Lecture 2: Character Ladder (Part 1)
The demands of high level leadership positions are profoundly overwhelming, tempting leaders to move into isolation. Integrity is remarkably difficult to maintain in isolation. How do we become leaders who can let ourselves be known? Humility, Submission, and Obedience move us into design for Godly leadership.
Hello, my name is Bill Thrall. I have the privilege of working with Bruce McNicol and John Lynch, David Pinkerton and our staff in a ministry that we call Trueface. I have had this privilege of coming alongside leaders that are often in crises. We are discovering that leaders don’t enter crises because of a lack of capacity or the dynamics of the capacity issues. Almost always, it’s is a character issue and when I say that, everyone listening will go, oh yeah, I knew that. But it is very interesting to us how so many leaders have risen to significant roles with a profound assumption of their character. My colleague Bruce has already shared with you what we think are fairly significant insights into the environment of grace, a safe place where a leader gets to be known and gets to trust and gets to live out who God says they are. As you probably already know most leaders in our culture do not finish well. Research will tell us that the primary reason they don’t, is because of a reality called isolation where the leader in a highly driven capacity driven environment trusts fewer and fewer people with who they really are. The demands of the position are just overwhelming and so they move to isolation. One tragic reality of isolation is that it gives the leader permission to hide which is damming. Whatever a leader hides, it will eventually define them. This is pretty profound.
As we take this session together, I want to talk with you about this character ladder and I want to take us through the rungs of it. In doing that, what I would like to do is just read from Philippians 2. When Bruce and I and Ken wrote the book, the Ascent of a Leader, this was the primary passage of Scripture that we used as the foundation for the whole book. It says to have this mind among yourselves which is yours in Christ Jesus, who though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men and being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on the Cross. Therefore, God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name. So, at the name of Jesus, every knee shall bow in heaven and on earth and under the earth and every tongue confesses that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God.
2. The Rung of Humility
So we see this truism in Scripture. A character begins with humility and it has in it and we will read it later in 1st Peter, a promise; God gives grace to the humble and it has in it a destiny where the humble will be exalted. So that is our ladder, we go from humility to submission to obedience to suffering to exaltation. I would like to talk to you about humility. We teasingly say that humility is often taught as a virtue, but if you have it, nobody can ever talk about it, certainly not you. But we would like to suggest that humility is a relational principle as are all principles of character. They are all relational. Therefore, we define humility as trusting God and others with me. When Bruce taught you, he said that the rails on the ladder are environments of grace and relationships of trust. Unless I, as a leader, am willing to trust God and others with me, I will not be able to climb the character ladder. It is because our faith is a relational faith. The teachings of Jesus in John 14-17 help us to understand that. It is God’s intention that we need others for us to mature into who he says that we are. So we ask the question, who do I trust with me? Am I able to trust God, with me at the core of everything that I am? Let me read that portion from 1st Peter because it helps to strengthen and trust. In 1st Peter 5:5b, clothe yourselves with humility toward one another, for God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble. Listen to the similarity of words with Philippians: humble yourselves therefore so the mighty hand of God at the proper time may exalt you. Here is the promise: God gives grace to the humble, so who are they? The humble are those who trust God with who they are. When we became Christians, we knew that it required our trusting God with our sin because we were admitting that we needed a Savior. And all of us as evangelicals will properly scream at the top of our lungs that we are saved by grace, but we will put a different emphasis on it which is profound. Not only are we saved by grace, but we believe that it is the intention of God that we live by grace. We like to talk about the miracles of Calvary, Jesus died for the sinner, an unbelievable miracle, but he did something else. He gave the sinner life; I, personally, am not who I used to be. I have been given a new life. That new life is lived in the principle of trust; trusting God and others with me.
