Tuesday, February 02, 2021

It Ain’t Personal

Spiritual leadership is not easy.

Perhaps that’s part of the reason so few Christians seem to seek it, especially these days. But unless we opt out of family life and church life entirely, most of us are faced with a certain amount of responsibility, like it or not.

Elders are leaders. And in fact every Bible teacher, formal or otherwise, leads too. The act of writing down or publicly giving voice to a spiritual conviction is invariably an act of leadership that declares, “This way, not that way” or at least “This means X, it doesn’t mean Y”, no matter how delicately or deferentially one chooses to formulate one’s opinion. In addition, all mothers and fathers lead their children, or else their lives quickly devolve into an endless series of rather potent miseries.

Not everybody wants the job of leading. Moses didn’t. “Who am I,” he asked, “that I should go to Pharaoh and bring the children of Israel out of Egypt?”

He didn’t want to face down Pharaoh, didn’t want to lead Israel, and in the end … he did a pretty good job anyway.

Spiritual Bumps in the Road

There were a few bumps in the road between Egypt and Canaan. One of the bigger ones is recorded in Numbers 20. At Kadesh in the wilderness of Zin where Israel encamped there was no water to be found. With 600,000 men between the ages of twenty and fifty (or maybe sixty), some estimate there could have been up to 2.5 million Israelites, not to mention livestock. A total absence of water presents a major, soon-to-be-fatal problem, and the people became predictably fearful and angry.

Angry people are not rational, and these folks were not exactly thinking on their feet. They had seen the miraculous deliverance of God at the Red Sea. They had followed miraculous pillars of fire and cloud that pointed the way in the desert. They had seen God’s consistent daily miraculous provision of manna and quail.

Logic and Reality

Logic would suggest that a God who had miraculously provided to date would continue to do so. Doubting his concern for his people or his ability to complete the task he had begun voluntarily was not logical. You can imagine how it must have annoyed Moses to see how quickly the people turned on him.

Most irritatingly, Moses knew the people of Israel had seen this particular water trick before. The water problem was not a new one. At Rephidim there had been no water either. So God told Moses to strike the rock at Horeb with the same staff with which he had struck the Nile, and God would bring water from the rock for the people. And it happened just as God said. The people saw it, enjoyed the benefit from it, and then conveniently forgot the miracle the moment a similar situation arose.

A Critical Slip

So here they are at Kadesh, forgetful, thirsty and ready once again to throw Moses under the bus — a leader who didn’t want the job of leading in the first place. I would imagine Moses was pretty angry. That anger could easily have vented itself in a speech beginning with something like “You moronic, ungrateful, illogical, disloyal, unbelieving rabble, I’m washing my hands of you entirely.”

But it didn’t. It was worse, actually. Moses and Aaron went and fell on their faces at the entrance to the tent of meeting where God’s presence resided, and the glory of the Lord appeared to them to tell them how to proceed. That part was great. What followed was not.

What God commanded in this case was almost the same as at Rephidim, with one telling exception: instead of striking the rock this time, Moses had merely to speak to it in order for God to respond. But instead of obeying, Moses went off-script. “Hear now, you rebels: shall we bring water for you out of this rock?” he cried, and struck the rock twice.

It was Moses’ biggest failure. It was the reason he was not permitted to enter the promised land.

The Lessons Are Many

You’ve probably heard most or all of them before, so I won’t repeat the usual lessons here at any length: the one about how God can bless even when his people fail to obey him as they should, the one about how a single slip in the life of an otherwise-godly person can be forgiven but still has practical consequences, the one about how you don’t fix the problem of rebellion in others by rebelling yourself. Then of course there’s the one about symbolism: that the rock represented the Lord Jesus, smitten once for all and never to be smitten again.

But we’re talking about leadership here. The lesson for leaders that comes home to me from this passage these days is a little more obvious, and it’s simply this: Don’t take it personally. It’s God’s work, not ours.

It’s God’s Work

I think that’s what Moses did here. He let his righteous indignation out the wrong way because for him it had become personal. Not only were the people blaming him rather than God (Why have **you** brought the assembly of the Lord into this wilderness, that we should die here? Why have **you** made us come up out of Egypt to bring us to this evil place?) but it seems to me his outburst while striking the rock hints at the source of Moses’ stress. “Shall WE bring water for you out of this rock?”

I don’t think he was an arrogant man, but on some level, despite all evidence to the contrary, he seems to have felt it was all up to him.

That’s a weight no leader of any kind should ever have to bear.

That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be emotionally invested in the people to whom we have the privilege of being examples. It doesn’t mean we don’t care about those we guide through life in one way or another. We can’t just dismiss them, disengage our feelings and write them off. The Lord certainly didn’t.

But whether it’s natural family, church family or merely a bunch of Christians on the internet that JUST DON’T GET IT, assuming we are really leading biblically, we need to remember it is the Lord’s work, not ours, we are doing. It ain’t personal.

Now of course when Christians reject our bossy, insensitive intrusions or hamhanded misapplications of scripture to their personal circumstances, it may give us reason to do some self-examination. Leaders rarely lead perfectly.

But when Christians reject loving guidance; when they dismiss faithful, correct doctrine or wise, Spirit-empowered practical counsel, they are not so much rejecting our authority as they are the Lord’s.

The Right Spirit

Samuel encountered the same sort of persistent illogic, unbelief and hard-hearted rebellion that Moses did, but he displayed exactly the right attitude when he told the people of God this:
“… far be it from me that I should sin against the Lord by ceasing to pray for you, and I will instruct you in the good and the right way.”
Beats “Hear now, you rebels” any day. For Samuel, it wasn’t personal. That’s leadership.

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