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Striking Rocks and Other Leadership Sins
by Tom Goodman
June 30, 2011

As a leader, have you ever lashed back at the critics?  If so, Matthew 5:21-22 can lead you back to where you need to be.

Jesus begins by saying murderers will be judged.  But then he drills down deeper, saying that "anyone who is angry with his brother will be subject to judgment."  In fact, he adds, "anyone who says to his brother, 'Raca' is answerable to the Sanhedrin."  Even more, "anyone who says, 'You fool!' will be in danger of the fire of hell."

To call someone "Raca" was like calling someone "bonehead" today.  How can simple anger or derision be as bad as murder?

Tim Keller thought through that question in a recent post:

This passage helps me understand Numbers 20.  As in Exodus 17, the children of Israel are in the desert wilderness facing parching thirst.  They charge Moses with being, at worst, evil or, at best, an incompetent leader.  Again, God tells Moses to go to "that rock."  This time however he tells him to speak to it, and the rock will pour out water sufficient for everyone (v.8).  Moses gathers everyone at the rock, but instead of speaking to the rock, he angrily upbraids the people.  "Listen, you rebels!" he cries.  "Must we bring you water out of this rock [again]?" (v.10)  Striking the rock with his staff in his fury, the water comes out.  God, however, tells Moses that he now would not enter the Promised Land, because Moses "did not trust me enough to honor me as holy in the sight of the Israelites." (v.12)

If we've ever read this passage, maybe we concluded that Moses' sin was failure to follow instructions.  Of course we should never veer off the course God sets out for us, even in the slightest way.  But there's more going on here.  In the relentless pressure of leading a crowd of complainers, Moses had descended into contempt for them.  Keller:

God was ready to be gracious, but Moses was in no mood for that.  The relentless criticism had made him self-righteous.  He held them in contempt.  He had wrath but no compassion, and that is the mark of a man who is becoming less like God, not more.  (See Isaiah 15-16 where God grieves even as he speaks in judgment.)  Moses is a man who has forgotten grace, and the sign of it is a sanctimonious spirit along with words of denunciation without humility and compassion.

The popular New York City pastor applies this to our own leadership:

Leadership brings a steady drumbeat of criticism and misunderstanding, even when things are going well.  When things go poorly, people vent their frustration and anger on those in charge.  A newly ordained pastor once said to me, "I didn't know that, once you become a leader, there's always someone mad at you!"

John Newton (the pastor who wrote the lyrics to "Amazing Grace") once cautioned that controversy can make us self-righteous.  "Whatever it be that makes us trust in ourselves that we are comparatively wise or good, so as to treat those with contempt who do not subscribe to our doctrines, or follow our party," he said, "is a proof and fruit of a self-righteous spirit."

Keller reminds us of this quote and adds:

All leaders, and especially Christian leaders, must be on guard against this inevitable temptation and this terrible sin.  It is natural, when under criticism, to shield your heart from pain by belittling the critics in your mind.  "You stupid idiots."  Even if you don't speak outwardly to people like Moses did, you do so inwardly.  That will lead to self-absorption, self-pity, maybe even delusions of grandeur, but the great sin is that the growth of inner disdain leads to pride and a loss of humble reliance on God's grace.  Moses treated God with contempt when he became contemptuous toward his people.

Read that last line again:  "Moses treated God with contempt when he became contemptuous toward his people."

As leaders, let's make sure that we're patient with the critics.  We're often tempted to strike rocks and shout "Bonehead!" ("Raca!")  But there are serious consequences to our leadership, not to mention our very souls, if we take that route.


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