September 27, 2020 • Life for Leaders
Scripture – Isaiah 53:4 (NIV)
Surely he took up our pain and bore our suffering, yet we considered him punished by God, stricken by him, and afflicted.
In our various vocations in business, government, non-profits, churches and homes, pain and suffering are the unexpected consequences of being lead servants. From a Christian perspective, to be a “strong” leader means learning to be a “weak” leader. “That is why, for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses … For when I am weak, then I am strong” (2 Corinthians 12:10, NIV). This final servant song reminds us that following Jesus in leadership means we must enter other people’s pain and suffering, the way Jesus did.
In yesterday’s reflection, I noted that pain and suffering appear to be not incidental but integral to our calling as leaders. Today’s text comes from an extended poem, often called the fourth “servant song” and found in Isaiah 52:13-53:12, that makes the same point. Our conception of leaders is usually rooted in the power and position that leadership confers. Why would Isaiah describe leadership in terms of embracing pain and suffering? How is embracing weakness related to leadership strength?
First, as the full poem describes, we misunderstand the nature of weakness. As today’s text states, “we considered him punished by God, stricken by him, and afflicted.” Weakness – in particular, pain and suffering – is seen as God’s judgment, of being in the wrong. So, if we as leaders are suffering and in pain, something must be wrong with us.
In addition, it’s easy for us to view weakness as inconsistent with and even antithetical to the constructive use of power. This is supported by the biblical witness that God intends for human beings to flourish and to “rule”, i.e., to exercise power rather than to succumb to powerlessness. Surely, to be a leader (for example, a king in ancient Israel) means to exercise power on behalf of the poor and the weak, not to become poor and weak along with them! And yet, Isaiah’s fourth servant song suggests that very thing. As Old Testament scholar John Goldingay insightfully observes, this poem “takes up the motif of the Davidic king as Yhwh’s servant but inverts many of its implications” (ICC Commentary on Isaiah 40-55, Vol II, p.280).
Second and given our misunderstanding of weakness, we need to see the importance of weakness in leadership. Considering his inverted understanding of weakness, it’s not surprising that Jesus pronounces blessing on the weak and the suffering in the Beatitudes. Radically reimagined, weakness becomes the occasion not of God’s judgment, but of God’s blessing.
Even more, weakness is no longer seen as antithetical to the constructive use of power. Instead, it becomes the fulfillment of power in leadership. As God tells Apostle Paul to his surprise, “My power is made perfect in weakness” (2 Corinthians 12:9, NIV). The fact that the Apostle Paul is surprised, given all his leadership experiences of suffering, reminds me of how unexpected this insight will always be in my own leadership experience! For power to be exercised well on behalf of the weak, it must be exercised personally in identification with the weak, not impersonally from afar. After all, that is what the incarnation and death of Jesus are about: “For while we were still weak … Christ died for the ungodly” (Romans 5:6, NRSV).
So finally, how do we rightly embrace weakness as leaders? As I have reflected on before, Christ-like weakness in leadership needs to be embraced willingly and freely (see also 1 Peter 5:2-5). Even when the circumstances are not of our own choosing, we can nevertheless choose to offer our pain and suffering to God. Not only can these form Christlike character in us, but they can serve others in startling ways. As the Apostle Paul writes to the Corinthian Church about his sufferings, “death is at work in us, but life is at work in you” (2 Corinthians 4:12, NIV).
Further, embracing weakness as a leader doesn’t mean eliminating the use of power in leadership, but inverting the expectation of how that power is exercised. Part of our challenge is to fuse our understanding of power with our experience of weakness. A helpful way of understanding that is through a more contemporary word—vulnerability. As Andy Crouch has wisely said, “The pursuit of vulnerability actually leads to authority and to the flourishing that comes when authority and vulnerability are combined” (Strong and Weak, p.172). Understood that way, vulnerability is about embracing weakness for the sake of the other.
Becoming a Christian leader requires that we hold together the paradox of power and weakness, or perhaps more poignantly, the paradox of power through weakness. In our various vocations in business, government, non-profits, churches and homes, pain and suffering are the unexpected consequences of being lead servants. From a Christian perspective, to be a “strong” leader means learning to be a “weak” leader. “That is why, for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses … For when I am weak, then I am strong” (2 Corinthians 12:10, NIV). This final servant song reminds us that following Jesus in leadership means we must enter other people’s pain and suffering, the way Jesus did.
As we follow Jesus, we can expect God to be faithful to his promise to bring life out of death. As Walter Brueggemann writes, “Newness through suffering is the gospel that attests to the power of God at work through human weakness to bring to fruition God’s intention for the world” (WBC Commentary on Isaiah 40-66, p.144).
Do you see weakness and strength being compatible in leadership? Why or why not?
Entering other people’s pain and suffering sometimes simply means taking time to be with them, even when we can’t help fix their problem. Find someone in your circle of influence who is suffering and spend some time with them.
Lord Jesus Christ, as those who name your name, we confess that we have failed to follow you, to embrace your way of weakness. We sing, “I have decided to follow Jesus,” and yet we find ourselves following a view of power that looks more like Caesar and less like you. Forgive us for our ignorance as well as for our deliberate folly.
Open our eyes, Lord. We want to see you. Help us to see that your wisdom is wiser than human wisdom, and that your weakness is stronger than human strength. Grant us grace to suffer with you that we might reign with you.
We ask in your name. Amen.
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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 High Calling archive, hosted by the Theology of Work Project. Reflection on today’s Life for Leaders theme can be found here: The Meaning of Healing