Cautionary lessons from Moses

I want to spend a bit of time looking at two cautions in the leadership lessons of Numbers 11.

Do we cut God’s abilities short?

God answers the people’s request. He tells them he heard their complaint, and he’ll provide meat. But lest you read tenderness into this “answer to prayer,” God tells them they will have so much meat it will be coming out of their nostrils, and they’ll hate the sight of it! Moses is quick to point out the impracticality of God’s words. As you consider his hesitation and lack of faith, consider his track record with God. In Exodus 3, God said he heard Israel’s cry and had come to rescue them. Then he shocks Moses with his solution: “Now go, for I am sending you to Pharaoh” (v10) Here, when Moses hears God say he’ll provide meat, he’s probably thinking of all the work he’ll have to do to make it happen.

He learns a couple of important principles. One, God doesn’t work in the same way every time. This time is more like the plagues, when Moses sat back and watched. Two, he has to consider this fantastic question: “Has my arm lost its power?” Another version renders it, “Is my arm too short?” This is a very direct challenge to Moses’ faith, and a great question for leaders to consider.

In what ways do we cut short in our minds and in our planning the ability of God to work wonders? In what ways do we take on God’s responsibility as we lead his people (1 Peter 5:2)? It’s a dangerous thing to conclude, “If this is going to happen, I’m going to have to do it myself.” God makes it very personal for Moses: “Now you will see whether or not my word comes true!” (Numbers 11:23)

Do we take God at his word?

God has given us promises as leaders. He has given us general ones through Scripture and when he gives us a vision, he often accompanies it with overt and implied promises that are much more personal in nature. Part of leading is our own faith journey — our ability to take God at his word. This was the challenge Moses experienced at that moment of crisis.

Of course, God comes through in a miraculous way. Can you imagine seeing quail piled three feet deep and stretching a day’s journey in any direction? Can you imagine the number of birds? Moses couldn’t either.

Do our mistakes influence others?

Joshua only shows up once in this story, but there are several important points to consider. As Moses’ assistant “since his youth,” it’s clear that Moses identified his leadership ability early on and has mentored him for several years. But in this instance he earns a rebuke for attempting to protect Moses. Why?

I suspect he’s afraid of insurrection. With all the people whining, there could be danger in the fact that two leaders stayed behind in the camp rather than accept the invitation to join the other 68 at the Tabernacle. So Joshua begs Moses to stop those two from prophesying. Moses, on the other hand, points out that Joshua doesn’t need to be jealous for Moses’s sake. Moses knows he isn’t the point.

In addition to the natural tendency for an assistant to see himself as guardian of his boss’s honour, Matthew Henry suggests that Joshua would have been one of the seventy himself. He may well have been “jealous for the honour of their order.” In that moment, Joshua demonstrates a foundational flaw in his belief system. Could it be that he had a scarcity model, as if God’s Spirit going to others might dilute the power in each individual? Or could it be a desire for control, as if Moses could restrict or put parameters on God’s Spirit? In our most unguarded moments, our core beliefs become evident.

Most importantly, I suspect Joshua heard Moses whining. After all, other passages talk about how Joshua is a witness to the intimate conversations between God and Moses. He was the only other person allowed on Mount Sinai with Moses, and he was often in the tent of meeting as Moses and God talked face-to-face. So it’s reasonable to expect that he heard Moses complaining. While Moses quickly rebounds to leadership form, Joshua doesn’t recover quite as quickly. He’s clearly on the wrong side in this one, and Moses has to rebuke him. It’s a reminder that others can be drawn into and hurt by our sin and weakness. I’m all for vulnerability and modelling, but it can be both instructive and destructive.

The good news is that Joshua made his mistake before he stepped onto the leadership stage himself. It was a learning opportunity. And that is probably the greatest leadership lesson in this passage: we are all learners. Whether we’re already in that position of leadership and influence or on our way, we never stop growing in our understanding of God, our faith in him and our ability to lead. Thank God that he’s not finished with us, and he shows grace to help us learn from our mistakes.

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Ambition’s evil cousins

One of my favorite topics to blog on is ambition. It’s so misunderstood among Christians today, and when the topic is misunderstood, it’s either avoided or piously denied. When the topic is avoided, it doesn’t go away; it goes underground. When it goes underground, it becomes weaponized.

Martin Luther once said, “If you’re going to sin, sin boldly.” That’s not how most churches and Christian organizations operate today. His point was that overt sin is better because it comes to light quickly and can be covered by grace. In contrast, western Christianity has been boiled down to Niceness and the appearance of godliness. The result is that sins have a caste system: there’s no room for overt sins while covert sins are tolerated.

