused his lesson in verses 19-21:

Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy, and where thieves break in and steal. But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moth and rust do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.

Jesus urged his disciples to focus their values on things that would bear an eternal return. But how, while making a living on earth, while responsibly leading an enterprise on earth, while providing jobs, product, service and profit on earth, do we build treasure in heaven? This passage presents the crux of the value question. Jesus begins this portion of the Sermon on the Mount by saying, “Be careful not to do your ‘acts of righteousness’ before men, to be seen by them. If you do, you will have no reward from your Father in heaven” (6:1). That’s the idea: Who do you work for? Whose nod of approval matters most? Who defines what really matters?

Jesus told his disciples that the core value, the driving value, the eternal value is this: “Does what I am doing please God?” Every other value is second to that one. When that value is in place, all other values line up. Matthew 6 is among the most definitive chapters in the Bible for shaping a leader’s philosophy of life and leadership. Spending time meditating on Jesus’ words here will have inestimable value.

Case Study: The Apostle Paul

The temptation often is to rationalize our lives in such a way that no matter what we do, we tell ourselves it’s okay. It’s like the story about the FBI being called into a small town to investigate the work of what appeared to be a sharpshooter. They were amazed to find bull’s-eyes drawn all over town, with bullets that had penetrated the exact center of the targets. When they finally found the man who had been doing the shooting, they asked him how he had been able to shoot with such accuracy. His answer was simple: First he shot the bullet, then he drew the bull’s-eye around where it had hit.7 God is not honored by such a haphazard approach to living. He has called us to live our lives with precision and clarity of focus.

The Apostle Paul wrestled with two desires. When he traced these desires back to their core values, he found a resolution:

For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain. If I am to go on living in the body, this will mean fruitful labor for me. Yet what shall I choose? I do not know. I am torn between the two: I desire to depart and be with Christ, which is better by far; but it is more necessary for you that I remain in the body.

Philippians 1:21-24

Interestingly, Paul had a proper philosophy of death, and this gave rise to his proper philosophy of life. He, like Jesus, knew where he was going (cf. John 13:1). Once he knew his ultimate destination, he was free to understand who and what he was living for. Our lives are only valuable in light of eternity. These brief and ephemeral years can be leveraged into eternity. So, Paul, writing from prison, understands that he can’t really lose in this situation. Whether he is executed or acquitted, he wins.

It is with this frame of mind that he writes, “Convinced of this, I know that I will remain, and I will continue with all of you for your progress and joy in the faith, so that through my being with you again your joy in Christ Jesus will overflow on account of me” (Philippians 1:25-26). Once he was able to link his desires with his values, he possessed tremendous resolve.

Most leaders today also face the tension between competing value systems and structures. In the face of difficult daily decisions, sorting out primary from secondary values can be frustrating. Hackman and Johnson, in their book Leadership, give us some further definition that may help in this dilemma.

First they discuss what values are:

Values are at the core of individual, group or organizational identity. Values are relatively enduring conceptions or judgments about what we consider to be important. [Substantial research suggests] that a number of positive effects result from agreement between personal values and the values most prized in the organization at which we work. Agreement between personal and organizational values result in increased personal identification with the organization, higher levels of job satisfaction, greater team effectiveness and lower turnover rates.8

Then these two authors go on to identify two types of values: “terminal values” – those that deal with lifelong goals; and “instrumental values” – those that govern behaviors that achieve terminal values. Among their list of 18 terminal values are freedom, self-respect, mature love, family security, true friendship, wisdom, equality and salvation. Some of the 18 instrumental values they outline are being loving, independent, capable, broad-minded, honest, responsible, ambitious, forgiving, self-controlled and courageous.

Paul begins the passage above with a short vision statement: “For me, to live is Christ and to die is gain.” We could all do with writing a short vision statement for our own lives. This can be accomplished fairly easily. Simply add your personal values to both of the lists above, then rank-order the values. The authors then suggest that you “carefully examine the list of your top-rated terminal and instrumental values. Look for similarities, patterns, and themes.” Finally, forge a short vision statement from what you find by clarifying your values in this manner.

Paul wrestled with his desires until he clarified what he valued. Hackman and Johnson support Paul’s decision-making process by telling us that people work better with clearly understood values. Leaders who want to be effective will find that clarifying and communicating values is an essential task. Rank-ordering your terminal and instrumental values and forming a short vision statement will help you avoid taking a scattershot approach to living.

Living in the Land of Our Sojourn

We are all mortal. None of us knows how many days we have on this earth. In fact, this is one of the most common themes in Scripture – that of the pilgrim, the stranger, the sojourner. The late singer-songwriter Rich Mullins understood this imagery. His lyrics frequently made mention of a “longing for home” that sometimes caused him to weep. In the song “Land of My Sojourn,” he writes:

    Nobody tells you when you get born here

    How much you’ll come to love it

    And how you’ll never belong here.

    So I call you my country,

    And I’ll be lonely for my home.

    I wish that I could take you there with me.9

We do not belong here on earth. This is merely a land to travel through on our way to our final destination. Our citizenship is in heaven. Thus our ultimate aspirations must transcend anything this world can provide. There are pleasant moments, to be sure, but there are also painful moments. We must change our thinking so that we can affirm, with the Apostle Paul, that neither our temporary pleasures nor our present sufferings are “worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us” (Romans 8:18). These things are merely preparing us for what is to come.

As we grow and mature in the things of God, we can come to the place where our longing for our true home governs the way we live here in our temporary home. It is possible to endure great hardships and trials when you know that they are only temporary and are leading you to something far greater. Also, it is in this way that we come to see how precious our time here is, and how foolish it is to waste our time here with our noses to the grindstone or endlessly channel-surfing! How terrible to come to the end of life and realize that we were too busy or preoccupied to actually live. While we are here we have opportunities to cultivate relationships and catalogue experiences and share the gospel and serve people in need. Our boredom surely reveals more about us than about the God who places so many wonderful opportunities in our paths.

The central issue of values is summed up in what Jesus called the first and greatest commandment: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind” (Matthew 22:37). That is the value to value. That is the prism through which all other values must shine, the filter through which all of life’s choices are made and solutions are drawn. Until we love God properly, the rest of what we’ve learned about values will remain an academic exercise.


1 For example, the following books have been released or are scheduled for release in the year 2003: Executive Values: A Christian Approach to Organizational Leadership by Kurt Senske (Augsburg Fortress Publishers); Transformational Leadership: Value Based Management for Indian Organizations by Shivganesh Bhargave (Sage Publications); And Dignity for All: Unlocking Greatness with Values-Based Leadership by James E. Despain, et al. (Financial Times Prentice Hall); Living Headship: Voices, Values and Vision by Helen M. Gunter, et al. (Paul Chapman Publications).

2 James C. Collins and Jerry I. Porras, Built to Last (New York: Harper Business, 1997), p. 73.

3 Ibid., p. 94.

4 C.S. Lewis, “De Futilitate,” in Christian Reflections (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1967), p. 69.

5 Larry E. Hall, No Longer I (Abilene, TX: ACU Press, 1998), p. 126.

6 Hall, No Longer I, p. 127.

7 Adapted from James Emery White, Rethinking the Church (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1997), 33.

8 Michael Hackman and Craig Johnson, Leadership: A communication Perspective, Second Edition (Prospect Heights, IL: Waveland Press, 1996), p. 89.

9 “Land of My Sojourn” by Rich Mullins, Kid Brothers of St. Frank Publishing, 1993.


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Vision

October 7, 1916, was a Saturday. But it was not just any Saturday; it was the Saturday of the worst defeat in college football history. According to historian G. Frank Burns, “There’s no such thing as a true account of this game…. The temptation to embroider is irresistible.”1 The previous spring, Georgia Tech’s baseball team had been humbled by the Cumberland College Bulldogs 22-0. As payback, Georgia Tech invited Cumberland College to play them in football. They should have stayed home.

The score was 63-0 at the end of the first quarter, 126-0 at halftime. In the end Cumberland College found themselves on the wrong end of the most lopsided defeat imaginable: 222-0. Late in the game, one of many fumbles occurred in the Bulldog backfield. The ball rolled toward Cumberland player B.F. Paty. The man who fumbled the ball yelled, “Pick it up!” Paty replied, “Pick it up yourself, you dropped it.”

Vision and Hope

Few of us have been beaten as soundly as the Cumberland College Bulldogs were that day, but most of us can relate to B.F. Paty. Sometimes our situation looks so hopeless that we want to quit trying. Life knocks us down again and again; it’s easy to lose hope. But it is often not the flashiest or most gifted people who succeed. It is often the humble, dependable folks who tenaciously refuse to give up. They’re the ones who keep the wheels turning in any organization.

The apostle Paul was that kind of person. In 2 Corinthians 4:16-18, he wrote:

Therefore we do not lose heart. Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day. For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all. So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen. For what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal.

Paul’s outlook allowed him to undergo intense hardship and pain with an unwavering faith in God. For Paul, it wasn’t as much a matter of will and determination as it was a matter of vision and perspective. It is painfully obvious that our earth suits wear out, our time on this planet is brief, and none of us knows how many days we have left. However long our stay here is, compared to eternity, it’s not even a blip on the screen. But our inner man is actually growing stronger as our outer man is growing weaker. That’s how it’s supposed to be.

Our hardships on this earth are temporary; the glory we will inherit is eternal. Our troubles are light; eternal glory is weighty. In Romans 8:18 Paul says, “I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us.” That is not a perspective we will find reinforced in the pages of the Wall Street Journal or Money Magazine. That perspective is not found in the world; it is found only in the Word. Rather than reading The Times, we ought to be reading the eternities of God’s Word. By basing our outlook on what we find in the Bible, we can suffer in hope because we know that God’s glorious future for us will somehow reach back, redemptively, into the pain of our past and cause even it to work for our ultimate benefit.

In some ways, we can say that wisdom is the God-given ability to see the true nature of things. In addition to everlasting life with him, God gives us a new way of looking at things in the here and now. He gives us the ability to see things as they really are, to see truth and not merely facts. By the power of the indwelling Holy Spirit, the blinders are taken off so that we can see temporary things in light of eternity. God gives us the gift of vision, and his vision allows us to see our present reality in light of eternity.

Mark Buchanan tells a story of a time he went camping:

One spring weekend, a friend and I took our sons and two of their friends camping on the west coast of Vancouver Island. It turned out to be one of the wettest, coldest weekends of the wet and cold season. We hiked down the muddy trail in slanting gray rain, arriving at our site sodden and chilled. We set up our tents on the beach, between the edge of the forest and the tide line, tucked in behind a rough windscreen of driftwood. But the wind and the rain swooped in on us anyway, merciless. We huddled around the meager warmth of a fire that sputtered in the heavy downpour. The wetness and the sand found its way into our tents, our food, our clothes, our sleeping bags, crusting and drenching everything. We spent most of our time scratching and shivering and trying to stay warm.

And dreaming. Dreaming of our homes: the clean hotness of bath water, the comfort and warmth of dry clothes and beds, the tastiness of food that wasn’t damp or gritty or burnt. We were, sure enough, miserable. But how much more deplorable our lot would have been without a clear vision of the homes to which we would soon return. There we would peel off our damp, clinging, scratchy clothes, dance in a hot shower, dress in fleece pajamas, and rest beneath a down quilt, our heads on a soft pillow. What made the camping experience bearable – light and momentary – was knowing what awaited us at home.2

A Vision from God

Few things are more important to effective leadership than vision. Good leaders foresee something out there, vague as it might appear from the distance, that others don’t see. Godly leaders who are followers of Christ must first have a vision of who God is and the future he holds for them. They must also have a sense of what God has called them to do.

The apostle Paul had both. Through a miraculous vision, he was taken into heaven where he saw images too spectacular to communicate; images he wasn’t allowed to communicate:

I must go on boasting. Although there is nothing to be gained, I will go on to visions and revelations from the Lord. I know a man in Christ who fourteen years ago was caught up to the third heaven. Whether it was in the body or out of the body I do not know – God knows. And I know that this man – whether in the body or apart from the body I do not know, but God knows – was caught up to paradise. He heard inexpressible things, things that man is not permitted to tell. I will boast about a man like that, but I will not boast about myself, except about my weaknesses. Even if I should choose to boast, I would not be a fool, because I would be speaking the truth. But I refrain, so no one will think more of me than is warranted by what I do or say.

2 Corinthians 12:1-6

Paul was given a vision from God – a vision that enabled him to withstand trials and temptations without giving up. But there was a second vision Paul possessed. The first was of heaven, his future home. The second was a vision of his earthly ministry among the Corinthians. He knew God had called him to minister to the Gentiles (Romans 1:5). And he knew that the Lord was directing him to return to the Corinthians a third time. Elsewhere he spoke about his vision to take the gospel to Rome and Spain (Romans 15:23-24).

While God may not give you a vision of heaven like Paul experienced, he will give you one of himself. Through his Word, he will show you what he is like and will give you insight into your spiritual destiny. As you seek him through his Word and through prayer, ask him to show you himself. Ask him to give you a clear image of the work he has called you to join him in accomplishing. A visionary person understands that there is a calling and purpose in his life that he needs to pursue.

The world is constantly trying to get us to settle for less than that. The world would have us authenticate our existence through achievements and accomplishments. Such ambition leads us into a narcissistic pragmatism where the ends justify the means. We begin to use people and treasure things. This is how the world tells us we can find our place in this world. In stark contrast, the Word suggests that God alone can ultimately authenticate our existence. We do what we do with excellence for him and let him take care of the issues of significance and satisfaction, since he alone is the source of contentment.

After all, where did we come from? Why are we here? Where are we going? These are the fundamental questions. The way in which we answer these questions will determine how we live. Without a revelation from the Creator of the cosmos, these fundamental questions of origin, purpose and destiny would be unanswerable. But Scripture reveals God’s perspective on each of these issues and gives us a vision of his eternal plan.

The God of the Vision

We serve a God of vision; as he accomplishes his sovereign purposes in human affairs, he is moving history toward a glorious consummation:

Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and there was no longer any sea. I saw the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Now the dwelling of God is with men, and he will live with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.”

He who was seated on the throne said, “I am making everything new!” Then he said, “Write this down, for these words are trustworthy and true.”

He said to me: “It is done. I am the Alpha and the Omega, the Beginning and the End. To him who is thirsty I will give the drink without cost from the spring of the water of life. He who overcomes will inherit all this, and I will be his God and he will be my son.”

Revelation 21:1-7

We read these words, but they extend beyond our present ability to grasp. God, unbounded by time and space, assures us that he is preparing a new creation and that he is preparing us to enjoy that new creation. Indeed, “No eye has seen, no ear has heard, no mind has conceived what God has prepared for those who love him” (1 Corinthians 2:9). The time will come when all will be well, and all manner of things will be well. Dante was right – the Bible reveals a divine comedy, not a divine tragedy. This is why Paul was able to say, “I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us” (Romans 8:18).

Many people claim to believe in a glorious future that awaits those who trust Christ as their Savior, but for some reason this belief is not allowed to penetrate into their daily behaviors. If we live with more integrity – if we allow our belief in God’s promises to really affect the way we order our steps – we will become more visionary.

Until the day when everything that has been upside-down is turned rightside-up, we live with the hope of more than this present world can offer. “He has made everything beautiful in its time. He has also set eternity in the hearts of men; yet they cannot fathom what God has done from beginning to end” (Ecclesiastes 3:11). God has a vision for his people, and this vision goes beyond anything we could ever imagine. Everything in this life hinges on whether or not we are willing to fix our eyes on the unseen reality of God’s purpose. Paul, again, gives us a vivid picture of what that means in 2 Corinthians 5:1-8:

Now we know that if the earthly tent we live in is destroyed, we have a building from God, an eternal house in heaven, not built by human hands. Meanwhile we groan, longing to be clothed with our heavenly dwelling, because when we are clothed, we will not be found naked. For while we are in this tent, we groan and are burdened, because we do not wish to be unclothed but to be clothed with our heavenly dwelling, so that what is mortal may be swallowed up by life. Now it is God who has made us for this very purpose and has given us the Spirit as a deposit, guaranteeing what is to come.

Therefore we are always confident and know that as long as we are at home in the body we are away from the Lord. We live by faith, not by sight. We are confident, I say, and would prefer to be away from the body and at home with the Lord.

Compared with heaven, this earth, the beauty of nature, the complexity of the human body – it’s like a tent compared with a multi-million dollar mansion. John Ortberg describes the view of heaven many people have:

When I was in grade school, I sang in a church choir directed by a woman named Sigrid. She had blue hair, a wide vibrato, and several chins, all of which threatened to go off when she directed with vigor. When she got frustrated with us (which we often gave her good reason to be), she would clap her hands and say, “Children, start singing like I told you – because when you get to heaven, it’s all you’re going to do: sing, sing, sing, morning, noon, night – so you’d better get it right.”

Somehow the idea of five to ten billion years in choir robes under the direction of Sigrid and those chins didn’t sound like eternal bliss.3

Our misconceptions of heaven get us into trouble. If heaven is just a never-ending Sunday-morning service – complete with third-rate music and second-rate preaching – most of us would say, “Thanks, but no thanks.” The only reason anyone would choose that option is because they don’t want to go to hell. So, they grudgingly sign up for the great choir recital in the sky.

Another misconception of heaven is that it’s a land where we’ll finally rest in peace. Rest for all eternity? Who needs that much rest? Heaven is not some kind of eternal retirement community. It’s not going to be lounging around on clouds. There is going to be adventure. There’s going to be beauty. There’s going to be intimacy. And there is going to be activity, but think about this: for the first time since man was in the garden, there will be work without any frustration, work with no thorns or thistles or sweat or banged thumbs, intimacy with no fear, nakedness with no shame. Take the wildest thing you can imagine, and the Bible says that’s not enough. We don’t have the cognitive capacity to grasp what a day in God’s presence will be like. Whatever we think heaven is, it’s better.

Seeing with God’s Eyes

As men and women of faith, we must consider the focus of our lives. Are we passionate for the things of God, or is that passion just a sporadic experience? What are the deepest longings of our heart? Have we come to see that nothing in this life can fully satisfy them? The men and women described in Hebrews 11 knew that they were aliens and strangers on earth (v. 13). They understood the transitory nature of this earthly pilgrimage and looked beyond it to God’s reward. With Enoch, Noah, Abraham, Sarah, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, Joshua, Rahab, Gideon and the others who are described in this chapter, Moses came to see that, in this world, he would not receive what had been promised (v. 39). However, Moses did not lose heart; he continued to walk in faithful obedience:

By faith Moses, when he had grown up, refused to be known as the son of Pharaoh’s daughter. He chose to be mistreated along with the people of God rather than to enjoy the pleasures of sin for a short time. He regarded disgrace for the sake of Christ as of greater value than the treasures of Egypt, because he was looking ahead to his reward.

Hebrews 11:24-26

To be people whose vision for this life is compatible with God’s purposes, we must develop a passion for the things God calls important. Our faith must be characterized by “being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see” (v. 1). A biblical vision is informed by the person and promises of God, and those give us stability and focus – a stable perspective and clear direction in an earthly context of uncertainty and changing circumstances. By reading and reflecting on the people mentioned in Hebrews 11 we see that these ordinary people found that perspective and allowed it to spur them on to great deeds for God, regardless of the earthly reward.

The majority of church-going people hope in Christ for their eternal destiny, but hope in the world for everything else. “Jesus can take care of me when-I-die-by-and-by, but for the stuff of this life, I’m going to take charge of that.” As we enter into God’s vision for our lives, we find him transforming our view of career, family and goals.

Open Our Eyes, Lord!

Leaders have to see things that others don’t. Their vision must move beyond the “what’s now?” and enter into the “what’s next?” Seeing “what’s next” sets a person apart as a leader. That person can rise above the tyranny of the urgent and get to the truly important. Burt Nanus wrote, “Vision is central to leadership. It is the indispensable tool without which leadership is doomed to failure.”4 Oh to be like those prophets who could see into the future! Alas, we are not able to see that far, but being a godly leader does play a crucial role in casting a vision for our organization. Elisha, one of God’s great prophets, provides an essential principle for the visionary leader:

When the servant of the man of God got up and went out early the next morning, an army with horses and chariots had surrounded the city. “Oh, my lord, what shall we do?” the servant asked.

“Don’t be afraid,” the prophet answered. “Those who are with us are more than those who are with them.”

And Elisha prayed, “O Lord, open his eyes so he may see.” Then the Lord opened the servant’s eyes, and he looked and saw the hills full of horses and chariots of fire all around Elisha.

2 Kings 6:15-17

Leaders, including most of the Bible’s great leaders, aren’t prophets like Elisha. They function more like Elisha’s servant in this story. So what does the Bible add to the topic of leader-as-visionary? Like Elisha and, eventually, his servant, the biblical leader sees the Reality behind the reality, the Truth behind the facts.

There is something more real, more profound than what we can see with human eyes and hear with human ears. The things we can see and hear and taste and smell and touch – these things are facts. We can prove them empirically. But faith often calls us to live above the realm of facts. Truth is not merely composed of facts. Truth is whatever God has said about a given topic (John 17:17). If God has said a certain thing will come to pass, we can rest assured that it will come to pass, despite all evidences to the contrary.

Biblical leaders live with the conviction of a supernatural God who sometimes interrupts the natural world and does things that defy our best explanations. Take the bumblebee, for example. Aerodynamically speaking, the bumblebee should not be able to fly. Leith Anderson reminds leaders:

The God who created the aerodynamically challenged bumblebee also made it fly. God is continuing to make the impossible a reality through leaders who have the will to look ahead and the courage to move ahead. If the first bumblebee had listened to the experts, he’d still be on the ground. But God had better plans for him. Good leaders don’t settle for what they know they can do; they envision what God can enable them to do. And sometimes it means letting your feet leave the ground.5

Visionary leaders believe God guides through prayer. They have an optimistic and realistic vision of what matters most. Biblical leaders don’t sit on the roof of their corporate headquarters in a lightning storm trying to gather next year’s Wall Street report. They don’t have an inside track on the future. Their vision statements are no more apt to be realized than anyone else’s. But the quality of what they envision will be higher. The things to which they commit their organization’s resources will reflect belief in a sovereign God. As leaders they know they are God’s stewards and realize that they are investing his resources.

Like Elisha and his servant, the biblically guided leader’s vision starts and finishes with the Reality behind the reality.

The Priority and Price of Personal Vision

It’s crucial for a leader to know how to identify and cultivate a personal vision. But where do such visions originate? According to Burt Nanus, a vision is “a realistic, credible, attractive future for your organization. It is your articulation of a destination toward which your organization should aim, a future that is better, more successful, or more desirable for your organization than is the present.”6 Nanus contends that the right vision “is an idea so energizing that it in effect jump-starts the future by calling forth the skills, talents, and resources to make it happen.”7

Over the course of his ministry, Jesus consistently cast an energizing vision of the coming kingdom of God. He repeatedly described the character and conduct that would define citizens of that kingdom. The Lord’s vision was so compelling that the twelve disciples left everything to follow his lead. Thousands of others also took their direction from him.

Yet, in spite of the Lord’s consistent message, the disciples had a hard time grasping the fact that ushering in the kingdom of God would require suffering. When Jesus clearly explained his impending death, Peter rebuked him for making such an assertion:

[Jesus] then began to teach [the disciples] that the Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders, chief priests and teachers of the law, and that he must be killed and after three days rise again. He spoke plainly about this, and Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him.

But when Jesus turned and looked at his disciples, he rebuked Peter. “Get behind me, Satan!” he said. “You do not have in mind the things of God, but the things of men.”

Mark 8:31-33

Peter must have been shocked when Jesus abruptly turned the tables on him. Before we jump on the bandwagon and bash Peter again, we should remember that his motives were pure. His foolishness was prompted by love – often the most egregious errors are. Peter’s problem was that he allowed his personal and self-centered agenda to box in God’s plan. Such self-serving visions are satanically inspired.

Leaders need to be sure their vision is consistent with God’s purposes. And when crosscurrents threaten to sweep the vision into another channel, they must work to keep it heading in the right direction. They can’t allow self-serving interests – their own or someone else’s – to distort their vision of the future and prevent God’s purposes from being fulfilled.

Leonard Sweet tells a story about a man who was driving on a crowded city street when a small, wounded bird wandered onto the highway:

It huddled on the pavement as the cars whizzed past it and over it, tires somehow missing it. I glimpsed the bird just as the tires of my car straddled it. At that moment, I made a rash decision. I decided to rescue the bird.

I stopped the car, jumped out, and held up my hands to stop traffic. If I should “shoo” the bird over the curb and into the hedge of bushes, it would be safe, at least from traffic. When I approached the bird it scooted away, but it didn’t scoot in a straight line. Whether it was too young to fly, whether its wing was injured, I do not know. But every time I bent down and waved my arms the bird would half hop, half fly in a crazy circle and end up back in the middle of the road. I could not catch it and I could not get it to run into the bushes.

By this time I had a considerable amount of traffic backed up. The close drivers were watching me with quizzical or suspicious expressions. Farther back, horns were honking. I kept thinking, “Just another minute and I’ll catch the little bird or it will run off into the bushes.” So I continued running around in the street, stooped over, flapping my arms, chasing that little feathered thing.

It was only then that I realized the other drivers could not see the bird!8

Visionary leaders see things others cannot, but often the fear of looking foolish keeps us from following God’s vision. The cross seemed foolish to Peter. But Jesus would not allow any fear of appearing foolish to keep him from embracing the Father’s vision for him. Only those who have a vision and are willing to pay a price to attain that vision will succeed.

Visionary leaders must learn to defer pleasure now for the sake of long-term gain. Of course, this is true not only in business or organizational success; it is true for all of life. Understanding this, we are not surprised by adversity. Rather, we expect that there will be suffering in this present age. The feast isn’t now; it is still yet to come. As Bob Dylan said, “Don’t go mistaking Paradise for that home across the road.”9 In other words, don’t confuse the here and now for the eternal. What we have here is almost nothing compared to what God has in store for us. But this glorious vision of the future God has prepared for us should shape the way we live in the here and now.

Oddly enough, it is only as we surrender earthly aspirations and pursue what God deems important that we discover real joy and pleasure. Jesus assures us that if we will seek his kingdom agenda first, everything else will get thrown in as a matter of course (Matthew 6:33). If we get the sequence wrong, we miss out on God’s kingdom, and we find out that all these other things don’t satisfy. Get the sequence right and we get both; get the sequence wrong and we get neither.

Until we get a clear vision of a God who wants to bless us in far greater ways than we can imagine, we will be tempted to do things our own way. Once we see the glory of his agenda, we will be willing to suffer, wait, endure and stand firm in the face of pain, confusion and adversity. Many leaders travel far and wide to find such a vision. They attend conferences and seminars, read books and listen to tapes. But the quest for a personal vision is never fulfilled through these means. “Personal vision,” writes Doug Banister, “ultimately comes from one place: intimate communion with God.”10


1 “The Story of the Game of the Century,” by G. Frank Burns, Cumberland University Historian, (www.cumberland.edu/about/gotc/gamestory.html)

2 Mark Buchanan, Things Unseen (Sisters, OR: Multnomah, 2002), pp. 183-184.

3 John Ortberg, If You Want to Walk on Water, You’ve Got to Get Out of the Boat (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2001), p. 49.

4 Burt Nanus, Visionary Leadership (Hoboken, NJ: Jossey-Bass, 1992), p. 10.

5 Leith Anderson, Leadership That Works (Minneapolis: Bethany House, 1999), p. 202.

6 Nanus, Visionary Leadership, p.8.

7 Ibid., p. 9.

8 Leonard Sweet, Aqua Church (Loveland, CO: Group Publishing, 1999), p. 132.

9 Bob Dylan, “The Ballad of Frankie Lee and Judas Priest,” 1968, renewed 1996 Dwarf Music.

10 Doug Banister, Sacred Quest (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2001), p. 168.

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Wisdom

Colin Smith tells about a recent trip to northern England when he and his family had the opportunity to visit Durham Cathedral. This magnificent place of prayer has stood for more than 900 years, still offering services daily. The main structure took 200 years to build! There were men who worked their entire lives on one level of the building and died knowing that even their grandchildren wouldn’t live to see it completed.

Smith says that the next day, he and his family drove past some apartment buildings that were thrown up in the 1960s. After only 40 years the buildings were in a terrible state. The problems weren’t just cosmetic; the buildings themselves were falling apart.

The contrast was striking. One building had been wonderfully put together and was still awe-inspiring after nearly 1,000 years. The other had been thrown together, and within a short time was an absolute mess.1 What a clear illustration of the difference between wisdom and folly. Centuries after Durham Cathedral was complete, men and women have much more knowledge in the areas of construction and engineering. And what do we produce with this knowledge? Ugly and shoddy apartment buildings!

The Purpose of Wisdom

Wisdom has less to do with knowledge than it has to do with the application of knowledge in very specific ways. Wisdom is skill in the art of living life with each component under the dominion of God. When a person in the Old Testament demonstrated exceptional ability in a craft or art, that person was said to have what the Hebrew language calls hokma. English-speaking translators render it as “skill.” In Exodus 31:3-5, God filled a man named Bezalel with the Holy Spirit and with “skill, ability and knowledge in all kinds of crafts – to make artistic designs for work in gold, silver and bronze, to cut and set stones, to work in wood, and to engage in all kinds of craftsmanship.” The word translated “skill” here is this word hokma.

Bezalel was given the ability to take raw materials and shape them into something beautiful and ornate. Likewise, in the book of Proverbs, we are viewed as that raw material. We are valuable but unshaped, worthwhile but undisciplined. We are precious but given to waywardness. We do not have within us the ability to take the raw material of our lives and shape it into the lifestyle our Creator desires us to live. Solomon selected that Hebrew word hokma to describe the quality needed by anyone who wanted to live life in the superlative – a life of excellence.

The Pursuit of Wisdom

The entire theme of the book of Proverbs is this: pursue wisdom. With the tone of a father giving instructions to his sons, Solomon writes:

Listen, my sons, to a father’s instruction; pay attention…. Do not forsake my teaching…. Get wisdom, get understanding…. Do not forsake wisdom…. Wisdom is supreme; therefore get wisdom. Though it cost you all you have, get understanding…. Accept what I say…. I guide you in the way of wisdom.

Proverbs 4:1-11

Verse after verse, the message is the same. Seek wisdom because it pays:

Blessed is the man who finds wisdom, the man who gains understanding, for she is more profitable than silver and yields better returns than gold. She is more precious than rubies; nothing you desire can compare with her. Long life is in her right hand; in her left hand are riches and honor. Her ways are pleasant ways, and all her paths are peace. She is a tree of life to those who embrace her; those who lay hold of her will be blessed.

Proverbs 3:13-18

Wisdom is that quality that enables one to live a noticeably, recognizably outstanding life. Imagine how much this wonderful thing called wisdom can contribute to effective leadership.

Not all leaders think about wisdom as a character trait that needs to be carefully cultivated. Of course, we would quickly agree that wisdom is more valuable than money or status. At least we would agree with that statement intellectually. But how many of us pursue wisdom with the same vigor with which we pursue wealth? How many of us cultivate wisdom with the same passion we use to cultivate our stock portfolio? Somehow we believe that wisdom just comes by itself. Certainly, wisdom can and often is the end result of long experience in the leader’s field of expertise. But the leader who gains wisdom by making poor decisions and learning from them is much farther behind than the leader who seeks the right kind of wisdom from the start.

In other words, learning from our own mistakes can lead to wisdom in the end. Malcolm Muggeridge said, “Every happening, great and small, is a parable whereby God speaks to us, and the art of life is to get the message.” Events in our lives are not neutral; they are God-given opportunities to gain wisdom. In Proverbs 8 wisdom is portrayed as a woman calling out for all to embrace her. Notice especially what she claims:

“I, wisdom, dwell together with prudence; I possess knowledge and discretion. To fear the Lord is to hate evil; I hate pride and arrogance, evil behavior and perverse speech. Counsel and sound judgment are mine; I have understanding and power. By me kings reign and rulers make laws that are just; by me princes govern, and all nobles who rule on earth. I love those who love me, and those who seek me find me. With me are riches and honor, enduring wealth and prosperity. My fruit is better than fine gold; what I yield surpasses choice silver. I walk in the ways of righteousness, along the paths of justice, bestowing wealth on those who love me and making their treasuries full.”

Proverbs 8:12-21

What leader in his or her right mind would not want such a priceless tool? Why would we not heed wisdom’s invitation? Imagine this wise and wonderful woman, gazing into your eyes and saying:

“Now then, my sons, listen to me; blessed are those who keep my ways. Listen to my instruction and be wise; do not ignore it. Blessed is the man who listens to me, watching daily at my doors, waiting at my doorway. For whoever finds me finds life and receives favor from the Lord.”

Proverbs 8:32-35

Could anything be more valuable to leadership than this?

The Provider of Wisdom

As with most things of value, however, wisdom is elusive, and it seems to be in short supply. Some people are crafty and shrewd, others are well-informed and highly educated, but few of us manifest the quiet depth of wisdom. In his book Making Life Work, Bill Hybels tells of a conversation he’d had recently with a businessman. Business was going so well that he’d had to hire new salespeople to fill all the orders. “The only problem,” the man told Bill,” is that so many of my new salespeople act weird…. They do stupid things and get themselves in trouble.” He went on to catalogue all the “weird” things his new salespeople did. They showed up for work late. They inflated prices. They were rude and uncooperative. Rather than building a successful career, they sabotaged themselves and wound up getting fired.

Hybels concludes that the bottom line of the man’s complaints is that he can’t find wise people. The people he hired were acting like fools. Hybels writes:

Today the word fool often means someone with low intelligence, but in biblical usage, fools may have a high I.Q. and a reputation for success. What makes them fools is that they ignore God’s wisdom, preferring to follow the shifting dictates of the crowd or their own fallible opinions. While fools often consider themselves clever – people who know how to beat the system – their cleverness all too often leads to their ruin. Their penchant for distorting the truth, their lack of discernment and discipline, their unwillingness to exhibit self-control and their apparent delight in throwing caution to the wind put them on a path to disaster.2

What is the secret and the source of wisdom? Job asked this question:

“But where can wisdom be found? Where does understanding dwell? Man does not comprehend its worth; it cannot be found in the land of the living. The deep says, ‘It is not in me’; the sea says, ‘It is not with me.’ It cannot be bought with the finest gold, nor can its price be weighed in silver. It cannot be bought with the gold of Ophir, with precious onyx or sapphires. Neither gold nor crystal can compare with it, nor can it be had for jewels of gold. Coral and jasper are not worthy of mention; the price of wisdom is beyond rubies. The topaz of Cush cannot compare with it; it cannot be bought with pure gold.

“Where then does wisdom come from? Where does understanding dwell? It is hidden from the eyes of every living thing, concealed even from the birds of the air. Destruction and Death say, ‘Only a rumor of it has reached our ears.’ God understands the way to it and he alone knows where it dwells, for he views the ends of the earth and sees everything under the heavens. When he established the force of the wind and measured out the waters, when he made a decree for the rain and a path for the thunderstorm, then he looked at wisdom and appraised it; he confirmed it and tested it. And he said to men, ‘The fear of the Lord – that is wisdom, and to shun evil is understanding.’”

Job 28:12-28

According to this passage, only God understands the way to wisdom because he alone is the source of true wisdom. The wisdom of God is evident in the beauty, subtlety, richness, intricacy, variety and splendor of the created order, and it is also evident in the person, powers and perfections of the God of creation.

Read that last verse again: “The fear of the Lord – that is wisdom, and to shun evil is understanding.” True wisdom can only be attained by cultivating the fear of the Lord. “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom, and knowledge of the Holy One is understanding” (Proverbs 9:10). To fear God is to nurture an attitude of awe and humility before him and to walk in radical dependence upon God in each area of life. The fear of the Lord is similar to the mindset of a subject before a powerful king; it is to be under divine authority as one who will surely give an account. In his discussion on what it means to honor God’s name, Rubel Shelly writes:

Scripture describes the spirit that hallows God’s name as the fear of the Lord. This spirit is at once an attitude of esteem and awe before the majesty of God and a confidence in his mercy and love. While Yahweh has revealed himself as a mighty and terrible God who is to be feared, he does not invoke the cringing, groveling terror that worshipers of pagan gods felt.

The people of God’s covenant community respect him. When he speaks, the people listen; when he commands, they obey; when he is disobeyed, he does not hesitate to punish. There is thus a stability about his relationship with his worshipers that was never present in any of the pagan myths. Their gods were petty, unpredictable, and untrustworthy. But Yahweh is the same yesterday, today, and forever.3

Fearing the Lord relates to trust, humility, teachability, servanthood, responsiveness, gratitude and reliance on God; it is the exact opposite of autonomy and arrogance.

King David cried out to God: “Teach me your way, O Lord, and I will walk in your truth; give me an undivided heart, that I may fear your name” (Psalm 86:11). David knew that he could not fear God if he had a divided heart. If his loyalties were divided between this world and the world to come, he would not be able to truly fear God. Wisdom relates to developing an eternal perspective on life, and it can only come from God – the fountain of all wisdom.

The Priority of Wisdom

Wisdom includes the ability to use the best means at the best time to accomplish the best ends. It is not merely a matter of information or knowledge, but of skillful and practical application of the truth to the ordinary facets of life. James tells us, “If any of you lacks wisdom, he should ask God, who gives generously to all without finding fault, and it will be given to him” (James 1:5). Admitting we lack wisdom is a difficult but necessary first step on the road to skillful living.

Many of us are like the CEO who was visited by an angel right in the middle of a board meeting. The angel said to him, “Because of your pious life, I’m going to give you a choice between unbounded wisdom, wealth or beauty.” Of course, being a pious man, he chose wisdom without hesitation. “Very well,” the angel said and disappeared in a cloud of smoke.

The CEO sat in silence with a glow about him as all the board members stared at him. Finally, someone whispered, “Say something to us. We want to hear the voice of wisdom.”

“I should have taken the money.”

If God (or a messenger from God) approached you and offered to grant you one wish, what would it be? Your answer to this question is one of the most telling things about you; it illuminates your value system.

Instead of asking for a long life or wealth or power, Solomon pleased the Lord by requesting a discerning heart of wisdom:

At Gibeon the Lord appeared to Solomon during the night in a dream, and God said, “Ask for whatever you want me to give you.”

Solomon answered, “You have shown great kindness to your servant, my father David, because he was faithful to you and righteous and upright in heart. You have continued this great kindness to him and have given him a son to sit on his throne this very day.

“Now, O Lord my God, you have made your servant king in place of my father David. But I am only a little child and do not know how to carry out my duties. Your servant is here among the people you have chosen, a great people, too numerous to count or number. So give your servant a discerning heart to govern your people and to distinguish between right and wrong. For who is able to govern this great people of yours?”

The Lord was pleased that Solomon had asked for this. So God said to him, “Since you have asked for this and not for long life or wealth for yourself, nor have asked for the death of your enemies but for discernment in administering justice, I will do what you have asked. I will give you a wise and discerning heart, so that there will never have been anyone like you, nor will there ever be. Moreover, I will give you what you have not asked for – both riches and honor – so that in your lifetime you will have no equal among kings. And if you walk in my ways and obey my statutes and commands as David your father did, I will give you a long life.”

1 Kings 3:5-14

Because of his focus on wisdom above all other things, Solomon was also granted things he did not ask for. This is an illustration of the truth of Jesus’ words concerning the one thing most needful for leaders today: “But seek first [God’s] kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well” (Matthew 6:33). When we pursue first things first, the second things are thrown in; when we pursue second things first, we not only miss out on the first things, but we also miss the fullness of the second things.

Wisdom is skill in the art of living with each facet of life under God’s authority. This wisdom differs greatly from the wisdom of this world. James tells us:

But if you harbor bitter envy and selfish ambition in your hearts, do not boast about it or deny the truth. Such “wisdom” does not come down from heaven but is earthly, unspiritual, of the devil. For where you have envy and selfish ambition, there you find disorder and every evil practice. But the wisdom that comes from heaven is first of all pure; then peace-loving, considerate, submissive, full of mercy and good fruit, impartial and sincere.

James 3:14-17

The wisdom of Christ is very different from the wisdom of this world; do not confuse the two.

Wise men and women throughout the centuries have spent regular time in the book of Proverbs. Some have even made it their practice to read one chapter a day each month, asking God for the qualities celebrated in this marvelous book: wisdom, prudence, understanding, discernment, discipline, insight, knowledge, discretion, guidance, instruction, faithfulness, sound judgment, humility, justice, diligence, the fear of the Lord and a true understanding of success.

The Pain of Ignoring Wisdom

How many of us have looked back across the ruins of failure and said, “I knew better. Why didn’t I listen?” Solomon offers an essential fact about wisdom that scares the discerning reader into thinking twice about heeding wisdom’s invitation:

Wisdom calls aloud in the street, she raises her voice in the public squares; at the head of the noisy streets she cries out, in the gateways of the city she makes her speech:

“How long will you simple ones love your simple ways? How long will mockers delight in mockery and fools hate knowledge? If you had responded to my rebuke, I would have poured out my heart to you and made my thoughts known to you. But since you rejected me when I called and no one gave heed when I stretched out my hand, since you ignored all my advice and would not accept my rebuke, I in turn will laugh at your disaster; I will mock when calamity overtakes you – when calamity overtakes you like a storm, when disaster sweeps over you like a whirlwind, when distress and trouble overwhelm you.

“Then they will call to me but I will not answer; they will look for me but will not find me. Since they hated knowledge and did not choose to fear the Lord, since they would not accept my advice and spurned my rebuke, they will eat the fruit of their ways and be filled with the fruit of their schemes. For the waywardness of the simple will kill them, and the complacency of fools will destroy them; but whoever listens to me will live in safety and be at ease, without fear of harm.”

Proverbs 1:20-33

Gary Richmond, a former zoo keeper, tells about an experience a friend had with a raccoon. He explains that raccoons go through a glandular change at about 24 months. After that they often attack their owners. Since a 30-pound raccoon can be equal to a 100-pound dog in a scrap, Richmond felt compelled to warn his young friend of his named Julie of the change coming to her pet raccoon. She listened politely as he explained the coming danger. She responded by saying what people always say, “It will be different for me.” She smiled and added, “Bandit wouldn’t hurt me. He just wouldn’t.” Three months later, Julie underwent plastic surgery for facial lacerations sustained when Bandit attacked her for no apparent reason. Bandit was released into the wild.4

God is not often interested in shortcuts, but there is a God-given shortcut to wisdom. Solomon assures us: “He who walks with the wise grows wise” (Proverbs 13:20a). We are given the opportunity to learn wisdom from others who are further down the road than we are. We don’t have to live and learn; we can learn and live. James Emery White says,

I am shocked at how many people attempt to make life-changing decisions, try to determine God’s will for their lives, or seek to follow their life purposes, and never bring other people into the process! This causes you to miss out on two very important tools that God wants to use in guiding you, the first being objectivity. You’re not objective about yourself, much less your life. Neither am I. I’m surrounded by my emotions, my circumstances, my biases, and my desires. I need to go to people who can see things independently of all that. But that’s not all I get through counsel. I also get wisdom. When I go to someone else, I get his or her experiences, maturity, and knowledge concerning what I’m trying to decide. This isn’t about running your life by committee, or taking what somebody says and feeling as if you have to follow it. It certainly shouldn’t be used as a shortcut to the hard work of studying the Bible for God’s moral will, or investing in prayer, evaluating circumstances, and using your common sense. But going to someone who is intimate with God, intimate with you, and able to tell you what you may not want to hear, is invaluable.5

Here is the critical principle of wisdom: The person who refuses to act on what he or she knows, who refuses wise counsel, who ignores sage advice, will get in trouble. In the resulting despair that good information will haunt that person; the fact that he or she knew what wisdom advised will become a cruel joke. While this passage says that wisdom will laugh and taunt, all the noise will come from inside this person’s own head. When he or she searches for some intelligent way out of the pit he or she has so foolishly dug, there will be no wisdom left.

The long-range view is a basic tenet of wisdom. The fool lives in the present moment while the sage considers the longer-term consequences of present action. The next time you hear someone say, “I know better,” or “Why didn’t I listen?” you’ll recognize this song of wisdom-after-the-fact.

Wisdom calls (vv. 20-21). Some listen (v. 33). Some don’t (vv. 21-32).

The Perseverance of Wisdom

When writing to the young men who were being educated for leadership, Solomon told them that wisdom was essential for their future hope. Was this the kind of wisdom that they could reproduce on a test? The kind of wisdom that they could recite in front of an audience? No – that’s a better description of information than wisdom. Leadership without wisdom will do more harm than good.

As much as students prepare for leadership, there is no textbook that will give them a technical answer to every difficult situation they will face. Still, Solomon instructs: “Know also that wisdom is sweet to your soul; if you find it, there is a future hope for you, and your hope will not be cut off” (Proverbs 24:14).

John Piper writes about why Biblical wisdom is so essential to the godly leader:

Of course, the Bible does not answer every question about life. Every fork in the road does not have a Biblical arrow. We have need of wisdom in ourselves to know the path of lasting joy. But that, too, is a gift of Scripture. “The law of the Lord is perfect…making wise the simple…the precepts of the Lord are right, giving joy to the heart” (Psalm 19:7-8, 119:98). People whose minds are saturated with God’s Word and submissive to his thoughts have a wisdom that in eternity will prove superior to all the secular wisdom in the world. “Blessed is the man who finds wisdom, the man who gains understanding” (Proverbs 3:13).6

Knowledge isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. There were two trees in the Garden of Eden: The tree of life and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. Adam and Eve picked the wrong tree. The knowledge of good and evil isn’t the kind of knowledge we want necessarily. From experiencing evil, we gain knowledge of it, but what good does that do? It only serves to alienate us from God and each other. T.S. Eliot said it this way in “Choruses from the Rock”:

    The endless cycle of idea and action,

    Endless invention, endless experiment,

    Brings knowledge of motion, but not of stillness;

    Knowledge of speech, but not of silence;

    Knowledge of words, and ignorance of the Word.

    All our knowledge brings us nearer to our ignorance,

    All our ignorance brings us nearer to death,,

    But nearness to death no nearer to God.

    Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge?

    Where is the knowledge we have lost in information?

    The cycles of Heaven in twenty centuries

    Bring us farther from God and nearer to the Dust.

Our culture is fat on information but thin on wisdom. Godly leaders must know how to take the raw material of knowledge and refine it into wisdom, turning crude data into high-octane wisdom. Wisdom perseveres; it lasts beyond all the currents of culture, beyond the fashions of the day. Wisdom seeks that which will last and is willing to trade immediate gratification for an eternal reward. Failure to acknowledge this will result in leaders who carefully spend their lives constructing a house of cards.


1 Colin S. Smith, Unlocking the Bible Story, vol. 2 (Chicago: Moody, 2002), p. 55.

2 Bill Hybels, Making Life Work (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1998), pp. 19-20.

3 Rubel Shelly, Written in Stone (West Monroe, LA: Howard Publishing, 1994), pp. 78-79.

4 Gary Richmond, A View from the Zoo Video Series (Nashville: W. Publishing Group).

5 James Emery White, You Can Experience a Purposeful Life (Nashville: Word, 2000), p. 160.

6 John Piper, Desiring God (Portland, OR: Multnomah, 1996), pp. 123-124.

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Accountability

Two men were fishing in a stream when they noticed that a nearby bridge was falling apart. Every time a vehicle would drive across it, another piece would fall and the entire bridge would shake dangerously. Finally, after a large truck passed over, the bridge completely fell apart in the middle. The two fishermen knew that if a car came around the bend, the driver would never know that the middle of the bridge was gone; the whole thing could come crashing down, damaging the vehicle and injuring the driver.

One of the men looked at his friend and said, “We’ve got to do something. What would be the ‘Christian’ thing to do?”

His friend thought for a moment and replied, “Build a hospital?”

It does seem that many in Christendom would rather build a hospital than put up a warning sign. We tend to deal with things after the fact instead of taking preventive action. We often allow a person to come to a very bad state before we get involved. Nowhere is this more clearly seen than in the absence of protective accountability alliances among leaders.

God told the prophet Jeremiah, “The heart is deceitful above all things and beyond cure” (Jeremiah 17:9). Our ability to embed ourselves within the impenetrable shell of rationalization, projection and denial is nothing short of amazing. Neil Plantinga writes:

We deny, suppress, or minimize what we know to be true. We assert, adorn, and elevate what we know to be false. We prettify ugly realities and sell ourselves the prettified versions. Thus a liar might transform “I tell a lot of lies to shore up my pride” to “Occasionally, I finesse the truth in order to spare other people’s feelings.”1

An entire field of social psychology – the study of “cognitive dissonance” – is based on our limitless ability to rationalize what we do and say. That being the case, we all need people who will help us protect ourselves from ourselves and the desires of our own hearts.

Effective leaders use the same standards for themselves that they apply to others. They hold themselves accountable just like everyone else on the team. Maintaining such accountability involves seeking 360-degree honesty. Skilled leaders consistently receive feedback from those who work above them, beside them and for them. David Watson says, “Anything that is subject to human limitation or error requires the collegial presence of another person to ensure responsibility. It is a fact of life.”2 A failure to provide a structure for such accountability will lead to a crisis of character and leadership.

An Ounce of Prevention

The tragedy of King David underscores what can happen when leaders fail to create a structure in which they are answerable for how they spend both their private and professional time. Ultimately, as he did with David, God will hold every leader accountable. The Bible shows us the dangers of living our lives free of accountability:

In the spring, at the time when kings go off to war, David sent Joab out with the king’s men and the whole Israelite army. They destroyed the Ammonites and besieged Rabbah. But David remained in Jerusalem.

One evening David got up from his bed and walked around on the roof of the palace. From the roof he saw a woman bathing. The woman was very beautiful, and David sent someone to find out about her. The man said, “Isn’t this Bathsheba, the daughter of Eliam and the wife of Uriah the Hittite?” Then David sent messengers to get her. She came to him, and he slept with her. (She had purified herself from her uncleanness.) Then she went back home. The woman conceived and sent word to David, saying, “I am pregnant.”

2 Samuel 11:1-5

By this point in time, David was about 50 years old, had been king for about 20 years, was a gifted musician, mighty warrior and capable leader. He enjoyed an intimate walk with God, a healthy family, a stable political position and an unbroken string of military victories. David was the king who had it all. The one thing he didn’t have was Uriah’s wife. And that was what he wanted.

One tragic factor that often gets overlooked in this story is that Uriah wasn’t just a faceless soldier in David’s army. Uriah was one of David’s mighty men (cf. 2 Samuel 23:39). This was a man with whom David had a relationship.

Most leaders don’t experience a sudden blow-out in their lives. More often it’s a slow leak that leads to disaster. Or, to use Derek Kidner’s phrase, “We deceive ourselves by the smallness of our surrenders.”3 In other words, a man can deceive himself into thinking that a small compromise will not matter. But small steps, taken consistently, add up to a great distance. Small compromise has a snowball effect; momentum develops, and before we realize what’s happening, life spins out of control.

David didn’t just wake up one morning and decide to trash his life by committing adultery with one of his mighty men’s wives and then having that man killed. David had already begun the descent into spiritual sloth by making small compromises. He began by taking an additional wife, then another and another and another. Eventually David had seven wives in all, but even that wasn’t enough. So, he stocked a harem. David had a slow leak of self-control. And he compounded that problem by not having anyone around who would tell him about the problem.

Now, while the rest of his army was at war, he stayed at home. Apparently, nobody dared question the wisdom of his hiatus. With nobody to answer to, he broke three of the Ten Commandments by coveting his neighbor’s wife and committing the acts of adultery and murder. As the details of David’s affair unfold, we can’t help but wince. David looks; David wants; David takes; David tries to cover up the consequences; David thinks he’s gotten away with it.

But then we come to the most important verse in the chapter, verse 27. There Samuel informs us tersely, “But the thing David had done displeased the Lord.” While David could hide his sins from his associates, he couldn’t hide them from God. The Bible assures us that our sin will find us out (Numbers 32:23). God sees what is done in secret (Psalm 90:8). Nothing is hidden from him or escapes his notice (Jeremiah 23:24). God may be slow to anger, but God does get angry. One day the Lord sent the prophet Nathan to confront David, and the king discovered that even kings are accountable for their actions.

When David was confronted with his sin, he had two options: Confession or denial. He will either be a man after God’s own heart, or he will go the catastrophic way of King Saul. Being a man after God’s own heart doesn’t mean we are flawless in our performance. Being a godly leader does not require us to practice sinless perfection. It does require us to be honest about our failures. David heard Nathan pronounce judgment from God, and he replied with six short words: “I have sinned against the Lord” (2 Samuel 12:13).

It’s not long before we find David composing Psalm 51 – a psalm of confession. In this psalm, David pours out his heart to God:

Have mercy on me, O God, according to your unfailing love; according to your great compassion blot out my transgressions. Wash away all my iniquity and cleanse me from my sin. For I know my transgressions, and my sin is always before me. Against you, you only, have I sinned and done what is evil in your sight….You do not delight in sacrifice, or I would bring it; you do not take pleasure in burnt offerings. The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.

Psalm 51:1-4a, 16-17

David knew that there was no sacrifice that would cover all these presumptuous sins of murder, covetousness and adultery. David knew there was nothing left to do but to throw himself on the mercy of God. The confrontation of a man of God leads David back into the arms of God. Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote, “Nothing can be more cruel than the leniency which abandons others to their sin. Nothing can be more compassionate than the severe reprimand which calls another Christian in one’s community back from the path of sin.”4

Jonathan had been a friend to David. He provided David with comfort and protection. There was a tremendous bond between these two as young men. Nathan cared enough for David to counsel or rebuke him when it was necessary. Both types of relationships are necessary for us. If David had invited Nathan into his life, perhaps Nathan could have given David advice rather than reprimand. Bonhoeffer continues:

When another Christian falls into obvious sin, an admonition is imperative, because God’s Word demands it. The practice of discipline in the community of faith begins with friends who are close to one another. Words of admonition and reproach must be risked.5

If we are not intentional about inviting someone like Nathan into our lives, God will provide a Nathan for us. But by then it may be too late to spare us from the consequences.

Wise leaders don’t wait for a crisis to establish accountability. Accountability relationships cannot be imposed; they must be invited. The onus is on leaders to establish structures and relationships that harness their sin and unleash their potential. We must seek out godly people of mature character and give them permission to ask us the tough questions. This requires risk on our part. It requires honesty and vulnerability – risky things that leaders are often skittish about. However, as anyone who has suffered the consequences of a fall will tell you, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.

