Relating to Imperfect leaders: Lessons from David and Saul
As a pastor, have you had church leaders interfere in your church affairs without your knowledge? Have you had leaders, in deference to powerful or rich members, fail to stand by you in critical moments when you need their assistance? Have you worked under leaders who promised much and delivered little? Have you been handed down unreasonable decisions from the “powers above” that affect you in a negative way? Have you served alongside fellow leaders who, without much thought, make unwise decisions that hurt others?
In my early years of ministry, I would not only listen but also contribute when pastors discussed perceived weaknesses of conference administration. But this perspective changed when I was first asked to serve on the Conference Executive Committee. I noticed and appreciated that decisions were made with much prayer. I also noticed that decisions appearing to be simple and easy were often complex, involving material that could not be shared widely. Leadership is more complicated than I thought!
Pointing out weaknesses is easy. We all have them, and they are usually obvious. In contrast, encouraging people to do their best and being supportive of others takes more effort and courage.
Example of David and Saul
The story of how David related to Saul has helped me much in relating to church leadership, particularly when it seemed that leaders were imperfect, unfair, and perhaps revengeful and autocratic.
David, the giant-killing, harp-playing shepherd of Bethlehem, was under constant threat. King Saul, who had made David an army general because he slew Goliath, became jealous of David’s rising popularity. After a particular victory in a battle, when the triumphant David marched through the city, the women of Israel welcomed him with a rousing song: “ ‘Saul has killed his thousands, and David his ten thousands!’ ” (1 Sam. 18:6–9, NLT). Saul did not take kindly to the comparison, and jealousy overtook him. This attitude of distrust and envy became a lifelong obsession with Saul in his relationship to David. Saul wanted David dead. Twice, Saul threw a spear at David while David was trying to soothe Saul with harp music (1 Sam. 18:10, 11; 19:9, 10). Saul even sent men at night to slay David in his home (1 Sam. 19:11–18). The danger to David’s life was so real that he had to flee Saul’s presence, sharing the sad sequence of events with his best friend, Jonathan, Saul’s eldest son. Even this did not stop Saul from pursuing David (1 Sam. 24:14).
Once, when Saul was chasing David in the desert, Saul went into a cave to relieve himself (1 Sam. 24:1–22). Unbeknownst to Saul, David and his men were hiding farther back in the cave. David’s men urged David to make the most of the opportunity while Saul was defenseless. David’s acts show his respect for God’s chosen leadership. He snuck up on Saul without being noticed. But instead of using his sword to get rid of his nemesis, he just cut a part of Saul’s garment and retreated quickly, unnoticed, back into the cave.
Later, David revealed himself. From a distance he held up the piece of Saul’s garment with the unspoken challenge, “Lost something?” Saul was highly embarrassed and repentant. David was also repentant, stating clearly that he was wrong to cut off the hem of the king’s garment and that he should not have even thought of killing the Lord’s anointed and appointed ruler. “ ‘Some told me to kill you, but I spared you. I said, “I will not put out my hand against my lord, for he is the Lord’s anointed” ’ ” (1 Sam. 24:10).1 An amazing statement! It was not as if David had not killed anyone before, for He was a warrior with the blood of many on his hands and continued to be a warrior all his life. Imagine the emotional pressure of running for one’s life every day just to stay alive and not retaliating. How could one be that way?
David had another opportunity to kill Saul one night when Saul, his 3,000 soldiers, and an elite bodyguard were in sleep (1 Sam. 26:1–25). Saul again repented. David commanded his soldier Abishai, “ ‘Do not destroy him, for who can put out his hand against the LORD’s anointed and be guiltless?’ ” (1 Sam. 26:9). David would not kill the Lord’s anointed. Publicly David was respectful and loyal to a God-ordained king who had a severe emotional obsession against David.
But how did David handle this emotional strain?
David’s coping strategy
During the time David was running from King Saul, he wrote a number of psalms. In these psalms we find his coping strategy. David was honest with God. He did not like being on the top of Saul’s most wanted list and being pursued all over Palestine. David did not want to live the life of a nomadic vagabond, dragging his wives, children, and friends all over the land. Being enemy number one in Israel hurt, and hurt badly. David did want his enemies destroyed. He wanted a normal life. He wanted the situation to change; having Saul and his supporters dead would be nice. But David chose to respect God’s anointed leadership and found his strategy to cope with his emotional distress and dangers in a different, more powerful way. In many of his psalms, David made his coping strategy very clear.2
Let us begin with Psalm 59. David composed this in the context of Saul sending soldiers to watch David’s house so they could kill him (1 Sam. 19:11–16). He let the matter rest with God: “For the sin of their mouths, the words of their lips, let them be trapped in their pride. For the cursing and lies that they utter, consume them in wrath; consume them till they are no more” (Ps. 59:12, 13).
