June 2015


Having examined the defensive positioning and offensive weaponry of our warfare in previous blog posts, I want to return to my main point. How do we as leaders respond to these attacks, these schemes, these tactics? What does wartime leadership look like, when others are depending on us and looking to our lead? How can we assist our followers and our organizations in fighting back appropriately?

I think it’s appropriate to look at Nehemiah as a case study. The first half of the book of Nehemiah lays out the man’s extensive work to rebuild a wall to protect a city long-term, while at the same time using his builders as armed guards to keep watch against local enemies. The attack never came. Nehemiah was successful, and through his visionary servant leadership, the wall was completed in 52 days.

But as I read through the book recently, it struck me that the attack did come. It wasn’t one large military force coming at the gates or besieging the walls; it was a thousand darts that came from unexpected places. This is my partial list:

This list is much more devastating and effective than sticks and stones. It’s amazing how fear of shame, derision and jeering can keep the mightiest leader firmly in his chair. Nehemiah could have held onto his position in Persia and considered himself there “for such a time as this.” But his calling was different than Esther’s. By challenging the status quo and stepping up to lead the change himself, Nehemiah put his own reputation on the line. He risked not only his position and his safety from outside attack; he risked internal attack if his followers gave way. For an interesting parallel, consider what Moses put up with as he led over a million men, women and children through the wilderness.

So how did Nehemiah circumvent, undermine and defy the attacks of his enemies? We can learn an awful lot from his example. Here are a few key lessons.

1. God awareness
Nehemiah was constantly aware of God’s role in his success. When the king granted his request, he knew it was the result of prayer, because “the good hand of my God was upon me” (2:8). When it came time for Nehemiah to get everyone on board his vision to rebuild the walls, his punch line was his testimony: “I told them of the hand of my God that had been upon me for good, and also of the words that the king had spoken to me” (2:18). They were convinced. Of course, when the wall was finished in a remarkable 52 days, he claimed no credit. Instead, Nehemiah said it was obvious even to their enemies “that this work had been accomplished with the help of our God” (6:16).

Nehemiah constantly pointed his followers back to the Lord, inspiring them with God’s greatness (4:14), encouraging them that God would fight for them (4:20), challenging them with the fear of God (5:9), and decisively dealing with sin as treachery against God (13:27). It seems clear that the courage he consistently demonstrated came from his constant awareness of God’s presence and a sense that he would be held accountable as a leader. That same courage is available to us. It starts with the same awareness.

2. Never get undressed
In the busiest, most stressful part of the project, the threat of attack imminent, Nehemiah decreed that everyone must stay in Jerusalem for the night as a guard for the city. Then he noted that they kept their weapons within reach, and “none of us took off our clothes” (4:23). If you haven’t had time to read my last blog post on the right clothing, now’s a good time to read that. When we realize that we are at war, we don’t ever let our guard down. We continue to protect ourselves and our families with truth, righteousness, readiness through the gospel of peace, faith, salvation and the Word of God. We don’t ever take off compassion, kindness, meekness, patience, forgiveness and love.

Have you seen the scene in Saving Private Ryan where, in the thick of battle, a bullet clangs off a soldier’s helmet? He takes off his helmet to marvel at the dent, only to fall to another shot? If we take off our armor even for a moment, we are incredibly vulnerable.

3. Practice prayer rhythms
Nehemiah’s prayer life certainly included prayer and fasting marathons during times of waiting (ch 1), but his day-to-day management was stabilized by a prayer reflex that helped him handle difficult situations:

  • When he was almost paralyzed by fear before the king, he sent up a quick prayer to God (2:4).
  • He took out on God his rage at his enemies, rather than letting the people see it (4:4-5).
  • When he heard of new plots, his response was twofold: prayer and setting a guard (4:9).
  • His sentence prayer at the end of chapter 5 suggests that his generosity in sharing his table wasn’t without personal cost of some kind.
  • When he exposed plots against himself, he took strength from the Lord (6:9) and trusted God to pay his enemies back (6:14).
  • I believe it was this rhythm of prayer that allowed him to see and understand the plot against him in 6:10-13. Discernment comes from time spent with the Lord.

It’s in that communing, that constant awareness of the Lord that you learn to hear His voice for encouragement, wisdom and venting.

