Personal Growth

Speaking with Clarity and Courage: An Analysis of Character and Motive in Leadership

“The wicked flee when no one pursues, but the righteous are bold as a lion.” – Proverbs 28:1

Everyone that I have talked to about this series of presidential debates has been irked. There is something disheartening, if not despairing, about hearing two people vying for one of the most important jobs in the world speak with so little meaning. The second debate especially was riddled with contradictions, hypocrisy, mud-slinging, avoidance, and incoherent arguments. We all get the sense of uneasiness from the kind of leadership demonstrated, but what is the source of it?

Perhaps a story from Matthew’s Gospel can bring some clarity to what also seems to be going on in our day. In Matthew 21:23–27, Jesus is being questioned by the high priests and elders about his authority. In his regular style, he asks them a return question and conditioned his willingness to answer upon their own willingness. Their utter inability exposes the slipperiness of their character. The question was simple: did John the Baptist come from heaven or from man? They felt the dilemma; if they answered “from heaven,” then would then have no reason to doubt that Jesus too came from heaven. If they said “from man,” they would face the disapproval of the crowds, who took John to be a prophet.

Their lack of courage and clarity is exposed on two levels: character and motive. The character defect comes from the desire to self-promote. This desire is at constant war in each of us. As Bonhoeffer grimly examines, each of us walks into a group of people with the instinctual motive of discovering how we are better than everyone else. This can even be done in round-about ways: “I’m the most humble” or “I’m the most authentic.” Oddly enough, our need for self-elevation is dependent upon the approval of the very people we want to be elevated over. We need them to see that we are the best in such-and-such a sense, and we will go to great sneaky lengths to maneuver that outcome.

The strong godly leader, by contrast, needs to base one’s self sufficiency before the eyes of their Father, “Who is in secret” (Matt. 6:4, 6, 17). As Dallas Willard writes,

If you don’t have this one down, you will drive yourself nuts. You will be torn between pleasing people and pleasing God. You will be torn between your own integrity and what people who don’t understand are saying about you. You won’t be able to lead like this. You will find yourself caught between two different driving forces, and your only resource is an internal sufficiency before the Lord.

The other flaw in the approach of the high priests and elders was in their motives. It was a result-based attempt. They weren’t seeking truth, they were seeking the specific motive of, on the one hand, humiliating Jesus, and, on the other hand, saving face. When these motives drive us more fundamentally than truth, truth will be compromised for their sake.

A godly leader, however, must be rigorously and persistently driven by a pursuit of truth. And this determination must then be combined with a faith in God that allows the results of that truth to play out, even if it changes the direction of their desired outcome.

Only when a leader speaks from a character grounded in a relationship with God and from a search for unadulterated truth can they speak with true clarity and courage.

Craftsmanship and Callused Hands

     When learning any craft, one’s mind and body have to undergo changes in order to execute the skill. One of the first hurtles for a guitarist, for example, is to overcome pain until calluses form on the tips of her fingers. These calluses are necessary for the future musician to achieve any degree of dexterity. The pain hinders the artist’s freedom. This phase, however, is short lived, and the artist must soon train her fingers for faster and more precise movements. The calluses must be limited in their circumference. If the entire hand were calloused, dexterity would be stifled. The guitarist’s hands then must be slightly callused, but mostly quite sensitive.
     This same lesson can be applied metaphorically to other disciplines. A teacher must form calluses. In order for a teacher to have enough courage to be gripping, he must be in the habit of shrugging off certain bothers that come with the territory. Minor disapproval, wandering attention, thoughtless or malicious criticism, or personal nervousness must bounce off his tough skin.
     These callousness, however, cannot be the norm. They cannot be characteristic of the teacher. Ultimately, the teacher must be attuned the thoughts of his audience, open to critique, and compassionate with his words, even when they must move against the grain of received opinion. He must teach with dexterity.
     Either extreme in this regard is to be avoided. We have all had teachers who are characterized by callus; they care little about their students, cause unnecessary controversies, and are understood only with great effort. On the other hand, teachers cannot be too soft. Many teachers will bend to the opinions of their audience and, consequently, teach with impotence. They are also often difficult to understand because their evasiveness becomes inarticulateness.
     A good teacher must have the necessary calluses, yet move with dexterity.

