By Marshall Hayden
Legend has it that my great-grandfather milked his goats the day before he died at the age of 96. He built a small house for himself and my great-grandmother when he was 80. He organized and supervised a gang of the men in the family and led the way in breaking up and hauling off a huge boulder left in the front yard. That’s strong! But it’s not really the “finish well, finish strong” kind of strength many seasoned Christians earnestly wish to have.
One biblical leader who put this principle into words was the apostle Paul who looked to the end of his life and declared, “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith” (2 Timothy 4:7).
A Biblical Example
When Joshua spoke, people listened. He had earned their attention. When he described his commitments and asked the same from them, they could remember having seen him do and be what he was talking about. He died at the age of 110 with the message he had modeled on his lips: “As for me and my household, we will serve the Lord” (Joshua 24:15).
Joshua was Moses’ aide and intern. In an early assignment Moses told him to go out and fight against the Amalekites. He fought all day, winning and losing and finally overcoming them, as Aaron and Hur held up his mentor’s tired arms. We remember Joshua best as one of two spies who saw the promise in the promised land and believed God’s promise, giving a confident minority report: “The Lord . . . will give it to us . . . . Only do not rebel against the Lord. And do not be afraid of the people of the land, because we will swallow them up . . . . Their protection is gone, but the Lord is with us” (Numbers 14:8, 9). Of Joshua and Caleb, Numbers 32:12 says, “They followed the Lord whole-heartedly.”
The leadership principles Joshua spoke about at the end of his life were not based on the “Do as I say, not as I do” principle. Instead they are like the bold comment made by the apostle Paul: “Follow my example, as I follow the example of Christ” (1 Corinthians 11:1).
Listening, Practicing, Finishing Well
Here are a few leadership principles from Joshua’s farewell speech.
Leaders who finish well don’t take the credit. “You yourselves have seen everything the Lord your God has done to all these nations for your sake; it was the Lord your God who fought for you” (Joshua 23:3).
A leader I know has been uncommonly successful, but has a graceful way of deferring accolades—and not with expressions designed to make him sound spiritual. He hasn’t felt the need to recite the statistics and successes that would make us ooh and ah. He knows that, at best, he has been a well-prepared, well-maintained tool for God to use.
Proverbs 15:33 reminds us, “Humility comes before honor.” If we leave the applause up to others there is a good chance our worthy work will be noted. But if not, it’s the work that counts, not the worker. Proverbs 27:2 states, “Let another praise you, and not your own mouth; someone else, and not your own lips.”
Leaders who finish well exude hope. “The Lord your God himself will drive them out of your way. He will push them out before you; and you will take possession of the land the Lord your God promised you” (Joshua 23:5). Several years ago I met an illustration of this. We were getting ready to serve with the young congregation where we spent 28 fulfilling years. He was the oldest of the elders leading this six-year-old church. He kept a constant smile on his face and a lilt in his voice. He spoke with excitement about the future, about what the church was destined to become. And he backed his expressions of confidence and godly hope with his special skills and energies. When he passed away he left a significant portion of his estate to the church.
Leaders who finish well don’t turn aside. “Be very strong; be careful to obey all that is written in the Book of the Law of Moses, without turning aside to the right or to the left . . . . you are to hold fast to the Lord your God, as you have until now” (vv. 6, 8).
A favorite professor of mine was a first-rate scholar with remarkable credentials; but he was firm in his simple, biblical theology. He would not play the critic or offer an uncertain sound. “Why are you so conservative?” some would ask. And his answer was, “Every student generation will be inclined to move one notch to the left of its teacher. And I will not be responsible for that drift.”
Leaders who finish well refuse to compromise themselves. Joshua was reminded, “Be very careful to love the Lord your God” (v. 11).
“How about making peace with these pagan nations around us, just this once?” Not Joshua, and not the father who raised me, and who taught me with his words and with his life—with an unwavering consistency. It wasn’t always appreciated, but more than once, in frustration he asked me, “Why do you want to walk so close to the edge of the cliff?” It happened once at the Grand Canyon (I almost didn’t make 16), and more often in my spiritual adolescence.
Martin Luther, when faced with a decree to recant his “blasphemies” said, famously, “Here I stand. I can do none other.” That’s leadership—faithful, uncompromising leadership.
Leaders who finish well are grateful. “Joshua said to all the people, ‘This is what the Lord, the God of Israel, says: . . . So I gave you a land on which you did not toil and cities you did not build; and you live in them, and eat from vineyards and olive groves that you did not plant’” (24:2, 13).
Think about our country’s finest leaders. Which presidents stand out? Are they not the ones who are grateful, not grumblers—grateful to be part of this great nation, grateful for those who have gone before and paid the price for freedom and world leadership?
Think about your church’s finest leaders. Are they not the ones who are grateful, not grumblers? And think about your family’s most valued and trusted leaders. Are they not the ones who are grateful, not grumblers? Among the many graces exhibited by my parents-in-law was a deep gratitude for every apparent kindness, for my wife’s generous attention in their declining years, for the thoughtfulness of their long-time friends, and for the attention of their church family. No complaints! Many words of thanks! They finished well.
If you are grateful, express it. If you have something nice to say, say it or write it. Don’t make it up; but don’t hold it back.
Leaders Who Serve
“Now fear the Lord, and serve him with all faithfulness . . . As for me and my household, we will serve the Lord” (vv. 14, 15). Some years ago I heard someone say that when you get older you are just more of what you have always been. For some that’s a frightening prospect. For others it’s a comforting assurance. The elementary years in the school of experience under the direction of the teacher of teachers prepare us for the years of secondary school, and for graduation.
When a mature Joshua speaks, his words have the clear ring of truth. What he says he has illustrated with his life.
Marshall Hayden is a retired minister and freelance writer in Worthington, Ohio.
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