4. Face the problems head-on
Sitcoms have overdone a common storyline: someone who needs to have a difficult conversation, but they constantly avoid it and choose the easy path until the problem blows up to comic proportions. I find those storylines incredibly frustrating. Leadership is about tackling the tough issues head-on. That’s what Nehemiah did in chapter 5 when class warfare raised its ugly head. When he discovered the rich were making profit out of the desperation of the poor, Nehemiah wasted no time bringing this exploitation to light and challenging the rich (5:6-7). By using his own example, deliberately choosing not to assert his rights, he managed to do it in a way that brought them on board, to the point that they closed the matter with a worship service together!

In chapter 13, he took on another problem with similar forthrightness, but with a different approach. This time he evicted a resident of the temple, confronted officials, warned and threatened merchants, and then cursed, beat and pulled out the hair of Jews who knowingly committed sin. There’s a progression of increasing anger, frustration and violence, punctuated by frequent prayers for God to remember him for these deeds. His constant refrain reveals his motives: the fear of God trumped fear of people.

As Jesus said, “And do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell” (Matt 10:28). Ultimately, Nehemiah had one audience, and he never let the fear of man hold him back from what he needed to do. As David put it, “In God I trust; I shall not be afraid. What can man do to me?” (Ps 56:11)

Here’s the bottom line: anyone doing “a great work” (6:3) is going to face attack, and we can learn a lot from the way Nehemiah approached his mission. If you’re in the middle of a swarm of fiery darts, don’t give up. It’s not about you; it’s about God from start to finish.

For it is God who is at work within you, giving you the will and the power to achieve his purpose. (Phil 2:13)

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In my last post, I named four strategies we can deploy as wartime leaders. There’s one more.

5. Wear the right clothing
When you heard “clothing,” many of you immediately jumped to Ephesians 6:10-20, which unpacks the armor of our warfare as believers, the outerwear believers are exhorted to put on before standing “against the schemes of the devil.”

The remarkable thing about that list of armor is that almost every piece can be used ineffectively. We’ve all seen Christians wildly swinging their swords and using Scripture in a way that causes “friendly fire.” We’ve seen people use truth as a hammer instead of a belt. Others put on the breastplate of self righteousness, hide behind their shields of faith or misunderstand their helmet of salvation. Confident in the fact that their own eternal salvation is secure, their helmet narrows their vision, makes them hard-headed or prevents them from asking if salvation has relevance to this life.

How can we Christians misuse our armor this way? Because we go out to war commando-style. We forget to put on our underwear.

Before we grab our armor, shield and sword, Paul recommends some additional clothing in Colossians, some traits that we should put on first. Think of these as the Under Armor of the believer (with apologies to the company, I think the idea translates pretty well).

I think Eugene Peterson’s rendering captures the essence of these verses:

So, chosen by God for this new life of love, dress in the wardrobe God picked out for you: compassion, kindness, humility, quiet strength, discipline. Be even-tempered, content with second place, quick to forgive an offense. Forgive as quickly and completely as the Master forgave you. And regardless of what else you put on, wear love. It’s your basic, all-purpose garment. Never be without it. (‭Colossians‬ ‭3‬:‭12-14‬)

Be honest: we think of compassion, humility and love as “soft skills” for peaceful, “kumbaya” community. This list of clothing doesn’t read like preparation for warfare, does it? So let’s look a little deeper. We’ll see that these characteristics have very real application to wartime leadership.

First, the Colossians list maximizes the effectiveness of each piece of armor. Look again at the list in Ephesians 6. The Bible is full of verses that pair “soft skills” with each piece of armor. A sampling:

  • Proverbs 21:21 pairs righteousness with kindness. He who pursues the two together will find life and honour in addition to righteousness.
  • Psalm 45:4 matches truth with meekness and righteousness. A victorious king puts on his armour and sword, and defends the causes of truth, meekness/humility and righteousness.
  • In Ephesians 4:15, Paul pairs truth with love within the context of growing up.
  • In Philippians 2:12, Paul speaks of the process of learning to “work out your own salvation with fear and trembling.” Other translations use words like reverence, awe, humility and sensitivity.
  • In 2 Timothy 2:15 Paul urges his protege to become an approved worker, “rightly handling the word of truth.” The context is maturity, hard work and discipline, drawing from the metaphors of a soldier, an athlete and a farmer.

Second, the traits in Colossians provide incredible defensive protection on their own merits. Knights knew the best way to prepare for flaming arrows was to cover their shields with dampened hides before they went to war. That’s the image Paul had in mind when he said faith is a shield that can extinguish the flaming arrows of the evil one (Eph 6:16). Character traits like compassion, humility, gentleness and patience are equally effective at dousing the flames of accusation, violence and rage. As Solomon pointed out, “A soft answer turns away wrath” (Prov 15:1).

