The Soldier, Faith, and Leadership

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As I was considering our current national leadership this morning, I was a bit discouraged by what appears to be a lack of humility and respect in the current administration. Oh, I know there is a philosophical “thoughtfulness” that is touted in this administration, but there seems to be something missing from their actions. I’m not seeing a depth of character and understanding that comes from hardship. There is a leadership style informed by time as a servant that seems to be absent or wanting. Think to yourself about what type of leader you respect and why you respect them. I know that we can all default to liking leaders that say and support things that we appreciate and believe, but do those things really make a great leader?

I always try to weigh every topic, when possible, on what I read in scripture. Call me idealistic, but I believe that the divine revelation of the biblical canon along with the Spirit’s guidance is sufficient to equip us of all knowledge necessary for righteousness. The Bible is no stranger to the concept of leadership. The very concept of leadership is dependent on the reality of need. In living out this life we run into complexities and challenges that serve as a reminder that we are not self-sufficient. One story, among many, comes to mind on what the character of a good leader looks like. The story of leadership and need that comes to mind is the story of the centurion with great faith. This story is found in Luke 7:1-12.

The centurion is in a hard spot. He has a highly valued servant that looks as though he is about to die.  There is great need here. Based on what we know of this centurion, we can gather that he is a follower of Yahweh. He has an appreciation for the people of God and has the means to even build them a synagogue. He also knows and respects the customs of those under his responsibility. There is no doubt that he is an authority figure in the community, and the Jews had every right to fear centurions and distrust them. That knowledge in itself is a testimony to the character of this man. The elders of the Jewish community where the centurion lived were willing to approach Jesus on behalf of this gentile.  Notice that the centurion respected the customs of the Jews enough to not approach Jesus on his own merit. Rather, he trusted in the friendship of others to help him. A leader walks in wisdom towards others. A leader is gracious in the way he approaches the ideas of others, whether he agrees with them or not. In this case, a gentile “loves” the nation of the Jews and trusts their religious leaders enough to seek out the help of one of their prominent healers.

This is where the centurion’s character really starts to shine and his level of leadership manifested. Knowing that he is a gentile soldier with blood on his hands and unclean practices throughout his life, he sent friends to Jesus to deliver this message, “I do not deserve to have you come under my roof. That is why I did not even consider myself worthy to come to you.” There is no sense of entitlement in the way that this centurion approached Jesus. There was nothing but humility and a right understanding of his moral condition. He knew that he was not worthy to approach Jesus. This centurion had a self-awareness that many leaders do not have in the face of other cultures. It wasn’t a façade either. It is quite clear, based on how the events play out in the text, that the centurion was humbly reaching out in desperation to a man that the Roman’s viewed as inferior in nature. He wasn’t just giving word of mouth to the Jews in his territory, he was placing himself in debt to his Jewish friends and to Jesus for even considering his need.

What the centurion says next is what solidifies his character as Jesus entertains his concern. The centurion says, “But say the word, and my servant will be healed. For I myself am a man under authority, with soldiers under me. I tell this one, ‘Go,’ and he goes; and that one, ‘Come,’ and he comes. I say to my servant, ‘Do this,’ and he does it.” Jesus recognizes the man’s character and testifies to everyone listening, “I tell you, I have not found such great faith even in Israel.” You cannot manifest a proper faith without humility. You cannot manifest a proper faith without confidence.  There is a mingling of humility of self and confidence in the other that empowers a biblical faith and leadership. A good leader knows what it is like to feel vulnerable and weak. A good leader has walked in those shoes before, and knows that power is a fickle beast.

It does not surprise me that a centurion is the one that showed this kind of character. Obviously the military can be a place for depraved men and women to increase in their depravity, but it also offers an opportunity that is rare in our culture. It offers an efficient location to die to one’s self. There is ample opportunity to learn how to suppress one’s own desires and consider the needs of the soldier next to you. Someone like me could hide their selfish nature for only so long before all of my colleagues understood what kind of a man I was. When I was in Marine Corps ROTC at Texas A&M I presented myself as a caring man at times, but when push came to shove I was about preserving myself and furthering my agenda. My comrades and those officers above me took notice over time. It wasn’t until I was broken and beaten down by the consequences of my sin that I began to become trusted again. I had to approach those that I wronged and seek their forgiveness and trust.

Though I wasted that time, that time was not wasted on me. If I would have had better character, I could be telling a different story right now. Thankfully my story finds me now with some humility and confidence that is significantly related to the trials of my time in military training. I don’t claim to have the faith of the centurion, but I have an empowering faith in Jesus. It’s a faith that has allowed me to become a better leader, and to empower proper faith and leadership in others. I am not entitled to this influence. I am not entitled to this leadership. We will not all be given the efficient tool for self-denial that the military provides, but we are all given hardship and frustration as our instructors. The sooner we recognize our condition of need and the right object of our confidence, the sooner we will find peace and a means to share the light with those around us. There will always be those that we are the smell of death to, but our actions will testify to the validity of our words and the metal of our character.

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