Leadership Lessons from King Nebuchadnezzar

I once taught the book of Daniel in Vacation Bible School. I expected to learn a lot from Daniel, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego in the stories. But what surprised me, as I was preparing to teach, was just how much I learned from King Nebuchadnezzar... 

Illustration and layout by Trish Mahoney from   The Beginner's Gospel Story Bible     by Jared Kennedy, (New Growth Press, 2017)

Illustration and layout by Trish Mahoney from The Beginner's Gospel Story Bible by Jared Kennedy, (New Growth Press, 2017)

Nebuchadnezzar was a powerful man with a short fuse--far from the model of emotional health. In Daniel 2, he's ready to put every one of his advisors to death just because they can't read his mind (Daniel 2:8-9). And it seems that the only thing more powerful than Nebuchadnezzar's temper is his pride. But God didn't give up on Nebuchadnezzar. He sent faithful men into captivity in Babylon, and he humbled the king. You can see his amazing testimony unfold in three stages:

  • At first, Nebuchadnezzar is delusional (Daniel 3:4-6). In a fantastic dream, God revealed to king Nebuchadnezzar that his kingdom would not last. Another king would succeed him. Ultimately God's forever kingdom would crush Babylon and every other human dominion (Daniel 2:44-45). But somehow that powerful message was lost on Nebuchadnezzar. He completely missed the point. Instead of reacting to God's vision of the future with humility, he apparently only remembered that he was the "head of gold." So the king set up a 90 foot high image of himself and summoned all of his royal leaders as well as all nations and peoples of every language to come and bow down. He led the people in an idolatrous direction, and he led them there with threats: "Whoever does not fall down and worship will immediately be thrown into a blazing furnace."

  • Nebuchadnezzar becomes aware of God's goodness and greatness (Daniel 3:29). After God delivers the three friends--Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego--from the fiery furnace, it seems that Nebuchadnezzar has his first major realization. The friends refused to bend or bow, and the king was enraged. So he heated the furnace seven times hotter and threw them in. At that moment, Nebuchadnezzar witnessed God show up. He was amazed. There was a fourth man in the fire--someone like a son of the gods (Daniel 3:25). The king inspected the men and discovered the fire hadn't touched them. They didn't even smell like smoke! So he immediately issued another decree. Once again he wrote to the people of any language or nation. Now he was leading the people toward the true God. But he was still leading with threats: Anyone who "says anything against the God of Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego will be cut into pieces and their houses will be turned into a pile of rubble (Yikes!), for no other god can save in this way."

  • Nebuchadnezzar becomes aware of his sin (Daniel 4:1). Daniel chapter 4 begins with another decree from the king. Once again he writes to the nations and peoples of every language who live in the earth. The opening reminds us of the king's two earlier attempts at directing the people's worship. But this time the threats are gone. As commentator Ernest C. Lucas observes, "He no longer relies on the power of physical force but the power of personal testimony." In light of what's happened before, the king's words are amazing: "It is my pleasure to tell you about the miraculous signs and wonders that the Most High God has performed for me." Nebuchadnezzar was humbled. He'd stood on the pinnacle of power and the roof of his palace and he bragged about all he'd done for his own glory and fame (Daniel 4:30). Then he broke. God drove him from men. Nebuchadnezzar lost his mind. He lived in a field and ate grass like an ox until he acknowledged God's sovereignty and his own weakness: "I, Nebuchadnezzar, praise and exalt and glorify the King of heaven, because everything he does is right and all his ways are just. And those who walk in pride, he is able to humble" (Daniel 4:37).

Too often I lead like young Nebuchadnezzar. I'm short tempered and proud. I might lead in the right direction, but I don't lead in the right way. And I don't think I'm alone. Sadly, Christian leadership often looks more like the Nebuchadnezzar of Daniel 3:29 than the Nebuchadnezzar of Daniel 4:1--using what power we have in a coercive way to our own ends. May the Lord help us grow in self-awareness. May he help us see both the greatness of his salvation and the depth of our own need and sin. I thank God that he humbles the proud and gives grace to the humble.

