The current health care debacle in Washington is rife with lessons of all kinds for leaders. Not least among them are arguably the two most common mistakes made by leaders: One, overestimating themselves and, two, underestimating their responsibilities to the people they serve. This dangerous combination all too often fuels the foolish behavior of overstepping or overreaching as a leader.
Among the ranks of American presidents, some would say that George H.W. Bush overstepped when he said, "Read my lips..." and then went on to create new taxes. Those words haunted him and likely cost him an election. Others would assert that Bill Clinton underestimated his responsibility when he lowered the standard of behavior in the Oval Office. Still there are those who would argue that George W. Bush overstepped when he went to war with Iraq. And, the growing consensus now appears to be that Barack Obama overreached when he pushed massive health care reform upon a deeply divided Congress and a financially troubled country. But, Obama isn't the first leader who overreached; nor will he be the last.
Perhaps the biggest over-reacher in history was Nebuchadnezzar, the ancient Babylonian king. At one point, he was by all accounts an astounding success as a leader. You might say he sat on top of the world. The absolute monarch of his day, he ruled over an empire that became a thing of legend for its sheer grandiosity and excess. At the center of his domain was the famed city he built, Babylon. About fifty miles away from modern-day Bagdad (Iraq), Babylon was vast in its appearance and size, including enormous surrounding walls, stunning towers, and the golden image of Baal purportedly weighing over fifty thousand pounds.
Babylon was also home to one of the ancient "Wonders of the World", the Hanging Gardens, and to a palace considered among the most magnificent ever built. Nebuchadnezzar ruled it all and at the very moment in which he found himself at the top of his game, he paused to reflect ... not on God, nor Baal, nor even good fortune, but rather on himself. Imagine a president saying this at a press conference:
Is not this great Babylon, which I have built by my mighty power as a royal residence and for the glory of my majesty? (Daniel 4:29b-30 ESV)
Nebuchadnezzar had a kingdom, yes, but he also had a problem; a soul sickness, in fact. It is the same thing that affects, and infects, people today, all people and all leaders. It's called Pride. C.S. Lewis, noted academic and Christian apologist, dubbed it "the essential vice, the utmost evil."
Pride is our default mode. Have you noticed? It fills us up with ourselves, our wants, our wishes, and Pride is never satisfied. As much attention and acclaim as a prideful person can draw to themselves, one thing is for sure - it is never enough. And, ...
Pride makes you compete with people instead of commune with them. Lewis said that, "Pride leads to every other vice: it is the complete anti-God state of mind... [and] Pride is essentially competitive - by its very nature ... Pride gets no pleasure out of having something, only out of having more of it than the next man. It is the comparison that makes you proud: the pleasure of being above the rest. Once the element of competition has gone, pride has gone." But, there's more ...
Pride makes you see only what others "should" be doing for you. It only looks through its own set of lenses. It circumvents not only compassion, but even mere consideration and collaboration. Our view of life has the ability to fuel such selfishness within us that the only lack we can see is our own, the only injustices that ever occur are towards us, and the only one who is truly entitled to the best of everything is (you guessed it) yours truly! But, worst and perhaps best of all ...
Pride will precipitate a fall of some sort in your life. According to Scripture, we can count on it. Proverbs 16:18 says, "Pride goes before destruction, and a haughty spirit before a fall." When Nebuchadnezzar's pride crossed the line, God sent a dream and a Daniel to him to warn him of the fall he would soon face.
...you shall be driven from among men, and your dwelling shall be with the beasts of the field. You shall be made to eat grass like an ox, and you shall be wet with the dew of heaven, and seven periods of time shall pass over you, till you know that the Most High rules the kingdom of men and gives it to whom he will. (Daniel 4:25; ESV)
Ultimately, Nebuchadnezzar absolutely fell apart as a person. His pride wasn't his doing; it was his un-doing. So much so, he became animal-like. He became "troubled" and deeply so; his sleep was disrupted, his mind confused, his life riddled. Pride damaged his person and altered his soul.
The good news about Nebuchadnezzar, however, was this: God did not leave him alone. As it turns out, according to the Biblical narrative, God has an unlimited number of ways for dealing with my pride and yours. Chuck Swindoll once said, "For God to do an impossible work, he must take an impossible man ... and crush him." In Nebuchadnezzar's case, God used a dream and a prophet to reach out to this taunting tower of a man. Daniel warned him that ...
...your kingdom shall be confirmed (i.e., restored) for you from the time that you know that Heaven rules. (Daniel 4:26b; ESV)
If Nebuchadnezzar is the paramount example of pride in the Bible, then certainly Jesus is the ultimate model of humility. Nebuchadnezzar clung to his greatness as a leader and yet ultimately lost it. On the contrary, Jesus surrendered his greatness and, as a result, won it forever. He "humbled himself" and now God has exalted him forever (Philippians 2). Pride seeks to control people; humility instead yields itself up to God's control.
Humility is not only the antithesis of pride; it is the antidote for it. Either we will learn to "humble ourselves" or we should be prepared for God to humble us.
Clothe yourselves, all of you, with humility toward one another, for "God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble." Humble yourselves, therefore, under the mighty hand of God so that at the proper time he may exalt you, ... (1 Pet. 5:5b-6; ESV)
Perhaps God allowed Nebuchadnezzar to rise so high and then to fall so far as an example to us of the fact that it is God and God alone, who raises up leaders and who brings them down. Once he had been disciplined by God, the freshly-humbled King of Babylon had a whole new view. Here's how he described the change:
At the end of the days I, Nebuchadnezzar, lifted my eyes to heaven, and my reason returned to me, and I blessed the Most High, ... 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. (Daniel 4:34,37; ESV)
Surely the most subtle lie Pride ever tells a leader is this: "Pride is always someone else's problem, not mine." That's it. When you swallow that one, whether president, politician, businessman or pastor, you have been caught by Pride itself and caught deeply. The days of your leadership influence are then numbered. At that point, either repent or hold onto your seat. But remember, "those who walk in pride he is able to humble."
The good news is that, ultimately, God met up with Nebuchadnezzar. He went to great lengths to ensure that no matter how high this leader rose, that even from the top of his world he would come to realize that he still existed under a Mighty Hand. When tempted to overreach or underestimate, today's leaders would be wise to take note of the man who once sat on top of the world.