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The Strength You Have

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The story of Gideon found in Judges 6–8 is one of my favorites from the bible. Gideon is not handsome or charismatic like David. He doesn’t have superhuman strength like Samson. He’s not chosen from birth like Jeremiah or Samuel. He’s just a regular guy, frightened like everyone else by the Midianite marauders who roll into town on their Harley camels. Like the banditos in The Magnificent Seven, they take whatever they want and leave so little for the Israelites that the people are doomed to perpetual poverty and hide their families and belongings in caves.

Gideon, too, is hiding from the Midianites when the angel of the Lord first approaches him. He is threshing grain in a wine press. Grain is usually threshed on a threshing floor—a wide, open space where the wind can carry away the chaff as the grain is tossed in the air. A wine press is an especially poor place for threshing. It was usually a large pit lined with bricks with a smaller hole in the center. The grapes were dumped in around the center hole and crushed by stomping on them. The juice would flow into the center hole. During threshing, the walls of the press would block the wind, making it harder to separate the chaff from the grain, but they would also block the view of any passing Midianites who might come and seize the grain as soon as Gideon was done with the threshing.

I can imagine Gideon suddenly being hailed by the angel, “The Lord is with you, mighty warrior.” He freezes with fear but relaxes when he realizes the angel is not a Midianite. His fear turns to anger.

“Excuse me,” he says. “If the Lord is with us, why has it been decades since we saw any evidence of it? We hear stories about God’s wonders, but we never see them, and right now we are being savagely oppressed, and God does nothing.”

Then the angel of the Lord gives him a most extraordinary command. “Go in the strength you have and save Israel from the hand of the Midianites. Am I not sending you?”

Gideon is dumbfounded. “Me? You want me to save Israel? I’m the least influential guy from the weakest clan in Manasseh.”

“Oh, that,” says the Lord. “Not to worry. You’ll have me with you.”

As the story unfolds, however, God shows Gideon that he means exactly what he says. Gideon does save Israel using only the strength he has. The only wonders God performs are signs to reassure Gideon that he is really hearing from God rather than hallucinating or going mad. His military strategy is insane. He attacks with 300 men armed with—swords? no—trumpets and torches hidden in clay jars. The plan is to scare the Midianites into killing each other, and amazingly it works. Once the Israelites see the Midianites are on the run, then they are emboldened to pursue them until there are none left. Then peace and prosperity return to Israel for the rest of Gideon’s life.

God didn’t equip Gideon with special powers or abilities. He didn’t provide him with overwhelming force, an army to match the size of Midian’s invasion. He called Gideon to use the strength he had to relieve the suffering of the Israelites. The Apostle Paul makes it explicit:

Brothers and sisters, think of what you were when you were called. Not many of you were wise by human standards; not many were influential; not many were of noble birth. But God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong. God chose the lowly things of this world and the despised things—and the things that are not—to nullify the things that are.

1 Corinthians 1:26-2

God can call you and give you a mission now, where you are, with the strength you have. You can begin where you are to express his love. You can join with others to oppose injustice. You can alleviate the suffering of those in pain. You can be kind. Kindness requires no preparation or training or special talents or gifts.

Here are three things to keep in mind if you feel God is calling you to do something.

  1. Check your motives. God didn’t call Gideon to make him rich or famous or powerful. He called him to relieve the oppression of his people, to correct an injustice, to right a wrong. Gideon did become rich and famous and powerful, but that was a by-product of God’s mission, not the main event.
  2. Make sure it’s God. God provided signs that he was one speaking to Gideon, signs that made sense to Gideon. He burned up the meal Gideon brought to the angel. He did the thing with the fleece, wet with no dew all around one day and dry when the surrounding ground was wet with dew the next. He also gave him intelligence about his enemy in advance of his attack. All of these things served to reassure Gideon that he was acting as God intended.
  3. God isn’t magic. God’s presence with Gideon did not make Gideon’s task easier. It made it possible. Gideon still had to deal with smashing idols, raising an army, selecting an elite force, planning his military strategy, pursuing the enemy, and cleaning up after all the slaughter. He had to deal with self-doubt and fear. None of those things were easy. Easy would have been staying in the wine press threshing.

