Joseph: Broken and rebuilt

God has a way of building character in a young leader with high potential. Often it takes wilderness years, tragedy or failure to break down a young leader and build into him the character needed for high responsibility. In fact, in Leading with a Limp, Dan Allender postulates that a young leader can’t really develop the humility and servant heart required for spiritual leadership if he doesn’t go through those experiences.

As we’ve seen in my previous posts, Joseph lacks the character he will need for huge responsibility, so God breaks him down by taking the bottom out twice over a thirteen-year period. First, he experiences his brothers’ betrayal. After spending time in “distress of soul” in a dry cistern (Gen 42:21), he endures the humiliation of being sold and resold. The resilient Joseph surfaces again, proving himself and gaining responsibility in the estate of the captain of Pharaoh’s guard. Joseph may well relish his independence and fresh start in Egypt, enjoying the luxurious setting and the distance from his dysfunctional family. But God isn’t finished shaping him; for doing the right thing in a time of temptation, he is thrown into prison.

At what point are his rough edges broken off? How does he struggle with bitterness, blame and lack of forgiveness? When does he recognize his motivations, blind spots and the ugliness of his pride? The Bible gives a few clues to his spiritual and emotional journey once he emerges on the other side. In naming his boys, Joseph offers a glimpse of his troubles and the perspective he gains with time: “God has made me forget all my trouble and all my father’s household” (Gen 41:51) and “God has made me fruitful in the land of my suffering” (Gen 41:52). At two points when he’s testing his brothers’ character, he breaks down and weeps (Gen Gen 42:24 and 43:30). Is it simply his joy and relief at seeing his family and evidence of their repentance, or is he personally struggling with forgiveness?

Let’s dig deeper to see how God uses the tragedies, the successes and the prophecy to shape and prepare Joseph to function competently as prime minister of Egypt.

1. Joseph develops faith and integrity
This sheltered young shepherd must develop his own faith and self control in a dark world of loose morals, fleshly attractions, injustice and politics. The temptation to sexual sin is particularly poignant because it exposes roots of self pity, entitlement and bitterness. The scars of his family’s betrayal could have led Joseph to reject their faith and chart his own course. Instead, he taps deeper into his faith in God. Further, this incident of low-hanging temptation was practice for the day that Joseph would bear the responsibility of power and its accompanying ease of access to sin.

2. Joseph learns to be a witness
In this first test with Potiphar’s wife Joseph begins to learn to let his light shine so God receives glory (Matt 5:16). As he refuses to take the bait, he even goes out of his way to mention his faith (Gen 39:9). The fury of Potiphar’s wife—a woman who likely wasn’t used to refusals—may well mask conviction. When he eventually gets an audience with Pharaoh, Joseph uses the opportunity to point him to God (Gen 41:16). By that point, his witness has made a noticeable impression on Potiphar (Gen 39:3), the jailed cupbearer (Gen 41:9) and Pharaoh himself (Gen 41:38).

3. Joseph grows in God awareness
It is the hand of God that steers Joseph into not just any Egyptian household, but the captain of the guard. Not just any prison, but the royal prison. Acts 7:9-10 says God was with Joseph in Egypt “and rescued him from all his troubles.” Likewise, it is the hand of God that gives him success at every stage (Gen 39:2,3,21,23). Seeing God gives Joseph clarity of mind in his first moment of temptation; his sin would be betrayal.

4. Joseph learns to serve
Joseph begins his time in Egypt by attending Potiphar (Gen 39:4) and quickly works his way up to running the entire estate. In the royal prison, Joseph attends Pharaoh’s officials (Gen 40:4). So Joseph learns service before he gets leadership position. As Robert Greenleaf said, “The servant-leader is servant first… That person is sharply different from one who is leader first, perhaps because of the need to assuage an unusual power drive or to acquire material possessions” (The Servant As Leader, p50). There are few ways to learn servanthood better than a period of slavery.

5. Joseph learns forgiveness
Dr. Leong Tien Fock says Joseph responded well to the twin tragedies of slavery and imprisonment.

In view of the powerful position he was going to hold, he needed to be put on the receiving end of injustice and suffer much so that he would do justice and love mercy when placed at the giving end of power. The fact that he prospered in both situations showed that he responded positively to the ordeal. If he had been unforgiving and bitter, his life story would have been different.

