The Essential Ingredient for Leadership

I came across a quote by a politician I could get excited about. He wrote: “I am not bound to win, but I am bound to be true. I am not bound to succeed, but I am bound to live up to what light I have.”

That’s an amazing statement. He meant it, too. The trouble is, he won’t be on the ballot. That’s because the man who spoke those words was our sixteenth president, Abraham Lincoln.

That sort of integrity seems like the rarest of elements among many in leadership today. It’s true of contemporary politics, and sadly, the same thing might be said of leadership in the Church.

We can teach leadership skills, but each of us must choose integrity.

Consider Israel’s first two kings, Saul and David. Both were chosen by God Himself. Each shared similar temperaments and strengths. But one king ended his reign in ignominy, and the other continues to be esteemed today. What made the difference?

Both Saul and David physically attractive men; Saul stood a head taller than his peers, and David was ruddy and handsome. Both displayed authentic humility when Samuel anointed them to become the leader of the nation. Both were actively involved in humble work. Saul was hunting for his father’s stray donkeys; David was herding his father’s sheep.

Saul tried to deflect the attention from himself by responding to Samuel’s pronouncement that he was to be the king of Israel, protesting, “But am I not a Benjamite, from the smallest of tribe of Israel, and is not my clan the least of all the clans of Benjamin? Who do you say such things to me?” (1 Samuel 9:21). Saul even withheld from his uncle the news about his new status. In fact, on the day of his coronation Saul was hiding among the baggage.

David was retrieved from the sheepfold when Samuel came to anoint him to replace King Saul. There is no record in Scripture of David flaunting that he was the heir apparent to the throne. In fact, he entered the palace to play his harp to calm King Saul’s troubled emotions. He fought as a soldier under Saul’s command.

We discover another similarity at their coronation when both were filled with the Holy Spirit. We read that ”God changed Saul’s heart… and the Spirit of God came upon him in power…” (1 Samuel 10:9, 10). As for David, “Samuel took the horn of oil and anointed him in the presence of his brothers, and from that day on the Spirit of the Lord came upon David in power” (1 Samuel 16:13).

There we have it! Both men had the blessing of God’s Spirit before they even began to reign. Tragically, the very next verse (1 Samuel 16:14) almost screams for a response:  “Now the Spirit of the Lord had departed from Saul and an evil spirit from the Lord tormented him.” Whether I like it or not, the text says that God ordained this evil spirit, perhaps some type of mental disorder, to plague Saul. Surely there had to be a reason for this severe discipline. And there was.

Soon we discover a fatal flaw in Saul’s character.

Both men were fallible, and fell into sin. But what happened when the sin of each was exposed? Their responses were like night and day.

Saul displayed impatience and a lack of faith when he foolishly assumed the role of priest before a battle. He had waited the prescribed seven days for Samuel’s arrival, but the prophet was apparently running late. Israel’s citizen-soldiers, already fearful of the impending battle, began to slip away. Rejecting Samuel’s instructions, Saul took the bull by the horns and offered the burnt sacrifices on his own.

On the surface, his offense may seem trivial. After all, Samuel should have been punctual! Responding to Samuel’s interrogation, Saul explained that he was compelled to offer the burnt offering (1 Samuel 13:12). (I hear a not-too-subtle attempt to blame Samuel’s tardiness.)

Samuel’s rebuke must have shaken the young king to the core. God’s spokesman declared that God had rejected Saul’s kingship, and that another man—with a heart for God—would replace him.

Years rolled by, and Saul once again disobeyed God’s direct command. You can read about it in 1 Samuel 15. After a dramatic military victory Saul spared the king of the Amalekites and the best of their livestock. Whatever logic Saul might have been using, it was sheer disobedience. Not to mention the fact that Saul built a monument for himself at Mt. Carmel to honor his tainted victory.

Exposed by the bleating of the cattle, Samuel confronted Saul about sparing the livestock. Backed in a corner, Saul sputtered and hedged, trying to pass off the blame on his soldiers. Finally, the angry prophet shouted, “Stop!” Only then did Saul finally admit his sin. But as you will see in the account, he seemed a lot more concerned about his public opinion polls than what the God of heaven thought about his disobedience.

David wasn’t perfect by a long shot. The sins we remember about him are recorded in 2 Samuel 11 and 12. Strolling on the palace roof in the cool night air he saw a beautiful woman bathing. An innocent glance became a lustful look. Abusing his power as king he ordered servants to retrieve Bathsheba for a one-night-stand in the royal bedroom—before sending her home before dawn to conceal any evidence. But God knew.

Weeks passed, making it appear that David’s sin would remain secret. But then the message arrived: Bathsheba was pregnant. Her husband, one of David’s most valiant soldiers, was away from home fighting a war. David’s first response to hide his sin and save face resembled Saul. But before we stone David, isn’t that our normal response when we are confronted by sin?

You know the story. David sought to preserve his reputation by bringing Bathsheba’s husband Uriah home for a little R & R. Uriah, however, proved to have more integrity than the king, refusing point blank to go home to sleep with his wife while his comrades faced peril and death on the battlefield. Even getting Uriah drunk failed. David considered his options and ended up plotting Uriah’s destruction—sending him back to the front lines with his own death warrant in hand.

Free at last, David married Bathsheba and his dirty little secret remained safely hidden. But not from the Lord—who sent Nathan the prophet to confront David, exposing his sin of adultery and murder.

This is where we discover the real difference between Saul and David.

David’s response? “I have sinned against the Lord.”

That’s it. No blaming. No excuses. No minimizing. Just honest confession. “You’re right. I did it. I am guilty.”

To really understand David’s brokenness read his prayer of confession in Psalm 51. Overwhelmed by guilt he cries for mercy. With a truly broken heart, he prays, “Blot out my transgressions…. Wash away all my iniquity… Against you, you only, have I sinned and done what is evil in your sight.”

Realizing the depth and gravity of his sins, David went on: “Cleanse me… wash me… blot out … create in me a new heart …” David’s passion for God is revealed in these words, “Do not cast me from your presence or take your Holy Spirit from me.”

David had walked with God through severe times. While hiding from Saul in the desert wilderness he could say, “Though I pass through the valley of the shadow of death, you are with me.” But now he sensed the distance he had placed between himself and his Shepherd and Guide—and he couldn’t bear it. David could endure the rejection of people and their crude gossip, but he could not tolerate the thought of another moment separated from God’s presence.

Martin Luther wrote in a letter to his friend Melanchthon, “God does not save those who are only imaginary sinners. Be a sinner, and let your sins be strong [or sin boldly], but let your trust in Christ be stronger, and rejoice in Christ who is the victor over sin, death, and the world.”

Luther wasn’t advocating sinning deliberately so God’s grace could abound (Romans 6:1). Rather, he was calling for brutal honesty in confessing our sin to God. That’s exactly what John wrote: “If we confess (admit) our sin, He (God) is faithful and righteous to forgive us our sin and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:9).

That’s integrity. That’s what God expects from us. Remove the mask and all those attempts to appear righteous. Just ‘fess up.

Saul sought the approval of the people and lost his heart for God. David sought God’s approval because he had a heart for God.

That is why David, even with adultery and murder on his rap sheet, is called “a man after God’s own heart.” He was far from perfect, but so passionately in love with our holy God that he couldn’t tolerate the thought of losing that fellowship, that intimate friendship he had loved since boyhood.

We rightly concern ourselves about the integrity of our politicians. But what about that person looking back at us in the mirror?