We work with a lot of leaders; so I can say that very few leaders realize how important it is for them to be someone who earns the trust of those they influence. But none of us can earn another’s trust until we have learned to trust one another. As we think about this reality of humility, sometimes at a pastor’s conference, I will say to the audience, how many of you have excellence as one of your key statements of value. I ask them not to raise their hands. It is obvious that many sort of agree with this, but then I say to them, how many of you have humility as one of the statements of your key values? Not too many hands go up. I wonder if this might be true. I wonder if God doesn’t really want our excellence; I wonder if our Father wants our humility so he can give us his excellence. So, at the bottom of the ladder of character and at the core of my person in the need to admit that I need God and others. You see, success does something to us; for a season it masks our deficiencies of character. I have the privilege of working with some international leaders, next generation leaders. We had our first session last summer and we are going to do another session in Germany in May. We will spend a lot of our time, one more time on these principles that are helping leaders get in touch with their humility. That is our encouragement. Next here, we will go to next rung in the ladder.
2. The Rung of Submission
You see that humility leads to a really important Biblical principle called submission. Let me suggest to you that we are learning that submission is a relationship word; it is a love word, it is a principle of Scriptures that teaches us something that is true about our hearts. It is a character word; we like to say it this way, without trust, I can’t practice humility in my relationship with God and others. And without humility I will not practice submission. Here’s the kicker and without submission, I will never experience the best of your influence in my life. I need you. Submission simply means for me to be willing to let you influence me. It means that I am intentionally going to come under your influence. And every time I say that phrase, I see leaders start to worry. They say, Oh boy, be careful here; I can’t do that. I can’t trust other people with who I am and this forces us to go back to humility. You can see the relationship that is really significant. Without trust, I will not practice humility but without humility, I cannot practice submission. The key reality of this is who do I trust? If the answer is no one, then we are in a very tragic place. For if I am not trusting and not willing to come under your influence then I am not experiencing your love or your guidance and I cannot learn truth from you. As part of our ministry over many years now, we have worked with leadership groups in a process called Submitting to Each Other’s Strengths and protecting each other’s weaknesses. I am currently working with a large church with their executive team and their executive pastor as part of that team. Two years ago, a group began the process of submitting to each other’s strengths. It was a great theory apparently because recently as they the application of submitting to each other’s strength, they entered a pretty uncomfortable world relationally. Prior to this, their experience was that they were highly competent people, doing a great job. But they had never learned until now what it takes to really trust somebody with whom they are and to submit to each other’s strengths.
a. Vulnerability and Transparency
It is a big difference in declaring what I think your strengths are, compared to actually letting your strengths influence me. Some of you are a bit older and you will remember the phenomenon of the late 70’s and all through the 80’s, part of the early 90’s where everybody was discovering their spiritual gifts. Everybody took tests where the things that you did meant certain things. In those days, no matter where Christians were, they were reviewing with each other what they had discovered as to what their spiritual gifts were. Tragically, during that whole period, nobody taught the church, certainly the hundreds of people we worked with, how in fact to submit to the strengths of the other’s gifting. As we now know, all of it, kind of dissipated! We all know we have a gift but not too many people talk about it anymore. Why not? It is because that we need to learn what it means to let someone’s gifts influence us. We are designed by God for each other. We need to learn to live into that. As we know, no spiritual gift is given of God for the benefit of the person who has it. All spiritual gifts are given for the benefit of others and yet very few of us live in a community where we are actually practicing submitting to teach other’s strengths, including gifting. So now, let me now look at probability. We think that vulnerability is a practical application of this principle of submission. Vulnerability is the result of my coming under another person’s influence. We like to make this a contrasting distinction. Transparency is me telling you what I want you to know about me. Many pastors are very good at transparency; they are very good at telling stories about which they are but many of them are not very good in regards to vulnerability. Transparency is you being in control of what others know about you. Vulnerability is when I let you begin to speak into my story. Who speaks into our story; that is vulnerability?