6. Joseph develops economic, administrative and political skills
Joseph rises in leadership wherever God places him, and as he does, he begins honing the skills that will serve him well in the years ahead. Rev. Bernard Bouissieres says, “Joseph was trained by God in the School of opposition. He became a better administrator in Potiphar’s house, a better manager in prison. He got training for the task ahead.” Likewise, he will certainly use the economics lessons he learns from managing the estate.

He also learns politics and influence. Early on he attracts the investment of a benefactor and potential mentor, and some remnant of that favour guides and guards Joseph throughout his darkest days. While Potiphar has to take action on his wife’s accusations, he maintains a personal interest in Joseph. First, he chooses not to kill Joseph and instead imprisons him with the king’s prisoners—in a facility he oversees. So Joseph continues to serve the captain of the guard (Gen 41:12) and receives special assignments from him (Gen 40:4). Potiphar seems to hold up well to the passages in Scripture urging slave holders to treat their slaves with equity and justice, without ever hinting that they should set them free. But it leads to a complex cultural arrangement that is simply a whitewashed form of perpetuated injustice. While the slave holder gives increasing responsibility and protection, he is unwilling to risk his reputation by releasing his slave. Joseph clearly gains from this arrangement, but I wonder how comfortable Potiphar will feel on the day of reckoning, when Pharaoh will set Joseph free.

No doubt Joseph picks up the written and unwritten rules by observing Potiphar’s household, and even more when he spends years with political prisoners who have fallen out of favour. He learns from what they did wrong, absorbs a lot of the politics and overhears innumerable secrets. Early evidence of his abilities can be seen when he attempts to leverage his interpretation of the baker’s dream to get a quid pro quo. It’s pretty brazen to ask for a shout-out to Pharaoh! But he also learns even more when the baker quickly forgets him; there’s not much leverage from prison.

7. Joseph is tested by the Word
Finally, he is simultaneously encouraged and tested by the prophecy about him. Rev. Bernard says, “How did the dream sustain him in the dark years of waiting? God’s promise to him gave him hope.”

However, Psalm 105:17-19 adds a layer of complexity to Joseph’s vision. When Joseph was sold as a slave,

his neck was put in a collar of iron;
until what he had said came to pass,
the word of the Lord tested him.

In other words, until it came to pass, the prophecy that he would one day rule mocked him. Doubts likely set in, made even more acute by the two-year extension in prison. But Dr. Leong Tien Fock says, “When God’s word finally came true, the ordeal had not only refined his character but also inspired in him the conviction that God had sent him to Egypt for a purpose. For when he revealed himself to his brothers he could comfort them saying, “it was not you who sent me here, but God” (Genesis 45:8).”

When we say that Jesus is Lord and master, we submit to his will, his shaping, his timing. He is the potter, and we are the clay. My personal experience is that God’s methods of leadership development are not mine; they seem circuitous at best. However, the result of God’s process is far deeper, far more effective—and admittedly far more painful—than we would ever choose. But he will accomplish his purposes, and we may see that larger perspective with time.


Joseph series:

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Joseph: The raw material

In the early years of Genesis 37:2-18, a few things are established about Joseph—threads that will weave throughout his story. Some are strengths, and some weaknesses.

A. Pride
It’s clear that Joseph is a proud shepherd. As students of the Bible or history know, there would later come years where shepherds were the lowest of the low. In fact, that would be the case when Joseph arrives in Egypt. It shows that pride is not dependent on position or status or circumstances. A self-focused heart attitude can thrive anywhere. So he wears his coat everywhere and relishes in the dreams.

B. Low emotional intelligence
Joseph is low on emotional intelligence, with extremely poor impact awareness. The pair of dreams in his early days are for him; God is providing the hope, the promise, the anchor that will sustain him in those years when he will walk through the shadow of death (Rev Bernard Bouissieres). Whether his pride leads him to disregard the potential impact of sharing his dreams, or whether he is unaware that it prompts even his father to ridicule him, his loose lips in this moment seem to be the tipping point for his brothers. They hate him enough to consider killing him. Joseph doesn’t seem to sense the danger when his father sends him out to his brothers again. Is it naiveté or courage that allows him to walk into the seething trap that will alter the course of his life?