There’s another application. Many of the attacks on the believer come from within and behind. Our own spirits are waging war within us (Gal 5:17; Rom 7:15-8:11). Unity and community are constantly breaking down. The clothing in Colossians 3 is our best response to the everyday situations of tension, misunderstanding, abrasive personalities, false motivations, jealousy and narcissism. Leaders in particular are vulnerable, because a large part of leadership is dealing with personnel and personality issues.

Third, the Colossians characteristics prove to be our most effective offensive weapons. In my last post, I mentioned the immense power in forgiveness to disarm our most fervent attackers. Proverbs 25:21-22 associates kindness and compassion with an image of surprising violence: feeding a hungry enemy is like heaping burning coals on his head. In Romans 12:19-20, Paul picks up that image and sets it in the context of forgiveness and allowing God to mete out vengeance and wrath. “‘Vengeance is mine, I will repay,’ says the Lord.” Rather, our job as sons and daughters of God is to love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us (Matt 5:44-46).

Bottom line: our flesh wants to fight back in kind, but we cannot win God’s victories without using God’s weaponry and methodology. It’s counter-intuitive, and it’s counter-cultural. In Jesus’ upside-down kingdom, meekness trumps power, humility can defeat hostility and death can equal victory. Recently, as I read A Wind in the House of Islam, I noted what the research showed about movements to Christ. People are drawn to the Lord when other religions model violence. But people move just as quickly away from Christianity when Christians (or “Christian nations”) respond with violence. It’s only in responding with compassion, kindness, meekness, forgiveness and love that the kingdom of God expands. Those are the weapons of our warfare.

In my last post, we considered Satan’s tactics and asked some very personal questions about where we see Satan at work. How do we fight back?

For though we walk in the flesh, we are not waging war according to the flesh. For the weapons of our warfare are not of the flesh but have divine power to destroy strongholds. (2 Corinthians 10:3-4)

Are we adept with the weapons of this kind of warfare? There are certain strategies that I think Wycliffe can apply, but for the purpose of this blog series, I’m going to keep it more generic.

1. Remember who your real enemy is. We do not fight flesh and blood. The person in front of you is not your enemy. It’s possible that he or she has been weaponized, but before you reach that conclusion, ask first whether he or she has been wounded. Pain, frustration, stress and failure can all cause behaviours that look like attack, but your brother or sister might not be the real attacker.

2. Practice the power of forgiveness. In my last post, I started with 2 Corinthians 2:10,11, where Paul reminds us that we know Satan’s tactics. The context is that Paul is asking the Corinthian church to forgive a brother. The two thoughts are not unrelated; forgiveness is the weapon Paul recommends so that Satan won’t outsmart us. Forgiveness, mercy, grace, confession and apology are clearly the weapons of the believer. They neutralize threats and diffuse conflict like nothing else. They’re unexpected by our culture and the enemy, and likely because, as we use these weapons, we reflect our Lord’s example.

3. Understand the promises of unity. Psalm 133:3 says that where brothers live together in unity, we can expect God’s blessing. John 17:21 says that in unity the world concludes that Jesus was sent by God. Division is easy. Unity in conformity is easy. But unity within our diversity is what God calls us to. It’s one of the hardest things to attain, but these promises give it nuclear power in the spiritual world.

4. Commit yourself to community. Knowing the tactics of a prowling lion encourages antelope to stick to the herd. Likewise, Dietrich Bonhoeffer begged believers to commit to life together. But he calls us to a higher standard than most church congregations reach, with their “pious fellowship.” Instead, he promotes something deeper: fellowship as a community of admitted sinners.

It may be that Christians, notwithstanding corporate worship, common prayer, and all their fellowship in service, may still be left to their loneliness. The final break-through to fellowship does not occur, because, though they have fellowship with one another as believers and as devout people, they do not have fellowship as the undevout, as sinners. The pious fellowship permits no one to be a sinner. So everybody must conceal his sin from himself and from the fellowship. We dare not be sinners. Many Christians are unthinkably horrified when a real sinner is suddenly discovered among the righteous. So we remain alone with our sin, living in lies and hypocrisy. The fact is that we are sinners!

― Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together: The Classic Exploration of Faith in Community

There are a lot of other weapons I could refer to, including commitment to truth, taking every thought captive, refusing to give in to condemnation, resisting the devil and discerning the spirits. I’ll cover one more in my next post: the proper clothing.

What weapons work for you? Which ones have I missed?