You Can't Lead from the Trenches

Trench Warfare

Matthew 14:23After dismissing the crowds, he went up on the mountain by himself to pray. Well into the night, he was there alone."

The trenches are messy, dangerous, and inhumane but unavoidable in warfare.
I think since WWI most people know what I mean by “the trenches”. Down in the thick of the fight, hand to hand combat, with the chaos and the carnage of battle. It’s where dreadful things happen; where weapons are used that were devised to inflict traumatic injury and death.
It’s not a place for the faint hearted or the coward.
The trenches are unavoidable, and only a bad leader demands others into them without going there himself; but he cannot successfully lead from them.

The Bible is full of stories of leaders, alone, up a mountain, so we know it’s important to leave the trenches.; but then the battle starts. We draw up defenses, and we engage, and we’re right there with the people God’s given us, encouraging, training, triaging, ordering. The trouble is that most of us have a bit of an ego issue. God called us to lead, He equipped, He enabled, and somehow we get it into our heads that it can’t happen unless we are intimately involved in every aspect. It takes a leader of rare courage to actually go up the mountain in the heat of the battle, but a good leader does, even when he’s criticized for doing it.
He does because He knows two things:

  1. If he stays in the trenches he is going to miss things that he really needs to see; and if he misses things he really needs to see he will begin putting everyone he leads in unnecessary danger; and the necessary danger is quite bad enough. But even more importantly...
  2. On the mountain, up above the trenches, is where he is both envisioned and directed.

There is nothing worse than a gifted leader fighting a battle the reason for which he’s long forgotten. All kinds of horrors come from visionless leaders. I wish that visionless leaders just faded away, but they seldom do, God doesn’t take those kinds of gifts away. They keep leading as an identity rather than a stewardship or calling, and it is absolutely devastating. Proverbs 29:18 warns us that “where there is no prophetic vision the people cast off restraint.” Other translations say “people perish”, they really do in those circumstances.
A leader must be envisioned, he must be able to articulate what is worth fighting for, he must be able to keep his ethic intact in this world’s diabolical warfare, and that insight cannot be gleaned from within the trenches.
Also he must be directed, and again, direction cannot come from within the trenches. The leader has to intentionally set time aside to be viewing the battle from above. He has to think, and thinking takes uninterrupted concentration; and he has to pray. He needs one-on-one time not only with other leaders, but also with God, to be envisioned again and to receive instruction. I find that those times are not just for receiving direction, but also for sorting out what is direction from God and what is just my ideas, or the enemy’s interference.
There is also the all important piece of getting the timing right. Receiving a “prophetic vision” is, by definition, a separate thing from the timing of that vision. Timing can sometimes be figured out in the trenches, but not always.

For the vast majority of us this principle is applied metaphorically and, as such, we need to think about what we mean. What is a “trench” and what is a “mountain” for the average civilian?
The Trench is the front line of the battle we face, maybe it’s fear, or peer pressure, or business competition, or some form of opposition. It could be a temptation or a disability. There is always a battle families and churches are facing, it is necessary spiritual and/or human resistance and should be seen as a gift from God. The trench represents the actual conflict moment and things directly associated with it, like your emotions, or your habits of avoidance, or your communication style under pressure. It all revolves around how stable and healthy your stress response is.
The Mountain is the place of oversight and retreat, the 'where' and the 'when' of assessment, planning, review, prayer, and seeking counsel. It is the place of big-picture vision and of planning. It is where you decide what you will sacrifice and who you will disappoint. The mountain allows you to be objective, the trench does not afford you that luxury, and for that alone you will face severe criticism.
The trench is tactics, the mountain is strategy; and you can’t win a war on tactics alone.

The trench is tactics, the mountain is strategy; and you can’t win a war on tactics alone.

Now it’s possible for some to think that this doesn’t apply to them because they aren’t leading anyone. But this is a mistake because, at the very least, you are leading–or learning to lead–yourself. You will face some trench battles in your personal capacity, in them you will be tempted toward cynicism, toward frustration, and ultimately to give up. And in order to lead yourself successfully out of them you must find time and place for going up the mountain.
Even if you are leading only yourself right now, you will almost certainly be leading others at some point. And those others will be relying on you, expecting you, to be both empathetic toward their trench battle while simultaneously providing clear vision, mostly in the form of encouragement. You must deliver those two things in the trenches, but you cannot find either of them in the trenches!
I remember a story I heard once about a woman with many children. Her home and her kitchen were always extremely busy, often chaotic; but when she sat in a chair and threw her apron over her head her family knew not to disturb her unless the situation was life threatening. She had developed a way to get up and down the mountain, really quickly!
We teach parents the Growing Kids God’s way principle of “couch time” where parents dedicate 20 minutes every day to each other, in front of their kids, where they simply catch up, giving each other highlights from their day. This is making mountain time in the midst of the trenches. And you will not believe the problems that that strategy solves!

