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Leadership Temptations: What Does Success Look Like?

February 27, 2021 • Life for Leaders

Scripture – Matthew 4:5-7 (NIV)

Then the devil took him to the holy city and had him stand on the highest point of the temple. “If you are the Son of God,” he said, “throw yourself down. For it is written: ’He will command his angels concerning you, and they will lift you up in their hands, so that you will not strike your foot against a stone.’” Jesus answered him, “It is also written: ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’”

Focus

It’s easy to focus on spectacular progress and dramatic results. And we (or others) can quote Scripture in support of us doing so. It’s harder to do the unrecognized and seemingly invisible work that is required in our faithful commitment to God’s work in the world. It’s not often we think of this as a test of the calling, character, and competence of our leadership. But as Jesus found out in the wilderness, that is what it is.

Devotion

As we saw yesterday, Jesus’ first temptation in the wilderness dealt with his hunger after weeks of fasting. Temptation often arrives in our places of physical weakness or depletion. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve noticed that I’m susceptible to feeling depressed at the end of a long and demanding workday. Rather than looking for a more subtle cause, it’s been helpful for me to recognize my exhaustion and simply go to bed. Sometimes, temptations are simple to deal with. But then again, sometimes not.

Sandro Botticelli, The Temptation of Christ - 1480-1482

Sandro Botticelli, The Temptation of Christ – 1480-1482

Jesus’ second temptation focuses, surprisingly, not on his weakness, but on his strength. Jesus’s response to the first temptation demonstrates his deep faith and commitment to God’s goodness and faithfulness. As Jesus might have thought, “God brought me into the wilderness and God will take care of me here.”  Jesus trusts God and won’t act unilaterally, even to save his own life. He responds wisely to the tempter’s offer by quoting God’s own instruction to Israel about learning to trust God in their wilderness.

So, the tempter proceeds to “double down” on Jesus’ response. You trust in God, do you? Well then demonstrate your faith by a courageous and spectacular act of faith: “Throw yourself down” from “the highest point of the temple.” Since you are God’s beloved Son, and in response to your great faith in God’s faithfulness in all circumstances, God will surely come to your rescue.

The tempter’s suggestion has a practical logic to it. What better way for Jesus to begin his ministry than to demonstrate his unreserved faith in God (and God’s faithfulness to him as God’s Son and Servant) by such a spectacular miracle in front of both the small and the great gathered at temple worship. It’s public relations genius!

And to seal the deal, the tempter quotes Psalm 91 to make his point. In his commentary on this passage, theologian Dale Bruner puts it starkly, “In this temptation Jesus experiences one of the most surprising sources of radical evil in the world: the perverse use of Scripture” (The Christbook, p. 109). The tempter’s “literal reading” of Psalm 91 underlines the challenge of reading Scripture well. The tempter could easily have added one of our modern evangelical maxims about interpreting Scripture, “God said it; I believe it; that settles it.”

But Jesus shows us a better, albeit more difficult, way. As his response illustrates, we need the rest of Scripture to understand a particular text. And as Jesus teaches elsewhere, there are helpful interpretive lenses through which to look at any particular text. The greatest commandments to love God and to love neighbor are essential to our understanding of any passage. Further complicating matters, God’s wisdom often requires nuanced responses in different contexts. Wisdom is not putting “a square peg in a round hole.” In this case, Jesus discerns that love for God and neighbor doesn’t demand a spectacular demonstration of his faith or God’s faithfulness.

So, what might all this teach us today?

I find it interesting that both the first two temptations deal with doing the spectacular. I have to admit that I like dramatic results. I like starting a small company that does exceedingly well. For those of us in business in the Pacific Northwest, we all want to be the next Microsoft, Amazon, or Starbucks. If we are working in the non-profit sector, we want to address the most urgent need, for the largest number of people, in the shortest possible timeframe. We want to make an immediate impact, to leave a mark, to change the world, and not “settle” for less. Isn’t that how we measure our success in leadership? It’s certainly tempting for me to do so.

When I was in Israel a number of years ago, we toured the area around the Lake of Galilee where Jesus spent much of his time in ministry. We visited both the village of Capernaum and the city of Tiberius which is not far away. What was striking to me was the observation made by our guide: Jesus spent most of his ministry in the village of Capernaum, not in the city of Tiberius. He seemed less interested in the immediate impact of ministry in an up-and-coming metropolis, and instead focused on making long-term investments in a relatively out-of-the-way place.

Jesus lived what he learned in the wilderness. It’s easy to focus on spectacular progress and dramatic results. And we (or others) can quote Scripture in support of us doing so. It’s harder to do the unrecognized and seemingly invisible work that is required in our faithful commitment to God’s work in the world. It’s not often we think of this as a test of the calling, character, and competence of our leadership. But as Jesus found out in the wilderness, that is what it is.

Reflect

How are you tempted to focus on the spectacular and the dramatic in your leadership? How have you dealt with those temptations?

Act

Find one area of your work where you can focus on doing what is needed without looking for attention or positive feedback.

Pray

Lord Jesus Christ,

Teach us to be discerning in our leadership. We are often distracted by the “shiny new thing” that attracts our focus and energy, but detracts from the long-term stewardship you’ve entrusted to us. Help us to pay attention to the ordinary and mundane matters in our care, and to the marginal voices in our communities who need our help.

We ask in your name. Amen.

P.S. from Mark

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Find all Life for Leaders devotions here. Explore what the Bible has to say about work at the unique website of our partners, the Theology of Work Project. A Podcast on today’s Life for Leaders theme can be found here: What Am I Supposed To Do? Defining Success For a Purposeful Life – Nicholas Pearce (Podcast Ep.3)


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