C. Mentoring
The favour Joseph enjoys from his father gives him a unique gift: special access to a patriarch. In a sense, he has a mentor who takes a liking to him. What does he learn from his father by working so closely with him? Jacob had proved to be a very effective shepherd during his 14 years serving Laban (Gen 28-31). He worked adversarial conditions to his own ends, building the roots of the flock his sons now shepherd. Jacob was gifted in leadership and strategy—the dark side of which is manipulation. As a young man, Jacob lived up to his name: a deceiver who showed entrepreneurial giftings. But after a twenty-year period of character building under his uncle Laban, he was a changed man. In Genesis 33-35, he wrestled with God and was given a new name, then pursued reconciliation with his brother and came to hate deception (Dr. Leong Tien Fock). Jacob is therefore a deep well for Joseph to draw on if he takes advantage of these years.

D. Leadership gifts
So let me address the question I raised in my previous post. Is Joseph already holding a leadership position at age seventeen? The pivotal question is the significance of the special tunic Jacob bestows on his son. Why would his father give Joseph such a flagrantly visible sign of favour, and why would Joseph wear it everywhere? The answer I heard in Sunday School is that it is a gift showing favouritism, accompanied of course with the simplistic moral that favouritism is bad. But there are far more layers to this tunic. Most translations call it a “coat of many colours,” but the footnote in my Bible hints at other meanings of the phrase. In The Living Torah, Aryeh Kaplan explains the Hebrew can be translated to say the robe was either colourful, embroidered, striped, contained pictures, abnormally long or made of fine material. King David’s daughter would wear something similar in 2 Samuel 13:18-19. In other words, it is a royal robe. Did Jacob intend it as a sign of favour or a depiction of assumptions that Joseph would assume leadership of the family? It may well be the first prophecy in chapter 37.

Some commentaries read leadership into other areas of this passage. Jamieson-Fausset-Brown (JFB) Bible Commentary says Genesis 37:2 implies leadership: “Joseph being seventeen years old was a shepherd over the flock”. Rabbi Moshe Reiss says the Hebrew text mixes up the word order: literally, “he was shepherding his brothers with the flock.” In While Shepherds Watch their Flocks, Gary Laniak points out that there are multiple levels of shepherding. The larger the flocks, the more hierarchy is required. An overshepherd focuses on managing a flock while others provide more individualized care for smaller groups of sheep. The overshepherd watches for trends in food supply, health and birthing, makes decisions about selling animals, negotiates access to grazing land and obtains veterinary care. He may not be with the sheep all the time, but insists on spending time among the sheep in order to know what they need (Laniak, pp 231-235).

So let’s play it out. What does it mean if Joseph at seventeen was an overshepherd? It changes everything about the story. Now it makes sense why Joseph visits the sheep while pasturing them instead of being there all the time, as his brothers are. It adds a darker tone to the hatred developing between step brothers. It changes the nature of the bad report Joseph brings to his father. It provides the foundation for Joseph’s near-fatal errand in Dothan; he is following through on his responsibilities to lead. And it explains why Jacob feels the need to set Joseph apart with a unique tunic.

In the tunic, Jacob seems to be giving his son a title. But as John Maxwell is fond of saying, a title only borrows a bit of time to prove your leadership. As a potential leader, Joseph has no followers in this first act. The only one who puts any thought into Joseph is his father, who begins to mull over what the dreams might mean. For Joseph’s brothers, his would-be followers, the robe becomes a focus of their anger, and they send a multi-layered message to their father by dipping it in blood.

So Joseph has the raw materials for leadership, but his character and skills are lacking. God has a plan for him, and the next thirteen years will be painful as he’s tested, trained and prepared to fulfill his promise.

Take a moment to think back to your early days. What promise of leadership would others have seen in you? Did you get any special opportunities or have a mentor who paid special attention to you? What mistakes did you make? Today, would you entrust your earlier self with leadership?

