Dr. John E. Johnson

Dr. John E. Johnson

The War We Are In

Near the end of his influential life as a management consultant, Peter Drucker, at 85, was asked to summarize what characterizes effective leaders. Among other things, he noted that the very best leaders are not preachers—they are doers. And then he told a story about an experience from his earlier years.

Drucker grew up in a liberal Lutheran home in Austria-Hungary. It was the mid-1920s, and lots of books were written about World War I. Drucker and his classmates were each assigned to pick one, read carefully, and write an essay. During the class discussions that followed, one of the students spoke up: “Every one of these books says that the Great War was a war of total military incompetence. Why was it?”

Post-Afghanistan, many in our country are asking similar questions. A number have been anguishing over what was not realized in a war, grieving over the irretrievable losses, and asking—“For what?” “What explains the failure of leadership?” “Why so much incompetence?” “Who’s to blame?” “What can we learn?”

Drucker’s teacher, himself a badly wounded war veteran, was quick to answer the student’s question: “Because not enough generals were killed; they stayed way behind the lines and let others do the fighting and dying.” Drucker’s leadership point was that true leaders do not stay behind their desks looking at computer screens. They get into the fight and are not afraid to step into the front lines. They do not delegate the one thing they can do with excellence, the one thing that will set the standard and make a difference. They do it.

I’ve been thinking about Drucker’s words these days. Beyond the conflicts of this world is an even greater fight. For those of us who follow Christ—truly follow Christ—life is a constant battle. As one theologian put it, “Faith does not lead us beyond conflict but right into the conflict, for the devil fights for our souls as we try to remain steadfast in our determination to give glory to Christ.” I sometimes wonder how many of us are aware of this fight. How many are simply seeking to avoid it?

The idea that Christians are engaged in spiritual warfare has been more prominent in some periods of history, and less obvious in others. We seem to be living in the latter. Either because of denial or amnesia, we are less willing or conscious of the need to clothe ourselves with truth and cover our lives with prayer on a daily basis. A superficial Christianity has replaced dedicated discipleship. Peacetime management has substituted for wartime leadership, one that is more about entertaining than training, making incremental modifications to what already exists than bringing radical change, and maintaining the status quo rather than sounding the alarm.

There are disciplines that are critical for the facing of this war (impassioned reading and adhering to God’s word no matter what; praying regularly and fervently the prayers of Scripture; committing to spiritual communities that hold one another accountable; taking every thought captive to the obedience of Christ; and avoiding the kind of entertainment that numbs one’s spiritual sensitivities). Today we seem to be more about spa than gym.

I can see in my own life a temptation to become ambivalent–to lose sight that the enemy is fighting constantly to take possession of my soul, derail my family, and demoralize my friends. How much of the enemy’s fingerprints are on this current pandemic? More than we realize. How much of it is a strategy to keep the saints from meeting together to carry out the needed one-anothers, as well as reduce a needed word from God in the pulpit to domesticated podcasts more intent upon reinforcing a self-centered faith? How much of the current polarization and alienation are energized primarily from hell?

As much as I love life and enjoy the beauties in this place, the signs of spiritual war are all around me. Thoughts that I am ashamed of invade me in the night. News of a loved one whose future dreams were suddenly erased by graceless men interrupt my day. Christians more concerned with aligning with culture and its values and its politics than with God and his Word seem to be on the rise. It’s true—we do live in an era of “the infinite politicization of all things.” And in the midst of this, I can’t help but wonder, where are the credible leaders who display a competence for leading and a character worth following? How many have a “let go and let God” mentality that evades responsibility? Where are the leaders defined by vigilance? Where are the leaders doing it?

The encouraging news is that the forces that maim and enslave have been dethroned through the work of Jesus. As theologian Donald Bloesch put it, “They derive their power from the lie that they still have real power.” The truth is that they can be “counteracted and dispelled through the redeeming power of the Spirit of Christ.” Peace and justice will one day reign, but these will require the kind of leaders who do not stay behind the desk. They get into the fray, doing what they alone can do with excellence–all with the hope of transforming the world through the power of the Spirit.

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