God may have a special mission for you, a unique calling to a particular task, but if he does not, he still expects all who belong to him to follow his commands to love others, to do good and act with kindness even toward those who scoff at your beliefs or persecute you, and to pray for the coming of his kingdom. These things are a general call to all his followers. Go in the strength you have and do them.

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How Harry Potter Teaches Trust in God

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My daughter posted the following to her Facebook account in 2008. I asked her for permission to repost it on my website because I liked it so much. With her approval I made some minor editorial changes. I also moved it from my website to my blog.

Many of you may know that I enjoy making sport of modern literary commentary and religious conservatives all at once by forming arguments for parallels between that king of the wizarding world, Harry Potter, and that King of kings, Jesus Christ. In general these assertions are all in jest, but lately as I have been reading the seventh book for the second (and much more attentive) time, I have caught glimpses into Harry’s tortured psyche: the jumble of regret over his lost life with his near perfect parents with anger at Dumbledore for dying and leaving him all alone—I realized I had a certain affinity with the angst-ridden teen.

Harry’s hand brushed the old snitch through the mokeskin and for a moment he had to fight the temptation to pull it out and throw it away. Impenetrable, unhelpful, useless like everything else Dumbledore had left behind—And his fury at Dumbledore broke over him now like lava, scorching him inside, wiping out every other feeling…Dumbledore had left them to grope in the darkness, to wrestle with unknown and undreamed of terrors, alone and unaided: Nothing was explained, nothing was given freely…”

Harry is upset to say the least. He cannot understand why Dumbledore had not given him the whole picture, explained to him exactly how he was to carry out his quest. Add to that the fact that Dumbledore avoided certain intimacies with Harry regarding his past, and you get a bitter and incensed adolescent trying to make sense of clues left him by a seemingly benevolent, wise-and-powerful-beyond-all-reason wizard. Sound familiar? Well it does to me. I can count on one hand the number of days it has been since I last raised a frustrated fist to heaven and demanded of that all powerful and unspeakably good God whom I serve that He explain to me what His plan is. I understand Harry’s frustration, and I relate it to my own. How many times have I looked at situations in my life and said, “Where is God?” And I think if life is supposed to be so hard and our quest for holiness so unattainable, why didn’t God give us more clear direction?

I have heard the bible described as a roadmap and been told that all you have to do is read it and you will be able to navigate safely through life. Well, I don’t know what translation those pastors and youth leaders had, but mine is certainly anything but. When I read the Bible, I find a series of confusing stories and poems accompanied by even more confusing and often conflicting teaching. That road map does not show me how to get from point A (our birth) to point B (our death). It shows me people’s lives and snippets of prophecies and commandments that I often struggle to apply to my daily life. They are like the clues Dumbledore left for Harry. They confuse and baffle me, and it is only through moments of seemingly divine revelation that I ever feel I understand anything about God or His plan for my life.

So it’s easy to get frustrated—to shout and grumble, grow bitter, and decide your own plans are better. Later in the book Harry decides he is better off seeking a powerful wand that will win any duel in which it is engaged. Since Harry knows he will one day have to face Lord Voldemort—only the most powerful dark wizard of all time—it doesn’t seem like the dumbest of ideas. He abandons the quest given him by Dumbledore and seeks only to satisfy his desire.

Here, again, I see Harry’s point. I want more than anything to effect change in the world. I know what I am passionate about: feeding the hungry; advocating for the oppressed; Africa—the list goes on. And I could easily form a very simple and clear plan that would allow me to act in those areas of passion. I could join the Peace Corp. Or I could drop out of school and become a full-time missionary. To be certain, there are days when I question God’s leading me to Iowa of all places. I feel like my precious time is being wasted as I study concepts, theory and theology. And I am tempted to strike out on my own, head for El Salvador, and live a brave and untamed life.