About ten years ago, I completed a 360 review as part of a leadership development course, and I decided to include two people who had worked with me in my days as a first-time supervisor. Over the years, they have both been enthusiastic supporters of my leadership, one as a mentor/supervisor and one as a direct report. When I saw the results of the 360 review—lightly edited to protect anonymity—I was surprised to note that their comments stood out. The feedback from these two trusted colleagues were outliers; no one else agreed with their assessments. These comments were simply untrue of me today. I was overwhelmed by the sense that, in spite of the obvious mistakes they had observed, they were consistently such strong advocates for me. Their support was entirely based on potential! While I had worked with them, I had the raw materials, but a long way to go in developing my leadership. This is the Joseph of Genesis 37.


Joseph series:

Second chair leadership

First chair leaders can only be successful if they have competent, trustworthy leaders behind and around them. I’ve been studying some of the excellent examples in Scripture. Over the next year, I’ll be posting about some of them. In many of these role models, there’s the added layer of a righteous leader influencing a pagan culture for good. That’s a message that’s relevant to our twenty-first century culture where Christians are learning to live in exile.

I’ve always been drawn to the Old Testament character Joseph. There’s something that captures my imagination about the way he uses his one chance to get out of prison, to not only interpret Pharaoh’s dream, but to audaciously suggest a solution. Pharaoh is so impressed that he promotes him to prime minister over all Egypt. I’m impressed at his groundedness to recognize God’s hand in his successes and his being sent before the family to preserve them. Joseph never led from the first chair but never seemed to aspire for more. He was therefore even more trustworthy, never threatening the leader he supported.

I’m going to break the story of Joseph into four acts: the raw material, the development years, the fulfillment of promise and then returning to roots. But first, let me share some thoughts as an overview, many of them influenced by a blog series by Rev. Bernard Bouissieres. Joseph was always #2:

  • At age 17, he serves as a shepherd under his father. The Jamieson-Fausset-Brown (JFB) Bible Commentary suggests that leadership is implied in the text. If so, Joseph has a leadership role over his brothers, reporting to his father. We’ll explore that a bit further in my next post.
  • He becomes an administrator stewarding the estate of an Egyptian official.
  • He manages the royal prison as a prisoner himself.
  • He ascends to the role of prime minister and loyally serves Pharaoh.

But let’s dig deeper. Two incidents show Joseph’s “I am second” attitude. First, the act of interpreting dreams. As Rev. Bernard says, “The ministry of interpretation places one in a second role position; it is exercised for the benefit of another. You are always in second position.” Drawing from his own experience as a language interpreter, he says, “People were not interested in me. They were interested in the main speaker. I was just a voice.”

He draws some conclusions about Joseph that have broader application:

The dream is not yours, it belongs to someone else. God has called others to something special and you help them sort it out. Counselors are second position type ministries. They function for others, not themselves. It is a very tiring, demanding type of ministry. But God and people need good interpreters, counsellors. Preachers, teachers should always function in a second role spirit; as ministers, they are preaching God’s Word not their ideas. (http://revbernardministries.com/joseph_bible_study_4)

That description certainly fits Joseph, who goes out of his way to give God the glory. (Gen 41:15-16)

When Joseph’s father re-enters the picture, Joseph submits to him again. He takes the mantle of leadership of the family, but always under his father. This is never more apparent than in the final days of his father’s life when Joseph gives his two sons to Jacob and then receives the second best blessing (behind Judah).

Rev. Bernard adds some great thoughts about first and second chair leadership, using Peter and Andrew as examples. How do I know if I am an “Andrew” in his right place in a second position role? How do I know if I should take a step back and be an “Andrew” rather than a “Peter”? I encourage you to use the excellent self test for second chair leadership he offers at the end of his post.

As we’ll see, being #2 is a critical role. It’s not second best, as the realm of leadership shouldn’t be about competition. Instead, it’s about skill fit and experience, about attitude and character, about using influence for good. The lessons are entirely relevant, whether you’re a first chair leader, a longtime second chair leader or someone who feels God stirring you to lead.


Joseph series:

A time for repentance

The video footage everyone is talking about since Friday has been a tipping point in more than one way. Setting the political mess aside, it has been encouraging to see many Christian leaders wake from their slumber and silence. I pray that this will be a turning point in the life of the Church – the death of Christendom and a move to embracing our status as a church in exile. It’s a rude awakening to have no candidates that represent our position. Canada experienced it last year; now it’s America’s turn. The good news is that the Church thrives in situations like this.

