Leading Through Zero Visibility
I was driving through the dark winter night, with the snowfall getting thicker. I could still see the painted lines on the edge of the road, but knew that could change at any moment. That night, many years ago, I remembered a conversation in which my dad had told me about his experience driving through a blizzard. He said that he really couldn’t see the lines that separated the lanes or that marked the edge of the road next to a ditch—or cliff. He was relieved when he found a large truck to follow. He followed those red lights. With Dad’s words in my mind, I started looking for taillights I could follow. I also remembered Dad had said that if the truck ahead of him had veered off the cliff, he would have been right behind it. I prayed that someone ahead of me would have brighter lights, a better line of sight, and more experience on this route than I had, so I could follow and stay on the road.
Like a blizzard, troubled times can bring difficulty fast and hard, making it nearly impossible to see clearly enough to navigate with confidence. Our current situations came fast and hard in some ways, and over hundreds of years in others. Difficulty keeps coming, bringing loss, injustice, pain, sickness, economic difficulty, isolation, and desperation, with no clear end in sight. Regarding COVID-19, no one really knows what is going to happen, or how or when we will emerge. Regarding the sin and destruction of racism, resolving the big issues and having hard conversations are often done without a map. I, for one, sometimes feel at a loss for words. How does one lead when visibility is zero and the road is dangerous?
During this season, my mind keeps turning to King Jehoshaphat and the way he led Judah when he faced an unmanageable crisis. I believe that God is calling leaders today to follow Jehoshaphat’s example—leaders in the church, leaders in government, leaders in communities, schools, and families. Whether we are a pastor or a president, a parent or a principal, Jehoshaphat shows us how to find bright red lights to follow through the blizzard.
His story is in 2 Chronicles 20. Messengers came to King Jehoshaphat with bad news: a “great multitude” is on its way against you. Verse three says that Jehoshaphat was afraid. He would have been crazy to not feel some level of fear. There was no way his army would win against this mass of fighters coming to attack. No way.
But he did not stand still in his fear. The king “set himself to seek the Lord,” making a conscious decision to ask God what to do. And he did not stop there. He “proclaimed a fast throughout all Judah” (2 Chron. 20:3). Jehoshaphat called all the people to pray. Verse four tells us that they did: they came from all throughout the land to pray and ask God for instructions.
As leaders, we will not always be strong and courageous. But we know what to do when we are in over our heads: we must seek the Lord God, the Maker of heaven and earth, from where our help comes (Psalm 121). And we must ask those we lead to pray with us.
Jehoshaphat could have prayed privately, then confidently brought an answer to the people. But he was wise enough to know this was too big for him alone; all the people needed to seek God. He needed prayer support, and the people needed to be part of this process. If we pray alone, we miss the opportunity to model for others how to seek the guidance of God, and we will feed our pride because all eyes will be on us as deliverer—a foolish move, given that God alone delivers. We must be humble enough to call on others to pray and to tell people that we need God’s help.
The king called on them not just to pray, but to fast in prayer. Fasting humbles us because in fasting we deny that which sustains us and, in this action, declare that what we truly and ultimately need is God. Calling on people to fast and pray models dependence upon God and humility before Him.
Americans are not always good at declaring dependence upon God. We like to think of ourselves as self-sufficient. We like to think that we can take care of ourselves, solve our own problems, and therefore we expect it of ourselves and of those around us. We sometimes take personal responsibility to an extreme and—dare I say it—make it our god. We cannot afford to have such a small and (in the words of The Hulk) “puny god.”
As the people gathered, Jehoshaphat led in prayer. His prayer reminds me, as it probably does you, of several prayer meetings I have participated in via internet in the last several weeks. Leaders have called on us to fast and pray, and have led us well in crying out to God. I deeply appreciate the initiative of many leaders, including President Castleberry, to draw us together to repent of sin, to ask for healing of our hearts and relationships, and to intercede for government officials, first responders and front-line workers, and those suffering. I have witnessed prayers that seem to follow the pattern of the prayer Jehoshaphat led:
· We know and declare and remind ourselves that You are God. We remind You that You are God—not that You have forgotten, but to call on Your power and might as God.
· We recall Your past acts of deliverance, Your supernatural interventions on our behalf, even against some of the same enemies that approach us now.
· We ask You to act against these enemies now, today, in this moment.
What follows next in the biblical account is the part I believe to be the most important part for leaders today. It’s found in verse 12:
“For we are powerless against this great multitude that is coming against us. We do not know what to do, but our eyes are on You.”
Declaring powerlessness is risky for a leader. The tension between being authentic and transparent on the one hand and inspiring confidence and hope through tough times on the other is one we as leaders must carefully and prayerfully manage. Declaring before the people we lead that there is nothing we can do and we are out of moves is tough to do, and may be interpreted as weak leadership. But such a declaration positions human leadership exactly where God can and will act: complete reliance upon God, total dependence on His mercy.
