Reading the situation
David often made decisions that mystified his advisors. How did he go about it - and what can we learn?
The third in the leadership series by Terry Young
Situational awareness is a new phrase for an old idea that is key to David’s success, so let’s try to see what is at stake through a couple of catastrophes.
In 2005, 37 year-old Elaine went in for a routine operation but her anaesthetist was unable to site a laryngeal airway. As time passed, more doctors joined the struggle. By the time they decided to give up and wake Elaine 35 minutes later she had suffered irreparable brain damage and died just under a fortnight later. It wasn’t the first time this sort of thing had happened and there were well-documented recovery measures but somehow in their focus on the tubing they lost sight of what was happening to her brain.
On May 31, 2009, flight AF447 left Rio for Paris. Early the next morning, the auto pilot cut out, and the pilots were unable to work out what was happening. It appears that ice in the airspeed indicator triggered the scenario. However, in the 3½ minutes while their aircraft was falling out of the sky, the pilots failed to realise that they were flying too slowly not too fast. They perished on impact with all their passengers when they hit the Atlantic Ocean.
These tragedies share a common theme: people engaged in dangerous and engrossing pursuits lost track of time and lost sight of the bigger picture. It may have happened to you: maybe you have backed into a post while watching the parked car on the other side.
David was aware that it could happen to him. He knew he had been chosen over his brothers, not because he was the obvious candidate, but because there was something hidden that God preferred. He was always trying to balance the activity around – the pain, opportunities, and signals from friends or foes – with the wider picture. For David, that usually drew him back to the same question: what does God want in all this?
Sometimes he knows what God wants because of his upbringing. As we have noted, he does not kill Saul even when he has two completely safe opportunities to do so because he sees something sacred in God’s appointment of a King in Israel. He knows that taking the crown by violence would take him outside of God’s purposes. Indeed, years later when he is on autopilot and kills someone for his wife rather than his crown, all the bad things he knew would happen kick in. Once the older princes know you can take what you want by force, the floodgates open and incest, rape and slaughter flow over David’s latter years.
Did David’s bigger picture always show him what others couldn’t see? As we have noted, once the child born of his sin has died, he confounds the court by pulling himself together and going to worship before breaking his fast.
Decisions are always easy once you know what matters most and because David often identifies something important that those around him have missed, he often makes decisions that mystify them. But there is more to David’s way of making decisions.
So, then, a well-developed moral compass is a fabulous inheritance, providing a built-in sense of the bigger picture when the local scene is confused. But there is more to good decisions than a good compass.
Sometimes, you need to know specifically what God wants in a situation, now. You can’t work it out through logic alone. In the next blog, we will look at how David finds out God’s will but for now, let’s just accept that he put effort into keeping his lines of communication open and that God answered him when he cried out (to which so many psalms attest).
To see how this works, let’s look at a couple of stories in 1 Samuel 23. As noted, the mechanics of his communication channel are strange to us – a sort of 20 questions – so for now, we will focus on the criteria that David identifies to make his decisions.
As an outlaw, David hears about the Philistine raids against Keilah that looted the threshing floors and would starve them over the coming year. He enquires of God and gets a green light to mount a rescue mission. His men, however, think this is too dangerous a mission and so David asks a second time, receives a second assurance that he will succeed. Not only is he successful, but he and his men acquire a significant amount of plunder.
Maybe this is a good place to settle his outlaw band for a few months’ respite, surrounded by grateful citizens? However, David hears that Saul is on his way and so he has two specific questions: will Saul come after David; and will the people of Keilah hand David over? Both times the answer is, yes, so David moves on.
These episodes reveal a process behind David’s decisions that is detached from what his followers advise and also from what he would like to be the case. What is interesting here – and I don’t know quite how to play it – is that David does not do what most of us would have done: he does not simply ask God what he should do. Sometimes, he asks directly for guidance – should he stage a rescue mission? – and at other times he asks for a clearer picture of what will happen so he can make a good decision himself.
I wonder just how good our situational awareness is. A friend is suddenly taken to hospital: we pray that they will be out again just as quickly. Has God no plans for our friend? Is there no bigger backstory to this episode? A couple at church are breaking up: how on earth should we be praying?
Our world is complicated, if we don’t develop better situational awareness, we are likely to be victims of the resultant chaos rather than unlikely victors in the middle of it.
Image | Dylan Nolte | Unsplash
Professor Terry Young is an author and member of a Baptist church. He set up Datchet Consulting which combines his experience in industry and academia.
This is part of a series on leadership through aspects of David's life:
Reading the situation: how David makes decisions
Do you have a view? Share your thoughts via our letters' page.