HE WAS BORN INTO HUMBLE CIRCUMSTANCES defined by poverty and hardship. He was a frail and sickly child. As a youth, he longed to serve in the British Royal Navy. He loved the military but he ranked only forty-two out of fifty-eight in his class at the military academy. He was small in stature but he harbored a giant appetite for fame and glory. In fact, his entire life was propelled by this quest for power. He became a force to be reckoned with but his selfish ambitions led Europe into turmoil and warfare for most of his adult life.
Napoleon Bonaparte left an indelible mark on history. According to his biographer, Paul Johnson, Napoleon was responsible for the following developments: history’s first large scale military conscription, the rise of German nationalism, the concept of total warfare, the development of the first secret police, large scale professional espionage and the establishment of government propaganda machines. According to Johnson, “The totalitarian state of the twentieth century was the ultimate progeny of the Napoleonic reality and myth.”
Furthermore, under Napoleon’s leadership, the once mighty nation of France lost 860,000 soldiers and was reduced to a second rate power. What of the man himself? After numerous battles and campaigns, he reached the pinnacle of power, ruling half a continent and eighty million people. Then he plummeted to humiliating defeat and was exiled to a remote island only seven miles wide and nineteen miles long.
Paul Johnson claims that only one man has had more written about him than Napoleon, and that is Jesus Christ. Napoleon’s entire life was haunted by his past. His humble birth was shrouded in scandal, which caused world leaders to look down on him with disdain. Despite his brilliant military conquests, the royal families of Europe were reluctant to accept him into their ranks.
Czar Alexander I of Russia forbade Napoleon to marry his daughter, though Napoleon was undoubtedly the most powerful ruler in the world. This rejection may be what ultimately propelled Napoleon to embark on his disastrous invasion of Russia in 1812. Napoleon’s numerous insecurities created in him a voracious appetite for recognition. He was an emotional vacuum; nothing could satisfy him—not even a European empire.
It could be argued that hundreds of thousands of Europeans died in one man’s vain attempt to achieve satisfaction through the brutal acquisition of power and fame. Ego-driven people become desensitized to the suffering of others. It is acknowledged that few commanders suffered military casualties with greater indifference than Napoleon.
The Duke of Wellington lamented the loss of thousands, but Napoleon boasted he would readily sacrifice a million soldiers to attain his goals. The Duke of Wellington wore his hat with the tips at the front and back so he could easily raise his hat out of courtesy or to return salutes. Napoleon wore his hat squarely on his head—he rarely raised his hat for anyone.
Napoleon could always justify his own ambitious behavior while bitterly condemning the same motives in others. Of his enemies he once com-plained: “But for them I would have been a man of peace.” Such a lifestyle of self-absorption is spiritually deadening. It inevitably leads to isolation. Those who live to satisfy their own ambitions at the expense of others may indeed achieve their goals only to discover that such success is bitter and empty. Like Napoleon, they ultimately live in exile from meaningful relationships and never experience what God intended for them.
Like Napoleon, Joshua was a military leader who grew up impoverished and suppressed. Yet Joshua’s past served as the foundation for his eventual role as God’s statesman. Joshua’s motives were inverse to Napoleon’s. God, not Joshua, set the agenda for Joshua’s decisions. God’s will, not Joshua’s ego, galvanized him to action. As a result, every event in Joshua’s life became a building block in the magnificent life God was creating.
Joshua’s life was not dependent on random chance or the exertion of human will. His was a purposeful life that brought glory to God. Joshua was not a prisoner of his past; he overcame his upbringing and allowed God to build for him a bright future.
Henry Blackaby, Called to Be God’s Leader: How God Prepares His Servants for Spiritual Leadership(Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2006).
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