God: The Highest Authority

If all humans and angels are accountable to God, to whom or to what is God accountable? Scripture gives an unambiguous answer: to no one and to nothing. There is no higher person or principle that God must consult before doing something. The Apostle Paul writes:

Oh, the depth and the riches of the wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable his judgments, and his paths beyond tracing out!

“Who has known the mind of the Lord? Or who has been his counselor?”

“Who has ever given to God, that God should repay him?”

For from him and through him and to him are all things. To him be the glory forever! Amen.

Romans 11:33-36

The mind and ways of God are inscrutable and mysterious to us. God’s judgments are unsearchable and his paths beyond our grasp. He does not need to consult with us or explain his ways to us. Instead, it is our responsibility to trust him and submit to his purposes for our lives, even when we haven’t a clue as to where he may be leading us.

God asked Job, “Who has a claim against me that I must pay? Everything under heaven belongs to me” (Job 41:11). No one has counseled God on the proper way to order his creation. God created the world for his own good pleasure, and, contrary to public opinion, life is all about him, not about us. Only when we order things correctly with him at the center are we able to find any semblance of satisfaction. Egocentricity will only lead to disappointment. It’s only when you displace the self by the enthronement of Christ that you discover true liberty and purpose. His service is our perfect freedom.

We were all designed to serve, and we will serve either the creator or the creation. Subhuman, human and angelic life is all derivative; all things are from him, through him and to him. Creation is a cruel and ruthless taskmaster; it will not sustain or provide true security, significance or satisfaction because it cannot.

On the other hand, every knee will bow before God and every tongue will confess to him. “Each of us will give an account of himself to God” (Romans 14:12). If the Scriptures are true, this is an inescapable reality that will impose itself upon us in spite of all human thoughts to the contrary. Wisdom, then, would counsel us to cultivate an ongoing acknowledgement of the brevity of this life (Psalm 90:12) and a growing awareness of the fact that “we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, that each one may receive what is due him for the things done while in the body, whether good or bad” (2 Corinthians 5:10).

Honesty: The Key to Accountability

There are many ways in which we can give the appearance of accountability while avoiding its reality. What is the purpose of accountability, and why do people generally try to evade it? How many of us perceive genuine accountability as being in our own best interest, regardless of the degree of inconvenience it may at times entail? The Bible tells us, in 2 Kings 5:20-27, about a man who thought he could avoid accountability.

Naaman, a Syrian army commander, had leprosy. His servant had told him that the prophet Elisha might be able to heal him. So, Naaman makes the trip to see Elisha. The prophet of God tells Naaman what to do in order to be healed, and, as unorthodox as the treatment was, it worked! Naaman is, obviously, overjoyed and offers Elisha gifts, but Elisha refuses them. But Elisha’s servant had another plan:

Gehazi, the servant of Elisha the man of God, said to himself, “My master was too easy on Naaman, this Aramean, by not accepting from him what he brought. As surely as the Lord lives, I will run after him and get something from him.”

So Gehazi hurried after Naaman. When Naaman saw him running toward him, he got down from the chariot to meet him. “Is everything all right?” he asked.

“Everything is all right,” Gehazi answered. “My master sent me to say, ‘Two young men from the company of the prophets have just come to me from the hill country of Ephraim. Please give them a talent of silver and two sets of clothing.’”

“By all means, take two talents,” said Naaman. He urged Gehazi to accept them, and then tied up the two talents of silver in two bags, with two sets of clothing. He gave them to two of his servants, and they carried them ahead of Gehazi. When Gehazi came to the hill, he took the things from the servants and put them away in the house. He sent the men away and they left. Then he went in and stood before his master Elisha.

“Where have you been, Gehazi?” Elisha asked.

“Your servant didn’t go anywhere,” Gehazi asked.

But Elisha said to him, “Was not my spirit with you when the man got down from his chariot to meet you? Is this the time to take money, or to accept clothes, olive groves, vineyards, flocks, herds, or menservants and maidservants? Naaman’s leprosy will cling to you and to your descendents forever.” Then Gehazi went from Elisha’s presence and he was leprous, as white as snow.

Gripped by greed, Elisha’s servant Gehazi lied to Naaman the Syrian and misrepresented his master. When Elisha confronted him, he lied once again, foolishly hoping to veil his deed from the spirit of the prophet. Elisha is not trying to trap his servant; he is trying to set him free.

Throughout Scripture, we find God seeking out sinful people and asking them questions like Elisha’s. He comes to the Garden of Eden and asks, “Adam, where are you?” (Genesis 3:9). Jesus walks with his disciples while they argue over whom among them greatest. He asks them, “What were you arguing about on the road?” (Mark 9:33). Why does God ask these questions? God is omniscient; he is never at a loss for information. God asks these questions to give us the opportunity to be honest.

Because of his refusal to acknowledge the true nature of his desires to Elisha, Gehazi rationalized his disobedience and failed to consider the possible consequences of his actions. Deception never leads to liberation; it leads to subjugation.

Our ability to deceive ourselves is virtually boundless; that is why accountability is so necessary. Without submitting to the counsel of others, we can rationalize almost anything, especially if what we’re doing involves a series of small compromises. Thus, accountability is needed not so much to protect us from others, but to protect us from ourselves.

Those who say that they are accountable only to God fail to realize the spheres of human authority that God has established for our good (Hebrews 13:17). Like the centurion who told Jesus, “For I myself am a man under authority, with soldiers under me” (Matthew 8:9), we must recognize our own need to be under the authority of others.

One of the benefits of accountability is that it is consistent with the human condition that makes us more concerned about what others think than about what God thinks. But we need to remember that accountability is only as good as the information upon which it is based. Accountability without full disclosure is a waste of time.

Who Shepherds the Shepherds?

A leader needs to hold his or her followers accountable for their actions. But who holds the leader accountable? His or her peers. Peter was a leader in the early church, but he called his fellow “shepherds of God’s flock” to be accountable to one another and to God:

To the elders among you, I appeal as a fellow elder, a witness of Christ’s sufferings and one who also will share in the glory to be revealed: Be shepherds of God’s flock that is under your care, serving as overseers – not because you must, but because you are willing, as God wants you to be; not greedy for money, but eager to serve; not lording it over those entrusted to you, but being examples to the flock. And when the Chief Shepherd appears, you will receive the crown of glory that will never fade away.

1 Peter 5:1-4

Peter gave these leaders some necessary counsel. He said, “As you shepherd God’s flock, remember that you, too, have a Shepherd.” The Bible urges accountability. Each person needs other good people with whom they can be honest and accountable (Ephesians 4:25; James 5:16).

As the first member of the Nixon administration to be incarcerated for Watergate-related charges, Chuck Colson learned the need for accountability the hard way. Now, as the founder and chairman of the board of Prison Fellowship ministries, he meets regularly with a small group of men. At their meetings, they ask each other the following seven questions:

    1. Have you been with a woman anywhere this past week that might be seen as compromising?

    2. Have any of your financial dealings lacked integrity?

    3. Have you exposed yourself to any sexually explicit material?

    4. Have you spent adequate time in Bible study and prayer?

    5. Have you given priority time to your family?

    6. Have you fulfilled the mandates of your calling?

    7. Have you just lied to me?6

Colson says, “We must take care to nurture those forms of social interaction that increase rather than decrease our sense of accountability to one another.”7 He knows what he’s talking about.

Peter was certainly known as a leader in the church, but within this group of “shepherds” he was not a boss. He describes himself as a “fellow elder,” placing himself among his peers. These leaders were given a pattern to follow as to how they were to relate and function, and they were called to model this pattern to others. The manner in which they were to exercise their leadership was not something they were to decide on their own. They knew that God would ultimately hold them accountable for how well they fulfilled their leadership responsibilities.

No leader is ultimately free from responsibility. And no leader is immune to getting off course. All people are accountable to God, and all people need a group of peers who can help them stay on course until Christ returns.

A Circle of Accountability

Princeton professor Robert Wuthnow has done tremendous research on America’s quest for community. He cites this testimony:

I used to be in this group of people who met weekly, and that was a specific circle of friends where we really did help each other out, sharing problems, sharing whatever. Now my friends are more linear. I’m friends with this person and I’m friends with that person, but I don’t have a circle of friends who sort of know each other right now.8

Wuthnow’s comments on this testimony show precisely why we must have a group of peers who assist us reaching our full potential:

The difference is that a circle provides for more internal accountability than a series of linear relationships. If your friends don’t know each other, you (even without thinking about it) play up one side of yourself to this friend and a different side to someone else. One friend, for example, can be a confidant on spiritual issues; another can share babysitting but have no spiritual points of intersection at all. When your friends all know each other because they are in the same group, you are more likely to experience the tendency toward personal consistency that fellow believers refer to as discipleship. Your friends can compare notes to see if you are treating them all the same. They can decide whether you need advice. For them to all get along with each other, they are likely to agree on certain principles themselves. And this agreement will minimize your chances of being pulled in widely different directions.9

Every person needs a circle of friends to help in reaching his or her full potential. The apostle Paul believed in the “law of the harvest.” He knew that God has established a spiritual law that, like the law of gravity, is inviolable. In Galatians 6:7, he makes it clear that we will reap what we sow. That’s as true for leaders as it is for farmers. If we want to reap a life of personal integrity and purpose, we must cultivate relationships that will keep us on track. Every leader needs to develop a few close friendships with people who will lovingly hold him or her accountable for keeping life focused and balanced.

Businessman Bob Briner discovered the benefits of accountability as he traveled extensively in the process of building the worldwide professional tennis circuit. At one time, the Grand Prix circuit included more than 90 professional events held in cities on every continent.

During one of those years, Briner kept a log that recorded his whereabouts for each day of the year. As December 31 approached, he made some final entries into his log. As he wrote, Briner realized that, while he had visited many of the great capitals of the world and numerous exotic cities, his two favorite places were McPherson, Kansas, and Greenville, Illinois.

Why? Briner explained that those two cities were his favorites because they were home to a few of his key friends whom he needed in order to remain focused on building the kingdom of God – not the kingdom of sports. He suggested that any believer who spends a good deal of time with people who don’t understand – or are antagonistic toward – his or her faith needs relationships built on accountability and caring.10

In his book The Man in the Mirror, Patrick Morley writes an open letter to men and their pastors:

Dear Pastor,

You know me well. I sit toward the front of the church every Sunday – I’m always there. On the way out, I always greet you with a handshake and a smile. You seem to be glad to see me too.

But you don’t know the “real me” very well. Behind my happy smile is a life that is somehow unbalanced. Occasionally, you have asked me how I’m doing, and I’ve told you, “I’m fine. How are you?” (I’ve learned the easiest way to keep to myself is to refocus the attention back on the other person.)

The truth is, I’m not sure you really want an answer. I know you deal with a real lot of pain and a real lot of suffering: people losing jobs, their homes, their families, loved ones. Frankly, I’m a little embarrassed to talk to you about where I am spiritually. I’m supposed to be on top of things – after all, I’m a successful businessman.

I’ve tried to take a look at my life to examine my ways, but the plain truth is I don’t know how. I really enjoy your sermons. They move my emotions and my spirit, but on Monday morning at 9:00, when the phones start ringing and the customers start complaining, I can’t seem to make the transition. I really need help.

Somehow I sense that my problems are really spiritual problems, but I can’t find spiritual answers. I know that my marriage looks like the picture of success, but behind the closed doors of my private castle, life is very different – I would be ashamed for you to know.

My children don’t seem to like to spend time with me anymore. Frankly, I’ve shut them out of my life for so long, I can’t really blame them. I’ve wasted more nights in empty motel rooms than I care to remember. At first, I thought I was doing it for my family – to provide them a better standard of living. But now I realize that I was really doing it for me – for my own personal self-gratification. Maybe I thought it would make me feel more significant. Anyway, I got the ends and means mixed up, and now I really don’t think that they like me very much anymore.

I know lots of people, but I’m really a very lonely man. I wouldn’t know who to talk to if I could put my frustrations into words. There is no accountability in my life whatsoever. Nobody knows or even seems to care how I’m doing financially, with my business, with my wife, with my children or spiritually. I know you are interested at the group level, but I’m just talking about me – personally, individually. I don’t expect you personally to spend time with me, but I wish we had some way of linking men together to talk about these things. I think it would happen if you really got behind the idea.

Frankly, I’ve done some things in business which I regret. I’ve cut corners and compromised my integrity. I feel guilty about it, but since nobody knows the difference, I just go on pretending everything is okay.

I’m really not much different from anyone else. I often wonder if behind those plastic Sunday-morning smiles, other men might feel the same way I do.

Oh well. I never planned on mailing this letter anyway. But I just had to get some of these things off my chest. I really wish I could tell you about these things. There’s so much I want to know, and I need someone to talk to. Oh well. I guess I’ll see you on Sunday.

Sincerely,
Frank11

We’ll never know how many men compose letters like this one but never send them. Nobody wants to go through life like this. Nobody gets married thinking, “One day my wife and I are going to feel like complete strangers.” Nobody starts a new job and wonders, “How long until I begin compromising my ethics?” Nobody wants to “waste more nights in empty motel rooms” than they care to remember. Nobody wants to “go on pretending everything is okay.” It just happens. Sometimes it seems life just works out that way. And here’s at least one reason why: We don’t intentionally seek out people who can and will tell us the truth and ask us the hard questions.

These relationships will not be easy to cultivate. They will require intentionality, time, trust and vulnerability. But the cost/benefit analysis shows that this is one investment leaders cannot afford to pass up.


1 Neil Plantinga, Not the Way It’s Supposed to Be (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1995), p. 105.

2 David Watson, Covenant Discipleship (Nashville: Discipleship Resources, 1996), p. 17.

3 Derek Kidner, Proverbs, Tyndale Old Testament Commentaries, vol. 15. Grand Rapids: Tyndale, 1964.

4 Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together. Trans. Daniel Bloesch and James Burtness. (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1996), 105

5 Ibid.

6 Charles Colson, The Body (Dallas: Word, 1992), 131.

7 Charles Colson, “Cyber Smearing: Revenge on the Net,” BreakPoint Commentary #91021, October 21, 1999 (www.pbc.org/cybercolson.html).

8 Robert Wuthnow, Sharing the Journey: Support Groups and America’s New Quest for Community (New York: Free Press, 1994), 276.

9 Ibid., 276-277.

10 Bob Briner, Business Basics from the Bible (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1996), 53-55.

11 Patrick Morley, The Man in the Mirror (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2000), pp. 333-335.


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Change and Innovation

A cartoon I saw in The New Yorker showed a CEO winding up his speech at a board meeting with the following sentence: “And so, while the end-of-the-world scenario will be rife with unimaginable horrors, we believe that the pre-end period will be filled with unprecedented opportunities for profit.”1 Somehow that seems to capture the spirit of our times.

Many of us live with the same perspective as King Hezekiah in 2 Kings 20:19. After being told that, because of his pride and arrogance, his wealth and posterity would fall into the hands of the Babylonians, he actually says, “The word of the Lord that you have spoken is good…. Will there not be peace and security in my lifetime?” Hezekiah was only concerned with how things would be during his own time here on earth. He gave no thought to the hardships others would endure after he was gone. Many of our environmental and financial decisions demonstrate this same outlook. And yet our time on earth is only a speck in cosmic terms. A.W. Tozer was rightly said,

The days of the years of our lives are few, and swifter than a weaver’s shuttle. Life is a short and fevered rehearsal for a concert we cannot stay to give. Just when we appear to have gained some proficiency, we are forced to lay our instruments down. There is simply not time enough to think, to become, to perform what the constitution of our natures indicates we are capable of.2

If life here on earth is all there is, then our mortality is distressing. But the Bible invites us to see that there is more to this life than the constant pendulum-swing from happiness to regret. You are not defined by your past; you are defined by your future. You have a destiny, a hope and a future. The past is finite, but the future is unbounded. The past is fixed, but lasting change is possible for those of us who are united with the God who makes all things new (Revelation 21:5). In fact, change is not only possible, it is normative for those who live their lives with a sense of holy calling, a determination to follow Jesus wherever he leads.

Jesus, the Change-Agent

An old story has a husband asking his wife, “Honey, why do you cut off the ends of a roast before you cook it?”

“Because my mother did it that way,” she responded with a smile.

Curious, the husband called the wife’s mother and asked her the same question. When she gave an identical answer, he called his wife’s grandmother. The moment the elderly matron heard the question she laughed and said, “I don’t know why they cut off the ends of the roast, but I did it that way because a full roast wouldn’t fit in my pan.”

That story illustrates how most practices are initiated to serve a purpose. But over time, even the best practice can lose its usefulness. It takes a wise leader to know when to change something. It takes insight to recognize when it’s time for innovation. Jesus certainly understood the role of change and rebuked those who stood in the way of innovation:

Now John’s disciples and the Pharisees were fasting. Some people came and asked Jesus, “How is it that John’s disciples and the disciples of the Pharisees are fasting, but yours are not?”

Jesus answered, “How can the guests of the bridegroom fast while he is with them? They cannot, so long as they have him with them. But the time will come when the bridegroom will be taken from them, and on that day they will fast.

“No one sews a patch of unshrunk cloth on an old garment. If he does, the new piece will pull away from the old, making the tear worse. And no one pours new wine into old wineskins. If he does, the wine will burst the skins, and both the wine and the wineskins will be ruined. No, he pours new wine into new wineskins.”

Mark 2:18-22

The Pharisees chided Jesus because he didn’t force his disciples to fast. Jesus informed them that he had not come to add a few new rules and regulations to Judaism. He had something entirely new to impart. The Lord made it clear to those religious leaders that he hadn’t come to patch an old system. Such an effort would be as foolish as putting a patch of unshrunk cloth on an old garment, or putting new wine in an old wineskin. When the patch shrank, the garment would tear. When the wine fermented, the wineskin would burst. The old forms of Judaism could never contain the spirit of Jesus’ message.

Change challenges our existing categories. In order to change we must reorder our thought processes and see the same things in new ways. The idea that the Messiah would suffer and serve and live in poverty and humility – that was unthinkable for Jewish people prior to the Christ’s incarnation. They would never have imagined that the Messiah would be born in obscurity and die a criminal’s death. This was out of their box. Jesus was an innovator, a change-agent. So is every effective leader.

Change on a Cosmic Scale

In one way or another, all of us have an aversion to change, especially when things appear to be going reasonably well. But we serve a God who makes all things new (Revelation 21:5). God is not interested in preserving the status quo; he is committed to nothing less than an entirely new order or creation. The incarnation of God the Son brought about a radical change that disrupted the status quo for all eternity. The Gospel of John begins:

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning.

Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made. In him was life, and that life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, but the darkness has not understood it.

There came a man who was sent from God; his name was John. He came as a witness to testify concerning that light, so that through him all men might believe. He himself was not the light; he came only as a witness to the light. The true light that gives light to every man was coming into the world.

He was in the world, and though the world was made through him, the world did not recognize him. He came to that which was his own, but his own did not receive him. Yet to all who received him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God – children born not of human decision or a husband’s will, but born of God.

The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the One and Only, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.

John testifies concerning him. He cries out, saying, “This was he of whom I said, ‘He who comes after me has surpassed me because he was before me.’” From the fullness of his grace we have all received one blessing after another. For the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. No one has ever seen God, but God the One and Only, who is at the Father’s side, has made him known.

John 1:1-18

John deliberately opened his Gospel with an allusion to the opening words of the creation account in Genesis 1. Actually, John goes back before Genesis 1, which talks about the beginning of creation. Even before creation, the Word existed. At the time of the beginning, the Word already was. Through the mystery of the incarnation, the Word who created the world entered into his own creation and became one of us. He who forever existed as spirit has now and for all eternity become the God-man. There is a man in heaven – Christ is now in his glorified resurrection body – and because of this, he has made it possible for us to enter into the intimacy of fellowship with God himself. “Father, I want those you have given me to be with me where I am, and to see my glory, the glory you have given me because you loved me before the creation of the world” (John 17:24).

Significantly, the world he created is complex and elegant – filled with clues about the character and nature of its creator. The more we learn about this created order, the more sophisticated its designer appears. The magnificent design of the solar system and all the many galaxies we are now able to observe make it clear just how creative the creator must be. But we need not limit our observations to a telescope. By looking through a microscope, the same variety and imagination can be seen. From the very large to the very small, God’s intricate design reveals him to be a creator of amazing innovation and diversity.

It should not be surprising, then, that the One who infused creation with change and innovation should himself be innovative in his dealings with human beings. The flood, the call of Abraham, the Mosaic covenant, the new covenant, the incarnation, the crucifixion, the resurrection, the day of Pentecost, the second advent, the new heavens and new earth – all of these illustrate the dramatic and unprecedented innovations that have been wrought by God.

The Apostle Paul picks up this theme when writes:

For Christ’s love compels us, because we are convinced that one died for all, and therefore all died. And he died for all, that those who live should no longer live for themselves but for him who died for them and was raised again.

So from now on we regard no one from a worldly point of view. Though we once regarded Christ in this way, we do so no longer. Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has gone, the new has come! All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation: that God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting men’s sins against them. And he has committed to us the message of reconciliation. We are therefore Christ’s ambassadors, as though God were making his appeal through us. We implore you on Christ’s behalf: Be reconciled to God. God made him who knew no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.

2 Corinthians 5:14-21, emphasis added

Here is the most inventive mind of all, taking on human flesh and limitations. He does this so that you and I can enjoy intimacy with him. As we grow in him we are being made truly human. Through his transforming power, we become the people God intended us to be. James S. Steward, noted Scottish preacher and friend of the famous William Barclay, tells us there once was in the city of Florence a massive, shapeless block of marble that seemed fitted to be the raw material of some colossal statue. One sculptor after another tried his hand at it, without success. They cut and carved and hewed and chipped at it, until it seemed hopelessly disfigured.

Then someone suggested they give Michelangelo a shot at it. He began by having a house built right over the block of marble, and for long months he was shut up there with it, nobody knowing what he was doing. Then one day he flung open the door and told them to come in. They did, and there before their eyes – instead of a shapeless, meaningless block – was the magnificent statue of David, one of the glories of the world. So it is that Christ takes defeated and disfigured lives and refashions them, changing them into the very image of God.3

No other religion has a concept such as this. In every other religious system, men and women are left to save themselves. To paraphrase Larry Hall, we are left to lift ourselves off the ground by our own shirt collar.4 Only the Bible shows us a true assessment of the human condition. Only here do we see our great dignity and our great depravity. Because we see ourselves honestly and accurately, we understand that God had to reach down in order to lift us up. Luder Whitlock, former president of Reformed Theological Seminary, writes:

The gospel offers an escape from the deadening influence of sin that chokes the joy from life and dashes it to the ground, producing an ugly, broken mess. God converts the believer into a new person in Christ. As the Lord remakes that person in his image, he gives the believer a new ability to reshape life and the world into a thing of beauty reflective of God’s own nature. The innovative, aesthetic dimensions of life find redemptive stimulation, and the corrosive, destructive tendency of sinful influence gradually diminishes as spiritual maturity increases. As the Bible states, ‘He has made everything beautiful in its time’ (Eccles. 3:11). This is true of God’s transforming influence on Christians. God’s perfection is linked to his beauty, so as sin and its influence diminish, his beauty is manifested, though imperfectly, in us. God’s creativity resulted in the making of not only new things but beautiful things. In similar fashion, as we become more like God, we become not only innovative or creative, but we develop a love for beauty and a desire to multiply it.5

The biblical doctrine of grace elevates without inflating; it humbles without degrading. We can repair and renovate, we can make things like new, but only God can make things new.

The Necessity of Change

Change and innovation are integral components of both biological and spiritual growth. The Scriptures focus more on process than on product, because all believers are in a process (whether we resist it or not) of becoming the people God meant us to be. Without change, growth is impossible. Abram learned the truth that it is impossible to stay where you are and go with God at the same time:

The Lord had said to Abram, “Leave your country, your people and our father’s household and go to the land I will show you.

“I will make you into a great nation and I will bless you; I will make your name great, and you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and whoever curses you I will curse; and all peoples on earth will be blessed through you.”

Abram was well established in Ur of the Chaldeans when God called him to leave his homeland. After he had settled for some time in Haran, his father Terah died, and the Lord once again instructed Abram to uproot himself, this time at the age of 75. Since the flood, God had been working with the nations in general, but now he was selecting a man whose descendants would constitute a new people who would be set apart for him. The Abrahamic covenant became the vehicle through which God would bless “all peoples on earth,” since the Messiah would come from the seed of Abram.

Abram experienced immense change through his encounters with God. This is no mere shifting of external elements in his life, not simply an adjustment of activity or schedule. God asked for a complete overhaul of Abram’s career, dreams, destiny. God even changed his name from Abram to Abraham to signify the depth of this change. But there is a huge gap between when the promise comes and when it is fulfilled. Weeks turn into months turn into years turn into decades – and still Abraham and Sarah have no child.

How could Abram respond? Very simply, “Abraham believed the Lord…” (Genesis 15:6). Abraham trusted God in spite of the evidence to the contrary. He continued to walk in obedience and faith. Then, when it seemed completely impossible and Abraham acknowledged his inability to provide an heir for himself, God provided.

When God calls a person, it requires trust and obedience to follow him. It is not simply a call to a new way of life; it is a call to a new kind of life. This level of uprooting and total change can generate great stress. It is threatening, scary and difficult. Change of this magnitude must be deeply rooted in a solid core of values.

When leaders contemplate change, their first consideration must be the anchors that provide stability in a changing environment. Abraham believed in the Lord, and that security allowed him to pursue revolutionary change. Similarly, the Christian life is an ongoing process of change and internal revolution, grounded in the belief that this process is reforming us to become more Christlike.

This process should not be thought of as “pain free.” God invites us to do something counter-intuitive: go through the pain and not around it. God often uses the painful experiences of life to shape us and aid the transformation process. Jim McGuiggan writes:

When we say suffering and death can be redemptive, we’re not saying they’re not hateful or excruciating; we’re not saying the sufferers aren’t in agony. No! We’re speaking our faith that God will not allow us to face anything without the privilege of his working it for good – if we will but say yes to his offer. He will not allow suffering to be meaningless but will, with our permission, force it to be the soil out of which things like compassion, sympathy, courage, and service grow.6

To take the “slings and arrows of outrageous fortune” and weave them into a beautiful tapestry, this takes imagination, creativity, innovation of the highest level. This is our Creator-God who promises to redeem our pain and refine us in the process.

Imagine the opportunity that is available to us – to spend all of eternity in unbroken fellowship with this level of innovation! Heaven will not be static. Nothing can remain the same in his presence. God is always full of wonderful surprises. The variety we observe on earth and in the cosmos is a mere shadow of what things will be like in heaven. Whatever adventures this life allows us, whatever joys and excitements we feel here will pale in comparison to heaven.

So God invites us to go through his refining process and promises us that he will be on the other end of it. He will receive us and welcome us to a place beyond our wildest imagination. The Apostle Paul knew this well and wrote, “I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us” (Romans 8:18).

Managing Change

Change is part of God’s plan for us, but it’s hard. Change is tough enough when we’re the only ones involved. But the role of a leader is to bring about change in others and/or in an organization. Now that’s really tough! God modeled some powerful principles of organizational change when he urged the exclusively Jewish church in Jerusalem to embrace Gentiles. Acts 10 tells the story:

About noon the following day as [Cornelius’ servants] were on their journey and approaching the city, Peter went up on the roof to pray. He became hungry and wanted something to eat, and while the meal was being prepared, he fell into a trance. He saw heaven opened and something like a large sheet being let down to earth by its four corners. It contained all kinds of four-footed animals, as well as reptiles of the earth and birds of the air. Then a voice told him, “Get up, Peter. Kill and eat.”

“Surely not, Lord!” Peter replied. “I have never eaten anything impure or unclean.”

The voice spoke to him a second time, “Do not call anything impure that God has made clean.”

This happened three times, and immediately the sheet was taken back to heaven.

While Peter was wondering about the meaning of the vision, the men sent by Cornelius found out where Simon’s house was and stopped at his gate. They called out, asking if Simon who was known as Peter was staying there.

While Peter was still thinking about the vision, the Spirit said to him, “Simon, three men are looking for you. So get up and go downstairs. Do not hesitate to go with them, for I have sent them.”

Peter went down and said to the men, “I’m the one you’re looking for. Why have you come?”

The men replied, “We have come from Cornelius the centurion. He is a righteous and God-fearing man, who is respected by all the Jewish people. A holy angel told him to have you come to his house so that he could hear what you have to say.” Then Peter invited the men into the house to be his guests.

The next day Peter started out with them, and some of the brothers from Joppa went along. The following day he arrived in Caesarea. Cornelius was expecting them and had called together his relatives and close friends. As Peter entered the house, Cornelius met him and fell at his feet in reverence. But Peter made him get up. “Stand up,” he said, “I am only a man myself.”

Talking with him, Peter went inside and found a large gathering of people. He said to them: “You are well aware that it is against our law for a Jew to associate with a Gentile or visit him. But God has shown me that I should not call any man impure or unclean…. I now realize how true it is that God does not show favoritism but accepts men from every nation who fear him and do what is right.”

Acts 10:9-28, 34-35

Change is inherent in leadership. The enormous reversal described in this passage shows how God led Peter from being an opponent of change to becoming its champion. Notice seven principles from the passage:

    1. God started where Peter was. He addressed Peter’s values and convictions (vv. 9-16). The wise innovator takes time to understand the people who must adapt to the change and demonstrates that it will not violate their values and convictions (v. 15).

    2. God allowed Peter to challenge the idea (vv. 14-15). If people’s objections aren’t dealt with in a forthright and honest manner, the leader can begin to perceive their concerns as antagonism.

    3. God gave Peter time to work through his resistance (vv. 16-17). Adaptation to change takes time, and the wise leader allows people the needed time to work through their reservations.

    4. God permitted Peter to observe change in a limited situation before suggesting wholesale change. He allowed Peter to “try on” the change under controlled circumstances. Effective leaders allow their people to experiment with the process of change in order for them to begin to anticipate its effects.

    5. The change proposal was well prepared (vv. 1-7, 19-23, 30-33). God anticipated Peter’s questions and had evidence ready to support his answers. When introducing change, wise leaders will be prepared to answer questions that might arise.

    6. God didn’t ask Peter to “change”; he invited him to participate in improving what Peter loved. Peter quickly saw the advantage of the new over the old (v. 34). Early in the process, God demonstrated the benefits that the “new” would produce (vv. 44-46). Abandoning the comfort of the status quo can be threatening, and understanding leaders will help their followers to recognize the improvements the change will bring about.

    7. God convinced a key leader and allowed that leader himself to champion the change (Acts 11:1-18). Individuals are easier to work with than a group. Some changes need the support of a few key leaders who will then help others to reconcile themselves to the new circumstances.

Changing and Staying the Same – At the Same Time?

Change is important. But it’s also important to cling to core values. Peter experienced that tension, and God helped him facilitate change while not abandoning his core values. James C. Collins and Jerry I. Porras help us to understand the importance of both change and core values to a leader. In their excellent book Built to Last, they note that once a visionary company identifies its core ideology, it preserves it almost religiously – changing it seldom, if ever. They conclude:

[C]ore values in a visionary company form a rock-solid foundation and do not drift with the trends and fashions of the day. In some cases, the core values have remained intact for well over one hundred years…. Yet, while keeping their core ideologies tightly fixed, visionary companies display a powerful desire for progress that enables them to change and adapt without compromising their cherished core ideals.7

Collins and Porras effectively make the point that capable leaders, who recognize their core values, can change practices and procedures to enable their organization to move forward.

Acts 16 is a record of Paul’s missionary travels. He was not one to be haphazard in his planning, but he remained open to the leadership of his Lord:

Paul and his companions traveled throughout the region of Phrygia and Galatia, having been kept by the Holy Spirit from preaching the word in the province of Asia. When they came to the border of Mysia, they tried to enter Bithynia, but the Spirit of Jesus would not allow them to. So they passed by Mysia and went down to Troas. During the night Paul had a vision of a man of Macedonia standing and begging him. “Come over to Macedonia and help us.” After Paul had seen the vision, we got ready at once to leave for Macedonia, concluding that God had called us to preach the gospel to them.

Acts 16:6-10

Paul had his itinerary and his maps. “Bithynia or Bust” was written on the side of his donkey. But God changed this to “Macedonia or Bust!” Change – new direction. But Paul’s core value was not Bithynia. It was fulfilling God’s desire to expand his kingdom. Because he didn’t confuse his desire (to go to Bithynia) with his core value (to follow God’s call), Paul enthusiastically “sailed straight for Samothrace” (v. 11). Like Paul, all godly leaders need the ability to hold to core values while making those changes necessary to advance their cause.

Leonard Sweet is the dean of the Theological School and vice president at Drew University in Madison, New Jersey. He has written extensively to church leaders about the need to distinguish between content and containers. In his book AquaChurch, he writes,

Water is a liquid that fills the shape of any receptacle. As long as we trust the water and don’t tamper with the recipe – don’t dilute it, thicken it, or separate its ingredients – the content can remain the same while containers change…. I am a virtual fundamentalist about content. I am a virtual libertarian about containers. Only in Jesus the Christ did the container and content become one. Jesus’ comments about new wine in old wineskins reminds us that we cannot make an idolatry of any form or container. We must not elevate an ecclesial form to the level of authority or primacy that belongs only to the content…. The mystery of the gospel is this: It is always the same (content), and it is always changing (containers). In fact, for the gospel to remain the same, it has to change…. In fact, one of the ways you know the old, old truths are true is their ability to assume amazing and unfamiliar shapes while remaining themselves and without compromising their integrity.8

One of the great hymns of the church says, “God is the Fountain whence ten thousand blessings flow.” God is a fountain. St. Gregory of Nyssa used this imagery when he wrote:

If anyone happened to be near the fountain which Scripture says rose from the earth at the beginning of creation…he would approach it marveling at the endless stream of water gushing forth and bubbling out. Never could he say that he had seen all the water…. In the same way, the person looking at the divine, invisible beauty will always discover it anew since he will see it as something newer and more wondrous in comparison to what he had already comprehended.9

A fountain is still, yet it moves, constant and ever-changing, quiet and savage. It welcomes and warns. It goes up and down, in and out all at the same time. It’s water, but not the way most of us normally think of water. Innovative and faithful simultaneously, just like God, just like godly leaders.


1 Robert Mankoff, The New Yorker 9/9/2002.

2 A.W. Tozer, The Knowledge of the Holy (New York: Harper and Row, 1961), p. 52.

3 James S. Steward, The Gates of New Life (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1937), pp. 245-246.

4 Larry Hall, No Longer I (Abilene, TX: ACU Press, 1998), p. 127.

5 Luder G. Whitlock, Jr., The Spiritual Quest (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2000), pp. 148-149.

6 Jim McGuiggan, The God of the Towel (West Monroe, LA: Howard Publishing, 1997), p. 178.

7 James C. Collins and Jerry I. Porras, Built to Last (New York: Harper Collins, 1994), pp. 8-9.

8 Leonard Sweet, AquaChurch (Loveland, CO: Group Publishing, 1999), pp. 28-30.

9 St. Gregory of Nyssa, Commentary on the Song of Songs (Brookline, MA: Hellenic College Press, 1987), p. 201.

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Communicating Vision

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A man was struggling to get his washing machine through the front door of his home as his neighbor was walking past. The neighbor, being a good neighbor, stopped and asked if he could help. The man breathed a sigh of relief and said, “That would be great. I’ll get it from the inside and you get it from the outside. We should be able to handle this quickly.”

But after five minutes of continual struggle, they were both exhausted. Wiping the sweat from his brow, the neighbor said, “This thing is bigger than it looks. I don’t know if we’ll ever be able to get it into your house.”

Into my house? I’m trying to get this thing out of my house!”

Few things are more vital than clear communication, particularly for leaders. The great Italian conductor Arturo Toscanini was notoriously bad at being able to communicate what he wanted to his musicians. His fits of frustration at his own lack of communication skills were legendary. After trying several times to convey something very particular to a trumpet player, he threw up his hands and shouted, “God tells me how the music should sound, but you stand in the way!” On another occasion, during a rehearsal of Debussy’s La Mer, he found himself yet again at a loss for words to describe the effect he hoped to achieve from a particular passage. He thought for a moment, then took a silk handkerchief from his pocket and tossed it high in the air. The mesmerized musicians watched its slow and graceful descent through the air. “There,” said the maestro, “play it like that.”1

It is one thing to have vision, but without clear communication, vision will never become reality. Until others have understood the vision well enough to articulate it themselves, they cannot be expected to pursue it with passion. Leonard Sweet wisely reminds us, “It’s not people who are right who change the world. It’s people who can communicate their definition of right to others who change the world.”2

Casting God’s Vision

When God provided David with a vision of the Jerusalem temple, the king wanted to be personally instrumental in making that dream a reality. But the Lord told David that the job of building the temple would be given to Solomon, David’s son and successor. David chose not to view himself as having been cut out of the action. Instead, he energetically undertook his new charge – that of instilling his vision and passion for the temple in Solomon and enlisting his unqualified support:

King David rose to his feet and said: “Listen to me, my brothers and my people. I had it in my heart to build a house as a place of rest for the ark of the covenant of the Lord, for the footstool of our God, and I made plans to build it. But God said to me, ‘You are not to build a house for my Name, because you are a warrior and have shed blood…. Solomon your son is the one who will build my house and my courts, for I have chosen him to be my son, and I will be his father. I will establish his kingdom forever if he is unswerving in carrying out my commands and laws, as is being done at this time.’

“So now I charge you in the sight of all Israel and of the assembly of the Lord, and in the hearing of our God: Be careful to follow all the commands of the Lord your God, that you may possess this good land and pass it on as an inheritance to your descendants forever.

“And you, my son Solomon, acknowledge the God of your father, and serve him with wholehearted devotion and with a willing mind, for the Lord searches every heart and understands every motive behind the thoughts. If you seek him, he will be found by you; but if you forsake him, he will reject you forever. Consider now, for the Lord has chosen you to build a temple as a sanctuary. Be strong and do the work.”

Then David gave his son Solomon the plans for the portico of the temple, its buildings, its storerooms, its upper parts, its inner rooms and the place of atonement. He gave him the plans of all that the Spirit had put in his mind for the courts of the temple of the Lord and all the surrounding rooms, for the treasuries for the dedicated things…. He also gave him the plan for the chariot, that is, the cherubim of gold that spread their wings and shelter the ark of the covenant of the Lord.

“All this,” David said, “I have in writing from the hand of the Lord upon me, and he gave me understanding in all the details of the plan.”

David also said to Solomon his son, “Be strong and courageous, and do the work. Do not be afraid or discouraged, for the Lord God, my God, is with you. He will not fail you or forsake you until all the work for the service of the temple of the Lord is finished. The divisions of the priests and Levites are ready for all the work on the temple of God, and every willing man skilled in any craft will help you in all the work. The officials and all the people will obey your every command.

1 Chronicles 28:2-21

Notice how David proceeded. First, he made it clear that the vision had come from God (vv. 2-3). Second, he informed Solomon that his role would be to lead the charge in building the temple (vv. 6-7). Such a task would require total devotion to the Lord and to the work. A halfhearted effort wouldn’t get the job done (vv. 8-10). Third, David assured the people that this enormous task would be accomplished because God would enable Solomon to get the job done (v. 6). Fourth, David gave his son sufficient detail about the temple that Solomon could visualize what it would look like (vv. 11-19). Finally, after casting the vision, the king gave his son another dose of encouragement (vv. 20-21).

David actively participated in preparing his successor. He passed the baton to his son publicly and privately by endowing his son with the vision for the temple. One of the most significant tasks of a leader is to transmit the organizational vision to others.

Acts 29

The most influential leader the world has ever known, Jesus of Nazareth, modeled this for us. In fact, it could be said that the entire Bible is a vision-casting book that invites us not only to look ahead to God’s promises for the future, but also to participate in their realization. God has granted us the immeasurable privilege of participating in his work, and he offers us “a slice of the action” that will have enduring consequences. James Emery White writes:

You were given life because God had a dream for you. Individually, specifically, by name. You were no accident. God willed you into existence, and He not only gave you life, but He also invested you with promise and potential. Within you is the opportunity to join with God in fulfilling the great adventure birthed in His mind for you from eternity.3

The book of Acts is the glorious story of Christ’s vision being realized, but if we open our Bibles to Acts 29 we will discover that there is no Acts 29. The reason there is no Acts 29 in the Bible is because it is being written right now by each of us as the good news of Jesus Christ is being proclaimed and lived out all over the world. In Acts 1:8, Luke (the author of Acts) gives us the outline for this volume through something Jesus told his followers just before his ascension: “You will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” We are active participants in that last phrase; we are witnesses charged with taking the life of Christ “to the ends of the earth.”

At the end of Acts, Paul is under house arrest. He’s made it to Rome, which was near the ends of the earth in the first century, and he knows that if the gospel takes root in Rome, it will spread all over. So Luke tells us, “For two whole years Paul stayed there in his own rented house and welcomed all who came to see him. Boldly and without hindrance he preached the kingdom of God and taught about the Lord Jesus Christ” (Acts 28:30-31). That’s the end.

Now, for any modern-day readers of the book of Acts, when we get to this statement, we wonder what happens next. Does Paul make it to Caesar with his appeal? Does he live or does he die? But Luke never tells us. What matters is that Paul has invested his entire life in helping God’s glorious vision become a reality. And he handed the baton off to men like Timothy and Titus, and they handed it off to faithful men and women who passed it to others. Down through the centuries the baton got passed until someone placed it in your hands and said, “Go, be his witness to the ends of the earth.”

The Apostle John records for us a time when Jesus imparted his vision to his disciples in the fourth chapter of his Gospel. After his disciples returned from buying food, Jesus surprised them by telling them, “I have food to eat that you know nothing about” (v. 32). At first they assumed he meant physical food, but he was referring to another kind of nourishment – that of participating in God’s will: “My food,” said Jesus, “is to do the will of him who sent me and to finish his work. Do you not say, ‘Four months more and then the harvest’? I tell you, open your eyes and look at the fields! They are ripe for harvest” (vv. 34-35).

Before the disciples arrived on the scene, the Samaritan woman with whom Jesus had been talking had gone to tell the people of her village about the man who knew everything she ever did. When Jesus told his disciples to look at the fields that were ripe for harvest, it may be that he was referring to the Samaritans who were on their way to talk with him. This passage illustrates how Jesus constantly sought to communicate a greater vision of the Father’s will to his disciples. Dr. Hans Finzel, Executive Director of a large church-planting organization, writes:

Though much of my job as a CEO is communicating our vision and selling our dream out there among the public constituents, my insiders need to hear from me just as much if not more. In fact, I expend as much energy on internal as on external communications. I never assume anymore that even my closest associates can read my mind – I’ve learned too much watching false information spread.4

Once a vision is cast, it may need to be cast again – several times. Since God’s vision always surpasses human comprehension, it requires persistence on the part of leaders to make sure everyone catches it and remembers it.

Ultimately, God’s vision must be transmitted by the Spirit of God. This principle was demonstrated in the Old Testament. When the Arameans tried to capture the prophet Elisha, his servant despaired, saying, “Oh, my lord, what shall we do?” (2 Kings 6:15). Elisha’s response communicated a vision of God’s control over the situation:

“Don’t be afraid,” the prophet answered. “Those who are with us are more than those who are with them.” And Elisha prayed, “O Lord, open his eyes so he may see.” Then the Lord opened the servant’s eyes, and he looked and saw the hills full of horses and chariots of fire all around Elisha.

2 Kings 6:16-17

Paul expanded on this principle in his writings to the church at Corinth. “The man without the Spirit does not accept the things that come from the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him and he cannot understand them, because they are spiritually discerned” (1 Corinthians 2:14); “The god of this age has blinded the minds of unbelievers, so that they cannot see the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God” (2 Corinthians 4:4). The implications of the life of Christ will be lost to an unbeliever apart from the convicting work of the Holy Spirit.

But for those of us who have the Holy Spirit living in us, we are called to be kingdom builders who play an active role in the realization of God’s vision. Through mentoring relationships, we enlist others in this grand scheme of redemption that God planned out before the foundations of the world were set. We recruit men and women to participate in a vision that will have eternal ramifications, eternal consequences. This is the longing of every heart: to participate in something that will outlive them.

Steve always dreamed of owning his own business, but more than that, Steve truly believed in his dream to put affordable computers in every home and office. He really believed that it would revolutionize the world. So he took the plunge and started his own computer company. The only problem was that he knew computers; he didn’t know business. He needed the best CEO he could get, and that meant John Sculley, CEO of Pepsi-Cola. Somehow Steve had to convince Sculley to leave his prominent position at one of the most prestigious and profitable companies in the world and run Steve’s fledgling company.

Somehow, some way, Steve managed to schedule a meeting with John Sculley. Mr. Sculley listened patiently to the young man’s presentation. He even allowed Steve to schedule another meeting. Finally, after several appointments, Sculley introduced Steve to reality: “You’d have to give me a million-dollar salary, a million-dollar signing bonus and a million-dollar severance package.”

Steve was shocked. He couldn’t afford anything close to those figures. Still, his boldness and passion blurted words out of his mouth: “You’ve got it. Even if I have to pay for it out of my own pocket.”

Sculley didn’t become CEO of a multi-national corporation by being foolish. He knew a bluff when he heard one. “Steve, I’d love to be an adviser, but I don’t think I can come.”

Steve dropped his head, took a long breath and issued a challenge that pierced Sculley to the core. Looking him right in the eye, Steve simply asked, “Do you want to spend the rest of your life selling sugared water, or do you want a chance to change the world?” John Sculley resigned from Pepsi-Cola and took Steve Jobs up on his offer to lead a fledgling computer company called Apple. And together they really did change the world.5

God placed in each of us a yearning for significance. Yet few of us actually devote our lives to great endeavors. The message of Christianity tells us that we can participate in something that stretches beyond our brief lives on earth. By passing on the vision of God to the next generation of his people, we can have a hand in eternity.

Casting the Vision at Home

It is one thing to have vision; it is quite another to communicate that vision to others to enable them to embrace and internalize it. Those who follow Christ are commissioned to communicate the vision of newness of life to others within their spheres of influence. The obvious place for this to start is in the home with our own children. In his book Visioneering, Andy Stanley writes:

The most significant visions are not cast by great orators from a stage. They are cast at the bedsides of our children. The greatest visioncasting opportunities happen between the hours of 7:30 and 9:30 P.M. Monday through Sunday. In these closing hours of the day we have a unique opportunity to plant the seeds of what could be and what should be. Take advantage of every opportunity you get.6

The central biblical passage concerning parents’ responsibility to create an environment in which their children will hear and embrace the teachings and principles of Scripture is the great shema of Deuteronomy 6:4-9:

Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength. These commandments that I give you today are to be upon your hearts. Impress them on your children. Talk about them when you sit at home and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up. Tie them as symbols on your hands and bind them on your foreheads. Write them on the doorframes of your houses and on your gates.

Because people cannot give away what they do not possess, it is first necessary that parents know and love the Lord before they can hope to instill spiritual truth in the hearts of the next generation. Only those who love the Lord themselves will be effective in passing on this love to others.

Many people were raised by parents who did not love God in an all-encompassing way. There was a great disparity between what the parents said they wanted their children to do and the way they actually lived their lives. These parents use the classic statement, “Do as I say, not as I do.” There’s something inherently wrong about that. Such a lack of integrity undermines a person’s ability to communicate their vision in a way that will infect others. Communication involves more than words. It involves logos (words and concepts), ethos (behavior and character) and pathos (passion and sympathy). Clear communication is borne of what you say, what you do and who you are. There must be integrity and alignment in order for your communication to be credible and persuasive.

Many parents have discovered the futility of trying to raise their children to have moral standards they themselves do not possess. It is pointless to try to get children to obey God without loving him, and it is impossible for parents to teach their children to love God if they themselves do not.

This passage also underscores the fact that vision is imparted in both formal and informal ways. In these verses, parents are told to impress God’s commandments on their children not only in more structured settings (“when you sit at home”), but also in unstructured and spontaneous ways (“when you walk along the road”). When people are serious about knowing God, they begin to incarnate and exhibit what they speak. Spiritual and moral principles are best conveyed in the laboratory of life; they are conveyed as much through character as they are through words. Truth is most effectively proclaimed through the consistency of words and work.

The message of Proverbs 2 is that wisdom can only be found if it is sought intentionally:

My son, if you accept my words and store up my commands within you, turning your ear to wisdom and applying your heart to understanding, and if you call out for insight and cry aloud for understanding, and if you look for it as for silver and search for it as for hidden treasure, then you will understand the fear of the Lord and find the knowledge of God.

Proverbs 2:1-5

The reason this father can implore his son to pursue wisdom is because the son has seen the father do the same. Parents who try to instruct their children to fear the Lord without fearing the Lord themselves are like people who try to describe something they haven’t seen. Larry Crabb expands upon the power and importance of casting a vision for another person:

What would it be like if we had a vision for each other, if we could see the lost glory in ourselves, our family, and our friends? What would the effect on your sons and daughters be if they realized that you were caught up with the possibilities of restored glory, of what they could become – not successful, talented, good looking, or rich but kind, strong and self-assured, fully alive.

When people connect with each other on the basis of a vision for who they are and what they could become; when we see in others what little of Jesus has already begun to form beneath the insecurity, fear and pride; when we long beyond anything else to see that little bit of Jesus develop and mature; then something is released from within us that has the power to form more of Jesus within them. That power is the life of Christ, carried into another soul across the bridge of our vision for them, a life that touches the life in another with nourishing power. Vision for others both bridges the distance between two souls and triggers the release of the power within us.7

Making Sure the Vision is “Caught”

Obviously, when communication breaks down, there could be a number of problems. The problem could be in transmission. As we have just seen, trying to transfer something before it is truly in your possession leads to a breakdown in communication. But sometimes the problem is in the reception. For example, God had a great vision that he wanted Moses to “catch.” But he encountered resistance when he communicated his vision to his reluctant servant. Through this story we learn a great deal about how to help those who don’t buy into a vision when they first hear it. Despite Moses’ initial strong resistance, God finally sold him on the vision.

Every leader occasionally faces seemingly impossible challenges. The opposition appears too strong, too entrenched and too well-organized. His or her own resources seem too small by comparison. That’s how Moses must have felt when God appeared to him in the burning bush:

The Lord said, “I have indeed seen the misery of my people in Egypt. I have heard them crying out because of their slave drivers, and I am concerned about their suffering. So I have come down to rescue them from the hand of the Egyptians and to bring them up out of that land into a good and spacious land, a land flowing with milk and honey…. And now the cry of the Israelites has reached me, and I have seen the way the Egyptians are oppressing them. So now, go. I am sending you to Pharaoh to bring my people the Israelites out of Egypt.”

Exodus 3:7-10

Moses responded to God’s call with three questions and an objection that expressed his unbelief and lack of confidence.

First, Moses asked, “Who am I?” (v. 11). That question revealed a radical change in Moses. Forty years earlier, Moses had impulsively taken it upon himself to vindicate a fellow Hebrew for a beating he had endured from an Egyptian (2:11-12). Now he felt inadequate for the task, even though God himself was commissioning him. God’s response was exactly what Moses needed: “And God said, ‘I will be with you. And this will be the sign to you that it is I who have sent you: When you have brought the people out of Egypt, you will worship God on this mountain’” (3:12). Moses would soon discover that one plus God equals a majority.

Moses’ second question was, “What shall I tell them?” (v. 13). Demanding the release of over two million slaves was a tall order. Moses would need an authority higher than himself to persuade Pharaoh. Again God gave Moses what he needed: “God said to Moses, ‘I AM WHO I AM. This is what you are to say to the Israelites: ‘I AM has sent me to you’” (v. 14). By calling himself “I AM,” God revealed his identity as the eternal God who is always there for his people. He was the God of Abraham and the God of Isaac, a description that would resonate with the Hebrew slaves in Egypt.

Still unconvinced, Moses asked a third question: “What if they do not believe me?” (4:1). Moses no doubt remembered what had happened 40 years earlier. While Moses was trying to settle a dispute between two Hebrew men, one of them had scornfully asked, “Who made you ruler and judge over us?” (2:14). With those words still echoing in his mind, it’s understandable that Moses would fear rejection. But God told Moses that he would validate his leadership through a series of miracles that would convince even the most skeptical person in Egypt. As long as Moses stayed at God’s side, he wouldn’t have cause for worry.

With Moses’ fourth and final objection, he implied that he wasn’t qualified to lead the people to freedom because he wasn’t an eloquent speaker (4:10). At this point Moses’ fear of failure prevailed over his memory. So many years had passed since Moses had used his skills of persuasion that he thought he had lost them. Once more God responded to Moses with compassion. God promised to give him words to say and then deputized Aaron to help him:

The Lord said to him, “Who gave man his mouth? Who makes him deaf or mute? Who gives him sight or makes him blind? Is it not I, the Lord? Now go; I will help you speak and will teach you what to say….What about your brother, Aaron the Levite? I know he can speak well. He is already on his way to meet you, and his heart will be glad when he sees you. You shall speak to him and put words in his mouth; I will help both of you speak and will teach you what to do. He will speak to the people for you, and it will be as if he were your mouth and as if you were God to him.”

Exodus 4:11-12, 14-16

Without question, Moses was one of the greatest leaders of world history. When God directed him to lead in a difficult situation, Moses hesitated before he obeyed – but he did obey. God showed Moses genuine understanding of his fears and concerns about what God wanted him to contribute to this overwhelming vision. God validated each of Moses’ statements and addressed them. As Moses’ concerns went away, so did his resistance to the vision. Like Moses, all leaders will occasionally face tough challenges, and seemingly impossible situations. At such times they need to follow Moses’ lead: Assess the situation, take their fears to God, listen for his response and then obey.

How exactly did God lead Moses from resisting the vision of deliverance to leading it? Let’s review the five points of resistance to the vision and God’s response to each point.

“Who am I?” (3:11). This sense of being overwhelmed should accompany any well-formed vision statement. If the statement doesn’t have a sense of the ridiculous about it, and if the hearers don’t, at least initially, feel they are in over their heads, then there is no challenge, no spark that calls them to stretch and push. But the strength of the vision statement will both stimulate and overcome resistance. “Who am I?” God said in effect, “I have called you and I am doing this. It’s not who you are, but who I am and what I want you to do” (3:1-12).

