Part Four: Reenvisioning the Promised Land

“We are workers, not master builders; ministers, not messiahs.
We are prophets of a future not our own.”
—Bishop Ken Untener

Strengthening the soul of your leadership is a journey that begins, continues and ends with a tenacious seeking after God in the crucible of ministry. It is an invitation to stay connected with your own soul—that inner sanctum where God’s Spirit and your spirit dwell together in union—and to lead from that place until God calls us to let go in one way or another. 

If we live long enough, like Moses, we will pass through a season in which, by God’s grace, we begin to reenvison what the promised land really is. We may sense an inner shift as we open to the possibility that maybe we are not going to see all our dreams come true in this lifetime. While some of the things we had hoped for and dreamed of have come to pass, others have not.  God’s Spirit starts witnessing with our spirit in subtle (or not-so-subtle) ways about a change that is coming…a change that will involve letting go as God begins drawing us more completely to himself. 

As the old hymn goes, “the things of earth will grow strangely dim” as the presence of God becomes more and more real. 

You Can Look but You Cannot Go In

For Moses, his ultimate letting go into the presence of God took place on the highest peak of Mount Nebo, where God guided him to sit and survey the Promised Land one last time.  He was 120 years old but his vigor was unimpaired, the Scriptures say.  He was still able to climb mountains!  

Since my Sunday school days, I have been troubled by this part of Moses’ story: that he got to see the Promised Land but was not allowed to go in. I learned this was Moses’ punishment for striking the rock at Meribah rather than just speaking to it, demonstrating a lack of trust in God.  Back then I accepted this as the consequence for Moses’ sin and allowed myself only a vague sense that perhaps it seemed a little harsh. But over the years I have become bolder in admitting that it seems inordinately cruel. 

The words God spoke to Moses as he looked out on what might have been — “I have let your eyes see it but you shall not cross over”— seem like the coldest, most punishing, most withholding kind of words that could ever be uttered to one who had been so faithful. 

God’s instruction that Moses should ascend to the top of Mount Nebo to look at the Promised Land before dying seemed a little bit like rubbing his nose in it.  AND it brought up such a painful possibility—the possibility that this could happen to me! The idea that I, too, might work hard and serve long—straining towards some goal or dream—only to have God say to me at the end, “You can look, but you can’t go in” was almost too much to bear. 

High Stakes Leadership 

This part of Moses’ story does speak to the fact that when one chooses a spiritual path in leadership, the stakes get higher and higher. Behaviors and attitudes that were good enough last year may not be good enough this year.  A level of integrity that was adequate for one level of spiritual leadership now disappoints others and our very own self as we move into new levels of responsibility. 

There is a peace on this path and deep reward, but there is an even greater responsibility to live authentically, increasingly given over to grace working together with our own best efforts.  There is no doubt that the more spiritual the destination the greater the importance of our character and utter responsiveness to God at different points in the journey. 

There is a price to be paid for this kind of courageous leadership and somehow Moses knew this and had accepted it.  Even so, I have read and re-read the book of Deuteronomy looking for some evidence of an inner struggle, some indication that Moses argued with God one more time on the side of that mountain. We can be fairly certain that if Moses felt like arguing, he probably would have!  But I don’t think he did.

Our Greatest Good 

It is as if everything Moses had gone through had prepared him for this moment. Whatever letting go he had done in order to leave the house of Pharaoh to find God—and himself—in the wilderness prepared him for this final letting go.  Settling down by the well in Midian and being content to be a soul in God’s presence had prepared him to sit on the side of this mountain utterly content, once again, to be a soul in God’s presence.  He no longer needed any role or responsibility or task to define him. 

Perhaps his experience of being called by God, arguing it out and having God answer each and every objection with the promise of his presence prepared him to say yes more easily to the calling that was before him now. Maybe all of his experiences of discerning and doing the will of God had brought him to the place where he knew, down to the bottom of his being, that the will of God was the best thing that could happen to him under any circumstances.  

Certainly, he had some sense that the terrible loneliness he had moved in and out of throughout his life would now finally be eradicated because physical death was the final transition into Pure Presence. Finally, there would be nothing standing between him and the lover of his soul.  For Moses the presence of God was the Promised Land.  Next to that, everything else had already paled in significance. 

No Arguments on This Mountain

If we look carefully at Moses’ life we can see that the deep acceptance characterizing Moses’ response to God on the side of the mountain was actually rooted in the intimate journey of encounter he had been on all his life. In Exodus 33 Moses had undergone a fundamental shift in the life of a leader—a transformation of the deepest kind—in which visions of grandeur and the allure of greatness no longer hold the attraction they used to. “If your presence will not go, do not carry us up from here.” 

