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.


Emulating The Grace of The Martyrs

The church’s praise of the martyrs causes an uneasy tension for the honest Christian. Most, on principle, can honor their courage from afar, but how can one begin to consider emulation? How does one rejoice in the beatitude, “blessed are the persecuted” in anything more than by mere cognitive assent? For cognitive assent is never sufficient means for courage. The Christian virtues must be embodied to be executed, and they must be delighted in to be embodied.

The question remains, how does one delight in the idea of potential martyrdom (a notion any Christian should at least seriously contemplate)?
The early church had crucial insight. The opening section of the Martyrdom of Polycarp (Chapter 2) tells of countless deaths under persecution leading to the death of Polycarp:

And truly, who can fail to admire their nobleness of mind, and their patience, with that love towards their Lord which they displayed?—who, when they were so torn with scourges, that the frame of their bodies, even to the very inward veins and arteries, was laid open, still patiently endured, while even those that stood by pitied and bewailed them.

How could they endure such torments? The next line tells us:

But they reached such a pitch of magnanimity, that not one of them let a sigh or a groan escape them; thus proving to us all that those holy martyrs of Christ, at the very time when they suffered such torments, were absent from the body, or rather, that the Lord then stood by them, and communed with them. And, looking to the grace of Christ, they despised all the torments of this world, redeeming themselves from eternal punishment by [the suffering of] a single hour. For this reason the fire of their savage executioners appeared cool to them. For they kept before their view escape from that fire which is eternal and never shall be quenched, and looked forward with the eyes of their heart to those good things which are laid up for such as endure; things “which ear hath not heard, nor eye seen, neither have entered into the heart of man,” but were revealed by the Lord to them, inasmuch as they were no longer men, but had already become angels.

They looked not to their torments, but to their Lord. The key to the martyrs’ courage is not in their suffering, but in the grace bestowed to them. So it was also with the first recorded martyr, Stephen (Acts 7). Right before his death “he, full of the Holy Spirit, gazed into heaven and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing at the right hand of God” (Acts 7:55). As he was being stoned, he cried, “Lord Jesus, recieve my spirit” (Acts. 7:59).

The opposite was said of Christ than of the martyrs. The cry of dereliction reveals a forsaken Savior.

The martyrs understood this trade-off; Christ was forsaken so that we never would be.