What Happens When You Lead By Example?

What Happens When You Lead By Example?
By Rod Dixon

It seems like our culture really loves a true underdog story. Books, articles, YouTube videos and popular movies bear this out. Just this weekend, Nancy and I watched “Cinderella Man”, the 2005 feature film produced by Ron Howard and staring Russell Crow, Rene Zelweger and Paul Giamatti. The film tells the true story of heavyweight boxing champion, James J. Braddock who defied all odds during the great depression.

Regardless of our accomplishments in life, most of us can identify with an underdog - even if we don’t yet know the outcome. Somehow we draw courage from these stories and find in them, the motivation we need to carry on in the face of adversity. There are two underdog stories in the Bible that I really love, but perhaps not for the reasons you might expect.

Two Underdog Stories

The first is the story of King Saul’s son Jonathan who fought the Philistines in I Samuel 14. Saul and the army of Israel on one side were set for battle against the Philistines on the other side. While Saul sat under the shade of a tree and hesitated to lead the army out in battle, Jonathan secretly set out with just his armor bearer to engage the enemies of God. We learn something important about Jonathan’s character in verse 6, “Then Jonathan said to the young man who was carrying his armor, “Come and let us cross over to the garrison of these uncircumcised; perhaps the Lord will work for us, for the Lord is not restrained to save by many or by few.” I love that! “…perhaps the Lord will work for us…” We see that he knows God can deliver Israel’s enemies into his hand and he is willing to bet his life that God will indeed give him victory. As the story unfolds, we see that one man of faith took the battle to the Philistines and God caused fear and trembling to come upon them as they melted away and scattered in every direction before Jonathan v14-16.

The Second is the story of David when he stood up to the Philistine giant in I Samuel 17. This familiar tale is often cited as a metaphor in modern culture when the small and weak prevail against the big and strong, but I think a very important point is overlooked. You know the story. The odds - from a human perspective - were stacked against the young shepherd. He was young, inexperienced, untrained in battle tactics of the day and ill-equipped in terms of armor and weapons of war. Goliath - his opponent - was a seasoned warrior, huge, strong, armed and fearless.

When David heard the boasting threats and blasphemy coming from Goliath, he was deeply vexed in his spirit. I can imagine him looking to his right and left as he stood among the mighty fighting men of Israel expecting one of them to rush forward at these taunts to execute righteous judgement on Goliath. We know that didn’t happen and David put his own life on the line to fight Goliath, defeating him with the simple tools of a shepherd boy.

Lessons To Learn

Both stories have many lessons for us today with several key concepts Jesus taught during His ministry. The weak shall be strong; our limited resources, when offered up to God, can be multiplied to feed thousands, etc. It is easy to focus on the exploits of the underdog lead characters - Jonathan and David - as they defied odds and defeated the enemies of Israel. One lesson seems to be overlooked, however, when these stories are told.

In both stories, Saul’s army seemed paralyzed with fear or indecision. There was a clear lack of leadership and courage to act in the face of such overwhelming odds. Saul and his men fell for the often used enemy tactic when they focused on their opponent’s size, strength and number rather than trusting in the Lord their God who had delivered them time and again when their situation looked bleak.

After the fact, it’s easy to criticize Saul and the army, but truth be told, all of us have suffered more than once in similar circumstances. It is an important insight into our nature as human beings that we are easily distracted from keeping our eyes on God rather than on the obstacles before us. But the example of these two men show that even the fearful and timid among us can defeat enemy hordes and giants when we go out in faithful obedience to the Lord.

When you look more carefully at their stories, you can see that these were not their first rodeos - to coin a Texas term. Both Jonathan and David had prior experiences that had prepared them for these confrontations. Jonathan was a successful warrior and leader of 1,000 men (I Sam. 13:1-3). David, for his part, had fought lions and bears to protect the sheep under his care (I Sam. 17:34-37). He may even have heard the story of Jonathan & his armor bearer too.

What I love most about these stories is what happened after Jonathan and David acted. Beginning in I Samuel 14:16 we see that Saul and the rest of the army heard the confusion and sound of battle coming from the Philistine camp. Even after learning that it was his own son who was engaging the enemy, Saul seemed to want to “pray about it” - v. 18 & 19. The big lesson is summarized in verse 20, “…then Saul and all the people who were with him rallied and came out to the battle…” The Hebrews who had sided with the Philistines and those most fearful among them who hid themselves in holes and caves also were stirred to action and fought the enemy.

The story of David and Goliath usually ends with David beheading Goliath, but we must pay attention to what happened next: In I Samuel 17:51 & 52 we read, “…When the Philistines saw that their champion was dead, they fled. And the men of Israel and Judah arose and shouted and pursued the Philistines…”

Our underdog stories suggest that the faithful, often courageous acts of obedience of one individual can, by their example, encourage, stir up and rally many other individuals to step forward to engage in the battle too! Not many of us are called to engage an enemy horde or slay a giant, but in our own lives, in our own battles, when the odds are stacked against us, we have the opportunity to act in faith and obedience and by our example, encourage, stir up and rally those around us to join in the fight too. What act of courage and obedience is God calling you to engage in? Step up and step out in faith that others might also gain courage too.