“What shall I tell them?” (3:13). This statement reflects the concerns of cost and value. “Who’s behind this?” “Who will accept the final responsibility for such an overwhelming vision?” Moses was looking for some authoritative back-up. So will the people within your organization. “What shall I tell them?” “Tell them I am with you in this because you are fulfilling what I want done” (3:14-22).

“What if they don’t believe me?” (4:1). Most people’s reactions to vision statements go from being overwhelmed (point 1), to legitimate skepticism (point 2), to serious investigation of legitimacy. If a vision is well-stated, people will demand evidence. “What if they don’t believe me?” “Doubts are to be expected when presenting a grand vision. Give them enough evidence and rationale to help them address their doubts” (4:2-9).

“O Lord, I have never been eloquent” (4:10). This reflects the painful fact that people have tried great and glorious projects in the past, only to be disappointed or embarrassed. But people eagerly desire to invest their time and effort in successful ventures and will be motivated to do their best if consistently empowered to do so. “O Lord, I have not been eloquent.” “Trust me and let me show you what I can do” (4:11).

“Send someone else” (4:13). Moses’ final resistance was, “Please, Lord, not me. I’m too overwhelmed. It’s just easier to stay where I am.” The leader who can effectively address this final appeal and get people excited about new possibilities will go a long way toward developing an effective team. “Send someone else.” God persuaded Moses, urging his reluctant messenger to get on with it and trust his faithfulness. There is a time for persuasion and selling the vision, and a time for pushing to get it done.

All of us have challenges, problems, fears and anxieties. We worry about the future, about the economy, about our families. As we get older, we become more aware of health issues and concerns about our own mortality. In such a context, we need to be assured of God’s vision for our lives. He does have a purpose for each of us, and we are immortal until his purpose is fulfilled.

For some, God’s vision may only require a few years to be fully realized. Others may live so long that they are tempted to become world-weary. Still, God has a specific vision for each of us as individuals. God has a two-fold plan for all of us – to be conformed to the image of his Son and to reproduce the life of Christ in others. Beyond that, however, God has a unique vision for each of his children, and nothing will infuse our lives with more meaning, purpose and fulfillment than investing them to make God’s vision a reality.


1 Clifton Fadiman (ed.), The Little, Brown Book of Anecdotes (Boston: Little, Brown, 1985), p. 548.

2 Leonard Sweet, Aqua Church (Loveland, CO: 1999), p. 167.

3 James Emery White, Life-Defining Moments (Colorado Springs, CO: WaterBrook Press, 2001), p. 69.

4 Hans Finzel, The Top Ten Mistakes Leaders Make (Colorado Springs, CO: Cook Communications Ministries, 2000), p. 115.

5 Adapted from John Sculley, Odyssey (New York: Harper & Row, 1987), 56-91.

6 Andy Stanley, Visioneering (Sisters, OR: Multnomah, 1999), p. 114.

7 Larry Crabb, Connecting (Nashville: Word, 1997), p. 65.

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Communication Skills

**The audio for this article is in two parts, click for part 1 and for part 2.**

 

Around the turn of the century, a wealthy but unsophisticated oil tycoon from Texas made his first trip to Europe on a ship. The first night at dinner, he found himself seated with a stranger, a Frenchman, who dutifully nodded and said, “Bon appetit.” Thinking the man was introducing himself, he replied, “Barnhouse.”

For several days the ritual was repeated. The Frenchman would nod and say, “Bon appetit.” The Texan would smile and reply, “Barnhouse” a little louder and more distinctly than the time before.

One afternoon, Mr. Barnhouse mentioned it to another passenger who set the oil baron straight. “You’ve got it all wrong. He wasn’t introducing himself. ‘Bon appetit’ is the French way of telling you to enjoy your meal.”

Needless to say, Barnhouse was terribly embarrassed and determined to make things right. At dinner that evening, the Texan came in, nodded at his friend and said, “Bon appetit.”

The Frenchman rose and answered, “Barnhouse.”

In his famous prayer, St. Francis of Assisi asked God to help him to “Seek first to understand, then to be understood.” This principle is the key to effective interpersonal communication. Actually, the book of Proverbs offered identical advice ages before St. Francis penned this prayer. In Proverbs 18:13 we read, “He who answers before listening – that is his folly and his shame.” Earlier in this same chapter Solomon offers a pointed evaluation of those who would rather talk than listen: “A fool finds no pleasure in understanding but delights in airing his own opinions” (18:2).

Learning to Listen

A leader who cannot communicate will not lead well or long. Most leaders spend vast amounts of time and energy developing other skills, such as long-term planning, time management and public speaking. But what about taking time to develop the skill of listening? Those who wish to be good leaders will develop this skill. My friend Arthur Robertson, founder and president of Effective Communication and Development, Inc., wrote his book The Language of Effective Listening based on the premise that “effective listening is the number one communication skill requisite to success in your professional and personal life.”1

Dr. James Lynch, co-director of the Psychophysiological Clinic and Laboratories at the University of Maryland has documented that an actual healing of the cardiovascular system takes place when we listen. Blood pressure rises when people speak and lowers when they listen. In fact, his studies show that blood pressure is actually lower when people are listening than when they are silently staring at a blank wall.2 According to Dr. Lynch, listening skills aren’t just essential for good leadership; they’re essential for good health!

A man goes to the doctor and says, “Doc, my wife’s hearing isn’t as good as it used to be. What should I do?”

The doctor replies, “Here’s a test so you can find out for sure. The next time your wife is standing in the kitchen making dinner, move to about 15 feet behind her and ask her a question. If she doesn’t respond, keep moving closer and asking the question until she hears you.”

The man goes home and finds his wife in the kitchen. So, he moves to about 15 feet behind her and asks, “Honey, what’s for dinner?”

There’s no response, so he moves closer. “Honey, what’s for dinner?”

Still no response, so he steps even closer. “Honey, what’s for dinner?”

Nothing. Now he’s standing directly behind her. “Honey, what’s for dinner?”

“For the fourth time, I said chicken!”

It’s important to practice such active listening techniques as maintaining eye contact and rephrasing what you hear to be certain that you have understood correctly. George Bernard Shaw once said, “The greatest problem with communication is the illusion that it has been accomplished.”

The Most Disobeyed Commandment

Closely tied in with the skill of listening is the ability to express oneself in a nonabrasive and affirming manner. After all, “Reckless words pierce like a sword, but the tongue of the wise brings healing” (12:18). We may teach our children to say, “Sticks and stones will break my bones, but words will never hurt me,” but it’s just not true. Words can hurt. Words can cut. In fact, at the root of our word sarcasm is the notion of cutting flesh. Anyone who has ever been on the receiving end of sarcastic speech knows the accuracy of that idea.

Once again, this is simply evidence of how much unbiblical pop psychology we have imbibed. The world would have us believe that since it’s unhealthy to keep our emotions bottled up, we should allow ourselves to “vent.” Unfortunately, this means we often use our words to vent anger, irritation, disappointment, impatience, stress, insecurity, guilt or whatever negative emotion we may be feeling at the time. Usually, those who are standing closest to us at the time are the ones who are wounded in the blast. Dietrich Bonhoeffer spoke of the need to practice “the ministry of holding one’s tongue”: “Often we combat our evil thoughts most effectively if we absolutely refuse to allow them to be expressed in words…. It must be a decisive rule of every Christian fellowship that each individual is prohibited from saying much that occurs to him.”3

On the contrary, wise leaders think before they speak; in so doing they select words that nurture rather than destroy. When faced with hostility they speak gently, so as to subdue anger rather than stoke it (15:1). In his New Testament epistle, James tells us, “My dear brothers, take note of this: Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry, for man’s anger does not bring about the righteous life that God desires” (James 1:19-20). Those three commands (quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to anger) may be the most frequently disobeyed commands in the whole Bible. If observed regularly, however, they can radically change a person’s life and help bring about the righteous life that God desires.

Your degree of ability to communicate will either evoke trust or distrust in those you lead. It will instill either confidence or fear. It will determine to a large extent how eagerly your followers will follow you.

The God Who Speaks

After he wrote the book The God Who Is There, Francis Schaeffer wrote several follow-up volumes including He Is There and He Is Not Silent, which was written to deal with the most fundamental of all questions: How we know what we know? Schaeffer’s answer to that question is simple: The God who is both infinite and personal not only exists but he exists as a communicator. The foundational assumption of Scripture is not simply that God exists, but that he has communicated with us through the prophets and apostles, and most decisively through the personal revelation of his incarnate Son. As a personal and relational being, God is a communicator. William Barry and William Connolly write, “Our faith tells us that God communicates with us whether we know it or not…. He shares himself with us even when we do not know that he is doing so…. We are being ‘spoken to’ continuously.”4

Psalm 19 contains a description of two ways in which God has communicated with us: general revelation and special revelation:

The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of his hands. Day after day they pour forth speech; night after night they display knowledge. There is no speech or language where their voice is not heard. Their voice goes out into all the earth, their words to the ends of the world. In the heavens he has pitched a tent for the sun, which is like a bridegroom coming forth from his pavilion, like a champion rejoicing to run his course. It rises at one end of the heavens and makes its circuit to the other; nothing is hidden from its heat.

Psalm 19:1-6

The first six verses of this wisdom psalm present God’s general revelation to us through the power, order and beauty of nature. This revelation is general because it is available to all people. Without speech or language, the stars eloquently point beyond themselves to the One who created and sustains them. Therefore no one is really ignorant of God’s existence; his “invisible qualities – his eternal power and divine nature – have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that men are without excuse” (Romans 1:20).

In verses 7-11, David moves from general to special revelation, from nature to the written Word:

The law of the Lord is perfect, reviving the soul. The statutes of the Lord are trustworthy, making wise the simple. The precepts of the Lord are right, giving joy to the heart. The commands of the Lord are radiant, giving light to the eyes. The fear of the Lord is pure, enduring forever. The ordinances of the Lord are sure and altogether righteous. They are more precious than gold, than much pure gold; they are sweeter than honey, than honey from the comb. By them is your servant warned; in keeping them there is great reward.

God’s Word richly blesses and empowers those who learn from and follow it. God communicated with us in Scripture not merely to inform us, but also to transform us. The New Testament writers are in full agreement with this sentiment:

All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the man of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work.

2 Timothy 3:16-17

For the word of God is living and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart. Nothing in all creation is hidden from God’s sight. Everything is uncovered and laid bare before the eyes of him to whom we must give account.

Hebrews 4:12-13

There are benefits attached to consistent exposure to the God-breathed Word. The Holy Spirit speaks through the pages of Scripture into our hearts if we will only come with open hearts and open Bibles into his presence. The Bible isn’t merely a book; it is a letter from God to us. In it, he communicates who he is, how he wants to know us, how we can respond to his gracious offer and the best way to order our lives according to our inherent design. The Bible is a map to the abundant life God offers us as his children.

I came to faith in the early part of the summer of 1967, but I had been exposed to the Bible before that night. I had learned Bible verses as a child, but they never meant anything to me. It was like memorizing bits and phrases of Shakespeare or quotes from Mark Twain. They were useful to season a conversation with, but they were far from life-changing. After I became a Christian, however, it started to become clear to me that these Bible verses are qualitatively different from Shakespeare and Mark Twain. The concepts found in the Bible have the potential to radically alter the course of a person’s life. I knew almost immediately that I needed to go somewhere to devote a good portion of my life to learning the Bible. Within six months I went from being a graduate student in Berkeley, California with long hair to being a student at Dallas Seminary. I was willing to cut my hair and wear a coat and tie to class every day (a real culture shock for a former hippie) just so I could learn everything I could about God’s blueprint for my life.

But as great as the Bible is, God’s highest form of communication is his personal revelation through Jesus Christ:

In the past God spoke to our forefathers through the prophets at many times and in various ways, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, and through whom he made the universe. The Son is the radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of his being, sustaining all things by his powerful word.

Hebrews 1:1-3a

Jesus Christ came to make it possible for us to know the Father. “All things have been committed to me by my Father. No one knows the Father except the Son and those to whom the Son chooses to reveal him” (Matthew 11:27). Because God has taken the initiative, he has made it possible for us to know him, and he invites us to communicate with him personally through Scripture and through prayer.

The Tricky Tongue

Because we have been created in the likeness of God, we are personal, relational, communicating beings. The issue is not whether we will communicate, but how effective and appropriate our communication will be. Our speech can be a source of blessing or injury to others as James points out in his epistle. James is the wisdom book of the New Testament, and, like the book of Proverbs, James says a great deal about the words we speak. Chapter three underscores much of what we already know through long and painful experience: The tongue seems to be more difficult to bring under control than any other part of our being.

We all stumble in many ways. If anyone is never at fault in what he says, he is a perfect man, able to keep his whole body in check.

When we put bits into the mounts of horses to make them obey us, we can turn the whole animal. Or take ships as an example. Although they are so large and are driven by strong winds, they are steered by a very small rudder wherever the pilot wants to go. Likewise the tongue is a small part of the body, but it makes great boasts. Consider what a great forest is set on fire by a small spark. The tongue also is a fire, a world of evil among the parts of the body. It corrupts the whole person, sets the whole course of his life on fire, and is itself set on fire by hell.

James 3:2-6

Our speech is not neutral territory; it is informed and shaped by our character. The art of listening well and speaking in appropriate ways is rarely taught in the classroom, but these special skills are nevertheless essential to effective leadership.

Notice James’ conclusion about our inability to control the tongue: “All kinds of animals, birds, reptiles and creatures of the sea are being tamed and have been tamed by man, but no man can tame the tongue. It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison” (vv. 7-8). But notice that he doesn’t leave us as dangling, helpless victims of our uncontrollable tongue:

Who is wise and understanding among you? Let him show it by his good life, by deeds done in the humility that comes from wisdom. But if you harbor bitter envy and selfish ambition in your hearts, do not boast about it or deny the truth. Such “wisdom” does not come down from heaven but is earthly, unspiritual, of the devil. For where you have envy and selfish ambition, there you find disorder and every evil practice.

But the wisdom that comes from heaven is first of all pure; then peace-loving, considerate, submissive, full of mercy and good fruit, impartial and sincere. Peacemakers who sow in peace raise a harvest of righteousness.

vv. 13-18

Two sources can animate our speech: wisdom that is earthly or wisdom that is heavenly. Jesus told his followers,

“No good tree bears bad fruit, nor does a bad tree bear good fruit. Each tree is recognized by its own fruit. People do not pick figs from thornbushes, or grapes from briers. The good man brings good things out of the good stored up in his heart, and the evil man brings evil things out of the evil stored up in his heart. For out of the overflow of his heart his mouth speaks.”

Luke 6:43-45

The key to taming the tongue is not the tongue itself, but the heart. The Apostle Paul concurs:

There is no one righteous, not even one; there is no one who understands, no one who seeks God. All have turned away, they have together become worthless; there is no one who does good, not even one. Their throats are open graves; their tongues practice deceit. The poison of vipers is on their lips. Their mouths are full of cursing and bitterness. Their feet are swift to shed blood; ruin and misery mark their ways, and the way of peace they do not know. There is no fear of God before their eyes.

Romans 3:10-18

According to Paul, of all the ways we allow our inner wickedness to ventilate, our speech is primary. Our tongue is the initial manifestation of inner depravity and worthlessness. Sinful hearts produce sinful speech.

One of the ways parents know if their children are really ill is the smell of sickness on their breath. Evil speech patterns are the smell of sin-sickness in our mouths. We don’t just need our mouths washed out with soap; we need to have our hearts washed clean with the water of God’s Word. We need more than mouthwash; we need to take care of the sickness and inner wickedness that motivates the sin proceeding from our mouths.

The Bible is clear that communication is as much an issue of character as it is a skill. No one can tame the tongue. It will speak out of what fills the heart. Joseph Stowell offers this helpful observation:

James wrote, “No one can tame the tongue” (3:8). This statement is not intended to cause despair or to justify continued failure, but rather to let us know that self-initiated effort is worthless…. In our desire to transform the tongue from a hellish fire to an instrument of constructive communication, we find ourselves up against a task of supernatural proportions…. Therefore, transforming our tongue requires supernatural strength.5

It is not possible for us to tame our own tongues, but it is possible to surrender our tongues to the lordship of Christ. As a godly leader, you want to pursue heavenly wisdom and fill your heart with the love of God so that his wisdom and his love flow from us like an unceasing stream of water.

Beyond Speaking and Hearing to Understanding

Effective communication involves more than just speaking and hearing. Real communication only takes place when both parties move beyond speaking and hearing to understanding. Speaking and listening are means, not ends. People who feel better because they “spoke their mind” or think they fulfilled their obligation because they “heard him out” inadvertently communicate a message that they don’t really want to communicate!

Suppose Jack and Jane, a married couple, have recently been in an argument. If Jack offers an eloquent bit of advice or articulately expresses love to Jane, and Jane doesn’t listen or understand, why should Jack feel better? The purpose wasn’t for Jack to say it; the purpose was for Jane to understand it. Yet this routine goes on every day. Or, if Jane courageously explains to Jack why she is angry enough to strangle him, and Jack in turn makes some unrelated comment, then Jack has not heard Jane out. He has not fulfilled his obligation to Jane as a fellow human being, let alone as a husband. In either situation, has this couple established greater mutual understanding? No.

God forewarned Isaiah at his commissioning that he would face similar communication problems throughout his ministry: “[God] said, ‘Go and tell this people: “Be ever hearing, but never understanding; be ever seeing, but never perceiving”’” (Isaiah 6:9). The people would hear his message, yet they wouldn’t understand it. They might allow his words to pass briefly through their conscious minds, but they wouldn’t permit those words to take hold in any meaningful way. God’s message through Isaiah would go in one ear and out the other. Were they to hear and understand the message, “they might see with their eyes, hear with their ears, understand with their hearts, and turn and be healed” (v. 10).

The parables of Jesus were like this. They were designed to reveal truth to those who would receive it and conceal truth from those who would reject it. If a person’s heart is right, he will hear the teachings of Jesus and respond and be healed. But if the heart is not right, he will only hear a story.

Two-Way Communication

No one would disagree that communication is essential to effective leadership. But we may be surprised by the extent to which open, honest, two-way communication can actually benefit leaders and their organizations. Solomon warns his readers to be on the alert for one-sided communication: “A fool finds no pleasure in understanding but delights in airing his own opinions” (Proverbs 18:2). John Stott tells a wonderful story about Joseph Parker, who served the City Temple in London at the end of the 19th century. As Parker climbed into the pulpit one Sunday morning, a woman threw a piece of paper at him. He picked the paper up and read the word “Fool!” written on it. Dr. Parker turned to the people and said, “I have received many anonymous letters in my life. Previously they have been a text without a signature. Today for the first time I have received a signature without a text!”6

This look at communication skills has come full-circle. We began by saying that responsible communication demands interaction. We end it by saying the same thing. Ted Engstrom observed this kind of one-sided communication in the one place where it shouldn’t have happened: a seminar on communication. He writes,

The seminar leader, well known as the chairman of the department of communications at a state university, had failed to communicate. He knew all the proper language and theories. He projected facts, but not understanding.

Communication is blocked when emotions do not coincide with another’s feelings or when there is selective listening on the hearer’s part. An appreciation of these factors will enable leaders to take better steps to guarantee effective communication in their own group.

The issue can be put another way. Do you communicate without trying, or do you try without communicating?7

Proverbs 18:2 demonstrates that the one-sided communicator comes off looking foolish. But look now at verse 13: “He who answers before listening – that is his folly and his shame.” A leader must also hear before answering – that’s essential. But in order to be truly effective, that leader must also listen and respond with a mind that is open and searching for a fuller meaning. Then and only then can effective two-way communication begin to take place.


1 Arthur Robertson, The Language of Effective Listening (Scott Foresman Professional Books, 1991), p. xv.

2 Adapted from James J. Lynch, Language of the Heart (New York: Basic Books, 1985), pp. 122-124.

3 Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together (New York: Harper & Row, 1956), pp. 91-92.

4 William Barry and William Connolly, The Practice of Spiritual Direction (San Francisco: HarperCollins, 1993), p. 33.

5 Joseph M. Stowell, The Weight of Your Words (Chicago: Moody Press, 1998), p. 16.

6 John R.W. Stott, The Contemporary Christian (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1992), p. 112.

7 Ted W. Engstrom, The Making of a Christian Leader (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1976), p. 153.

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Conflict Management

Once upon a time a man was shipwrecked on a deserted island. He was an industrious, hard-working sort of man, so by the time he was rescued, 15 years later, he had managed to transform the island into a collection of roads and buildings. The people who rescued him were amazed at his accomplishments and asked for a tour of the island. He was more than happy to oblige.

“The first building on our left,” he began, “is my house. You’ll see that I have a comfortable three-bedroom estate, complete with indoor plumbing and a sprinkler system. There is also a storage shed in the back for all my lawn tools.” The rescue party was astonished. It was better than some of their homes on the mainland.

“That building over there is the store where I do my grocery shopping. Next to it is my bank, and across the street is the gym where I exercise.”

The rescuers noticed two other buildings and asked what they were. “The one on the left is where I go to church.”

“And the one on the right?” they inquired.

“Oh, that’s where I used to go to church.”

Conflict is a part of life. There is simply no getting away from this fact. As a leader, as a human being, you can be sure that you’ll face relational conflicts. No leadership model exists that will totally eliminate disagreements or clashes of personality. In fact, the tension that comes from conflict can be healthy and beneficial to growth if dealt with correctly. Jean Varnier, founder of L’Arche communities across the world that give disabled people the chance to discover their true worth and beauty, wrote, “Communities need tensions if they are to grow and deepen. Tensions come from conflicts…. A tension or difficulty can signal the approach of a new grace of God. But it has to be looked at wisely and humanly.”1 The question isn’t “Will I face conflicts?” but “How can I best manage conflicts when they arise?”

Jesus and the Art of Conflict Management

When Jesus addressed problems, he tackled them head-on. While delivering the Sermon on the Mount (and later in Matthew 18) he dealt with the issue of conflicts brought about either by others offending us or by our offending them:

“Therefore, if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there in front of the altar. First go and be reconciled to your brother; then come and offer your gift.”

Matthew 5:23-24

“If your brother sins again you, go and show him his fault, just between the two of you. If he listens to you, you have won your brother over. But if he will not listen, take one or two others along, so that ‘every matter may be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses.’ If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if he refuses to listen even to the church, treat him as you would a pagan or a tax collector.”

Matthew 18:15-17

While the Lord was addressing the problem of sin, there are broader principles at work in his teaching. And no matter which side has caused the problem, the solution is the same: First, go to the person with whom you are experiencing a conflict and address the issues face-to-face. Avoid involving a third or fourth person, especially if their knowledge of the situation will worsen the problem for the offending individual. Such discussions tend to intensify the conflict and further undermine the relationship. Judging from the amount of conflict experienced in our world, this is surely one of the most overlooked commands in Scripture.

The fact that we are not appalled by the amount of broken relationships and persistent hostility between people is a sad indicator of our spiritual health as a believing community. The sins we are taught to avoid tend to revolve around lifestyle issues: drinking, smoking, going to the wrong kinds of movies or listening to the wrong kinds of music. But we are not dismayed by a lack of loving relationships. John Ortberg writes about a church-going man he calls “Hank.” Hank was filled with complaining and judgment. He was sour and easily irritated. His own children felt distant and unloved by him. Here is Ortberg’s main observation:

But even more troubling than his lack of change was the fact that nobody was surprised by it. It was as if everyone simply expected that his soul would remain withered and sour year after year, decade after decade. No one seemed bothered by the condition. It was not an anomaly that caused head-scratching bewilderment. No church consultants were called in. No emergency meetings were held to probe the strange case of this person who followed the church’s general guidelines for spiritual life and yet was nontransformed.2

Yet God abhors this. Our Lord summed up the total teaching of the Old Testament in one word: Love. “Love God and love people,” he says. The greater sins, the weightier sins, are transgressions against love. Grudges, gossip, slander – these are done in direct defiance to Jesus’ essential command. And these behaviors are tolerated all the time – even among Christians. We do not find them odd; we would find it odd if they suddenly disappeared.

Jesus tells us to first go to the person one-on-one. Second, go to the person quickly. Jesus counseled that, if someone is worshiping God and remembers that he or she has offended a friend, the appropriate response is to stop right there and go immediately to the offended individual. With those words Jesus made it clear that correct interpersonal relationships are more important than correct ritual. This tends to grate against religious folks who say that God must be our first priority. It is true that God should be our primary focus. However, our relationship with God is better gauged by our human relationships than by religious ritual. Although we cannot guarantee that the offended brother will accept us, we are obligated to make every effort “as far as it depends on” us (Romans 12:18).

Interestingly, in both cases, Jesus’ advice is to take the initiative. When you have done something wrong, you go and make it right. When someone else has wronged you, you still take the first step. Larry Calvin says:

Now wait just a minute. If your friend has something against you, you go to him? And if you have something against your friend, you go to him? That has you going to him in both cases, whether you have something against him, or you know he has something against you. When I first made that discovery, I remember thinking: That’s not fair! Then I realized that God is not asking us to do anything that he has not already done. You see, God is the initiator in the God-person relationship.3

Jesus is not asking us to do anything he hasn’t modeled for us. He gave up heaven to come down to earth, become a servant and die to repair our broken relationship with the Father. In Jesus Christ, God takes the initiative. When we come to see how important people are to God, we will value the community Christ’s death makes possible. We will value it enough to take the initiative in resolving relational breakdowns.

Effective leaders don’t ignore conflict. They manage it by creating an environment in which people are enabled to work through relational friction on a one-on-one basis. Only after such efforts have failed are others allowed to enter the conflict, and then only for the purpose of bringing about reconciliation. Conflicts can’t be avoided, but they can be managed. And a wise leader will devote himself or herself to learning how to do just that.

God’s Cosmic Conflict

Although the players may be invisible, we live in the context of a titanic war in which the opposing forces of light and darkness contend for the souls of men and women. Scripture assures us that although this invisible war is real, it is also temporary; God himself will bring history to a point at which this cosmic conflict will be finally resolved. The Apostle John records a vivid symbolic description of the final intervention of the King of kings and Lord of lords in the affairs of human history:

I saw heaven standing open and there before me was a white horse, whose rider is called Faithful and True. With justice he judges and makes war. His eyes are like blazing fire, and on his head are many crowns. He has a name written on him that no one knows but he himself. He is dressed in a robe dipped in blood, and his name is the Word of God. The armies of heaven were following him, riding on white horses and dressed in fine linen, white and clean. Out of his mouth comes a sharp sword with which to strike down the nations. “He will rule them with an iron scepter.” He treads the winepress of the fury of the wrath of God Almighty. On his robe and on his thigh he has this name written:

KING OF KINGS AND LORD OF LORDS.

And I saw an angel standing in the sun, who cried in a loud voice to all the birds flying in midair, “Come, gather together for the great supper of God, so that you may eat the flesh of kings, generals, and mighty men, of horses and their riders, and the flesh of all people, free and slave, small and great.”

Then I saw the beast and the kings of the earth and their armies gathered together to make war against the rider on the horse and his army. But the beast was captured, and with him the false prophet who had performed the miraculous signs on his behalf. With these signs he had deluded those who had received the mark of the beast and worshiped his image. The two of them were thrown alive into the fiery lake of burning sulfur. The rest of them were killed with the sword that came out of the mouth of the rider on the horse, and all the birds gorged themselves on their flesh.

Revelation 19:11-21

The vivid imagery in this passage portrays the decisive intervention of the Son of God at the end of the age when he defeats the forces of ungodliness at his second coming. In his triumphant return, the King of kings and Lord of lords will eliminate the powers of sin and of death and bring all spiritual conflict to an end. The Apostle Paul writes, “Then the end will come, when he hands over the kingdom to God the Father after he has destroyed all dominion, authority and power. For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet. The last enemy to be destroyed is death” (1 Corinthians 15:24-26). After his second coming, Christ will bring all things under subjection to God the Father, “so that God may be all in all” (1 Corinthians 15:28).

In his wisdom and sovereignty, God is able to use conflict to accomplish his divine will. In discussing the distinction between fate and sovereignty, Charles Spurgeon said, “Fate says the thing is and must be; so it is decreed. But the true doctrine is – God has appointed this and that, not because it must be, but because it is best that it should be. Fate is blind, but the destiny of the Scripture is full of eyes.”4 In other words, God always acts and allows circumstances and events for a purpose. His purposes, though they may seem harsh and even cruel from our finite perspective, are always generous and good. He is both good and omnipotent, but his will is done from the perspective of eternity. One day, everything that is upside-down will be turned rightside-up, every thing that is wrong will be made right. God will use whatever means necessary to prevent evil and suffering from having the last word.

Although we live in a world that is far from perfect, Scripture assures us that God is using this fallen world in preparation for the new heavens and new earth. In the meantime, God patiently awaits the right moment for the final resolution of all things. The Apostle Peter writes:

The Lord is not slow in keeping his promise, as some understand slowness. He is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance. But the day of the Lord will come like a thief. The heavens will disappear with a roar; the elements will be destroyed by fire, and the earth and everything in it will be laid bare.

2 Peter 3:9-10

In his creation, God is using conflict and pain to produce a greater good. Conflict, if properly managed, can also do this in the context of human relationships.

David and the Dangers of Conflict Avoidance

Fight or flight, aggression or avoidance – neither of these strategies provides an effective long-term technique for managing conflict. Because we have different temperaments, some of us are less confrontational than others. Still, a good leader must develop the skill of confronting others when necessary. King David provides a negative example for us in the way he mismanaged his conflict with his son Absalom (2 Samuel 14:1-15:37).

Absalom had heard that his half-brother Amnon had raped his sister Tamar, yet he had failed to confront Amnon. Instead, he deceitfully arranged for Amnon’s murder two years later and fled after the deed had been done (2 Samuel 13).

King David had also failed to discipline Amnon (13:21-22), and now he was shirking his responsibility to settle his conflict with Absalom, even though his son longed to see him. David relented only after Joab entreated him to restore Absalom following three years of banishment. But even after allowing him back into the city, David refused to see Absalom for another two years until Absalom forced the issue and the meeting did take place. But it was too late; Absalom had become embittered against his father and conspired to take the kingdom away from him. Lynn Anderson says, “The opposite of love is not hatred; it is indifference. Whether he meant to or not, David was communicating the opposite of love for Absalom.”5

David’s conflict avoidance strategy not only failed to work but eventually caused the conflict to escalate. Had he dealt promptly with the issues surrounding Amnon and Absalom, Amnon’s murder and Absalom’s conspiracy might have been averted.

The key to conflict management is prompt reconciliation by “speaking the truth in love” (Ephesians 4:15). Effective conflict managers know how to balance truth (confrontation) and love (reconciliation). Effective leaders learn to be peacemakers by dealing directly with disagreements and seeking amicable resolutions. David shows us that putting off confrontation only strains relations and inevitably compounds the problem. Avoidance allows bitterness to simmer and alienation to solidify.

Constructive Conflict

While the word conflict usually carries a negative connotation, conflict itself doesn’t have to be negative. That’s why this chapter is titled “Conflict Management” rather than “Conflict Resolution” – a conflict is not something that simply needs to be “resolved,” as though getting through it and moving on are the highest goals. Often we inappropriately assume that spiritual maturity will lead to fewer conflicts. But Larry Crabb suggests, “The difference between spiritual and unspritual community is not whether conflict exists, but is rather in our attitude toward it and our approach to handling it.”6

Conflict produces energy, and energy can be channeled in positive directions. How can a leader make this happen? The Apostle Paul gives us the keys to managing conflict with the goal of a positive outcome:

As a prisoner for the Lord, then, I urge you to live a life worthy of the calling you have received. Be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love. Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace.

Ephesians 4:1-3

The critical issue in conflict management – and the one that most strongly influences one’s approach to it – is this: “What will my proper management of this conflict accomplish?” Christians who live up to their calling (v. 1) must “keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace” (v. 3); that’s the preferred outcome. So how can a godly leader approach conflict so that it cements unity between the participants?

Think your way through verses two and three. Ask what each element named contributes to managing conflict so that unity and peace result. “Be completely humble”; “[be] patient”; “bear with one another in love”; “make every effort to keep the unity.” Imagine how people would approach conflict if humility, gentleness and patience provided the context in which all participants viewed the solution, and if unity and peace were the sole motives. Imagine how the process would work if all participants exercised these qualities as they worked through conflict. Imagine that conflict, as intended, produced growth in individuals and unity between people.

You may object, “Conflict produces growth and unity? I’ve never heard of that before.” But conflict between people produces energy, and energy can be channeled in different directions. For example, a conflict between a husband and wife can serve as a venue for open and honest discussion, which can lead to greater understanding between the two and, in turn, a better relationship. Similarly, a conflict between two engineers over the design of a product can lead to a better design than either one was capable of producing alone.

The key to positively channeling the energy that conflict produces is in exercising the qualities that Paul speaks of in verse 2. When we exercise humility, gentleness and patience with one another, we have a much greater chance of producing the best outcomes: greater productivity, more honesty, unity and peace (v. 3). Crabb writes about the impact confrontation can have when it comes from a person who recognizes, in humility, their own brokenness:

Broken people can say hard things and we appreciate it, because they find no joy in the power of superior knowledge or superior morality. They take no pleasure in their being right and our being wrong. God’s glory matters to them, and it matters more than anything else. They are not proud of their wisdom. They don’t put their insight on display to win applause.7

Loving Your Way through Conflict

Few tasks a leader faces are more emotionally or mentally challenging than that of managing conflict. And yet, conflict is a fact of life in this world, so it’s crucial that a person in a leadership position learn how to manage it with an eye toward positive closure. Over the course of a career, every leader will have countless opportunities to work with others through relational, philosophical and methodological differences. On occasion those differences may lead to personal strife, and the leader’s opponent may appear to be an enemy. At such times the words of Jesus in his Sermon on the Mount will take on added significance:

“You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you: Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be sons of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous.”

Matthew 5:43-45

On Christmas Day, 1957, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. delivered a sermon at the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama. It was based on this very passage of Scripture, and the sermon’s title was “Loving Your Enemy.” Through the course of his sermon, Dr. King suggested three ways by which we can do just that.

First, we must develop and maintain the capacity to forgive. Such forgiveness doesn’t mean that we ignore the wrong committed against us. Rather, it means that we will no longer allow the wrong to be a barrier to the relationship. Forgiveness, according to King, “is a catalyst creating the atmosphere necessary for a fresh start and a new beginning.”

Second, we must recognize that the wrong we’ve suffered doesn’t entirely represent the other person’s identity. We need to acknowledge that our opponent, like each one of us, possesses both bad and good qualities. We must choose to find the good and focus on it.

Third, we must not seek to defeat or humiliate our opponent, but to win his or her friendship and understanding. Such an attitude flows not from ourselves, but from God as his unconditional love works through us.8

As followers of Christ who seek to lead as he led, we must remember that the more freely we forgive, the more clearly we reveal the nature of our heavenly Father.


1 Jean Varnier, Community and Growth (New York: Paulist Press, 1989), pp. 120-121.

2 John Ortberg, The Life You’ve Always Wanted (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1997), p. 32.

3 Larry Calvin, The Power Zone (Fort Worth, TX: Sweet Publishing, 1995), p. 62.

4 C.H. Spurgeon, The Metropolitan Tabernacle Pulpit, vol. 15 (Pasadena, TX: Pilgrim Publiscations, 1970), p. 460.

5 Lynn Anderson, The Shepherd’s Song (West Monroe, LA: Howard Publishing, 1996), p. 120.

6 Larry Crabb, The Safest Place on Earth (Nashville: Word Publishing, 1999), p. 40.

7 Ibid., 171.

8 Reprinted by arrangement with The Heirs to the Estate of Martin Luther King, Jr., c/o Writers House, Inc. as agent for the proprietor. Copyright 1963 by Martin Luther King Jr., copyright renewed 1991 by Coretta Scott King.

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Decision Making

There is a thought-provoking scene in Lewis Carroll’s classic children’s tale, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. Young Alice comes to a fork in the road and asks the Cheshire Cat which direction she should take. “‘That depends a good deal on where you want to get to,’ said the Cat.

“‘I don’t much care where –’ said Alice.

“‘Then it doesn’t matter which way you walk,’ said the Cat.”1

Life is filled with decisions, many of which never even reach our conscious level. Which socks to wear? Should the shirt button from the top down or from the bottom up? Which lane to drive in? Most of these decisions are made out of habit.

On the other hand, there are some decisions that you spend time thinking about. What sounds good for lunch? Which voicemail needs to be answered first? Can the haircut wait until next week? These decisions may seem small and insignificant, but woven together, they form the tapestry of our daily lives.

Then there are life-altering decisions that cause you to struggle. Which career path is most in line with your unique skill-set and calling? Should you marry or remain single? Which church will allow you the best opportunity to grow and minister to others? These are often hard choices that deserve a great amount of thought.

Often the same decision-making process we use for minor issues is used for major decisions as well. So the question is: How do we choose wisely? What criteria do we use to evaluate, to discern the best course of action? Clearly, gathering information and carefully analyzing our options is essential. Beyond that, we need wisdom and clarity of thought in order to make prudent decisions based upon the facts at hand and our understanding of God’s will.

Many bad choices are made simply because we move through the decision-making process too hastily, basing our conclusions on emotions, bad information or impulses. There is something to be said about “gut reactions,” but basing our every purchase on our feelings leads to a lot of buyer’s remorse. The opposite extreme would be to automatically rule out any emotional factors in our decision-making method. We should allow an inner sense of conviction to serve as a “red flag,” without allowing ourselves to fall into the “paralysis of analysis” when it comes to determining our next move.

The complexity of this issue shows how important it is to not make decisions in a vacuum. Particularly on very important matters, it is wise to seek counsel and advice from others who are experienced and godly. The only basis for really good decisions is correct thinking. This kind of wisdom comes from above and is given to us through four primary avenues – God’s Word, God’s Spirit, God’s Providence and God’s people. In other words, to ensure good decision-making habits, we must be people whose minds are consistently being renewed by God’s Word. We must also be people who walk in step with the Spirit of God, paying attention to his promptings and leadings. We must watch carefully and understand how God works providentially in our circumstances. And we must live in community with other faithful believers.

The Decision-Making Process

Decision making is one of leadership’s core competencies. In fact, decision-making ability differentiates between poor and good, and between good and great, leaders. Decisions reveal values and intelligence. They require obedience to and dependence upon God. They demand wisdom. Making decisions affects just about everything else leaders do.

Where can a leader go to get help in this essential component of life and leadership? To begin with, let’s examine a leader who depended upon God and had a proven track record in the decision-making business. Of all the Bible’s leaders, Nehemiah provides one of our best patterns for doing it right:

In the month of Kislev in the twentieth year, while I was in the citadel of Susa, Hanani, one of my brothers, came from Judah with some other men, and I questioned them about the Jewish remnant that survived the exile, and also about Jerusalem.

They said to me, “Those who survived the exile and are back in the province are in great trouble and disgrace. The wall of Jerusalem is broken down, and its gates have been burned with fire.”

When I hear these things, I sat down and wept. For some days I mourned and fasted and prayed before the God of heaven. Then I said:

“O Lord, God of heaven, the great and awesome God, who keeps his covenant of love with those who love him and obey his commands, let your ear be attentive and your eyes open to hear the prayer your servant is praying before you day and night for your servants, the people of Israel. I confess the sins we Israelites, including myself and my father’s house, have committed against you. We have acted very wickedly toward you. We have not obeyed the commands, decrees and laws you gave your servant Moses.

“Remember the instructions you gave your servant Moses, saying, ‘If you are unfaithful, I will scatter you among the nations, but if you return to me and obey my commands, then even if your exiled people are at the farthest horizon, I will gather them from there and bring them to the place I have chosen as a dwelling for my Name.’

“They are your servants and your people, whom you redeemed by your great strength and your mighty hand. O Lord, let your ear be attentive to the prayer of this your servant and to the prayer of your servants who delight in revering your name. Give your servant success today by granting him favor in the presence of this man.”

I was cupbearer to the king.

Nehemiah 1:1-11

Nehemiah was faced with a huge challenge. The walls of Jerusalem were in disrepair, and the returned exiles were vulnerable and disheartened. When Nehemiah got this news, we see his four-step process to approach the problem. First, he carefully studied the situation (vv. 2-3). Second, he empathized with those who were hurting (v. 4). Third, he humbled himself before God (v. 4). Fourth, he prayed (vv. 5-11). And what a prayer! Nehemiah adored God (v. 5), confessed his nation’s sin to the Lord (vv. 6-7) and finally petitioned God for help (vv. 8-11).

Ultimately, Nehemiah knew what every great leader knows: All wisdom comes from God, and using his wisdom to make good decisions is something God wants to help us learn to do. Prayer, then, must become a permanent part of our decision-making process, even in the arena of business. The fact that it may strike us as an odd notion to pray over business decisions reveals how we have fallen prey to the false notion that there is a distinction between the sacred and the secular. As fully developing followers of Jesus, however, our calling is to do everything in the name of the Lord (Colossians 3:17). That would include making decisions.

The Power of Prayer

God is sovereign – at times, inscrutably so. That being the case, in what sense can we say that the Sovereign Lord, the One who transcends all imaginable boundaries and who knows all things, makes decisions? In his timeless plan, God has conceived all possible scenarios and has thought of every possible contingency. There has never been an event that took God by surprise, and there never will be.

There is great comfort in this, because we come to realize that as imperfect creatures living in an imperfect world, we can never really disappoint God. We can grieve him, but we cannot thwart or frustrate him. In spite of how our world appears to us, because of God’s supreme sovereignty and wisdom, it is exactly the way he knew it would be, and we are right on schedule in the unfolding of his plan to bring us to the best of all possible worlds. God has even incorporated the foolish, sinful decisions of people into his divine scheme. Things that were meant for evil and harmful purposes, God weaves into his good will to accomplish his program in our world (Genesis 50:20). Because he is omniscient, his plan is based not on appearances but on consequences. Because he is omnipotent, he is able to fully accomplish his purposes. Because he is omnipresent, his dominion continually encompasses the created order. Because he is not bound by space and time, he views all things from the perspective of an eternal now; a particular moment to us can be an eternity to God, and yet the entire life span of the cosmos can be an instant to him (2 Peter 3:8).

Though the Lord our God sits enthroned on high, he “stoops down to look on the heavens and the earth” (Psalm 113:6). He is transcendent and majestic, but he is also imminent, attentive and compassionate. Even though God is all-powerful, all-knowing and ever-present, the Scriptures portray his very real interaction with his people in earthly time and space and affirm that our prayers make a difference in the outworking of God’s purposes. As Philip Yancey writes:

God is not a blurry power living somewhere in the sky, not an abstraction like the Greeks proposed, not a sensual super-human like the Romans worshiped, and definitely not the absentee watchmaker of the Deists. God is personal. He enters into people’s lives, messes with families, calls people to account. Most of all, God loves.2

God is not a man, nor does he change his mind (1 Samuel 15:29). However, the Bible does not shrink from attributing emotions to him. No one has expressed this more eloquently than Jewish theologian Abraham Heschel:

To the prophet, God does not reveal himself in an abstract absoluteness, but in a personal and intimate relation to the world. He does not simply command and expect obedience; He is also moved and affected by what happens in the world, and reacts accordingly. Events and human actions rouse in him joy or sorrow, pleasure or wrath…. Man’s deeds may move Him, affect Him, grieve Him or, on the other hand, gladden and please Him.

[T]he God of Israel is a God Who loves, a God Who is known to, and concerned with, man. He not only rules the world in the majesty of his might and wisdom, but reacts intimately to the events of history.3

Of course, before God was the God of Israel, he was the God of Abraham. The story of Abraham’s prayers on behalf of the few righteous people in Sodom illustrates the biblical truth that God mysteriously incorporates our prayers into his eternal plan. Abraham founded his intercession on the unswerving justice of the Ruler of the world:

Then the Lord said, “The outcry against Sodom and Gomorrah is so great and their sin so grievous that I will go down and see if what they have done is as bad as the outcry that has reached me. If not, I will know.”

The men turned away and went toward Sodom, but Abraham remained standing before the Lord. Then Abraham approached him and said: “Will you sweep away the righteous with the wicked? What if there are fifty righteous people in the city? Will you really sweep it away and not spare the place for the sake of the fifty righteous people in it? Far be it from you to do such a thing – to kill the righteous with the wicked, treating the righteous and the wicked alike. Far be it from you! Will not the Judge of all the earth do right?”

The Lord said, “If I find fifty righteous people in the city of Sodom, I will spare the whole place for their sake.”

Then Abraham spoke up again: “Now that I have been so bold as to speak to the Lord, though I am nothing but dust and ashes, what if the number of righteous is five less than fifty? Will you destroy the whole city because of five people?”

“If I find forty-five there,” he said, “I will not destroy it.”

Once again he spoke to him, “What if only forty are found there?”

He said, “For the sake of forty, I will not do it.”

Then he said, “May the Lord not be angry, but let me speak. What if only thirty can be found there?”

He answered, “I will not do it if I find thirty there.”

Abraham said, “Now that I have been so bold as to speak to the Lord, what if only twenty can be found there?”

He said, “For the sake of twenty, I will not destroy it.”

Then he said, “May the Lord not be angry, but let me speak just once more. What if only ten can be found there?”

He answered, “For the sake of ten, I will not destroy it.”

When the Lord had finished speaking with Abraham, he left, and Abraham returned home.

Genesis 18:20-33

Theologians from many different backgrounds find common ground in the important role of prayer. John Wesley is frequently quoted as saying, “God will do nothing in the affairs of men except in answer to believing prayer.” John Calvin affirms that the providence of God does not exclude the exercise of human faith. While God neither sleeps nor slumbers, Calvin says, “He is inactive, as if forgetting us, when He sees us idle and mute.”4 Jack Hayford says, “You and I can help decide which of these two things – blessing or cursing – happens on earth. We will determine whether God’s goodness is released toward specific situations or whether the power of sin and Satan is permitted to prevail. Prayer is the determining factor.”5 As Walter Wink is fond of saying, “History belongs to the intercessors.”6

The Bible often uses language that ascribes human form or attributes to God, and because of this, it appears that God changes his mind in light of new input. If this were true in an absolute sense, it would mean that at least some of God’s decisions were initially inadequate or ill-informed and in need of revision. Based on God’s perfect character, we know that isn’t true. So it appears that these passages provide us with a relative – rather than an absolute – perspective to stress the dignity of human choice and interaction with God.

Men of Issachar

Every human being has made at least one poor decision. Most of us have a catalogue of bad choices, and we revisit them from time to time, imagining how things might have been different if we had chosen wisely. Dante Gabriel Rosetti, a painter and poet whose works were focused almost exclusively on his beautiful wife Elizabeth, was overwhelmed with grief when she took her own life just two years after their wedding. Rosetti took his poems, put them in her coffin and buried them with her. Years later, after his grieving process was over, Rosetti wondered if some of his greatest poetry should remain underground like that. With great effort, he finally persuaded the authorities to exhume the coffin and retrieve those poems. In 1870, they were published to great acclaim, as his greatest works.

Unlike Rosetti, however, we rarely have the chance to un-do foolish choices. We make decisions every day, and the patterns established by the small decisions shape the course of the larger ones.

From 1 Chronicles 12:32, we find two key prerequisites for good decision making: “[M]en of Issachar…understood the times and knew what Israel should do.” This little nugget is tucked away in the middle of a listing of the men who had volunteered to serve David and who supported his anointing as king over all Israel. The description of these unique men underscores two essential components of effective decision making: awareness and decisiveness. Good decisions require adequate information and careful analysis of all of the pertinent facts. Although there is a place for spontaneity, important decisions generally should not be rushed, since they require sufficient time for gestation. But, once made, such decisions should be decisively communicated and implemented. Like the men of Issachar, leaders need to understand the times and be well aware of the cultural climate in which they live and work, so that they may become transformers rather than conformers.

Pope John Paul II established the Pontifical Council for Culture in 1982 because of his conviction that “the destiny of the world” hinges on “the Church’s dialogue with the cultures of our time.” Admitting that theology must be contextualized, Pope John Paul insisted that “the synthesis between culture and faith is not just a demand of culture, but also of faith. A faith which does not become culture is a faith which has not been fully received, not thoroughly thought through, not fully lived out.”7 We are not to be bound by our culture; we are to transcend it and transform it.

The old adage is true: There are two sides to every issue, but there are also two sides to a sheet of flypaper, and it makes a big difference to the fly which side he chooses. At the end of the day, we all have to make choices, and once those choices are made, we have to live with them. This was Hamlet’s difficulty – determining a course of action – as evidenced through his lines from the famous “To be or not to be” speech:

And thus the native hue of resolution
Is sicklied o'er with the pale cast of thought,
And enterprises of great pith and moment
With this regard their currents turn awry,
And lose the name of action

Hamlet, Act III, Scene I

What the young Prince of Denmark is saying is that he waffles back and forth. He fluctuates between two options and cannot decide on a course of action. By not making a choice, he, in fact, chooses badly. In any area, this is true: no decision is a decision to remain in the status quo, to shirk an opportunity for growth, to make ourselves and our image of God a little bit smaller.

Deciding Wisely

Good decisions require accurately processed information. Technology has made it relatively easy to gather information. Computers crunch data and give it to us in digestible bits, but the human mind must still analyze that data and make the decisions. Because Solomon knew that leaders must make good decisions, he urged them to attain wisdom and mental discipline and to understand words of insight:

The proverbs of Solomon son of David, king of Israel: for attaining wisdom and discipline; for understanding words of insight; for acquiring a disciplined and prudent life, doing what is right and just and fair; for giving prudence to the simple, knowledge and discretion to the young – let the wise listen and add to their learning, and let the discerning get guidance – for understanding proverbs and parables, the sayings and riddles of the wise.

Proverbs 1:1-6

In an age in which computer technology helps us to gather and analyze incredible amounts of data, the pithy bits of wisdom found in the ancient book of Proverbs are more important than ever. Decision makers must understand complicated matters, but they also need God’s perspective in deciding how to act. The book of Proverbs helps us do just that.

A leader must develop a disciplined and prudent character so that he or she will do what is right and just and fair. The rub comes when the leader doesn’t know what is just and right and fair – or when any conceivable decision appears unjust, wrong and unfair. That’s why Solomon cautioned that the unsophisticated need prudence. The young need knowledge and discretion. In fact, everyone needs to foster learning and seek guidance on a daily basis.

Proverbs isn’t a decision-making textbook, but this wisdom-packed book is God’s gift to help us make the best decisions possible. The introductory verses tell us that the proverbs that follow will help the reader develop the mental sharpness needed to process complex information. Even though technology helps us to gather and manipulate information, a sharp mind must still apply solid logic and keen insight to that information in order to make good decisions. Bill Hybels writes:

[H]uman judgment is always limited and sometimes wrong. Sometimes our best notions about what ought to be said or done are ill-advised, dangerous, even destructive. When it comes to the key decisions in our lives, we almost always need deeper insights and a broader perspective than mere human wisdom can offer us.

What we desperately need is God’s mind on the serious matters of life. He offers it to us through the teaching of his Word and the inner guidance of his Spirit. Our job is not to question it or to assume that we know better…but to trust that God does know better how to make our lives work. A helpful spiritual rule of thumb might be “When in doubt, always, always, always trust the wisdom of God.”8

The proverbs help us to accomplish this goal in a godly manner. They sharpen the mind and reveal God’s insight to ensure that our decisions may be in sync with his eternal perspective.

The Danger of Excluding God

No decision is wise if it’s made independently of God. In Joshua 9, the people of Israel made a terrible decision because they left God out of their plans, and had to live with the consequences of a decision which God did not approve:

Now when all the kings west of the Jordan heard about these things – those in the hill country, in the western foothills, and along the entire coast of the Great Sea as far as Lebanon…came together to make war against Joshua and Israel.

However, when the people of Gibeon heard what Joshua had done to Jericho and Ai, they resorted to a ruse: They went as a delegation whose donkeys were loaded with worn-out sacks and old wineskins, cracked and mended. The men put worn and patched sandals on their feet and wore old clothes. All the bread of their food supply was dry and moldy. Then they went to Joshua in the camp at Gilgal and said to him and the men of Israel, “We have come from a distant country; make a treaty with us.”

The men of Israel said to the Hivites, “But perhaps you live near us. How then can we make a treaty with you?”

“We are your servants,” they said to Joshua.

But Joshua asked, “Who are you and where do you come from?”

They answered: “Your servants have come from a very distant country because of the fame of the Lord your God. For we have heard reports of him: all that he did in Egypt, and all that he did to the two kings of the Amorites east of the Jordan…. And our elders and all those living in our country said to us, ‘Take provisions for your journey; go and meet them and say to them, “We are your servants; make a treaty with us.”’ This bread of ours was warm when we packed it at home on the day we left to come to you. But now see how dry and moldy it is. And these wineskins that we filled were new, but see how cracked they are. And our clothes and sandals are worn out by the very long journey.”

The men of Israel sampled their provisions but did not inquire of the Lord. Then Joshua made a treaty of peace with them to let them live, and the leaders of the assembly ratified it by oath.

Joshua 9:1-15, emphasis added

The Israelites gathered data (vv. 7-14), but they missed a crucial step in the process. “The men of Israel…did not inquire of the Lord” (v. 14). Many years later, James spoke to this very same issue when he wrote, “[Y]ou ought to say, ‘If it is the Lord’s will, we will live and do this or that” (James 4:15).

In Decision Making by the Book, Haddon Robinson comments on James’ statement: “James is not against making plans…he is not taking a cheap shot at charts or making an argument against commitments…. What James warns us about is that our freedom to make plans is not a license to live free from God. To come to that conclusion would be arrogant.” In fact, Robinson asserts, “The phrase, ‘If it is the Lord’s will,’ ought to infect our thinking. It ought to be a standard part of our vocabulary.”9

In this instance, Joshua failed to consult God and made a bad decision. In the end he was obligated to hold himself and his people to his commitment to the Gibeonites – a commitment that prevented Israel from fully conquering Canaan. While Joshua did, finally, make the best of a bad situation, the end results were far from optimal. James urges anyone who believes in our Sovereign God to consult him before making decisions. Robinson reminds us again: “You and I are never free from God. We must make our decisions in submission to His sovereign will.”10

Ronald Reagan is credited with saying, “America was founded by people who believed that God was their rock of safety. He is ours. I recognize we must be cautious in claiming that God is on our side, but I think it’s all right to keep asking if we’re on His side.”11 If we blithely assume that God is always on our side, we will fall headlong into foolishness. We should search ourselves regularly to make sure our thinking is in line with his will. We should strive to develop the character and conviction to make decisions that are products of our relationship with God.