Consider Psalm 142, written when hiding in a cave, where David seemed to have found refuge (1 Sam. 22:1, 2). Look at how the psalmist placed his agony in the context of his hope. “With my voice I cry out to the LORD; with my voice I plead for mercy to the LORD, I pour out my complaint before him; I tell my trouble before him. When my spirit faints within me, you know my way! In the path where I walk they have hidden a trap for me. Look to the right and see: there is none who takes notice of me; no refuge remains to me; no one cares for my soul. I cry to you LORD; I say, ‘You are my refuge, my portion in the land of the living.’ Attend to my cry, for I am brought very low! Deliver me from my persecutors, for they are too strong for me! Bring me out of prison, that I may give thanks to your name!” (Ps. 142:1–7).
Or consider David’s contemplation in Psalm 52 after hearing that Doeg the Edomite informed Saul that Ahimelech the priest gave David bread and Goliath’s sword while David was on the run from Saul (1 Sam. 21) and that Doeg had killed 85 priests, all relatives of Ahimelech (1 Sam. 22:9–23). David lets judgment on this matter rest with God: “But God will break you down forever; he will snatch and tear you from your tent; he will uproot you from the land of the living” (Ps. 52:5). Beyond that, David chose to leave himself with God: “But I am like a green olive tree in the house of God. I trust in the steadfast love of God forever and ever. . . . I will wait for your name, for it is good, in the presence of the godly” (vv. 8, 9).
Similar themes of leaving everything to God and trusting in Him in moments of adversity appear elsewhere. “O God, hear my prayer; give ear to the words of my mouth. For strangers have risen against me; ruthless men seek my life; they do not set God before themselves. . . . Behold God is my helper” (Ps. 54:2–4).
Again, in Psalm 18, David referred to God rescuing him from Saul and all his enemies. “I call upon the LORD, who is worthy to be praised, and I am saved from my enemies. The cords of death encompassed me; the torrents of destruction assailed me; the cords of Sheol entangled me; the snares of death confronted me. In my distress I called upon the LORD” (Ps. 18:3–6). Later he wrote, “He sent from on high, he took me; he drew me out of many waters. He rescued me from my strong enemy and from those who hated me; for they were too mighty for me. They confronted me in the day of my calamity; but the LORD was my support” (Ps. 18:16–18).
What can we learn from this brief survey of psalms written in the midst of adversity, betrayal, and suffering? For one thing, even when his life was in absolute danger, David found his coping power and overcoming strength in his private prayer life with God and dependence upon God’s ultimate vindication and justice. For another, David always acknowledged God, and His readiness to let His justice work things out. But David was also very honest and open with God about his true heart, his anger and pain and desires for change. He handed to God all the emotional rubbish he felt. He did not hold back. David’s experience leaves us this challenge: when we are emotionally honest with God in our private prayer and trust in God to deal with our circumstances, we can live exemplary lives in the public sphere.
How to cope with leaders we perceive as poor
Leaders do have weaknesses; do show favoritism; and, at times, make bad decisions that affect us negatively. The natural response to the hurt of injustice is to criticize and talk negatively about leaders to anyone who will listen. The Bible refers to this as gossip or slander and asks us to get rid of it (Eph. 4:25–31). Slander and gossip may hurt the other person, but the person who slanders and gossips also gains a poor reputation. None of us needs a bad reputation; life and ministry are hard enough. David’s strategy in dealing with the death threat of Saul is the best method. Feel the pain, express and give it to God privately, and publicly support the leader. David trusted God, and eventually God sorted things out. Saul died, and David became king.
In many ways David exemplified the apostle Peter’s advice, “Casting all your anxiety on him [Jesus], because he cares for you” (1 Pet. 5:7). The word cast Peter uses for giving our emotional burdens to Jesus is the word he would also use to “cast” a fishing net into the sea. Strong fishermen do not place nets nicely into the water; they throw the nets with all the effort muscles can muster. We must throw our hate, jealousy, rage, fear, contempt, and any emotional baggage, with all our strength to God, and let Him handle them. God listens, understands, takes the burden, and replaces it with peace (Phil. 4:6, 7).
David did not publicly denounce King Saul because the king was God’s anointed. David, himself, was the Lord’s anointed successor to Saul. If David was seen pulling down leadership, even with good reason, he knew it would give others permission to challenge his leadership as well. David lived out how he wanted to be treated. He also modeled Jesus’ challenge, “Do to others what you would have them to do to you” (Matt. 7:12, NIV). The best leaders have been loyal followers who respect the dignity and challenge of leadership and know how to deal with their emotional baggage.
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1 Except as otherwise stated, all Scripture passages are from the English Standard Version.
2 See, for example, Psalms 18; 52; 54; 57; 59; 63; 142-144