One of the cliches of the campaign season is that a candidate has to want the job badly, to burn with ambition, to have “fire in the belly.” Otherwise, why elect someone to the demanding task of being president? Surely the first criteria is to want to be president very, very much.
The biblical model of leadership suggests otherwise. One of the striking features of leadership in the Hebrew bible is how often the people who become leaders don’t wish to be. When God first comes to Moses at the burning bush, Moses contrives a series of excuses—I don’t speak well, the people won’t listen to me—before he flat out asks God to simply choose someone else. God leaves Moses no choice, forcing him to shepherd the people out of Egypt.
The prophet Jeremiah has a similar reaction: He desperately does not wish to be a prophet, but finds that God’s word is like a “fire shut up in my bones,” and despite his desire he can’t seem to hold back from prophesying as God wishes. And perhaps most dramatically, the story of Jonah tells of a prophet who literally tries to flee from God only to be swallowed by a large fish that spits Jonah out on to dry land to prophesy and save the city of Nineveh.
Each is ultimately pressed into service, along with many others who are hesitant to become leaders. Yet once in the position of leadership, they serve effectively and in many cases, with astonishing devotion. The Bible seems to assume that reluctance in the face of a great task is the natural reaction of a healthy spirit, and that pursuing leadership is often a disfigurement of ego and not an essential attribute of authority.
Although we demand ritualistic recitations of humility (“I am humbled by the support I have received”), we seem not to value genuine humility. Imagine if a candidate were to say: “The problems we face may well be beyond me. But I will do my very best to face the complexities and challenges of the world.” The reign of snarky abuse to fall on his or her head would fill weeks of Sunday morning talk shows and probably crash Twitter.
So instead we have a parade of people who are certain they can solve all the problems of the world if we give them a vote. The biblical days when Samuel did not recognize that he was hearing God’s voice, or when Isaiah worried that he was of unclean lips—the age when leadership was tentative, hesitant and humble—has given way to an age when leadership is certain, declarative and boastful.
To doubt whether one can do a demanding job is to have a realistic sense of its magnitude. When candidates are convinced they will be great, I wonder not only if they overestimate themselves, but if they do not recognize the difficulties of the task. In our history we have seen certainty crumble into chaos. Better to elect someone who sees the enormity of the challenge and is humble in the face of being called to serve than someone who is certain of triumph.