God knows, but he doesn’t seem to tell you. Is the leader challenging you an Absalom? God knows, but he won’t reveal another person’s heart.
What he will do is reveal your heart. There is an answer to the questions when you turn them inward, when you challenge your long-held assumption that you have been a David all along.
For you are Saul.
And you are Absalom.
Many who work in the kingdom have suffered under bad leadership; many of us have cried out to God for an answer and not yet heard the answer we are looking for. There are many young leaders out there who are frustrated with the existing system and authorities over them, and leaders already in positions of authority who worry about those attacking them; ones who are seeking to destroy their reputation. This book is a salve to these wounds. Those that read it are at once penetrated to the heart about their own leadership motivations, and also equipped with a rubric to think about their own conflicts in leadership.
This book has been on my top five Christian books list since I first read it in the 1990s. It has never left my list. In fact, the Tale has moved up to the top three as other titles have shown themselves over time to be more temporal and “relevant” in the negative Henri Nouwen sense of the term.
Edwards’ 97-page journey into the hearts of the three kings of early Israel is now a classic. Those that read it are at once penetrated to the heart about their own leadership motivations, and also equipped with a rubric to think about their own conflicts in leadership, one that seems to never quit; it’s a metaphor that doesn’t seem quaint or corny over time and doesn’t seem to break down upon further application. Instead, and perhaps because it is a Bible story and thus non-fictional, the Tale sustains through the decades.
Most leadership books you can read once–or even speed read the headings and shelve it–or even eBay it afterwards. With this book I find myself re-reading it, even annually, and finding new applications in my life, new corners of my spirit which are Saul-like or Absalom-like in their nature.
I sometimes have given my copy away, and now I’ve read it in three different editions. Each new journey through the Tale prompts me to root out my inner Saul and inner Absalom in favor of the David-like heart of submission, of peace, of faith. The heart of brokenness, most of all.
The world believes brokenness doesn’t sell; broken people don’t get hired. But in the kingdom of God, the Almighty is looking to employ broken shepherds. He’s looking to provide for and protect broken kings. We don’t like to think of our leaders as broken. In our interviews we try to find chinks in armor, and disqualify people for weaknesses. In our politics, opponents exploit any and every hint of failure in the past, or brokenness of spirit, and then continually beat then over the head with it until they lose. We don’t out our brokenness on our resumes, or linked-in profiles. We put “consultant for 2 years” rather than “looking for work for 2 years” or “self-employed” instead of “unemployed.” The world believes brokenness doesn’t sell; broken people don’t get hired. But in the kingdom of God, the Almighty is looking to employ broken shepherds. He’s looking to provide for and protect broken kings.
Edwards points out that it is not merely the broken ones that God uses either. “God sometimes gives power to people for unseen reasons,” Edwards explains on page 41-42. “A person can be living in the grossest of sin, and the outer gift will still be working perfectly.” God uses unbroken sinners in places of authority. But, we are asked, “What does this world need: gifted men and women, outwardly empowered? Or individuals who are broken, inwardly transformed?” The story of Saul, David and Absalom provides the narrative arc to take the latter journey, and recognize the former in yourself.
The question of whether David would ascend the throne by “fair means or foul” was one that “drove Saul mad,” and similar paranoid leadership questions drive us likewise insane (p. 11-12). The Tale teaches us that Kings throw spears, as people in authority are at times mad enough to hurt others with their power. What’s more, they often and loudly proclaim their “right to throw spears” (p. 13). We learn from David’s example how to duck spears, and how to “never learn anything about the fashionable, easily mastered art of spear throwing” (p. 20).
It seems, Edwards helps us see, that authority and brokenness are not in correlation or causation to one another. In fact, one of the rarest things in the world is a person in authority who is also broken (p. 13). Those in authority are constantly talking about submission, whereas David never talked to his men about the subject. They submitted to him out of love for him, and his cause. They submitted of their own volition. In his brokenness they somehow found strength, a chance to admit their own brokenness and be strong together. This is a different kind of leader, one after God’s own heart (Acts 13:22, 1 Samuel 16:13), one that knows those who speak most about positional authority are those that have little relational authority.
We learn from David’s time in the cave that pain can become a Psalm; our brokenness can be used by God to minister to others who have been broken (p. 30). What is more common, assent to power or the righting of wrongs? All too often those that seek to gain power to right wrongs lose interest in righting wrongs once the power is attained (p. 62). Absaloms switch goals once power is attained. The goal becomes keeping the power. Rebel usurpers become tyrant kings whose number one proprity is hunting down rebel usurpers hauntingly familiar to them (p. 64).
I love the Tale as you can tell. It has influenced my leadership more than any book other than the Bible itself. It changed my value system in leadership. The Tale taught me a kind of leadership that is less concerned with your sins and righteousness than whether they have made you proud or humble. Because of the Tale I am not interested with your failures and successes, but I am interested in whether they have made you broken or bitter. I don’t care whether you have enormous power or none of it, I care what you do with it, or have done without it, and how at peace you are in your soverign-appointed place at this phase of life.
I am less concerned now about your past and what was done to you or by you. Now I am concerned with what you have done with your past, how it shapes your present character and actions. For those, and those alone, dictate your future.
As a young leader desiring influence, I must assassinate the Absalom in the mirror. As leader with power to wield, I must slay the falsely anointed Saul of my soul. I do not know whether I am a Saul, an Absalom, or a David. I don’t know know which you are either. God knows. But he will not tell. I only know that I must always find the part of my heart that is tempted to be King Saul II and King Absalom II. As a young leader desiring influence, I must assassinate the Absalom in the mirror. As leader with power to wield, I must slay the falsely anointed Saul of my soul. Only then can the inward transformation of this leader match the outward empowerment I have been given. Only then will my brokenness enable God to use my authority to change the world for the better–not the worse.
“The kingdom is not that valuable. Let him have it, if that be the Lord’s will… I shall not learn the ways of either Saul or Absalom” (p. 74).
So, what’s your take? Have you read this book? If so, what’s your take on the Tale? What great point did I leave out? In what ways have you applied this biblical story to your leadership even if you haven’t read the book?
*All references are from Gene Edwards, A Tale Of Three Kings (Carol Stream, Illinois: Tyndale House Publishers, (c) 1980, 1992). I should note that Edwards wrote this Tale in just two days, and the first printing was just 2,000 copies, with a black and white cover. It has outsold all of his other amazing books by far. A spirit-inspired flash of writing indeed!