Self-defeat, the dysfunctional activity of harming oneself, manifests itself in many ways. Some are obvious; others, less so. Suicidal behavior and the various types of addictions are harmful. The harm of manipulation and deception cloaked in spiritual platitudes often is not as obvious.
As a complex phenomenon, self-defeat has a variety of behavioral, psychological, and spiritual aspects.
We must avoid the temptation of reducing it to an oversimplification. For instance, neurological, cultural, relational, and idiosyncratic factors can weigh in as causes of self-defeat. From a biblical perspective, one causal factor stands above all others: self-exaltation. Invariably, leaders who exalt themselves do so at a harmful cost. They might be fortunate enough to get good returns on investments, lead in organizational growth and development, advanced innovations, or earn notoriety for their brand. But, if they exalt themselves, achieving these ends might cost their loss of integrity, damage their relationships, and most assuredly, undermine their walk with God.
In the Bible, especially in the Old Testament, numerous examples are found of leaders who disobeyed God, ignored his warnings, and pursued their self-serving agendas. In the end, the consequences of their actions proved to be self-defeating. How can we forget the self-exaltation of Pharaoh, King Saul, and King Nebuchadnezzar?
On the other hand, let’s not overlook the more subtle approach of Gideon (Judges 8: 22-33).
After enjoying successful leadership in obedience to God, he too capitulated to self-exaltation.
- He collected wealth and clothing fit for a king.
- He married many wives (a symbol of kingship in the ancient Near East).
- He had 70 legitimate sons.
- He had concubines (another symbol of kingship).
- He named his illegitimate son Abimelech, which meant “My father is king.”
Steve Zeisler provides insightful commentary on the subtle shift in the condition of Gideon’s heart.
“Over time,” says Zeisler, “Gideon begins to like the position of power to which he’s been raised, using it for ends that aren’t right. He continues to credit God (most of the time) for what’s done, but he also believes more and more that the human contribution should be rewarded.”
“He refuses to be king formally, but has had opened the door for an informal testimony to his greatness.”
“Small decisions build on one another to suggest that Gideon liked prestige and royal treatment while continuing to claim, ‘the Lord shall rule over you.’”
Ultimately, Gideon’s actions exacted destructive consequences: Israel’s fall into idolatry and ruin to his family.
On Gideon’s self-defeat, Zeisler states: “In the moment of public temptation to self-aggrandizement, Gideon gave the right answer. Immediately afterward, he began the incremental process of undermining it—a few perks, a bit of gold, a few wives, an idol. His life deteriorated, and though he didn’t suffer most from it, the next generation suffered horribly because the son he left behind was an angry, godless man.”
Gideon’s legacy ought to be a wakeup call to all Christian leaders. We should choose humility over self-exaltation, recognize the subtle temptation that comes with positions of power, and always follow Christ’s example of servanthood (see Luke 14:11, Romans, 11:20, Philippians 2: 3-8, I Peter 5:6).
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