5 Essentials For Taking Higher Ground

What does it mean to be a leader for these days? Specifically, how do leaders take "higher ground" for Christ?

At our recent Leadership Community gathering, I shared what the Lord is teaching me about this. I wanted to share it with you with the prayer that it helps you take higher ground as well.

Having just finished my seventh year as serving as a pastor at Spanish River Church, and closing in on my fifth year as Senior Pastor, I am asking myself, "What's next? What might the Lord have in store for the next five years?" I have no desire to coast. I want to stay active and steward well this leadership assignment from God. In short, I want to take higher ground.

How do I do that? How do we do that? How does anyone do that?

Recently, I read James Humes excellent book, Churchill: The Prophetic Statesman. Finishing that book reaffirmed my deeply held belief that God raised up Winston Churchill for his days. Look at these words that Churchill wrote in 1891, when he was barely sixteen years of age and still a student at Harrow School:

I can see vast changes coming over a new peaceful world; great upheavals, terrible struggles; wars such as one cannot imagine; and I tell you London will be in danger – London will be attacked and I shall be very prominent in the defense of London. I see further ahead than you do. I see into the future. This country will be subjected somehow, to a tremendous invasion, by what means I do not know, but I tell you I shall be in commanded of the defenses of London and I will save London from disaster… [D]reams of the future are blurred but the main objective is clear. I repeat, London will be in danger and in the high position I shall occupy, it will fall to me to say the Capital, and save the Empire.

What Churchill believed about himself at a very early age, most historians affirmed by the end of his days. Churchill was a leader for his time. But so are you. I see this as I read Scripture:

And [God] made from one man every nation of mankind to live on all the face of the earth, having determined allotted periods and the boundaries of their dwelling place...
— Acts 17:26 ESV

God has sovereignly placed you in this place at this hour for his purpose. As I think about that truth -- for you and for me -- I am asking myself two questions: "What does it mean to be a leader for these days? How do we take higher ground?

We find the answer to those questions as we look back to days gone by. 

5 Essentials For Taking Higher Ground

God gives us a very interesting story in 1 Samuel 13-14. One that has huge leadership implications, especially for taking higher ground. Studying the passage I discover five essentials for leaders who want to take higher ground.

In the passage, Jonathan son of King Saul, embarks on a covert operation to take down an enemy outpost. His only comrade in this effort is his armor-bearer. The enemy outnumbers them, has greater firepower, and is on higher ground. But Jonathan has the confidence that God will give them them victory. You can read the entire story by clicking here. I have included select passages of Scripture under each of the five essentials.

1. Unwillingness to accept our limitations.

Have you ever stopped to consider how much God likes "uneven odds"? He called a wandering Abram from Ur of the Chaldeans to father a great nation. He used a timid Moses to lead two million people out of Egypt. He took Gideon with a little band of 300 men to defeat the innumerable Midianite army. And then he used Jonathan. What makes Jonathan's story so fascinating is that Jonathan was severely limited in both manpower and firepower.

So on the day of the battle there was neither sword nor spear found in the hand of any of the people with Saul and Jonathan, but Saul and Jonathan his son had them.
— 1 Samuel 13:22

I appreciate the words of Max De Pree, "The first job of a leader is to define reality." Jonathan did that. He knew that he was severely limited -- one weapon and one comrade -- but he also knew God. And knowing that God was on his side, Jonathan knew that he did not have to accept his limitations. God could provide anything he needed. God could help him reach higher ground even though his limitations made it seem impossible.

Think about it: What limitation in your life or the life of our church do you think is keeping you/us from "higher ground"? Give that to God and trust him to help you/us overcome it.

2. Holy discontent.

Carl Sandburg was a three-time Pulitzer-Prize winning poet and Lincoln biographer. At one point Sandburg wrote, "Nothing happens unless first a dream." I love that quote. God is sovereign. He is the mover. But the Sovereign Mover moves things through leaders. God stirs up a holy discontent and then he gives a dream.

Jonathan had a holy discontent. He was not satisfied to be sitting around while the Philistines walked all over his people.

1 One day Jonathan the son of Saul said to the young man who carried his armor, “Come, let us go over to the Philistine garrison on the other side.” But he did not tell his father.2 Saul was staying in the outskirts of Gibeah in the pomegranate caveat Migron. The people who were with him were about six hundred men . . . . And the people did not know that Jonathan had gone.4 Within the passes, by which Jonathan sought to go over to the Philistine garrison, there was a rocky crag on the one side and a rocky crag on the other side. The name of the one was Bozez, and the name of the other Seneh.5 The one crag rose on the north in front of Michmash, and the other on the south in front of Geba.6 Jonathan said to the young man who carried his armor, ‘Come, let us go over to the garrison of these uncircumcised. It may be that the Lord will work for us, for nothing can hinder the Lord from saving by many or by few.’
— 1 Samuel 14:1-6

Jonathan's holy discontent resulted in a plan (a dream) to take on and overcome the enemy. It is amazing what God can do with a little holy discontent and with a dream.

