Three Temptations of Jesus - Relevancy, Spectacular, Powerful

Henri Nouwen writes in his book In the Name of Jesus there are three temptations Jesus faces in the desert with Satan. He frames them as:

Jesus is the leader, we are followers  -  Photo by  Kevar Whilby  on  Unsplash

Jesus is the leader, we are followers  -  Photo by Kevar Whilby on Unsplash

  • Relevancy - turning stones into bread
  • Spectacular - leaping off the temple
  • Powerful - bowing to satan

Why is power a temptation? Nouwen mentions one of the great mysteries of leadership when he says, "leadership, for a large part, means to be led." Christians are called to follow Jesus, not lead him. Christian leaders are those who show others how to follow properly. 

For the largest part of the Christian tradition, too many leaders fall for the temptation of power for noble reasons. Nouwen says, "We keep hearing from others, as well as saying to ourselves, that having power - provided it is used in the service of God and your fellow human being - is a good thing." Then he is quick to point out that this is the same rationalization for the Crusades, enslaving native people, the inquisition, opulent buildings, etc. 

The most cutting critique of power Nouwen makes is that "power offers an easy substitute for the hard task of love." It seems it is easier to be God than to love God, easier to control people than to love people, easier to own life than love life. Jesus asks, 'Do you love me?' We ask, 'can we sit at your right hand and your left hand in your Kingdom?'"

Rather than upward mobility, Nouwen echos other thinkers as he promotes downward mobility leadership. It is "leadership in which power is constantly abandoned in favor of love." 

Three Temptations of Jesus - Relevancy, Spectacular, Powerful

Henri Nouwen writes in his book In the Name of Jesus there are three temptations Jesus faces in the desert with Satan. He frames them as:

Photo by  Darius Soodmand  on  Unsplash
  • Relevancy - turning stones into bread
  • Spectacular - leaping off the temple
  • Powerful - bowing to satan

Why is being spectacular a temptation? Nouwen writes about "after six years of training and formation, I was considered well equipped to preach, administer the sacraments, counsel, and run a parish. I was made to feel like a man sent on a long, long hike with a huge backpack containing all the things necessary to help the people I would meet on the road."

As he walked on this road, he discovered ht "did not have the power to draw thousands of people" and "could not make many conversations" or "were not as popular with the youth, the young adults or the elderly." Despite these truths, he still felt like he should have been able to do it all and do it successfully.

Many clergy feel that we have to be spectacular in order to grow the church. We are told to preach the best sermons each week, visit every person at home, respond to each crisis with care, speak truth to power, maintain boundaries and uphold a spiritual life while developing vibrant children's ministry and keep those graduating youth involved in the church. And if the church is not growing then we are failing.

So pastors and churches are tempted to do something spectacular that grabs the attention of people for a while. Of course when people respond to the spectacular there is the temptation to keep on doing the spectacular, so we do. One day our spectacular comes to an end and we crash. The pastor and church feel dejected and because numbers drop and people do not show up. When this happens clergy and churches grow in anxiety and fear of death.

The spectacular is tempting because it works to draw people in, but often the spectacular points people to elevate the the pastor or Church and overlook Jesus. The humble pastor and humble church are neither relevant or spectacular but are often called ineffective or bad thus adding pressure to fall into the temptation.

Combating the Societal Disease of Our Time

Norman Lear is credited with saying "Short-term thinking is the societal disease of our time." The corporate world has been sick with this disease for a long time and it is clear the disease has spread to other bodies in life: politics, entertainment and even the church. Perhaps you have seen the ramifications of being sick with this disease? We are feverishly addicted to the quarterly reports. We check the and and down of the sock market daily. We look to medication that can claims to change our lives thirty days. Content longer than three minutes is too long

We break up writing so to order lower the pressure of committing to read an entire paragraph. 

Photo by  William Iven  on  Unsplash

Photo by William Iven on Unsplash

Organizations infected with short-termism infect the members of that organization. Short-termism then spreads and the epidemic is upon us. We know the cure to break the fever, but ain't nobody have time for that.

Rather than prescribing new practices such as breathing or meditation, rather I offer up something that was recently taught to me. I cannot recall where it came from nor the more articulate way it is described, but it is the idea that we are only 10 people away from Jesus. 

The idea is that your life is really about 200 years rather than just the 70ish we think of. How do you get to impact 200 years?  Simply add three numbers.

  • The age of oldest person who knew you were born +
  • The number of years you live +
  • The death age of the youngest person who knew you when you die

This simple equation of impact means that the life impact of Jesus is not 2000 years away but only ten people away.

Short termism can be addressed by shifting how we think about the world. The monthly, quarterly or even annual reports are too short term. The Spirit of God has a different scale. Our little short term reports would be laughable if they were not so damaging to our bodies. 

The Absurd Leadership of Jesus

Stated by Albert Einstein (not pictured)

Stated by Albert Einstein (not pictured)

Jesus is a unique person who did things differently. Christians identify Jesus as the perfect Love of God incarnate, so surely what he does is something we should imitate. The ever illusive search for best leadership practices leads some to consider if Jesus had any leadership practices that may be helpful. I am not the first to engage in this practice, there are many others who have done this. However, let me offer just a few leadership tactics from Jesus for your consideration.

  1. Communication is key. So, do not speak directly but speak in parables where your followers do not understand you. This way you can ensure maximum confusion and misunderstanding on what the mission of the cause is. 
  2. Get the right people on the bus. Be sure they will abandon and disavow ever being a part of the movement. 
  3. Put Judas in charge of the money. The person you may have the most reason to distrust and the one person who garners the most suspicion of the group, yes put that person in charge of the money.
  4. Build an organization around an idea that no one wants. Picking up your cross and following the Crucified One does not test well in focus groups.   
  5. Mentoring is invaluable. Be sure to locate the leader wearing camel's hair and eating locus by the river. Ask that one to mentor you.

The absurd leadership of Jesus is something not often discussed in leadership circles. But Jesus was not always the best leader by today's standards. If a leader today did much of what Jesus did then we may call into question the sanity of that leader. 

Jesus is much more complicated that just a list of "best practices," and to reduce Jesus to such a thing belittles the mission of his life, death and resurrection. Additionally, church leaders who look to Jesus for their leadership model may be on the wrong end of the institutional/organizational goals and values.

There are many leadership teachers out there who all teach a fine model of leadership: Jim Collins, Seth Godin, John C. Maxwell, Gretchen Rubin and whoever is currently on the best seller lists. All of these leadership styles sell because they are are reasonable and sensible. 

Jesus is absurd. Which may be why he has to call us.