But in the end I must choose as Harry does. Harry, in a moment of clarity, decides wholeheartedly to follow Dumbleore’s instructions and his alone. Though he has the chance to both seize the wand and pursue the quest, Harry chooses only to seek Dumbledore’s quest—a move which, incidentally, could cost him his life. The decision that Harry makes is straightforward. It does not come out of a supernatural encounter with Dumbledore in which the dead man mystically appears before Harry bidding him to do only as he says. Rather, Harry makes this decision based purely on trust in that ever so wise and perceptive wizard.

Similarly, though I find myself longing to, I can not demand signs and wonders from God or even clear and precisely laid out directions. I must simply choose trust. I must choose to trust that God loves me even while, as Harry so often does, I doubt it. Because it is the trust and relationship that God wants of us—not blind obedience. He wants us to rely on him not just for direction but for life—for our very well-being. In doing this He has made Himself indispensable. So kudos to you, Harry Potter. Way to trust your benevolent powerful-and-wise-beyond-all-reason wizard. I will choose to trust mine.

©2008 Elizabeth Wasylik, all rights reserved.

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Compartmentalized

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Read and comment on my blog.

One thing I learned at a very young age was not to talk about church stuff at school. Mention God or Jesus in elementary school and you immediately got pegged as a goody-two-shoes. But it wasn’t just church stuff. You also didn’t dare talk about your family. Mothers and fathers, sisters and brothers were off limits. If you talked about your mother, you were a Mama’s boy. If you mentioned a sister, you had to endure crass comments about them—or fight, which was forbidden. Even a father could set off a competition as you and an opponent—a politically correct term for your worst enemy—one-upped each other in an effort to prove that the father in question was better, bigger, faster, stronger.

As I matured, these simplistic rules gave way to more nuanced guidelines, but the fundamental lesson seemed to be the same: don’t talk about your life in one sphere while you’re in another sphere. So except for the most mundane banalities, we don’t talk about work in church; we don’t talk about family relationships at work; we don’t talk about our private lives anywhere. We become compartmentalized.

At church we think church thoughts and say church-y things: “God bless you.” “I’ll be praying for you.”

At work we think work thoughts and say work-y things: “I need it done ASAP.” “Call or shoot me an email if you need anything.” The unspoken part is “anything work-related.”

At home we think home thoughts and say home-y things: “What’s for dinner?” “Where’s the remote?” “Why can’t you learn to pick up after yourself?”

And in our private, innermost being we think private thoughts that no one—thank goodness—ever hears: CENSORED.

We live lives divided neatly into compartments. At least we hope to. Sometimes things go awry. Maybe it’s your eleventh grader who just told you she’s pregnant. Maybe your wife discovered your online pornography habit. Maybe your boss is hinting that your position is being considered for termination. Maybe your prayers aren’t being answered, and you aren’t sure you trust God.

When such things happen, there is spillover. Your private life suddenly affects your work. Your home life suddenly affects your religion. Your loss of faith affects everything. It’s quite natural to suppose that becoming healthy again means getting everything back into its compartment. But what if it’s not?

What if we were never meant to live so divided from ourselves? What if we were meant to live just one life, whole, integrated, and pure? What if we dismantled the compartments? What if we used God talk everywhere? What if we let others know about our pain and failure—not in a self-absorbed way, but transparently and naturally, as if we were talking with real friends who could share our burdens instead of talking to contacts we were trying to leverage or impress?

I’m not suggesting that we banish small talk or only engage with one another at some deeply personal level. I’m merely suggesting that each of us should be the same person in every context. It’s not easy. It requires integrity. It requires intentional effort. It requires being your own leader. Back in grade school, if I had had integrity—a certain knowledge of my identity coupled with a steadfast resolve to be myself—I would not have been intimidated by those who teased or threatened. I would have stood my ground, for courage arises from integrity. I am calling for integrity instead of compartmentalization.

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