Life’s toughest lesson

“…but [Jesus Christ] made himself nothing, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, He humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on Him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth…” (Philippians 2:7-10). 

by Carlos Lange

Many Christians are born with a talent for leadership. They soon realize, still in their youth, they enjoy taking initiatives and leading a group. They come up with ideas and plans of action and don’t shy away from “pitching” them to their peers. They notice the group often accepts their leadership, either through formal election to a leadership position or simply by following their suggestions and supporting their ideas. These leaders are eager to serve God with their talent, but there is one lesson they need to learn to better answer their call: the toughest lesson of all—humility.

Simply having talent is not enough. Any activity, professional or not, from the sciences to the arts, including leadership in the church or in the world, requires specific training to go along with talent. Pastors receive training during their years at seminary. Congregations and districts organize training for other church leaders at seminars. Leadership is also a popular topic for books. Usually, these seminars and books focus on a deeper understanding of Scripture, on a more intense communion with God, and on the characteristics of a good leader.

If we examine the leaders in the Bible, God often tells us how they too received training. For example, Moses studied in the most advanced university of ancient times—the royal house of Egypt. Joshua learned from Moses, and Elisha learned from Elijah. David learned to trust God at home as the great-grandson of Ruth and Boaz. But his leadership training came in the armies of Saul, Israel’s first regular army. Peter learned from the Teacher of teachers, whereas Paul first sat at the feet of Gamaliel, then later Jesus Himself. While the Bible doesn’t record any formal training for others, such as Abraham and Jacob, they enjoyed a personal relationship with God and were head of their families and of a large number of servants. In short, even the great leaders of God’s people required years of training to perform their role.

Even the great leaders of God’s people required years of training to perform their role.

Despite all this training, leaders are afflicted with a specific temptation and the enemy of God knows how to exploit it. Abraham could not stand idle, simply waiting for God to fulfil His promise. He tried to “lend God a hand” with the help of Sarah’s servant.

At seventeen, Joseph was still too young to lead his older brothers, but he showed plenty of arrogance in taunting his brothers and boasting of his dreams that foretold his future position of authority. He was such a nag his brothers did not tolerate him and tried to get rid of him.

The disciple Simon Peter had a long list of failed impulsive actions, from harmless ideas, such as setting up camp at the mount of transfiguration, to trying to dissuade Jesus from the plan of salvation, or trying to defend him with a sword at the Mount of Olives.

Of all these examples, Moses is perhaps the easiest to follow. He graduated from the best university in the world of his time and trained at the house of Pharaoh specifically to become a leader. At 40 he was at a mature age, but not too old, and from a human perspective, he had learned everything there was to learn to become a perfect leader, speaking and acting with recognized authority. He considered himself so ready he could not understand why God was not setting in motion His plan of deliverance. After all, Moses saw the suffering of an enslaved people, felt compassion for them, and was anxious to take on his role as leader of the people of God.

Moses also tried to “lend God a hand” by attacking an Egyptian oppressor and hoping to lead a rebellion. But his attempt backfired. What was missing? Why did God not consider Moses ready for his mission?  There was still a final lesson Moses had to learn—the toughest lesson.

Moses, perhaps the greatest leader of all time, took 40 years to learn a single lesson: humility before God. When he was finally ready, he looked very different to human eyes. He was a shadow of the once self-confident and proud leader. God, however, considered him finally ready to take on His task. And Moses served God faithfully for another 40 years, only vacillating once, which cost him his entrance into Canaan.

This pattern seems common among the leaders of God’s people; they need a long time to learn humility. Abraham only received the son of the promise when he was 100 years old after exhausting all rational hope of conceiving through natural means. Joseph endured many years in jail undeservedly until he had learned true humility. And he learned it so well he did not abuse his powerful position when he finally had opportunity to seek vengeance against his brothers. There was no trace of the arrogance from his youth when he embraced his brothers and cried loudly while he revealed himself as the second most powerful man of his time.

As with Moses, it took 40 years to teach humility to the nation of Israel (Deut. 8:2), whom the Lord had chosen to lead all who worshipped Him from all nations at that time. During these 40 years Joshua also learned to be humble so he could succeed Moses.

In other cases God thought it better to apply a continuous treatment against pride. For example, David had a life filled with battles and conflicts which caused him much anxiety, as we see in his Psalms, and prevented his soul from becoming exalted, despite his many conquests.

Elijah did not have even a small break to enjoy his tremendous victory over the prophets of Baal, but fled for his life seeking refuge in Mount Sinai. He continued living under constant threats on his life, something common among all prophets of God. If we look in the New Testament, we see our Lord rebuking Peter several times for his impulsive actions, but his denial of Christ finally taught him humility and dependence on God’s grace. No previous misstep had moved him from his assumed leadership among the disciples—always first to take action. Peter’s denial, however, so broke his spirit that Jesus had to repeat His call three times to reassure him. On the other hand, Paul lived with a permanent “thorn in the flesh” to curb his pride and strengthen his reliance on God’s grace. These examples help us understand what Jesus means in Mathew 18: whoever humbles himself like a child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.

