Leadership Lessons:  Trusting in God, choice by choice

“And when Daniel was lifted from the den, no wound was found on him, because he had trusted in his God.”  Daniel 6:23


Many years ago, I was an attorney. One of the most compelling closing arguments that I ever heard in court was delivered by a senior Deputy District Attorney (DA) working homicide.  I was encouraged by my superiors to take a break from my own caseload and sit in on this capital murder case because this Deputy DA was renowned for his trial skills. I can’t remember the facts of the case, but I know that one of the key issues that would bear on both the guilt and the penalty phase of the trial was whether or not the defendant had “specific intent” to murder the victim.


In a criminal trial, the burden rests with the prosecution (the DA) to prove the guilt of the accused (the defendant) “beyond a reasonable doubt.” So, when the time comes for the closing arguments before the jury, the prosecution presents the case first, then the defendant responds with all the evidence of “reasonable doubt” that he or she is guilty of the charges, and then the DA has the opportunity to offer a rebuttal of the defendant’s arguments.]


I listened carefully to the defendant’s arguments, and they seemed very persuasive. His attorney was arguing that he did not actually intend to kill the victim—it was an accident. Therefore he should be acquitted of the charge of murder in the first degree and sentenced instead to a lesser crime.


Then the Deputy DA stood up and delivered the rebuttal. He did so by outlining many different choices that the defendant faced leading up to the murder. “The defendant had a choice:  he could have stayed at home that evening or gone with his friends whom he knew were likely to rob a liquor store. He chose to go with his friends. The defendant had a choice once he decided to go with them. He could leave his handgun at home or take his handgun with him. He chose to take his handgun with him…”. The DA went on, relentlessly presenting each road the defendant could have chosen that would have delivered him from committing a murder. By the end of the rebuttal, the evidence of intent was abundantly clear, beyond a reasonable doubt.


From the very beginning, God said that trust is essential for leadership. He impressed on two great leaders, David and Solomon, that such trust is not simply in our own understanding (see Proverbs 3:5-6), nor in our own skills and resources (see Psalm 20:7), but rather in a surrender to God and a delight in his ways - wherever he has called us - as the highway to finding both vindication and the desires of our heart (see Psalm 37:1-6)


When Jesus calls you and me to follow him, he is inviting us to trust him. Trust in Christ alone is essential for salvation and discipleship. But it is equally essential for leadership in ministry.  When Jesus calls you and me to partner with him to extend the range of God’s effective will (the Kingdom), “where what God wants done IS done” (Dallas Willard), he is calling you and me to “seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness” and to trust him that all else “will be added unto us.” (Matthew 6:33).


Here’s the question for those of us in leadership: if we were put on trial, would there be enough evidence - beyond a reasonable doubt - that we are exercising a specific intent to trust God, choice by choice?


In the Old Testament, the prophet Daniel is an enduring example of such trust. He served in exile from his native land, in a culture and among a series of political administrations that were hostile to his faith. That fact alone should commend him to us with up-to-the-minute relevance!


Daniel is an example of a leader who trusted in God at every fork in the road. But we see this quality of trust especially in chapter 6, when he faced the lion’s den. Here, through the political and legislative scheming of his enemies, he faced a terrible choice: either to follow the irrevocable “law of the Medes and the Persians” (see Daniel 6:5-9) and pray to no other God than King Darius, or face death for praying to the God of Israel. Most of us know the story, how Daniel refused to compromise and how God rescued Daniel from the jaws of the lions. But have we ever unpacked the series of choices that Daniel faced along the way?


“Now when Daniel learned that the decree had been published, he went home to his upstairs room where the windows opened to Jerusalem. Three times a day he got down on his knees and prayed, giving thanks to his God, just as he had done before”. (Daniel 6:10 NIV)


When Daniel learned of this 30-day decree, he faced some choices. Maybe he could have chosen to pack his bags and leave town for 30 days to avoid the trap laid by his enemies who were waiting and watching (see Dan. 6:11-13). But Daniel chose to go home where his enemies lay in wait. Once at home, Daniel faced more choices. He could have closed the windows facing Jerusalem and prayed out of sight. Instead, Daniel chose to open those very windows where his enemies could see him. Daniel could have chosen to pray at an irregular time, perhaps in the middle of the night, when no one might have been looking. Instead, Daniel chose to pray at exactly the same three times a day that his enemies knew he would be praying.


The result was predictable. Daniel had to know that he would be caught, arrested and hauled before the court—and he was:


“When the king heard this, he was greatly distressed; he was determined to rescue Daniel and made every effort until sundown to save him.”  (Daniel 6:14 NIV)


Although the text is silent, one can imagine that among all his efforts, foolish King Darius would have tried to persuade Daniel that he had already been faithful in prayer to the God of Israel, that he could escape the lion’s den by suspending his prayers for a mere 30 days, or found some other “compromise” that would save his friend’s life while honoring the law.


But whatever choices Daniel might have faced in such conversations, he chose the path of no compromise. According to the text, Darius’ efforts failed. As they threw Daniel into the lion’s den, all Darius could say was “May your God, whom you serve continually, rescue you!” (Dan. 6:16 NIV)


While the stone was being placed over the mouth of the den, Daniel faced a choice. He could have chosen to panic—to beg for a reprieve, or hide out in a dark corner, or do something, anything, to defend himself from the lions. Panic often causes us, as leaders, to make the kind of impulsive decisions we later regret. A dear friend who texts me every day reminded me this morning that “Faith in God is the refusal to panic” when you are facing terrifying situations.


But Daniel did not panic. He chose instead to trust in God. It was the result of a whole series of choices he had made right up to this point, in the face of trying and even terrifying circumstances. But through the grid of this experience Daniel sharpened in practice what he believed in principle—that trusting God means placing our future in the hands of God at every fork in the road. “And when Daniel was lifted from the den, no wound was found on him because he had trusted in his God.” (emphasis added, Dan. 6:23).


When I think of the wounds many suffer in leadership, I give thanks to God for this promise from the lions’ den. What a wonderful promise to all of us wherever we are called to lead.


Whom has God called and placed you to lead today?  Your children?  The people who are working for you?  The ministers you are supervising?  The diocese, congregation or mission society you are shepherding and leading?  Your leadership is shaped by the series of choices we face every day that add up to the one big choice that we call “trust in God.”


Daniel learned such trust in real time as he opened his windows at the very hours worship was taking place in Jerusalem. Every time he prayed from afar he was resting in his covenant relationship with God and drawing strength from that relationship.


May we, like Daniel in prayer, refresh our intent to trust God, choice by choice. Like Daniel, may we lead by placing our future and those we lead in his hands every step of the way. And like Daniel, may we be able to say in the end that no wound was found in us because we trusted in our God! 


The Rev. Canon Phil Ashey is President & CEO of the American Anglican Council. 

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