How to be a Great Bad Leader

I’m reading through the book of Acts, and I just came across Stephen’s speech to the official assembly of Israel’s elders in chapter 7. Turns out the assembly was full of less-than-stellar leaders, and you, too, can be a great bad leader if you follow their example. (Or you can use their example as what NOT to do in leadership…your call.)

Stephen’s story starts in chapter 6. All we know about Stephen is he lived in Jerusalem shortly after Jesus ascended to heaven and that he was “…a man full of God’s grace and power [and he] did great wonders and miraculous signs among the people,” (Acts 6:8). And the Jewish leaders/elders didn’t take kindly to this.

As Stephen, and, more importantly, Jesus, grew in popularity among the Jews in Jerusalem, that necessarily meant the Jewish leaders’ power and popularity decreased.

And guess what?

Bad leaders cannot STAND to lose power. They will go to GREAT lengths to maintain power because without it they feel worthless. It’s sad, really.

In Stephen’s case these jealous elders decided to “secretly persuade” some dudes to accuse Stephen of blasphemy.

Again, bad leaders create conflict using deception and underhanded tactics in order to create the illusion that their poor leadership choices are justified.

And because most of the Jews inherently trusted their leaders, they automatically believed whatever they said. The general population just couldn’t conceive their beloved elders would deceive them or have back door meetings or strong arm people into doing immoral things.

The elders wanted Stephen to shut up about Jesus so they could maintain their dictatorial control over the masses. The best way to ensure Stephen would shut up was to kill him. And the fastest ticket to death in those days was to be convicted of blasphemy. After all, no upstanding Jew would tolerate such a thing, and neither did their law. And guess who got to decide if someone accused of blasphemy was guilty or innocent? That’s right: the assembly of elders.

Hmm. Sounds a little self-serving.

Bad leaders design processes and procedures that always result in them alone having absolute authority. They carefully craft heirarchies to ensure they cannot be held accountable by anyone else.

Israel’s elders went to great lengths to make sure Stephen would be found guilty of the drummed up charge of blasphemy. “They produced false witnesses, who testified, ‘This fellow never stops speaking against this holy place (the Temple) and against the law. For we have heard him say that this Jesus of Nazareth will destroy this place and change the customs Moses handed down to us,” (Acts 6:13-14).

Bad leaders have people in their pockets. They know who is weak enough morally and/or emotionally to exploit them when they need to. Sometimes bad leaders bribe others to do their dirty work so they themselves can still appear clean to the general population. Other times they threaten people to cooperate. Other times they manipulate people to do their bidding by convincing them the task at hand is really a noble thing to do. Worst of all, sometimes bad leaders misuse scripture to convince the spiritually naive that God WANTS them to do whatever devious thing the leaders have in mind. That last one gets all over me and makes me want to hit things.

So the Jewish elders put Stephen on “trial”. They went through the motions of justice to deceive the masses into thinking they really were after the “truth” and really were being “fair” to Stephen. These elders brought in these hand-picked false witnesses and pretended to be hearing the false accusations for the first time, as if they hadn’t coached these witnesses to say exactly what they said.

The heart of Jewish religion was the temple sacrifices doled out by the law God established through Moses. So these sly elders got people to accuse Stephen of defaming and wanting to get rid of both.

Bad leaders play on people’s emotions. They know what hot-button topics will really get their people stirred up–so stirred up that they become unable to calmly and rationally listen to anyone else’s side of the story. Literally, the science says once we humans become flooded with anger or fear, our brains cannot process new information until we physiologically calm down again. Bad leaders know this and use it to their advantage.

The high priest (think “head elder”) puts on his best shocked/fake-let’s-be-fair voice and asked Stephen, “Are these charges true?” (Acts 7:1).

And you know what Stephen says?

He brilliantly launches into the history of Israel and, specifically, how the Israelites royally failed at recognizing Moses as a prophet. They disobeyed Moses all the time, willfully choosing idolatry over worshipping God again and again.

Stephen uses the example of Moses to illustrate to the elders that, just like their ancestors before them, the elders are stubborn, have hard hearts unyielded to the Lord, refuse to listen to God, and, worst of all, “…always resist the Holy Spirit!” (Acts 7:51).