The first step in awakening is repentance. I recently rediscovered Job 31, near the end of a frustrating discourse where Job’s friends were convinced that he had brought his immense suffering upon himself; surely it was because he had sinned in some area. So in chapter 31, Job searches his heart with an inventory of sins he had perhaps committed. His list provides a plum line for today’s culture and for us:

  • Did I walk with falsehood and deceit?
  • Did I covet or stray into sin?
  • Did I conceal my sin and guilt as a hypocrite?
  • Did I look lustfully at women?
  • Did I commit adultery in thought or deed?
  • Did I deny justice to employees?
  • Did I defraud or mistreat my laborers?
  • Did I take resources or land without payment?
  • Did I ignore the needs of or fail to share with the poor, homeless, widow or orphan?
  • Did I use influence to take advantage of the unfortunate?
  • Did I put trust in money or boast about great wealth?
  • Did I worship anything but God?
  • Did I rejoice at my enemy’s misfortune or curse a rival?
  • Did I fail to provide hospitality for strangers far from home?

In applying this list to today’s context, it’s clear that Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton both have much to repent of. No doubt Gary Johnson and Jill Stein do as well. Likewise for Justin Trudeau, Tom Mulcair and Rona Ambrose in Canada. No politician measures up.

For that matter, the Republican Party and the Democratic Party have much to repent of. No party platform is “Christian;” none align with this plum line. Both embrace what the Bible calls sin.

But God doesn’t call nations and leaders to repent as much as he calls believers to repent. The U.S. and Canadian Church have much to repent of. One of our sins is ranking sins and assigning weights to certain ones as if all don’t fall short of the standard (Rom 3:23). This list is obviously not exhaustive, but it is pretty thorough, and it is a scathing rebuke of America’s view of culturally-acceptable sins.

Another North American sin is to put our trust in anything but the Lord our God (Ps 20:7). No political party or leader is our hope. God alone is our saviour, anchor and confidence.

Yet another is to fail to stand in the breach for our nation. In Ezekiel 22:30, God finds fault with the believers of the day when none advocate for mercy for their nation. God is therefore not dissuaded from destroying them. Job was a righteous man who offered sacrifices every day for his kids, in case they had “sinned and cursed God in their hearts” (Job 1:5). Likewise, in the first chapter of Nehemiah, this cupbearer and soon-to-be-governor confessed the sins of his people and then owned his own part in the nation’s sin (Neh 1:5-7).

As Martin Luther put it in the first of his 95 theses,

When our Lord and Master Jesus Christ said, “Repent” (Mt 4:17), he willed the entire life of believers to be one of repentance.

Christians, we need to repent, plead for our nations and stand in the breach for them.

As you pray, I encourage you to use the Scriptures listed above, or any of the following:
2 Chronicles 7:14
1 John 1:8-9
Exodus 32:32, Psalm 106:23


Part 1: A void of leadership

Part 2: A time for repentance
Part 3: An opportunity for Millennials

Great Expectations

As I read the Scriptures, leadership transitions catch my attention. That interest led me to the handoff from Elijah to Elisha. Elisha was an answer to Elijah’s prayer of despair in 1 Kings 19. He stuck to his mentor like glue in his final days. And he boldly asked to inherit Elijah’s mantle as he prepared to end his ministry. But the protege was quite a different character than the mentor.

To tell you the truth, while Elijah is one of my favorite characters in the Bible, I hadn’t spent much time on Elisha… until Scripture Union asked me to write a series of devotionals on this eccentric prophet for theStory. They’ve been publishing them throughout this week, with a handful more coming at the end of the month.

In spite of the crazy miracles Elijah performs, like fire from the sky, he seems much more accessible as a character. Indeed, Hebrews says Elijah was a man, just like me. He was deeply emotional, rising to accomplish great feats and crashing afterwards. Elisha, on the other hand, seems like such a bizarre figure. His miracles seem over the top and without much of a point: floating ax heads and curing food poisoning and raising the dead to life.