Do you have a testimony to share about a way God has humbled you? Share it in the comments below.

The illustrations in this post are from my book, The Beginner's Gospel Story Bible. Check out the New Growth Press website to purchase a copy or learn more.

Three Disciplines for Teaching Grace to Kids

A young girl will read books and work for good grades so her parents will take her out for ice cream. A boy will spend hours in a batting cage hoping for an ‘attaboy’ from his dad. 

In the Fall of 2015, I had the opportunity to lead a breakout session at Lifeway’s children’s ministry conference, KMC 2015. I talked with leaders in the session about how our kids grow up in a performance-driven world. Kids can grow up thinking: “Intimacy is earned,” or “I am who I am because of what I do or have failed to do.”

The world’s message of performance is different from the Bible’s message of redemption.

The world’s message of performance is different from the Bible’s message of redemption. The Bible tells us that intimacy with God is a free gift. Jesus came to be with us even when we were his enemies (Romans 5:8; 10:6-8). Because Jesus came, kids can help shape the culture rather than being shaped by it. They can radiate with a new identity, one that’s not based in earning or deserving. Like Paul wrote in 1 Corinthians 15:10a, kids can say, “By the grace of God, I am what I am.”

Sometimes we are better at teaching the truth about grace to kids than we are at living it out. In that breakout, I talked about three spiritual habits that can help grace stick with kids (and adults!) for a lifetime. Here they are…

1. Remember.

We are all aimless, directionless sinners. We choose to disobey and follow our own plans. Ultimately our plans leave us lost. But God has never gotten lost. Before God created the heavens and earth, he had a plan. God has lovingly mapped out his people’s lives even though we struggle to remember it (Psalm 139).

Ultimately our plans leave us lost. But God has never gotten lost.

Here is one of the ways we teach the discipline of remembering to elementary kids. We ask each child to map out the most significant events in his life. We ask the child to include his birth, his first time riding a bike, the birth of siblings, his first day at school, meeting best friends, and favorite activities. We encourage each child to include years and locations. Each child shared their timeline with their small group. We encouraged the teachers to point out evidence of where God has been at work in the child’s story—evidence of His grace. A few of our teachers came to me afterwards and said, “I need to do this,” or “This is the kind of thing we do in counseling.” It’s true. God’s plan of grace is a comfort. We need to practice remembering.

2. Be Vulnerable and Practice Repentance.

Kara Powell and Chap Clark put together a team at Fuller Seminary to study church kids and what happens to them after high school. They discovered that young people who run away from the faith have a tendency to equate Christianity with a list of do’s and don’ts, what Dallas Willard calls “the gospel of sin management.”  Powell and Clark also discovered that whether kids stayed with the faith after high school or not, they all struggled equally with the do’s and don’ts. But what those who stayed with the faith discovered is that the vibrancy and life at the heart of Christianity isn’t found in keeping the rules perfectly. The heart of Christianity—what separates it from every other religion—is grace.

The heart of Christianity—what separates it from every other religion—is grace.

Here’s the truth. Kids practice what they see. We must let grace abound in our homes and ministries. That doesn’t mean there aren’t consequences or discipline, but we parents need to demonstrate what it looks like to give and receive grace by talking more freely about our mistakes and apologizing to our kids. We should ask our kids to forgive us when we lose our temper or raise our voices with them. If apologizing is a hypothetical in our homes, we may be out of touch with our own sinfulness. But when we come to see that we can do nothing good on our own (Romans 3), we will also come to see that one of the first steps forward is simply acknowledging and admitting when we blow it… repenting before our kids and asking for forgiveness.

3. Lean Into Passions with Gratitude.

We’re all passionate about things. Every home is oriented around something. Maybe it’s gymnastics or academic team or football. I meet parents who have a lot of anxiety about their kids’ passions and interests. They might ask, “How do you not let a typical American pastime become an idol in your home?”

Show interest in what interests your kids. Then as Augustine said, ‘trace the sunbeam up to the sun.’