Wow. That’s an indictment there if I’ve ever heard one. Stephen also accused the elders of “betraying and murdering” the “Righteous One” prophets of old spoke about–i.e., Jesus (Acts 7:52).

You’ll never guess how the elders responded to Stephen’s rebuke.

That’s right, they humbly accepted the correction, admitted their wrongs, and thanked Stephen for having the you-know-whats to point out the sin in their lives so they could stop and grow more mature in their faith in God.

Just kidding.

The elders of Israel threw a fit. A FIT, I tell you.

“When they heard this, they were furious and gnashed their teeth at him…[at the mention of Jesus being with God in heaven] they covered their ears, and, yelling at the top of their voices, they all rushed at [Stephen], dragged him out of the city and began to stone him,” (Acts 7:54-58). Stephen died from that stoning, and then the elders went on to persecute other Christians in Jerusalem so badly that they all literally ran for their lives, scattering throughout the region (Acts 8:1).

Bad leaders lose their minds when they are confronted with the truth. If their cover as “good guys” is threatened publically, bad leaders attack those blowing the whistle. And then they attack everyone associated with those who blew the whistle. The gloves come off. The leaders stop delegating their dirty work and take matters into their own hands as a last ditch effort to squelch any revolt on account of the masses slowly beginning to realize these leaders are not what they seem.

Like Israel’s elders back in the day, some people today are really great bad leaders. Phenomenal, actually. And, unfortunately, there are still some really great bad leaders in churches today.

Ask the Spirit to help you perceive if any of your leaders–inside the church or out–fit the bill of great bad leaders. If you find you are under one (or more–they tend to travel in packs), blow the whistle. But know you will likely be clobbered when you do. That’s ok. Jesus told us that will happen when we stand for what is right.

If your whistle-blowing results in change for the better, rejoice! If it doesn’t, relocate. That is, find new leaders. There are great great leaders out there; stop wasting your time under great bad leaders.

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Above All

I have a love-hate relationship with relationships.

I love them when they’re going well, but I hate them when they’re going poorly. I love them when they are well-established and comfortable, but I hate them when they are new and awkward. I love them when they fulfill me and make me happy, but I hate them when they hurt me and leave me empty.

You, too?

Fortunately/Unfortunately, people are made for relationships…with each other and with God. Even us more introverted folks are made for relationships, and we cannot be well emotionally without participating in a few.

God knows this, which is why He “sets the lonely in families” (Psalm 68:6) and makes relationships the fabric of His Church.

As much as I wish it was the case sometimes, relationships are not optional. 

And given that relationships between two people are always relationships between two broken relaters, we’re going to find ourselves in relationships that are hard and messy and make us want to quit and move to the beach alone forever and ever, amen, far more often than we’d like.

Which is probably why the subtitle of the New Testament letters could be “How to Get Along with People in Ways that Make God Happy.”

Every one of Paul’s and Peter’s letters is brimming with instructions on how Christians are to relate to themselves, non-Christians, other Christians, and God, in a variety of different circumstances.

I’m not excited to report that I am currently in the middle of a great friendship that is going through a very not great rough patch. As I prayed about the situation this morning, I didn’t get any direction from God on what needs to occur next in this relationship. So I opened my Bible to read it in preparation for a Sunday School lesson my teacher would be leading me in a couple hours later.

We’ve been going through the whole book of 1 Peter, and it “just so happened” that we were going to be on chapter 4 today. And it “just so happened” that this morning I couldn’t remember which portion of chapter 4 we’d be learning about, so I decided to go ahead and read the whole thing.

In the letter Peter is encouraging believers who are experiencing severe persecution to live godly lives in the midst of their suffering. And in verse 8 Peter writes, “Above all, love each other deeply, because love covers over a multitude of sins.”

My eyes stopped and re-read that verse three or four times.

I pretended to not know how this instruction I “just so happened” to read had anything to do with my prayer for direction in a difficult friendship I had literally prayed 1 minute and 28 seconds prior to reading this verse.

I put on my best pensive face and said, “Lord, what do you mean? How does this verse apply to me right now?”

He didn’t even dignify those questions with a response.

I went to church and successfully avoided thinking about the verse 98% of the morning. But this afternoon I started praying about my struggling relationship again, and the verse popped right back in my mind. So I grit my teeth a little and said, “Ok, Lord, let’s look at this again.”

