Outcomes & Offenses

How do we define success? One of my favorite stories from the Old Testament confronts us with this question. The Israelites are wandering in the desert without enough food or water when they came to a place called Meribah. There, driven by fear and anger, they rebelled against Moses for leading them into such a brutal and desolate wilderness. Turning to the Lord for help, Moses is told to assemble the people “and tell the rock before their eyes to yield its water. So you shall bring water out of the rock for them” (Numbers 20:8). For reasons I don’t have space to explain here, Moses disobeyed God. Rather than speaking to the rock as he was commanded, Moses struck the rock with his shepherd’s staff twice. But here’s the crazy part—despite flagrantly disobeying God’s instruction a miracle still occurred. “Water came out abundantly, and the congregation drank, and their livestock” (Numbers 20:11).

Here’s the question we must ask: Was Moses successful? From a practical, human point of view, the answer is a resounding “Yes!” His leadership was relevant—he provided water to dehydrated people in a desert. His leadership was strategic—water was essential if they were to reach their goal of the Promised Land. His leadership was powerful—he’d performed a miracle. No doubt if Moses was a leader in the American church today he’d be on the conference speaking circuit with his best-selling book, “Water From Rocks: 3 Steps for Transforming Your Leadership.”

And yet, from God’s point of view Moses was a miserable failure. Because of his disobedience, the Lord punished Moses severely and declared that he would never enter the Promised Land. Instead, Moses would die within sight of it. How then do we explain the water? Why did Moses appear to be successful? It seems the Lord, full of compassion toward his people, chose to act miraculously in spite of Moses, not because of him.

The story is a warning against pragmatic ethics—the utilitarian morality that says the ends justify the means. We can easily convince ourselves that effective, even miraculous outcomes can excuse ungodly and immoral leadership. We’ve seen this at work in modern politics and in the modern church. Christians who were eager to flag the immoral behavior of one politician will excuse the same behavior in another. When confronted by this hypocrisy a popular response has been to list the politician’s favorable policies, judicial appointments, or economic impact. Without question, this pragmatic approach to ethics has been common on both sides of the political divide, but it’s particularly grotesque when practiced by Christians.

Likewise, scandals have shaken influential churches and ministries after a leader’s abusive behavior is revealed. Rarely a one-time offense, stories usually emerge of the leader’s pattern of tyrannical, immoral behavior that was tolerated for years because the church was growing, lives were being impacted, and the gospel was being preached. Like Moses at Meribah, however, no one questioned whether the fruitful ministry was happening because of the leader or in spite of him. We are so easily enamored by outcomes that we often overlook the most egregious offenses.

Martin Luther King Jr. saw this same utilitarian tendency in his day. “We have adopted a sort of pragmatic test for right and wrong,” he preached. “Whatever works is right. If it works, it’s all right. Nothing is wrong but that which does not work.” King saw how lying had become acceptable as long as the lie was done with dignity. He preached about our tolerance for robbery and extortion so long as it’s done “with a bit of finesse.” And he recognized that “It’s even all right to hate, but just dress your hate up in the garments of love and make it appear that you are loving when you are actually hating.”

And MLK predicted where this pragmatism would lead and prescribed a solution. “My friends, that attitude is destroying the soul of our culture. It’s destroying our nation. The thing that we need in the world today is a group of men and women who will stand up for right and be opposed to wrong, wherever it is.” In other words, we need people who don’t just point out what’s wrong or hypocritical in the other group but who are willing to decry utilitarianism when it’s found in their own ranks. It takes people of genuine courage to put what’s right ahead of what’s effective.


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Numbers 20:7-13
Matthew 7:15-23

From Richard Allen (1760 - 1831)

O, crucified Jesus! in whom I live, and without whom I die; mortify in me all sensual desires; inflame my heart with your holy love, that I may no longer esteem the vanities of this world, but place my affections entirely in you.
Let my last breath, when my soul shall leave my body, breathe forth love to you, my God; I entered into life without acknowledging you, let me therefore finish it in loving you; O let the last act of life be love, remembering that God is love.

Source: skyejethani.com

Outcomes & Offenses