2 Kings 5 is an exception. In the story of Naaman’s healing by Elisha, a first read gives the impression that Elisha is cantankerous, reluctantly healing an enemy after denying him the fundamentals of respect and hospitality. But digging deeper, I begin to appreciate that Elisha fully understands the politics involved, desires a far deeper healing than Naaman anticipates, sets aside prejudices to cross cultures and shapes the circumstances to facilitate learning. In fact, because we can identify with the characters and motivations throughout this story, it still serves up learning opportunities today.

It seems to me that most of the issues in this story stem from false expectations. In this post, let’s look at the expectations around power and greatness.

Naaman is a man of discipline familiar with proper protocol in the corridors of power. His king must talk to Israel’s king, and he wouldn’t dare to suggest a solution to a man of such abilities as the king of Israel. However, the king of Israel misses the point, forgetting all the resources he has at his disposal. Instead, he feels the weight of expectations when he reads the King of Syria’s reference letter. “That Syrian king believes I can cure this man of leprosy! Does he think I’m God with power over life and death? He must be trying to pick a fight with me” (v7, CEV). Elisha hears that the king tore his robes (or perhaps heard the robes tear—see 2 Kings 6:12) and offers to take responsibility. His goal is that the Syrian will know that there is a prophet in Israel. Clearly, Israel’s king needed the reminder as well.

Then Elisha dashes Naaman’s expectations of the prophet himself and the methods he will use to heal. For a great man like Naaman, it follows that he will get healed by a great man like Elisha. His expectations sound like he’s been reading Harry Potter. But the lesson he learns is pure VeggieTales: little people can do big things, too. It’s a little slave girl who first commends Elisha to Naaman. Then, when Naaman is prepared to throw up his hands, his servants convince him to follow to the prophet’s simplistic healing routine. As my Bible notes point out, in order to be healed, he must become as a little child.

And here is where my own expectations are surprised. I expect to find faith, humility and servant leadership among the prophets and leaders of Israel, not from a Syrian visitor. Clearly, Naaman is a leader who’s revered by his staff. Even Jewish slaves, who by rights could hold grudges, seek his best. Naaman proves to be a leader who (eventually) listens to the “little people” around him. I once heard someone say that it’s the leader’s job to define who the heroes are. The heroes in this story are the overlooked and unnamed, not the great men.

In her devotional for theStory, Annabel Robinson notes this passage is “about God’s power, about ordinary people in divinely strategic positions, about humility and obedience, as God reveals his kingdom by loving and healing the outsider, the enemy, the Gentile.” And the Syrian.

Check out her post, The Upside-Down-Kingdom, and my subsequent devotionals on this unique prophet:

[This post republished from my President’s blog on Wycliffe.ca]

From “lording servants” to “stooping lords”

In 1970, Robert Greenleaf introduced a paradox that swept the business community: the idea of The Servant as Leader. Many leaders have picked up his books, embraced the concept and developed a servant leadership methodology. They do mind tricks like inverting the organizational chart, and they develop great management practices, all while missing Greenleaf’s point: he wasn’t writing to leaders.

Few recall that Greenleaf wasn’t suggesting that leaders should become servants. Rather,

The servant-leader is servant first… It begins with the natural feeling that one wants to serve first. Then conscious choice brings one to aspire to lead. That perhaps is sharply different from one who is leader first, perhaps because of the need to assuage an unusual power drive or to acquire material possessions….

The natural servant, the person who is servant first, is more likely to persevere and refine a particular hypothesis on what serves another’s highest priority needs than is the person who is leader first and who later serves out of promptings of conscience or in a conformity with normative expectations. (p50)

Greenleaf was starting with different building blocks: a different attitude, a different spirit, a different person who gets noticed and promoted. In this sense, Nehemiah was a great candidate for development. He learned servantship through years as an exiled cupbearer, attending to the needs of a foreign king. When he eventually aspired to lead, Nehemiah didn’t lose his sense of grounding and character. As a godly governor, he really believed his call was to serve and relieve the people, not add further burden upon them. He was a servant leader long before it became the rage.

So why did Nehemiah use his platform to critique servant leadership?

It turns out that even servanthood doesn’t guarantee the right attitude. In chapter 5, Nehemiah’s turns the harsh glare of his spotlight on his predecessors, who laid heavy burdens on the people. He doesn’t stop there, condemning their followers: “Even their servants lorded it over the people” (Neh 5:15).

That sentence just sticks in my craw! I can’t rationalize this seemingly-impossible paradox. How can servants lord it over anyone?