I opened my Bible and started reading 1 Peter 4 again. But this time verse 7 stood out to me in addition to verse 8. Verse 7 reads, “The end of all things is near. Therefore be clear-minded and self-controlled so that you can pray.”

I paused.

I had never considered that when we are not clear-minded and are out of control that we really can’t pray. But I think it’s true.

I was just telling the Lord prior to reading this verse that my friend and I are both out of control. We’re both very passionate people who have big emotions that can cloud our minds and blow our judgment out of the water.

And when I am in that kind of heightened emotional state, my prayers are hindered. I still pray…but my prayers are not usually efforts to understand what God is doing so much as they are efforts to tell God I want things to go differently than they are going.

And pushing my agenda on God is not an effective way to pray. Mostly because I am a moron who can’t discern a “good” plan from a “bad” one, meaning my agendas are usually not what’s best for me or anyone around me.

I need the Spirit to override the stupidity that comes with being fallen and to lead me into truth…the truth about what’s best for me and for others. That’s the purpose of prayer: to allow the Spirit to align my heart with God’s heart. And I just can’t go to God in prayer with a level-headed aim like that when I am not clear-minded and self-controlled.

I prayed verse 7 for my friend and me, and then I went on to verse 8.

“Above all, love each other deeply, because love covers over a multitude of sins.”

Above all.

Above all.

Loving each other deeply is more important than being clear-minded and more important than being self-controlled.

Hmm.

On the one hand, that sounds like good news for those of us who struggle with being clear-minded and self-controlled in the heat of emotions. If we can’t master those two things, maybe we can put all our energy into this most important thing and still come out all right…

But it’s really hard to love other fallen humans deeply without first having gained God’s heart for them through prayer. 

That Peter.

He’s not giving me a pass on the clear-mindedness and self-control. He’s not saying loving each other deeply trumps having clear-mindedness and self-control, so don’t worry about those last two.

He’s saying we have to be clear-minded and self-controlled so we can be strengthened by the Spirit through prayer to love each other deeply, the most important thing of all in relationships. 

Why?

Because love covers over a multitude of sins.

When we love each other deeply, we will still sin against one another. We will still blow it. We will still hurt each other. And when that happens, those things will still need to be addressed. But our deep love for one another will enable us to forgive quicker and get on with the business of loving one another all the more.

And when a watching world sees Christians who live this out–even and especially when we love/forgive/love over and over and over again–they see a picture of Christ. They see a picture of grace and mercy and redemption and unconditional love.

And isn’t that what we’re supposed to be known for?

Didn’t Jesus say, “A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another,” (John 13:34-35)?

Loving is hard. Relationships are hard. I have yet to ever be in any relationship of any value that didn’t have its rough patches…but when both parties commit to persevering through the hard times, both parties become better and better at loving one another deeply, above all.

The Difference between Peacemakers and Peacekeepers 

There is a temptation for believers who find themselves in conflict to quietly keep the peace by acquiescing in the hopes of quelling the conflict as soon as possible. 

It’s unfortunate because these otherwise godly believers have been misled into thinking that their peacekeeping is biblical and conflict is to be avoided.  After all, Romans 12:18 says, “…as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone.”

But the first phrase of that verse is “if it is possible…”, meaning sometimes it’s not. 

How could it not be possible to live at peace with everyone? If we give in to everything everyone else wants, that would make us peacekeepers, right? 

Yes. And in a lot of instances, being a peacekeeper is wrong. 

Paul says “if it is possible” because there are times he wants us to not give in. Like when keeping the peace means enabling sin. 

Keeping the peace does not trump calling out sin. The Bible is clear about this. 

  • “Brothers and sisters, if someone is caught in a sin, you who live by the Spirit should restore that person gently.” Galatians 6:1
  • “As for [elders] who persist in sin, rebuke them in the presence of all, so that the rest may stand in fear.” 1 Timothy 5:20
  • “My brothers, if anyone among you wanders from the truth and someone brings him back, let him know that whoever brings back a sinner from his wandering will save his soul from death and will cover a multitude of sins.” James 5:19-20
  • “Pay attention to yourselves! If your brother sins, rebuke him, and if he repents, forgive him.” Luke 17:3
  • “If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone.” Matthew 18:15

Now, to be sure, we are to call each other out on sin in a humble manner, knowing full well we are not sinless ourselves and that we will be on the other side of the calling out at some point in the near future if we have godly people around us.