  • In 1933, Henry Heydt had a dream of equipping men and women with a better understanding of the Word of God. That dream led him to start Lancaster Bible College with 8 days students and 14 evening students. That's not much, but today LBC is the second largest Bible college in the country with an international reach. Nothing happens unless first a dream.
  • Jon Tyson came to Spanish River in 2007 for help with a vision he had for a church planting movement in New York City. He had nothing in NYC, but he was sacrificing all his worldly wealth to pursue his God-given desire. Today, just seven years later, God has used Jon to help birth seven churches in the city. Nothing happens unless first a dream.

Leaders who take higher ground live with holy discontent. Henry Heydt had it. Jon Tyson had it. Jonathan had it. They were not satisfied with the status quo. We should not be either. At the same time, holy discontent is not disgruntlement. Disgruntlement is an unholy complaining spirit that arises because things are "not going my way." We must cultivate the former and avoid the latter.

Think about it: What is on your heart for SRC -- for who God wants us to be and what he wants us to do? Pray that God would raise up the help to bring this about. Pray too that he would inflict us all with the holy discontent that leads us to dream great dreams and accomplish great things for his glory.

3. Unshakable confidence In God.

This point is short and simple: God honors unshakable faith. Jonathan had that kind of faith, a deep confidence in God.

For nothing can hinder the Lord from saving by many or by few....
— 1 Samuel 1:6

Jonathan knew that God did not need superior numbers to bring about a superior outcome. So when he saw God's answer to his prayer about taking on the Philistines, he charged his enemies even though he was outmanned and outgunned.

Holding out Jonathan as a model of faith is not an invitation to being foolhardy, but it is a reminder that God honors simple faith. We see this in Jesus' interaction with an official whose son was dying:

The official said to him, “Sir, come down before my child dies.”Jesus said to him, “Go; your son will live.” The man believed the word that Jesus spoke to him and went on his way.
— John 4:49-50

The man asked for Jesus' help. Jesus promised it. End of story. The man believed and went on his way. One way we exercise faith is through our prayers. Phillips Brooks reminds me that faith-filled leaders pray for power and they pray boldly. He said:

  • "Do no pray for tasks equal to your powers. Pray for power equal to your tasks."
  • "Pray the largest prayers. You cannot think a prayer so large that God, in answering it, will not wish you had made it larger. Pray not for crutches but for wings."

Think about it: Who comes to your mind when you hear the phrase, "a person of great faith"? When asked that question, I am always thinking of someone else. More recently I realize that God wants that person to be me. It's not even so much that I must have BIG faith as it is that I have unshakeable confidence in our BIG GOD.

4. Unswerving loyalty to the leader and the cause.

I love the response of Jonathan's armor-bearer to Jonathan's hair-brained idea of attacking an enemy that so was so overpowering: "Behold, I am with you heart and soul" (1 Samuel 14:7).  Literally, the armor-bearer said, "I am with you like your heart is with you." That is a pledge of total support. That is loyalty. 

Think about it: What is your loyalty factor when it comes to following God's leader and God's plan?

5. Unhesitating willingness to risk.

Following Jesus is risky! Jesus made this quite clear to the scribe that wanted to follow him:

18 Now when Jesus saw a crowd around him, he gave orders to go over to the other side.19 And a scribe came up and said to him, ‘Teacher, I will follow you wherever you go.’20 And Jesus said to him, ‘Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.’21 Another of the disciples said to him, ‘Lord, let me first go and bury my father.”22 And Jesus said to him, ‘Follow me, and leave the dead to bury their own dead.’
— Matthew 8:18-20 ESV

None of the disciples had a pension plan. None of them had health insurance. None of them had a car allowance. None of them had vacation getaways in secluded wonderlands. Not that those things are bad, but living lives accustomed to a safety net can make us risk-averse.

Jonathan teaches me that taking higher ground means being willing to take a risk.

Then Jonathan climbed up on his hands and feet, and his armor-bearer after him. And they fell before Jonathan, and his armor-bearer killed them after him.
— 1 Samuel 14:13 ESV

The picture the Bible paints would make a great movie. Jonathan and his armor-bearer, greatly outmanned and "outgunned," are scrambling up the rocky crag to take on their enemies. While they do this the enemy is raining down on them with their superior arsenal. Yeah . . . following God is risky.

As we look to the days ahead, fulfilling God's plan for our lives and for Spanish River Church is going to involve risk. We must be prepared to take that risk.

Think about it: On a 1 to 10 scale (1=low and 10=high), when it comes to "your" time, talents, and treasures, what is your risk tolerance? How willing are you to take a risk for God? Why/why not?

The Next 5 Years

As I think about the last seven years and look ahead to the next five I wonder, "What might God do?" I'm grappling with this and our elders will be too in the coming days. Lord willing, two months from now we will be unveiling some of those plans. In the meantime we all need to prepare ourselves to be the kind of people God uses to take higher ground.

God is not looking for super stars. In fact, he delights in the ordinary. That's good news, because I'm very, very ordinary.So where do we start? Perhaps we can all begin by praying the prayer of the disciples, "Lord, increase our faith" (Luke 17:5). Then let's ask him to build into every one of us the essentials for taking higher ground.


Note:  "I can see . . ." from Churchill: The Prophetic Statesman by James C. Humes. 2012. Washington, DC: Regency Publishing, Inc. Pages 217-218.