At a family discipleship weekend where I spoke a couple of years back, one parent voiced concern about her child making Minnie Mouse into an idol. She said, “I’m just so worried. My daughter wants to wear mouse ears to church. What do I do?” I said, “Let her.” I believe we should look at our kids’ passions with a slightly different perspective. Let’s ask instead, “How can my child’s passion become something that builds family relationships and faith in God? How can I lean into my kids’ passions, abilities, and interests?”

Show interest in what interests your kids. Then, as Augustine said, “trace the sunbeam up to the sun.” Talk about how it’s God who is the giver of every good gift (James 1:17). Give thanks to God for giving your children those passions. You may discover that He is at work using those interests to teach them about himself.

Grace is opposed to earning, but it’s not opposed to discipline and effort. These are three disciplines that I’m hoping to come back to again and again.

This post originally appeared on the family channel of the Verge Network.

Grace for Pirates... Like You and Me

Chore charts, report cards, standardized tests, recitals, and athletic banquets … the overwhelming message to kids is that what they do determines who they are. Kids grow up thinking, “I am what I am because of what I do or because of what I’ve failed to do.” But this message of performance is different from the Bible’s message of redemption. In 1 Corinthians 15:10a, Paul writes, “By the grace of God, I am what I am.”

I learned about God’s grace while sitting with my dad in his Dodge pick-up truck after school. I was in ninth grade, and things that seem silly now—schoolwork, acne, girls—overwhelmed me. My dad said a few simple words that I pray I’ll never forget: “What God says about you is more important than what others say.” 

The message of grace is that what we do or what we look like does not determine who we are as Christians. What God determined for us through the work of His Son Jesus makes us who we are. We are loved even when our performance doesn’t stack up. After all, Jesus came to save sinners—not those who get everything right.

Kids need grace to make them silly with joy in God and strong in their budding faith. I love teaching it to them, because I need grace too. My own shortcomings as a parent can leave me drowning in the shame of not getting it right or of not living up to expectations. When I’m drowning, I need to drink deeply of the truth about God’s grace again.

In the Spring of 2011, Daniel Montgomery, our lead pastor at Sojourn Church, sat on the front porch of our church building with a group of men after an elder meeting. He began to outline for us a creative vision for a sermon series on grace from the book of Ephesians The series would be entitled PROOF, which is an acrostic to teach five key doctrines about God’s grace.

I sat with Daniel, took some notes, and began to think about how to teach these truths to our kids. A few weeks later, I left with extended family on a trip to Disney World. On the “Pirates of the Caribbean” boat ride the wax pirates are depicted in all of their buccaneer glory—drunk, burning villages, killing one another, stealing, and carrying off women. It’s not exactly the vision of manhood a family pastor wants to put before his children. My young girls were a bit terrified, but there were young boys the same age dressed like pirates. They celebrated these evil rum-guzzling scallywags. You can judge them (and Disney) if you want, but I saw something beautiful in it. In that moment, God took me back to those conversations with my dad. I sensed God say, “That’s how I’ve accepted you.” I made a connection to grace—enough to save a scallywag like me. 

On the day after our boat ride at the Magic Kingdom, I got up early—before my young children at Disney World—and grabbed my journal. I started doodling pictures and ideas for teaching about grace for pirates. When I got back home, our children’s ministry leaders took those ideas and ran with them. By that September sermon series, we’d hung a Jolly Roger in the children’s hallway and begun our grace treasure hunt. Here’s a little window into what the children’s ministry team developed.

Planned Grace

Ephesians 1:4-5a tells us, “He chose us in Him before the foundation of the world, that we would be holy and blameless before Him. In love He predestined us …” Before God made the heavens and earth, He mapped out salvation for His people. When teaching this deep truth to kids, we use a treasure map. We ask each child to map out the most significant events in his/her life. Then we search their story for evidence of where God has been at work—evidence of His grace.

Resurrecting Grace

The Bible says that we cannot follow God without His help. We are like dead skeletons. “But God, being rich in mercy, because of His great love with which He loved us, even when we were dead in our transgressions, made us alive together with Christ (by grace you have been saved)” (Ephesians 2:4-5). Dead skeletons have no muscles, no brain, and no heart. They have no power to move on their own. But God makes people dead in their sins to live again. God can make dead men and women and boys and girls walk in obedience to Him.