Moses had been so changed by the journey that he was completely at peace with himself and God. Nothing of this world had any hold on him at all. By this time Moses and God were like an old married couple who had loved and fought for so long that now they had reached some sort of understanding.  They had been through so much together that now it was enough to sit and rock on the front porch of life, content just to know that the other one was there. That was all it took to make life good. 

When a leader “arrives” at this kind of peace, acceptance, and union with God, we have really gotten somewhere. We have come to the place where the presence of God becomes ultimate and everything else pales in significance.  All the great ones of our faith teach us that it is possible for a leader to have encountered God so richly that no matter what we are working toward here on this earth, we know we already have what we most deeply want—the presence of God, which can never be taken from us. As the apostle Paul put it, “If I am to live in the flesh, that means fruitful labor for me; and I do not know which I prefer.  I am hard pressed between the two: my desire is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better; but to remain in the flesh is more necessary for you.” (Philippians 1:22-24)

A Leader Who is Free Indeed

A leader who has come to this deeper understanding of what the Promised Land actually is—that it is union with God now and for eternity—is a leader who is free indeed. Such a leader is free to spend oneself in God’s service as long as God calls them to do so AND they are free to let go when God tells them it is time.  Such a leader is free to lead from that place where God is present to them and let the chips fall where they may. 

The choice to lead from one’s soul is a vulnerable approach to leadership, because the soul is more tender than the mind or the ego.  This is a place where we don’t have all the answers—or at least not necessarily when everybody wants them!  It is a place where we are not in control; God is.  It is a place where the quickest way is not always the best way, because the transformation that is happening in us is more important than getting where we think we need to go. 

As we stay faithful to the journey into the center of our being where God dwells, we are freed from our bondage to the expectations of others and our own inner compulsions so we are less and less mesmerized by human voices. We are less swayed and manipulated by the expectations of others, and more and more given over to God. In our encounters with God we die not only to the expectations of others but also to ourselves—our addiction to performing, to looking good and being perfect, to attaining more status than is good for us. 

Because we know ourselves to be deeply loved by God we experience an inner freedom beyond what we ever thought possible.  We can handle an enormous amount of success and failure without losing our identity. We let go of our attachment to money, success, some way we have come to define ourselves, our relationships, a particular leadership context—receiving them as gifts without being overly identified with them.  

We find we are able to love others deeply and unconditionally because we have faced the darkness and the light within ourselves and have found ourselves to be unconditionally loved by God. We are able to love and lead with abandonment and freedom because we know that ultimately we have nothing to lose.   

Transforming Leadership

When we are willing to lead from this place, we finally have something real to offer that actually corresponds to what people around us are seeking.  And the quality of our leadership is decidedly different.  Rather than leading from the unconscious patterns of the false self, we are leading from selves that are being transformed by our encounters with God in solitude and silence.  

Rather than leading from frenetic busyness, we are leading in a paced way, taking time to notice the burning bushes in our own lives.  

Rather than leading from over-stimulation and increasing exhaustion, we are discovering rhythms of work and rest, silence and word, stillness and action that God built into the universe for our well-being.  

Rather than being subject to other people’s expectations and our own inner compulsions, we are operating out of a deepening sense of God’s call upon our lives.

Rather than leading from a simplistic view of the spiritual life, we have inside-out understanding of the shape of the spiritual journey that comes from having been faithful to our own journeys. 

Rather than arguing, fighting and trying to defend ourselves against every criticism and challenge to our leadership, we regularly and routinely carry the people we are leading into God’s presence and intercede on their behalf. 

Rather than bearing the burden of leadership alone, we open up our loneliness to God and to those with whom we can cultivate healthy interdependence. 

And rather than leading from intellectual striving and human strategies, we discover with other like-minded souls how to open to the gift of discernment so we can do God’s will together. 

Beyond Grandiosity

This journey to the mountaintop is the ultimate antidote to our grandiosity, if we will let be. It helps us find our place in the scheme of things lest we become overly inflated in our view of ourselves and our role in kingdom work.

For a leader, the promised land is something you see that can’t be beaten out of you even when other people don’t see it yet—even when they say it is impossible, unrealistic, idealistic. It is the phoenix that keeps rising out of the ashes of every failure. It can never really die.

But paradoxically, by the time a leader gets to this promised land, it has usually been stripped down to its barest essence. By the time you get there, maybe you can still see it—as Moses did—but it doesn’t matter nearly as much. What matters is the presence of God right there with you on the mountainside and saying yes to God in the deepest way because you are not clinging to or grasping at anything. This vision of the promised land right-sizes any particular leader’s role in the kingdom endeavor; we become heralds of a future and a kingdom that is not our own and yet is absolutely certain.