Bruce and I were part of a group called Theological and Cultural Thinkers (TCT). It was a great experience, one of the highlights that I’ve had in the last several years. We met a group of twenty-six; we met for three days, twice a year. The whole assignment we gave to ourselves as a group was to go and think about the significance of what it’s going to take for Christians in our culture to understand what spiritual formation really is. For some reason they ask if I would do the first teaching. When I looked at the schedule and it included certain heads of certain seminaries, the heads of Christian ministries and people like Dallas Willard, I wasn’t sure about taking the session. Anyway, I asked them two questions in the first session. One, what has been the most significant contributor to your spiritual formation and everybody had ninety seconds to give a response. The first twenty people said that it was a significant other person in their lives. That wasn’t shocking in and of itself, unless you hear the rest of the story. Before they came to the first session, I ask everyone if they would write a three page paper on spiritual formation. As brilliant as these people are, some of them couldn’t count. The pages were six, nine, fourteen and one was even twenty and I read them all. It was a great learning point for me and for all of us because when we got to that person, I said that I had read all of their papers. Only three of the papers talked about relationships being part of spiritual formation and one of those were mine. So two of the other twenty-five and yet twenty of the first twenty-two said that it was a key relationship. What is my point? They had great theological papers, but they were disconnected from their own reality. We sometimes us this line: when my theology doesn’t touch my reality, it is because I don’t understand grace. Grace is experienced always in relationship with God and others. So, I may know a lot of theology and still be relationally weak.
b. Vulnerability & Integrity
Vulnerability both expresses and sustains our integrity and our integrity is critical to our developing relationships of trust. So, think about it; who do you trust? Primarily we trust those we believe who have integrity. We like to say this: trust those who demonstrate trusting others with who they are. Integrity is a quality of character that actually elicits trust from others. I could come up to one of you and I could say, my name is Bill Thrall and you can trust me. You would either be smiling or laughing; it is better to say that I would like to have a relationship with you in which we are able to interact in each other’s lives. What is it that I need to do to earn your trust? Years ago, I was pastoring a church and so I did a lot of counselling in my ministry. A young woman came in to see me and sat across my desk. She said to me that she was here because her friends told her to go and talk to Bill. Then she said that she didn’t trust men and that she didn’t trust me. I replied that I believed her, then ask if she would like to come to our home next Wednesday and have dinner with my wife and family? She was surprised, not expecting such a reply. So, she came to our house regularly for over six months. I knew that she was hurt but I didn’t know her story. I knew that she needed something that could create a bridge in order to learn to trust somebody with what was true about her. We all need this. We believe that integrity can actually be developed. Bruce talked to you about an environment of grace, but integrity is developed in a safe place where what is true about me can be discovered and known. Integrity is developed in a safe place where what I’m able to do is both discovered and expressed. If it isn’t a safe place then I will hide the reality of who I am and that hiding will in fact violate any hope I have of my integrity being developed. They are all tied together. These relational principles are tied together. But when I’m able to be in relationship where I am able to honor the reason you are trusting me, that demonstrates that I have integrity and it creates a relationship that is authentic. And because you are choosing to trust me, then I’m able to be responsive to your needs and I believe I can help you there. That person can be trusted, whoever that person is. They have the integrity to say that.
So, humility is trusting God and others with me; leading to a heart that is willing to let others speak into who I am and who I am becoming. Speak into what I do and how well I do it. Because most of work in organizations, some Christian and some not, plus churches. We seem to battle a lot with this reality; how do I trust somebody with my person. When I have the responsibility to trust them to oversee my task, what I do. That is why we believe that submission is so critical in the development of leaders. I make a distinction for all of us. I, as a person, can simply be divided into my capacities of my character. I need people who are able to speak into my capacity but I equally need people who can speak into my character. It is my character that is critical to me experiencing the purposes of God in my life. We have been reviewing this reality of a character ladder as expressed in our book, the Ascent of a Leader. That rung of humility and the reality of trusting God and others with me, leads to an understanding of submission. Jesus submitted to the Father because he trusted the Father. His humility was expressed in his trusting of the Father; his submission was his willingness to come under the influence of the Father. This is what we want to learn. How do I come under the influence of God and others?