But we do, don’t we? We all leverage any power we can get. From the exaggeration regularly found in CVs to the length of a person’s title, we all use every tool at our disposal. There’s a constant temptation for the administrative support staff of any leader to use the influence of their boss to gain power for themselves. If we’re really honest, we’re all laid bare by this critic of the accepted business practice of his day.

How do we steer clear of lording servantship? What can we learn from Nehemiah?

1. The position doesn’t change the person.
The position of governor came with a high level of responsibility and expectations, one of which was hospitality. Chapter 5 tells us Nehemiah could anticipate as many as 150 gathering at his table any given day. He was a good host, assuring that they had the finest food and a selection of wines. He was a connoisseur, after all.

This was clearly a business expense, and it was a right his predecessors had readily used. In fact, to claim the allowance would not draw any attention, while refusing the perk could create headlines. Nehemiah chose to forego his rights.

Why? My pastor, Glen Nudd, notes:

There was something bigger going on in Nehemiah’s heart and mind than the opportunity to enjoy an enormous hospitality budget.

This decision alone demonstrates that Nehemiah did not change when he got a promotion. After stepping up to enormous responsibility and position, he didn’t forsake humility.

2. Followers pay a cost.
Pastor Nudd says any perk received by a person in a position is a tax, and taxes always have a cost.

No government programs are ever free; they have to be paid by someone.

Nehemiah perceived that the people already carried a heavy burden, and he wasn’t going to add to it. Instead, he sought to lighten it.

The ‘servant-style’ of godly leadership demands that we ask ourselves questions about privileges we’re given, offered, and expected to take and then to ask ourselves the question: ‘If I take advantage of that particular thing, could it potentially undermine my mission to serve those I’m leading?’

3. We are all followers.
What was Nehemiah’s motivation? Verse 15 says it was the fear of God. Because of his understanding of his position in relation to God, he knew his position in relation to the people.

Centuries later, Jesus would marvel at the faith of a Roman with high position willing to beg him to heal a highly-valued servant. This centurion told Jesus he was not worthy to have him step into his home, but knew he could heal with a word.

For I too am a man under authority, with soldiers under me. And I say to one, ‘Go,’ and he goes, and to another, ‘Come,’ and he comes, and to my servant, ‘Do this,’ and he does it.” (Matthew 8:9)

It’s easy to see the nature of authority in that quote. Sure, the centurion could tell people what to do. The key is that first phrase, “For I too am a man under authority.” If we know who we’re really serving, then we don’t abuse power; we handle authority and position with care. Servants don’t lord it over anyone.

4. Servants can “lead upwards.”
Followers usually emulate the behaviors and attitudes they see in their leaders. Nehemiah’s servants were right there with the people, rolling up their sleeves to lay stones in the wall. But what happens to followers who serve beneath a lording leader? Do they get a pass?

Chapter 3 draws out of obscurity the actual men and women who built the wall of Jerusalem. In the middle of this chapter, we see a case study of servants who plotted their own course. Verse 5 says the Tekoites repaired a specific part of the wall, and verse 27 adds that they went the extra mile, helping build a second section. They went above and beyond in spite of the example of those who should have been their role models. While the Tekoites put in the hard work, “their nobles would not stoop to serve their Lord” (Neh 3:5). What powerful phrasing, though a footnote is quick to point out the word “Lord” could also mean lords, or supervisors. Frankly, it’s all the same. When we serve our supervisors, our leaders and our followers, we’re serving our Lord (Eph 6:7).

Before Nehemiah ever aspired to lead, he revealed his posture and his heart. In his prayer in chapter 1, he used the word “servant” seven times. He put himself in good company with Moses and Israel as a “servant of the Lord.” It was easy for Nehemiah to think that way, because I’m convinced he thought the two words – “leader” and “servant” – were synonyms.

Nehemiah never undermined his mission. His character inspired a generation of Jewish leaders. His honest account in the book of Nehemiah influenced many generations to come. And as an exile in a hostile culture, he likely offered a striking contrast to the leadership style of an ungodly king in an ungodly culture. On that point alone, his life and his leadership are certainly relevant to us today.

Wartime leadership: a case study from Nehemiah

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)