Why does it take so long and why is it so hard for a leader to learn humility? Leaders are often obstinate and derided as a “know-it-all.” However, they soon realize this ability to make decisions and to point out directions when others feel uncertain and disoriented makes people follow them. While followers may have conflicting opinions or no opinion at all, the leader is expected always to have a clear position whether he or she is democratic or autocratic. In addition, in any situation there will always be divergent opinions and leaders will often be accused and ridiculed by those who disagree with them. After a while the leader becomes used to this because part of leadership requires making unpopular decisions when proper and necessary. The leader usually believes she will be vindicated in the future and hopes all followers, even those who now disagree, will one day be thankful.

Why does it take so long and why is it so hard for a leader to learn humility?

Unfortunately this stubbornness, which leaders prefer to call “inner strength” and zeal, is sometimes abused when it leads to the arrogant belief that one knows better and there is no need for advice or admonition. This attitude is always inappropriate when it goes against the clear will and instruction of the Lord, as happened when Moses struck the rock in Meribah. While humility can curb such obviously misplaced pride, its true benefit is revealed in situations that are not obvious violations of God’s will. Without humility, Moses may not have listened to the advice of his father-in-law and may not have delegated his role as judge to officers from among the people. More strikingly, only  a humble leader would know how to respond correctly when hearing God venting His righteous frustration, threatening to destroy all followers and making a new nation out of the leader’s descendants (Num. 14:15). Out of humility Moses fulfilled his duty as prophet and pleaded with God for the people.

If it took great heroes of faith many years to learn humility before God, what chance has a leader today? Leaders have the promise that God will teach them and guide them in the right path (Ps 25:12, Ps 32:8). Because of this promise, they can approach God for wisdom and direction with confidence that He will answer because it pleases Him (Jas 4:3). Sadly, while God is faithful, we often are not, and miss out on God’s blessings for lack of asking (Jas 4:2). It is precisely because leadership and humility appear incongruent that we will not find many leaders who kneel and pray to become more humble. From their point of view they would be better leaders if they just had more wisdom to make the right decision at the right moment. Their plan would succeed if they could persuade the others that it is vital and will work. Leaders feel compelled to pray for these gifts and for perseverance, courage, strength of will and of character, faith, intelligence, health and similar things. Note that all items in this list are considered positive attributes and they are usually associated with winners. In contrast, humility tends to be considered a negative attribute and, along with uncertainty, weakness of spirit, fragility, and sensibility, it tends to be associated with losers. After his failed attempt to lead a Hebrew uprising, Moses must have reflected about the causes that prevented his plan from succeeding. We can speculate about what may have crossed his mind, but he almost certainly did not think: if I had only been more humble, God could have used me to lead the people.

In my youth I attended several leadership workshops and I read several books on the subject. None, however, included humility as a topic. Some addressed the need for compassion, others lectured about God being strong when we are weak, but this weakness was usually seen as a limitation of the leader’s ability. Perhaps one can’t learn humility in a seminar or from a book but only in practice and over a long period of time.

Fortunately, to the leaders God calls He makes a promise, hidden behind the threatening tone of the verse in Psalm 32: “if you are stubborn like a horse or a mule, I will be forced to lead you by bit and bridle on the right path.” For a long time, I saw this verse as a threat that follows a promise as we often find in the Psalms (cf. Ps 18:27). Now, in this verse I recognize a promise from a God who loves us like a father and cares about us. Even if leaders fail to seek God’s guidance or fail to ask for what they really need, such as humility, God will not let them go astray. The process may be lengthy and painful, but for the faithful leader it is comforting to know God will discipline if necessary (Dt 8:5; Pr 13:24), to guide leaders to the right path.

Like Paul, leaders struggle with the conflict between the flesh and the spirit (Rom. 7). Even though leaders may know the theory and teaching about humility, they find in their sinful nature a resistance to being humble. But zeal for God’s plan and will makes Christian leaders accept the Father’s discipline—painful as it may be—to help learn the toughest lesson: humility.

“Wisdom’s instruction is to fear the LORD, and humility comes before honour” (Prov.15:33).


Carlos Lange, PhD, PEng, is an associate professor in the Department of Mechanical Engineering at the University of Alberta. He is a member of Riverbend Lutheran Church in Edmonton. This article was originally published in Portuguese by the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Brazil.


Posted By: Matthew Block
Posted On: December 12, 2011
Posted In: Feature Stories, Headline,

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