So now the third rung of the ladder, obedience which is literally acting upon the influence of God and others. In my relationship with God, I am never the initiator. God is always the initiator. If my view of God is someone that I have to please, then I have become the initiator and I decide what will please him. But if I understand that God is the initiator then a wonderful thing happened; I come to the realization that I am the one that needs to trust him. I need to come under his influence and I need to respond to that by obeying him. It is subtle but it is so important. We do not have to obey knowledge; we can consider it. We can profoundly teach it, but we have a different reality; the truth in the knowledge that we have cannot be experience until trust this. And how would I know if I’m trusting truth; I will act upon it. When I act upon the truth that I say I trust, I am in fact be practicing obedience. I would like to read from John chapter 13:34 where it says a new commandment I give to you that you love one another just as I have loved you. You also are to love one another and by this, all people will know that you are my disciples if you have love for one another. I strongly want to suggest that we understand that Jesus is teaching something here which makes the next statement pretty interesting. Obedience is actually an expression of their righteousness. A new commandment Jesus said I give to you. Is this the eleventh commandment? I don’t think so. The Old Testament law was given by God not as a guide to live by, but as a reality for the human heart to understand for they could not live by it. Their inability to live by the law proved their unrighteousness and the great need for a Savior. That is why Paul teaches us about the law being a tutor; someone who brings us to an understanding of our need of a Savior. So Jesus comes along and says a new commandment I give to you and by the way, it is one that you can obey. What? How can I obey it? Because there is something different about you; you are my disciples.
a. Obedience and Humbleness
I spoke about the miracles of Calvary; Jesus gave me life. At the core of my new life is the righteousness of Christ in me. I am a righteous saint of God with an ability to obey him in a way I couldn’t before. And in a way I wouldn’t before! A new commandment I give to you, to love one another. Paul teaches us in Galatians that love is the fulfillment of the law. Interesting isn’t it? Most Christians are still trying to practice the principles of the law to achieve their Godliness. Practicing the principles of the law doesn’t in fact make us Godly. It only proves that we are not Godly. So, what would be the evidence of my righteousness; my love which is, by the way, a fulfillment of the law? God gives us multiple opportunities in our experience with each other and with those who don’t know him yet to demonstrate that we are righteous, that we have an opportunity to impart love. But Satan looks for multiple opportunities where he can temp our flesh and our sinfulness. Often in the same experience, I have a chance to demonstrate that I am who God says I am. I choose to still believe what I am in the flesh. In the Scriptures and in the history since Jesus was resurrected, God trusts the humble with truth because he gives them grace. This is a very simple insight. Who are the humble? They are the obedient ones for they act upon their trust in their God. I want to make a distinction for us; obedience is not compliance; parents unwisely would use their authority to get their children to comply with what they want that child to do. There is great insight here; compliant children will in fact do the behavior their parents want because a child in their heart has never learned what it means to obey. And throughout their lives, they will hold their parents responsible for their life choices. In the development of a child and in the next generation leaders, we believe that it is imperative that we are not using behavior as the key to a person’s spirituality or to a child’s development. Should a child obey? Yes, absolutely, but what are they obeying? They need to obey the heart of the parent they trust. That is obedience. That child, learning to trust, is learning to come under the parent’s influence because they trust the parent. That child, learning obedience, will have a foundation for the rest of their lives.
It sounds crazy but compliance actually creates disobedience. Saul in 1st Samuel 15; what is the story? It is the story of Saul when he is asks of God through Samuel to battle with and eliminate the Amalekites. Samuel comes to greet him and in verse 13, he says, blessed be you to the Lord. I have performed the commandment of the Lord. But Samuel says, why then did you not obey the voice of the Lord? Why did you do what was evil in the sight of the Lord in regards to the bounty? Saul says I have obeyed the voice of the Lord; I have gone on the mission which the Lord sent me. What is he doing here? He is complying but he is also doing something else. He making this statement without saying these words, ‘I did the best I could and God will be satisfied.’ No, he won’t; God is not asking us to do our best. He is not asking us to give him our excellence. God wants us to humbly trust him and obey him. My obedience is my response to the influence of God in my life and I need to trust God with the consequences of my obedience. That is what Jesus did in the garden and on the Cross. He trusted God with the consequences of his obedience. For some reason, I don’t know many who are learning this, much less teaching this. You see, there is a consequence to obedience. We have this whole sector of the church where the assumption is, if you obey God, you will be blessed and therefore God blesses you for your obedience. The next lesson we are going to talk about suffering. I won’t go into that yet except to say, be careful of the above theology. Often, like Jesus, there is unbelievable suffering for the benefit of others when we are obedient to God.
