December 21, 2023 • Life for Leaders
Scripture — Matthew 6:7-8 (NIV)
And when you pray, do not keep on babbling like pagans, for they think they will be heard because of their many words. Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him.
As leaders, it’s easy to forget the effect our position has on others.
In our media-saturated world, silence is hard to come by. Almost a hundred years ago, the poet T.S. Eliot wrote that we live in an age where we are
Distracted from distraction by distraction
Filled with fancies and empty of meaning. (Burnt Norton)
And long before Twitter (and now X) was a thing, Eliot warned us of living in a “twittering world.” How’s that for prophetic imagination and insight?
For those interested in cultivating a relationship with God, Eliot emphasizes the need for silence. In his great conversion poem, Ash Wednesday, he puts it this way:
Where shall the word be found, where will the word
Resound? Not here, there is not enough silence.
Jesus would have agreed.
When we meet someone for the first time, someone famous whom we greatly admire, it’s natural to be nervous. And when we are nervous, it’s easy to babble. (By the way, “babble” – like the Greek word it translates in our text – sounds like the noise we make when we stammer and repeat words or sounds senselessly.) It’s easy to be intimidated in the presence of greatness. And without doubt, there’s no one greater than the Creator of the Universe! No wonder we get nervous about what we should say.
I’m grateful that we are not alone in being nervous in the presence of God. Even the Apostle Peter had one such experience in one of the “highlight reel” moments of Jesus’ ministry – the Transfiguration. In that story, Jesus appears in splendor, accompanied by two of the most distinguished figures of ancient Israel’s history, Moses and Elijah. In that singular and awe-inspiring moment, the gospel of Mark records: “Peter said to Jesus, ‘Rabbi, it is good for us to be here. Let us put up three shelters – one for you, one for Moses and one for Elijah.’ (He did not know what to say, they were so frightened” (Mark 9:5-6 NIV).
In other words, Peter was babbling.
So, what keeps us from babbling in the presence of God? Jesus’ answer is simple and direct: “Your Father knows what you need before you ask him.”
Sometimes, when I pray, I feel it’s my job to tell God everything I (or others) need. But Jesus tells us that’s not necessary. God already knows what everyone needs. And, more importantly (and easy to miss), God is “your Father.” In one memorable phrase, Jesus puts us at ease. We are not dealing with some distant and unfeeling deity who knows everything but doesn’t care about us. No, like the best parent imaginable, God not only knows everything but cares for and loves us unreservedly.
But if that’s true, why must we ask God for anything?
To begin with, it helps me to think about this question from a human vantage point. As a parent and a grandparent, why would I want my children or grandchildren to ask me for what they need, even if I’m aware of those needs?
One reason is that I’m interested in a relationship with them. Rather than having mere impersonal knowledge about them, I’m interested in them. I want to know what they think and how they feel, not as objective facts, but in a way only their personal disclosure makes possible.
A second reason is I want to include them in making something happen. Even if I know their need and could unilaterally act on it, not allowing them to have a role – to have “agency” – deprives them of the opportunity to contribute. It denies them the gift of responsibility. And it denies them the opportunity to partner with me in making a difference in the world.
I would suggest those are some of the same reasons God might be interested in what you have to say, even if “your Father knows what you need before you ask.”
But, as our text intimates, there are times when silence in God’s presence is appropriate. Yes, God wants us to be God’s agents in the world; therefore, we are welcome to bring our concerns to God and participate in that way. But sometimes, participation paradoxically includes us waiting silently for God to act. Silence and waiting counter our pretense of being indispensable. Remembering that God is God, and we are not, is an essential (and lifelong) spiritual discipline. As the Psalmist wisely counsels, “Be still, and know that I am God” (Psalm 46:10 NIV). Or as the Jewish scholar Robert Alter translates the first verb: “Let go …” (The Hebrew Bible, Volume III).
Both silence and asking are appropriate responses when we come before God. And that’s because God is not far-off or indifferent, but “your Father” who is present and consistently engaged.
And what might these insights about God suggest to those of us in leadership?
As leaders, it’s easy to forget the effect our position has on others. Being a leader comes with power, and that can be intimidating. When I first became president of my company, I asked one of our part-time employees to come into my office. When she came in, she was visibly shaking. When I asked her what was wrong, she asked me if she was in trouble. I told her, no; I just wanted to see how she was doing in her new job.
It’s easy to intimidate others even when we don’t mean to.
I often think of that experience as a reminder to pay attention to the inherent power differential in leadership. As leaders, we must create a hospitable culture where others can express themselves without fear of retribution. That’s easier than it sounds. And it requires intentionality on our part.
Particularly this Advent and Christmas season, Jesus reminds us that it takes considerable humility and relational hospitality to be a truly human leader. As the early church said in a poem about Jesus:
Who, being in very nature God,
did not consider equality with God
something to be used to his own advantage;
rather, he made himself nothing,
by taking the very nature of a servant,
being made in human likeness.
And being found in appearance as a man,
he humbled himself
by becoming obedient to death—
even death on a cross! (Philippians 2:5-8 NIV)
At Christmas, we remember that God’s coming into history was a costly act of humility. And as the Apostle Paul notes about that poem, we are to “have the same mindset as Christ Jesus.” May that be true for all of us as we live out the implications of Christmas in the new year.
What might it look like for you to have the same mindset as Jesus in your leadership?
Look at the power dynamics in all your leadership settings (e.g., at work, volunteering, and home). You might ask someone who knows you and your leadership context to help you assess how you relate to those you lead. How can you demonstrate appropriate relational hospitality and humility towards those you serve?
Lord Jesus Christ,
You took on human form in the least likely of circumstances, as a baby born to a poor young couple who soon became political refugees. And you did this willingly.
Help us use our leadership power wisely for the sake of others this Advent and Christmas. Help us embrace the way of humility and service as the way of truly human leadership.
We ask in your name and for your sake.
Find all Life for Leaders devotions here. Explore what the Bible has to say about work at the High Calling archive, hosted by the unique website of our partners, the Theology of Work Project. Reflection on today’s Life for Leaders theme can be found here: God Knows What You Need.
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During his adult life, Uli Chi has lived and worked in the intersection between business, the academy and the church. He has had the privilege of serving as past Board Chair of Regent College in Vancouver, BC, as current Vice Chair of the Board of the Max De Pree Leadership Center at Fuller Seminary, and as current Chair of the Executive Committee of the Center for Integrity in Business at Seattle Pacific University. He has also been involved in all aspects of local church leadership, including as a member of the adult ministries team’s teaching faculty at John Knox Presbyterian Church in Seattle.
Click here to view Uli’s profile.