“It helps, now and then, to step back and take a long view.
The kingdom [of God] is not only beyond our efforts,
it is even beyond our vision.
We accomplish in our lifetime only a tiny fraction
of the magnificent enterprise that is God’s work.
We cannot do everything, and there is a sense of
liberation in realizing this.
This enables us to do something, and to do it very well.
It may be incomplete, but it is a beginning,
a step along the way, an opportunity for the Lord’s grace
to enter and do the rest.
We may never see the end results, but that is the difference
between the master builder and the worker.
We are workers, not master builders; ministers, not messiahs.
We are prophets of a future not our own.”

—Bishop Ken Untener, in memory of Oscar Romero

© Ruth Haley Barton, 2018. Adapted from Strengthening the Soul of Your Leadership: Seeking God in the Crucible of Ministry (InterVarsity Press).

Strengthen the Soul of Your Leadership. Create space to listen and respond to God

Ruth Haley Barton

Ruth (Doctor of Divinity, Northern Seminary) is founder and chief essence officer of the Transforming Center. A teacher, seasoned spiritual director (Shalem Institute), and retreat leader, Ruth is the author of numerous books and resources on the spiritual life including Strengthening the Soul of Your Leadership, Sacred Rhythms, Life Together in Christ, Pursuing God’s Will Together, Invitation to Solitude and Silence, Invitation to Retreat, and Embracing Rhythms of Work and Rest.
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What a wonderful word! It reminds me of the Jewish prayer, Dayenu, that means, “It would have been enough,” that recites 15 blessings God gave His chosen people, any one of which “would have been enough” to them.

This prayer humbles me. How selfish my prayers seem, asking for more & more after all God has done for me? From this perspective, it seems out of line to think it harsh of God to deny Moses entry to the Promised Land. While I agree that he ably & faithfully served God & seemed to only make this one mistake during his ministry, compared to what God did, it seems churlish to focus on what God withheld from Moses rather than what He did for him. God kept him safe from pharoah’s wrath, He guided Moses every step of the way & provided signs to the Hebrews that legitimized Moses’ leadership, He parted the Red Sea & on & on.

As I work to relinquish control to God of my life, ministry & transformation into Christlikeness, I can understand better how just being in God’s presence & working so closely with Him to free the Hebrews from slavery in Egypt would be enough for Moses by the end. I like that Moses got to see the Promised Land at sunrise, too. I’d never caught that detail before. It’s as if God was letting Moses see that God would continue to be with His people in the new day after Moses died. Isn’t that something we’d all like? To know the legacy of God’s faithfulness that we got to participate in will continue when we’re gone?

I too have struggled with this story since my early years in faith and am so grateful for this new perspective. I also have been discouraged thinking about what might be required of me, or (what feels like) taken from me. BUT- It’s also a tremendous blessing to receive this message in the beginning stages of leadership in ministry. What has at times felt like constraint/discipline, I am now seeing as a blessing, to stop me before I go blazing down a path only years later to turn and see the fires I started along the way. I feel more prepared, and able to trust that He will continue to prepare and transform me, to be an actual blessing and guide to others, rather than serving my own ego and agenda.

Thank you, Ruth, for continuing to share your wisdom with others.

This is the diagnosis, the scalpel, and the healing balm all wrapped into one. Although I have been walking around saying “ouch” all day after reading this, I am finally convinced of the necessity to let go of a passionate but ever increasingly exhausting career goal, and allow myself a most needed rest. Thanks you Ruth for a much needed word on surrender and trust.

I am feeling tired too. But my heart is full. I am thinking of the words of Martin Luther King Jr. as he said that he may not make it to the promised land. Then he said, “Free at last, free at last, thank God Almighty, I’m free at last.” There is great freedom that comes from the differentiation in our souls when we let go of doing and embrace being. Your words have been a blessing to me in the past 12 years of ministry. Thank you.

[…] that is not the best version of “promised land”? Ruth Haley Barton elaborates in this piece on leadership lessons from the life of Moses. Ponder it yourself, then send it on to those leaders you know out there at the ends of the […]

I always want to ponder what I read in your posts and then I want to share them with others. One thought — I can’t remember now who stirred it in me — Moses did get into the land — he was with Jesus on the Mountain in the transfiguration. In the Kingdom of God, by His grace and the power of making alo things news Jesus is exercising — nothing is ever really lost.

Such and encouragement. Thank you.

Ruth, This was absolutely transformative and so enlightening. I am so grateful for your kindness and support for those in leadership. May you continuously experience the grace of God and his loving wisdom. God bless!