1 Lewis Carroll, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (New York: Alfred A Knopf, 1984), 89.

2 Philip Yancey, The Bible Jesus Read (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1999), p.33.

3 Abraham J. Heschel, “The Divine Pathos,” in Judaism, vol. 11, no. 1 (January 1963), p. 61.

4 See John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, Book III:XX:2-3.

5 Jack W. Hayford, Prayer is Invading the Impossible (New York: Ballantine Books, 1983), p. 57.

6 The first time this phrase appeared was in his article “Prayer and the Powers” in Sojourners, October 1990), p. 10.

7 Pope John Paul II, letter to Agostino Cardinal Casaroli, secretary of state, May 20, 1982, as quoted in Inculturation: Its Meaning and Urgency, by J.M. Waliggo, A. Roest Crollius, T. Nkeramihigo, and J. Mutiso-Mbinda (Kampala, Uganda: St. Paul Publications, 1986), p. 7. Quoted from letter to Agostino Cardinal Casaroli on the occasion of the creation of the Pontifical Council for Culture, Osservatore Romano (English edition), June 28, 1982, p. 7.

8 Bill Hybels, Making Life Work (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1998), p. 203.

9 Haddon Robinson, Decision Making by the Book (Grand Rapids: Chariot Victor Publishing, 1991), pp. 64-66.

10 Ibid.

11 This quote is taken from his 1984 State of the Union Address.

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Double-Loop Learning

An old story has a Protestant minister, a Catholic priest and a Jewish rabbi fishing together on a small lake. The discussion comes around to the differences between Christianity and Judaism and the bottom line of their differences is clear: Jewish people follow the Law of Moses and Christians follow the example of Christ. But the rabbi is interested in the practical difference this might make in terms of behavior.

Just then, a gust of wind blows the priest’s hat off his head. He climbs out of the boat, walks over to his hat and returns to the boat. Not five minutes later, the same thing happens to the minister. The wind blows his hat off; he climbs out of the boat, casually walks over to his hat and returns to his companions. The rabbi is astonished. These Christians seem to have a power he had no understanding of. Sure enough, the next breeze blows his own hat onto the water. Assuring himself that his faith is as great as theirs, he steps from the boat and promptly sinks. The minister turns to the priest and says, “Do you suppose we should have shown him where the rocks are?”

Leaders know where the rocks are before they step out onto the water. A rock can either be a stepping stone or a stumbling block. The difference is whether or not we know about the rocks in advance.

The Speed of Learning

As technology has increased our speed of operation, organizational life is becoming more and more complicated. The sheer volume of information can overwhelm the decision maker and problem solver. Peter Senge discusses the idea of “the learning organization”1 in his book The Fifth Discipline. His main thesis is that if we aren’t learning, we are on the fast track to extinction.2

Karl Weick reports a tragic example of this. He says that firefighters are more likely to suffer severe injury and even fatalities after their 10th year on the job than when they are rookies. His theory is that after 10 years on the job, they begin taking their knowledge of firefighting for granted. They begin to think that they have seen it all and “become less open to new information that would allow them to update their models.”3 By refusing to learn new things, we fall prey to our own ignorance.

Dr. Winston Chen, founder and former CEO of Solectron, the largest electronics contract manufacturer in the world, says that “twenty percent of an engineer’s knowledge becomes obsolete every year.”4 His quote came more than 10 years ago. If anything, the shelf-life of technological knowledge is shorter now than it was then. Clearly, the need to view oneself as a life-long learner is necessary just to survive in our culture. Leadership these days is either well-informed, ill-prepared or nonexistent.

Turning Knowledge into Wisdom

Our society is information fat and wisdom thin. Leaders today must work diligently to develop a learning culture of data management where data (undigested facts) can become information (facts organized by outside sources but not yet integrated into your thinking), which then can become knowledge (internalized information), which can be refined into wisdom (integrated knowledge).5

One way to accomplish this is through a process known as “double-loop learning.” This phrase comes from Chris Argyris’ article “Teaching Smart People How to Learn.”6 In this landmark article, Argyris argues that there are two different kinds of learning: single-loop and double-loop. The classic example he provides is that of a thermostat. In single-loop learning, a thermostat set to 68 degrees turns up the heat whenever the temperature drops below 68. In double-loop learning, however, one asks why the thermostat is set to 68 degrees in the first place. Is that the optimum temperature? Single-loop learning solves immediate problems, but double-loop learning attempts to address the root causes of problems.

Jesus modeled this essential discipline of effective leadership. We have the luxury of learning from it because John recorded the event for us in John 21. The Apostle John could have ended his account of Jesus’ story with the resurrection appearances to Mary Magdalene and the other apostles. He is risen! And he has breathed out his Holy Spirit on his disciples. What more is there to say? “Jesus did many other miraculous signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not recorded in this book. But these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name” (John 20:30-31). That sounds like a good ending.

But there is still one loose end to tie up, and it is not incidental to the story. Peter had failed Jesus miserably. Overwhelmed by intense pressure, he had abandoned his mentor and friend in the moment Jesus most needed his friendship and support. How humiliated and degraded Peter must have felt. But John was careful to record the amazing story of how Jesus reconstructed and restored Peter:

When they had finished eating [breakfast], Jesus said to Simon Peter, “Simon son of John, do you truly love me more than these?”

“Yes, Lord,” he said, “you know that I love you.”

Jesus said, “Feed my lambs.”

Again Jesus said, “Simon son of John, do you truly love me?”

He answered, “Yes, Lord, you know that I love you.”

Jesus said, “Take care of my sheep.”

The third time he said to him, “Simon son of John, do you love me?”

Peter was hurt because Jesus asked him the third time, “Do you love me?” He said, “Lord you know all things; you know that I love you.”

Jesus said, “Feed my sheep. I tell you the truth, when you were younger you dressed yourself and went where you wanted; but when you are old you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will dress you and lead you where you do not want to go.” Jesus said this to indicate the kind of death by which Peter would glorify God. Then he said to him, “Follow me!”

John 21:15-19

Notice how carefully Jesus proceeded. He could have delivered a lecture on commitment. He didn’t. He could have drawn a diagram on dedication. He didn’t. Jesus didn’t address Peter’s behavior at all; he knew he didn’t have to. Rather, Jesus penetrated to the heart of the problem and of the man who had the problem. He realized that good behavior grows out of a good heart.

John gives us one detail about the fire on the beach that morning: it was a fire of burning coals (v. 9). This is not just an insignificant detail John threw in. This is meant to remind us of another fire: “Now the slaves and the officers were standing [in the courtyard of the high priest], having made a charcoal fire, for it was cold and they were warming themselves; and Peter also was with them, standing and warming himself” (John 18:18, NASB, emphasis added). It was beside that fire that Peter denied knowing Jesus.

Now, they are alone together for perhaps the first time since that charcoal fire in the courtyard of the high priest. Peter must feel vulnerable, waiting for Jesus to say something. But instead of a sermon or a verdict, he hears a question. The question wounds him, heals him, brings him back to life and haunts him until the grave: “Do you love me?” Jesus does not ask if Peter is sorry for what he’s done. He does not ask Peter to promise never to do it again. He does not tell Peter to try harder. Peter’s behavior is not the most important issue – that’s just the first-loop. The second-loop looks at the underlying causes of the behavior.

Three times Peter denied his Lord; three times Jesus forced Peter to examine the root cause of his problem. While Peter’s behavioral problem was important, Jesus knew that a change wouldn’t last unless the root of the behavior was addressed. God wants to deal with the issues or your heart, not just your behavior.

As a leader who is committed to God’s best for your followers, learn well the lesson of double-loop learning. First time around the loop – behavior. Second time around the loop – values and attitudes that drive behavior. Great leaders don’t stop after one lap around the loop.

The Mystery of God

We think we know more than we do. We often use words like time, energy, spirit and God, but we would probably be hard-pressed to define specifically what we mean by these terms. The explosion of scientific knowledge in this century has answered many questions, but it appears that the more we know about the natural order, the more subtle and mysterious it becomes. If creation is filled with mysteries, how much more inscrutable is the Author of creation? The existence and nature of an uncreated being we call God would be utterly beyond our imaginations had he not chosen to reveal himself to us. The prophet Isaiah advises us:

Seek the Lord while he may be found; call on him while he is near. Let the wicked forsake his way and the evil man his thoughts. Let him turn to the Lord, and he will have mercy on him, and to our God, for he will freely pardon.

“For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways,” declares the Lord. “As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts. As the rain and the snow come down from heaven, and do not return to it without watering the earth and making it bud and flourish, so that it yields seed for the sower and bread for the eater, so is my word that goes out from my mouth: It will not return to me empty, but will accomplish what I desire and achieve the purpose for which I sent it.”

Isaiah 55:6-11

God’s thoughts and ways transcend our own, and we do well to trust and obey him even when we fail to understand what he is doing in our lives. We are incapable of probing the depths of his purposes, but Scripture assures us that nothing will thwart God’s plans. His Word will not return to him empty but will accomplish what he desires and achieve the purpose for which he has sent it (v. 11).

This same sentiment is voiced in the New Testament by the Apostle Paul:

Oh, the depth of the riches of the wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable his judgments, and his paths beyond tracing out!

Romans 11:33

For the foolishness of God is wiser than man’s wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than man’s strength.

1 Corinthians 1:25

No eye has seen, no ear has heard, no mind has conceived what God has prepared for those who love him.

1 Corinthians 2:9

Since these things are so, our only proper response to God’s initiatives is submission and obedience. We will never learn his ways if we rebel or judge him according to our own standards and understanding.

“The secret things belong to the Lord our God, but the things revealed belong to us and our children forever” (Deuteronomy 29:29). As new technology allows us to more closely examine creation, we find that seemingly simple things are far more complex than we have thought them to be. The created order is more subtle, elegant and information-rich than we could have imagined. In fact, the more we learn about the universe, the more mysterious it seems to become. If that is true of the physical universe, how much greater is that the truth of the spiritual realm? In spite of all our best attempts to control things, God’s ways are mysterious.

Wisdom calls us to respond to the things that the Lord has revealed to us without trying to demand answers that he has not chosen to give. As a leader, you may find this difficult to accept. After all, you possess a certain amount of knowledge and authority within your area of expertise. And, as a Christ-follower, you are making an effort to know God better. But as you read this and other passages that speak to God’s awesome character, you’ll find – as many learned theologians have in centuries past – that all human knowledge of God comprises merely the faintest scratch on the surface of what there is to be known.

Still, “the things revealed belong to us and our children.” Wisdom understands the difference between “the secret things” and “the things revealed.” John Locke wrote:

‘Tis of great use to the Sailor to know the length of his Line, though he cannot with it fathom all the depths of the Ocean. ‘Tis well he knows, that it is long enough to reach the bottom at such Places as are necessary to direct his Voyage, and caution him against running upon Shoals, that may ruine him. Our Business here is not to know all things, but those which concern our Conduct. If we can find out those Measures, whereby a rational Creature, put in that State, which Man is in, in this World, may, and ought to govern his Opinions and Actions depending thereon, we need not be troubled that some other things scape our Knowledge.7

Learning from Failure: The Negative Example of Saul

All of us can relate to the painful truth of George Santayana’s observation that “Those who cannot remember the past are doomed to repeat it.”8 There is a vast difference between someone who has 40 years of experience and someone who has simply repeated the same failures for 40 years. Some people are like Charlie Brown trying to kick the football. They think this time they’ll get it, but Lucy always pulls it away at the last moment. They end up flat on their backs again wondering what happened. There is something beneficial to optimism, but there is something more beneficial to learning from the mistakes of our past.

Failure to learn lessons from the past is only part of the problem; we also struggle with responding in timely and appropriate ways to current situations. Biblically speaking, no one exemplifies this failure to respond correctly to God’s truth than King Saul (1 Samuel 13:1-22; 15:1-35). When Saul observed his troops abandoning him, he felt pressured to take matters into his own hands rather than to follow the clear instructions given to him earlier by the prophet Samuel. As soon as he had done so, Samuel appeared on the scene and rebuked Saul for his presumption and disobedience. Had Saul only waited a little longer and listened to the prophet’s words, he would have saved himself a lot of trouble. God often waits until the 11th hour before he comes.

Instead of gaining insight from this stinging encounter, Saul commits the exact same sin in chapter 15. He neglects the clear commandment of God and redefines it to suit his purposes. He not only fails to learn from his past mistake, he rationalizes his inappropriate response to Samuel’s orders by protesting, “But I did obey the Lord” (15:20).

“He who has ears to hear, let him hear” is an expression that Jesus often used to stress the need for people to learn from and act upon his teachings (Matthew 11:15; Mark 4: 9, 23). When his disciples failed to gain insight from the feeding of the 5,000, Jesus asked them, “Do you have eyes but fail to see, and ears but fail to hear? And don’t you remember?” (Mark 8:18; cf. Matthew 13:15).

If a person fails to learn from experiences and respond in appropriate ways to new information and conditions, that person is not only doomed to repeat the failure; that person is simply doomed. Appropriate responses are related not only to communication but also to character. Those who are teachable and willing to seek and apply wise counsel are far more likely to learn from their failures and to adapt that insight to new situations.

Learning from Failure: The Positive Example of Peter

It’s tough to teach new behaviors. Yet leadership requires change and growth to achieve new and better systems and results. But sustaining the change is often tougher than initiating it. Jesus and Peter teach us how double-loop learning – learning new behavior and attitudes that sustain new behavior – works.

Here’s an enlightening exercise: Read the short book of 1 Peter; then read Peter’s story in one of the Gospels. Observe how much of what Peter wrote in this book was forged from his own experience under Jesus’ discipleship. For example, the man who called himself “a witness of Christ’s sufferings” (5:1) was not there when Jesus was hanging on the cross; he was hiding in fear. The man who calls us to be “eager to serve” (5:2) remained seated while Jesus washed everyone’s feet. The man who tells us that we should be “clear minded and self-controlled so that [we] can pray” (4:7) fell asleep while Jesus was sweating blood. The man who so boldly tells us to “submit [ourselves] for the Lord’s sake to every authority instituted among men” (2:13) lopped a Roman soldier’s ear off in the Garden of Gethsemane.

In the Gospels, Peter appears almost buffoonish at times (jumping out of boats, correcting Jesus, talking aimlessly). And he ultimately denied any knowledge of Jesus after publicly boasting of his brave devotion. But in his letter we find evidence that Peter had taken Jesus’ correction to heart. He examined. He thought. He evaluated. He addressed his problem seriously.

From his writings we know that Peter didn’t simply execute a quick fix of his behavior. He examined definitions and attitudes that let him think that his destructive behavior was acceptable. When he wrote, “prepare your minds…be self-controlled…set your hope” (1:13), he was addressing attitudes that determine actions. When he wrote, “rid yourself of all malice and all deceit, hypocrisy, envy and slander” (2:1), he was not suggesting only that the reader develop new behavioral patterns. He knew that, unless a person adjusts these internal constructs, problematic behavior will follow.

This does not minimize behavior. People must act appropriately, but Peter understood from the Master that behavior is an outgrowth of deeper, fundamental issues (see Luke 6:39-49). Leaders need to learn how to behave appropriately themselves and then teach followers how to behave. But consistency in doing what’s right requires that learners go around the learning loop a second time. They have to address issues of heart and soul that determine how, how consistently and why the problematic behavior is being practiced.

Going Around the Loop Twice

Solomon contrasted the difference between trying to help a mocker and a wise man to learn:

Whoever corrects a mocker invites insult; whoever rebukes a wicked man incurs abuse. Do not rebuke a mocker or he will hate you; rebuke a wise man and he will love you. Instruct a wise man and he will be wiser still; teach a righteous man and he will add to his learning.

Proverbs 9:7-9

The “mocker” (or “fool”) is characterized by unwillingness to address character issues. The fool will not learn how to deal with values and habits that generate destructive behavior. Some skills are easy to learn, but the belief systems that govern the use of skills are often deeply internalized and difficult to address.

Chris Argyris coined terms to differentiate learning that solves immediate problems (“Single Loop Learning”) from learning that addresses the root causes of problems (“Double Loop Learning”). He observes:

Most people define learning too narrowly as mere “problem solving,” so they focus on identifying and correcting errors in the external environment. Solving problems is important. But if learning is to persist, managers and employees must also look inward. They need to reflect critically on their own behavior, identify the ways they often inadvertently contribute to the organization’s problems, and then change how they act. In particular, they must learn how the very way they go about defining and solving problems can be a source of problems in its own right.9

The single loop tends to be the easy one. We can teach a person to modify his or her angry outbursts. But the second loop forces the person to deal with the anger that generates the outburst. The second loop is essential to solving the problem but more difficult to address. So leaders often stop with the single loop. This leads to a sad but true fact that Larry Crabb rightly observes, “Most of us make it through life by coping, not changing.”10

Solomon notes that wise men learn what they need to know. Argyris’ language clarifies the issue by pointing out that wise men go twice around the learning loop. It is in the Holy Spirit’s job description to convict us of sin, righteousness and judgment (John 16:8). But that’s just going around the loop once. It is also in the Holy Spirit’s job description to guide us into all truth and complete the work of transforming our characters in the image of Christ Jesus (John 16:13; 2 Corinthians 3:18). That’s going around the loop twice.


1 Others who have explored the concept of learning organizations include David Hutchens, Outlearning the Wolves (Williston, VT: Pegasus Communications, 2000); Peter Kline and Bernard Saunders, Ten Steps to a Learning Organization (Arlington, VA: Great Ocean Publishers, 1998); and Chris Argyris, Overcoming Organizational Defenses (Boston: Allyn & Bacon, 1990).

2 Peter M. Senge, The Fifth Discipline (New York: Doubleday, 1994).

3 As quoted in John Geirland, “Complicate Yourself,” Wired, April 1996, p. 137.

4 Quoted in Executive Speechwriter Newsletter, 8 (1993), p. 6.

5 These distinctions are adapted from Harlan Cleveland in The Knowledge Executive: Leadership in an Information Society (New York: E.P. Dutton, 1985), pp. 22-23.

6 First published in the Harvard Business Review, May-June, 1991, pp. 99-109.

7 John Locke, An Essay Concerning Human Understanding (Yorkshire, England: Scolar Press, 1970), p. 3.

8 George Santayana, A Life of Reason (Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books, 1998), p. 399.

9 Argyris, “Teaching Smart People to Learn,” pp. 99-100.

10 Larry Crabb, Inside Out (Colorado Springs, CO: NavPress, 1992), p. 31.

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Empowerment

Frank Laubach, a missionary to the Philippines in the early 1900s hit rock bottom one night. Looking at his life’s work, it seemed as if it all amounted to nothing. He and his wife had lost three children to malaria. Now, in his mid-40s, he was sick and had to sequester himself from his wife and only remaining child. He was completely alone. That’s when he met God.

Imagine how shocking this must have been. He had been a Christian most of his life, had given his life to taking the gospel to a foreign people. And in his moment of deepest despair, he finally realized that he could live in intimate communion with God through the Holy Spirit. In quarantine, he found the union he longed for all of his life. He began to keep a journal and wrote the following words sitting alone on a mountain.

The most wonderful discovery that has ever come to me is that I do not have to wait until some future time for this glorious hour. I do not need to wait for any grace. This hour can be heaven. Any hour for anybody can be as rich as God. For do you not see that God is trying experiments with human lives? That’s why there are so many of them. He has, at this moment, one billion, seven hundred million experiments going on around the world. And His question is, “How far will this man and that woman allow me to carry this hour?” This Sunday afternoon at three o’clock He was asking it of us all. I do not know what the rest of you said, but as for me, I asked God, “How wonderful do you wish this hour alone with me to be?” And God answered convincingly, “It can be as wonderful as any hour that any human being has ever lived. For I who pushed life up through the protozoa and the tiny grass and the fish and the bird and the dog and the gorilla and the human being and who am reaching out toward eternity, I have not become satisfied yet. I am not only willing to make this hour marvelous, I am in travail to set you akindle with the Christ-thing that has no name. How fully can you surrender and not be afraid?” And I answered, “Fill my mind with your mind to the last crevice. Catch me up in your arms, God, and make this hour as terribly glorious as any human being ever lived, if you will. I scarce see how one could live if his heart held more than mine has held from Thee these past few hours.”

Clearly my job here is not to go to the town plaza and convince people to change their religious beliefs or to win a theological debate. My job is to live wrapped in God, trembling with His thoughts, burning with His passion. And my loved ones, that is the best gift you can give to the place where you live. You and I shall soon blow away from our bodies. Money, praise, poverty, opposition, these make no difference, for they will all alike be forgotten in a thousand years. But this Spirit, which comes to a mind set upon continuous surrender – this Spirit is timeless life.1

Frank Laubach’s life stands as a testimony to the power of God to empower the life of one willing person. This surrendered man decided that his one passion would be to walk in step with the Spirit, every moment of every day. He would walk with God and leave the results up to him.

So, what did God do through this man? Laubach developed a literacy education program known as “each one teach one” and became the leader of a worldwide literacy movement. As a result of his teaching methods, more than 60 million people speaking 200 different languages and dialects have learned to read in their own native tongue. This humble, broken man became an advisor to presidents and national leaders.

It would be easy to look at this man and assume that he was just an overachiever. To do so, however, would negate the single most important factor of his life – namely that he was enabled to accomplish what he did by an external source. God empowered him to do what he did, and the same power that was available to Frank Laubach is available to us today.

Waiting: Patience and Power

Jesus commissioned his disciples to reach the world with his message. Think about that for a moment. These were men who had probably never gone more than a few hundred miles from the place of their birth. The fastest method of travel in those days was by boat or horse, and these methods were probably more expensive than they could afford. They were largely uneducated and poor. They lived as a despised people under Roman oppression. And they were told by Jesus to travel throughout the world, with no visible means of support, spreading the good news of God’s salvation.

Then, as only Jesus could, he gave them the power needed to succeed. He promised them the Holy Spirit, who would work through them to achieve God’s plan:

On one occasion, while he was eating with them, he gave them this command: “Do not leave Jerusalem, but wait for the gift my Father promised, which you have heard me speak about. For…in a few days you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit…. But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”

Acts 1:4-5, 8

The minds of the disciples must have been spinning. They had given up everything in order to follow this man around for the past three years. In the course of that time, they had managed to offend everyone they were not supposed to offend – the synagogue leaders, the Pharisees, the Sadducees, the Sanhedrin, even the Romans. And yet, through it all, they had learned that as long as Jesus was present with them, there was nothing to fear.

We can only imagine how stunned they were to hear Jesus say that he was going away (John 13:33). This caused no small amount of confusion and worry. But, as if that wasn’t bad enough, Jesus went on to tell them that his departure would somehow be beneficial to them (John 16:7). While their heads were swimming over this strange notion, Jesus was taken away, tried and crucified. This was the end of their world. They were at a complete loss as to what their next move should be. However, three days later the most blessed event all of history occurred: Jesus came back from the dead. It was only natural for them to ask him, “Lord, are you at this time going to restore the kingdom to Israel?” (Acts 1:6).

But Jesus never really answered their question. Instead, he told them to wait – perhaps the hardest command he could have given under the circumstances. But, as William Barclay wrote, “The apostles were enjoined to wait on the coming of the Spirit. We would gain more power and courage and peace if we learned to wait. In the business of life we need to learn to be still…. Amidst life’s surging activity there must be time to receive.”2 Power from God comes, but it often takes its own sweet time.

A few important things about this passage can stimulate our thinking about empowerment. First, Jesus did not promise his disciples clout or influence. Rather, he promised them “power,” the only resource they really needed in order to succeed at the job he had given them. By promising to supply what they needed in order to succeed, Jesus empowered his followers.

Leaders can’t literally confer power upon others. Delegating authority without resources does not automatically empower others. Like Jesus, leaders can, however, supply the resources and create the conditions that allow people to develop the power they need to do their jobs. Effective leaders think in terms of “enablement,” “equipping” and “freedom” in order to empower their followers.

A second essential to effective empowerment may be observed by noting when the events of Acts 1:8 occurred. Jesus had spent three years educating these men to lead the church. Only at the point at which they could properly manage the resource did Jesus empower them. Jesus invested time and energy developing these leaders. Then he supplied what they needed to accomplish the task he had given them. The leader who offers empowerment too early sets up followers for failure. On the other hand, the leader who fails to empower capable people creates frustration. Leaders should empower only people who are prepared.

Relationship with God: The Prerequisite to Power

Christianity is not a set of regulations and instructions but a life-giving relationship with the person by whom and for whom we were created. It is not a matter of telling us what to do. It is rather a matter of God empowering us to be the people we were meant to be. We cannot be the people we were created to be without the empowering touch of God’s Holy Spirit in our lives.

In Romans 8, Paul makes it clear that, apart from the regenerating work of the Holy Spirit, no one has the power to please God. “The mind of sinful man is death…the sinful mind is hostile to God. It does not submit to God’s law, nor can it do so. Those controlled by the sinful nature cannot please God” (vv. 6-8). Only when “the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead is living in [us]” (v. 11) does it become possible for us to live in ways that are pleasing to God.

Christianity is unique among all other world religions. It is not a works system of salvation or growth but a relationship based upon grace. God’s requirements are fulfilled not by our own efforts but by the Spirit of Christ who lives in us. Our assurance is not based on our own attainments but on the merits of Christ who intercedes for us (v. 34) and on the inner testimony of the Holy Spirit (vv. 15-17). Instead of performance-based acceptance, those who trust in Christ experience the unconditional acceptance offered by the Father who sent his Son on our behalf.

Not only is Christianity unique among world religions, but our heavenly Father is often very different from the earthly fathers we observe. Many of us were raised in a context of performance-based acceptance. The love we receive in such environments is conditional, and children who receive conditional love often feel as if their best efforts are never quite enough. Tragically, growing up in such an environment can hinder us from being able to trust God to be a loving heavenly Father. There is a sense, then, in which we may need to be re-parented, having our minds renewed and our hearts opened to embrace the truth of God’s character.

But God is not distant and disinterested, as many earthly fathers are. Instead, he is intimately involved (Psalm 145:18; Isaiah 50:7-9). God is the lover of our souls (Psalm 145:17; 1 Peter 2:25). Instead of being insensitive and uncaring, he is kind and compassionate (Psalm 103:132 Corinthians 1:3). Rather than stern and demanding, he is accepting and filled with joy and love (Romans 15:7; 1 John 4:8). Instead of being passive and cold, he is warm and affectionate (Deuteronomy 10:15; Psalm 117:2). Instead of being absent or too busy, he is always eager to be with us (Zephaniah 3:17; James 4:8). God is a faithful Father who runs to meet us if we will but turn toward him, preparing a feast in our honor (Luke 15:11-31). Never mean or cruel or abusive, he is loving, gentle and protective of us (Psalm 86:15; Isaiah 54:17). Rather than a stingy killjoy, he is trustworthy and delights in giving us good gifts for a rich and abundant life (James 1:17; Philippians 4:19). Instead of being controlling and manipulative, our God is full of grace and mercy (Hosea 11:8-9; Ephesians 2:4-5), even giving us the freedom to fail. His will is good, pleasing and perfect (Romans 12:2). Instead of being condemning and unforgiving, he is tender-hearted and forgiving (Psalm 86:5; Ephesians 1:7). His heart and his arms are always open to us (Jeremiah 29:11-14; Zechariah 1:3). Instead of being knit-picking, exacting and perfectionistic, he is committed to our growth, and he’s proud of us as we grow (1 Corinthians 3:6; Hebrews 12:10). We are his beloved sons and daughters, and he is well pleased with us (Isaiah 43:4; 1 John 3:1).

As if all this wasn’t enough, God now empowers us to participate in something that will last forever: “You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you to go and bear fruit – fruit that will last” (John 15:16). I believe it is the deepest yearning of every human heart to make a mark, to accomplish something that will endure. But if we give ourselves to temporal things, we will never live up to that desire. God, however, enters our world and invites us to invest in eternal things. The only things of this world that are eternal are God’s Word and people. These two things will go on forever. As we invest God’s Word in people, loving and serving them with eternal values at heart, we are capable of actually storing up treasure in heaven. Our lives can reverberate throughout eternity. Things done in the power of the Holy Spirit and in the name of Christ will never be lost or forgotten.

Paul expressed this beautifully when he recounted,

But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me. That is why, for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong.

2 Corinthians 12:9-10

In Romans 6, Paul outlines the gospel’s revolutionary message and challenges his readers to realize what Jesus has done for them (vv. 1-10), to acknowledge it in their lives (v. 11) and to offer themselves to God as transformed people (vv. 12-23). In other words, the key to walking in newness of life is to grasp your new dignity and identity in Christ and to accept, by faith, what he says about our new nature. Our deepest essence is now identified with Christ in his death, burial, resurrection and ascension. Neil Anderson writes:

Being a Christian is not just a matter of getting something; it’s a matter of being someone. A Christian is not simply a person who gets forgiveness, who gets to go to heaven, who gets the Holy Spirit, who gets a new nature. A Christian, in terms of our deepest identity, is a saint, a spiritually born child of God, a divine masterpiece, a child of light, a citizen of heaven. Being born again transformed you into someone who didn’t exist before. What you receive as a Christian isn’t the point; it’s who you are. It’s not what you do as a Christian that determines who you are; it’s who you are that determines what you do.3

Mentoring: Passing the Power to Others

As you look back over the course of the years, who are the people who have made significant investments in your life? In what ways have they empowered you? These people are to be treasured and cherished. It could be that you would not be where you are or have accomplished as much as you have without their guidance and assistance. These people should hear from you the thanks you owe them.

Conversely, what investments have you made in the lives of others? As we mature in the life of Christ, he calls us to turn and mentor others. As we have received instruction, guidance and encouragement from those who have come before us, we should be willing to extend ourselves for the sake of those who will follow us.

Paul was a man who personally equipped and empowered others, including his protégés Timothy and Titus. Not only did he lead these men to the Lord, but he also discipled and equipped them. As a mentor, Paul encouraged and trained Titus. His letter to Titus illustrates Paul’s training. Paul followed through on his instructions for the appointment of elders by providing Titus with a checklist of qualifications to use in the process (Titus 1:5-9; cf. 1 Timothy 3). Titus accompanied Paul on his third missionary journey, and the apostle sent this “partner and fellow worker” (2 Corinthians 8:23) to Corinth on three separate occasions during that period. Following Paul’s release from his first Roman imprisonment, he took Titus to Crete and left him there to strengthen the ministry on that island (Titus 1:5).

It’s interesting to see the differences between Paul’s correspondence with Timothy and his correspondence with Titus. Though written at approximately the same time, Paul’s first letter to Timothy is more personal and less official than his letter to Titus. Titus needed clear instructions, but Timothy also needed personal encouragement. Thus, Paul encouraged his trusted associate Timothy to stand firm in the faith and not to be fearful or intimidated. Paul instructed Titus to “encourage and rebuke with all authority. Do not let anyone despise you” (2:15) but encouraged Timothy not to “let anyone look down on you because you are young, but set an example for the believers in speech, in life, in love, in faith and in purity…. Fight the good fight of faith…. Timothy, guard what has been entrusted to your care” (1 Timothy 4:12; 6:12, 20). As Paul’s relationships with Titus and Timothy demonstrate, empowerment must be adapted to the needs of the individual.

Prepared for Power

We began our look at empowerment in Acts 1. Here Luke records history’s greatest moment of empowerment. Since this event is so important for us to understand, let’s look at another account of it:

Then Jesus came to them and said, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.

Matthew 28:18-20

When Jesus empowered his disciples, he provided helpful principles for empowerment. First, Jesus let them know that he possessed the power to transfer to them (v. 18). Second, he commissioned them to use the power for specific purposes, which he clearly defined (vv. 19-20). Third, he assured them that he would be there to back them up (v. 19). Fourth, he prepared them before delegating the authority to them (v. 20). Fifth, he held them accountable for how they used his power (Matthew 24:4-51; 25:14-30).

The disciples enjoyed the assurance that their leader – Jesus – stood behind them all the way, supporting them and providing what they needed for the task ahead. Similarly, leaders need assurance that the authority of their organization stands behind them, even through failure, so that they may be enabled to lead their teams effectively. It is virtually impossible to lead without that support.

Warren Bennis and Burt Nanus tell a story about a promising junior executive at IBM who got involved in a risky venture for the company and ended up losing 10 million dollars. He was called into the office of Tom Watson, Sr., the founder and leader of IBM for 40 years.

The junior executive, overwhelmed with fear and guilt, blurted out, “I guess you’ve called me in for my resignation. Here it is. I resign.”

Watson replied, “You must be joking. I just invested 10 million dollars educating you; I can’t afford your resignation.”4

How many times had Jesus had a similar conversation with his disciples, especially Peter? Jesus invested his life, his teaching, revelations, miracles, his death, his resurrection in this rag-tag band of followers. He let them know that even through failure and doubt, he wasn’t about to accept their resignation. The apostle Paul knew “that he who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus” (Philippians 1:6).

Trusting Enough to Empower

Leaders do more than merely point people in the right direction; they empower them to do the job. In John 16:5-15, the disciples were distressed because Jesus had informed them that he would soon be leaving. After experiencing his physical presence for more than three years, they could scarcely imagine life without his voice, touch and gaze. Jesus understood their feelings. But he knew that it was to their advantage for him to leave. Why? Because only in his absence could the Holy Spirit empower them. Jesus would physically depart, but he wouldn’t abandon his disciples. He would empower them with the Spirit to be his “witnesses…to the ends of the earth” (Acts 1:8).

Jesus understood what every skilled leader knows – that more will be accomplished when power is dispersed than when it is hoarded. As Warren Bennis and Burt Nanus observed, “Leadership is not so much the exercise of power itself as the empowerment of others. Leaders are able to translate intentions into reality by aligning the energies of the organization behind an attractive goal.”5

Jesus cast a vision of what his disciples were to do and then trained them to do it. But more than that, he gave them the power needed to bring the vision into reality. His Spirit worked through their unique personalities and skills to touch the world with the Good News.

Though the concept of empowerment has only recently gained recognition among the business community, it is hardly new to the community of faith. From the very beginning, God has selected and empowered his people to minister to those around them. After Jesus’ promise of empowerment from on high, his followers experienced this power on the Day of Pentecost. These uneducated early disciples effectively served their world and each other in ways they had not thought possible (see Acts 2:41-47).

Like them, we are empowered people. The same Holy Spirit who empowered those early followers of Christ, empowers us to serve and enrich our world today. However, empowerment is not merely the availability of power; it is an active term. It refers to the giving of authority and responsibility from one in charge to a subordinate. In business, empowerment happens when a manager delegates part of his or her responsibility for decision making to subordinates and then actually allows them to exercise that authority. In a church setting, empowerment happens when church leaders delegate responsibility for ministry to their people and actually allow them to execute it.

Empowering others is exactly what leadership is all about. As leaders, our role is not to control those under us but to empower them by granting them permission to become engaged in service. This is a difficult task for many leaders because it entails giving up control. Leaders who empower others must trust those others to carry out their duties. They may stumble under the weight of their new responsibilities, but we will never advance God’s purposes for our world without empowered people. Consequently, we cannot empower people to serve unless we are all willing to take the risks involved.


1 Frank Laubach, Letters from a Modern Mystic (Syracuse, NY: Laubach Literacy International, 1990), p. 14.

2 William Barclay, The Acts of the Apostles (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1975), p. 11.

3 Neil T. Anderson, Victory Over Darkness (Ventura, CA: Regal Books, 1990), p. 43.

4 Warren Bennis and Burt Nanus, Leaders (New York: Harper & Row, 1985), p. 76.

5 Warren Bennis and Burt Nanus, Leaders: The Strategies for Taking Charge (New York: HarperCollins Publishers, Inc., 1985), pp. 224-225.

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Justice

Our mission as God’s redeemed community is to engage the world with both evangelistic and social action. These two streams must never be separated. Unfortunately, however, much of the Christian world can be neatly divided into two separate categories: those who stress our vertical responsibility to God as individuals and those who stress our horizontal responsibilities to God’s people as a community of believers.

This has been stated in different terms: The salvation of the soul and the improvement of society; God seeking the justification of sinners and God seeking justice in and among the nations. Yet the tension remains between those who focus more on evangelism (often to the neglect of social need, including food for the hungry or freedom and justice for the oppressed) and those who focus on the opposite extreme, neglecting evangelism or seeking to reinterpret it in terms of socio-political actions. John Stott observes, “Thus, the evangelical stereotype has been to spiritualize the gospel, and deny its social implications; while the ecumenical stereotype has been to politicize it, and deny its offer of salvation to sinners. This polarization has been a disaster.”1

Most responsible followers of Christ would agree that this cannot be an either/or proposition. Our obligations are to both pursue evangelism and work for societal change. For example, Carl F.H. Henry, in an address to the World Congress on Evangelism in 1966 stated:

Evangelical Christians have a message doubly relevant to the present social crisis…. For they know the God of justice and of justification…. Whenever Christianity has been strong in the life of a nation, it has had an interest in both law and gospel, in the state as well as the church, in jurisprudence and in evangelism.2

Socially Active Saints

Many of the great heroes of the Christian faith down through the centuries have given themselves to the care of poor, needy and helpless, particularly widows, children and orphans. Going back to the fifth and sixth centuries, it was Christians who brought legal protection to the children of the Roman Empire. Ulrich Zwingli (1484-1531) – a contemporary of Luther and Calvin – broke with the Roman Catholic church and persuaded the council of Zurich to turn several local monasteries into orphanages. George Whitefield (1714-1770) – the great evangelist of the 18th century – devoted much of his income to the development of orphanages in colonial Georgia. William Wilberforce (1759-1833) toiled for years in the British Parliament to begin the modern movement to abolish slavery. English Missionary William Carey (1761-1834) was responsible for outlawing the centuries-old practice of burning widows in India. Later in the 1800s, Lord Shaftesbury (1801-1883), a Christian statesman, led the fight against child labor practices and fought to improve treatment of the mentally ill in Great Britain.

It is often forgotten that Charles Haddon Spurgeon (1834-1892) built at least 17 homes for elderly widows and an orphanage for hundreds of children of all races and backgrounds. Eventually, Spurgeon started and/or presided (and occasionally single-handedly funded) at least 66 ministry organizations, most of which served in the poorer parts of London. We hardly need to mention organizations like the Salvation Army, YMCA and the Red Cross. Donald Whitney rightly states,

Wherever a beachhead for the gospel of Jesus Christ has been established, medicine, education and relief for the poor have followed. Whether the need is hunger, lack of drinking water, illiteracy, sickness, homelessness or anything else that causes misery, Christians have been at the forefront of caring for the needs of the world. Christianity is a religion of concern for others.3

This is not merely a component of New Testament Christianity; it has been a part of God’s plan for his people since Old Testament times. We only have to turn to Amos 5 to hear God tell how much more important social justice is than our meticulous observance of religious ritual,

“I hate, I despise your religious feasts; I cannot stand your assemblies. Even though you bring me burnt offerings and grain offerings, I will not accept them. Though you bring choice fellowship offerings, I will have no regard for them. Away with the noise of your songs! I will not listen to the music of your harps. But let justice roll on like a river, righteousness like a never-failing stream!”

Amos 5:21-24

Judson Polling and Bill Perkins help us understand something of the context into which this was spoken:

In Amos’ time, the people of Israel were prosperous. But with that prosperity they lost their spiritual edge. God was furious with them for compromising his principles in order to make a buck. In this passage Amos tells the people to “straighten out their act” and seek good, not evil [vv. 14-15]. Being familiar with Biblical truths and failing to live by them is extremely dangerous. That’s the line Amos’s contemporaries had crossed.4

The leaders of ancient Israel who should have administered justice didn’t. Instead they “cast righteousness to the ground” (v. 7). The God who sees all knows what they’ve been up to. He indicts them by saying, “You oppress the righteous and take bribes and you deprive the poor of justice in the courts” (v. 12b). No wonder God says, “I despise your religious feasts.” They brought fellowship offerings, but God can have no fellowship with those who refuse to assist their fellows who are in need. God makes it very clear that if we are to love him, we must love those around us who bear his image.

The leaders of Israel failed to do this, and the glory of the Lord departed from them. They maintained their highly organized religious structure and practices, but there was no power in them for the glory had left. Because of their unrighteousness and injustice, they had the form of worship without the weight of worship.

But before judgment fell on them, God offered an opportunity for repentance and restoration. He called them to turn back to him (vv. 1-15). In order to please God, the leaders needed to exercise justice and righteousness (v. 24). The imagery in this passage is profound. In contrast to streambeds that are dry much of the year, justice should flow from the nation like a river. Just as plant and animal life flourish where there is water, so human life flourishes where there is justice and righteousness.

What was true of ancient Israel is still true today. People thrive in a setting in which fairness and justice are practiced. People need to hear the good news of God’s salvation; they also need conscientious followers of Christ who will come alongside them and help them in times of great need. These are the two activities you have the opportunity to engage in here that you will not have in heaven: sharing the gospel and serving people in need.

The God of Justice

In all times, places and cultures, humans have universally recognized the virtue of justice and the treacherous nature of injustice. From a biblical standpoint, the character of God is the absolute standard for justice, and our awareness of this moral standard is part of our having been created in the image of God. According to the prophet Isaiah, when God shows compassion and justice, he is simply being himself: “Yet the Lord longs to be gracious to you; he rises to show you compassion. For the Lord is a God of justice. Blessed are all who wait for him!” (Isaiah 30:18).

God’s fervor for justice is a component of his moral perfection, which longs for what is best for his creatures. Similarly, God’s loathing for injustice is a component of his opposition to the destructive effects of unrighteousness. Sin, which can be defined as anything contrary to the character of God, always leads to the pain and degradation of injustice toward others. This is why God hates sin so much. God is not a cosmic killjoy; he merely hates that which causes pain, ruin and discrimination among his children. Stott suggests that, at its core, “sin is a form of selfish revolt against God’s authority [and] our neighbour’s welfare.”5 God loathes sin because it estranges us from him and leads us to the abuse of power and desire to control others.

In contrast, righteousness, which may be identified as conformity to God’s character, is exhibited in attitudes and actions of fairness, integrity, truthfulness and honesty toward others. Scripture consistently associates sin with self-centeredness, while justice and righteousness are expressions of other-centeredness. People who are overly preoccupied with themselves are injurious to their world and infect the planet with damage and hurt. But those who choose to concern themselves with the needs of others bring the fragrant aroma of Christ to a smelly world in desperate need of some serious aromatherapy.

God’s passion for justice is evident from Genesis through Revelation. The poets and prophets in particular extolled this divine attribute:

The Lord loves righteousness and justice; the earth is full of his unfailing love.

Psalm 33:5

Righteousness and justice are the foundation of your throne; love and faithfulness go before you.

Psalm 89:14

The works of his hands are faithful and just; all his precepts are trustworthy.

Psalm 111:7

Many seek an audience with a ruler, but it is from the Lord that man gets justice.

Proverbs 29:26

“For I, the Lord, love justice; I hate robbery and iniquity.”

Isaiah 61:8

Justice was also a prominent concern of Jesus, conspicuous in the manner in which he transcended social, racial and economic barriers in his ministry.

Take, for example, his parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-27). Jewish people in Jesus’ day hated Samaritans and justified their prejudice with religious arguments. Those who told ethnic jokes about their despised “neighbors” must have been horrified to hear Jesus making a Samaritan the hero of this story. This was roughly the equivalent of one of us telling a story about a Good Lesbian or a Good Iraqi. Blinded by our own agendas, we fail to see that God’s justice is not just for his chosen people; God wants justice and righteousness for all.

In Jesus’ story of the Good Samaritan, we encounter three distinct philosophies of life. The thieves selfishly say, “What’s yours is mine.” The clergymen, with dreadful justification, say, “What’s mine is mine.” The despised Samaritan surprisingly says, “What’s mine is yours.” He alone is worthy of being called “good,” because he alone models the character and nature of God. It’s not just a matter of what he does, but what he is.

And before we move on from this story, we may be somewhat surprised that Jesus would portray “men of the cloth” in such a heartless way. Sadly, it is often the case that those who claim to be men and women of God are the worst offenders of justice and righteousness.

Two men decided to try an experiment by recreating this parable on a seminary campus. In their study, 40 seminary students were asked to give a talk on the topic of vocational careers of seminarians. They were sent to a nearby building to record their talks. On the way a “victim” was planted to see how these students would react: 24 of the students (60%) walked past the victim, some of them even stepped right over him to get to the recording studio.6

Caring for God by Caring for Others

What do you want more than anything else? If your honest answer relates to the area of self (e.g., power, wealth, fame), it will be impossible for you to be a person who strives for justice. In its fullest sense, the quest for true justice is a by-product of the pursuit of God over all other things. The oft-neglected Old Testament prophet Zechariah gives us a portrait of how true justice is expressed. The Jews who had returned to Israel after their exile in Babylon for 70 years wanted to know whether they should continue their practice of fasting and mourning during the fifth and seventh months.

The answer God sent through Zechariah was not at all what they might have expected. Their fasting (or feasting), he said, was not really for the Lord but for themselves, and their religious activity had no spiritual value because they were not accompanied by a concern for the needs of others. The prophetic oracle went on to say that it was for this very reason that their fathers had been carried into captivity:

And the word of the Lord came again to Zechariah: “This is what the Lord Almighty says: ‘Administer true justice; show mercy and compassion to one another. Do not oppress the widow or the fatherless, the alien or the poor. In your hearts do not think evil of each other.’

“But they stubbornly refused to pay attention; stubbornly they turned their backs and stopped up their ears. They made their hearts as hard as flint and would not listen to the law or to the words that the Lord Almighty had sent by his Spirit through the earlier prophets. So the Lord Almighty was very angry.

“‘When I called, they did not listen; so when they called, I would not listen,’ says the Lord Almighty. ‘I scattered them with a whirlwind among all the nations, where they were strangers. The land was left so desolate behind them that no one could come or go. This is how they made the pleasant land desolate.’”

Zechariah 7:8-14

In other words, God was saying that religious observances are of little value if the community has no concern for social justice. Before the exile the prophet Isaiah had dealt with the same issue of fasting and justice. Speaking to the covenant community of Judah, Isaiah had argued that true fasting should not merely be a matter of personal denial but also of social concern: “Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen: to loose the chains of injustice and untie the cords of the yoke, to set the oppressed free and break every yoke?” (Isaiah 58:6).

When true justice is administered, it is expressed in acts of mercy and compassion, particularly for those who are destitute (widows, orphans, aliens and the poor). Real justice, then, involves the application of power and influence to other-centered concerns. Such genuine justice flows out of a Christlike attitude of serving others: “Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit, but in humility consider others better than yourselves. Each of you should look not only to your own interests, but also to the interests of others” (Philippians 2:3-4).

What is Good?

Leadership is a complex issue. Add the commitment to do it well, to lead in a way that is pleasing to God, and complications increase. Even a brief look at one or two books on the subject of ethics raises the levels of guilt and confusion. Oddly enough, most seminars or books on the subject of ethics and morality refuse to acknowledge that the God of the Bible is the only basis for such behavior. When asked what is the foundation for determining what’s right and true and good, most “authorities” can only reply with some variation of the old saw, “Just look within.” That can’t be right, because any biblically informed person can easily tell you what Jesus taught in Mark 7,

“For from within, out of men’s hearts, come evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, greed, malice, deceit, lewdness, envy, slander, arrogance and folly. All these evils come from inside and make a man ‘unclean.’”

Mark 7:21-23

There must be some external point of reference, and this external point of reference had better be absolute. Otherwise, we are adrift in a sea of subjectivity. Frankly, a world with no absolutes would be a scary place. Thankfully, the Bible tells us that there is such an absolute standard; it’s found in the unchanging character of the living God. He alone is the foundation of true justice and beauty and goodness.

Micah 6:8 cuts to the heart of the issue, offering us a simple key to leading justly. Micah asked, “What is good? What does the Lord require?” His next admonition sounds remarkably like Jesus as he expounded the Golden Rule: Behave justly and mercifully toward other people, and walk humbly before God. It sounds like a very simple thing to do, but often the most profound things are easy to understand and extremely difficult to apply.

Everyone should act with justice and mercy, but the stakes go up when leaders are involved. Leaders decide whether customers will receive what they pay for, whether stockholders will realize a fair return on investment. Leaders decide on promotions, transfers, hirings and firings. Leaders determine the direction their followers must go. It would be dangerous and unfair to oversimplify the morass of ethical confusion surrounding these (and other) issues, but God enjoins us to think about what’s fair, just, right. Think about what will involve the least amount of pain for people over whose lives you hold power.

The only way to accomplish this monumental task is to maintain an attitude of humility. Leaders who know how to “walk humbly with [their] God,” acknowledge their own human foibles and are apt to lead humanely. Humility is merely an understanding of our profound need and desperate condition. Humility recognizes that, apart from the grace of God, we would be ruined. Those who cry out for God to be fair, just and merciful to them are more apt to grant to others what they know they themselves need from God.

Stewardship and Justice

Justice isn’t carried out only in a court of law. Leaders need to use their resources in an equitable way. How is that accomplished? In Nehemiah 5:1-19, Nehemiah, a man whose name is practically synonymous with godly leadership principles, advised the ancient Israelites how they could go about practicing justice.

The Jewish exiles, as they were returning, were actually selling their sons and daughters into slavery (v. 5). They were violating basic human decency, exacting usury on their own countrymen (v. 7). Nehemiah was outraged at their behavior – and justifiably so. His response was to call together a large meeting and deal with the problem, saying, “What you are doing is not right. Shouldn’t you walk in the fear of our God to avoid the reproach of our Gentile enemies?” (Nehemiah 5:9). God had built into Israel’s laws a means for equitable distribution of resources (Leviticus 25). He had stipulated that the land should be evenly distributed among the people, “because the land is mine and you are but aliens and my tenants” (Leviticus 25:23). Israel’s prophets reminded the people that hoarding resources while others suffer is a sin against God.

Like the many ancient civilizations, the Hebrews of the Old Testament attached huge significance to their land. However, unlike most pagan nations, this attachment wasn’t based on the fact that their ancestors were buried there. Nor did they view themselves as landowners with absolute property rights. The land was sacred because it was God’s land. Their possession of the land was in a qualified sense – really it was owned by God and they were merely stewards.

Pieces of land may be sold and redistributed as need arose, but God wisely established a year of Jubilee. Every 50th year, the pieces of property would revert back to the family who originally owned them. The year of Jubilee was a restart – a do-over. It was like an ancient version of the board game Monopoly. When we play the game, the object is to take the same amount of money everyone else has ($1,700) and use it to accumulate more money, property and wealth. But at the end of the game, no matter who wins, everything goes back in the box. It would be supremely foolish to get too attached to Boardwalk or Park Place, since the next time the game is played, they will probably belong to someone else. Play the game, have fun, but hold on loosely to those game pieces. When we begin again, we’ll all be back to our base of $1,700.

This is what happens in the year of Jubilee – everyone goes back to square one. This was built into the calendar of Israel. God even placed reminders throughout their daily routines. Every seven days, call a timeout. Every seven years, let the fields rest. Stop doing so much and trust God. But they couldn’t even muster enough trust to obey this sabbatical year. Interestingly enough, they refused to honor this sabbatical year for five centuries – that’s 70 sabbatical years they skipped. And how long did they spend in Babylonian exile? You guessed it: 70 years! God saw to it that the land enjoyed its 70 years of rest after all. The land wasn’t theirs to do with as they saw fit; the land belonged to God.

John Perkins, in his book With Justice for All, writes: “That truth – that we are not owners, but stewards – demands today, as then, an equitable distribution of the world’s resources…. The earth and its resources do not belong to us at all, but to God.” Perkins assures the reader that he is not “talking about taking all the money from the rich and giving it to the poor. That wouldn’t help a bit!” Instead, Perkins asserts, “The poor need something more than handouts. They need the means to build a better life for themselves. We must bring into the poor community the basic education the people need…. We must teach them the vocational and management skills required to start community-based economic enterprises.”7

Both Nehemiah and Moses required the people to redistribute resources. Neither advocated charity or handouts. Both urged those who controlled the resources to release them to those who had no means to take care of themselves. Justice is not served by perpetuating dependency but by equipping the dependent to, under God’s good hand, take care of their own needs.

Demonstrating Justice as God’s People

Abraham Herschel wrote, “Justice is scarce, injustice exceedingly common.”8 There are more people who ignore the poor and oppress the weak than who show concern for them. While we seek to do the right thing, it is much easier to do the wrong thing. Justice is uncommon and uncommonly hard.

Herschel goes on to remind us that most Americans associate justice with the blindfolded woman holding a scale. She often has a sword in hand. The image suggests that each person should get their fair share, that the scales should be balanced. The sword represents the power of the state to enforce such equality.

Such an image never appears in Scripture. As Christian leaders we are not guided by this sword-wielding, scale-holding woman. Rather the picture in Scripture is that of an ever-flowing river. To return to Amos, the God-approved image is a river, a never-failing stream. In God’s dream for the world, his concern is that the poor not just have enough, but that the rivers of justice flow down continually, that his people make righteousness toward rich and poor as endless as a mighty stream.

Our duty is to call the world to holiness and justice under the reign of God. Certainly, evangelism is a crucial part of this task. However, in addition to this, God calls us to participate in creating a better world, a world more congenial to all of his creatures. To serve people genuinely, we not only engage in selfless care for them but must also call them – along with all of their institutions – to holiness as a way of life. Such holiness, according to Leviticus 19, involves care for the poor and strangers, honesty, consideration of the handicapped and justice in all of the institutions of society. Injustice, unfairness, greed, selfishness, abuse of power and dehumanizing activities are all enemies of God and thus enemies of God’s people. We must not abandon the world to live in our sheltered little forts, but we must take the battle for righteousness to a morally and spiritually impoverished world.

Without question, this is a difficult and complex issue. What tactics should we use to bring about a world that more closely reflects God’s desires? Persuasion? Politics? Civil disobedience? Revolution? Although almost everyone would agree that persuasion is appropriate, there is wide divergence on whether or not political involvement and civil disobedience are appropriate in a Christian’s life. These will ultimately have to be left up to the consciences of individuals. But our proclamation of justice and righteousness and holiness only has credibility when it is demonstrated in our lives.