If the person we are confronting is mature, it’s possible the confrontation will actually be peaceful. However, most of the time these things are not peaceful. In fact, they may stir up some contention. 

And that’s okay. 

Why? 

Because our calling out sin in someone else creates an avenue through which the Spirit can lead him to repentance, which will produce more peace in the body than our turning a blind eye to sin ever could. In the latter instance, we are a peacekeeper. But in the former instance, we are peacemakers

Peacekeeping when sin is involved only allows the sin to grow, damaging more and more people more and more severely (which isn’t very peaceful, when you think about it). 

Peacemaking when sin is involved calls for an end to the sin, stopping the damage in its tracks (which is true peace, when you think about it). 

James writes, “Peacemakers who sow in peace reap a harvest of righteousness,” ‭‭(James‬ ‭3:18‬).

Don’t be a peacekeeper; it often leads to unrest. Be a peacemaker; when done with the right attitude, it always results in righteousness. 

How to Become Wise and Make Those Around You Wiser

I’m reading through Proverbs right now (not right now, but you know what I’m saying), in which Solomon writes ad nauseum about wisdom. I guess that makes sense since that was his forte, but still, he repeats himself over and over (which I realize is redundant, but I like redundancy…I also like to say things again and again… … … … …)

Anyway, one of the dead horses Solomon beats is that wise people listen to advice and accept discipline. In fact, Proverbs 19:20 reads, Listen to advice and accept discipline, and at the end you will be counted among the wise.” So. There you go.

Likewise, Proverbs 12:15 says, “The wise listen to advice.” Proverbs 13:10 reads, “Wisdom is found in those who take advice.” Proverbs 10:17 says, “Whoever heeds discipline shows the way to life.” Proverbs 12:1 reads, “Whoever loves discipline loves knowledge.” Proverbs 15:32 says, “The one who heeds correction gains understanding.”

Several thoughts occur to me.

First, if we want to be wise, the verse says we have to listen to advice and accept discipline. Which we cannot do if people aren’t giving us advice and disciplining us.

Now, don’t get scared. I’m not going to say we should walk around spanking adults for misbehavior or placing grown people in time out (although, I think I’d benefit greatly if someone would make me sit on a mat and think about what I’ve done from time to time). Discipline here has less to do with punishment and more to do with instruction and correction. Think disciple. Wise people listen to advice and accept instruction and correction.

Obviously, all advice and instruction are not created equally. Some people give really crappy advice. Others over-correct constantly because they like the sound of their own voices. So we have to be careful about who we consult. But we all need good advice-givers and discipliners/instructors/disciplers in our lives. 

On the other side of the coin, we all need to be good advice givers and discipliners.

I don’t know a lot of people who struggle with not giving advice. Most people like to give advice and find it easy to do so because it is a lot like giving an opinion. We all have a lot of opinions and most of us don’t mind sharing them.

But I don’t know a lot of discipliners and correctors. It takes more guts to correct someone than to give them some advice. Personally, when someone is saying or doing something stupid or wrong in my presence, I’d rather keep my mouth shut and silently wish the moment would pass than confront him on it.

I suspect most people are like me in that regard; we have an aversion to correcting people because we associate conflict and animosity with correcting. We anticipate it won’t go well. How many of us have been taught how to correct/confront others in a gentle, helpful way and feel comfortable doing so?

But what is the result of being a society–a Church–who does not correct people when they are wrong or foolish? We end up with a void of wisdom.

The verse says, “Listen to advice and accept discipline, and at the end you will be counted among the wise.” We cannot produce wise people unless we are willing to correct people. This has far reaching implications in every aspect of life. On a a big picture level, those of us who have an aversion to conflict have to get over ourselves if we want a society/government/culture/Church/family that is wise. 

On a small scale, when we withhold valuable instruction and correction from the person sitting across the table from us who is bragging about his latest sin or laying out the worst plan we’ve ever heard in our lives, we contribute to his downfall. We stunt his emotional and spiritual growth. Ultimately, we fail to love him well.

