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The Routine Absurdity of Leaders Growing Large

Part Two

Our church is preparing for a series on Daniel so I’ve been reacquainting myself with the great King Nebuchadnezzar. To indulge a random aside, simply writing his name takes me back to one of the most creatively corny pulpit jokes to ever grace a Sunday service. In his message from Daniel, our newly-minted pastor stumbled several times over the pronunciation of Nebuchadnezzar’s name. As the congregation eyed each other amusingly over his verbal groping, the pastor paused momentarily, and then said, “The problem is, I just ‘nebber-cud-nezzer’ pronounce his name correctly!”

The eyes rolled, a smile or two broke through, and our new church learned an important lesson. A pastor’s mind visits strange places when left alone in his study.

Nebuchadnezzar is a study of a mind visiting strange places.


The Story 

Exiled to Babylon around 605 BC, Daniel was selected to serve in Nebuchadnezzar’s court. In the opening verses of his book, we find Nebuchadnezzar, the king of Babylon, besieging Jerusalem. Nebuchadnezzar is not the central character in the book of Daniel, but God cast him in a role featured during the first few chapters. His reign symbolizes what happens when leaders – be it kings, politicians, preachers, elders, or entrepreneurs – get stung by pride and swell with their own importance.

Let’s look at our first symptom of a leader growing large.


1. Outrageous Demands

As the curtain on Daniel’s book opens, Nebuchadnezzar has had a nightmare. But this dream, peculiar and haunting in its particulars, had a cryptic echo of truth. Once awake, Nebuchadnezzar was trouble and assembled a cohort of counselors to search for the dreams’ interpretation. Nothing unusual there. If you’re a king with a bad dream that seems freakishly real, getting some help represents good government in action.

But Nebuchadnezzar had an absurd condition. The one who helps him, he decreed, must supply not only the interpretation of the dream, but the dream itself. “The word from me is firm: if you do not make known to me the dream and its interpretation, you shall be torn limb from limb, and your houses shall be laid in ruins.” (Daniel 2:5). Absent one person stepping forward with this prophetic knowledge, Nebuchadnezzar was going to exterminate his entire cabinet.

This was no bluff. You didn’t need to serve Nebuchadnezzar long to recognize his tyranny had teeth. His dream stayed impenetrable though, so his counselors remained quiet. Outraged over their ignorance, the king signed a death warrant. “Because of this the king was angry and very furious, and commanded that all the wise men of Babylon be destroyed. So the decree went out, and the wise men were about to be killed; and they sought Daniel and his companions, to kill them.” (Daniel 2:12–13)

Freeze the frame for a second. Why in the world is Nebuchadnezzar so upset? He’s about to burst a blood vessel because no one knows the specifics on a bad dream he had one night while he was asleep. He wanted a ‘dream-reader’, which is, I guess, a mind-reader who works night shift. But in the world of dream-divining, this was a whole new set of metrics. The counselor was now expected to know not only the interpretation, but the dream too!

Only hours before the slaughter, God provides what Nebuchadnezzar needs through Daniel. But God’s saving grace should not obscure the drive behind the royal demand.  When a person is empowered with leadership, the heart begins a war with expectation. The more they lose the war, the larger they grow.


The Path To Outrageous Demands

It works this way.

With leadership comes certain privileges and prerogatives. You have a title, a name, a platform, a budget, a staff, better benefits – nothing inherently wrong, just things that are inherently sticky. This means that our identity and expectations can quickly adhere to the privileges and prerogatives of our role. First we appreciate the job perks, then we deserve the job perks. We start humbled by others’ deference, then we demand their deference.

Do you see? A seemingly subtle, yet altogether radical transformation has occurred:  We swell with significance, so our blessings become our rights. Our identity, which should be anchored outside of our role and grounded in what Christ accomplished, has adhered to our position. Because we hold X role, we demand Y benefits.

It’s the absurdity behind leaders growing large, and it’s pretty routine. We start empowered for service; then swell by expected preferences; and finally balloon to rupture-levels by the hot air of our entitlement.

The larger we get, the more we expect.

Nebuchadnezzar didn’t simply want a dream interpreted. He demanded the service of someone with the godlike ability to know his dreams. A man with divine gifts who could serve a king who himself was growing more divine. If the others couldn’t produce, well, then they were disposable.

When leaders grow large, their expectations become entitlements. The leader’s self-importance produces unreasonable demands because they see themselves as worthy of better help, even perfect help. Only those with god-like abilities need apply! People must produce amazing results for them because the king deserves it and his dreams require it.  Pity the poor counselor that has a bad day. For those unable to deliver on unreasonable or unsearchable goals, the leader becomes ‘furious.’


The Anger of Outrageous Demands

Nebuchadnezzar dis-integrates into a funnel of fury. Few things peeve a king more than having people around him that don’t know his unspoken dreams.

How do you do when those around you don’t get you? Are you patient and gentle, or are you organizing assassinations like Nebuchadnezzar?

If you’re a leader, pay careful attention to what makes you angry. What incites your wrath reveals your heart. I remember barking at an assistant once because he made a mistake that made me look bad. I mean, assistants exist to always make their bosses look good, right? In this instance, he was failing at one of the very ends for his existence!

Expectations become irrational when the soul swells with self.

Thankfully, upon returning to my office, the Spirit of God was waiting for me with the sweet gift of conviction. And guess what. My anger was not ‘righteous’, as I so often assume. It was the wounded pride of a leader whose reputation was momentarily scratched. Out of the abundance of my self-love, my heart spoke (Matt. 12:34).

But the gospel spoke louder. Loud enough for me to hear; to repent and to return to my assistant with a contrite heart.

The gospel is God’s pin to pop the puffy heart and puncture the bloated head of entitled leaders. I’m grateful for His faithful ‘pricks’ that reduce my size and restore my heart to its proper proportion. When I can’t hear the gospel, my role grows large, my expectations swell and my mind visits some strange places and absurd ideas.

Just like Nebuchadnezzar.


2. 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.


3. 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.

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