Our mission is to model transcendent living to the world. We do this not by escaping from the world but by living in it, by demonstrating a love beyond the human, by calling for holiness anchored in the very nature of God, by proclaiming the need for divine grace without which every cultural and religious achievement comes to naught. When we faithfully execute this mission, we display the transcendent realities of the Spirit. We do not denigrate the world and culture because they are passing away, for this world is the arena of God’s glory. Rather, we elevate every task in the world as an offering to the One who is All in All.


1 John R.W. Stott, The Contemporary Christian (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1992), p. 338.

2 Carl F.H. Henry, Evangelicals at the Brink of Crisis (Dallas: Word Books, 1967), pp. 71-72.

3 Donald S. Whitney, Ten Questions to Diagnose Your Spiritual Health (Colorado Springs, CO: NavPress, 2001), pp. 75-76.

4 Judson Polling and Bill Perkins, The Journey (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1996), p. 1195.

5 Stott, Contemporary Christian, p. 41.

6 Darley, J.M., & Bateson, C.D. “‘From Jerusalem to Jericho’: A Study of Situational Variables in Helping Behaviour,” Journal of Psychology and Theology 27 (1973): 100-108.

7 John Perkins, With Justice for All (Ventura, CA: Regal Books, 1982), pp. 153-156.

8 Abraham J. Herschel, The Prophets, Vol. 1 (New York: Harper & Row, 1962), p. 204.

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Leadership Development

Two women were walking down a street in New York City when they spotted a frog. The frog looked up and said, “I used to be a handsome, wealthy stockbroker, but I was turned into a frog. If one of you kisses me, I will be turned back into my original self. And I will be mighty grateful.”

One of the women stooped down, picked up the frog and placed him in her purse. The two friends walked on for a while, but the other finally got curious and said, “Aren’t you going to kiss the frog and turn him back to what he was?”

“Nope,” she replied. “I’d rather have a talking frog.”

That’s not how the story goes, is it? The woman is supposed to kiss the frog, unleashing a transformation process by which the young prince (or stockbroker) is liberated to be all that he can be. That’s how the story should go, but the truth is that many women would rather have a talking frog – and all the entertainment that might come with it – than a wealthy, prince of a guy – and all the headaches that come with him!

Likewise, many leaders would prefer to keep their followers the way they are rather than help them develop their own leadership skills and reach their full God-given potential. But that’s not leadership – at least not as Jesus modeled it. Jesus selected his followers very carefully, spending an entire night in prayer before he chose them (Luke 6:12-13). Then he poured himself into them for the next three-and-a-half years, teaching them privately and empowering them to do ministry. He wanted to be sure that when he left, they would carry on his work as leaders for others to follow.

Jesus on Leadership Development

Jesus came to earth to accomplish the will of the Father by giving his life as a ransom (Mark 10:45). On his way to the cross, he taught, performed miracles and demonstrated the love of the Father to thousands of people. But why did he choose disciples? He could have come, lived, taught, died, been raised and gone back to heaven without having to bother with 12 guys leaving their families behind, arguing over who’s the greatest in the kingdom, whining about status and asking a lot of frustrating questions.

But God’s plan from the start was to involve others in the work of bringing people into the kingdom. Jesus demonstrated a principle that C. Gene Wilkes has written about in his book Jesus on Leadership: “You will never be an effective leader until you include those you lead in what you do.”1 In fact, it is interesting that no person in the Bible comes to faith in Christ apart from the work of another human being. Even Saul of Tarsus, when he was confronted by the risen Christ on the road to Damascus, was sent to another person who would tell him what to do (Acts 9). Jesus could have told him what to do, but he did not. He involved Ananias in the conversion of Saul.

Wilkes continues:

Jesus seldom did ministry by himself. Jesus was Lord and Master and needed no one to help him. Yet no matter what he was doing, he ministered with his disciples nearby. He usually had at least three disciples with him wherever he went. By constantly having his closest followers near him, he showed how the best lessons came from the classroom of experience. In the sense that Jesus was all-powerful and could do whatever he wanted, he did not need a ministry team, but he built one so that his mission would continue when he returned to the Father.2

We see this clearly in Luke 10, as Jesus commissions 72 of his followers for ministry:

After this the Lord appointed seventy-two others and sent them two by two ahead of him to every town and place where he was about to go. He told them, “The harvest is plentiful, but the workers are few. Ask the Lord of the harvest, therefore, to send out workers into his harvest field. Go! I am sending you out like lambs among wolves.

Luke 10:1-3

When Jesus commissioned them to go out in pairs, he knew that they would face hardship. After all, they departed without food, money or extra clothing (v. 4). Wisely, Jesus did not send them out alone; he sent them “two by two.” Not only did this satisfy the Old Testament ideal of confirmed witness (Deuteronomy 19:15), but it also met the practical need of each disciple for protection and encouragement. Jesus looked after his followers to the smallest detail.

As emissaries from Jesus, they were to offer a blessing wherever they went and accept whatever hospitality was offered to them. However, they were not to be pushy or go where they were unwelcome. If they encountered opposition, they were to go through the same ritual of wiping the dust off their feet as the 12 practiced (Luke 9:1-6).

When they returned, they were overjoyed with the success of their ministry tour. They were especially thrilled that even demonic forces were powerless before the authority they had been given by Jesus: “Lord, even the demons submit to us in your name” (v. 17). Jesus Himself affirmed their work when He said, “I saw Satan fall like lightning from heaven” (v. 18). Satan had been routed by the power of God as the message of the kingdom had been shared. How did this motley bunch of disciples meet with such success?

First, they were well-trained. They knew where to go and what to say. They even knew in advance how to deal with rejection. In fact, Jesus was constantly teaching his disciples, formally and informally through his own example. He instructed them about the kingdom of God (Matthew 13), his mission on earth (Mark 10:32-34) and their own attitudes about being his followers (Luke 17:7-10). They had seen him deal with hostility and negative responses before. Jesus made sure that his followers were well-prepared.

Second, they had a clear vision: They were impelled by Jesus’ urgent declaration that “The harvest is plentiful” (v. 2). Max DePree says that the first responsibility of a great leader is to define reality.3 That is precisely what Jesus did. Jesus painted a clear picture of what their mission would look like when it was complete: the harvest would be plentiful. And it was.

Not only did Jesus listen to their report, but he praised their efforts. And, more importantly, he praised them. He reminds them of their blessed position in history by saying, “Blessed are the eyes that see what you see. For I tell you that many prophets and kings wanted to see what you see but did not see it, and to hear what you hear but did not hear it” (vv. 23-24). Think of the impact this must have had on Jesus’ followers – many of whom certainly came from the “wrong side of the tracks.” These oppressed people enjoyed something that made Old Testament kings and heroes green with envy.

Jesus mastered in leadership development. He trained leaders, tested them and then rewarded them. H.G. Wells wrote:

More than 1900 years later, a historian like myself, who doesn’t even call himself a Christian, finds the picture centering irresistibly around the life and character of this most significant man…. The historian’s test of an individual’s greatness is “What did he leave to grow?” Did he start men to thinking along fresh lines with a vigor that persisted after him? By this test Jesus stands first.4

Leadership is not merely a cognitive grasping of concepts. Neither is it just a matter of developing skills to their full potential. For leadership to be passed on, it must be modeled. Leadership, like most things, is more caught than taught. By allowing the 12 to follow him around for more than three years, Jesus was able to model leadership principles for them. He showed them what true greatness in the kingdom of God looked like. It looks like humility; it looks like service; it looks like Jesus himself.

Learning like Jesus

God has invested extraordinary potential in human beings, but in a fallen world there are many obstacles to the realization of these capabilities. The fact of the matter is that many of us are disappointed in ourselves, in our sinfulness and in our inability to do things the way we know they should be done. We are often bad parents, bad spouses, bad friends and bad neighbors. We do foolish things at work and make unwise decisions. We speak without thinking. We harbor resentment and withhold forgiveness. We don’t pray enough. We watch too much television.

Pop psychologists would tell us that our disappointment is merely low self-esteem – a failure to accept ourselves as we are. They would tell us that the root of our problems lies in the unrealistic expectations we set for ourselves. After all, nobody’s perfect. There’s some truth to that, but it’s not entirely accurate. The better answer lies in the fact that we are not the people God had in mind when he created us; we are not living the lives he created us to live. In many cases, we haven’t set the bar too high for ourselves, we’ve settled for far less than our true potential.

The incarnation and earthly life of God’s Son reveal a pattern for what human life before the fall was meant to be. Jesus, as the second Adam, models for us the full potential of a Spirit-filled life. He shows us what a life fully devoted to God’s purposes could look like. We do not have to just shrug and accept the way we are; through the power of the indwelling Holy Spirit, true transformation, real life-change, is possible. This is what is behind Kierkegaard’s wonderful prayer: “And now, Lord, with your help I shall become myself.”5

In Hebrews, we find the astonishing truth that Jesus developed into the leader he was:

During the days of Jesus’ life on earth, he offered up prayers and petitions with loud cries and tears to the one who could save him from death, and he was heard because of his reverent submission. Although he was a son, he learned obedience from what he suffered and, once made perfect, he became the source of eternal salvation for all who obey him and was designated by God to be high priest in the order of Melchizedek.

Hebrews 5:7-10

This passage points to the mystery of the incarnation of the God-man and the manner in which Jesus “learned obedience from what he suffered” (v. 8). Luke tells us that “Jesus grew in wisdom and stature, and in favor with God and men” (Luke 2:52). For 30 years he was preparing for his relatively brief public ministry. He developed intellectually (“in wisdom”), physically (“in stature”), spiritually (“in favor with God”) and socially (“in favor with men”). In all things Jesus submitted to the Father’s sovereign plan to ready him for the purpose for which he had been sent into the world.

Our Lord developed as a servant leader through personal discipline, through “reverent submission” (v. 7) and through pain and opposition. He viewed every obstacle which he encountered as something allowed by his Father to assist him in the fulfillment of his earthly mission, all the while focusing his thoughts beyond the externals to that ultimate mission: “I have come to do your will, O God” (Hebrews 10:5-7). This attitude of submission and radical obedience to God was key to his development as the spiritual leader and redeemer of humanity.

Jesus never invites us to do something he has not done for us first. We have a God who really engages in our condition and knows what it’s like to be human, to be abused, to be tempted, to be rejected and alone. He does not ask us to suffer without having suffered himself. He doesn’t ask us to love unlovely people without having first loved us in our unlovely state. He does not ask us to serve others without having first served us.

Jesus was not born a fully developed adult; he was born a human baby. And a baby with the odds stacked against him. There was constant talk about the suspicious circumstances surrounding his birth. His mother was probably a teenager. His father was a blue collar laborer. He narrowly escaped being killed in his infancy. He spent his first years as a refugee in Egypt. When his family returned from Egypt, they settled in a backwater town called Nazareth – a town so small and insignificant that it does not make the list of 63 Galilean towns mentioned in the Talmud. His people were under Roman oppression. No one could accuse God of showing preferential treatment to his Son.

He had to learn to speak and write and walk. He had to learn how to be a leader. He had to grow up. This is what he invites us to when we surrender to him. With his help, we can grow up and be the men and women we were designed to be.

Growing Up

God has called us into being and is preparing us for a purpose. In light of this purpose, he sometimes assigns us to courses we would not have chosen as electives. The process of our preparation often seems slow and painful, but there is no painless way to create servant leaders who possess depth and character. One primary example of this is the Old Testament hero Joseph. As a young man, Joseph had dreams that seemed mysterious but would later be fulfilled in surprising ways. God had raised him up to deliver and provide for his family, but Joseph could never have predicted the tortuous paths by which the Lord would bring this about. Joseph endured rejection, misunderstanding and persecution, but the Lord was with him through it all. He continued to trust and hope in the Lord despite the apparent hopelessness of his situation. Through this process of testing and trusting, Joseph was finally ready to take on the task for which he had been chosen. On one remarkable day, Joseph was transformed from prisoner to second-in-command in Egypt.

In the same way, God raised up other servants like Moses, David, Jeremiah and Paul. In each case a lengthy and sometimes painful process of character and personal development was involved before these people were ready to serve and lead others. This necessary preparation process is also the reason that new converts should never be placed in positions of spiritual leadership. In his instructions to Timothy concerning the appointment of overseers in the church, Paul wrote, “He must not be a recent convert, or he may become conceited and fall under the same judgment as the devil” (1 Timothy 3:6). Leaders must be taught and nurtured, and they should be allowed to grow into increasing spheres of responsibility.

Frederick Buechner tells us that every age has produced fairy tales. 6 We want to know that there is something more besides the world as we experience it. We tell ourselves stories of other worlds where death is not the end and a reversal of fortunes is a possibility. But one facet of fairy tales is the idea that these other worlds are closer than we might think – just a walk in the woods away or a trip through the other side of our closet. And the crux of fairy tales is the transformation of the central characters: ugly ducklings turn into swans; frogs turn into princes; wooden puppets become real boys; neglected orphans become princesses. In the book The Princess and Curdie, one of the main characters has the magical ability of knowing from a single touch of someone’s hand just what he or she is becoming.7 If all of these facets sound familiar, they should; they are all facets of the gospel. The only difference is the gospel is true!

In some fairy tales, the transformation is instantaneous – one kiss wakes up Sleeping Beauty. In most, however, the process is grueling, and the hero must endure peril and hardship before the transformation is complete. Like a caterpillar becoming a butterfly, the changes are holistic; not one part is left the same. And as the butterfly is struggling to free itself from its chrysalis, it is actually developing the strength it will need to fly. Any assistance will actually consign the butterfly to a certain death. In spiritual transformation, there are no short cuts to maturity. The hardships and struggles we endure during the transformation process will eventually provide us the strength we will need to accomplish the tasks our transformed nature will require.

Concentrate on Character

Where is a person who wants to be a leader to begin? Leaders are compelled to know so many things and do so much well. David groomed Solomon for leadership, and Israel enjoyed the successive reigns of these two great kings. The book of 1 Kings reveals David’s focus as he, a great leader, worked to develop Solomon into another great leader:

When the time drew near for David to die, he gave a charge to Solomon his son.

“I am about to go the way of all the earth,” he said. “So be strong, show yourself a man, and observe what the Lord your God requires: Walk in his ways, and keep his decrees and commands, his laws and requirements, as written in the Law of Moses, so that you may prosper in all you do and wherever you go, and that the Lord may keep his promise to me: ‘If your descendants watch how they live, and if they walk faithfully before me with all their heart and soul, you will never fail to have a man on the throne of Israel.’”

1 Kings 2:1-4

How’s that for the first day on the job? The scope of the work itself was enormous, and David was a tough act to follow. Solomon was ready; David had developed him as a leader. The charge above is based upon the assumption that Solomon knew and honored God’s “ways…his decrees and commands, his laws and requirements.” There is no greater preparation for leadership than that. Leadership takes on many forms as an organization grows or downsizes, as its climate and environment change. What remains constant is the moral base of the leader, and this was the first issue that David addressed. Solomon was ethically ready.

Only at this point did David reveal to Solomon some of the specifics of his new role as king of Israel:

“Now you yourself know what Joab…did to me – what he did to the two commanders of Israel’s armies…. He killed them, shedding their blood in peacetime as if in battle…. Deal with him according to your wisdom, but do not let his gray head go down to the grave in peace.

“But show kindness to the sons of Barzillai of Gilead and let them be among those who eat at your table. They stood by me when I fled from your brother Absalom.

“And remember, you have with you Shimei...who called down bitter curses on me the day I went to Mahanaim. When he came down to meet me at the Jordan, I swore to him by the Lord: ‘I will not put you to death by the sword.’ But now, do not consider him innocent. You are a man of wisdom; you will know what to do to him. Bring his gray head down to the grave in blood.

1 Kings 2:5-9

Makes you wonder whether Solomon might have wished that the job of royal dishwasher was available! David left Solomon with some thorny, unresolved leadership situations, but notice that twice in these five verses David referred to his successor’s wisdom. He asserted, “You will know what to do” (v. 9). David had invested himself in preparing Israel’s next leader. Solomon had acquired a deep knowledge of God’s Word and wisdom. In view of this foundation, it was in essence immaterial what further preparation was needed. The new leader already possessed the basic credentials and stood prepared to learn.

Mentoring is Mandatory

Leadership development should be an ongoing process in our own lives as well as in the lives of those we seek to prepare. We should have multiple mentoring relationships. First, there are those who have gone before us who should mentor us. We are the leaders who will eventually succeed them. Then there are the people who will eventually replace us in our leadership role. We should reach out and intentionally mentor them. Mentoring relationships don’t just happen. Neither can they be forced. Mentoring is an intentional two-way street.

If we’re going to effectively develop the leadership abilities of others, we must provide them with more than training and instruction. We need to “mentor” them. In her book Women to Women, Sheila R. Staley points out:

[T]he word “mentor” originated in Greek legend, where Mentor was the wise and trusted counselor to whom Odysseus entrusted the education of his son. The mentor nurtures, supports, and provides wise counsel. She helps her protégé set and realize goals. For the Christian woman, these goals are established and bathed in prayer. Growth emerges out of practical experiences, the mentor serving as a wise advisor.8

The apostle Paul understood the crucial role of mentoring in leadership development. He reminded the Thessalonians that he had done more for them than impart spiritual truth. Paul had internalized his beliefs to such an extent that those who followed in his steps could be confident that they were following Christ. He told them,

[O]ur gospel came to you not simply with words, but also with power, with the Holy Spirit and with deep conviction. You know how we lived among you for your sake. You became imitators of us and of the Lord; in spite of severe suffering, you welcomed the message with the joy given by the Holy Spirit.

1 Thessalonians 1:5-6

It is important to note that the chain didn’t end with the Thessalonians. After following Paul, they became a “model to all the believers in Macedonia and Achaia” (v. 7). The followers became leaders. Those who had been mentored became mentors to others.

Until fairly recently, mentoring was a part of the fabric of people’s everyday lives. Mentoring is how most people were trained and developed in business and life. A young man would be apprenticed for years to a master craftsman in order to learn the trade. Life knowledge was passed on in the context of a relationship, the opening up of one life to another. Mentoring may be a buzz word of the last decade, but its roots are ancient.

A good mentor will walk with you through life, be a true brother or sister, challenge your thinking and faith, caution you when appropriate and share what he or she has learned that might help you. This is the idea behind the Bible’s admonition, “As iron sharpens iron, so one man sharpens another” (Proverbs 27:17).

Not only does a mentor challenge, but a mentor supports and encourages as well. The Bible says, “Two are better than one, because they have a good return for their work: If one falls down, his friend can help him up. But pity the man who falls and has no one to help him up!” (Ecclesiastes 4:9-10). A mentor puts his or her arm around you to help you make it through those times when you doubt you can take another step – an absolute necessity on the road to becoming a leader.


1 C. Gene Wilkes, Jesus on Leadership (Wheaton, IL: Tyndale House, 1998), p. 211.

2 Ibid., pp. 213-214.

3 Max DePree, Leadership Is an Art (New York: Doubleday, 1989), p. 9.

4 Quoted from The Greatest Men in History in Mark Link, S.J., He Is the Still Point of the Turning World (Chicago: Argus Communications, 1971), p. 111.

5 Soren Kierkegaard, The Prayers of Kierkegaard, ed. Perry LeFevre (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1956), p. 147.

6 Frederick Buechner, Telling the Truth: The Gospel as Tragedy, Comedy, and Fairy Tale (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1977).

7 George MacDonald, The Princess and Curdie (Baltimore: Puffin Books, 1976).

8 Novella Carter and Matthew Parker, ed., Women to Women (Grand Rapids: Zondervan/The Institute for Black Family Development, 1996), p. 76.

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The Learning Organization

In his famous dialogue The Republic, the Greek philosopher Plato tells “The Parable of the Cave,” in which a group of subterranean people mistake the shadows they see in the cave for reality. In Plato’s original telling of the story, when one of the people discovers the truth about the source of the shadows and attempts to share his knowledge with the others, they rise up and slaughter him. Plato’s conclusion to his story is a chilling one: We are all misguided cave dwellers, operating under incomplete or distorted perceptions of reality and violently resistant to having those perceptions challenged.

The discussion around this idea is important because mental models limit us every day. Organizational case studies abound of good ideas that never got off the ground, simply because they didn’t match the prevailing assumptions or beliefs. One popular illustration is of the Swiss watch industry, which dominated the world market for watches for many years. When the new quartz technology was first introduced, the Swiss manufacturers rejected it, since it didn’t match their mental model that watches should be mechanical, “ticking” devices – rather than high-tech ones. Instead, Japanese manufacturers like Seiko adopted the new technology, and rapidly took much of the world market from the Swiss. The Swiss fall in the global watch market can be traced back to their dependence on their mental models about what made watches desirable – their unwillingness to leave their cave.

Proponents of change have learned that the biggest barrier to organizational reengineering is the past success of the institution. Observers have noted that “American companies are now performing so badly precisely because they used to perform so well.”1 In other words, a company such as IBM became successful because it was uniquely designed for the time in which it prospered. Once that context changed, however, the previous insights and processes that once brought success now guaranteed failure. As a result, the problem with America’s business world is that it entered the 21st century with companies designed during the 19th century to work well in the 20th century, and the old ways of doing business simply don’t work anymore.

Learning from the Past

Our minds were designed to stay sharp, but, like anything else, they need to be exercised. When we allow our minds to grow flabby through a lack of critical thought and stimulation, we can become dull and insensitive. This spells disaster, and the truth is that this kind of failure usually comes during times of prosperity and success. Following a smashing success, it’s easy to kick back and rest, to assume that current knowledge and achievements will assure future success. That’s a dangerous attitude. Unfortunately, it’s the one that the ancient Israelites adopted after the death of Joshua and his generation:

The people served the Lord throughout the lifetime of Joshua and of the elders who outlived him and who had seen all the great things the Lord had done for Israel.

Joshua son of Nun, the servant of the Lord, died at the age of a hundred and ten. And they buried him in the land of his inheritance….

After that whole generation had been gathered to their fathers, another generation grew up, who knew neither the Lord nor what he had done for Israel. Then the Israelites did evil in the eyes of the Lord and served the Baals. They forsook the Lord, the God of their fathers, who had brought them out of Egypt. They followed and worshiped various gods of the peoples around them. They provoked the Lord to anger because they forsook him…. In his anger against Israel the Lord handed them over to raiders who plundered them. He sold them to their enemies all around, whom they were no longer able to resist.

Joshua 2:7-14

Joshua had led the Israelites in the conquest of the promised land. His generation had personally witnessed God damming up the Jordan River and orchestrating the fall of the walls of Jericho (Joshua 3:6). Yet the very next generation “knew neither the Lord nor what he had done for Israel” (Judges 2:10). What a tragic and scathing statement. An entire generation had failed to learn in any life-changing way about God or his deeds. The void left by their ignorance allowed room in their hearts and minds to embrace idols and pagan peoples. Ultimately, it led them into sin and brought down the anger of the Lord upon them. They knew the stories of their predecessors’ successes and failures, but they didn’t learn anything from them.

Thus begins a cycle that is repeated throughout the book of Judges: sin, servitude, supplication, salvation and silence. The people rebel against God (sin); God hands them over to their enemies as punishment (servitude); the people cry out to God for deliverance (supplication); God sends a deliverer in the form of a judge (salvation); the nation would enjoy a period of peace (silence). And then the process begins all over again. Seven times through the book of Judges, the people of Israel follow this downward spiral. Why? Because they never learn from their experience.

What a monotonous and depressing pattern! The only interesting thing in the book of Judges is to see how God delivers them. Each time he uses imagination and creativity; no deliverer is like another. Sin is boring and predictable. God’s righteousness brings freedom and options. Sin is tedious and destructive; righteousness is creative and constructive.

When nations, organizations or teams stop learning, they’re setting themselves up for failure. Because the Israelites refused to learn from their history, they were doomed to repeat it. The same is true for individuals and groups today who haven’t learned from their experiences. Effective leaders know this. They do their best to create an atmosphere that encourages learning within their organizations and teams. They remember the principles gleaned through experiences, and they help their people to apply them to new situations.

Progressive Revelation

Dostoevsky’s great novel Crime and Punishment is not assigned reading for kindergarten classes. Neither do we teach advanced engineering mathematics or quantum physics to first graders. A lengthy process of development and learning is necessary before people are ready to tackle these more sophisticated subjects. Similarly, God gives us greater amounts of illumination as we respond to the light we have already received.

When the Old Testament prophets received divine oracles for the people of Israel and Judah, they realized that there were significant aspects of these messages that eluded their grasp. Isaiah must have struggled with the meaning of the material in chapters such as 4; 9; 11; 35; 42; 53 and 61. Daniel realized that the significance of many portions of his oracle was beyond his grasp: “I heard, but I did not understand. So I asked, ‘My lord, what will the outcome of all this be?’ He replied, ‘Go your way, Daniel, because the words are closed up and sealed until the time of the end’” (Daniel 12:8-9). Peter explains this lack of complete understanding:

Concerning this salvation, the prophets, who spoke of the grace that was to come to you, searched intently and with the greatest care, trying to find out the time and circumstances to which the Spirit of Christ in them was pointing when he predicted the sufferings of Christ and the glories that would follow. It was revealed to them that they were not serving themselves but you, when they spoke of the things that have now been told you by those who have preached the gospel to you by the Holy Spirit sent from heaven. Even angels long to look into these things.

1 Peter 1:10-12

God’s Word is a progressive revelation in which clearer and fuller insights concerning the person and work of God were communicated in a gradual and dynamic way. The people of God received increasing light over the centuries, especially during the lives of Moses and Joshua, the period of the prophets following Elijah and Elisha, and the time of Jesus and the apostles. God is the master pedagogue – he knows just the right time to communicate the next lesson. There is no point in conveying additional light if a group or a person does not have the capacity to receive it or has not responded appropriately to the light that has already been given.

Paul writes, “For everything that was written in the past was written to teach us, so that through endurance and the encouragement of the Scriptures we might have hope” (Romans 15:4). He also tells the church in Corinth, “These things happened to [the nation of Israel] as examples and were written down as warnings for us, on whom the fulfillment of the ages has come” (1 Corinthians 10:11). In other words, God’s people throughout the centuries have been a model of what a learning organization looks like. The lessons from the past – both learned and unlearned – have been recorded for our benefit.

Responding to New Information

Reading the Old Testament can be a frustrating experience, especially if we’ve read it before and know what’s going to happen. We find ourselves wishing that the stubborn Israelites would just obey God and turn away from idolatry, but they continue to ruin their own lives by refusing to learn from their experiences. Then we come to the realization that they remind us of ourselves. In Zechariah 1:2-6 we find God’s Word to the remnant who had returned to the land following their exile:

“The Lord was very angry with your forefathers. Therefore tell the people: This is what the Lord Almighty says: ‘Return to me,’ declares the Lord Almighty. Do not be like your forefathers, to whom the earlier prophets proclaimed: This is what the Lord Almighty says: ‘Turn from your evil ways and your evil practices.’ But they would not listen or pay attention to me, declares the Lord. Where are your forefathers now? And the prophets, do they live forever? But did not my words and my decrees, which I commanded my servants the prophets, overtake your forefathers?

“Then they repented and said, ‘The Lord Almighty has done to us what our ways and practices deserve, just as he determined to do.’”

Zechariah 1:2-6

These sad words were given to a people whose forefathers had refused to learn from the Lord in spite of the many prophets God had sent to warn them of the consequences of their ways. The essence of the prophetic message from the Lord was, “Return to me, and I will return to you.” Had their forefathers done so, the exile would not have occurred, and the people would have enjoyed the blessings, protection and provision of God in their land without fear of famine or conquest. Now the Lord is telling the generation of Zechariah that the same message applies to them. If they trust and obey the Lord instead of falling into the same trap that ruined their ancestors, they will enjoy the rich blessings of fellowship with God.

Revelation always demands a response. Dr. Walt Kaiser, President of Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, writes:

How important is it to respond to God’s Word and to offer to him a tender heart and receptive spirit. It is not sufficient to know that the Bible is God’s Word or to argue for its inerrancy; we must, with a spirit of contriteness and humility, act on the basis of what it says. When we hear the Word proclaimed and applied to our times and people, surely we can sense that something is drastically wrong. Indeed, rather than result in indifference or unconcern, the Word of God will always “overtake” and arrest the humble and tender-hearted person, leading him or her on to obedience. O for more willing, responsive, and grateful hearts, minds, and feet!2

When people fail to learn from and apply what they have received from the Lord, they stop growing and lose their personal effectiveness. Moreover, they become an abomination to God. As the history of Israel makes clear, it is quite possible to regress and “unlearn” spiritual truth. And what is true for an individual is also true for a group, an organization, a nation or a civilization. One Old Testament scholar writes, “The [Word of God] will survive; of this we have no doubt. But will the generation that loses knowledge of it? This is our concern.”3

The Upward Spiral

Continuous improvement requires continuous learning. Only the learning organization will, over the long haul, continue to grow. Paul provided the Colossian church with a marvelous insight into the concept of growth through learning:

For this reason, since the day we heard about you, we have not stopped praying for you and asking God to fill you with the knowledge of his will through all spiritual wisdom and understanding. And we pray this in order that you may live a life worthy of the Lord and may please him in every way: bearing fruit in every good work, growing in the knowledge of God.

Colossians 1:9-10

The fundamentals of the faith constantly bear repeating. In doing so, we find ourselves undoing the downward spiral with an upward spiral of God’s design. Robertson McQuilkin writes about this upward spiral in his book Life in the Spirit:

All of us begin the same – on the spiral down away from God, toward ever greater destruction. That’s life without the Spirit. But life with the Spirit is another story – the story of an upward spiral toward God….

The glorious spiral up: the more I know Him, the more I trust Him; the more I trust Him, the more I love Him; the more I love Him, the more I obey Him; the more I obey Him, the more I become like Him; the more I become like Him, the greater capacity I have to love Him; the more I love Him….4

Paul wanted the Colossian church to learn – a desire all wise leaders have for their followers. Because he was addressing a functioning organization, Paul taught the Colossians to “learn-on-the-run.” No organization can afford to ignore the curriculum that is built into its daily activities. Paul knew that people would learn if they were provided with:

  • Standards (v. 9). For the church, it is knowledge of God’s will. Followers in any enterprise can’t improve unless they know what “better” and “ideal” looks like. Leaders must set and communicate standards.
  • Instruction (v. 9). Knowing the standard and grasping its significance (wisdom and understanding) are not the same. Policy and procedure manuals lacking this second component may only confuse and frustrate.
  • Practice (v. 10). Until people “live a life,” they’re unaware of what they don’t understand. People need to try – to succeed or to safely fail – as part of their growth. Leaders provide mentors, helpers to guide as people attempt to do what is expected.
  • Feedback (v. 10). Paul knew that, as people began to apply new learning, their effort would bear fruit. As activity produces product, people need to know how they measure up. Hearing, “That’s good” or “Not quite, try again” is essential to growth. The important difference between “inspectors” and “teachers” is that “inspectors” often find only flaws in the work, while “teachers” help the workers to grow.
  • Release (v. 10). The learner eventually grows on his or her own, having gained sufficient confidence and sophistication to ask new questions and to use the standards to guide further learning.

Paul’s desire was for the Colossian church to become a learning church. Not merely a church where people could come and hear a lecture, this church could become a place where disciples (students) could come and, in the context of healthy relationships, experience, connect, reflect and test the fundamentals of the Christian faith. A true learning environment is not designed for people to simply sit and soak; it is a place where beliefs become practices, where hands and feet are attached to our brains.

In 1990, learning theorist John M. Carroll presented a case study against contemporary instructional methods in his book called The Nurnberg Funnel.5 The title is a reference to the absurd image of the Funnel of Nurnberg, a ridiculous device that supposedly allowed copious amounts of knowledge to be transferred directly to a student via a funnel inserted into the brain. Such an image may seem laughable to us, but all we need to do is take a stroll around most organizations to find the principle very much alive. Carroll deconstructs learning methods that rely on such activities as listening, recording, memorizing and regurgitating – with very little personal connection or application. This old worldview is called Instructivism, and in his book, Carroll takes a critical look at many of the false assumptions of the Nurnberg-ish approach. Specifically, he finds that instructivism assumes that:

  • Everyone learns best by listening and receiving information. This gives rise to the speaker’s motto: “Tell them what you’re going to tell them. Then tell them what you just told them.”
  • People will naturally make the bridge from theory to application. This is why so many meetings end with some variation of this: “Here’s a graphic of our four-quadrant model. Hang it up in your office so you’ll remember to apply it.”
  • Knowledge transfer is a passive process, in which new awareness is transferred from a teacher to a student. This is how consultants make a living: “Listen to me; I’m the expert.”6

What is now being proposed by many learning theorists is a seismic shift in corporate learning and communications from an instructor-centered orientation to one that is learner-centered. This is the core of the rapidly growing body of knowledge that is experiential learning. But this shift requires leaders who are secure enough in their own identity to risk stepping out of the center of attention. In a learning organization, the focus isn’t on the leader; it’s on the ideas that are being generated by the organization. Harry S. Truman Reagan is said to have had a plaque in his office that read, “You can accomplish anything in life, provided that you do not mind who gets the credit.”

Creating a Climate of Openness

The primary challenge of our early years is naiveté and a lack of direction. When we move into our middle years, our major challenge seems to be double-mindedness and entanglement. By the time we reach our later years, our major problem seems to be a lack of teachability – a stubborn and arrogant unwillingness to learn. If we stop the process of learning and growing and gaining insight, we will lose the purposes for which God has called us. We are to be agents of change in this world as long as we are in this world. There is no retirement age in the business of building God’s kingdom. When we lose the desire to discover new things, we lose the cutting edge of a renewed mind. Next comes double-mindedness and entanglement, and there we go back down the downward spiral towards conformity to this world and alienation from God.

In light of this, it is interesting that one of the greatest revivals in the Old Testament came under the leadership of King Josiah, who assumed the throne at the ripe, old age of eight (2 Chronicles 34:1). When Josiah was 16, he began to earnestly seek after God’s heart (v. 3a), and when he was 20, he began a national reformation (v. 3b). When he was 26, Josiah issued orders to repair the temple of the Lord (v. 8), leading to a rediscovery of the Book of the Law (v. 14) and a reinstatement of the Passover Celebration (35:1).

The significance of Josiah’s reform can be seen in the fact that he destroyed the altars that Solomon had built for his foreign wives (2 Kings 23:13). These altars had stood for 300 years! No other king had done anything about them. Then, when Josiah went through the land, he destroyed the altar in Bethel, where Jeroboam had set up a golden calf. That altar had also stood for more than 300 years. Other kings had promoted the worship of God, but none of Josiah’s predecessors had the courage to destroy the pagan altars in the land. Josiah did what no other king before him had been prepared to do.

This story wonderfully illustrates what happens when an organization “learns.” In an excellent analysis of organizations as learning systems, Nevis, DiBella and Gould identified 10 “facilitating factors that expedite learning,” in an organization. All 10 are important, but the fifth one that they cite is indispensable to the rest. They suggest a “Climate of Openness”:

Are the boundaries around information flow permeable so people can make their own observations? Much informal learning is a function of daily, often unplanned interactions among people. In addition, the opportunity to meet with other groups and see higher levels of management in operation promotes learning. People need freedom to express their views through legitimate disagreement and debate. Another critical aspect is the extent to which errors are shared and not hidden.7

Josiah allowed – even commanded – his people to spread the new information about God’s law openly. Further, “the extent to which errors [were being] shared and not hidden” reached King Josiah himself. He too repented and changed his ways (34:27-33). Without a climate of openness, learning is stifled. With it, organizational learning, as we see in Josiah’s reform, can take on enormous dimensions. If leaders model learning by openly sharing their own areas of growth, followers feel confident to do the same. An open climate is an essential component for any group that wants to become an effective learning system.


1 Michael Hammer and James Champy, Reengineering the Corporation: A Manifesto for Business Revolution (New York: HarperBusiness, 1993), p. 10

2 Walter C. Kaiser, Jr., Revive Us Again (Nashville: Broadman & Holman, 1999), p. 143.

3 C.E. Autrey, Revivals of the Old Testament (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1960), p. 34.

4 J. Robertson McQuilkin, Life in the Spirit (Nashville: Broadman & Holman, 2000), p. 16.

5 John M. Carroll, The Nurnberg Funnel (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1990).

6 Ibid., pp. 49-72.

7 “Understanding Organizations as Learning Systems,” by Nevis, DiBella and Gould. Sloan Management Review, Winter 1995, pp. 73-75.

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Long-Range Planning

The great American philosopher Yogi Berra once said, “Prediction is very bad, especially when it’s about the future.” Indeed, as Leonard Sweet says, “He who lives by the crystal ball is bound to eat glass.”1 But looking ahead into the future, that great unknown, is an essential characteristic of effective leadership. Although, as a leader, you may not possess a crystal ball to foretell what the future will bring, you can and should be planning for what it may bring.

God’s Great Plan

God demonstrated his ability to foresee the future in Genesis 3:15. After the sin of Adam and Eve, God looked far into the years ahead as he spoke to the serpent and declared what would come to pass: “I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and hers; he will crush your head, and you will strike his heel.” Satan would strike Christ’s heel, referring to the painful death of Christ on the Christ. But that was not the end of the story. Christ would crush the head of the serpent. While Satan would appear to have won when Jesus died on the cross, Satan would be the ultimate loser in this great spiritual battle.

In his book Children of Crisis, Robert Coles quotes a young child from Mississippi: “The Lord made me. When I grow up, my mama says I may not like how He made me, but I must always remember that He did it and it’s His idea. So when I draw the Lord, He’ll be a real big man. He has to be to explain the way things are.”2

God is big. He’s all-powerful, all-knowing and sovereign. He not only made the universe, he rules it to this day and will throughout eternity. The fall of man in the Garden of Eden didn’t catch God off guard. God looked far into the future and saw his glorious victory over all the forces of evil, those mighty forces that were unleashed as a result of one little bite of a piece of forbidden fruit. Back then, God unveiled a plan that would unfold thousands of years later on a cross outside of Jerusalem. As the ultimate leader, he made certain that the direction of the history of the human race was headed toward our salvation.

Without question, God is the ultimate long-range planner. His purposes encompass the whole range from eternity to eternity and extend to every part of his dominion. From a short-range perspective, things may appear to be out of control, but God is ordering all things in such a way that they will reach a glorious consummation. Euripedes was right when he said, “The way of God is complex, He is hard for us to predict. He moves the pieces and they come somehow into a kind of order.”

The French philosopher Voltaire wrote a satirical novel titled Candide, in which the heroine goes from one tragedy to the next. Yet she keeps telling herself that this is the “best of all possible worlds.” It seemed so ridiculous to Voltaire that the evils of this world could have any redeemable value that the very idea that any of this was God’s plan seemed laughable. Obviously, injustice and cruelty of every kind abound. Ours is not the best of all possible worlds. However, since God is in charge, his plan is the best of all possible plans. J. Monsabre wrote, “If God would concede me His omnipotence for twenty-four hours, you would see how many changes I would make in the world. But if He gave me His wisdom too, I would leave things as they are.”3 Ours is not the best of all possible worlds, but ours is the best of all possible Architects, and he has chosen from the best of all possible blueprints that will lead to the best of all possible worlds.

Although the people of Israel often looked at their circumstances and questioned whether the Lord knew what he was doing or whether he had their best interests at heart, God affirmed through his prophetic messengers that he knew exactly what he was doing. For example, through the prophet Isaiah, the Lord said, “Have you not heard? Long ago I ordained it. In days of old I planned it; now I have brought it to pass, that you have turned fortified cities into piles of stone” (Isaiah 37:26). Later, God would say, “I make known the end from the beginning, from ancient times, what is still to come. I say: My purpose will stand, and I will do all that I please” (Isaiah 46:10).

God’s active involvement in the affairs of people and nations is not capricious or reactive but purposeful and deliberate. His timing is perfect, and his purpose cannot be thwarted. “The Lord works out everything for his own ends – even the wicked for a day of disaster” (Proverbs 16:4). J.I. Packer observes, “His hand may be hidden but his rule is absolute.”4 Since God is in control, we would be fools not to align ourselves with his stated purposes in our world. In fact, all of our plans must rest squarely on the bedrock of God’s eternal plan. Sidney Lanier conveyed this concept in his poem “The Marshes of Glynn”:

As the marsh-hen secretly builds on the watery sod,
Behold, I will build me a nest on the greatness of God:
I will fly in the greatness of God as the marsh-hen flies
In the freedom that fills all the space, twixt the marsh and the skies:
By so many roots as the marsh-grass sends in the sod
I will heartily law me a-hold on the greatness of God.5

God’s Sense of Timing

God waited to send his Son until “the time had fully come” (Galatians 4:4). He chose the ideal circumstances for the coming of Christ and the propagation of the gospel. By the first century, the Roman Empire had brought a universal peace, a common language and the best roads the world had ever known. The proliferation of false religions had created a spiritual hunger for something authentic. The political, religious, economic and social conditions were ideally suited to the rapid spread of the message of hope and new life in Christ.

One of the reasons we have difficulty grasping God’s sense of timing is because our language is impoverished. The ancient Greeks had several words related to timing. Beyond having a word for the common passage of time, chronos, from which we get our word “chronological,” they also used a different term, kairos. This word, for which we have no counterpart in English, is the word Paul used in Galatians 4:4. It speaks of a time of opportunity, a moment pregnant with significance and possibility. A pregnant woman may alert her husband of the impending birth of their child by saying, “It’s time.” She doesn’t mean, “It’s noon; time to have a baby,” she means, “We have reached the fullness of time.” Kairos time is a point in time that demands action.

We tend to think that life’s most defining moments come in the form of personal achievements of milestones: graduation, marriage, promotion. The reality is that these are usually not the most influential moments in our lives. Truly defining moments shape the contours and destiny of our lives. These moments are rarely written into our appointment books, but their potency is such that they become the things we most remember and are most remembered for. The Bible teaches that within every life God provides such kairos moments for us to seize and exploit.

God “works out everything in conformity with the purpose of his will” (Ephesians 1:11). He waits patiently to do the right thing in the right way at just the right time. In his book The Knowledge of the Holy, A.W. Tozer gives this simple but helpful illustration of the plans of our sovereign God:

An ocean liner leaves New York bound for Liverpool. Its destination has been determined by proper authorities. Nothing can change it. This is at least a faint picture of sovereignty.

On board the liner are scores of passengers. These are not in chains, neither are their activities determined for them by decree. They are completely free to move about as they will. They eat, they sleep, play, lounge about on the deck, read, talk, altogether as they please; but all the while the great liner is carrying them steadily onward toward a predetermined port….

The mighty liner of God’s sovereign design keeps its steady course over the sea of history. God moves undisturbed and unhindered toward the fulfillment of those eternal purposes which He purposed in Christ Jesus before the world began. We do not know all that is included in these purposes, but enough has been disclosed to furnish us with a broad outline of things to come and to give us good hope and firm assurance of future well-being.6

Even the crucifixion was part of God’s long-range planning (cf. Acts 2:23; 4:27-28). As we’ve just seen, God revealed his plan to Adam and Eve. As amazing as that is, Revelation 13:8 gives us something even more astonishing. There the apostle John is describing to his readers the beast, the sworn, eternal enemy of God, and he says, “All inhabitants of the earth will worship the beast – all whose names have not been written in the book of life belonging to the Lamb that was slain from the creation of the world.” According to this passage, Jesus is the Lamb that was slain before the beginning. Peter says the same thing in 1 Peter 1:20, “He was chosen before the creation of the world.”

This wasn’t Plan B. God doesn’t have a Plan B, because he doesn’t need one. Before he started creating anything, in eternity past, he knew what would happen. He knew that if there was a creation, there would be a fall. And if there was a fall, there would need to be a sacrifice. This was not a murder plot cooked up by a group of men. The cross was in God’s mind before he said, “Let there be light!”

The Importance of Planning

Spontaneity is valuable and sometimes necessary, but the consequences would be disastrous if most of our life’s directions were left to serendipity and happenstance. We live with the fictitious belief that somehow a better future is just going to happen. Our fantasy is that rewards will come without hard work or planning. Perhaps we’ll win the lottery. We stand a better chance of Aladdin’s genie showing up to grant us three wishes!

Why is such a thoughtless mindset so pervasive? It certainly does not correspond to reality. No one ever drifts into better circumstances. Banks don’t mysteriously lose their records. Fat doesn’t melt away by itself. The exact opposite is what usually happens. The natural flow of life is down, not up. People who sit passively find themselves drifting into more dangerous circumstances.

In a world that often endorses the image of a carefree vagabond who stumbles upon good fortune, the book of Proverbs can seem a little harsh. Solomon calls these people sluggards. What an ugly word! A slug is a snail-like creature without a shell. Sluggards are lazy; there is no pretty way of wording that. “How long will you lie there, you sluggard? When will you get up from your sleep? A little sleep, a little slumber, a little folding of the hands to rest – and poverty will come on you like a bandit and scarcity like an armed man” (Proverbs 6:9-11).

Sluggards master the arts of procrastination and excuse-making. “There is a lion outside!” the sluggard says in Proverbs 22:13. “I will be murdered in the streets!” Certainly, a lion is an obstacle, but the wise person faces the problem with a well-conceived plan of action. There will always be “lions” in the streets. We live in a fallen world filled with thorns and thistles. There are always going to be challenges, obstacles, “dangers, toils and snares.” God wants to know how you will respond to these difficulties. Will you plan wisely, or will you procrastinate and make excuses? Planning and evaluating performance with long-term goals and objectives in mind requires discipline, but this discipline inevitably leads to greater freedom.

The plant and animal kingdoms offer innumerable examples of long-range planning, particularly in view of the cycle of the seasons. Nature abounds with illustrations of animals and insects that store up provisions during times of abundance in preparation for times of scarcity. Ironically, animals that are instinctively driven consistently do what humans sometimes fail to do in spite of their rational powers. We need to be exhorted, as in the book of Proverbs, to save wealth without spending it as soon as we get it, to prepare for times of adversity during times of abundance and to maximize opportunities while they last. Solomon advises: “Go to the ant, you sluggard; consider its ways and be wise! It has no commander, no overseer or ruler, yet it stores its provisions in summer and gathers its food at harvest” (Proverbs 6:6-8).

The ant, unlike the sluggard, is a self-starter. He doesn’t need someone to prod him and keep him moving forward. The ant plans ahead and determines what needs to be done when. The ant neither procrastinates nor offers excuses.

Joseph was an excellent example of a long-range planner. His advice to Pharaoh about storing excess grain during the coming seven years of abundance in preparation for the following seven years of famine not only saved Egypt but also provided deliverance for his own family (Genesis 41:25-40). The apostle Paul was also a long-range planner. He made plans to visit Rome on his way to Spain (Romans 15:23-32) and prepared for future ministry after his release from imprisonment (Philippians 1:19-26).

It is easy to focus so much of our attention on short-term goals and objectives that we overlook the bigger long-term picture. If this is true of temporal concerns, this kind of thinking is even more prevalent in view of our decades of life on this planet in comparison to our eternal destiny. James Emery White suggests that, when viewed from an eternal perspective, “your earthly life makes up a single kairos moment, a moment that determines everything that will occur during the eternity that lies in wait.”7

Bringing God into Our Planning Sessions

Leadership suggests movement. “Where are we heading?” is a question which every responsible follower must ask and every responsible leader must answer. How, when no one can know the future with a high degree of certainty, can anyone have the courage to summon others to “Follow me”? Isaiah 30:1-5 illustrates one critical variable in the process:

“Woe to the obstinate children,” declares the Lord, “to those who carry out plans that are not mine, forming an alliance but not by my Spirit, heaping sin upon sin; who go down to Egypt without consulting me; who look for help to Pharaoh’s protection, to Egypt’s shade for refuge. But Pharaoh’s protection will be to your shame, Egypt’s shade will bring you disgrace. Though they have officials in Zoan and their envoys have arrived in Hanes, everyone will be put to shame because of a people useless to them, who bring neither help nor advantage, but only shame and disgrace.”

Israel’s leaders had a plan. Undoubtedly it looked good to them on paper, but they had overlooked one major component of the equation – God. They didn’t ask whether their blueprint fit into his revealed will for them. Failure to bring God into their plans led to shame and disgrace; the same is true for us today.

Whether the term of choice is “planning,” “futuring,” “forecasting” or something else, the wise leader knows just how tentative the strategy really is. There is inevitably an element of guesswork involved, because no one can see beyond the now. But woe to the organization whose leaders don’t project into the future, don’t set goals, fail to anticipate opportunities and obstacles and neglect to design today’s strategy based upon tomorrow’s anticipated outcomes.

There is one essential step leaders can take as they consider the future of their organizations. They can – and must – ask themselves and their team members whether the values, the vision, the mission, the strategic action plan, the projected outcomes are all consistent with what God has revealed in his Word about ethics and justice. Do the plans reflect a dependence upon God? Does the projected use of organizational resources include the development of people? Is there a dedicated attempt to honor the bottom-line commitment to shareholders? Does the whole planning document honor God or ignore his existence?

Flexibility and Balance in Our Plans

Planning is crucial. But sometimes leaders need to respond to and take advantage of changes in the environment. Paul did this. In Romans 15:22-29, we read:

This is why I have often been hindered from coming to you.

But now that there is no more place for me to work in these regions, and since I have been longing for many years to see you, I plan to do so when I go to Spain. I hope to visit you while passing through and to have you assist me on my journey there, after I have enjoyed your company for a while. Now, however, I am on my way to Jerusalem in the service of the saints there. For Macedonia and Achaia were pleased to make a contribution for the poor among the saints in Jerusalem. They were pleased to do it, and indeed they owe it to them. For if the Gentiles have shared in the Jews’ spiritual blessings, they owe it to the Jews to share with them their material blessings. So after I have completed this task and have made sure that they have received this fruit, I will go to Spain and visit you on the way. I know that when I come to you, I will come in the full measure of the blessing of Christ.

Paul took the long view, concentrating on the big picture. He preached with passion and intensity, as if he might never be given the opportunity again. At the same time, he practiced the wisdom of Solomon, who said, “We should make plans – counting on God to direct us” (Proverbs 16:9, TLB). In the passage above, Paul is talking about finally completing a plan he had been working on for years – to visit the church in Rome. In his restatement of the plan we see a snapshot of his long-term desire for the church in Rome – that they might assist him on his journey to Spain. Paul would eventually realize his plan to get to Rome, although it would happen in a way he had not anticipated. But, as a man who lived as a servant, he understood that all his plans were subject to God’s direction.

According to Karl Albrecht, “There is a better way to think about the future. We need to change the vocabulary we use to think and talk about guiding our businesses, and those we lead, into the future.” Albrecht believes that “planning” is useful when “you have certainty about the situation in which the actions will take place and nearly full control of the factors that ensure success in achieving your outcome.” But for those entering uncertain markets or facing competitive changes, he suggests using the term “futuring.”8

The Apostle Paul had no question about his ultimate destiny. He knew he would be with Christ (Philippians 1), but he lacked certainty about his immediate future. He knew that God had called him to preach the gospel to the Gentiles (Galatians 1), but he wasn’t certain about how precisely that would work out. Consequently, his daily ministry involved a kind of “futuring” in which he adapted his strategy to each particular situation without ever compromising his primary mission. Often, this is the part that is lacking for us. We continue to seek vision when strategy is what is most needed.

In all of this, there must be a healthy balance. God calls us to walk by faith rather than sight (2 Corinthians 5:7). Jesus tells us not to worry about tomorrow, because today will have enough worries of its own (Matthew 6:34). But we’re also told to be shrewd and clever like serpents (Matthew 10:16). The message of Jesus’ parable of the Shrewd Manager (Luke 16:1-9) is that we should face life realistically. God’s plan for our lives is rarely that we sit back passively. God’s desire is that we address the problems in our lives by admitting them, formulating a realistic plan and taking decisive action.

Sometimes people think passivity is a guarantee of getting God’s will done in their lives. They believe passivity is spiritual. That’s like saying, “I’m not going to buy any groceries or fix any food or go to a restaurant. That way, if any food makes its way into my body, I’ll be sure it’s from God.” More often than not, God’s will is for us to take initiative, exercise sound judgment, accept responsibility, make wise choices and humbly learn from the consequences of our mistakes when we make them.

God is the perfect model of one who takes initiative and makes thoughtful long-range plans. He fashioned the heavens and the earth, calling forth light from darkness, molding our planet and shaping our solar system. He filled the earth with water and sky and fish and fowl. He scattered an endless variety of plants and animals across the globe. Then he tenderly breathed into a biodegradable corpse the breath of life, animating humanity, calling a man and a woman to tend the garden and live in unbroken community with one another and with him.

Then he watched as man and woman rebelled against him. He watched his creation spiral down further and further into the depths of sin. He could have sat idly by and watched the world deteriorate. Instead, he responded with love. He took the initiative and provided a long-range plan that would take centuries to unfold. And his plan is still unfolding – to our constant amazement – for those who have eyes to see and ears to hear.


1 Leonard Sweet, SoulTsunami (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1999), p. 25.

2 Robert Coles, Children of Crisis (New York: Dell Publishing Company, 1967), p. 71.

3 Frank Mead, ed., 12,000 Religious Quotations (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1989), p. 179.

4 J.I. Packer, Concise Theology (Wheaton, IL: Tyndale House, 1993), p. 34.

5 Sidney Lanier, Poems of Sidney Lanier (New York: Charles Scriber’s Sons, 1904), p. 17.

6 Aiden Wilson Tozer, The Knowledge of the Holy, The Attributes of God: Their Meaning in the Christian (New York: HarperCollins, 1961), p. 111.

7 James Emery White, Your 10 Most Life-Defining Moments (Colorado Springs, CO: WaterBrook Press, 2001), pp. 196-197.

8 Karl Albrecth, The Northbound Train (New York: AMACOM, 1994), pp. 60-63.

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Human Resources

Robert Roberts writes about a fourth grade class in which the teacher introduced a game called “balloon stomp.” A balloon was tied to every child’s leg, and the object of the game was to pop everyone else’s balloon while protecting one’s own. The last person with an intact balloon would win.

This is a zero-sum game. One person wins; everyone else loses. The success of one causes the failure of others. The object of the game necessitates a winner-take-all mindset. Everyone else is someone to be rooted against.