A friend who reads this blog referred me to Rescuing Ambition, by Dave Harvey. As I enjoyed Harvey’s marriage book, When Sinners Say I Do, I figured correctly that I’d enjoy this one. Harvey did his research. He really unpacks the roots of ambition and what the Bible has to say about it. Harvey says ambition is hardwired into all of us. At its heart, ambition is a quest for glory. The question is whether we will pursue God’s glory or corrupt it in the pursuit of our own glory.

Harvey refers us to James 3:13-17, where the early leader of the church in Jerusalem talks about the results of ambition going bad. I’ve always categorized this passage under “wisdom” and therefore missed the important message it makes about perverted ambition.

13 If you are wise and understand God’s ways, prove it by living an honorable life, doing good works with the humility that comes from wisdom. 14 But if you are bitterly jealous and there is selfish ambition in your heart, don’t cover up the truth with boasting and lying. 15 For jealousy and selfishness are not God’s kind of wisdom. Such things are earthly, unspiritual, and demonic. 16 For wherever there is jealousy and selfish ambition, there you will find disorder and evil of every kind. 17 But the wisdom from above is first of all pure. It is also peace loving, gentle at all times, and willing to yield to others. It is full of mercy and good deeds. It shows no favoritism and is always sincere.

Harvey says the word for “selfish ambition” refers to demeaning yourself for gain, like a politician or prostitute. He suggests the word picture that this kind of ambition shrinks our souls.

Let’s look at some of ambition’s cousins. Three times James pairs selfish ambition with jealousy. Why? Because the pursuit of your own glory will always find others to be a threat. Boasting and lying are likewise a pair of troublemakers, usually required for inflating your own sense of importance and glory. Then along come disorder and evil of every kind. Do you see the progression? It’s like a mud slide. Ambition doesn’t always start selfishly, and no one seeks disorder and evil. But when ambition is corrupted, eventually all kinds of evil join it as it slides.

Likewise, hidden ambition leads to nasty sins like false humility, gossip and slander. These sins are far too common in church and Christian organizations today. Somehow they’re tolerated. So I enjoyed hearing Dave Ramsey a few years ago share about how he runs his company. The first incident of gossip goes in your record. The second one means termination. The result is a very healthy organizational culture.

James doesn’t pull punches: “Such things are earthly.” They have no place in God’s kingdom. “Such things are unspiritual.” They have no place in church or Christian organizations. “Such things are demonic.” Their root is in the one who is seeking to destroy us.

The opposite of selfish ambition

Galatians 5 includes selfish ambition in a really nasty list resulting from following the desires of our sinful nature. Its companions are sorcery, outbursts of anger, drunkenness, hostility and sexual immorality. Two verses later, Paul offers a contrast: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. Because of their proximity, it’s clear that the two lists are intended to be read together. That raises an interesting question: what is the opposite of selfish ambition?

The answer is not self-control. It is not possible to combat selfish desires by being more controlled. You just can’t will yourself not to be jealous or envious of someone else moving up faster or getting the influence you desire. Paul says clearly that the root of selfish ambition is following your sinful nature. In contrast, the root of patience, goodness, self-control, etc. is being directed by God, by the Holy Spirit. So it’s a conscious decision to follow a different pattern as well as the fruit of a transformed heart.

Once you are Spirit-led, your approach to leadership will look like this:

  • a love for people that comes out in getting to know them, caring deeply for them and developing them
  • the ability to rejoice in others’ success and promotions
  • peace that grows out of a confidence in God’s sovereignty, knowing that you don’t have to strive to advance yourself
  • patience to wait for the right opportunity
  • showing kindness and doing good to everyone, especially those who demonstrate ugly ambition
  • faithfulness to do your current job well and not let your heart drift
  • a gentle approach, instead of elbowing people out of the way
  • and self-control — a fruit, not a strategy; a symptom, not a solution.

Galatians 6 summarizes: the opposite of living to satisfy your sinful nature is living to please the Holy Spirit. The former yields decay and death, while the latter yields life and blessing. I want my leadership to bring life and blessing — to myself and to those I lead. Sure, I want to keep growing in responsibility and influence, but I want to do it the right way.

How? Galatians 5 concludes with this tough advice:

Those who belong to Christ Jesus have nailed the passions and desires of their sinful nature to his cross and crucified them there. Since we are living by the Spirit, let us follow the Spirit’s leading in every part of our lives. Let us not become conceited, or provoke one another, or be jealous of one another.

Editor’s note:

This blog is best read in the context of a series, because my thoughts on the topic are part of a journey. You can find the rest of the series here:

Since I made this post in January 2010, it has regularly shown up in my top entry pages for this blog. But as I read the comments posted by my readers, I realize that it addresses a common itch but doesn’t necessarily scratch it satisfactority. I am therefore writing a new entry in the series that attempts to get practical. I’ll post a link here when it’s ready, and I encourage my readers to add their own practical advice to my thoughts.