Fear Knot

By Eddie Lowen

How to untangle boldness, fear, and pride.

I wonder how Pharaoh and his crew sized up Moses when he barged into their presence. Did Moses look “fresh from the farm” after decades of rural ranching? No doubt, age and circumstance had altered Moses’ appearance. Those easy childhood years as adopted grandson of an earlier king were long gone.

However, what Moses lacked in fashion and grooming, he overcame with boldness. True, he hedged at the burning bush. Yet something had shifted in him. His presence was amplified by another presence. Aaron went along because Moses lacked confidence as a presenter, but ironically, there is no record of Aaron opening his mouth. Moses struggled in practice, but on game day, he was money.

He didn’t bother being diplomatic. Rather, Moses was dominant: “This is what the Lord . . . says: ‘Let my people go’” (Exodus 5:1). No wimpy qualifiers. No polite “please.”

I have some pity for Pharaoh because I’ve encountered a few people who brought me messages from God. Oddly, God always wanted exactly what the messenger wanted. Since some claims of divine messaging are questionable, I understand why Pharaoh wanted confirmation.

But Pharaoh was more than prudent; he was insolent (Exodus 5:2), “Who is the Lord, that I should obey him and let Israel go? I do not know the Lord and I will not let Israel go.” When you invest a lot of energy and tax revenue promoting your own divinity, it’s tough to take orders from other deities.

We know Moses pretty well because we have more narrative from his life than most biblical characters. So, it’s not speculative to say Moses was among the boldest people in the Bible. He pronounced judgments. He spoke with great authority. Moses was so confident as God’s representative, he made rubble of the stone tablets on which God himself carved the commandments. That’s the equivalent of you or me throwing the original manuscript of the Gospel of John into a fireplace to make a point. I wouldn’t have the nerve. Moses did.

This and more makes Numbers 12:3 a fascinating and valuable statement. It is one of the most noteworthy compliments ever paid to a human being: “Now Moses was a very humble man, more humble than anyone else on the face of the earth.”

King-confronter. Tablet-smasher. Plague-pronouncer. Slave-freer. Judge-appointer. Consequence-bringer. Miracle-worker. God-seer. But still humble.

The Dilemma

Those who dare to lead know the tension between boldness and humility. Not only is there a struggle in the heart of every leader to harmonize these qualities, there is also dogged determination on the part of many critics to highlight (or exaggerate) any sign of pride in us, especially in the church.

Maybe that’s why so many pastors project a vibe, not of humility, but of crippling self-doubt. When you combine the weight of past mistakes, frequent criticism, and the Bible’s warnings against pride, who can blame a guy for concluding it’s safer to loathe himself than like himself?

But the leader who is empty of confidence is avoiding pride at too great a cost—and usually doesn’t lead for long. Without some poise and conviction, people won’t follow us very far, especially uphill.

There is also a psychological price to pay when a leader is mired in timidity. In his song “Fear,” Ben Rector admits that much of his early music career was a lengthy season of deep insecurity. In his lyrics, Rector confesses to being scared of failing and looking like a fool; he writes, “I’d rather quit than risk that I could lose.”

That’s the theme song of the fearful leader. It’s exactly what Paul was pruning from Timothy when he wrote, “For the Spirit God gave us does not make us timid, but gives us power, love and self-discipline” (2 Timothy 1:7).

Before the burning bush, Moses was humming a song of fear. He had wrecked his life morally, legally, and socially. It was safer to remain in the desert muttering at mutton.

But Moses learned it wasn’t his vision (freedom for his countrymen) that was in error—it was his methodology. He hadn’t been cut. He’d been sidelined for a time of recovery.

Beware Pride

If we could somehow place timidity and pride on opposite sides of a scale that weighed their potential danger, the scale would tip quickly toward egotism. Proverbs 29:23 warns, “Pride brings a person low, but the lowly in spirit gain honor.” It’s better to live well inside the border of humility than to allow even one foot inside the kingdom of pride.

Blessed are the meek. Empowered are the humble. The Bible says God actively works on behalf of the humble, but personally opposes the proud. I want the advantage of God’s approval in my life and work.

The reason pride is so dangerous for leaders is that its impact is multiplied. I spend time with leaders of both smaller and larger churches. I’ve learned that the percentage of humble leaders and arrogant leaders in large churches is no different than the percentage of each in smaller churches.

Large church leaders are criticized more often, more publicly, and more severely. Some of it is warranted, of course. But much of it is hyperbolic commentary by people with more words than wisdom.

However, there can be no argument that when a larger church leader’s spirit is bloated with pride, the negative impact is magnified because of the increased visibility and influence.

A business consultant writing for Harvard Business Review confirmed that the prevailing assumption in many business environments is that confidence is crucial to success. Meekness is often viewed as weakness in high-powered circles. However, after years of observing leaders and their results, CEO and business professor Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic claims that low confidence is better than overconfidence. Employees and leaders who have a confidence deficit are more likely to accept critique, more likely to self-correct, and less likely to foster animosity with coworkers and clients.

Even in your career, if you must fall off one side or the other, choose meekness. A lot has changed in our world, but prideful people still, eventually, fall. When falling, it’s better to start close to the ground.

Character More Than Strategy

We live in a day of unbelievable accessibility to resources. The books that have been written for church leaders are incredible. Conferences—good ones!—are multiplying like rabbits. Colleagues and ministry friends can stay in touch daily and share ideas with just a click. Some of the best preachers in the world are willing to share their teaching notes with other preachers! The preaching and church leadership greats of the past would be stunned by the material available to us on our phones.

But regardless of how capable and informed we become, our greatest challenge will always be surrendering our hearts to be shaped by the Holy Spirit. There are no shortcuts for this, and it can’t be delegated.

J.R.R. Tolkien groaned when a proofreader suggested Tolkien’s initial draft of The Hobbit contained too much silly chatter between characters. To Tolkien, clever dialogue was more interesting and challenging than constant action. Still, he decided to heed the input, informed his publisher the final draft would arrive late, then edited significantly.

Tolkien didn’t just trim. He slashed, deleting half the dialogue. As he did, he could feel the pace of the story improving. He also changed a central character’s name from Bingo to Frodo. That was a good call by the man of many initials. Giving Frodo the name Bingo would have been akin to J.K. Rowling opting for Old MacDonald over Dumbledore.

Despite his literary talent, Tolkien not only considered a bold critique, he fully embraced it. I assume he sent a thank-you note to his buddy C.S. Lewis for the valuable advice.

Regardless of your giftedness, someone out there can show you a better way—and we all need a better way. Someone out there can inspire you—and we all need to be inspired. There are someone’s feet at which you should be sitting and listening. The wiser you and I become, the more we will recognize those people around us.

Milton Rokeach’s book The Three Christs of Ypsilanti features the author’s experiences with several men in Ypsilanti, Michigan, all of whom believed themselves to be Jesus Christ!

One technique Rokeach used to reconnect the men with reality was to ask each of them questions in front of the others. He would ask one man, “Why did you say that?” The man would answer that God had told him to say it. Then one of the other two men would respond, “I never told you to say that!”

How often do we pretend to know, do, or be what God hasn’t asked? God’s known qualities are that he knows everything, can do anything, and can be everywhere at the same time. There’s a lot of freedom in admitting that we’re not even close.

Eddie Lowen serves as lead minister with West Side Christian Church, Springfield, Illinois.

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