Where the Ideal Meets the Real: Some Reflections about My Abstract Life

From the start, my life experience has always been one of nagging incongruity. The ideal, the imaginative, and the theoretical have always seems more real to me than the sensory world in which I have to remind myself that I live.

 

I find myself floating in a world of the ideal until ideal and real meet. When my world most find its meaning is where the ideal touches down with the real. When that happens, I latch on with my whole being. There have been four areas in my life where I have tangibly experienced this “latching on” to reality: God, Amanda, learning, and running. (I should also say that my parents are certainly a profoundly positive role in my development, but one that has been so consistent that it is hard to quantify. What I have primarily highlighted here are paradigm-shifting life events).

 

God: I always believed in God by way of affirmation, and never thought myself at odds with Him. Most of my experience as a child has been, however, one of what I would call “floatiness,” a sense of being in my own world apart, and not quite sure what to do with it. I learn to “blend in” to a degree, but it always comes up unsatisfying and embarrassingly false. Then God got ahold of me. He is the point at my life in which the Ideal became Real, and the ideal paradigm through which my foggy world of imagination found tangibility. In Him, also, I found that this True Ideal contacted the world in which I lived so potently that I have since found it irreversibly intoxicating.

 

Amanda: I’ve found this connection with my relationship with Amanda. She will be the first to tell you about my spaciness and how it is often uncertain whether I am actually where I am. But, I know for sure that, through her, and my relationship with her, the ideal lens that God gave me has found its most tangible point of application. Christ; God imaged; the Beginning, Middle, and End of all that there is, gave us a tangible illustration of His relationship to us: marriage. This covenant bond with Amanda, played out in daily scenes, is the most human lens that I have and have ever had of this redemptive congruity of the ideal and real. Here, I am the most alive and connected.

 

Learning: I was not a reader, but the summer of my senior year, when I sat on my parent’s back porch trying to read C. S. Lewis’ Mere Christianity, my life changed. For the first time, I was reading someone who discussed the faith in a way that I found gripping. This has formed a lasting friendship with C. S. Lewis that has opened up the doors for me to meet other thinkers as well. I’m not a great reader, but in the past years the Apostle Paul, the Gospel writers, Moses, Isaiah, David, Solomon, Qoheleth, (and, less great) John Piper, R. C. Sproul, Dallas Willard, Fyodor Dostoevsky, Meredith Kline, Soren Kierkegaard, and others have been conversation partners as I’ve tried to find continual congruity in the world I find myself. They are friends and mentors that I have found are asking and answering questions that I thought I was alone in asking.

 

Running: Least importantly, but not without meaning, running has served that role in a minor sense. Growing up, I never thought myself athletic. But, especially from my grandfather (Pop pop) and my mom, running has been in my genes. The first time that I knew I had athletic potential was in 8th grade soccer practice, on distance runs and sprints, that I realized that running came much easier to me than my peers (it was the only thing that came easier). Then, I found out about about cross country, and was spurred on by our very inspiring coach, Joe Feeley (Sr.). I wasn’t the best runner, and, even up until the end of our running “career,” my good friend Joe Feeley (Jr.) (who has since gone to be with the Lord, where I’m sure he is now much faster and is probably more frequently playing baseball, which he always preferred anyway) almost always out-ran me. But, for once, that didn’t matter. I enjoyed it. And, in it, I found something that I could tell that I was made to do well. Since I heard it, I have resonated with the quote from olympic champion and missionary Eric Lidel: “I believe God made me for a purpose, but he also made me fast! And when I run I feel his pleasure.”

 

I have continually met others who are more pious than me, better husbands than me, smarter than me, and better runners. The point is that, in these areas, that has not mattered. As my aforementioned friend C. S. Lewis has pointed out, joy is best experienced when it just is, and slips away when it is over-analyzed or compared.

Should Christians Judge Others?

To say that another person is wrong, in our age of ‘tolerance,’ has become taboo. This is especially so in regard to sexual ethics, but it is also reflective of a larger thought process; one that is thoughtfully proposed by the cultural elites, and mostly thoughtlessly assumed by the culturally relevant.

For the elites, the philosophers of the cultural left (who make up most of the faculty in America’s Ivy League schools), it comes in a form of ethical relativism. Without a standard adherence to a Scripture (on which most of the Ivy League schools once stood), there is no basis on which one can claim what is right and what is wrong. Few deny that universal inclination that certain things are clearly wrong (the ‘new atheists’ claim this as eagerly as most Christians), but they attempt to explain the inevitable on naturalistic grounds. Through becoming the sole interpreters of ethics, they become their own lawgivers, and, unbeknown to us, they have become our lawgivers.

My primary concern, however, is not the cultural elites. For most US citizens claim some degree of belief in God (Froese, 26), but fit into the crowd that we could call the nominally religious. My observation is that most Americans think that much of what Jesus said was good, and that other parts of his teachings are outdated (This is an internally impossible stance, but I will not deal with that here). I want to look at one particular teaching that most Americans seem to like, but not always understand.

Jesus said “Judge not, that you be not judged” (Mat. 7:1).

Well, there you have it! All Christian discernment has been trumped by the Bible itself!

Not necessarily.

First, let it be clear that other portions of Scripture do call Christians to recognize the sins of others. In the same sermon, Jesus tells his disciples to dismiss false teachers based on their works (Mat. 7:15-20). Paul points out the sexual sins of some of his contemporaries and says that they will incur the wrath of God (Rom. 1:18-32). Paul commands that another man in sexual sin be dismissed from the congregation (1 Cor. 5:1-5). Jesus and Paul both give prescriptions for Christians as to how they should confront one another in sin (Mat. 18:15-20; Gal. 6:1). This is just to name a few.

On a commonsense basis, the alternative is absurd. A world in which no judgment exists is impossible to imagine. Teaching, parenting, institutions, and governments could not exist without corrective judgment. This is clearly not what Jesus intended to communicate.

How do we reconcile this with what Jesus said?

Many will say that the Bible just contradicts itself. Skeptics will say that it is merely inconsistent. It’s authors were fallible humans with an agenda. We should expect nothing else from them.

Time and space do not allow me to address why I don’t accept that stance, so I will suffice it to address those who are at least somewhat concerned with the authority of Scripture. The Reformation axiom has been that Scripture interprets Scripture, and I will assume such canonical consistency.

Other interpretations would say that the Old Testament was concerned with judgment, but Jesus was only concerned with grace. I dismiss that view. Jesus came to fulfill and uphold the Law (Mat. 5:17-20), not to contradict it.

So, how do we interpret Jesus’ command to ‘judge not?’

First, we need to consider the purpose and nature of the Sermon on the Mount (in which this statement arises). One of the prefatory remarks is “unless your righteousness exceeds that of the Scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven” (Mat. 5:20). So, underlying this whole sermon is a confrontation of religious hypocrisy; the kind of hypocrisy that cares about the ‘speck’ in another’s eyes, while ignoring the ‘log’ in one’s own (Mat. 7:3-5). Jesus has specific offenders in view.

Also, the Sermon is filled with hyperbole. Jesus makes purposefully striking remarks to draw out the moral implications. He is not speaking as a systematic theologian (Carson, 115), he is speaking with the confrontational language of a (The) Prophet. The language is directly addressing such a tendency toward hypocrisy. The sermon is not so much dealing with hard rules, as it is dealing with the heart behind the Law (Willard, 154-155). It is pointedly striking language (Carson, 40), designed to strike at the heart of those guilty of ‘lawlessness’ (Mat. 7:23).

Jesus’ solution is that we should take the metaphorical log out of our own eye before taking the metaphorical speck out of another person’s. This is an attitude issue. The whole sermon deals consistently with the kind of heart that a true disciple of his should have. In this case, a Christian should be far more concerned with their own sin than with the sins of others (Bonhoeffer, 96-97). In light of understanding their own sin, one such person is not incapable of confronting another, but, when it is necessary, does so with humility, grace, and sorrow.

Secondly, this teaching is a small part of the large message about the heart behind the whole Law: love. Jesus brackets the first section of the sermon with two statements about his fulfillment of the law (Mat. 5:17-20; 7:12). In the second, he says “So, whatever you wish that others would do to you, do also to them, for this is the Law and the Prophets.” This teaching has often been referred to as ‘The Golden Rule.’ Its design is love, and it is the goal of all of the Scriptures.

The problem with one who looks down their nose at another is that they are missing the mission of love; hence they are missing the whole point of all the Scriptures. Only when one is most disappointed in their own sins (the “poor in Spirit” of whom Jesus spoke) and has a desire to love others, are they in a position to confront another in sin.

As Paul says in Galatians 6:1, “Brothers, if anyone is caught in any transgression, you who are spiritual should restore him in a spirit of gentleness. Keep watch on yourself, lest you too be tempted.”

In conclusion, followers of Christ should be more concerned with their own sins than the sins of other, and, if they do confront another, it is to be done in a spirit of love.

On Learning and Guarding the Mind

If one is a thoughtful and diligent student, one does not need to read with a constant mental guard up. If one has an established grid for thinking (for the Christian, this should be a biblical grid), noticing fallacious writings will be easy. One cannot learn something that is in contrast with something one already takes to be truth. A trained mind detects logical fallacies easily. An established mind is an automatic filter of truth. The Christian should be feeding one’s mental grid constantly with Scripture. Then, she or he can relax and glean from all good reading.

In fact, a disposition to be opposed to another’s writing doesn’t help learn nor detect fallacies. It only leaves thoughts looming in the mind, not dealt with. This can sometimes be more perplexing to a person than if the thought was simply given a serious consideration. When one takes the time to glean from a person with one’s guard down, that person is able to digest the information properly in order to sift through truth and and untruth. And, perhaps, if one encounters a foreign truth often enough, it will eradicate an untruth from the mind that would not have otherwise been eradicated.

I’m An Idealist, and I’m Learning to Cope with It

Being a highly introverted, slightly anti-social, B-type idealist, I tend not to be the most pragmatic go-getter.

Don’t get me wrong, I do have a lot of vague and lofty ideas about what I would like to accomplish with my life. When someone asks me about how I hope to carry out those ideas, my response (In my head. I’m an introvert) usually feels something like, “well…don’t be such a pessimist!”

I have, however, begun to develop a philosophy that structures my dream world: when I have an idea, I just do it.

I know, it sounds a bit idealistic. I do have a method. When an idea pops in my head, I decide to act on it immediately. Usually what this looks like at first is determining to do some kind of research into what my idea would require of me.

When I take this first step, one of two things happens. Either of them is helpful.

In the first (and more common) scenario, I quickly realize that the idea is a bad or unrealistic idea. I then no longer have to deal with it floating in my head. I can move on to better and more feasible things. For example, I thought of trying to pick up a trade to try to help pay for my schooling. One read through a blog about how to become an electrician showed me that it wasn’t quite a realistic expectation.

On the other hand, I may actually begin to see an idea come to fruition. It may fizzle out along the way, but I don’t have to wonder “what if.” It may even be carried out, and I can begin to see my idealism benefit me.

I have seen this play out in two specific areas recently.

In the first, it has been a distant dream of mine for some time to become a biblical scholar. I’m not sure whether I just thought that it wouldn’t happen or whether it would just kind of happen on its own, but I was afraid to really act on it. Eventually, I realized that, if I think this could be a good thing to do, I should take the steps to pursue it. I immediately got in touch with some mentors who have done it, and some friends who are further along the way than I am. Following some of the advice given to me, I applied to some schools, and before I knew it, my wife and I are making plans to go to Wheaton to pursue an MA in biblical exegesis. I truly never thought I would be doing this, but I couldn’t have known until I tried.

In the second scenario, I have had the idea of trying to become a writer in some capacity. My first goal was to start a blog. I finally decided to look into what blogging required. I took some time to set a goal for myself, and now I am starting. I hope my writing and approach will develop over time, but I had to start somewhere.