Outrageous Grace

Ephesians also teaches us that in Christ we have redemption (Ephesians 1:7). To redeem something means to buy it back—to pay a price so you can have it back. God paid the price for our sins by sending His Son, Jesus Christ, to die on the cross. Jesus gives us the riches of God’s grace. We can’t earn it. We don’t deserve it. We teach the richness of Jesus’ free gift by taking kids on a treasure hunt where the cross marks the spot.

Overcoming Grace

God does for us what we can’t do for ourselves. He changes our pirate flag of rebellion into a white flag of complete surrender (Ephesians 2:8-10). God gives us His Spirit to overcome our sin and make us His masterpiece.

Forever Grace

We use an anchor to teach about how God’s grace keeps Christians safe. Even though life is sometimes like sailing on a stormy sea, God is with us, and He protects us. He brings us back to Himself like a boat guided safely to shore. Ephesians 1:13-14 says, “In Him, you also, after listening to the message of truth, the gospel of your salvation—having also believed, you were sealed in Him with the Holy Spirit of promise, who is given as a pledge of our inheritance.” Because of the Holy Spirit, God’s people are marked as His children forever. God always finishes the work He begins in us. He protects His children so they can never be lost.

Biblical scholars tell us the ancient city of Ephesus was a hub for all kinds of idolatry and sin. It was even a hideout for pirates, but God knew what the city’s people needed to hear. Paul began his letter, “Grace to you.” It’s the message scallywags, insecure kids, and frazzled parents need to hear most. Let’s never forget that God’s love overcomes rebellion and circumstances. It is not our performance, but grace, that makes us right with God.

Pro Tip for Classroom Management: Instruct in Goodness

One of the most important skills for a teacher to learn is how to manage classroom behavior...

I’ve found that this is particularly tricky for leaders who are conscientious about the gospel of grace. We know that we’re not saved by our performance so creating a list of classroom rules or giving too much attention to how well behaved children are can seem harsh or legalistic. On the other hand, if a teacher doesn’t think about managing behavior at all, our classrooms can get completely out of control. Then, it will be difficult to teach and the joy of teaching withers away. 

One thing we should never do is motivate kids by shame. Don’t ever say, “Trey, I wish that you could be more like Kristen.” Maybe you’re thinking, “I would never say that.”  But motivating by comparison has a subtle way of sneaking into our teaching. More often I hear: “Boys, let’s listen up and behave like the girls” or “Everyone walk quietly. I want us to be the best behaved class in the preschool department.” Instead of motivating our kids by comparing them to one another, we want to instruct them in goodness. We want to motivate them by the intrinsic good of what we’re asking them to do.

It’s important to discuss the goodness of obedience and being respectful with your class often, even with young toddlers. We want to motivate kids to sit quietly and listen, be active participants, and engage the lesson. Stress the importance of listening to God’s Word, obeying God by obeying teachers who are in authority, and loving others by listening to friends. You might say, “Johnny, it’s important to sit and listen quietly, because God is speaking to you through the Bible.” We're teach kids skills for participating in Bible study and worship gatherings that they will carry with them into adulthood.

Here's a warning. Instructing in goodness doesn't always work as quickly as using shame, rewards, and bribes, but the results last longer. Comparison and competition aren’t lasting motivators. Eventually a child will run into someone who is better, or they'll find that the reward just doesn't taste as sweet anymore. 

But understanding the goodness of an obedient life with God is different. It lasts, because his goodness never fails. 

The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases. His mercies never come to an end. They are new every morning. Great is thy faithfulness, O Lord.
— Lamentations 3:22-23

Check out my free two-page PDF ministry guide on Grace-Based Classroom ManagementIt walks Sunday School teachers and children's ministry leaders through an inventory of their classroom environments, nine key strategies for creating a stable environment, and a process for handling persistently negative behaviors.