The Mountain principle applies to everyone, but I’d like to give a word particularly to men. When the question is asked, “can you lead your wife?” this principle is exactly what is meant by it.
Have you forged well known paths up the mountain? Can you find them in the dark, in the mist? Do you have the courage and the faith to go up them while the trench battle rages on down below? Are you able to hear, and then remember, and then articulate what you heard to those you are leading; those down in the trenches? Are you willing to give mountain strategy to your family who may not be able to see it from the trenches and will probably criticise you for it?
This is such a key part of the call and the responsibility of men. Develop these skills early! This is Spiritual Competence, and it is extremely powerful, and attractive! So powerful that our mutual spiritual enemies will sacrifice pretty much anything to prevent a man from developing his mountain-to-trench skills. If you’ve ever read The Screwtape Letters by CS Lewis, you will notice that every strategy of Uncle Screwtape revolves around keeping Wormwood’s “patient” spiritually incompetent.

In 2 Kings 6 we read a wonderful story of Elisha verses the king of Syria. It starts like this: “8 Once when the king of Syria was warring against Israel, he took counsel with his servants, saying, “At such and such a place shall be my camp.” 9 But the man of God sent word to the king of Israel, “Beware that you do not pass this place, for the Syrians are going down there.
Elisha, the “man of God” mentioned above, spent so much time up the mountain that he knew even what the enemy was planning in secret, his forays into the trenches were as rare as thy were significant.
Elisha’s mountain time was so effective that the Syrian king suspected he had a traitor among his top advisors. His advisers assured him that it wasn’t them; “12 And one of his servants said, “None, my lord, O king; but Elisha, the prophet who is in Israel, tells the king of Israel the words that you speak in your bedroom.”” The king foolishly sent his army to capture Elisha. What made him think Elisha would be easier to capture I don’t know… perhaps he didn’t spend much time up his mountain?
The king of Syria sent an army to surround the city where Elisah was, in the morning Elisha’s servant was overcome with fear because he had only a trench vision; all he had was the facts, and the facts were that they were surrounded with no hope of escape. Our call is to face facts, but also not to waver in the faith we have (Romans 4:19).
Elisha prayed to God that his servant could see what he saw. Elisha is not just beating the enemy in physical and spiritual war, he is also bringing mountain vision to his men in the trench!
His servant’s eyes were opened to see with the same spiritual competence that Elisha saw with. He saw flaming chariots covering the hillside, God’s angelic army. And this army didn’t operate with conventional warfare, lopping off heads, chopping off arms, and spilling guts; this army blinded eyes. In the same way that Elisha’s servant’s eyes were opened, he prayed that the Syrian’s eyes would be blinded. Elisha walked out to the army alone, here’s the interaction: “19 And Elisha said to them, “This is not the way, and this is not the city. Follow me, and I will bring you to the man whom you seek.” And he led them to Samaria. 
20 As soon as they entered Samaria, Elisha said, “O Lord, open the eyes of these men, that they may see.” So the Lord opened their eyes and they saw, and behold, they were in the midst of Samaria.
Elisha lead the entire army of the enemy into the capital city of Israel. The seigers became the besieged. What gall; what confidence must Elisha have had! Where can I get some of that level of strategy while still thinking about the encouragement and the training of my men?
You will only find it up the mountain, you will not find it in the trenches, no matter how good your tactics are.

Now we know that Syria eventually invaded and pretty much destroyed Israel. But for this brief glorious moment while Elisha was alive, they could not; not with 100,000 soldiers. Elishah was far too competent a mountain man for that to ever be a possibility. We need more Elishas today, men who have been in the presence of the Lord!
Acts 4:13Now when they saw the boldness of Peter and John, and perceived that they were uneducated, common men, they were astonished. And they recognized that they had been with Jesus.

Søren Kierkegaard in his remarkable little book The Sickness Unto Death says “Only the person whose being was so shaken that he became spirit by grasping that everything is possible, only he has had dealings with God.

Are you in the trench right now? Then find a moment to get up the mountain, find the table that God has laid for you in the presence of your enemies (Psalm 23:5). Are you up the mountain right now? Don’t stay there too long, make sure you are bringing your vision, the heavenly strategy, down into the trenches, it is the most essential supply that the human army of God needs right now on planet Earth!