Balloon stomp is survival of the fittest – a true Darwinian exercise. The fourth graders in Roberts’ story entered into the spirit of the game with vigor. Balloons were relentlessly targeted and destroyed. A few of the children clung to the sidelines like wallflowers at a middle school dance, but their balloons were doomed just the same. The entire battle was over in a matter of seconds, leaving only one balloon inflated. Its owner was, of course, the most disliked kid in the class.

It’s hard to really win at a game like balloon stomp. In order to complete your mission, you have to be pushy, rude and offensive.

Roberts goes on to write that a second class was introduced to the same game. Only this time it was a class of mentally handicapped children. They were given the same explanation as the first class, and the signal to begin was given. But the game proceeded very differently. Perhaps the instructions were given too quickly for children with learning disabilities to grasp them. The one idea that got through was that the balloons were supposed to be popped.

So it was the balloons, not the other players, that were viewed as enemies. Instead of fighting each other, they began helping each other pop balloons. One little girl knelt down and held her balloon carefully in place, like a holder for a field goal kicker. A little boy stomped it flat. Then he knelt down and held his balloon for her. It went on like this for several minutes until all the balloons were vanquished, and everybody cheered. Everybody won.1

Who got the game right, and who got the game wrong? In our world, we tend to think of another person’s success as one less opportunity for us to succeed. There can only be one top dog, one top banana, one big kahuna. If we ever find ourselves in that enviable position, we will fight like mad to maintain our hold on it. A lot of companies fail to enjoy prolonged success because the people in charge have this “balloon stomp” mentality.

But in God’s new community, the rules change. He gets top billing. We’re just here to serve his purposes, and we do that most effectively by elevating others and humbling ourselves. The business world is just now grasping the concept of servant leadership, especially in the field of human resources and HR development.

A Community of Growth

Jesus certainly understood the importance of managing and developing people. According to the apostle Paul, the risen Christ himself called those who would serve as the foundation stones of his church:

It was he who gave some to be apostles, some to be prophets, some to be evangelists, and some to be pastors and teachers, to prepare God’s people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ.

Ephesians 4:11-13

Christ endowed each believer with unique spiritual gifts. In addition, he gave the church special individuals whom he had particularly gifted for spiritual leadership.

Paul emphasized Christ’s authority to distribute these gifts. Jesus ascended into heaven so that he might fill “the whole universe” (v. 10). This matchless Christ gave special gifts to his people in order to enhance the building of his church. Of course he didn’t impart those gifts merely for the enjoyment of the recipients. Jesus gifted people so that they could exercise these abilities in a way that would “prepare God’s people for works of service” (v. 12), works that would bring glory to him and enjoyment and satisfaction to his people.

Jesus beautifully planned that those works of service, performed by his own people, would build up the body of Christ “until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ” (v. 13). What a wonderful use of the gifts of leaders – to help themselves and others attain “the fullness of Christ”!

It is true that we come to faith as individuals, but from the very beginning the Bible’s message is clear: It is not good for man to be alone (cf. Genesis 2:18). We speak often of the God-shaped void that is built into people. It is this yearning for something “other” that drives us to God. But when we come to God and allow him to fill that void, he places within us a “community-shaped void.” We come to faith alone; but we grow in Christlikeness among others.

Sin separated us from God, but it didn’t stop there. Our separation from God ultimately led to our being separated from each other. Sin has brought conflict and division into every realm of society, from the first relationship between Adam and Eve, through the first family to the divergence of communities and the hostility of nations. History is the story of our alienation from God and our resulting alienation from each other. Only through the work of the Holy Spirit can we be brought back into connection with God and community with one another.

Now that we are united with God and with other people in his body, we can grow up into the people we were designed to be. But it is in the context of community that this transformation occurs. In his sovereign wisdom, God has seen fit to grace his body with all the spiritual gifts necessary for our total transformation; however, no one person has all these gifts. Each person plays a vital role in bringing some unique contribution to the table. Full participation is necessary for a body of believers to attain to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ.

There is, perhaps, no greater longing in the heart of a man or a woman than the longing for significance. In the movie Gladiator, as the Roman army prepares to engage the last of the invading barbaric hordes, the Roman general Maximus cries out, “What we do now echoes in eternity!”2 We all want to make a difference, to leave a mark, to invest in something that will live on long after we’ve shuffled off this mortal coil. God knows this, and his desire is for us to have that longing fulfilled. He established his church for this very purpose.

Jesus told his followers, “[A]part from me you can do nothing” (John 15:5b). The severity of the words is like a slap in the face. Without Jesus we can do nothing. Well, we could build a business and a comfortable nest egg. But from Jesus’ perspective, those things are nothing. Only the things done with and for him are worthwhile and have any chance of lasting. The marvelous part of God’s administration is that he has gifted each of us and equipped us to engage in something that really will echo throughout eternity. By taking the Word of God, which will last forever, and investing it in human beings, who will last forever, we can leave an indelible mark on the halls of history. What higher calling can there be than to become like Jesus and equip others to do the same? This is our glorious privilege: to assist others in developing their Christlike potential.

Gifted from Birth

In what ways is God a manager and developer of human resources? Since God created us, he knows our aptitudes and abilities better than we do ourselves. Since God loves us, he wants us to move toward the fulfillment of our potential. But we cannot do this without personal commitment to the centrality of Christ in our lives.

God commissioned Jeremiah to be a prophet to the nations, and, in spite of Jeremiah’s reticence, the Lord assured him that he would be adequate for the task:

The word of the Lord came to me, saying,

“Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, before you were born I set you apart; I appointed you as a prophet to the nations.”

“Ah, Sovereign Lord,” I said, “I do not know how to speak; I am only a child.”

But the Lord said to me, “Do not say, ‘I am only a child.’ You must go to everyone I send you to and say whatever I command you. Do not be afraid of them, for I am with you and will rescue you,” declares the Lord.

Then the Lord reached out his hand and touched my mouth and said to me, “Now, I have put my words in your mouth. See, today I appoint you over nations and kingdoms to uproot and tear down, to destroy and overthrow, to build and to plant.”

Jeremiah 1:4-10

The Lord not only called Jeremiah for this ministry, but he also equipped and empowered him to accomplish it. This is a consistent theme with God: He never calls a person to something unless he also will equip and empower that person to accomplish it. In the same way, God equips each of his adopted children with a singular mix of temperament, education, background, aptitudes and abilities; and he couples this mix with a distinctive sphere of influence. In this way, each of us is entrusted with the dignity and responsibility of a unique ministry to others.

Just as God knew Jeremiah, so God knew us and set us apart before we were formed in the womb. “He chose us in him before the creation of the world to be holy and blameless in his sight. In love he predestined us to be adopted as his sons through Jesus Christ, in accordance with his pleasure and will” (Ephesians 1:4-5). Long before we drew our first breath, God was active in our lives, even knitting our bodies together (Psalm 139:13-16). In eternity past, God looked down the corridor of time and saw each of us. He created us all with specific personalities, abilities and gifts. Then he placed each one of us in a specific place and a specific time for a specific reason. No matter what you may have been told by some thoughtless parent, teacher or coach, you are not an accident. God created you intentionally.

There are only two possible reasons for your presence here on earth and the circumstances in which you find yourself. It is, in the words of Thomas Howard, either “Chance or the Dance.”3 Howard writes, “The myth sovereign in the new age is that nothing means anything.”4 If we are only products of time and chance, then nothing has any meaning. But, if we were created for a purpose and placed in our present context by a strategically-thinking, sovereign God, then everything is infused with meaning and purpose. Suffering and joy are of equal value if they both lead to a redemptive purpose.

God created us and called us “for the praise of his glory” (Ephesians 1:12), and this purpose is realized when we come to know and enjoy him. Only when we seek first God’s kingdom and his righteousness (Matthew 6:33) can we be fully the people God meant us to be. For those of us who have been raised up with Christ through the merciful and gracious gift of salvation, we are, for the first time, truly alive. Only now can we do the good works which God prepared in advance for us to do (see Ephesians 2:1-10).

As you look back on your own mental, emotional, moral and spiritual development, what evidences can you see of God’s work in this process? What people and resources did he particularly use to shape you into the person you have become? In what area of your life do you sense the greatest need for further development? What resources are available to bring this about?

The Responsibility of Developing Others

Leadership is a privilege but also a responsibility. In Scripture, to be a leader is to be a steward who manages the resources that are owned by the Lord. When we build the lives of others and participate in the development of their potential, we are acting as faithful stewards of our divine responsibilities.

During the time of his first Roman imprisonment, Paul continually served others by teaching and equipping them. One of the many people who visited Paul while he was under house arrest was a slave named Onesimus. Onesimus had robbed and escaped from his master Philemon, a Christian who lived in Colosse. Paul led Onesimus to Christ and then walked him through a process of personal discipleship. As a result, this former thief and runaway became a man of dignity and character. When the time came for Paul to send Onesimus back to Colosse to be reconciled with Philemon, he sent with him a brief letter (Philemon), which spoke of the transformation that had occurred in this former slave’s life. The letter appealed to Philemon not only to forgive Onesimus but also to receive him as a brother in Christ.

Effective leaders take pleasure in managing and developing the capabilities of people around them, and they are not threatened when some of those people move beyond them. These leaders always look for potential in others, treating even difficult people with dignity and considering the possibility of unleashed capability in them.

Jim Collins is considered one of the premiere authorities on what separates good companies from great ones. Having invested more than a decade of research into the topic, he has written four books, including the classic book on leadership qualities, Built to Last, which appeared on the Business Week bestseller list for more than six years! In his book Good to Great, he discusses various levels of leadership. What he calls a “Level 5 Leader” (the highest level of leadership) is someone who “builds enduring greatness through a paradoxical blend of personal humility and professional will.”5 When these leaders are asked about the key to the success of the company, they never look at themselves. They “channel their ego needs away from themselves and into the larger goal of building a great company.”6 Level 5 leaders “want to see the company even more successful in the next generation, comfortable with the idea that most people won’t even know that the roots of that success trace back to their efforts.”7 Great leaders, Collins says, are modest – almost shy – and avoid talking about themselves, preferring to celebrate the contributions of others, but this should not be confused with timidity or passivity. On the contrary, Level 5 leaders demonstrate an amazing “determination to do whatever needs to be done to make the company great.”8

Unlike Collins and his team, we should not be surprised to find that leaders who make the most lasting contribution to their companies and society are characterized by both humility and passion. These are simply biblical principles of leadership at work in the marketplace. A biblical worldview insists that everything we have has been given to us (which should lead to humility) and that we will one day be called to give an account of our stewardship (which should lead to passion). Jesus saw great potential in his disciples, potential that might have been overlooked by others, and he transformed them by investing his life in them.

Barnabas did the same in his relationship with Saul. He worked to develop that potential until he had the pleasure of seeing his disciple Saul become Paul, the disciple-maker (Acts 11:22-30; 12:25-14:28).

The Value of Others

How this actually works in everyday life is one of the thorniest areas of leadership. How do we interact with people in a way that develops them, cares for them, protects them? Some of the loudest proclamations of our values are made in the human resource development arena. Reflection on the insights of Paul offers a great starting point as a leader enters the morass of issues surrounding what might appear to be a “lose-lose” aspect of leadership:

We were not looking for praise from men, not from you or anyone else.

As apostles of Christ we could have been a burden to you, but we were gentle among you, like a mother caring for her little children. We loved you so much that we were delighted to share with you not only the gospel of God but our lives as well, because you had become so dear to us. Surely you remember, brothers, our toil and hardship; we worked night and day in order not to be a burden to anyone while we preached the gospel of God to you.

You are witnesses, and so is God, of how holy, righteous and blameless we were among you who believed. For you know that we dealt with each of you as a father deals with his own children, encouraging, comforting and urging you to live lives worthy of God, who calls you into his kingdom and glory.

1 Thessalonians 2:6-12

Organizations practice human resource management and development for at least one of three reasons: (1) To avoid lawsuits and fines; (2) to protect and maximize the investment they have made in people; (3) because they are dealing with human beings. All three are legitimate, but only the third reason is a constant. Abused employees may or may not sue or file complaints. It may or may not cost an organization anything to replace them. But they are always human. It is a core Christian value that humans, created in God’s image and redeemed through the death of Jesus Christ, are priceless possessions of Almighty God. How then should we approach managing and developing them when they have been entrusted to us?

When leaders consider how they think and act toward people whose lives and careers are under their control – whether in the area of wages and benefits, development and advancement opportunities, comfort and safety (does the list ever end?) – God’s Word exhorts them to treat those followers as human beings. Paul defined his relationship to the Thessalonians both as a mother (v. 7) and a father (v. 11). He made decisions concerning particular followers in Thessalonica by asking himself, “If this were my daughter or son, what would I do?” Not a bad starting point.

Planning for the Future

Solomon urged his readers to cultivate those skills necessary to achieve success in life:

Listen, my sons, to a father’s instruction; pay attention and gain understanding. I give you sound learning, so do not forsake my teaching. When I was a boy in my father’s house, still tender, and an only child of my mother, he taught me and said, “Lay hold of my words with all your heart; keep my commands and you will live. Get wisdom, get understanding; do not forget my words or swerve from them. Do not forsake wisdom, and she will protect you; love her, and she will watch over you. Wisdom is supreme; therefore get wisdom. Though it cost you all you have, get understanding. Esteem her, and she will exalt you; embrace her, and she will honor you. She will set a garland of grace on your head and present you with a crown of splendor.”

Proverbs 4:1-9

If there was one thing the father in Proverbs 4 wanted his son to acquire, it was wisdom. If the son were to possess wisdom, he would find life, safety and honor. This father was single-minded. Rather than urging his son to pursue success and recognition, he exhorted him to “get wisdom;” “not forsake wisdom;” “esteem” and “embrace” wisdom. Carrying out his father’s ideals would no doubt require serious effort and diligence. But if the son did acquire wisdom, the benefits would flow from it like water from a cup.

Like that father, effective leaders urge those under their charge to develop the skills that will lead to their success. Instead of focusing on the characteristics of success, they focus on people. They create a culture that enables people to develop the wisdom needed to do their work with excellence.

In their book SuperLeadership, Charles C. Manz and Henry P. Sims, Jr. note that a “true SuperLeader will develop an ability to recognize the culturally relevant needs of employees today – not yesterday – and devote significant effort to deliberately orchestrate an organizational culture for high performance and development of people.”9

Attention to individual decisions and details is essential to human resource development. But Manz and Sims remind us of Solomon’s essential point: Don’t miss the forest for the trees. All of the details must combine to create a culture that affirms, “You matter. You count. The leaders recognize and appreciate your contribution and will care for you as a valuable asset of this enterprise.”

Wisdom is skillful living, and one vital component of wisdom is the God-given ability to see the true nature of things. That being the case, the wisest thing we can do is treat things according to their true value. The most foolish thing, then, would be to treat temporal things as though they were eternal and eternal things as though they were temporal. Yet we see it happen every day; reasonably intelligent men and women give their lives in exchange for things that are completely trivial in the end. There is no crown waiting for them at the finish line; they conclude their journey with the taste of ashes in their mouth.

Wisdom embraces the eternal perspective. Wisdom reminds us that we are not home yet. We are aliens, pilgrims, strangers on this earth whose home is in the celestial city. Wisdom forces us to invest our lives in things that will endure – God’s Word and God’s people. When we are brought into our heavenly dwellings, there should be people there who were touched by our influence, waiting to welcome us home.

God has created us to know joy, peace and goodness. These are things we experience in community with others. As we each share our unique gifts with one another, we know a greater sense of contentment and fulfillment. For example, someone who is musically gifted experiences joy as he shares that gift with others; we, too, experience joy as we bask in the gift being shared. Together we can all be grateful to our Creator for bestowing the gift in the first place and allowing the musician to share it with us.

There is, however, one sure way to lose the joy and peace of the moment: envy. To envy the joy of the musician, to harbor resentment or wish that it was you in the spotlight, to compare your gift with the musician’s, to feel as if the greater another person’s gift is, the less your gift shines. A life of constant comparison leads to a joyless, peace-less existence.

We are all made to see and do things in a distinctive way. No two people have the exact same perspective on things; nor do they have the same mix of gifts and temperaments to offer. When you find your place of service within the community of faith, you know the peace that passes understanding, the abundance of life in Christ. Offering yourself in service to others brings an overwhelming joy. And God has made you to know the joy of receiving and celebrating the gifts of those around you. Only as you offer your gifts selflessly and receive the gifts of others humbly is your joy made complete.

John the Baptist’s final comment in Scripture is this: “He must increase, but I must decrease” (John 3:30, KJV). This is not a statement of resignation. This is the joy of the wedding’s best man who realizes that the bride has now entered her destiny. This is John’s final contribution to the upside-down kingdom of God where the humble are exalted.

There is a reason why Christmas is celebrated on December 25. It’s not a historical date, but neither was it chosen at random. Though it may be a few days off, it’s set to correspond with the winter solstice – the time when daylight begins to increase. The birth of Jesus means light has broken into our dark, wintry world. Before electricity, longer daylight hours were a great gift.

Historically, the church calendar has set the birth of John the Baptist on June 24. It’s not a historical date, either, but neither was it chosen at random. That’s the time of the year when days begin to grow shorter and the light begins to wane. Every year, the church calendar repeats the sentiment of John’s final words: “He must increase, but I must decrease.”


1 Robert Roberts, Taking the Word to Heart (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1993), p. 156.

2 Dewey Gram, Gladiator, based on a screenplay by David Franzoni, John Logan and William Nicholson, Gladiator (New York: Onyx, 2000), p. 24.

3 Thomas Howard, Chance or the Dance (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1969).

4 Ibid., p. 12.

5 Jim Collins, Good to Great (New York: HarperCollins, 2001), p. 20.

6 Ibid., p. 21.

7 Ibid., p. 26.

8 Ibid., p. 30.

9 Charles C. Manz and Henry P. Sims, SuperLeadership (Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1990), p. 195.

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Problem Solving

By the time of Nehemiah, the political, social and spiritual conditions of Jerusalem were in shambles. Sometime around 587 BC, Jerusalem was destroyed, along with Solomon’s temple. This was the third Babylonian campaign into Judah, and each time the Babylonian armies took more and more Israelites captive, resettling them in Babylon. Daniel, Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego were among those taken during the first invasion.

About 70 years after the first invasion, Cyrus, king of Persia (who had since conquered the Babylonians), gave the Jews permission to return to Jerusalem to rebuild the temple. Under the leadership of Zerubbabel, Israel seemed on the verge of becoming a blessed nation again. But the people refused to turn away from the same sins God had judged their ancestors for in the days of Nebuchadnezzar. The temple was not maintained properly. The people weren’t offering sacrifices. They had adopted many of the religious practices of the surrounding nations.

It’s no wonder that when Nehemiah heard about the state of affairs in his homeland, he was moved so deeply that he wept. His concern over the condition of Jerusalem consumed him. But rather than launching some ill-conceived plan to save the day, Nehemiah waited for God to reveal what his next step should be. He prayed and planned and prepared. When God finally said, “Now, go and rebuild the city of Jerusalem,” Nehemiah was ready to demonstrate the leadership ability God had been cultivating in his heart.

Nehemiah’s Problem-Solving Ability

One way in which individuals prove their leadership ability is by using their problem-solving skills. Nehemiah certainly demonstrated his capability in that way. When the walls of Jerusalem began to take shape, Nehemiah’s enemies tried to sidetrack him from the project with a number of different strategies. First, they tried to lure him out of Jerusalem by repeatedly inviting him to a summit:

When word came to Sanballat, Tobiah, Geshem the Arab and the rest of our enemies that I had rebuilt the wall and not a gap was left in it – though up to that time I had not set the doors in the gates – Sanballat and Geshem sent me this message: “Come, let us meet together in one of the villages on the plain of Ono.”

But they were scheming to harm me; so I sent messengers to them with this reply: “I am carrying on a great project and cannot go down. Why should the work stop while I leave it and go down to you?” Four times they sent me the same message, and each time I gave them the same answer.

Nehemiah 6:1-4

The enemies of God’s people knew that if they could distract the leader, it would impede the progress of the entire project. Seeking peace with his neighbors would not have been a bad thing to do, but it wouldn’t have been the best thing. It would not have been the “great project” that God had called him to complete. So, Nehemiah rejected their invitations and focused his attention on the job at hand.

Next they accused Nehemiah of leading a revolt against King Artaxerxes – a potentially devastating lie:

Then, the fifth time, Sanballat sent his aide to me with the same message, and in his hand was an unsealed letter in which was written:

“It is reported among the nations – and Geshem says it is true – that you and the Jews are plotting to revolt, and therefore you are building the wall. Moreover, according to these reports you are about to become their king and have even appointed prophets to make this proclamation about you in Jerusalem: ‘There is a king in Judah!’ Now this report will get back to the king; so come, let us confer together.”

Nehemiah 6:5-7

The custom of the times was to roll a letter up, tie it with a string and seal it with clay. But this letter was “unsealed.” Sanballat intentionally neglected to seal the letter so its contents would be known by everyone who handled it. His purpose, of course, was to spread the rumor that Nehemiah was trying to establish himself as the king of Judah.

This wasn’t true, but since when are people that interested in the truth when there’s a hot rumor to be spread? This rumor put everything in jeopardy. If the people believed it, they would openly oppose Nehemiah’s leadership since they had no intention of cutting ties with the Persian government. If word of this got back to the king, Nehemiah would be in even more serious trouble – back in Susa with a rope around his neck.

We might think Nehemiah would be completely justified in going on the defensive. The workers were already looking for an excuse to quit, and kings never have gone easy on those who entertain ideas of treason. Nevertheless, Nehemiah remained focused on the job at hand:

I sent him this reply: “Nothing like what you are saying is happening; you are just making it up out of your head.”

They were all trying to frighten us, thinking, “Their hands will get too weak for the work, and it will not be completed.”

But I prayed, “Now strengthen my hands.”

Nehemiah 6:7-9

He didn’t allow himself to get caught up in what might happen. Instead of being derailed, he confronted his enemies quickly, prayed to God for strength and continued his work.

Finally, Nehemiah’s enemies tried to intimidate him into violating the law of God by urging him to seek refuge in the temple:

One day I went into the house of Shemaiah…who was shut in at his home. He said, “Let us meet in the house of God, inside the temple, and let us close the temple doors, because men are coming to kill you – by night they are coming to kill you.”

Nehemiah 6:10

Only priests were allowed into the part of the temple that housed the altar. Nehemiah wasn’t a priest. To violate God’s law in this way would discredit Nehemiah in front of all the people in Israel. Not only would this be a violation of the Law, it would also undermine his authority as a leader. When word got out that the governor was hiding in the temple, the people would lose their confidence in his ability to lead them.

Again, Nehemiah refused to be distracted from his work. He solved the problem by obeying God and seeking his strength:

But I said, “Should a man like me run away? Or should one like me go into the temple to save his life? I will not go!” I realized that God had not sent him, but that he had prophesied against me because Tobiah and Sanballat had hired him. He had been hired to intimidate me so that I would commit a sin by doing this, and then they would give me a bad name to discredit me.

Remember Tobiah and Sanballat, O my God, because of what they have done; remember also the prophetess Noadiah and the rest of the prophets who have been trying to intimidate me.

Nehemiah 6:111-14

If Nehemiah had been leading from a selfish posture, he would have had every reason to run and save himself. But Nehemiah knew it was better to serve God than preserve his own life. Compared to the “great project” to which he had been called, the threat of assassination was trivial. Nehemiah wouldn’t even leave his great project to save his own life; he knew there was something at stake that was bigger than his safety.

As a leader you will face problems. They can’t be avoided. In fact, Dave Anderson – founder and chairman of the Famous Dave’s restaurant chain – suggests that “If you want to get ahead, go to your [people], and say, ‘You got problems? Give me some.’ Instead of running away from problems like most people, go after them…. That’s the way to get ahead, by solving problems.”1

The existence of problems is non-negotiable in a fallen world. The only controllable factor in the face of problems is your response. If you follow Nehemiah’s model and are careful to (1) maintain your focus, (2) confront any false accusations against you immediately and with integrity and (3) pray to God for strength and wisdom, you’ll find, as Nehemiah did, that God is ready, willing and able to help.

Think about who the Sanballats, Tobiahs and Geshems in your life are, and remember that no matter how powerful the opposition may seem, God is an invincible ally. How much more effective to ask God, the One who sees and knows all, for help than to try to formulate a solution on your own!

Solving the World’s Biggest Problem

The greatest example of problem solving in action can be found right in the pages of the Bible. God took the ultimate problem – the chaos and destruction wrought by human sin – and transformed it into the beauty of holiness through his creative power to solve even the worst of problems. In this best of all stories, God made it possible for those who were previously his enemies to become his beloved children.

Immediately following his introduction to his epistle to the Romans, Paul launches into a description of the greatest problem in human history – God’s judgment on humanity as a consequence of our unrighteousness and self-righteousness. The human solution to the problem of guilt and estrangement from God has always been a tedious series of variations on the same theme – human effort and works. Man-made religious systems always reduce God to a human level or assume that people can bridge the gap themselves. However, because “Jews and Gentiles alike are all under sin” (3:9), the problem is of such vast proportions that only God can solve it.

The real problem is internal, not external. Jesus said that all the sinful behaviors and habits are inextricably connected to the heart. We can clean up our act, but we need outside assistance to root out the evil in our hearts. Any attempt at total self-improvement is like trying to hold ourselves in midair by pulling on our shoestrings.

God’s solution is so creative and innovative that no one else could have thought of it or imagined it. It has been common in religious institutions that humans would sacrifice something to the gods or to God, but the idea that God himself would take the initiative and come looking for lost people, that is unique to Christianity. That God himself would offer the sacrifice for us is unheard of in any religion other than biblical Christianity. “For what the law was powerless to do in that it was weakened by the sinful nature, God did by sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful man to be a sin offering” (8:3). By declaring us righteous by his unmerited favor through the price that Christ paid on our behalf, God overcame the estrangement caused by sin and transformed us from condemned criminals into joint heirs with Christ.

In the movie The Last Emperor, the young boy anointed as leader of China lives a life of luxury with thousands of eunuch servants at his beck and call. “What happens when you do wrong?” his brother asks. “When I do wrong, someone else is punished,” the young emperor answers. To demonstrate this, he breaks a bowl and one of the servants is beaten.

In Christianity, God reverses this. In the movie, the emperor does wrong and a servant is beaten; in Christianity, the servants do wrong and the Emperor is beaten! The grace of God and his gracious offer of salvation in Christ is without a doubt the most creative approach to problem solving ever imagined. It took a God of unbounded imagination to come up with it. We can never comprehend the cost of his innovative plan; we can only scratch the surface of God’s grace, and his graceful approach to problem solving.

For the godly leader, life and leadership are transformed in the face of this awesome and amazing reality. There has been no greater problem, and no greater problem solver, in the history of humankind. Is there a pressing problem that has been awaiting your action? God is waiting to help you in your business, in your family, in your personal life.

Focus on the Solution, Not the Problem

If God is the utmost problem-solver, what resources does he provide for his people to solve the problems they encounter? He offers us resources that transcend our own; the problem is that we are generally disinclined to lay hold of them. We typically attempt to solve our own problems without appealing for divine provision, only calling on God when we’re in real trouble. For some reason it doesn’t occur to us that the God of the Bible knows much about business or investments or staffing issues. We go to God with our emotional problems or our family disputes, but we doubt his competence in other areas. Some aren’t even convinced that God is concerned with such mundane areas of our lives as mortgage payments and vacation planning. There is untapped wisdom to be found in taking everything to him.

We have a tendency to think that God is only concerned with the mid-sized problems in our lives. We may think there are some problems that are too trivial for him to be interested in. On the other hand, we also assume that there are some problems that are too big to take to him. There is a great biblical example of two people who responded to a problem that seemed insurmountable, found in Esther 3:1-5:8.

The book of Esther recounts a fascinating story filled with intrigue and suspense. Esther was an orphan who had been raised by her older cousin Mordecai (2:7). When she was old enough, the Persian King Xerxes selected Esther as his queen (2:17). Because of his convictions, Mordecai refused to kneel down in deference to Haman, a sinister official in Xerxes’ court (3:2-5). Haman devised a cunning plot that resulted in a decree to execute all of the Jews in the Persian Empire (3:6-15).

It appeared that all would be lost. The Messianic line was in danger of extinction, and God’s people were powerless to defend themselves. Mordecai was at first overwhelmed by the magnitude of the situation, but he soon began to focus more of his attention on the solution than on the problem.

Although the name of God is not directly mentioned in this book, it is evident that Mordecai concluded that God had sovereignly elevated Esther to a position of royalty so that she would be in a position to counteract the deadly edict. She held the fate of history in her hands. But to act could cost her very life (4:9-11). She was the queen of the most powerful empire on earth and enjoyed all of the privileges that such a position afforded her. Why should she risk her life to persuade the king to change a decree?

Mordecai’s answer to Esther’s fears was clear and concise:

“Do not think that because you are in the king’s house you alone of all the Jews will escape. For if you remain silent at this time, relief and deliverance for the Jews will arise from another place, but you and your father’s family will perish. And who knows but that you have come to royal position for such a time as this?”

Esther 4:13-14

Esther’s solution was marked by radical dependence upon God (4:16), as well as careful thought and creativity. Realizing that an appeal of such magnitude required precise timing, she carefully planned the most appropriate approach for making her request (7:3-6). After Haman’s downfall, she requested that King Xerxes allow her and Mordecai to write a decree that would overrule the effect of the previous edict and permit the Jews to defend themselves throughout the provinces of the empire (8:1-17).

Esther and Mordecai demonstrate for us how much energy should be invested in dwelling on a problem as opposed to planning the solution. They also remind us that creativity and timing are essential in successful problem solving.

Solving the Right Problem

Exodus 32:1-35 delivers a wealth of information about problem solving and deserves careful study. Here we find out the two most important summary principles for problem solving from a great leader who solved great problems: Moses himself.

When the people saw that Moses was so long in coming down from the mountain, they gathered around Aaron and said, “Come, make us gods who will go before us. As for this fellow Moses who brought us up out of Egypt, we don’t know what has happened to him.”

Aaron answered them, “Take off the gold earrings that your wives, your sons and your daughters are wearing, and bring them to me.” So all the people took off their earrings and brought them to Aaron. He took what they handed him and made it into an idol cast in the shape of a calf, fashioning it with a tool. Then they said, “These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of Egypt.”

Exodus 32:1-4

Aaron faced a serious problem, but he failed to resolve it. When he realized that his “solution” was creating a bigger problem he acted again: “When Aaron saw this, he built an altar in front of the calf and announced, ‘Tomorrow there will be a festival to the Lord’” (v. 5). But this time his action only caused the situation to careen out of control:

When Moses approached the camp and saw the calf and the dancing, his anger burned…. Moses saw that the people were running wild and that Aaron had let them get out of control and so become a laughingstock to their enemies.

Exodus 32:19a, 25

Moses inherited the problem after it had escalated into a crisis, but he did solve it (vv. 20-35). This brief study in contrast reveals some important principles about how a godly leader approaches problems. Aaron attempted to solve the wrong problem; Moses addressed the right one. Aaron attacked the functional problem; Moses confronted the character problem. Aaron focused on activity; Moses on the morality that was driving the activity (vv. 21, 30).

The details of this chapter yield a wealth of information about problem solving and deserve careful study. Stepping back from the situation, we see two summary principles. First, lasting solutions come from addressing “why” questions – character questions – instead of “how” questions. Second, great leaders achieve greatness because they solve great problems. Lesser leaders limit their energies to addressing lesser problems.

Volumes have been written on problem-solving technique. The Bible isn’t one of those volumes. What it does do, however, is demonstrate to us that the most damaging problems are not solved by correcting behavior. The problems that most need to be resolved can only be solved by a change of character, a change of morality, a change of heart. The wisest leaders will help their followers to apply God’s grace and power to solve the fundamental human problem of sin. Observe Moses in verses 30-32:

The next day Moses said to the people, “You have committed a great sin. But now I will go to the Lord; perhaps I can make atonement for your sin.”

So Moses went back to the Lord and said, “Oh, what a great sin these people have committed! They have made themselves gods of gold. But now, please forgive their sin – but if not, then blot me out of the book you have written.”

See how one of history’s greatest leaders defined and solved problems. In all of our reading about problem solving, we must begin where Moses did.

Getting Your Hands Dirty

Leaders must face and solve problems. Daniel provides us with a stunning example of problem solving ability in Daniel 5. King Belshazzar had given a banquet for thousands of people. During the course of their drunken festivities, the king desecrated the gold and silver goblets that his father had taken from the temple in Jerusalem.

Suddenly the fingers of a human hand appeared and wrote on the plaster of the wall, near the lampstand in the royal palace. The king watched the hand as it wrote. His face turned pale and he was so frightened that his knees knocked together and his legs gave way.

The king called out of the enchanters, astrologers and diviners to be brought.... Then all the king’s wise men came in, but they could not read the writing or tell the king what it meant. So King Belshazzar became even more terrified and his face grew more pale. His nobles were baffled.

The queen, hearing the voices of the king and his nobles, came into the banquet hall. “O king, live forever!” she said. “Don’t be alarmed! Don’t look so pale! There is a man in your kingdom who has the spirit of the holy gods in him. In the time of your father he was found to have insight and intelligence and wisdom like that of the gods. King Nebuchadnezzar your father…appointed him chief of the magicians, enchanters, astrologers and diviners. This man Daniel, whom the king called Belteshazzar, was found to have a keen mind and knowledge and understanding, and also the ability to interpret dreams, explain riddles and solve difficult problems. Call for Daniel, and he will tell you what the writing means.”

Daniel 5:5-12, emphasis added

Daniel was promoted to an enviable leadership position. He influenced Babylonian and Persian kings who ruled over great empires. Belshazzar promoted Daniel because he could “solve difficult problems” (vv. 12, 16). One criterion that determines the greatness of a leader is the degree of difficulty of the problems which the individual is willing and able to tackle and solve.

Donald Schon opened his book Educating the Reflective Practitioner, in this way:

In the varied topography of professional practice, there is high, hard ground, manageable problems lend themselves to solution through the application of research-based theory and technique. In the swampy lowland, messy, confusing problems defy technical solution. The irony of this situation is that the problems of the high ground tend to be relatively unimportant to individuals or society at large, however great their technical interest may be, while in the swamp lie the problems of greatest human concern. The practitioner must choose. Shall he remain on the high ground where he can solve relatively unimportant problems according to the prevailing standards of rigor, or shall he descend to the swamp of important problems and nonrigorous inquiry?2

Never is this distinction more significant than in the leadership-practitioner’s role. Great leadership is willing and able to roll up its sleeves, get down in the dirt and tackle life’s toughest issues. Daniel did that. And Daniel ranks among history’s premiere leaders.

In his book on biblical leadership, Lynn Anderson discusses the level of involvement shepherds demonstrated in the first century:

Shepherds in Bible days were not day laborers who showed up for work in the morning at a stranger’s pasture, put in eight hours, and then went back home. Rather, a shepherd lived with the sheep – day and night, year after year. Shepherds helped birth the lambs. They led their sheep to pasture during the day and protected them at night. The sheep knew their shepherd’s touch, recognized his voice, and followed no other shepherd. There was a genuine relationship between the shepherd and the sheep. In fact, through long time and frequent touch, the shepherds smelled like sheep.3

Leaders are shepherds, mentors and equippers – all of these descriptions demand relationships. A leader’s authority does not come from title or position; it comes from character, competence and a willingness to invest in other people’s lives. As Greg Johnson points out, “We aren’t the persons of God but the people of God.”4 Our new life in Christ is to be lived out in the context of community, under the authority of others, with our destinies interconnected to theirs. It’s one thing to be able to solve problems for yourself, but, as we have seen, biblical leaders use their problem-solving ability to assist others and advance God’s kingdom purposes.


1 Quoted in John C. Maxwell, Failing Forward (Nashville, Thomas Nelson Publishers, 2000), pp. 202-203.

2 Donald Schon, Educating the Reflective Practitioner (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1987), p. 3.

3 Lynn Anderson, They Smell Like Sheep (West Monroe, LA: Howard Publishing, 1997), p. 126.

4 Greg Johnson, The World According to God (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2002), p. 189.

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Quality and Excellence

The following is a modified transcript from the audio teaching series by Ken Boa. This is from the leadership series on the subject of quality and excellence.

In our leadership series I want to talk about the theme of quality and excellence. Excellence is often a skill development area we hear a lot about but I want to think of excellence as a destination as it is a process that we learn and seek to continually improve. You don’t just sit there. It becomes a continual ongoing movement further up and higher in toward a process of greater and greater excellence.

I think it’s illustrated well in Colossians 3: 23-24. Excellence will depend upon the audience to whom you play in a very real way. In Colossians 3:23 Paul says’ “Whatever you do work at it with all your heart as working for the Lord. Whatever you do work at it with all your heart as working for the Lord not for men since you know that you will receive an inheritance from the Lord as a reward. It is the Lord Christ you are serving.” So he’s saying here, whatever you do, do it with your heart as working for the Lord not for men. You’re going to receive an inheritance from the Lord as a reward. It is the Lord Christ you are serving. Verse 25 speaks about anyone who does wrong will be repaid for his wrong. There is no favoritism. Then he talks about the masters who provide for their slaves what is right and fair because they also have a Master in heaven. The point here is that whatever you do, do it with a conscious awareness of the presence of the Lord in your life. Your best effort is given because there’s never a circumstance in which the One you follow is not with you urging you on. There’s an awareness then of Christ’s presence. An on going awareness of the fact that the motive of pursuing Him should drive us to a better thing that we would do simply to impress or please men.

I think I’ve given this illustration on a couple of occasions but it bears repeating. The illustration of when I went to England for the first time in 1984. We visited West Minister Abbey and they had removed the statues from the chancel to clean them. This was the first time they had been moved for cleaning after many hundreds of years. They discovered their backsides were carved as well and as intricately as the front side. That’s a rather stunning idea. Now why did they do that? They knew that once they were put in place no human eye would see them but they also knew that God would see them since they were doing is as unto the Lord not to impress people. They saw their work then, and this is a key principle for you and me, they saw their work as worship. What they were doing with their hands was worship to God. You’ve heard the phrase whistle while you work. Worshipping is another matter entirely. I think we can look at it that way, work, if done for the King and in the presence of Christ, is done with excellence to be pleasing to Him rather than to impress people. That work then becomes worship.

In a very real way there’s this level of skill that you want to develop and cultivate, a level of excellence. You’re pursuing quality and excellence in your work because you’re playing to the right Audience. It’s a very simple principle but this is a principle that transmutes the secular into the sacred. That’s the alchemy of grace. It has a way of transmuting what appears to be secular into something spiritual because the focus of our hearts is what makes it spiritual. The focus of my heart could this day be pleasing to Jesus.

There’s a good prayer to offer at the beginning of the day. It’d be an interesting thing to have a little card or reminder and as you sit down at your desk at the beginning of the day you’d have a little prayer: “ Lord, I’d like to be pleasing to You today. My desire is to be more pleasing to You than to impress people.” You cannot, as you know, seek to please Christ and at the same time seek to impress people. You can’t do them at the same time. You’ll either minister or manipulate. If you’re seeking to impress people you’ll be kind of committed to manipulating them. But if you seek to be pleasing to Christ and serve people you’ll be on to something. You’re onto worship because you’re not only honoring Christ but you’re also manifesting that honor by serving people. The two connect well together.

When you do your work with excellence, diligence and care then it means that you are doing it as unto the King. You’re looking to Him ultimately for the reward rather than to others. I like the idea of turning the day into that. This day Lord may I seek, may it be my intention to be pleasing to you in the work of my hands. It reminds me of Psalm 90: 17. The last verse where they cry out; “Establish, O God, the work of our hands. Give permanence to the work of our hands.” May I suggest that though all the works of men will perish on this planet, (Peter 3:10 says; “The earth and it’s works will be burned up.”), there is something that we can do even the work of our hands that will persevere if that work of our hands is done with the purpose of building into people and serving and honoring Christ. That will endure. There’s an enduring consequence even though all that we build and create will perish yet the focus of our heart to be pleasing to Christ and serving others will be something that will endure. It gives us something of significance that will last. That’s an important concept.

I’m inviting you then to pray that prayer at the beginning of your workday. You know what will happen though? You’ll forget it in the course of the day but that’s all right. God is looking not for perfection but holy intention. You might have a little card reminding you that to be pleasing to Him would be a desire that you have, an intention. A.W. Tozer in the book, Pursuit of God, says it’s not perfection but holy intention that is pleasing to the heart of God. Intend what is pleasing to Him and then it’s pleasing to Him. He knows our frame. He’s mindful that we’re but dust. Nevertheless, He will take our intention and He will honor that intention. Then when we slip away and get back into selfish modes and we find ourselves going back into the old habits of manipulation and so forth, that’s okay, we might recall it to mind and return with that simple prayer. Don’t chide yourself but just pick back up and go from there.

After awhile, I believe you can actually begin to build the skill of practicing His presence in the course of your day. That would be a good thing to do. It’d be an interesting prayer to pray. This could be just like a little flash prayer before you pick up the phone to actually be praying for the person and even that conversation. Whatever it’s on, that it’d be pleasing to Him. What I’m suggesting is that this isn’t something that takes extra time but it’s a mindset that you can cultivate that would be honoring His presence in the course of events because you need to understand that conscious awareness of His presence is a realization that He is already there. He’s going to be present whether you are aware of it or not. He’s going to be watching. It’d be wise for you to orient your mind with reality. We’re not simply talking about losing ourselves but we’re talking about bringing ourselves into touch with what’s real in real work.

There are still some basic principles that would apply across the board whether you’re a believer or unbeliever. There are certain principles of excellence. The issue is to learn your craft and to become skillful at what you do. The only difference is this and even a brand new believer can understand this, who are you doing it for? Are you doing it to be pleasing to Him? A brand new believer, just like a kid who wants to please his daddy, can understand this principle. In fact there’s that simplicity of intention of coming to Him in a childlike sense of desiring to be simply pleasing to Him. We understand what that’s like. Has He made you good at something? Whatever it is, I think when you do it well you could feel God’s pleasure even though it may appear to be secular. You can feel God’s pleasure because what you’re doing is honoring Him in what you do. So if I’m here for a season, while I’m here I want to maximize that opportunity so that I can leverage that for eternal gain and move on from there.

Let’s move on to our next text, Hebrew 1: 1-4. I want to argue that we serve a God who’s committed to excellence and perfection in everything He does. That’s the reality. The fact is God saw all that He had made and what did He declare it at the end? It was good. It was good. It was good and finally it was very good. He left it well. He didn’t make us as we now are. We changed ourselves. We are now a distorted image of God. But it’s His intention to reverse that distortion and that devastation that was wrought by sin and to bring all things to a glorious consummation and to a new creation.

In Hebrews chapter 1 we have this portrait of how God is at work in the history of redemption where it says in the past God spoke to our forefathers through the prophets at many times and in various ways (Hebrews 1: 1). But in these last days, so he’s contrasting- how many ways did He speak in the Old Testament economy? - reveal Himself? How did He reveal Himself in the past? He revealed Himself through prophets, angels (angelic revelation and guidance), the burning bush; certain particular places that were holy like Bethel, dreams and visions, mighty acts of deliverance (10 signs given to Pharaoh, the Passover, the manna and the quail, the pillar of fire and the pillar of the cloud), and other sorts of ways.

The author of Hebrews goes on to say,” but in these last days He has spoken to us by His Son.” In other words the highest form of revelation is personal revelation. Now God Himself comes down to us and takes upon Himself humanity and brings it up into heaven. As C. S. Lewis put it so well -the Son of God became the Son of Man so that the sons of men might become sons of God. He reaches down and takes humanity up into the Godhead and thus makes it possible now to communicate. So when Jesus is asked by Philip to show us the Father it is enough for us, (By the way that is an amazing prayer. It’s almost about the biggest thing you could ask for; just show me God the Father.) Jesus replies, “Have I not been with you so long Philip and yet you do not know the Father? To see Me is to see the Father” (John 14: 8-9). Remember to hear Him He said is to hear the Father’s word (John 14: 10-11). To believe in Him was to believe in the Father and to reject Him was to reject the Father (John 15:23). He says, I and the Father are one (John 10:30). It’s the identity in the tri-unity of God. He’s spoken to us by His Son whom He has appointed heir of all things and through whom He made the universe (Hebrews 1:2-3). The Father through Christ made the kosmos. He spoke it into being.

The Son, he goes on to say, is the radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of His being. He sustains all things by His powerful hand. After He provided purification for sins He sat down at the right hand of the majesty in heaven. So He became much superior to the angels as the name He has inherited is superior to theirs. Then he goes on to make a series of contrast that Christ is superior to the angels, to Moses, who offers a better rest than Joshua, He offers a better priesthood than Levi, a better covenant, a better sanctuary, a better sacrifice and the power to live a better life. Hebrews is filled with these contrasts.

The point of the book is why are you going back to revert to Judaism when now you have the substance. Don’t go back to the shadow when you have the substance. The problem here was that a lot of the Jewish believers were beginning to revert back into Judaism because they were fearful of the persecution they were going to be facing as followers of Jesus. That is why the book exhorts them.

Here’s my point though, Jesus illustrates the excellence of the Father, the beauty of the Father and the glory of the Father. So as we look at Jesus we see the excellence and radiance of the Father. In fact it’s speaking of Him when it says He does everything well. He’s done all things well (Mark 7:37). God is the blessed and only ruler, the King of kings and the Lord of lords who lives in unapproachable light whom no one has seen or can see. To Him be honor and might forever. God is worthy and great and worthy of our praise because of His splendor and His awesome works. I recommend Psalm 145. That is a great Psalm to meditate on God’s excellence. It’s a good thing to realize that all excellence again comes from the hand of God. He is the One who is the Author of excellence and in seeking to be skillful with your hands and create beauty and excellence and something that’s worthwhile, you are really imitating Him and you’re manifesting that.

Let’s move on then to the next passage, Malachi 1. I remember hearing these words from my father, “Do as I say and not as I do.” I still remember him saying that. I don’t remember what was happening but the lawn mower was there and my dad was bummed out about something. I was only about 7 years old and I said that doesn’t fly. But to do as I say and not as I do didn’t fly because obviously it’s one thing to speak about quality and it’s another thing entirely to pursue quality and excellence.

What we are going to be seeing here is the shoddiness of Israel’s worship as a result of externalism where they were more concerned about the appearance of surface things rather than the substance. They dishonored God by offering Him in the temple different kinds of blemished, inferior and indifferent sacrifices. Malachi 1: 6-8, “A son honors his father and a servant his master. Then if I am a father, where is My honor? And if I am a master, where is My respect?’ says The Lord of hosts to you, O priests who despise My name. But you say, ‘How have we despised Your name?’ “You are presenting defiled food upon my altar. But you say, ‘How have we defiled You?’ In that you say, ‘The table of the Lord is to be despised.’ “ But when you present the blind for sacrifice, is it not evil? And when you present the lame and sick, is it not evil? Why not offer it to your governor? Would he be pleased with you? Or would he receive you kindly?” says the Lord of hosts.” Try offering the trash you offer God to a human being, a person in authority and see if that will fly! I say that is a marvelous portrait of a lot religiosity and a lot of shoddy mediocrity that goes on in the name of religion. It’s a result of the shoddiness of externalism and apathy. In my view it’s folly that we can suppose that we can get away with it because we don’t see Him. That’s a serious mistake.

The point here is that we ought to be, as followers of Christ, people who manifest a distinctiveness that demands an explanation. There ought to be a quality or hope about you that requires an explanation. If you play to people you become a conformist. If you seek to be pleasing to God instead of people then you’re set apart from the crowd and you’re different and distinct. That’s the idea here. Again it’s the audience to whom you play. This idea of your quality of life if it’s internal rather than an external, if you pursue the invisible not just the visible, now you’re appealing to God, seeking to be satisfying to Him.

That’s why a contractor then knows he may be able to get away with certain things just before the sheet rock goes up, use second grade materials or cut corners and I’m saying you may get away with that before people occasionally but you won’t get away with that before God. At the end of the day, He sees what others do not see. We have been called as a people to reflect God’s perfections and He’ll be satisfied with nothing else than that. He again loves us and accepts us as we are. He’s pleased with our faltering and I stress faltering movements in His direction. God’s expectations for us will always transcend our own. So He who begins a good work in you will carry it to completion until the day of Christ Jesus (Phil. 1).

Another text is 1 Thessalonians 5: 23-24, “May God Himself, the God of peace, sanctify you through and through; may your whole spirit, soul and body be kept blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. The One who calls you is faithful and He will do it.” The point here is that when you walk in God’s power, the power of His Spirit, you have a source of power that can make it possible for you to do that which is pleasing to Him. You’re doing it for the Name and you’re doing it in the power of the Spirit.

I believe your real key spiritual battles will be fought on the daily mundane small decisions, not the huge things. It’s really not the big things at all but it’s the little things that will matter. You see a lack of fidelity in the little things will lead to a lack of fidelity in the large. So if you’re faithful in the small things eventually it will also accrue to the large. That shoddiness in this and that can really deceive us; it’s the spirituality of small things not the mountaintop experiences. In those situations then, we make choices.

I want to go to David as an example of excellence. Psalm 78 is a maskil of Asaph. It is a Psalm Asaph wrote. It’s a beautiful Psalm, which reviews God’s redemptive work among His people, but at the end of that Psalm he speaks about another shepherd besides God. It talks about the fact that the Lord built His sanctuary and chose David as His servant. He took him from the sheep pens from tending his sheep and brought him to be the shepherd of His people Jacob of Israel and his inheritance. Note verse 72 the last verse in the Psalm, “ So he (David) shepherded them according to the integrity of his heart, and guided them with his skillful hands.” Now a leader is responsible for pursuing excellence and producing excellence through others. That’s a difficult task to do on our own but to do it through others is even a greater challenge, to do it organizationally is a great challenge. I believe that you and I are called to lead with skillful hands and so with skillful hands he led them. That’s the imagery there. There was a skill and a development there. He was a skillful leader.

Skillful leadership involves a variety of these qualities we’ve been looking at including the ability to communicate, to have vision, to have integrity, character, to model, to encourage, to build up, to solve problems and all these skillful qualities. You see, hearts guide hands at the end of the day. To have skillful hands you must have integrity of heart. You see where it says he shepherded then with integrity of heart with skillful hands he led them. So behind the hands is the heart. What’s the heart issue? To have the right heart then is the inner quality, it’s not just the outward level of the organization but the inward quality of your heart. That’s why the idea in Proverbs 4:23 deals with the issue of the heart, “Above all else guard your heart for it is the well-spring of life.” Guarding the deepest you, the deepest person, is the wellspring of life. In Luke 6:45 there is a similar image here. Jesus says the good man brings good things out of the good stored up in his heart and the evil man brings evil out of the evil stored up in his heart for out of the overflow of his heart his mouth speaks.

God’s concern is always the inner, below the surface of life. We as men look on the outward appearance. God looks at the heart. That’s the issue. That’s why Solomon says to his son, “Give me your heart my son and let your eyes delight in my way.” That’s a fundamental issue.

The last text I want us to look at is in Exodus 35 and 36. In those two chapters what we see here are the materials for the Tabernacle and then the various articles of the Tabernacle- how they were to be constructed and what they looked like. The idea here that in the building of the Tabernacle two men were called that had skillful hearts. In Exodus 35:30-35, “Then Moses said to the Israelites, “See, the Lord has chosen Bezalel son of Uri, the son of Hur, of the tribe of Judah, and He has filled him with the Spirit of God, with skill (That word skill is the word for wisdom), ability and knowledge in all kinds of crafts- to make artistic designs for work in gold, silver and bronze, to cut and set stones, to work in wood and to engage in all kinds of artistic craftsmanship. And He has given both him and Oholiab son of Ahisamach, of the tribe of Dan, the ability to teach others. He has filled them with skill to do all kinds of work as craftsmen, designers, embroiderers in blue, purple and scarlet yarn and fine linen, and weavers all of them master craftsmen and designers.” Bezalel and Oholiab and every skilled person to whom the Lord has given skill and ability to know how to carry out the work of the constructing of the sanctuary are to do the work just as the Lord has commanded. The imagery here is that wisdom, hokmah, is a word that means skill. The ultimate skill is the skill of living life.

The ultimate skill is ordering your life under the dominion of Christ. If you want to have true skill, take each of the areas of your life and bring them under the dominion of Jesus. Then you have a skillful life. A skillful craftsman can take something that’s raw material like raw gold or silver then shapes it and works with it or he’s able to take the linen and design it, weave it, embroider it and make it something beautiful. So you are like that raw material. God sees you as raw, unshaped and not ordered and designed and then through skill and discipline you become someone who begins to create beauty in your life. You have skill in the art of living the various aspects of your life under the dominion of God. I believe a skillful life has to do with wisdom. The two are connected together.

Now I’m going to say wisdom’s uneven. If we saw the heart of wisdom as the hub of a wheel and the spokes that radiate from that hub as being various facets of your life, one spoke is money, one spoke is relationships, another spoke is work, another spoke is your physical well-being, do you know what it would look like? It’d be very lopsided indeed! The fact is some people would have great wisdom in one area and then very, very poor, little nubs instead of spokes in other areas. Our lives are not perfectly uniform and even. There’s unevenness about our lives now. Skill would be to seek to become more developed and balanced.

There are going to be some areas that need to be developed in our lives that we can at least recognize and people that love us can point out those areas that need to be shored up. The point is if we bring those areas of our life, our business, our relationships, our finances, our time and all those things under God’s dominion and seek to order them and design them well under His dominion then you begin to pursue greater wisdom in the art of life.

In leadership as an art, Max DuPree talks about 20 signals of what he calls entropy picking up the principle in the Second Law of Thermodynamics. Entropy in thermodynamic systems are measures of randomness and their lack of their ability to do work so as entropy increases the amount of useful energy in a system diminishes over time. That’s just the nature of things. While that can be applied to thermodynamic systems and closed systems you can apply it to information systems as well. In any information transfer there’s going to be a loss of information somewhere along the line. But you can also apply it to everything else. That’s why your desk has a finite number of ordered states and an infinite number of disordered states! That’s why it’s a lot easier to break something than to put it back together again. It’s always amusing to see a movie going backwards because things go from chaos to order. If something breaks like an egg you see it coming back together. Try that in real life! It won’t work. There’s something about the way things work. That is to say, anything left to itself will eventually decay and decline. This is the way a fallen world is working- anything left to its self will decline. Frankly the only way you can increase order and beauty in a closed system is somehow for you to take extra energy. You need to make an intentional application of energy. The only way your body stays alive and continues to be ordered is because it takes energy from other sources and then converts it. That’s why we need to eat and take in oxygen and so forth. You’re constantly taking in energy from the environment and you’re ordering that and you have little machines that metabolize it, mechanisms in your body.