That puts a whole new perspective on things. Next time you feel compelled to not correct someone out of fear of the uncomfortable confrontation that may occur, think to yourself, “Self, if I love him, I will speak up.”

If you don’t love him, well, that’s a whole different problem.

 

A Conversation within a Conversation

Have you ever prayed mid-conversation? Not out loud, but just silently in your heart? 

Have you ever been having a conversation with someone, and while they are speaking or during a pause, you start talking to God about the conversation you are having with that person?

Confused yet?

It’s a conversation between you and God within a conversation between you and another person.

There’s an example of this in the Bible that may help illustrate things.

Nehemiah, cup bearer to King Artaxerxes of Susa, was burdened that his homeland, Jerusalem, was in ruins. The sadness was so evident on Nehemiah’s face, the king noticed it immediately and asked for an explanation. Nehemiah was afraid, but he told the king about the situation in Jerusalem anyway (Nehemiah 2:1-3).

The king responded, “What is it you want?” (Nehemiah 2:4).

Up until this point, Nehemiah hadn’t expressed what he wanted to anyone in this account. Maybe he didn’t even know.

What Nehemiah did next is significant. Instead of immediately responding to the king’s question, Nehemiah “prayed to the God of heaven…” and then he “answered the king,” (Nehemiah 2:4:5).

Nehemiah stopped and had a conversation with God within his conversation with the king.  

What do you think Nehemiah said to God? Maybe he asked for favor from the king. Maybe he asked for God to order his words as he made a request of the king. Maybe he asked God what he should ask the king for. Maybe he asked for protection from the king, who, I’m sure, would’ve been well within his rights to fire, if not kill, Nehemiah for asking for time off.

At any rate, Nehemiah prayed before he responded.

And that half of a verse, when applied in our own conversations, could be a game-changer (when we remember to do it). 

I’ve experienced some “success” with this concept while witnessing.

In a ministry I work with, I do a lot of “cold” evangelism, meaning I talk to strangers about their spiritual beliefs. I don’t have a lot of time to get to know these women, so I don’t have much to go off of as far as deciding what angle to take with them.

But what I do have is the Holy Spirit. He knows these women more intimately than I ever could, and He also lives inside of me, which is convenient.

When I get to the part of the conversation that involves asking a woman to tell me about her spiritual beliefs – and when I can remember to ask the Spirit to say through me what each woman needs to hear about Jesus in that moment – some pretty cool things happen. In other words, when I remember to have a conversation with the Lord within my conversation with the woman, things usually go better than when I forget to consult Him.

I may also have tried this “praying before I respond” concept with my husband and kids on occasion with varying degrees of success, but I wonder how much better communication and conflict resolution would go with them if prayer during conversation became the norm instead of the exception.

While it’s not a formula we can manipulate God with, when done with the right heart – one of seeking wisdom from the Lord and for the Lord – I think it’s a pretty wise approach to interpersonal communication.

Turning Over Tables

One of the stories in the gospels that intrigues me is when Jesus got so ticked off He started turning over tables like a mad man.

When it was almost time for the Jewish Passover, Jesus went up to Jerusalem. In the temple courts he found people selling cattle, sheep and doves, and others sitting at tables exchanging money. So he made a whip out of cords, and drove all from the temple courts, both sheep and cattle; he scattered the coins of the money changers and overturned their tables. To those who sold doves he said, “Get these out of here! Stop turning my Father’s house into a market!” (John 2:13-16)

I guess I’m drawn to this part of Jesus because I can identify with feeling angry. I get angry every day. Anger is a commonplace human emotion, and to read that Jesus experienced this emotion, too, makes me feel like He gets me. He understands. He wasn’t always cool, calm, and collected.

What’s peculiar to Jesus, though, is that while He was angry, He didn’t sin. He couldn’t sin (2 Corinthians 5:21). Even when He looked totally out of control, He wasn’t sinning.

Of course, that’s not usually the case with us. When we get angry, we often sin. Sometimes our anger prompts us to use speech that tears down others (Ephesians 4:29), to retaliate against the person who hurt us (Matthew 5:38-42), or to harbor bitterness and resentment (read: unforgiveness) (Ephesians 4:31).

