How to Avoid Becoming a Miserable Success
A lesson from Moses and the rock
What does it mean to be a successful leader? How do you know you are succeeding? Based on what? And in whose opinion?
All of us, in our own ways, need to answer these questions for ourselves. Yet I am concerned that our answers as Christians are too often misaligned with God’s view of leadership success. Let me be a bit more blunt. I believe scripture teaches that it is possible to be a successful leader in the eyes of our organization and a failure in the eyes of God. I believe we can meet all of our organizational metrics and still fall short of God’s expectations. I believe we can satisfy our people while, at the same time, disappointing our Lord.
Consider the dilemma Moses faced in Numbers 20. His people were in a desert with no water. Thirsty and angry they called to Moses to meet their need. Their measurement of success for his leadership was simple – supply them and their livestock with water.
There are four key players in this drama. The children of Israel who had a pressing need. Moses who was called and anointed as their leader. A rock, which was the symbol of God’s provision. And God Himself, the ultimate, faithful Provider. The storyline seems simple; Moses hears the cries of his people, asks God for help, is given direction as to what to do, and performs an act that results in God’s provision of an abundance of water. The children of Israel are satisfied, God has provided, Moses is proven a powerful leader, and everyone is happy.
Everyone except God, that is. In fact, God is so angry with Moses that he sentences him to the role of bystander, left to only watch the children of Israel cross the Jordan and claim the Promised Land. Moses had become a miserable success. What did Moses do to deserve such a harsh judgment? We must not miss this. It is critical to Moses’ story and ours.
Let’s start by remembering that Moses had been in this position before. In Horeb, (Exodus 17) the nation of Israel had cried out for water. God had commanded Moses to strike a rock and God provided a rushing torrent from the inert hunk of stone. Now here he is again. Same problem, same complaints, same symbol of provision, same God. But the command was different. This time God commanded Moses, “Speak to that rock before their eyes and it will pour out its water.” (Numbers 20:8) God wanted to supply the needs of His people but He wanted to do it His way. There is purpose in God’s direction and substance in His commands. More than supplying water to His people, God wanted Moses to demonstrate his obedience and trust in God to be the sole provider for the nation. Where before it took sharp blows from Moses’ staff to release the rushing waters from the rock, this time God ups the ante. All he asked Moses to do was to speak, to call out God’s name and trust that without lifting a finger God would again be faithful. This required even greater trust and would result in even greater glory to God.
God said, ‘speak’, but Moses responded by doing it his way, striking the rock with his staff. God’s rebuke is sharp, “Because you did not trust in me enough to honor me as holy in the sight of the Israelites, you will not bring this community into the land I give them.” (v. 12) God accuses Moses of mistrust and bringing dishonor to God. Moses’ decision to act on his own rather than follow God’s ways in faithful obedience brought the wrath of God upon him.
What I find curious in this story is that the waters still flowed. Moses’ disobedience did not result in God withholding His provision. From the viewpoint of the Israelites, Moses had done it again. He was a hero, lauded as a great leader and congratulated for his ability to meet the needs of his people. Moses met and exceeded the metrics of successful leadership. His people were happy, livestock was healthy and a rebellion averted. In every external sense, Moses succeeded.
Here is where we must struggle with a strange tension, a troubling paradox. We can be seen as successful in the world’s eyes while living in disobedience to God’s commands. We can raise the money we need to fund the work of our ministry but do it in a way that dishonors God. We can grow our organizations, achieve strategic goals and expand our mission all while ignoring God’s leading and disregarding His will. We can let the end justify the means of our leadership work and rationalize our reliance on secular methods because they ‘work’. In all of this we can be commended for our clever and effective leadership but be operating outside the will and favor of God.
As leaders we have all stood between overwhelming needs and God’s commands to trust Him to provide. We have been shown the way ahead, God’s way, the kingdom way, which means the counterintuitive way, the faith way and the sometimes nonsensical way. We have been told to speak to rocks and wait for God. How have we responded? Have we been faithful regardless of the cost, or have we justified going our own way, believing somehow that the seeming success of our ministry overcomes the disobedience in our souls?
God defines leadership success in only one way – absolute faithfulness. If we redefined success as faithfulness to knowing and doing whatever God asks of us, I believe it would radically change our performance metrics, our strategic goals, our leadership expectations.
My prayer is that we might take to heart that the single most important thing we do as leaders is to know God’s will and do it without question or compromise. It requires us to die to self and take on the mantle of the faithful steward leader. That means that whether or not the world finds us successful, we find our satisfaction in the joy of God.
In the first month the whole Israelite community arrived at the Desert of Zin, and they stayed at Kadesh. There Miriam died and was buried. Now there was no water for the community, and the people gathered in opposition to Moses and Aaron. They quarreled with Moses and said, “If only we had died when our brothers fell dead before the Lord! Why did you bring the Lord’s community into this wilderness, that we and our livestock should die here? Why did you bring us up out of Egypt to this terrible place? It has no grain or figs, grapevines or pomegranates. And there is no water to drink!” Moses and Aaron went from the assembly to the entrance to the tent of meeting and fell facedown, and the glory of the Lord appeared to them. The Lord said to Moses, “Take the staff, and you and your brother Aaron gather the assembly together. Speak to that rock before their eyes and it will pour out its water. You will bring water out of the rock for the community so they and their livestock can drink.” So Moses took the staff from the Lord’s presence, just as he commanded him. He and Aaron gathered the assembly together in front of the rock and Moses said to them, “Listen, you rebels, must we bring you water out of this rock?” Then Moses raised his arm and struck the rock twice with his staff. Water gushed out, and the community and their livestock drank. But the Lord said to Moses and Aaron, “Because you did not trust in me enough to honor me as holy in the sight of the Israelites, you will not bring this community into the land I give them.”