Most importantly there’s entropy in relationships. How do you sustain a relationship? How do you cause it to grow? The only way you’re going to do that is an intentional infusion of energy into that relationship. I know I told you this before but I have card files with names and I don’t even know who the people are any more. People I used to know I suppose but not any more. It’s depressing. You go through these old lists of things; you may vaguely remember whom that person might’ve been. Then you realize you spent a lot of valuable time with that person; you went out to dinner and so forth. They might as well be another cipher from another planet. You just don’t know who they are anymore. Why? Because things left to themselves will decline.

The biggest area of entropic decrease turns out to be our closest relationships if we’re not careful. If you don’t guard them and you take a person for granted and treat them with less respect and dignity than you would a stranger that’s a big mistakes. This happens with parents and kids, husbands and wives and closes relatives.

I’m suggesting then that there is spiritual entropy. That is to say your relationship with Christ will diminish unless you put in a conscious daily decision to invest energy in that relationship. It will diminish. That’s just the way it is. You’ll unlearn spiritual truth. The nature of it is the only way you can keep going is to constantly infuse energy let alone to increase the relationship.

Quality and excellence requires an infusion of intentionality, willingness, go back to where I started, to intentionally be pleasing to Him. If you love Me, what did Jesus say? You will keep my commandments. One way in which you keep His commandments is you abide in His word and allow His word to abide in you. You allow the word of God to seep into you by making choices. Frankly the most difficult moment in the day will be to open up this bible at the beginning of the day and break open the bread of life. It’s a hard thing to do. We have a thousand ways of avoiding that and we slip away from good habits into sloppy habits. Do nothing and it will be reinforced. Good habits constantly need conscious reinforcement. My encouragement to you would be to seek, at least to chose, find one verse for that day, each day and chew on that as manna. You will continue to grow and keep the relationship. That growth spiritually will affect your outward life and move you toward excellence in skill and quality.

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Rewards

Huckleberry Finn didn’t get it. In the opening chapter of Mark Twain’s classic tale, Huck is living with the spinster, Miss Watson, a starchy, joyless woman determined to make a Christian out of Huck if it kills them both. She tries everything from knocking the wildness out of him to stuffing him full of manners. She bludgeons him with Bible verses. She breathes threats of fiery hell. She coaxes him with fluffy promises of heaven. And then Huck tells us his impression:

She went on and told me about the good place. She said all a body would have to do there was go around all day long with a harp and sing, forever and ever. So I didn’t think much of it…. I asked her if she reckoned Tom Sawyer would go there, and she said, not by a considerable sight. I was glad about that, because I wanted him and me to be together.1

He didn’t think much of it; and who would? If that’s all heaven is, why would anyone in their right mind endure everything Christianity demands in order to get there? As Mark Buchanan says, “If we are going to become heavenly-minded, we need a vision of heaven worthy of the effort…. Have any believers, anywhere, ever worked in a leprosarium or burned at the stake or been devoured by lions because images of doll-like cherubs danced in their heads?”2

The answer is: Of course not! Heaven promises to be more than we ask or imagine. The most beautiful, fulfilling, lovely thing imaginable is a poor rendering of the rewards that await us on the other side of death. Paul says, “No eye has seen, no ear has heard, no mind has conceived what God has prepared for those who love him” (1 Corinthians 2:9). What would motivate Christians around the world to give their lives in service, often anonymously? The God who sees what is done in secret has promised that one day it will all be made right; he will reward them beyond their wildest dreams.

God Rewards

There’s no getting around it: People are motivated by rewards. There may be those who think the idea of being motivated by an attractive reward is unspiritual. Yet God has filled the Bible with promises of amazing rewards. He makes these promises to keep us from giving up hope, to inspire us to persist in the face of trouble and persecution. After discussing the resurrection of the dead and the glorified bodies Christians will receive in the resurrection, Paul sums up the subject with this statement: “Therefore, my dear brothers, stand firm. Let nothing move you. Always give yourselves fully to the work of the Lord, because you know that your labor in the Lord is not in vain” (1 Corinthians 15:58).

Rather than seeing this kind of motivation as inferior or immature, God built the desire for reward into our hearts. He created us with the desire to hear him say, “Well done, good and faithful servant! You have been faithful with a few things; I will put you in charge of many things. Come and share your master’s happiness” (Matthew 25:12). Jesus seemed to think that would be something enjoyable for us to hear. Any time we get more spiritual than Jesus, we’re headed in the wrong direction.

God certainly understands what makes us tick. Perhaps no chapter in the Bible illustrates the promised rewards from God better than Hebrews 11. In a chapter that has been titled by some “The Hall of Faith,” the author highlights the lives and contributions of the great men and women of faith in the Old Testament and the rewards God gave them because of their faith in him.

Now faith is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see. This is what the ancients were commended for…. And without faith it is impossible to please God, because anyone who comes to him must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who earnestly seek him.

Hebrews 11:1-2, 6

A careful reading of this chapter also reveals that many of these great men and women exercised their faith but were able only to look forward to their reward; they never fully realized that reward during their lifetime. Indeed, some even endured hardship in anticipation of the promised reward (vv. 32-40). “All these people were still living by faith when they died. They did not receive the things promised; they only saw them and welcomed them from a distance” (v. 13). Abraham, Noah, Enoch, Jacob, Joseph and Moses all lived a life of faith in spite of the fact that the reward was in the “distance.”

Theologically speaking, there appear to be four categories of rewards given to faithful believers. First, there will be greater responsibility in the kingdom of heaven (Luke 16:10-12; 19:17-19). We will be given different spheres of authority, based on our level of faithfulness in this world. The second area of reward will have to do with reflecting and displaying the glory, character and nature of God (Daniel 12:2-3). We aren’t called to glorify ourselves, but to receive and display the glory of the majestic perfections of the infinite and wondrous God of all creation.

The third category of rewards relates to the nature and depth of our relationships with people in heaven. It makes sense that there will be some continuity between the relationships we develop with people on earth and the corresponding relationships we will experience in heaven. Those who have developed intimate relationships with people through selfless love and sacrifice will be enriched by those relationships forever (see 1 Thessalonians 2:19-20; 4:13-18).

The fourth area of rewards relates to our capacity to know and experience God himself. Just as there is a continuity between earthly and heavenly relationships with the people of God, so those who cultivate a growing appetite for the experiential knowledge of God in this life will presumably know him better in the next life than those who kept God in the periphery of their earthly interests. As A.W. Tozer put it,

Every Christian will become at last what his desires have made him. We are the sum total of our hungers. The great saints have all had thirsting hearts. Their cry has been, “My soul thirsteth for God, for the living God: when shall I come and appear before God?” Their longing after God all but consumed them; it propelled them onward and upward to heights toward which less ardent Christians look with languid eye and entertain no hope of reaching.3

There can be no more compelling motivation for the God-fearing believer than the fact that God himself will be our reward. We will not be absorbed into him, but we shall be immersed in him, into his triune glory and beauty. The rewards God has in store are more than we could ever ask or imagine.

Effective leaders understand the human need for reward, and they make use of recognition and compensation to lift morale and improve performance. A reward can be as simple and effective as regular encouragement or as extensive and long-range as a profit-sharing program.

God’s Compensation Package

Many people perceive God as a cosmic Scrooge who enjoys making people squirm and reluctantly dispenses rewards for good behavior. But the biblical portrait of God in both Testaments is quite the opposite. The Scriptures consistently present God as the lover of our souls who delights in rewarding us with his joy. One of his greatest promises is found in Jeremiah 29:10-14:

This is what the Lord says: “When seventy years are completed for Babylon, I will come to you and fulfill my gracious promise to bring you back to this place. For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future. Then you will call upon me and come and pray to me, and I will listen to you. You will seek me and find me when you seek me with all your heart. I will be found by you,” declares the Lord, “and will bring you back from captivity.”

For decades Jeremiah had been warning his rebellious fellow citizens about the impending judgment that the Lord would bring upon them because of their idolatry and corruption. Indeed, by the time he wrote the words of this passage, many of them had already been deported into Babylon. But the Lord encouraged them with this promise that, after the 70-year captivity had been completed, he would restore them to their own land.

God has plans for us in spite of our present circumstances. We work in an imperfect workplace, thus our work is imperfect. No matter how ideally suited for your present job you may be, you know that pain of unrealized potential, lost opportunity and the frustration borne of a lack of recognition. Even in the best work environments, there exists something of politics, laziness or gossip.

We also rest in an imperfect world, thus our rest is imperfect, fitful and rare. But God’s heaven seamlessly joins together work and rest, fulfillment and contentment, exhilaration and relaxation. No worries invade heaven, only an abiding sense of peace. No tension or fatigue, only harmony and laughter. This is your inheritance in the Lord. This is the reward God promises to his children.

God longs to bless and reward his people, but it is essential that they be willing to turn to him and repent of their unfaithfulness and disobedience. “You will seek me and find me when you seek me with all your heart” (v. 13). We serve a God who “rewards those who earnestly seek him” (Hebrews 11:6). God actually enjoys bestowing benefits on those who turn to him in dependence and trust, and he hates the judgment that sin and rebellion entail.

Do I take any pleasure in the death of the wicked? declares the Sovereign Lord. Rather, am I not pleased when they turn from their ways and live?

Ezekiel 18:23

Say to them, “As surely as I live, declares the Sovereign Lord, I take no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but rather that they turn from their ways and live. Turn! Turn from your evil ways! Why will you die, O house of Israel?”

Ezekiel 33:11

After outlining in Deuteronomy 28 a series of blessings that could be expected for obedience and curses for disobedience, the Lord communicated his passion for his people: “This day I call heaven and earth as witnesses against you that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Now choose life, so that you and your children may live” (Deuteronomy 30:19).

If God consistently reveals such a passion for our highest good, why do we so often struggle with seeking him and the rewards he offers? If the Scriptures have so much to say about rewards, why is so little attention given to this topic?

A Day of Reckoning

Incentives have always been part of the world of business. Without a motivational system, workers will likely be inclined to get by with minimum levels of effort and performance. The Bible recognizes the importance of motivation and rewards and has a surprising amount to say about this subject. Paul’s words to the Corinthian church are a central passage in this regard: “For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, that each one may receive what is due him for the things done while in the body, whether good or bad” (2 Corinthians 5:10).

There is going to be a day of reckoning. The Lord who gives great gifts will also return to settle accounts (see Matthew 25:19). This is going to be a performance review that will make every other performance review you’ve even received seem inconsequential. We may be able to lip-sync our way through life, but we’ll all sing a cappella in front of God. This should serve as a wake-up call for complacent Christians. We must not allow ourselves to be seduced by the things this world deems important. Most of what the world tells us to pursue is related to the opinions of others, but at the judgment seat of Christ, their opinions will be irrelevant. Only his opinion will matter.

The Scriptures teach that it is not mercenary to be motivated by reward; instead, Jesus encouraged us to long to hear the words, “Well done, good and faithful servant! You have been faithful with a few things; I will put you in charge of many things. Come and share your master’s happiness” (Matthew 25:21, 23). The New Testament is replete with invitations to pursue God’s rewards, affirming that they will prove to be more than worth the cost. “Blessed is the man who perseveres under trial, because when he has stood the test, he will receive the crown of life that God has promised to those who love him” (James 1:12).

The fact that God will reward us for faithful responses to opportunities should have some motivational impact on the way we live. It clearly affected the manner in which godly people in Scripture led their lives. C.S. Lewis argued in his marvelous sermon “The Weight of Glory” that our problem is not that we want too much but that we settle for too little:

Indeed, if we consider the unblushing promises of reward and the staggering nature of the rewards promised in the Gospels, it would seem that our Lord finds our desires not too strong but too weak. We are halfhearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased.4

In comparison to what God wants to give us, the best this world can offer is toys, trinkets and tinsel. Worse, the things we most occupy ourselves with frequently turn out to be the equivalent of mud pies.

It’s not that our businesses are bad. There is nothing wrong with seeking to run a profitable enterprise. But at the end of the day, we don’t work to make money. We work in the marketplace because it provides us an arena of influence and a context for ministry. As we engage our world and perform our work with skill, excellence and care, God sets up divine appointments for us to allow the light of Christ to shine through us and brighten a dark world.

A Reward Bigger than a Paycheck

Few of us can afford to work without monetary compensation. But most of us would quickly become bored with our work if there were no rewards beyond the money. The subject of compensation presents a bundle of issues: balancing fair wages with the bottom line, equitable pay for all employees, defining the worth of a job. Wage or salary is only part of the reward equation, but it tends to demand the bulk of our attention. The bigger issue is whether people feel that they are being “rewarded” fairly for their contributions. The Bible broadens the picture when considering “reward.” God’s promise to Solomon included that larger perspective:

“As for you, if you walk before me in integrity of heart and uprightness, as David your father did, and do all I command and observe my decrees and laws, I will establish your royal throne over Israel forever, as I promised David your father when I said, ‘You shall never fail to have a man on the throne of Israel.’”

1 Kings 9:4-5

God demonstrated to Solomon that his work was contributing to God’s eternal plan. Solomon’s reward transcended his financial compensation. In numerous passages, the Bible reminds us that the reward for our effort is eternal; the grand prize can never be limited to a mere paycheck.

We all know what happens if there is no paycheck, or if the salary is unfair. A note attached to a meager paycheck that says, “God will reward you in heaven,” just won’t cut it. But the biblical principle of rewards is that our work is worth more than money. We can actually contribute to God’s eternal work. In addition to a fair wage, we can experience the more satisfying reward of having added value to people’s lives, and the even bigger reward of participating in God’s plan for the ages. Leaders need to pay a fair wage. But godly leaders can add an additional perspective – a reward that money can’t buy!

How Abundant is Abundant Life?

Jesus described himself as “the gate for the sheep” (John 10:7). As the gate, he was the one through whom his sheep would find not merely entrance into a secure fold but into a rich green “pasture” (v.9). The promise of life in Christ is the promise of abundant life – life “to the full” (v. 10). Jesus does not promise us scarcity and meager reward; he promises us a life of fullness and abundance.

Those who come to God through Jesus will receive not merely eternal life in terms of duration; they will receive abundant life in terms of quality. Time and again, Jesus reminded his disciples about the benefits and rewards they would receive because they had chosen to follow him. Leaders who want to be effective will emulate this example.

If we could, like Paul in 1 Corinthians 12:1-6, enter into a moment’s worth of the eternal perspective, we would realize that no sorrow or adversity is worth comparing with the pleasure of eternally abundant life that awaits us in the presence of God. The real reason why heaven is insufficient motivation for many is because we lack the imagination and mental categories necessary to grasp what the Bible promises us.

For example, imagine you were to try to explain modern society to a group of people who lived hundreds of years ago. How would you explain airplanes, cell phones, computers and television? In order for them to make sense of your descriptions you would have to use words they could understand. You would need to limit the information you revealed, because you would have to use the simplest of terms. But saying that an airplane is like a giant metal bird doesn’t even capture half of the idea. All you could give them is a vague idea of the concept.

Likewise, when the Bible speaks of heaven, it uses simple terms and descriptions so our primitive minds can latch on to the notion. But we’re reading crude descriptions that don’t even begin to tell the full story.

C.S. Lewis writes,

There is no need to be worried by facetious people who try to make the Christian hope of “Heaven” ridiculous by saying they do not want “to spend eternity playing harps.” The answer to such people is that if they cannot understand books written for grown-ups, they should not talk about them. All the scriptural imagery (harps, crowns, gold, etc.) is, of course, a merely symbolical attempt to express the inexpressible…. People who take these symbols literally might as well think that when Christ told us to be like doves, He meant that we were to lay eggs.5

Richard Adams’novel, Watership Down, is a children’s story – sort of. It truly transcends its genre. On the one hand, it is a story about talking rabbits; on the other hand, it is a Homeric epic, a story, not unlike The Odyssey, of exile and danger and homecoming.

A group of rabbits embark on what is meant to be a journey from danger to safety. It becomes a journey through danger and into danger. Along the way, in moments of grueling boredom or ominous threat, one of the rabbits, Dandelion, entertains his fellow travelers with stories of the legendary rabbit El-ahrairah, a trickster-hero. El-ahrairah is shrewd and brave, but he uses these qualities for the sake of the people he leads – to protect, feed and shelter them.

In one of Dandelion’s final stories, just before the real rabbits are to face their most difficult challenge, El-ahrairah finds himself in a terrible dilemma. The rabbits he leads face certain destruction. He makes a solitary decision: to go to the Black Rabbit of Inle, the ruler of the underworld, and sacrifice himself for the sake of his rabbits. The Black Rabbit accepts the bargain, and is brutal in carrying it out. He mauls and humiliates El-ahrairah. He tears off his ears, severs his tail, plucks out his whiskers and sends him bloodied and mutilated home.

It takes a long time for him to find his way there. When he arrives home, he finds a community that is safe, thriving, living in comfort and peace. They have been saved by his sacrifice, and yet no one cares. No one even notices. They ignore him. Some even make fun of his unsightly and gruesome appearance.

In the cool of the evening, El-ahrairah stands at the edge of the field. Lord Frith, the supreme ruler of all rabbits, gently comes alongside him. This is the scene:

As the light began to fail, he suddenly realized that Lord Frith was close beside him, among the leaves.

“Are you angry, El-ahrairah?” asked Lord Frith.

“No, my lord,” replied El-ahrairah. “I am not angry. But I have learned that with creatures one loves, suffering is not the only thing for which one may pity them. A rabbit who does not know when a gift has been given him is poorer than a slug, even though he may think otherwise.”

“Wisdom is found on the desolate hillside, El-ahrairah, where none comes to feed, and the stony banks where the rabbit scratches a hole in vain. But speaking of gifts, I have a few trifles for you….”

And with that, Lord Frith restores El-ahrairah to a state surpassing what he ever knew before.6

His light and momentary troubles achieved for him an eternal weight of glory that far outweighed them all (2 Corinthians 4:17). This is the reward to which we aspire. This is the hope of abundant life promised to us in the Son.


1 Mark Twain, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (New York: Fawcett Columbine, 1996), pp. 5-6.

2 Mark Buchanan, Things Unseen (Sisters, OR: Multnomah, 2002), p. 67.

3 A.W. Tozer, The Root of the Righteous (Camp Hill, PA: Christian Publications, 1955), p. 55.

4 C.S. Lewis, The Weight of Glory and Other Addresses (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1965), pp. 94-95.

5 C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity (New York: The Macmillan Company, 1960), pp. 120-121.

6 Richard Adams, Watership Down (Harmondsworth, Middlesex, England: Penguin Books, 1977), 287.

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Situational Leadership

Gene Getz shows a fascinating interpretation of the criteria we typically use to select leaders in the form of a humorous “E-mail” from the “Jordan Management Consultants” sent to Jesus in response to his request for an assessment of the men he was considering as apostles. The message reads:

Thank you for submitting the resumes of the twelve men you have picked for management positions in your new organization. All of them have now taken our battery of tests; and we have not only run the results through our computer, but also arranged personal interviews for each of them with our psychologist and vocational aptitude consultant.

It is the staff’s opinion that most of your nominees are lacking in background, education, and vocational aptitude for the type of enterprise you are undertaking.

Simon Peter is emotionally unstable and given to fits of temper. Andrew has no qualities of leadership. The two brothers, James and John, sons of Zebedee, place personal interests above company loyalty. Thomas demonstrates a questioning attitude that would tend to undermine morale. We feel it our duty to tell you that Matthew has been blacklisted by the Greater Jerusalem Better Business Bureau. James, the son of Alphaeus, and particularly Simon the Zealot have radical leanings, and they both registered a high score on the manic-depressive scale. Thaddaeus is definitely sensitive, but he wants to make everyone happy.

One of the candidates, however, shows great potential. He is a man of ability and resourcefulness, meets people well, has a keen business mind, and has contacts in high places. He is highly motivated, ambitious, and responsible. We recommend Judas Iscariot as your controller and right-hand man. All of the other profiles are self-explanatory.

We wish you every success in your new venture.1

Paul discusses the kind of people God often chooses in 1 Corinthians 1:26-29. It serves as a humbling reminder to all who aspire to leadership in the kingdom:

Brothers, think of what you were when you were called. Not many of you were wise by human standards; not many were influential; not many were of noble birth. But God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong. He chose the lowly things of this world and the despised things – and the things that are not – to nullify the things that are, so that no one may boast before him.

This is not to suggest that evaluation tools and techniques are completely without merit. They can be quite useful when used correctly. However, it is clear that relying too heavily on these things can disqualify those whom the Lord would have us choose. These men were not chosen because they were the best and brightest. They became what they became because they spent time with Jesus. Through his discipleship program and the inner working of the Holy Spirit, these men were transformed into the greatest leaders the church has ever known. These men from humble and ragged beginnings, formed the nucleus of a group that went on to turn the world upside-down.

Luke records for us their choosing:

One of those days Jesus went out to a mountainside to pray, and spent the night praying to God. When morning came, he called his disciples to him and chose twelve of them, whom he designated apostles: Simon (whom he named Peter), his brother Andrew, James, John, Philip, Bartholomew, Matthew, Thomas, James son of Alphaeus, Simon who was called the Zealot, Judas son of James, and Judas Iscariot, who became a traitor.

Luke 6:12-16

Jesus chose 12 men and developed them into the church’s first leaders. Within a few short years from this event, he would delegate the continuance of his kingdom to them (Matthew 28:18-20; Acts 1:8).

Throughout Jesus’ ministry, it is difficult to detect a pattern in his behavior. Sometimes he heals people from a distance (John 4:46-53); sometimes he travels to see them (Luke 8:40-56). Sometimes he touches people (Mark 1:40-42); sometimes he spits on the ground and makes mud (John 9:6). Sometimes he runs away (John 6:14-15); sometimes he confronts (John 18:1-6). The one consistent theme is that we never know for sure how Jesus will act or react, but we can trust it will always be right for that specific situation.

Even a casual study of the manner in which Jesus prepared the 12 apostles shows us how effectively he adapted his leadership activity to the realities of the situation. He instructed them when they were uninformed, directed them when they were confused, prodded them when they were reluctant, encouraged them when they were downhearted. When they were ready, he allotted them limited tasks and responsibilities and then participated with them, guiding them through their assignments. Finally, he empowered and commissioned them as his apostles.

The Master Teacher shows us that effective leadership is situational. The leader’s whim or desire (even when that leader is Jesus) is not what drives intelligent action. Effectiveness in leadership is driven by what followers need. Jesus observed and understood what his followers needed, and he supplied it. He always interacted with them within the situation and responded appropriately to it. And within three years these obscure Galileans began to change the world.

As we observe Jesus’ training of the 12 in the Gospels, we notice how consistently his actions were exactly appropriate to the situation. Jesus was very intentional about situational leadership. Leaders who can analyze a situation and adapt their leadership activity to address it can function as servant leaders and as transformational leaders, and they can profoundly affect the lives of their followers.

Some Things Never Change, Some Things Do

Life in our world is replete with unexpected circumstances and situational twists. Our projections will not reliably carry us far into the future, but we serve a God who is surprised by nothing and who holds the future in his hands. Perhaps this is demonstrated best in Exodus 32:1-33:23. When Moses went up on the mountain to receive God’s law for his people, his protracted absence led them to take matters into their own hands;

When the people saw that Moses was so long in coming down from the mountain, they gathered around Aaron and said, “Come, make us gods who will go before us. As for this fellow Moses who brought us up out of Egypt, we don’t know what has happened to him.”

Exodus 32:1

They succumbed to the delusion of idolatry by constructing a “god” whom they could see and measure and manipulate. Most religion is just an attempt to make God or “the gods” manageable. The God of the Bible, however, is not a cosmic vending machine. He will not be manipulated by us, as he is the sovereign one in the equation. His initial reaction in this situation is to wipe the people out:

“I have seen these people,” the Lord said to Moses, “and they are a stiff-necked people. Now leave me alone so that my anger may burn against them and that I may destroy them. Then I will make you into a great nation.”

Exodus 32:9-10

A lesser man may have been tempted to succumb to that idea. Moses, however, has a heart for his people and proves himself willing to give up his own life to save theirs. At one point, he even says to God, “But now, please forgive their sin – but if not, then blot me out of the book you have written” (v. 32). Moses’ intercession was required to avert the disaster of divine destruction, and his appeal was based on God’s reputation among the nations:

Moses sought the favor of the Lord his God. “O Lord,” he said, “why should your anger burn against your people, whom you brought out of Egypt with great power and a mighty hand? Why should the Egyptians say, ‘It was with evil intent that he brought them out, to kill them in the mountains and to wipe them off the face of the earth’? Turn from your fierce anger; relent and do not bring disaster on your people.”

Exodus 32:11-12

It is interesting that Moses is so concerned with God’s reputation. We would save ourselves untold grief if we would consider how our decisions and their consequences may affect his honor.

Even when the Lord relented, he stated that, instead of accompanying his people himself, he would send an angel with the people to bring them into the promised land and drive our their enemies: “Go up to the land flowing with milk and honey. But I will not go with you, because you are a stiff-necked people and I might destroy you on the way” (33:3).

These grievous words were too much for Moses, who pleaded,

“If your Presence does not go with us, do not send us up from here. How will anyone know that you are pleased with me and with your people unless you go with us? What else will distinguish me and your people from all the other people on the face of the earth?”

Exodus 33:15

Moses recognized that what distinguished his people from all the other nations was the One whom they followed. Because God was pleased with Moses, he honored his request (v. 17).

Moses responded to this negative situation with decisiveness and integrity. His brother Aaron had handled his delegated authority in an irresponsible manner, and the people were “running wild” and “out of control” (32:25). Thousands of people died in the ensuing judgment, but Moses was instrumental in averting wholesale annihilation because he discipled the people and interceded for them before the Lord. His situational leadership in this crisis was masterful because he acted on behalf of the people while at the same time calling them to account. Such balance of mercy and discipline is vital for leaders at all levels.

God knows the future; he holds it in his hands. Yet God is pleased to respond to the prayers of his people. There is a deep and profound mystery in God’s sovereignty. Sometimes we adopt a Doris Day theology, “Que será, será. Whatever will be will be.” We abdicate our responsibility in favor of God’s sovereignty, failing to recognize that God’s plan is to work in concert with our intercession. Oswald Chambers noted:

Prayer to us is not practical, it is stupid, and until we do see that prayer is stupid, that is, stupid from the ordinary, natural, common sense point of view, we will never pray. “It is absurd to think that God is going to alter things in answer to prayer.” But that is what Jesus says He will do. It sounds stupid, but it is a stupidity based on His redemption. The reason that our prayers are not answered is that we are not stupid enough to believe what Jesus says.2

Our decisions really do matter. And God expects us to cooperate with his plan. Chambers also wrote, “Some of the things we pray about are as absurd as if we prayed, ‘O Lord, take me out of this room,’ and then refused to go.”3 Our decisions are not trivial matters that are pre-determined by a grand puppet-master in the sky. Somehow, God’s sovereignty and our free choices intermingle and weave the tapestry of our lives.

One Size Does Not Fit All

Someone has quipped that the seven last words of a dying church are, “We never did it that way before.” Many people have a seemingly inborn resistance to change. However, if we hope to remain effective in our positions of leadership, we must be flexible enough to adapt to the new situations we will inevitably face. We read about Paul’s flexibility in 1 Corinthians 9:19-23:

Though I am free and belong to no man, I make myself a slave to everyone, to win as many as possible. To the Jews I became like a Jew, to win the Jews. To those under the law I became like one under the law (though I myself am not under the law), so as to win those under the law. To those not having the law I became like one not having the law (though I am not free from God’s law but am under Christ’s law), so as to win those not having the law. To the weak I became weak, to win the weak. I have become all things to all men so that by all possible means I might save some. I do all this for the sake of the gospel, that I may share in its blessings.

Jesus transformed Saul, the zealous Pharisee, into Paul, the apostle to the Gentiles. Paul understood what it meant to make a midcourse correction, and his passion to see people reconciled to God gave him the willingness to approach each situation in a case-specific manner. His desire was to see as many people as possible come to faith in Christ. Thus, he would act like one under the law or not under the law, depending on whether he was working with Jews or Gentiles.

He repeated this principle in another letter: “Be wise in the way you act toward outsiders; make the most of every opportunity. Let your conversation be always full of grace, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how to answer everyone” (Colossians 4:5-6). For Paul, to season graceful conversation with salt was to painstakingly adapt his approach to each situation which he faced.

The truth is one size does not fit all. Each person is unique and different and must be engaged in ways that are specific to that person. Most evangelistic tools used by churches treat all seeking people the same. They ask seeking people the same questions and invite them to the same programs to hear the same speakers give the same answers from the same script. There is very little personal interaction with them.

The same is true of corporate training. New employees are subjected to the same battery of tests and asked to sit through the same training programs. There is no room for variation in methods, no consideration of different learning modalities. There is simply a cookie-cutter approach to turning out the next wave of corporate executives.

The apostle Paul, however, modeled Jesus’ approach to people. He viewed each situation, and each person, independently and sought to do the right thing in that given time and place for that specific person.

Paul’s training of his co-laborers also revealed his situational leadership approach. To Titus he sent instruction. To Timothy he offered encouragement. He prepared and trained workers to continue what he had begun in various cities, adapting that training to the specific needs of each worker. In this way, he equipped a number of co-laborers and delegated increasing levels of responsibility to them. How flexible are you in responding to changing circumstances? Do you find yourself trying to change the circumstances rather than your game plan, or do you adapt to them and make the necessary adjustments?

Treating People as Individuals

Situational leadership is not the easy road. It demands the leader’s attention to the followers’ condition. It requires watching and listening. But, like almost any other resource, time well invested pays great dividends. Notice how Moses invested in Joshua’s development:

The Amalekites came and attacked the Israelites at Rephidim. Moses said to Joshua, “Choose some of our men and go out to fight the Amalekites. Tomorrow I will stand on top of the hill with the staff of God in my hands.”

So Joshua fought the Amalekites as Moses had ordered, and Moses, Aaron and Hur went to the top of the hill. As long as Moses help up his hands, the Israelites were winning, but whenever he lowered his hands, the Amalekites were winning. When Moses’ hands grew tired, they took a stone and put it under him and he sat on it. Aaron and Hur held his hands up – one on one side, one on the other – so that his hands remained steady till sunset. So Joshua overcame the Amalekite army with the sword.

Then the Lord said to Moses, “Write this on a scroll as something to be remembered and make sure that Joshua hears it, because I will completely blot out the memory of Amalek from under heaven.”

Moses built an altar and called it The Lord is my Banner.

Exodus 17:8-15

This brief story is part of a larger event. Throughout the 40 years of wandering described in Exodus and Numbers, Moses was preparing Joshua for leadership. Joshua would inherit the leader’s job just as Israel was preparing to wrest the land from the Canaanites, who lived there in walled cities and boasted well-equipped armies. This single event within the context of the larger story communicates an important principle of leadership in general, and of leadership development in particular.

God intervened in this battle in a visible and memorable way (vv. 8-13). Like Jesus in the New Testament, God in the Old Testament never did the same thing in the same way. For example there are times in the Old Testament when God tells his people not to fight at all (Exodus 14:14); other times he tells them to fight (Joshua 8:1-2); still other times he tells them to march around the city (Joshua 6:2-5). Sometimes God raises up a man to deliver his people (Judges 3:9-11); other times he raises up a woman to do the job (Judges 4:9). God is infinitely creative; he adapts and adjusts and invites us to be creative enough to adapt as well.

When the battle was over, God told Moses to “make sure that Joshua hears it” (v. 14). Why? Because Joshua still needed development before taking over as Israel’s leader. Joshua was on the battlefield, unaware of the way in which the Lord had intervened. The record of God’s work needed to be preserved because Joshua needed to acknowledge that God alone was the source of his power. Without his intervention Joshua could never have gone head-to-head with the Canaanite armies. His nomadic shepherd-soldiers would have been unable to gain a single victory without God’s aid.

Moses practiced situational leadership with his young protégé by identifying those areas in which Joshua was in need of skill and attitude development. He then matched his leadership action to his follower’s need.

Situational leadership defines “intelligent” action as “what the follower, in this situation, requires.” The best leaders don’t treat all followers the same, nor do they treat any single follower in the same manner all the time. They analyze the situation, identify what the follower needs to function and grow in that particular situation, and then proceed accordingly. Moses did the intelligent thing because he did what the situation called for.

Revise Your Plans, Not Your Vision

Obviously, Nehemiah was an exceptional leader. We read his story and learn many significant principles of godly leadership. However, as we consider Nehemiah’s character through the lens of situational leadership, a new appreciation emerges for his leadership genius. Although he relied upon a wide variety of leadership attitudes, relationships and skills, we find in him unwavering consistency.

To be consistent, according to Hersey, Blanchard and Johnson, a leader will invariably assess the circumstances and then do what the situation calls for. Consistency doesn’t imply that the leader always does the same thing regardless of circumstances. Nor does it suggest that a leader is predictable and will smile (or frown) regardless of what the follower does. It does mean that followers can count on the leader to do what is appropriate to the situation. If the follower’s action calls for a smile, the leader will smile. If it calls for a frown (or a more serious response), the follower can expect this as well.4

Nehemiah demonstrated mastery of a wide spectrum of leadership skills in chapters 4-6. He encountered various forms of opposition to the work he was overseeing. But notice that he did not deal with all opposition in the same manner. Nehemiah demonstrated consistency in his leadership, not because he acted consistently, but because he consistently acted in a manner that addressed the situation at hand.

There are three activities that provided Nehemiah with both the stability and flexibility to accomplish his goal. First, prayer was his first response to his critics (4:4-5). He didn’t take time to collect his thoughts or count to 10. His prayer is primal and emotional. He took all his thoughts and feelings to God – the only one who could do anything about the situation. He didn’t sugarcoat anything; he just unloaded. And then he went back to work (v. 6).

By doing so, he refused to allow his critics to steal his focus away from his vision. Prayer puts criticism into its proper perspective. Held up to the unlimited resources and wisdom of God, your critics lose their power. Anxiety shrinks and passion is rejuvenated. Prayers helps us evaluate criticism from God’s perspective and address our critics with grace and wisdom.

Second, Nehemiah recalled the source of his mission (v. 14). He thought back to how he had been brought to Jerusalem, how he had been able to procure permission from King Artaxerxes, how God had proven faithful thus far. The text implies that these memories didn’t just pop into his head; he intentionally brought them to mind.

By looking back, he discovered the resources to move forward. He dealt with the present crisis by reminding the people of God’s faithfulness in the past and God’s promises for the future. Rather than evaluating his own potential, Nehemiah recalled the strength and faithfulness of the God who called him to the present task.

Finally, Nehemiah made strategic revisions to his plan (vv. 9, 16-18). Leaders must understand the delicate balance between walking by faith and leading strategically. Our trust is in God. But at the same time we must not abandon our responsibility to do all we can do to further God’s work in this world. Posting a guard against a possible invasion by Sanballat and his crew hardly ensured a successful defense; the people were grossly outnumbered. Without God’s intervention, the workers would have faced insurmountable odds. But Nehemiah did what he knew to do and trusted God for the rest. His willingness to adapt his plan illustrates a principle that is important for leaders to observe: Never confuse your plans with God’s vision.

A vision is a snapshot of what could and should be; a plan is a guess as to the best way to make that vision a reality. It may be an educated guess, but it’s still just a guess. And even the smartest, most successful people know how wrong their guesses can be. For example, Sam Walton, founder of Wal-Mart, was clearly a giant in his industry. He had a vision for providing value to his customers in order to make their lives better, and he remained faithful to that vision throughout his career. However, his strategies were known to change frequently. His son, James, talked about this aspect of Walton’s success: “We all snickered at some writers who viewed Dad as a grand strategist who intuitively developed complex plans and implemented them with precision. Dad thrived on change, and no decision was ever sacred.”5

We can afford to be stubborn about the overall vision; but we must be flexible about our strategies and plans. The computer software used to write, edit and print the material you are reading right now went through thousands of revisions. Many of those revisions were made in response to criticisms the company received regarding the initial version of the product.

Why would a company that has been involved in word processing software for nearly 30 years spend so much time gathering suggestions from people who can’t write one line of code? Why let outsiders influence their agenda? Are they inept? Of course they’re not. It is their commitment to being the world’s leading producer of word processing software that drives them to revise their plans and refine their product.

Leaders who are unswervingly committed to their overall vision have the flexibility to adapt their strategy. Situational leadership shows us the wisdom of differentiating between the two. Only our pride would keep us from adapting one to serve the other.


1 Gene A. Getz, The Apostles (Nashville: Broadman & Holman, 1998), pp. 3-4.

2 Oswald Chambers, Prayer – A Holy Occupation (Grand Rapids: Discovery House, 1992), p. 25.

3 Ibid., 111.

4 Adapted from Paul Hersey, Kenneth H. Blanchard and Dewey E. Johnson, Management of Organizational Behavior, Seventh Edition, “Utilizing Human Resources,” (Escondido, CA: Leadership Studies, Inc.), pp. 138-139.

5 Sam Walton with John Huey, Made in America (New York: Doubleday, 1992), p. 70.

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Stewardship

Consider for a moment that everyone on earth has the same amount of time in every day. President or paper boy, housewife or executive, farmer or financier – they all have exactly 24 hours in each day, 168 hours in each week, 525,600 minutes in each year. Some people take that time and build relationships, dream dreams and make plans, cultivate their walk with God, develop new skills and live lives of adventure. Some people watch a lot of TV.

What differentiates people isn’t the amount of time available to them, but the manner in which they exercise their gifts and talents within the available time. We can waste time; we can spend time; or we can invest our time wisely. That’s what stewardship is about: faithfully developing and using our gifts, talents and resources within the amount of time God has allotted to us.

In every stewardship relationship there are two parties involved: the master who hands out the resources and will one day ask for an accounting; and the steward who is entrusted with the resources and must eventually answer for how they were invested. God is the master; he distributes gifts at his discretion. We are stewards, accountable to him for all that we do with all that we have. Michael Novak puts it like this:

We didn’t give ourselves the personalities, talents, or longings we were born with. When we fulfill these – these gifts from beyond ourselves – it is like fulfilling something we were meant to do…. The Creator of all things knows the name of each of us – knows thoroughly, better than we do ourselves, what is in us, for he put it there and intends for us to do something with it – something that meshes with his intentions for many other people…. Even if we do not always think of it that way, each of us was given a calling – by fate, by chance, by destiny, by God. Those who are lucky have found it.1

Do not rush through this thought. Herein lies the fundamental principle of biblical stewardship – the fundamental principle of all Christianity, in fact: We own nothing. God owns everything; we are simply managers. The Bible says, “You may say to yourself, ‘My power and the strength of my hands have produced this wealth for me.’ But remember the Lord your God, for it is he who gives you the ability to produce wealth” (Deuteronomy 8:17-18).

As humbling as this sounds, we don’t bring anything to the table. It’s all God’s. This principle carries some heavy implications. First, since God owns it all, he holds the rights that come with ownership. Since we only have what we have been allowed to have, then we operate primarily in the realm of responsibilities. Hear that clearly: God has rights; we have responsibilities.2 God has entrusted us with certain resources, gifts and abilities. These things rightfully belong to him. Our responsibility is to live by that trust by managing these things well, according to his design and desire.

Another implication is that since God owns everything and expects us to manage things according to his plan and purpose, every decision is a spiritual decision. Whether it’s buying a new car or going to the movies, how we use our time and money matters a great deal to God. God demands to be in the loop on every investment, purchase and decision.

The Parable of the Talents

When Jesus taught about his second coming, he drove home one important lesson: Only faithful stewards will be prepared for his return (Matthew 25:14-30). The parable he used to make this point involved three servants who each received a dizzying sum of money from his master before that master departed on a long journey. This is not just an act of generosity; this is an act of trust. The master gave each of these servants the opportunity of a lifetime. This was their chance to prove themselves, test their skills and possibly rise to positions of greater influence and responsibility.

Upon his return the master discovered that two of the servants had invested the money, and that one had buried it. He took the greatest gift he would ever be given and buried it in a field, forgetting – or choosing not to believe – that the master would return.

There are a couple of variables in this story. First, the master does not give each servant the same amount of talents. We don’t have to look too closely to see that this is just the way things are. Some people have gifts that are publicly celebrated. Others have gifts that are quiet and unseen. Not everyone is gifted in the same way, and that needs to be okay with us. It would be foolish for the one-talent man to pout that he was only given one talent. A talent was equivalent to 15-years’ salary! In a day when most people lived day to day, he ought to rejoice that he was given such a great gift.

Jesus makes it clear that the size of the gift is not the important variable. The variable that matters is what each servant does with what he’s been given. While the first servant is given more than double what the second servant is given, they are both commended with the exact same words: “Well done, good and faithful servant! You have been faithful with a few things; I will put you in charge of many things. Come and share your master’s happiness” (vv. 21, 23). In the final analysis, on the day of reckoning, the master will not ask why you didn’t invest someone else’s gifts. He won’t ask what you did with what you didn’t have. He will only be concerned with what you did with your gift.

When the servant who had buried the money began offering excuses, the master refused to accept them. Instead, he rebuked the lazy servant and punished him severely. Meanwhile, the faithful servants enjoyed the rewards they had received for their diligent labor. The master is generous beyond belief, but he is also going to hold his servants accountable. He will reward diligence and faithfulness; he will punish laziness. Here is perhaps the most sobering point of this parable: The third servant is not judged for doing bad things; he is judged for doing nothing. He did not lie or cheat or steal; he simply sat on his hands.

For some reason, we have gotten away from the idea that laziness is that bad. Historically speaking, however, sloth was listed as one of the Seven Deadly Sins. Solomon Schimmel points out that sloth is a uniquely Judeo-Christian sin – the only one of the seven not considered a vice by Greco-Roman standards. This is because the Judeo-Christian worldview understands human beings to be responsible to God. Our lives are not merely concerned with self-preservation and self-promotion; we are stewards of what God has given us. To fail in this is a form of stealing from God.3

Leaders are stewards. They manage multiple resources because they direct others in using their own resources.

Ownership Has Its Advantages

Let’s get this straight: God has no needs, and he did not create the cosmos because he was lonely or bored. Instead, the created order is the overflow of the fountain of love that has always existed within the triune Godhead. As stewards, we participate in a world that derives its being and sustenance from the infinite, personal Creator.

Psalm 104 is a rich poem, extolling the manner in which the created order displays the beauty and glory of the living God. It’s filled with expressions of praise, wonder and adoration. All things find their origin and nourishment in the mind and power of the personal and inexhaustible God:

Praise the Lord, O my soul. O Lord my God, you are very great; you are clothed with splendor and majesty…. He set the earth on its foundations; it can never be moved….

He waters the mountains from his upper chambers; the earth is satisfied by the fruit of his work. He makes grass grow for the cattle, and plants for man to cultivate – bringing forth food from the earth; wine that gladdens the heart of man, oil to make his face shine, and bread that sustains his heart. The trees of the Lord are well watered, the cedars of Lebanon that he planted….

You bring darkness, as it becomes night, and all the beasts of the forest prowl. The lions roar for their prey and seek their food from God….

How many are your works, O Lord! In wisdom you made them all; the earth is full of your creatures…. These all look to you to give them their food at the proper time. When you give it to them, they gather it up; when you open your hand, they are satisfied with good things. When you hide your face, they are terrified; when you take away their breath, they die and return to the dust. When you send your Spirit, they are created, and you renew the face of the earth.

Psalm 104:1, 5, 13-16, 20-21, 24, 27-30

The Lord’s splendor and majesty are displayed in the heavenly bodies, as well as in the clouds, winds and lightning. God formed the earth with its oceans and mountains, and the water he provides sustains the beasts of the field and the birds of the air. Earth’s stately forests and lush vegetation sustain humans and animals; and the sun and the moon differentiate day from night and mark off the seasons. The incredibly rich diversity and abundance of creatures both large and small are a continual source of awe and amazement. All things look to God for their existence, and when he takes away their breath, they die and return to the dust. “Who is like the Lord our God, the One who sits enthroned on high, who stoops down to look on the heavens and the earth?” (Psalm 113:5-6).

Paul employs parallelism for emphasis when he says that “For us there is but one God, the Father, from whom all things came and for whom we live; and there is but one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom all things came and through whom we live” (1 Corinthians 8:6).

He further addresses the Corinthian believers: “You are not your own; you were bought at a price. Therefore honor God with your body” (1 Corinthians 6:19-20). Jesus owns us both by virtue of creation and of redemption. He is the source of both our biological and spiritual lives. Humans are the apex of God’s created order, but we are still part of that created order. The practical implications of this truth should be evident.

As we mentioned before, the creator has the rights of ownership. God is presented throughout the Bible as the Creator. In fact, the whole book starts with this simple statement: “In the beginning God created” (Genesis 1:1a). He owns everything that he has made, and he made everything that is. This has tremendous ramifications for how we live.

If human life is simply an accident arising from millennia of human history, then we are free agents, accountable to no one but ourselves. But if we were created, then our Creator has full rights of ownership over our lives. These are mutually exclusive propositions. Either we are merely an accident of history and therefore completely at liberty to do whatever we want with our lives, or we are intentionally created beings who will be held accountable to our Creator.

If we buy into the very first sentence of the Bible, we must acknowledge that we are not our own. Our life is a trust given to us by God. We are not worthless or aimless. God has chosen to bring us into being. He did this in purpose, and we can only discover true meaning and fulfillment as we get to know the One who created us. John Calvin was right when he said that no man can know himself unless he first knows God.

When people start believing that they are meaningless accidents, human life becomes cheap. And if human life is cheap, it becomes disposable whenever that’s convenient. First the unborn, then the elderly, then the handicapped or others who are viewed as a drain – if they become bothersome, they become expendable. Where does that lead? Where does it stop? History has shown that it progresses to people who are the “wrong color,” the “wrong race” or the “wrong religion.” The most monstrous evils of our time have been built on the assumption that human life happened by accident.

When we open the Bible, we are confronted by God. He is the Creator, and he has the absolute rights of ownership over all things. Missing this is like misaligning the top button on your shirt – nothing else will ever line up. Nothing else in the Bible will make any sense or have any relevance if we miss the fact that God is the Creator and has full rights of ownership.

The Cultural Mandate

God has entrusted to us the dignity and responsibility of being stewards of the resources and creatures of this planet. When we shape, refine and creatively utilize the minerals, plants and animals that God has placed at our disposal, we are accountable for the results. Genesis 1:28-30 contains God’s stewardship mandate for the newly created man and woman, whom he had formed in his own image:

God blessed them and said to them, “Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish of the sea and the birds of the air and over every living creature that moves on the ground.”

Then God said, “I give you every seed-bearing plant on the face of the whole earth and every tree that has fruit with seed in it. They will be yours for food. And to all the beasts of the earth and all the birds of the air and all the creatures that move on the ground – everything that has the breath of life in it – I give every green plant for food.” And it was so.

Here is the first “Great Commission” in the Bible, also known as “The Cultural Mandate.” This is God’s idea for the human race: a call to establish human society all over the world. We are not to be subject to creation; we are to hold dominion over it.

God’s command to “fill the earth and subdue it” (v. 28) has been realized to a far greater extent during the past century than ever before. For the first time in human history, we face the crisis of global pollution and wholesale destruction of irreplaceable resources (e.g., the rain forests). Much of this is due to human greed and presumption; people have assumed that the supplies of earth are inexhaustible and that we are free to use them for personal gain. Greg Johnson warns us:

Industrialization and the environmental crisis that accompanies it have given us a negative image of dominion – one divorced from our God-given calling. Dominion means more than filthy strip mines and smog. Dominion doesn’t mean rape and pillage. It does mean, however, that God’s world is incomplete without humanity in its proper place.4

As we have previously mentioned, Scripture cautions us that we really own nothing, that “The earth is the Lord’s, and everything in it, the world, and all who live in it” (Psalm 24:1). And again, God reminds us in Psalm 50:10 that “every animal of the forests is mine, and the cattle on a thousand hills.” The creation is not here for our amusement. Its calling is the same as ours: to bring glory to God in heaven.

A steward manages the possessions of another. We are all stewards of the resources, abilities and opportunities that God has entrusted to our care, and each of us must one day give an account for how we have used them. The basis for reward is faithfulness: “Now it is required that those who have been given a trust must prove faithful” (1 Corinthians 4:2). Our God-given dominion over nature is not self-regulated. We exercise our dominion under the watchful eye of the one who created everything. The mandate to establish civilization on the earth is for God’s glory, not our own.

The Parable of the Shrewd Manager

Stewards are expected to realize the maximum possible return on the resources which the master has entrusted to their care. In preparing his followers to be steward-leaders, Jesus told a parable that really caught their attention:

“There was a rich man whose manager was accused of wasting his possessions. So he called him in and asked him, ‘What is this I hear about you? Give an account of your management, because you cannot be manager any longer.’

“The manager said to himself, ‘What shall I do now? My master is taking away my job. I’m not strong enough to dig, and I’m ashamed to beg – I know what I’ll do so that, when I lose my job here, people will welcome me into their houses.’

“So he called in each one of his master’s debtors. He asked the first, ‘How much do you owe my master?’

“‘Eight hundred gallons of olive oil,’ he replied.

“The manager told him, ‘Take your bill, sit down quickly, and make it four hundred.’

“Then he asked the second, ‘And how much do you owe?’

“‘A thousand bushels of wheat,’ he replied.

“He told him, ‘Take your bill and make it eight hundred.’

“The master commended the dishonest manager because he had acted shrewdly. For the people of this world are more shrewd in dealing with their own kind than are the people of the light. I tell you, use worldly wealth to gain friends for yourselves, so that when it is gone, you will be welcomed into eternal dwellings.”

Luke 16:1-9

This perplexing parable appears at first glance to encourage dishonesty. But Jesus enjoins us to mimic the steward’s shrewdness, not his dishonesty. Jesus commends the man’s ability to use his present and temporary power and resources to make preparation for what was coming.

In Jesus’ day there were two primary words for “wisdom.” One word was sophia, which had a spiritual, pious ring to it. This is the wisdom which comes from above, resulting in godly character and conduct (cf. James 3:17). This wisdom comes through the grace of God (Ephesians 1:7), and is a beautiful thing. But the word Jesus uses here is phronimos, which meant cunning, cleverness, street-smarts. Jesus uses this word in Matthew 7:24 about the “wise” man who builds his house on the rock. It takes no special revelation from above to know that Jesus’ teachings in the Sermon on the Mount form perhaps the greatest ethical platform known to man. It only makes sense to apply these teachings to our daily lives, thus the “wise” man is also shrewd.

We often see pictures of Jesus looking as innocent as a dove. But we never see pictures of Jesus looking as shrewd as a serpent. This reveals our failure to grasp his true nature. We tend to confuse being spiritual with being gullible or timid. But, in the Gospels, we find that Jesus had an earthy streak that didn’t look spiritual to people. This is one of the things that caused people to misunderstand him. There was nothing naïve about Jesus. He was completely realistic without a trace of cynicism. And he was totally innocent without a trace of naïveté. That still confuses a lot of people today, because we’re not accustomed to seeing that combination.

No parable can be interpreted correctly until its purpose has been identified. Before asking what a parable means, the reader must ask why it was told. The situation which prompted this parable is recounted in Luke 15:1-2. The Pharisees were attacking Jesus for eating with the wrong people. His answer to their charge came in the form of four separate parables, the first three of which are recorded in the previous chapter (Luke 15:3-32). In the parable of the steward (16:1-9) Jesus drew his conclusion. Stewards work hard and “smart” to please their master. But some go the extra mile and work “shrewd”! While it appeared to some that Jesus was working contrary to the Father’s wishes, he and the Father both knew that Jesus was working judiciously and discerningly (synonyms for shrewdly) on precisely those things which the Father wanted accomplished (notice the first sentence of 16:8).

Jesus made it clear that we are his stewards. We manage his resources on earth. Since leaders manage multiple resources, the stewardship role is especially applicable to them. Verses 8-15 contain the application of this extended passage. Read carefully from the standpoint of your role as a steward of God’s resources. The point of stewardship is that we manage what God owns (and he owns everything). He expects maximum return on his investment. Stewards work hard and smart. The best stewards are also shrewd. They look for the “extra” possibility to serve God well.

We who are children of light must use our power, resources and abilities to prepare for eternity. We do that in at least two ways. Primarily, we use our resources and abilities to make investments into eternal things (Matthew 6:19-21, 33). We win friends (specifically God and the people we love and serve) who can help us when we are helpless (e.g., judgment) so that we will have a comfortable place when we lose our job (i.e., when we die). Secondly, we spread God’s message, using whatever resources and skills we have so that others can prepare for the future as well. In this way we leverage the temporal resources of this world for the eternal treasures of the next by investing them in people.

The children of light (Ephesians 5:8) can be so naïve! We are afraid that if we are shrewd, we are being unchristian. We feel we should not use secular abilities or procedures in the work of the kingdom. But Jesus said, “Be as shrewd as serpents and as innocent as doves” (Matthew 10:16). We ought to be impressive examples of sagacity to this world.

This “shrewd use of resources” must also include our money, especially for Americans who have been entrusted with so much of it. The wisest use of money is not temporal pleasure, but eternal security. Present investments in the poor will be honored by God in eternity.

Stewardship in All Circumstances

In Genesis 39:1-41:57, Joseph provides us with a classic example of stewardship. His life is the ultimate good news/bad news story. He is his father’s favorite son, but that makes his brothers jealous. His father gives him a beautiful coat, but his brothers tear it off and sell him into slavery because of it. He finds a job working for a wealthy man who puts him in charge of his household, but his boss’ wife tries to seduce him. Joseph resists, but this makes her angry enough to falsely accuse him and have him thrown into jail. In prison, Joseph meets a royal official, interprets a dream and receives a promise of parole, but the official forgets and Joseph languishes in prison for two more years. Joseph’s life has more plot twists than an Indiana Jones movie.