As Jesus illustrates, it’s not the anger that is sin. As we demonstrate, it’s the feelings and behaviors that flow out of anger that can be sinful (Ephesians 4:26).

Truth be told, I struggle with knowing how my outbursts are any different/worse than Jesus’ tantrum in the temple courts. And on the outside, they may look very similar. But inside – in my heart – things might not be so similar.

Everything Jesus did was motivated by love for His Father and love for people. Everything. Even scattering animals and flipping over merchant tables (John 14:31, 15:9).

Jesus wasn’t angry because He wasn’t getting attention or because things weren’t going His way or because somebody hurt His feelings. Jesus’ anger wasn’t fueled by self-focus at all.

Jesus was angry because God the Father was being disrespected. Jesus loved the Father too much to idly sit by and allow others to disrespect Him.

At the same time, Jesus was angry that the money changers weren’t making God-honoring decisions for themselves. Jesus loved every person in the temple courts. He loved them too much to idly sit by and allow them to disrespect God because He knew that wasn’t in their best interest; Jesus wanted better for those money changers.

When we find ourselves turning over tables, or at least wanting to, we need to ask ourselves why? Why are we angry? Are we angry for self-centered reasons or for God and others-centered reasons? Is love the motivation of our violent display of emotions?  If not, we should probably hold off on pulling a Jesus-in-the-temple-courts.

What to do When People Hurt You

Sometimes people hurt us.

Insightful, no?

Accidents happen. Feelings get hurt. Egos get bruised. People get overlooked. And, every once in awhile, people may purposefully take a stab at our hearts out of anger or bitterness.

Most of the time this kind of thing happens in isolated incidents. Especially the hurting that is inadvertent. We swallow it, and move on. Or we talk about it, resolve it, and move on.

But what do we do with the relationships in which we know the other person is going to hurt us before they actually do so? Sometimes people aren’t safe or mature or good at loving other people, and, if we had to guess, they are going to hurt us sooner than later.

There are a lot of clues we may be dealing with this sort of person…

Maybe they have a track record of hurting us, and we’ve just come to expect that from them. Maybe we’ve observed them hurting others before, and we figure it’s only a matter of time before they hurt us too.

Or maybe the person isn’t intrinsically hurtful, it’s just that we’ve been around the block enough times to realize that loving others is risky. The more emotionally vulnerable we are with someone, the more deeply they can hurt us.

So what do we do?

The natural tendency is to allow very few people into the depths of our hearts. Keep them on the surface so if they do something insensitive or flat out stupid, it won’t hurt very badly. And if the handful of people we let in ever do hurt us, we quickly learn to construct a wall to keep them out for good so they can’t ever hurt us again.

In other words, we protect ourselves.

Except the only problem is that’s not how Jesus did relationships. 

Jesus had a friend named Peter who swore his faithfulness to Jesus up and down (Luke 22:33). As good as Pete’s intentions were, Jesus knew better, “I tell you, Peter, before the rooster crows today, you will deny three times that you know me,” (Luke 22:34).

Jesus knew Peter was going to hurt Him. They had been great friends, doing life together daily for the better part of three years. I can imagine the pain in Jesus’ heart – the heaviness – at the thought that Peter was going to deny even knowing Him. How hurtful…

Sure enough, after Jesus was arrested, Peter was questioned about his relationship to Jesus, and Peter denied knowing Him (Luke 22:56-60). “Just as [Peter] was speaking, the rooster crowed. The Lord turned and looked straight at Peter,” (Luke 22:60-61).

I don’t think Jesus was shooting Peter an “I told you so” look. That’s not in our Lord’s character. Rather, I can imagine the look was mainly one of great sorrow and hurt. Jesus had known it was coming, but it didn’t hurt any less.

All that to say, when Jesus was in a relationship with someone He knew was going to hurt Him, He didn’t back away. He didn’t build a wall. He didn’t self-protect.

He let the hurt happen. 

And then He continued to love Peter well and do what was in Peter’s best interest by serving him and sacrificing for him – even unto death.

It was not fun. It was not easy. Peter hurt Jesus deeply. But Jesus chose to respond in love.

And we are called to do no less.

Follow God’s example, therefore, as dearly loved children and walk in the way of love, just as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us as a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God,” (Ephesians 5:1-2).