Wonderful insight. Helpful. I’m projecting, I know, but I think Moses was tired, that he expended the last major bit of his energy climbing the mountain, and realized that what at first seemed like a punishment was a blessing. The Promised Land wasn’t exactly Big Rock Candy Mountain, and entering it would bring a host of new struggles; let Joshua and others take the lead now. Moses had been key in the formation of the people who would eventually enter and dwell where Abraham had sojourned. Again, I’m projecting, Moses wouldn’t have had the historical perspective that we have in assessing the pivotal, long-range value of his leadership contribution. But having that perspective, and the perspective to understand Jesus’ dying — seemingly abandoned by God, with only his faith in and a lifetime of the experience of God’s presence to support him, as opposed to any evidence that anything was going to come of his leadership, enables us more easily, perhaps, to understand ourselves from that perspective (while we are in the middle of our work, and not just at the end). The loneliness is indeed a debilitating factor — one can’t expect one’s congregation to provide what’s missing, or one’s spouse, or one’s institutional superiors. It is essential to foster one’s own intimate connection with God. I wish seminaries had focused on that reality back in my day. Or now. And I appreciate what the Transforming Center is doing.

I love your projections and perspective on this.

I, too, think Moses was tired and that God’s invitation/instruction for him to take a look and then die there in God’s presence was a great grace. Indeed, “taking” the promised land was going to present another set of challenges with the need for huge leadership energy and I think he was over it…and God knew it. I also thing that tiredness, at different points in the leadership journey, can serve a wonderful function in helping activistic leaders to let go simply b/c letting go is so counter to our natures. God uses everything for good! Thanks so much for wiring.

It occurs that it was a good thing for Israel, too, to “lose” Moses at this point. I mean, even Jesus went thru all this (I’m convinced personally that he originally expected to succeed — expected others would see what he saw so very clearly). But in the end, he not only accepted that he it would not all happen in his lifetime, but, as he says in John’s gospel, that it was “necessary that I go” for the disciples’ sake so that the Spirit would come. Getting ourselves out of the way– not just at the end, but all along the way — is extremely necessary. (Interesting that “inserting himself” — taking credit for water flowing from the rock, and failing in his task to be transparent to the God who had done it — was the error that resulted in Moses not entering the Promised Lane, maybe not as punishment but by way of correction and clarification?) But keeping ourselves out of the way is so difficult. We need so badly to see results, to get validated, and the temptation is so great to manipulate people and events to get outcomes *now*. And either to despair or start blaming when they aren’t forthcoming. Being rooted and grounded in God is necessary for … everything– for both our own benefit and for the benefit of those we serve, if new life is to come out of all this.
Thank *you* for all your writing.

Amazing and quite freeing. So much of what we press into is for the next generation. To be content and fulfilled
In Christ With where Father takes us
Is a beautiful but attainable goal. This story reveals this. Thanks for this revelation and the profound impact it has had on my life. May God Bless You

Appreciate the insights from this article. Agree with Ruth’s explanation that due to Moses’ ever present relationship with the Lord, being in the Promised Land did not personally drive his happiness; whereas being with God, did. Will contemplate this because it truly is a wisdom teaching that is good for the heart and soul. Thank you!

Thank you, Ruth, for this article that it is hard for me to find an adjective to describe. I began my devotional time this morning reading this and it hit right to the heart of where I am in my journey. Thank you for helping me to better define where I am in my leadership and ministry journey while helping me to discern my place in the future with the Lord. Your writing always blesses me, but this one was especially impactful. It came just at the right time as I am looking to make some big decisions over the next week.

So grateful to hear this! Thank you for writing.

Such a good word. Your books and the scriptures you weave in them have been so significant. One part of this story has been something I’ve been pondering. God had Moses look- west, north, south, east. That seemed so so random. I camped there and read several commentaries. The final direction in my mind would have been toward the west to see the sunset as his life was ending. However God had him look east toward the sunrise. The thing that hit me is the things I see as endings God sees as beginnings. Astonishing!

Yes, for Moses and for all of us, death on the side of the mountain is not an ending, it is a beginning.

This article absolutely spoke to me this morning. Thank you! (My personal take on the mountain-experience for Moses was that this WAS God’s grace in letting him see that for which he had toiled so long. It had been a promised dream for many years and, perhaps, Moses was needing a gentle reminder that God did indeed have an end-game in mind.)

This. Is. PROFOUND! I will be chewing on this one for awhile. It’s…everything about everything important in a nutshell. How did you DO that? Yes. I know. From your “tenacious seeking after God in the crucible of ministry.” What a gift. Thank you.

You. Are. Too. Kind! But thank you; I receive it. 🙂

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