We expect leaders—be that one’s self or someone else—to be able to make things right, to fix what ails the world, to manage the crisis. Leaders can do a lot. Humans can do a lot. We must do all we can do, in this moment and in every moment. But God never gave us the ability to be God. There are some things that only God can do. Until we realize that, we are operating in the dangerous deception of pride.
Really, pride is the problem. We think more highly of ourselves than we ought (Romans 12:3) and think less of others than we should (Philippians 2:3). We prefer our own “kind.” We want to do what makes us comfortable rather than deferring to the needs of others out of an understanding that “we do not live to ourselves, and we do not die to ourselves” (Romans 14:7) and “each of us must please his [or her] neighbor” (Romans 15:2). Whether implicit or explicit, there are probably many evidences of pride in most of us. How do we conquer it?
Jehoshaphat’s calling out upon God and public proclamation that “we do not know what to do” is, I believe, the word of the Lord for leaders today. We must be willing to admit to God before those we lead, even if that is the entire world, that we do not know what to do.
There are some books that are very helpful in learning about racism, disadvantage, the role of privilege, and the way that people of color experience the world. There are people around us who will tell us their story, if we will ask and listen with our hearts. That is how we start to take action. But we may not know how to ask or how to listen well. We may not have many semitrucks ahead of us on this road.
There are no books to read on how to resolve a pandemic. There are competing priorities to manage and no one knows exactly how to balance on this high wire strung between crushing economic disaster and devastating worldwide loss of life. There is no clear path for reopening in time to avoid financial freefall while protecting physical life. There is no guide to growing a church in the middle of a pandemic. There are some lessons from the past, and some voices with good ideas, but there is no tail light to follow through the blizzard.
We must look to God. We must, like King Jehoshaphat, admit that we do not know what we are doing and need God. We must fix our eyes on God and wait for Him to give instruction. We must ask Him to help us as we step out in obedience. We must not lean on our own understanding.
God did speak to Jehoshaphat and his people. As the people were praying, God spoke through a prophet—as He has done and continues to do today. The prophet said to all the people (not just the king), “Thus says the Lord to you: Do not fear or be dismayed at this great multitude; for the battle is not yours but God’s” (verse 15) and told the people where to go and where the enemy would be. Then in verse 17 God, through the prophet, said again,
‘This battle is not for you to fight; take your position, stand still, and see the victory of the Lord on your behalf, O Judah and Jerusalem.’
Jehoshaphat was first to respond. He bowed down before the Lord in worship, and his people followed his example. In response to the word of the Lord, they worshipped. The Levites, says verse 19, “stood up to praise the Lord, the God of Israel, with a very loud voice.”
Early the next morning, the people went to the place God told them to go. Jehoshaphat reminded them of what God had spoken the day before and confidently called on them to “believe in the Lord your God and you will be established; believe his prophets” (verse 20). He had found his confidence in God’s instruction and could now confidently lead his people. He took counsel and used his and his advisors’ skills and knowledge to organize the people. He appointed people to go to the front of the army and sing praise to the Lord. As the nation marched out, God showed up and fought the battle for them…while they stood and watched and sang.
Leaders, let’s admit to God when we are afraid. As we make our way through this unpredictable and tumultuous time in history, let’s keep calling on God’s people to join us in fasting and prayer. Let’s lead them in prayer. Let’s build a habit of declaring before God and those we lead that “we do not know what to do, but our eyes are on You” (2 Chron. 20:12).
And when God speaks, let’s obey. Let’s strategize how best to obey, listening well and gathering counsel from those God has placed around us and then, with all confidence in our God, instruct and lead our people.
I am not saying that if we fast and pray God will instantly make our relationships smooth and by the end of the day justice will be a reality for all. I am not saying that He will slay this pandemic and spare any further pain. We have been fasting and praying, and the virus and economic fallout are still among us. We have prayed for racial reconciliation, and yet look where we are today. Our pride in our knowledge, our ability, our leadership, and our understanding—it is all shattered. We need to admit that it is. Only then can we humbly come to God and truly fix our eyes on Him for answers. Only then will we see the light He is longing to give. And only when we obey—follow that light—will we find our way out of the dark storm.
Maybe this is one of the deepest changes God wants to bring about within us through these storms: awareness that leadership based on human knowledge and understanding is confidence poorly placed, but humble leadership that focuses on God, seeking and obeying His direction, is the only way to navigate through any zero visibility conditions.
It’s actually the only way to navigate in any condition.
I made it to my destination that stormy night, and we will make it to ours. God’s plans are not destroyed by circumstances. Ultimate victory is not the question. Rather, the question is whether we will learn to lead by following the only One with the lights that will keep us on the road.
 1 Corinthians 12:7-10, 1 Corinthians 14:3-4, and Romans 12:6 tell us that Holy Spirit is giving gifts to God’s people, and many are given the gift of prophecy, or speaking on behalf of God.
*Scripture references are from the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV).