6 Now Joseph and all his brothers and all that generation died, 7 but the Israelites were exceedingly fruitful; they multiplied greatly, increased in numbers and became so numerous that the land was filled with them.
8 Then a new king, to whom Joseph meant nothing, came to power in Egypt.9 “Look,” he said to his people, “the Israelites have become far too numerous for us. 10 Come, we must deal shrewdly with them or they will become even more numerous and, if war breaks out, will join our enemies, fight against us and leave the country.”
I read these verses from Exodus last night and was haunted by them. In them, I saw modern politics, bad management, and future regret in its planting phase.
It is a simple story: a new king takes control, notices a large people group, and decides to break these people to prevent them from ever breaking him. The narrative is simple, but what it leads to is anything but: slavery, abuse, infanticide, plagues, loss. We can draw much from these straight-forward verses, but one of the biggest lessons I saw was that fear-based action always leads to destruction.
The King was not in control because he allowed his fear to be. He looked out to the world around him and only saw threat. This fear choked out any chance of trust and blinded vision. I think of another Old Testament verse: “Where there is no vision, the people perish.” This King had the blindfold of fear on and it limited his view. Here he has millions of people in his land, yet he only saw enemies who “if war breaks out, will join our enemies, fight against us . . .” Hmm. Well, yeah, that could happen, I guess. Or–there can always be an OR can’t there?–perhaps war breaks out and “our army is millions of people stronger!” Couldn’t the positive inverse of his scenario could have just as likely have been true? Sure, it would have taken some work. He would have had to meet with Israelite leaders. He would have needed to invest in them as a people. He would have had to have empathy and compassion and would have had to build trust . . . but for a million subjects, well, it just seems worth a little effort. Also with some effort, it might have enabled him not to head down the road to crazy town, where folks are enslaved and babies are murdered. But again, where fear thrives, destruction follows.
The truth is, it is easy to be like this King–to see the worst in everyone, and to withhold trust at all cost. Sure, trust is nearly always risky, but in my experience being a jerk is usually pretty risky too. Often, it is is easy to keep people shut out of our lives for what they might do. To not give to the poor because all the ways they might misuse funds or to not take a chance on a friendship or coworker because that person might bring us down. This is fear controlling our lives, limiting our vision for what could be, and serving as a governor on the engine of grace.
There is something immensely powerful about giving someone (or millions of someones) the benefit of the doubt. Sure, we can go about this in intelligent fashion. We can verify the trust we are doling out. We can have an escape plan should developments sour. But when that escape plan becomes Plan A for our lives, we descend into the half-hearted life of comfort rather than a full-hearted adventure of faith. In this manner, we lead with whispers rather than handshakes; we are never coming, always going; we are feet a-dangle in the water rather than full-on plunging into the cool, blue depths. And where every facet of our lives are intricately governed by checks and balances, where then is there room for faith?
I once heard about a dog who barked in his yard all day–one of those hyper little things. He’d yelp and growl at passersby, and bare his ugly little teeth. He’d see squirrels he’d long to chase, just feet away, but beyond the boundaries of the buried electric fence. For years the dog’s life had been governed thusly: he’d stare at the possibilities of life that had been made impossible by the boundary set before him. Only the thing was, there was no fence. Perhaps there had been once and the dog had been conditioned, but for some time there had been no electric fence, no threat of shock, no barrier between the dog and broader life. He was caged by fear, by perception, by doubt, by himself and by no other.
In leadership, it is easy to be that dog, to be that King. To hold on tightly to control, to forever see the worst and barter it for wisdom, and yet, in the end it leads to some form of destruction. That dog missed out on life, and that King missed out on loving people, and in so doing missed out on God too. By seeking his own salvation–and that of his people–he robbed himself–and them–of true salvation offered only by the One who can give it.