We want to rush to the end, where Joseph is large and in charge, reconciled to his brothers, enjoying luxury, and they all live happily ever after. But Joseph models something more important for us. Stewardship happens in the meantime. Regardless of his circumstances, whether he was on an upswing or a downturn, Joseph utilized the resources available to him for great good. God was with Joseph, he was always put “in charge” (Genesis 39:4, 22; 41:41). From Potiphar’s house to the prison ward to Pharaoh’s Egypt, Joseph built others’ fortunes by managing their resources and managed situations well regardless of his own comfort. That’s what stewardship entails; and that, according to Matthew 25, is what leadership is all about as well. But of what, exactly are we stewards?

Peter Drucker asserted in Post Capitalist Society that knowledge is fast becoming our most valuable asset. Karl Albrecht (The Northbound Train) tells us that, in this emerging post-capitalist society, “one of the main jobs of leadership is to help people understand the contributions they can make.” Leif Edvinsson and Michael Malone’s book Intellectual Capital is subtitled, “Realizing Your Company’s True Value by Finding Its Hidden Brain Power.” In Stewardship, Peter Block consistently equates stewardship with a leader’s commitment to develop the human resources placed in his or her charge. This representative, and by no means exhaustive, listing demonstrates that today more than ever before leaders-as-stewards must cultivate their human resources. People are a leader’s major stewardship focus.

Joseph, Jesus and contemporary leadership gurus tell us that, as leaders, we are stewards of our greatest resource – people. A view of leadership that is consistent with the Bible will focus on what God deems important. And again, that is people. Whatever else biblical leaders feel responsible for in the name of stewardship, they must accept responsibility for the people God has entrusted to their care.

Biblical stewardship touches every area of our lives. It requires a basic commitment to present ourselves completely to God as his servants, with no strings attached. The real issue of stewardship is whether we are administrating our affairs and possessions as if they are ours or as if they are God’s. Our lives are shaped by the decisions we make, and there is no greater choice offered to us than surrender to the one who created us and knows us better than we know ourselves. The ultimate question, then, is this: Am I the lord of my life, or is Christ the Lord of my life? We will either labor under the illusion that we can control our own lives, or we will submit to the reign and rule of God. This is the difference between the great I will and the great Thy will. Whether we realize it or not, we face this decision many times in the course of each day. Our answer to this question will determine how we manage the time, abilities, money, truth and relationships God has placed under our care. A wise steward will treat things according to their true value, treasure the things God declares to be important and hold with a loose grip the things that God says will not matter in the end.


1 Michael Novak, Business as a Calling (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1996), pp. 18, 38.

2 On this, see Ron Blue, Master Your Money (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1991), pp. 17-24.

3 Solomon Schimmel, The Seven Deadly Sins (New York: Oxford University Press, 1997), p. 193.

4 Greg Johnson, The World According to God (Downers Grove, IL: InverVarsity Press, 2002), p. 87.

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Stress Management

Richard Swenson, in his book Margin, describes the society in which we live as “troubled.” He says, “We have more questions than answers, more problems than solutions. Few know where we are headed, but universally acknowledge that we are careening along at breakneck speed.”1 He goes on to cite statistics that say 30 million men in America describe themselves as “stressed out.” The average desk worker in America has 36 hours of work on their desk, and they spend three hours a week just sorting out the piles. The average middle manager is interrupted 73 times a day. On average, we spend eight months of our lives opening junk mail. We spend two years of our lives trying to call people who are not in, or whose lines are busy. We spend one year searching for misplaced objects, when the average misplaced object has been moved only 10 inches from its original place.

More than 18 million Americans are on Prozac. Credit card debt is at the highest level ever, with consumer debt currently standing at $1.4 trillion. According to LynNell Hancock, in 1850, the average person slept nine-and-a-half hours per night. Now, thanks to electricity, the figure is seven hours per night and declining. There are 70 million people with sleep disorders; we live in a society that is “fried by work, frazzled by the lack of time.” Hancock quoted one woman, a mother of four from LaGrange, Illinois: “I am so tired, my idea of a vacation is a trip to the dentist. I just can’t wait to sit in that chair and relax.”2 When society has reached the point where people start looking forward to getting their gums scraped and teeth drilled as a refreshing activity, something has gone terribly, terribly wrong.

We carry stress around like a badge of honor. This is especially true among business and community leaders where the lie is propagated that to be overbooked is to be important. Even people in vocational ministry will sometimes say, “I’d rather flame out than rust out.” The problem is, either way, you’re out.

Much of the stress in our lives comes as a result of our insistence on maintaining the illusion of control. We so desperately want to be strong enough to handle the trials and tribulations of life that we literally drive ourselves into the ground rather than admit our desperate need. Often God allows us to reach the breaking point for our own good. Only in those moments of rare clarity that come from bottoming out will we allow ourselves to admit how little control we actually have. In those moments, the only thing we can do is throw ourselves headlong into the grace of God. In these moments, the pain and suffering actually drive us to him.

Rather than something to be avoided at all costs, these times should be embraced as gifts. We should thank God for the chance to see our true condition and rid ourselves of the foolish notion that we are autonomous and independent creatures capable of navigating through life on our own.

If your successes and achievements are completely due to your own strength, stress is the only possible outcome. You can never relax. There can be no Sabbath rest for you. If, however, God is the ultimate source of every good gift you receive, then you can afford to relax and trust the outcome of things to him. In other words, we will never receive the diamond of his grace as long as we’re clutching tightly to the things of this world.

In his book Shoulder to Shoulder, Dr. Rodney L. Cooper defines stress as “The response of a sympathetic nervous system to a perceived or actual threat.” He adds, “This technical definition probably won’t mean much to you. Basically it says that stress is the way our body responds to perceived or actual danger. Our blood pressure skyrockets and our muscle strength increases. We’re ready to fight or fly. Stress isn’t the cause but the effect.”3 In essence, stress is a reaction to danger – real or imagined.

Dr. Cooper’s definition of stress certainly describes what happened to King Saul after David had killed Goliath:

When the men were returning home after David had killed the Philistine, the women came out from all the towns of Israel to meet King Saul with singing and dancing, with joyful songs and with tambourines and lutes. As they danced, they sang:

"Saul has slain his thousands,
and David his tens of thousands.”

Saul was very angry; this refrain galled him. “They have credited David with tens of thousands,” he thought, “but me with only thousands. What more can he get but the kingdom?” And from that time on Saul kept a jealous eye on David.

The next day an evil spirit from God came forcefully upon Saul. He was prophesying in his house, while David was playing the harp, as he usually did. Saul had a spear in his hand and he hurled it, saying to himself, “I’ll pin David to the wall.” But David eluded him twice.

1 Samuel 18:6-11

Sensing that David was a threat to his position, the king’s blood pressure skyrocketed, his heart rate increased and his muscles tightened. Overcome with rage, he hurled a spear at David, who barely escaped.

In that instance, Saul’s response was to a perceived rather than an actual danger. David had no intention of overthrowing the king, nor would he have used his new-found popularity to ease Saul out of power. Saul naturally assumed that David was like himself. Unfortunately, one of Saul’s shortcomings as a leader was his inability to deal constructively with his perceptions of danger. That weakness undermined his mental health as well as the stability of his throne.

In the University of Life, stress and affliction are not elective courses; they’re a required part of the curriculum. Stress is not always a negative thing; properly managed, it can lead to development and growth. The issue is not how much pressure you’re under in life; rather the issue is how you respond to that pressure. It is never external circumstances that cause stress; it is always our internal response to those external forces. After all, we have little, if any, control over our situation. The only thing we can consistently control is our response. Effective leaders learn how to manage stress – both their own and that of the team which they lead. They view stressful situations as an opportunity for growth.

Physically speaking, we build ourselves up by intentionally inducing stress on our muscles. Why does the correlation between the physical and the spiritual so often elude us? We much prefer to go to a physical gym but abide in a spiritual lounge. Until we allow God to take us to his spiritual gym and intentionally place us under stress in a controlled environment, we won’t grow into the leaders he designed us to be.

The Suffering (but not Stressed-Out) Servant

Through the incarnation of Jesus Christ, our God experienced stress on a firsthand basis. Our Lord faced stressful circumstances on numerous occasions, but all of these were minor in comparison to the stress he endured from Gethsemane to the cross. To what resources did Jesus turn during this ordeal? The Bible shows us Christ’s response to stress and suffering.

The author of Hebrews records:

During the days of Jesus’ life on earth, he offered up prayers and petitions with loud cries and tears to the one who could save him from death, and he was heard because of his reverent submission. Although he was a son, he learned obedience from what he suffered.

Hebrews 5:7-8

Jesus was able to manage stress with dignity and integrity because he maintained a clear sense of his Father’s purpose for his life as well as a willing submission to it. On the eve of his crucifixion he asserted, “Now my heart is troubled, and what shall I say? ‘Father, save me from this hour’? No, it was for this very reason that I came to this hour. Father, glorify your name!” (John 12:27-28). In Gethsemane, his soul was “overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death” (Mark 14:34), but he realized that his coming ordeal represented the very purpose for which he had come.

If we stopped our analysis of the text there, it might drive us to be thankful that Christ suffered all this for our benefit. But that would be incomplete; there’s more to be found here. Christ not only suffered, he left us an example that we “should follow in his steps.” If you live the Christian life very long on this planet, you will join Christ in becoming a man of sorrows, familiar with suffering. Peter reveals three aspects of Jesus’ suffering as examples for us to follow:

To this [endurance of suffering] you were called, because Christ suffered for you, leaving you an example that you should follow in his steps.

“He committed no sin, and no deceit was found in his mouth.”

When they hurled their insults at him, he did not retaliate; when he suffered, he made no threats. Instead, he entrusted himself to him who judges justly. He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, so that we might die to sins and live for righteousness; by his wounds you have been healed.

1 Peter 2:21-24

First, Jesus suffered sinlessly; his pain was not the consequence of his own sins but of the sins of others. There will be enough suffering in this world without adding to it by shooting ourselves in the foot. Because we live in a fallen world, we will suffer, but we need not increase our suffering through our own foolishness.

Second, he suffered silently; instead of shouting threats of vindication or retaliation, he entrusted himself to his Father’s will. The temptation to seek revenge and retaliation for the things we have suffered can be overwhelming, particularly in such a litigious society as ours. But God says leave vengeance to him (Deuteronomy 32:35). We are called to love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us (Matthew 5:44). There is a time to seek justice, but there is also a time to suffer in silence, trusting God to judge justly in the end.

Third, he suffered as a substitute; his grief was redemptive and brought great benefit to others. The things we endure create a life message in us, which we can then use to minister to others who are going through similar situations. Your suffering is not pointless; it fashions you more into his image and fits you for more effective ministry. By trying to avoid pain, we tell God to take his hands off of us. We’re actually inviting him to love us less, not more. His is a holy love that only seeks what is best for us. His desire is that we become more like Jesus, so we can minister to others the way he did. In other words, like Christ, we suffer for the benefit of others. The writer of Hebrews explains:

For this reason he had to be made like his brothers in every way, in order that he might become a merciful and faithful high priest in service to God, and that he might make atonement for the sins of the people. Because he himself suffered when he was tempted, he is able to help those who are being tempted.

Hebrews 2:17-18

All of this is a model, an example for how we should deal with stressful situations in our own lives. But in order for us to view our trials and difficulties with joy (James 1:2) we must embrace a growing sense of the Father’s purpose for our lives. This is harder than it looks on the surface. Oswald Chambers suggested that most of us never intentionally renounce God’s vision for our life. We simply lose sight of it through neglect. When we come to faith we catch a glimmer of the significance of our worth to both God and the world around us. We become disobedient to that vision when we begin to live as though it cannot be obtained.4 We rarely deny the vision outright or argue with God’s dream for us. “We lose the vision by spiritual leakage,” says Chambers.5

We must also diligently maintain a willing submission to his purpose, even when it carries us in directions we do not wish to go. We must maintain an immovable resolve to stay the course and persist in the face of discomfort. Francis de Sales wrote of being placed in specific situations like a statue is placed in a specific place:

He has put us like a statue in its niche.

When there is added to this simple staying some feeling that we belong completely to God, and that he is our all, we must indeed give thanks to his goodness. If a statue that had been placed in some niche in some room could speak, and was asked, “Why are you there?” it would say,

“Because my master has put me here.”

“Why don’t you move?”

“Because he wants me to remain immovable.”

“What use are you there; what do you gain by doing so?”

“It is not for my profit that I am here; it is to serve and obey the will of my master.”

“But you do not see him.”

“No, but he sees me, and takes pleasure in seeing me where he has put me.”

“Would you not like to have movement so that you could go nearer to him?”

“Certainly not, except when he might command me.”

“Don’t you want anything else, then?”

“No, for I am where my master has placed me, and his good pleasure is the unique contentment of my being.”6

This sort of resolve is a matter of trust and perspective. If God really knows what he’s doing, then wherever we are, if we are walking in obedience to him, is exactly where we are supposed to be. It would not only be foolish to be somewhere else, it would be sinful. As we become more and more conformed to the image of Christ, we not only submit to his good will, we learn to submit willingly. Other options lose their appeal as God proves his trustworthiness.

Stress-Free Work

Some people associate work with creativity, productivity, positive challenges, significance, pride of accomplishment, enjoyable relationships and stimulating challenges. Others associate it with dreary toil, futility, injustice and joyless malaise. Scripture provides mixed signals concerning the nature and value of work. From one perspective, God’s word speaks of work as a vehicle of expression and a means (not a source!) of provision that can impart satisfaction and a sense of accomplishment. God mandated the fulfillment to be found in labor even prior to the tragedy of the fall: “The Lord God took the man and put him in the Garden of Eden to work it and take care of it” (Genesis 2:15). But the Bible also points out that work can be a source of pain, oppression, drudgery and unhappiness. Work has been tainted by sinful human nature with its pride, envy, greed, corruption and tendency toward the exploitation of others. Thus, many people view the workplace as an arena characterized by continual frustration and unhealthy stress.

In their book Your Work Matters to God, Doug Sherman and William Hendricks articulate what God’s Word says about our jobs:

Every day, millions of workers go to work without seeing the slightest connection between what they do all day and what they think God wants done in the world. For example, you may sell insurance, yet you may have no idea whether or not God wants insurance to be sold. Does selling insurance matter to God or not? If not, you are wasting your life…. We think your work matters deeply to God.... It is not something we do apart from God, as the secular world would view it. It is not something beneath God’s dignity and concern, as [some Christians view it]…. Work is a major part of human life that God takes very seriously. It has intrinsic value. It is inherently worth doing. Through work we serve people, meet our own needs, meet our family’s needs, earn money to give to others, and through work we love God.7

Work is not a curse; it is not part of God’s punishment. God himself is a worker. For six days he worked, designing the universe, developing the balance of nature, fashioning the plant and animal kingdoms. He formed man from the dust of the earth. When he finished his initial work of creation, he took a day off, rested and went back to work. Jesus said, “My Father is always at his work to this very day, and I too am working” (John 5:17).

It was not work itself that came as a result of sin, but frustrating and difficult work. Work may be more stressful and painful because of the fall, but God’s original intention for work was for our benefit – so that we would have a sense of self-worth, our relationships would be enhanced and our physical needs would be met. Work still meets those needs. Moreover, God created us with an emotional need that can only be met by an honest day’s work. Every person, having been made in the image of the Creator, has a God-given desire to imitate him and create. We long to accomplish a task, to do something valuable. When we complete a difficult task, we feel satisfaction and a greater sense of self-respect. Ecclesiastes 3:13 tells us, “That everyone may eat and drink, and find satisfaction in all his toil – this is the gift of God.”

Ecclesiastes 2 offers a middle position that acknowledges both the joys and the heartaches of work. The Teacher cautions us to avoid both extremes – that of taking work too seriously and that of regarding it as a totally futile endeavor. So from one perspective, “A man can do nothing better than to eat and drink and find satisfaction in his work” (v. 24). But from another vantage point, the same Teacher laments that “work…is meaningless, a chasing after the wind” (v. 17). Putting these pieces together, we can observe that one key to stress management is a realistic satisfaction in work, while avoiding the pitfall of turning it into an idol. We should hold onto our work with a loose grip, since our true source of significance and security is in God, not in our jobs.

Have you ever been so caught up in an enjoyable task that you lose all track of time? We usually think of heaven as a place where we will lie around all day, strumming harps. If you’re in an unrewarding job and succumb to the pressures of stress, that may sound like a good thing for a while. But sooner or later, you’d get bored with that and need to do something meaningful.

An even better existence would be to have a task you revel in doing, where you cannot fail or be frustrated and you never get tired. The Bible describes heaven as a place where we will be given such work by God. Revelation 22:3 says, “No longer will there be any curse. The throne of God and the Lamb will be in the city, and his servants will serve him.” Our work in heaven will be so enjoyable, so void of stress, that time will fly. We will never grow weary, never get bored and never fail.

Turning Stress into Peace

We all need techniques to manage stress. This need is intrinsic to the human condition. Hans Selye, the great stress researcher, differentiated between helpful, neutral and debilitating stress.8 In Philippians 4:4-9 Paul teaches us how to turn pressure to our advantage. This passage is essential reading for any leader under pressure:

Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice! Let your gentleness be evident to all. The Lord is near. Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.

Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable – if anything is excellent or praiseworthy – think about such things. Whatever you have learned or received or heard from me, or seen in me – put it into practice. And the God of peace will be with you.

Stress is a complex and potentially dangerous phenomenon. Managing its effects is the subject of many publications. The apostle Paul offered advice not on how to manage negative stress but how to avoid it altogether. Before you write off Paul as an idealistic do-gooder, remember that his own work generated enormous pressure. Stress avoidance doesn’t mean pressure avoidance. Paul achieved in his lifetime more than most people dream of accomplishing. And he did so under constant harassment and powerful opposition. People lied about him. He was unjustly imprisoned (the letter to the Philippians was written from a prison cell). He was eventually executed for his work. Paul certainly knew what pressure was all about, but he also knew what accomplishment was all about. That’s why he is so qualified to help today’s leader endure pressure without being crippled or even killed by the stress that so often accompanies it. Paul taught four principles in this passage:

    1. Define perspective. Only when the perspective described in Philippians 3:1-4:6 is adopted does Paul’s “rejoice” (v. 4) ring true. Our present circumstances must be contextualized into the bigger story, which is God’s story.

    2. Be gentle (v. 5). A person under the effects of stress is like a car in which the driver has one foot on the accelerator and the other on the brake. Again – be gentle. Gentleness does not imply becoming a doormat; Christ was gentle without being weak. Gentleness implies having great power under control.

    3. Trust God. The words in verses 5-7 are worth memorizing or printing out and posting on your desktop or calendar. If there was a machine that could turn anxiety into peace, it would make its inventor a billionaire. Yet God has given us the recipe for doing just this.

    4. Live ethically (vv. 8-9). How much stress is generated by fear of being found out? Ethical people experience less stress. Being truthful is, in many ways, its own reward. It makes sense if for no other reason than because of its stress-reducing properties.

Stress will inevitably creep in – and, at times, flood in. Read and heed stress management suggestions. Far more importantly, work through this primer on stress avoidance.

Jesus was obviously a man who endured great pain and sorrow, yet he had peace in the midst of it all. On the night before his crucifixion, he told his disciples that he had so much peace that he could afford to give some to them (John 14:27). He had excess joy in spite of the fact that he was about to endure the greatest crucible of all (John 15:11). On what should have been the most stressful night of his life, he demonstrates an astonishing level of poise and inner calm. How was he able to endure such a high level of pressure? The writer of Hebrews tells us it was a matter of his perspective:

Let us fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy set before him endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. Consider him who endured such opposition from sinful men, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart.

Hebrews 12:2-3

Jesus endured more pressure than we can imagine, yet he had peace, poise and power – because he embraced the Father’s perspective. Amazingly, this is the same perspective he invites us to:

Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.

Matthew 11:28-30

Trusting God, submitting to his leadership, eliminates stress and brings us rest.

Stress and the “Facts of Life”

If you’re a leader, you may assume that stress is simply an unavoidable component of your job. Fortunately, King David offers some insight intended to help leaders manage their stress:

The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want. He makes me lie down in green pastures, he leads me beside still waters, he restores my soul. He guides me in paths of righteousness for his name’s sake. Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me. You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies. You anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows. Surely goodness and mercy will follow me all the days of my life, and I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.

Psalm 23

Leaders under the immense pressure of identifying and solving problems can quickly reach high levels of stress. In this psalm, King David – who often faced overwhelming pressure – told his readers where he found his solace and security. This psalm can afford comfort to anyone, anytime; but we all find it especially relevant while we’re under stress.

Fred Smith provides some helpful advice for leaders who are compelled to manage stress:

The first step toward healthy stress is to define the problem. The best definition I’ve heard of a problem is [that] a problem is something I can do something about. If I can’t do anything about it, it is not my problem. It doesn’t become my problem until I can do something about it. If I can’t do anything about it, it’s my fact of life. And I have to constantly be able to recognize facts of life, accept them, live with them and not consider them problems. I can’t solve things that can’t be solved; therefore I don’t spend time thinking about them.9

Our “facts of life” are in the Shepherd’s hands. He manages those things. He expects us to focus our attention on the tasks he has given us to do. Therein we find our legitimate “problems.” When we try to carry both our problems and our facts of life, we increase the pressure and set ourselves up for debilitating stress.

Stress and Release: A Divine Rhythm

Work is not only a blessing from God, it is also a command. The first half of the fourth commandment says: “Six days you shall labor and do all your work” (Exodus 20:9). However, the second half of that commandment is a call to rest: “But the seventh day is a Sabbath to the Lord your God. On it you shall not do any work…” (Exodus 20:10). Rest is just as much a part of the creation ordinance as work. Anyone who thinks they do not need to take a sabbath rest thinks they’re better than Jesus. He rested every Sabbath, worshiping God in the synagogue (Luke 4:16). The God-man himself made the Sabbath a priority. He did not observe it in a legalistic sort of way, but he observed it nonetheless.

Rarely does God give us a reason behind his commands. But he does for the fourth command. He says we are to take a day off from our work because God himself did: “For in six days the Lord made the heavens and the earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but he rested on the seventh day. Therefore the Lord blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy” (Exodus 20:11). God could have accomplished all his work at once. It would not have taxed God to cram all six days’ worth of creation into one day. But God was establishing a pattern for people made in his image to follow – a rhythm of work and rest. God worked and when he found a good stopping point, he rested. He never burnt out. He never collapsed in a heap on the weekends.

The world seems to be increasingly stress-inducing. In order to manage that stress and channel it into a healthy lifestyle, we must take the offer of God’s sabbath rest seriously. We must reclaim the perspective that sees God as sovereign and in charge. We must take all our anxiety and cast it on him, because he cares for us more than we can imagine (1 Peter 5:7).

This is the pattern of Creation. Work and rest.
Stress and release. Sound and silence.
The string of the violin sings only if it is taut,
and yet it breaks if it is not loosened between songs.
In His own image, male and female, God created His people.
Let us share in His rest.
Thus we worship and glorify His Holy Name.10


1 Richard Swenson, Margin (Colorado Springs, CO: NavPress, 1995), p. 22.

2 LynNell Hancock, “Breaking Point” in Newsweek 6 March 1995: 56-61.

3 Rodney L. Cooper, Shoulder to Shoulder (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1997), pp. 41-42.

4 Oswald Chambers, My Utmost for His Highest (Uhrichsville, OH: Barbour & Co., Inc., 1963), from the January 24 reading.

5 Ibid., March 11.

6 Francis de Sales, Thy Will Be Done, trans. Henry Benedict Mackey (Manchester, NH: Sophia Institute Press, 1955), pp. 34-35.

7 Doug Sherman and William Hendricks, Your Work Matters to God (Colorado Springs, CO: NavPress, 1987), pp. 7, 77, 87.

8 Hans Selye, The Stress of Life (Columbus, OH: McGraw-Hill, 1978).

9 Fred Smith, “Dissecting Sense from Nonsense: Insights from a Layman,” Leadership Journal, Volume 1(1), Winter, 1980, p. 105.

10 Madeline L’Engle, “Sabbath,” Ladder of Angels (New York: HarperCollins Juvenile Books, Reissue 1988).

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Organization

In the winter of 1988, nuns of the Missionaries of Charity were walking through the snow in the South Bronx in their saris and sandals looking for an abandoned building that they might convert into a homeless shelter. Mother Theresa, the Nobel Prize winner and head of the order, had agreed on a plan with Mayor Ed Koch after visiting him in the hospital several years earlier.

The nuns found two fire-gutted buildings on 148th Street, and the city of New York offered the buildings to the mission at one dollar each. The Missionaries of Charity set aside $500,000 for reconstruction. The plan was to create a facility that would provide temporary care for 64 homeless men. The buildings would provide a communal setting that included a dining room and kitchen on the first floor, a lounge on the second floor and small dormitory rooms on the third and fourth floors. The members of the order, in addition to taking a vow of poverty, avoid the routine use of modern conveniences. As a result, the facility would have no dishwashers or other appliances, and laundry would be done by hand. For New York City, the proposed homeless facility was a godsend.

Then Mother Theresa’s Missionaries of Charity encountered the bureaucracy of New York City. For a year and a half, the nuns, wanting only to live lives of service, found themselves traveling from hearing room to hearing room, presenting the details of the project. In September 1989, the city finally approved the plan, and the Missionaries of Charity began repairing the fire-damaged buildings.

Then, after almost two years, the nuns were told that according to New York’s building code every new or renovated multi-story building must have an elevator. The Missionaries of Charity explained that because of their beliefs they would never use the elevator, which would add an additional $100,000 to the cost of the project. The nuns were told the law could not be waived even if the elevator would not be used.

Mother Theresa gave up. She could not, in good conscience, devote that much extra money to something that would not really help the poor. According to her representative, “The Sisters felt they could use the money much more usefully for soup and sandwiches.” In a polite letter to the city expressing their regrets, the Missionaries of Charity noted that the episode “served to educate us about the law and its many complexities.”

As Philip K. Howard observes, no person decided to spite Mother Theresa. It was just the law. Yet he argues that the story of the Missionaries of Charity in New York reflects how rules can replace thinking. The result is what Howard calls “the death of common sense.”1

Structure is crucial because it is structure that supports and facilitates the purposes and mission of an organization.2 We may think of structure functioning the way a skeleton serves a human body – it holds together and supports the working parts of the body in order to enable them to function as a body. But, as the story of Mother Theresa and the Missionaries of Charity illustrates, bureaucracy can become stifling and an organization’s mission can actually be hindered by its structure.

The Importance of Structure

Organizations are good. They gather multiple resources and focus them on a mutually desirable outcome. Well-fed organizations can accomplish far more than any individual can hope to accomplish alone. That’s the truth. But how many organizations are anything but organized? Some successful businesses are purposely keeping their operations very small. Some entrepreneurs even insist on working alone, because they feel that bigger is anything but better. Exodus 18:1-27 shows us that this doesn’t have to be the case.

Moses was overwhelmed by the problems of leading a large number of people. Looking at a map, after the people had crossed the Red Sea, it would have made more sense to travel north to the Promised Land, particularly considering Moses was leading a mass of people the size of a major American city. The best estimate is that nearly two million people came out of Egypt. They would soon need food and water, not just for themselves but for their livestock. But the cloud of God’s presence moved south (Exodus 13:17-22). As their leader, Moses had no recourse but to follow God’s leading.

So the people walked straight into the wilderness. Anyone tracking their movements may have thought this was irrational and irresponsible. But the writer of Hebrews makes it clear that the children of Israel were following God by faith (Hebrews 11:27-29).

Still, walking by faith doesn’t guarantee a shortcut to spiritual maturity. It wasn’t long before the people began complaining because the water was so bitter they couldn’t drink it (Exodus 15:22-24). Moses took the request to God, who provided a solution (v. 25). Then the people began to complain about the scarcity of food (16:1-3). Once again, God met their need, providing food them with manna from heaven. For the next 40 years, God would always provide manna – even though they were frequently disobedient (16:1-36).

The people then came to Rephidim, where there was no water at all. Rather than remember God’s provision at Marah, they “quarreled with Moses” (17:2) and complained to the point that they actually threatened to stone Moses. God once more responded to Moses’ cry for help by providing water from a rock (17:6).

Next, the Amalekites attacked, threatening to destroy the people. God delivered them from the Amalekites miraculously. As long as Aaron and Hur held up Moses’ hands, the children of Israel prevailed. Finally at sunset, “Joshua overcame the Amalekite army with the sword” (17:13).

Needless to say, things were a bit overwhelming for Moses. The school of leadership God had enrolled him in had a difficult and daunting sequence of coursework. Eventually, he led them back to the exact spot where God had first spoken to him from a burning bush: Mount Horeb – also called the “mountain of God” (3:1; 18:5). Here the people set up camp and settled down for a while. Here, also, Moses enjoyed a reunion with his wife, sons and father-in-law, Jethro (18:5-6).

The day after the reunion, Jethro watched Moses’ activity. All day long he watched Moses deal with the problems of the people. One after another they came to Moses seeking help and advice for dealing with personal, family and social problems (vv. 13-16). By the end of the day, Moses was exhausted, but many of the people were still frustrated, having stood in line all day without having a chance to ask Moses their questions.

Jethro said, “What you are doing is not good. You and these people who come to you will only wear yourselves out. The work is too heavy for you; you cannot handle it alone” (vv. 17-18). Then Jethro came up with an idea and invented what has become a thriving profession: he is history’s first recorded management consultant. He helped Moses to see that organization and structure are essential to effective operation. Not only is work accomplished more efficiently, but people are better served and supported in doing the work. Here is Jethro’s plan:

“Listen now to me and I will give you some advice, and may God be with you. You must be the people’s representative before God and bring their disputes to him. Teach them the decrees and laws, and show them the way to live and the duties they are to perform. But select capable men from all the people – men who fear God, trustworthy men who hate dishonest gain – and appoint them as officials over thousands, hundreds, fifties and tens.”

Exodus 18:19-21

Basically the plan had three facets. First, Moses should mediate between the people and God; that would be his primary role – to seek God’s will for the people (v. 19). Second, Moses would communicate God’s message to the people (v. 20). Finally, Moses would delegate responsibility to others who could solve the day-to-day problems (v. 21). Only the most serious problems would be brought to Moses for his wisdom and counsel. Jethro concluded, “If you do this and God so commands, you will be able to stand the strain, and all these people will go home satisfied” (v. 23).3

Moses discovered the importance of organizational structure when he was still a fledgling leader. The principle embodied here is that effective leaders create a structure that nurtures the health of those they lead. Moses did that by hand-picking potential leaders, training them and empowering them. Moses teaches us that key leaders can still maintain some control – when problems arose, he acted as a final arbiter. But through effective delegation a leader can multiply his or her effectiveness and better meet the needs of those who require personal attention.

It’s worth noting that the idea for the organizational structure didn’t come from Moses but from his father-in-law, Jethro. By this time, Moses had become a mature man of God, both psychologically and spiritually. Jethro, on the other hand, had just become a believer in Yahweh (vv. 8-12). Moses, being a humble man, did not allow pride to prevent him from accepting a good idea when he heard it. A strong leader is approachable and willing to allow others to tweak the structure of his or her organization, if doing so will strengthen it. No matter how mature we may think we are, we should remain open to advice from others – even unlikely people.

The God of Order

The cosmos is a universe, not a multiverse. The created order is replete with evidence of intelligent design, and even the simplest living system – let alone the human brain – is more complex and subtle than the most sophisticated computer yet devised. It should come as no surprise, then, that the God of the Bible uses structure and organization to accomplish his many purposes. Revelation 4:2-11 gives us a glimpse of God’s magnificent heavenly order:

At once I was in the Spirit, and there before me was a throne in heaven with someone sitting on it. And the one who sat there had the appearance of jasper and carnelian. A rainbow, resembling an emerald, encircled the throne. Surrounding the throne were twenty-four other thrones, and seated on them were twenty-four elders. They were dressed in white and had crowns of gold on their heads. From the throne came flashes of lightning, rumblings and peals of thunder. Before the throne, seven lamps were blazing. These are the seven spirits of God. Also before the throne there was what looked like a sea of glass, clear as crystal.

In the center, around the throne, were four living creatures, and they were covered with eyes, in front and in back. The first living creature was like a lion, the second was like an ox, the third had a face like a man, the fourth was like a flying eagle. Each of the four living creatures had six wings and was covered with eyes all around, even under his wings. Day and night they never stop saying:

    “Holy, holy, holy

    is the Lord God Almighty,

    who was, and is, and is to come.”

Whenever the living creatures give glory, honor and thanks to him who sits on the throne and who lives for ever and ever, the twenty-four elders fall down before him who sits on the throne, and worship him who lives for ever and ever. They lay their crowns before the throne and say:

    “You are worthy, our Lord and God,

    to receive glory and honor and power,

    for you created all things,

    and by your will they were created

    and have their being.”

John’s vision of the heavenly throne symbolically describes what is beyond human comprehension, but this passage furnishes us with a glimpse of the degree of symmetry and hierarchical order that surrounds the manifest presence of the eternal God. The encircling emerald-like rainbow, the seven spirits of God, the 24 elders, the four living creatures, the sea of glass, the solemn worship – all of these things speak of form, dignity, power and a harmoniously structured society.

Revelation 5:11-14 reinforces this impression with its description of the awesome throne and innumerable angelic host that encircles the throne and worships the Father and the Son:

Then I looked and heard the voice of many angels, numbering thousands upon thousands, and ten thousand times ten thousand. They encircled the throne and the living creatures and the elders. In a loud voice they sang:

    “Worthy is the Lamb, who was slain,

    to receive power and wealth and wisdom and strength

    and honor and glory and praise!”

Then I heard every creature in heaven and on earth and under the earth and on the sea, and all that is in them, singing:

    “To him who sits on the throne and to the Lamb

    be praise and honor and glory and power,

    for ever and ever!”

The four living creatures said, “Amen,” and the elders fell down and worshiped.

God’s penchant for structure, beauty and harmony is also suggested in Paul’s description of Christ as the creator and sustainer of all things:

For by him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things were created by him and for him. He is before all things, and in him all things hold together.

Colossians 1:16-17

Notice how the words thrones, powers, rulers and authorities are used in this passage to portray the angelic hierarchy (compare Ephesians 1:21; 3:10; 6:12). Christ integrates, orders and sustains all things; his power guarantees that the universe is under control and not chaotic. If he is in control, then the universe becomes a perfectly safe place for us to be.

Consider Genesis 1:1-2:3 from the standpoint of creation’s structure and organization. Notice how God’s creative activity overcame the formless and empty conditions of Genesis 1:2. God’s work always brings order out of chaos, thus bringing us, filled with awe and wonder, to a greater appreciation of his power and creativity. Luder Whitlock writes,

The creation of the universe not only attests to the supreme omnipotence of God, it also displays his creativity in all its glory, for God is the author of beauty as well as truth. In traveling the world, you cannot escape being struck by its natural beauty. We sing of purple mountains’ majesty profiled against the beautiful blue spacious skies that stretch from sea to shining sea. We capture its essence in other ways as well: the gurgle of the cold, frothy, mountain brook; the dramatic burst of yellow forsythia emerging from the drab bleakness of winter; the translucent beauty of a rainbow perched in the sky; the magnificent grandeur of a colossal waterfall; or the winter wonderland created by a fresh snowfall. Add to that the graceful glide of a deer through dappled woods, the proud strut of a prairie partridge, or the cute antics of a playful, young puppy. Then close your eyes and listen to the rhythmic pounding of the surf or the whisper of the wind in the palms. What a magnificent creation – the work of the quintessential artist!4

The God of infinite variety and bold creativity is also a God of order. He brings light into darkness and structure out of confusion. This is not only true of the cosmos; it is true of a human life. The chaos of our life is transmuted into the order of God’s beauty as we allow him to reign and rule in our lives, submitting to his tutelage.

Structure in the Church

Just as God turns chaos into form, structure and resplendent beauty, so he calls upon those who have been created in his image to order and shape their own inner and outer worlds. Through discipline and skill we can bring greater structure and harmony into our personal and social environments.

Paul gives us a valuable glimpse into the public worship of the first-century churches in 1 Corinthians 14. This chapter stresses that order, structure, form, unity, like-mindedness and mutual regard should prevail in the midst of diversity when believers gather together. “Everything should be done in a fitting and orderly way” (v. 40) since “God is not a God of disorder but of peace” (v. 33).

This is not to suggest that unity implies uniformity or that order squelches spontaneity. As Lyle Vander Broek points out:

Peace, used in this context, refers to diverse elements working in harmony. Paul’s obvious intent in this section is to make a statement about the importance of order in worship…, but diversity is not sacrificed to that order…. Those of us who insist that all things in the church be done “decently and in order” need to be reminded that order is defined by the Spirit’s control of us, not our control of the Spirit.5

Although it must not become an obsession, order is vital for a church’s health. Still, organization must serve the organism, not strangle it. Even the early house churches observed a pattern for worship, but it was one that encouraged each member of the body of believers to use their individual spiritual gifts in the most mutually edifying manner. Included in the early church order was a clear structure of leadership and a set of apostolic guidelines to prevent disorder and confusion in the assemblies of believers and to encourage a high level of involvement. This is why the apostle Paul instructed his associates Timothy and Titus concerning worship, leadership, organization and administration of the churches, as well as teaching them how to deal with the various groups within the assemblies.

Structure and Adaptation

Organizations are important; they help us to achieve some of the most important outcomes by structuring multiple resources around a common task. But at times the very organization that is created to serve becomes an obstacle to the organization’s purpose. Numbers 11:10-17 illustrates how structure should serve rather than dominate an enterprise:

Moses heard the people of every family wailing, each at the entrance to his tent. The Lord became exceedingly angry, and Moses was troubled. He asked the Lord, “Why have you brought this trouble on your servant? What have I done to displease you that you put the burden of all these people on me? Did I conceive all these people? Did I give them birth? Why do you tell me to carry them in my arms, as a nurse carries an infant…? Where can I get meat for all these people? They keep wailing to me, ‘Give us meat to eat!’ I cannot carry all these people by myself; the burden is too heavy for me. If this is how you are going to treat me, put me to death right now – if I have found favor in your eyes – and do not let me face my own ruin.”

The Lord said to Moses: “Bring me seventy of Israel’s elders who are known to you as leaders and officials among the people. Have them come to the Tent of Meeting, that they may stand there with you. I will come down and speak with you there, and I will take of the Spirit that is on you and put the Spirit on them. They will help you carry the burden of the people so that you will not have to carry it alone.”

Structure addresses the methods by which resources flow through the organization to accomplish work. The Bible addresses structure in relation to Israel’s governance, the Levitical priesthood and order in the church, the home and the workplace. According to Scripture, God has instituted authority structures in the spheres of marriage, parenting, the church and the state. While sinful self-centeredness has led to frequent abuse of authority within these spheres, these structures have proven necessary to stem the tide of anarchy and lawlessness that would otherwise prevail in a society of fallen people. But apart from guidelines as to how the priests must relate to each other and to their work, the Bible’s instructions about organization are intentionally non-specific, leaving room for freedom and adaptation.

Even when Paul wrote to churches or pastors, he didn’t spell out in detail how the church should be structured. That is why the church has, over the years and across different cultures, adapted to fit the specific circumstances in which it finds itself. That’s why, as a church grows, and its needs become more complex, the structure can adjust. A church can grow from 20 people to 2,000, and when the organizational structure no longer works, it can (and should) change. This pattern is healthy for any enterprise. Structure exists to enable resources of power and information to flow through an organization. Organizational structure is not sacred or set in concrete. If it doesn’t work anymore, it should be changed.

Even though the Bible doesn’t necessarily address specifics, it does address the manner in which people within the structure are to relate to each other. Leaders are to love and serve their followers; in turn, followers are to love one another and follow their leaders. The leader’s specific place on a chart is not nearly as important as the relationship that exists between that leader and those he or she is commissioned to lead.

When Moses couldn’t handle all of the responsibilities of leading Israel, God told him to enlist 70 qualified persons, empower them and allow them to help to carry the burden. No organizational charts, no “Who reports to whom?” questions. God perceived that Moses was overwhelmed and the people under-served. So he simply designed a system to enable people to be heard and legitimate power to be available to ensure that their concerns could be addressed. It wasn’t about “Who’s the boss?” It was about, “Who’s going to serve these people so they can get on with their lives?” So simple…yet so profound.

Structuring For Mission

What kind of structure does an organization require in order to function effectively? Scripture doesn’t provide us with any rock-solid systems for organizational structure. Why? Because no such structures exist. Organizational structure is designed to channel resources to meet the task and mission of the organization. As such, it must change as resources and tasks ebb and flow. Moses discovered that getting the people out of Egypt required one kind of leadership; leading through the wilderness for 40 years required a completely different kind of leadership structure. Standing on the edge of the Promised Land, he sees that his decision to accept his father-in-law’s advice was a wise plan:

At that time I said to you, “You are too heavy a burden for me to carry alone. The Lord your God has increased your numbers so that today you are as many as the stars in the sky. May the Lord, the God of your fathers, increase you a thousand times and bless you as he has promised! But how can I bear your problems and your burdens and your disputes all by myself? Choose some wise, understanding and respected men from each of your tribes, and I will set them over you.”

You answered me, “What you propose to do is good.”

So I took the leading men of your tribes, wise and respected men, and appointed them to have authority over you – as commanders of thousands, of hundreds, of fifties and of tens and as tribal officials. And I charged your judges at that time: Hear the disputes between your brothers and judge fairly, whether the case is between brother Israelites or between one of them and an alien. Do not show partiality in judging; hear both small and great alike. Do not be afraid of any man, for judgment belongs to God. Bring me any case too hard for you, and I will hear it. And at that time I told you everything you were to do.

Deuteronomy 1:9-18

When the work overwhelmed Moses, God (through Jethro) encouraged him to create an organizational structure. But in Israel, as in the church and any other enterprise, the structure exists for one purpose: to channel resources toward accomplishing the organization’s mission.

Kennon Callahan offers “Five Criteria for Structures for Mission.”6 Callahan writes about churches structuring themselves for mission. But his ideas can be helpful for any organization. His criteria for building an organizational structure that promotes mission endeavors are paraphrased below:

    1. Structures are relative, not absolute. In all spheres of life, we discover and seize upon one particular way of ordering and structuring our work and life. One way works for a time. Then it becomes dysfunctional. A new structure is invented to take its place.

    2. Structures are dynamic and flexible, not historified; they are not fixated in relation to a point in history. At their best, structures grow and develop.

    3. Structures are local, not hierarchical. Callahan believes that a church needs the freedom to structure for its local situation instead of adopting a hierarchical structure that works somewhere else. That “means creating church structures that maximize both the power of the local participants and their fullest human potential.”

    4. Structures for mission are connected, not centralized. “Local” does not mean isolationist. We do not live in a vacuum. Local “hands-on” mission most frequently leads to world mission.

    5. Structures are missional, not institutional. Although this distinction appears self-evident, many organizational structures are devoted primarily to the institution.

Structure can either serve the group or bring it to a standstill. It can energize a business or lead it toward ever deeper levels of discouragement. It can enable men and women to use their gifts and abilities for the overall goal of the community or tie the hands and frustrate the most dedicated efforts of those people.

If not carefully examined, structure can become an end unto itself. Rather than the structure serving the organization, the organization begins to serve the structure. “How things are done,” writes Philip Howard, “has become far more important than what is done…. Process now has become an end in itself.”7

As an example, Howard cites the repair of the Carroll Street Bridge in Brooklyn, New York. Built in 1889, it was the nation’s first retractable bridge. By the mid-1980’s, it was in such disrepair that it could not carry traffic. In 1988 the city budgeted $3.5 million for an overhaul. Due to various procedures and policies, it was determined that bidding would take two years followed by five years for the work itself. But with the bridge’s 100th anniversary coming up, Sam Schwartz, the deputy commissioner responsible for bridges, called in his chief engineer and asked him to draw up a repair plan, ignoring the contracting procedures. He also asked him to throw in architectural decoration, which was not part of the original repair plan.

Schwartz got the money; he got the contracts, and only 11 months later at a cost of only $2.5 million, the bridge was fixed up in time for its centennial birthday. As a reward for completing the job in one-seventh of the time and at 70% of the budget, Deputy Commissioner Schwartz received an official reprimand.8 As Howard observes, “The procedures Schwartz ignored – over 35 steps, involving six agencies and generally taking at least two years before any work can begin – exist to ensure complete neutrality and to protect against fraud. The fact that Schwartz was willing to stand up and take responsibility (and saved the city an estimated $1 million) was irrelevant. The ritual had been violated.”9

Clearly, God is a God of structure and organization – one look around the cosmos demonstrates that. As men and women created in his image, we are also people of structure and organization. However, we do not share God’s immutability. Only he is unchanging. His plans never fail, but ours do and need to be changed from time to time. Structure is good insofar as it enables us to meet the goals and objectives of our mission. Once that is no longer the case, we must call upon the living and powerful God who acts among and through his people to give us new structures and a sense of resourcefulness equal to the challenges before us and worthy of the mission entrusted to us.


1 The story of Mother Theresa was adapted from Philip K. Howard, The Death of Common Sense: How Law Is Suffocating America (New York: Random House, 1994), 3-4.

2 On the importance and relevance of church structure see Bobb Biehl, Masterplanning: The Complete Guide for Building a Strategic Plan for Your Business, Church or Organization (Nashville: Broadman & Holman, 1997).

3 This summary of Jethro’s plan is adapted from Gene A Getz, Moses (Nashville: Broadman & Holman, 1997), pp. 93-103.

4 Luder G. Whitlock, Jr., The Spiritual Quest (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2000), p. 143.

5 Lyle D. Vander Broek, Breaking Barriers (Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2002), pp. 142, 150.

6 The following material is adapted from Kennon Callahan, Effective Church Leadership (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1990).

7 Howard, The Death of Common Sense, p. 60.

8 Ibid., 64-65.

9 Ibid., 65.

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Systems Thinking

According to a popular story, a great orchestra had gathered to rehearse with the celebrated conductor Sir Michael Costa. As the music reached a crescendo, every instrument was being played – except for one. Distracted, the piccolo player had momentarily lost his place on the page of music. He hoped his instrument wouldn’t be missed. Suddenly, Costa brought down his arm and silenced the orchestra. “Where’s the piccolo?” he inquired. To a skilled conductor, and a skilled leader, every part of the system is crucial – even those that may seem less important.

Many Parts; One Body

This is the point being made by the apostle Paul in 1 Corinthians 12,

The body is a unit, though it is made up of many parts; and though all its parts are many, they form one body. So it is with Christ. For we were all baptized by one Spirit into one body…and we were all given the one Spirit to drink.

Now the body is not made up of one part but of many. If the foot should say, “Because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body,” it would not for that reason cease to be part of the body. And if the ear should say, “Because I am not an eye, I do not belong to the body,” it would not for that reason cease to be part of the body. If the whole body were an eye, where would the sense of hearing be? If the whole body were an ear, where would the sense of smell be?

1 Corinthians 12:12-17

Paul observed that, even though Christ’s body is comprised of many members, it is, like the human body, still one body. And even though that body encompasses great diversity, every member is equally a part.

Paul’s point has nothing to do with human anatomy. In fact, the Greek word Paul uses here for “body” is soma, which reflects a wide range of meaning. Throughout Paul’s writings, this word refers to the complete person, a being in totality, man as a whole. He isn’t referring to our shell, our earth-suit; he’s referring to our identity. German theologian Rudolf Bultmann would go so far as to say, “Man does not have a soma; he is soma.”1

Paul wanted to ensure that every follower of Christ will feel important, will be assured that his or her contribution is crucial.

But in fact God has arranged the parts of the body, every one of them, just as he wanted them to be. If they were all one part, where would the body be? As it is, there are many parts, but one body.

The eye cannot say to the hand, “I don’t need you!” And the head cannot say to the feet, “I don’t need you!” On the contrary, those parts of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable, and the parts that we think are less honorable we treat with special honor. And the parts that are unpresentable are treated with special modesty, while our presentable parts need no special treatment. But God has combined the members of the body and has given greater honor to the parts that lacked it, so that there should be no division in the body, but that its parts should have equal concern for each other. If one part suffers, every part suffers with it; if one part is honored, every part rejoices with it.

Now you are the body of Christ, and each one of you is a part of it.

1 Corinthians 12:18-27

No one has the right to act as though he or she is separate from the body. Nor may the members of Christ’s body envy one another. The church is an organism, bound together in a synergistic fashion. The various parts of the body work together, in a coherent manner, to such a degree that there is no way of differentiating between the larger whole and the smaller parts. The total is greater than the sum of the parts.

While we may wish that we (or others) were different, the bottom line is that God created each of us just as he wanted us to be (v. 18) and calls upon each of us to faithfully serve according to our unique calling. We are part of something that’s bigger than us. That should give us a sense of real significance. We’re not alone; rather, we’re part of an organic entity of human beings, part of a heavenly family that will never die. We are not called the persons of God; we are called the people of God. None of us suffers or rejoices without it having an impact on the rest of us. As Gilbert Bilezikian writes, “The ultimate purpose for individual piety is to enrich the life of the community and to bring biblical ‘fullness’ to it…. Authentic redemption moves from personal salvation to inclusive fullness in community and in corporate ministry.”2 As leaders, we’re to view every member of our team as a crucial part of the system, to help each individual to discover his or her role and play it.

Also, leaders must work diligently to achieve and maintain a proper sense of balance. For instance, some churches emphasize truth more than love, while others focus so much on love that they begin to compromise the truth. However, Paul tells us in Ephesians 4:15 to speak “the truth in love,” maintaining the balance of both. By doing so, he says, “we will in all things grow up into him who is the Head, that is, Christ.” Balance is a key component to systemic maturity. He completes his thought by saying, “From him the whole body, joined and held together by every supporting ligament, grows and builds itself up in love, as each part does its work.”

God has given every Christian a combination of gifts and opportunities that is uniquely suited to his or her situation in life. Every believer is a minister with a special contribution to make to the body of Christ. The central focus of our ministries will depend on the spiritual gifts we have received. Thus the discovery, cultivation and employment of the gifts of the Spirit is a necessary and worthwhile activity. However, the spiritual gifts are a means to an end. We should never forget this. The end is maturity. Gene Getz reminds us where our focus ought to be when he writes, “[T]he Bible does not emphasize looking for gifts; rather, it underscores the importance of becoming mature in Christ…. When we [as leaders] stress what God stresses, we eliminate confusion and create unity in the Body of Jesus Christ.”3

Balancing love with truth, balancing gifts with maturity and balancing work with a total reliance upon Christ – these are difficult but necessary concepts for Christian leaders to struggle with if they are to ensure the overall health of their group. This requires the ability to think about system-wide ramifications of any decision, large or small. When you change the whole, every part is affected; when you change any part, the whole is affected.

Christ is Lord of the System

Effective leaders have discovered that tasks are best accomplished and goals best achieved by organizing and implementing systems. In doing so, we are really imitating God, who has a passion for order and harmony. Paul tells us in Colossians 1:15-20 that the whole of creation is a system that is ordered and sustained by Christ:

[Christ] is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation. For by him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things were created by him and for him. He is before all things, and in him all things hold together. And he is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning and the firstborn from among the dead, so that in everything he might have the supremacy. For God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross.

This passage beautifully extols the sufficiency and supremacy of Jesus Christ and reveals his total dominion over the created order. He is both the Savior of all believers and the Creator of the cosmos. Notice that his creation extends from the heavens to the earth and includes both the visible and the invisible. The unseen hierarchy of angelic beings includes thrones, powers, rulers and authorities (see also Colossians 2:10, 15; Ephesians 6:12). John Milton in his Paradise Lost adopted a traditional sevenfold ranking of angels, archangels, principalities, powers, virtues, dominions and thrones. While Scripture is not this specific, it certainly reveals that the angelic host is systematically ordered and ruled under the lordship of Christ.

Christ is “the head of the body, the church” (v. 18). This body metaphor portrays the church as an interconnected organism that works as an organized system of distinct and unique parts whose origin and unity is in Christ. Randall Harris and Rubel Shelly refer to the church as “the second incarnation.” In their book by that title, they state, “Just as the invisible God made himself visible and tangible in Jesus Christ, so the now-invisible Christ is making himself visible and tangible to the world through his church.”4

Christ not only rules all created things, but he also sustains them – “in him all things hold together” (v. 17). God loves order, and he designs intricate physical and spiritual systems that display his creativity and fulfill his purposes. Consider any plant or animal as a complex organism consisting of numerous interrelated systems. Then consider that these organisms themselves are parts of larger and highly-ordered ecological systems.

Or think of this: Light travels at the speed of 186,000 miles per second. Since the sun is 93 million miles away from the earth, the light of the sun takes eight minutes to reach our planet. Yet, in comparison, light from the star Betelgeuse in the constellation Orion takes 520 years to reach us!5 On October 31, 1517, Martin Luther nailed his 95 theses to the door of Castle Church in Wittenberg. The light that left Betelgeuse that day has not yet reached us, but it is on its way, hurtling through the universe at 186,000 miles per second. Bear in mind that the diameter of Betelgeuse is twice that of the earth’s orbit around the sun; in fact, the diameter is estimated to be about 400 million miles (it is in constant flux). Yet, this is only one star among about two hundred billion others in our own Milky Way galaxy; the universe with over one hundred billion galaxies, is thought to be over 13 billion light-years in diameter.6

Christ created and sustains this entire system to this day. Nature points beyond itself to the mind of its Creator. As Greg Johnson says,

[W]hen we study God’s world, we aren’t just studying what God did ages ago at creation, we’re hearing him speak to us right now. God is sovereign, and the universe continues to pulse with life by his sustaining power, not its own. To study the workings of the cosmos is to study the one making it work moment by moment. When you investigate how birds feed themselves, to use Jesus’ example, you’re really investigating how God is feeding the birds (Mt 6:26). When you examine the genetics behind the colors of lilies, you’re really examining how God is dressing each flower (Mt 6:28-29). Science, like theology, is the study of what God is doing in creation.7

God is always thinking about the system he governs. As his stewards of this planet, we are called to develop that same skill. In fact, when God assigns Adam the task of naming the animals in Genesis 2:19-20, he is calling Adam to learn from the created world, to understand it. God establishes some of the basic categories for Adam’s understanding (“Adam, these are animals”), but then he calls Adam to develop categories of his own (“Adam, what should we call that animal?”). If God is a systems thinker, in what ways can you, having been created in his image and likeness, develop this same skill?

The Vineyard