The Routine Absurdity of Leaders Growing Large (Part 2)

by Dave Harvey June 15, 2017

If you read the first post, you know that our church is starting a series from Daniel and I’m reacquainting myself with the Babylonian King, Nebuchadnezzar. I won’t be providing a phonetic spelling for his name so just make due with however it rolls off the tongue. More importantly, be thankful that ‘Nebuchadnezzar’ is not the name you type each time personal information is required. In the world of carpal tunnel surgery, the name ‘Nebuchadnezzar’ is the mother-lode.

Yes, I digress. But you might commend me if you knew all I wasn’t saying.

Anyway, we are looking at how Nebuchadnezzar is portrayed in the book of Daniel and examining how leaders can become huge in their own minds. Let’s look together at another symptom of a leader growing large.

Forgotten Rescues 

The repeated displays of power and grace experienced, then forgotten, by Nebuchadnezzar are part of what makes this subtext so intriguing. In Chapter 2, Daniel steps up to satisfy his audacious demand by revealing and interpreting his dream. Nebuchadnezzar is overwhelmed with God’s omniscience and bows to give Daniel his props – but only for a moment.

Within a few verses, we read, “King Nebuchadnezzar made an image of gold,… Then the satraps, the prefects, and the governors, the counselors, the treasurers, the justices, the magistrates, and all the officials of the provinces gathered for the dedication of the image that King Nebuchadnezzar had set up.” (Daniel 3:1,3). This was the law the King then instituted. “You are commanded, O peoples, nations, and languages, that when you hear the sound of the horn, pipe, lyre, trigon, harp, bagpipe, and every kind of music, you are to fall down and worship the golden image that King Nebuchadnezzar has set up. And whoever does not fall down and worship shall immediately be cast into a burning fiery furnace.” (Dan. 3:4-6)

In only a short span of time, Nebuchadnezzar swings from bowing before God to becoming a god; from being a leader who worships God to insisting his people worship a leader. What happened to the heartfelt gratitude towards God for having Daniel interpret his dream?

It was forgotten. Big leaders have bad memories. Particularly when it comes to God.

It happens again. Nebuchadnezzar discovers that Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego will not bow to his image, so he sentences them to a fiery death. You know the story. They emerge from the fire unsinged. Nebuchadnezzar is astonished and exclaims, “Blessed be the God of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, who has sent his angel and delivered his servants, who trusted in him, and set aside the king’s command, and yielded up their bodies rather than serve and worship any god except their own God.” (Dan. 3: 28). Nebuchadnezzar then decrees that anyone ‘who speaks anything against the God of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego shall be torn limb from limb, and their houses laid in ruins” (Dan. 3: 29). One will look hard to find a more vivid illustration of the routine absurdity we are talking about in this series.

But wait, there’s one more.

Once again, the memory of God’s rescue fades quickly. Nebuchadnezzar is soon found strolling across the roof of his royal palace saying, “Is not this great Babylon, which I have built by my mighty power as a royal residence and for the glory of my majesty?”(Dan. 4:30) Before the self-celebration was complete, God spoke saying, “you shall be driven from among men, and your dwelling shall be with the beasts of the field.” (Dan. 4:32).

Nebuchadnezzar, the same leader who had built an empire, was about to go crazy.

It’s a funny thing about leadership. The larger we grow, the less we recall. God’s rescues are displaced by our exploits. We become big and God becomes small.

In Finding Nemo, one of the main characters is Dory, a blue tang (surgeonfish) with short-term memory loss. The fish’s character is built around the idea that she can never remember more than a few seconds back. Tagging fish with this label is probably weak science, but the entertainment value was strong enough for Dory to get her own movie. More important to this point, she provides a great analogy for the forgetful absurdities of leaders growing large.

When leaders talk like Nebuchadnezzar (“Is not this great Babylon, which I have built by my mighty power”), they remember like Dory. The leader’s life and acts grow large, and God’s many rescues get the courtesy flush. Once God is dismissed we lose our path. Before the ego-engorged and self-enamored leader wakes up, he is stepping through a door marked “Lunatics Welcome” and wondering why the clueless won’t follow.

Fallen Leaders

“Let anyone who thinks that he stands take heed lest he fall” (1 Corinthians 10:12).

For anyone who assumes, ‘my ascent is assured, my success is locked down, my reputation is unimpeachable,..and all because of me!”, God has two words. “Take heed”. There may be some God-ordained insanity coming your way, specifically designed to rescue you from absurdity and restore your senses.

God has a special training program for leaders who think too highly of themselves. Whether it’s Lucifer who said, “I will ascend” or the people of Babel saying, “let us make a great name for ourselves,” God organizes a loving tumble to help us find our right size and right place.

Think about this as the loving act of a devoted dad who is dedicated to his child’s rescue.

God loves us so much that he will push us off the altar of our accomplishments. He will act decisively to lay low anything in our life that competes for his supremacy. It looks different for everyone: The airtight business plan goes belly-up, the guaranteed investment tanks, the church splits, a kid goes AWOL. In the world of leadership, there are certain kinds of entrenched pride that only a big failure can dislodge. As an act of fatherly protection, God lets us tumble.

Three years ago, I found myself in a season where the scope of my leadership responsibilities was substantially reduced. For years I had been near the center of a growing denomination that was training pastors, planting churches, and caring for churches. But circumstances emerged, some of it due to my own mistakes, that made it impossible for me to remain there. After close to three decades in the same church and same denomination, I was starting over.

Whether this was a God-inflicted fall or a God-inspired rescue, I honestly do not know. But the thing I do know is that it felt like a fall. I found myself going from leadership in a growing denomination to sitting quietly in elder’s meetings trying to understand and learn a new church culture. Much of what I had spent my adult life building seemed to be over. Or at least closed off, as if it was overwritten and no longer relevant.

It wasn’t about broken relationships, but disappointed dreams. How did I get here? What is God doing? What have I done? It felt sometimes, to be honest, like God had defrauded me.

But as one month swallowed another, an adjustment began to occur. The smaller role felt good and right. I was thinking more clearly about my past, and looking more honestly at failures and fruit. I was smaller, but with the downsizing came clarity to see myself and my experiences from a different vantage point. Three years later I’m back in the world of leading a growing church network, but I pray I will never forget the way my vision cleared from the vantage point of a lower place.

From Insanity to Worship

Nebuchadnezzar understood this too. “At the end of the days”, he said. “I, Nebuchadnezzar, lifted my eyes to heaven, and my reason returned to me, and I blessed the Most High, and praised and honored him who lives forever”. (Dan. 4:34)

The touch of madness became the door of freedom. Nebuchadnezzar was laid low. God’s violent intervention reduced his size, thus clearing his mind. The result was the right-sizing of all things. God was huge and Nebuchadnezzar was small. The lesson was made clear. “Now I, Nebuchadnezzar, praise and extol and honor the King of heaven, for all his works are right and his ways are just; and those who walk in pride he is able to humble.” (Dan. 4:37)

If we walk in pride, God is not only able to humble us, He has obligated himself to do so. For “God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble.” (1 Peter 5:5)

Whether you are on your way up or down in your leadership journey, maybe you need to pause right now and just thank God for opposing love and lavish grace. It’s the kind of mercy that rescues leaders from routine absurdities.

In our final post, we will explore the faithfulness of God to leaders like Nebuchadnezzar and discover some practical steps we can take to stay small.

Editor's Note: This was originally published at Am I Called? and is part of a 3 part series.