Let It Go

by Scott Hagan

He was paradox personified. All the early exit polling looked strong. The right man with the right look appeared to be living in the right moment. His leadership measurables were legitimate, all pointing to a storied career of extraordinary success. Everyone, including Samuel, felt his life would be meteoric. Yet in collapse and death, Saul was the new metaphor for wasted potential.

None of us want our leadership life chronicled in the Bible — of that I am sure. But Saul was as close to a can’t-miss guarantee as you will find in Scripture. He was well-versed and well-raised. No one looked more postured for long-term success.

But soon after his inauguration as king of Israel, the scepter with all its privileges and pressures sucked and seduced the promise right out of Saul. Like all epic failures in life, this was not the first mistake that cost Saul. It was his second. More specifically, it was his inability to regroup during those tiny “spaces of grace” that God often provides for us between mistake number one and mistake number two.

I have rarely seen a leader obliterate his influence after one mishap, though I guess it is possible. Instead, it seems to come apart after a series of follow-up mistakes. This is why having the capacity to regroup, rethink, and reconnect before the waters get too deep is a must-have skill set for every leader who desires sustainability.

Somewhere Saul started to believe God had given him a free pass, that he was not bound by everyday accountabilities. Such things are for the powerless or the unenshrined. This uniquely deceptive “leadership lie,” along with the strain of palace and military administration, became weightier than the clear assigned purpose he carried over his heart. Gone was the humility that made him so attractive. At the end of every passing day, Saul seemed to take one more step farther away from the initial strength of God’s voice that was directing his life. And remember, our life is our leadership; they are inseparable. Saul thought differently.

Now a jealous man — a man of civil war — Saul sought to shed family blood. David was becoming all that Saul was losing. But instead of humbling himself, Saul repeats the same error he committed in his relationships with Samuel. Instead of awakening and change, he seeks to salvage his scepter and reputation through politics. Two things drove Saul: damage control and the destruction of his opponent. Saul was now the bodyguard for his own toxic self-concept. A mere ghost of his former leadership self, he spent his remaining days drawing targets on David. David’s sin?

Budding success

The grudge match between Saul and David has many sequels in the modern church. Though few are capable of recognizing and abandoning them, they too lead like Saul — driven of course by their own anxieties toward another leader whom they see succeeding at their expense. Saul created the conditions for his demise by not recognizing God’s space of grace through Samuel after his first misstep. Once those conditions were in place, all the devil had to do was scratch Saul’s flesh with one song, “Saul has slain his thousands, and David his ten thousands” (1 Samuel 18:7).

The scratch then festered. It became diseased. God chose to amputate.

Leadership resentment rarely, if ever, aims its arrow at someone living out his purpose in an entirely different field from our own. Real leadership resentments are usually aimed at those who are redeeming what we have squandered. David was not spitefully stealing away the personal greatness of Saul. He just faithfully served and stewarded the chips that fell his way. Saul, having forsaken the presence of God by choosing to trust in pretense, could only watch in paranoia as the young David made all the right moves in the sight of God.

David made catastrophic mistakes with his life. But between mistake one and mistake two he chose a different response. He regrouped and ultimately regained his leadership momentum. He kept his conscience tender and well-positioned beneath the loving lordship of Jehovah. We see this trait during this grudge match with Saul.

Urged by others to do what had been done to him — to spare no mercy and do to Saul what he had done to the lion and the bear. With those choices before him, David chooses the unthinkable. This was the moment to free himself from the fugitive life and end it right here and now. The prey, David, had the predator, Saul, cornered. Saul’s back was turned, he was in a vulnerable position; strike now or forever regret letting this moment pass.

But instead of dismembering Saul’s body, David dismembered his garment — but only a corner. That cut convicted David so deeply he quickly sought to make full remedy for his sin. He was already demonstrating the disposition that would one day bring him back to his sensibilities after sexual encounters with Bathsheba and the mob-like execution of her husband.

We need to live likewise, paying full attention to the details of our heart and to the relationships that define our life. If not, we will not beat the odds and live as a sustainable leader. Jealousy and bitterness in a leader’s soul will drive him off the cliff. A final audit of Saul shows how a man driven by image instead of integrity bids his farewell. His beautiful, promising beginning died ugly. Not because God failed in grace, for David proves otherwise. Saul failed the most basic Kingdom lesson. One Cain and Abel taught us as well. He simply wouldn’t let it go.

Lead free. Lead long.