b. Believing is Obeying
A simply little statement: obeying is trusting. Many of you are familiar with Bonhoeffer’s book, The Cost of Discipleship. I really love that book as it has had a huge influence on my life years ago. He made a statement saying, ‘believing is obeying, obeying is believing.’ He said that they were inseparable: trust and obeying. The church has sung that hymn for a long time; Trust and Obey. The relationship is inseparable. If I say I trust God in this area of my life, I will act upon that trust which is called obedience. I want to repeat something: obedience doesn’t initiate, it is a response to God’s initiation. I want to keep saying that as long as people will let me. Obedience doesn’t initiate anything, it is a response to God’s initiative, but I will not act upon God’s initiative if I do not trust God. Recently, a friend of mine; he and I have lunch together every Wednesday. This began back in 1976. Teasingly, I say to people that he buys every week and that is the reason I go to lunch. That isn’t true but I love to tell people that. But in this last meeting, he had invited a young person he knew to have lunch with us. The young man was thirty years of age and obviously a very sharp person. A couple of his friends had just sold a business and made a lot of money. They were dear Christian people. In that meetings the person made this statement,’ now that we have got this money; we are not sure what we are going to do with it. We are meeting this Friday morning and praying to find out what we are to do for God for the Kingdom.’ I listened for a little and then asked if he could think about instead of meeting on Friday mornings to decide what you are going to do for the kingdom, why don’t you meet and pray something like this, ‘instead of what you are going to do for God, what if you ask God what he would like to do through you.’ What would God like to do through you? Change the model into something where you were the responder. I’m not teasing you here, for I know all of you are very competent. So, that isn’t the point here; instead, if in your heart you desire to do something significant, it depends on your ability to trust God with that significance. What if that was true? What if we could say, God, not what I am going to do for the kingdom but God, what is it that you want to do with me? What am I going to be able to respond to that would require trust and obedience on my part?
c. Saul verses Abraham
Now, back to Saul’s story; there is this profound statement, in verse 22 a phrase, ‘behold, to obey is better than sacrifice.’ Saul’s disobedience is a very interesting dynamic; it helps us to see that Saul never clearly understood his God. He thought that allowing the people to keep all the sheep and oxen, the cattle, and they would have this huge sacrifice to God as a thanksgiving offering for the victory that God had given them. God would be so pleased. The sacrifices were something that Saul and others could initiate. But he said that it is better to obey than sacrifice. What happened in this story? Tragically, Saul in misrepresenting God and thus lost his kingdom in that reality. We as Christian leaders, who is helping us to learn the principles of character that will allow us to get to this place where we are able to trust God with the consequences of our obedience? We like to be in control and we like a Christianity that assures us of heaven, but one which we get to control circumstances in our lives. In the Scriptures, we have a great positive story compared to Saul’s disobedience. There was a man named Abraham, who was able to trust God with the consequence of his obedience, when he was willing to offer his son as a sacrifice. Abraham trusted God, a man of humility. He let God influence his life choices and he acted upon God’s influence. He trusted the promises of God to the point where God said to sacrifice his son. Abraham was willing to do that. Hebrews helps us to understand the heart of Abraham because he knew that God had already promised that his seed would come through this son. He knew that. So, he was literally upholding the word of God before God in being willing to sacrifice his son. Why? Because he knew that God would bring his son back to life. I’m not suggesting that this is an easy lesson; I don’t want to simplify it. I do want to say that in many of the circumstances in which our ministry gets involved, we are dealing in circumstances where leaders are not willing to act upon the influence of others. They put themselves above the tragic place, failure is going to happen. What happens when we do something else? In humility we trust God and we trust others and in regards to influence we come under it and we act upon it.
One last statement in the area of obedience; trusting truth is the basis for our spiritual formation. Who does God say you are? What if I trust in that and act out of that? That would be obeying God; what if I really believed that the work of Jesus Christ at Calvary made me in Christ, a righteous person and I was able to, in fact, trust that truth and act upon it. As we go through this process of our character development, there is this reality when I act upon the truth of who God says I am in obedience, I will grow up. I will mature and in that maturity, I will be able to move into the intentions of God for my life. Here is this last thought on obedience. Can I trust who God says that I am so that I can act upon that trust and live out of that reality into the intentions that God has for my life?