Après Moi, Le Déluge.”
In a famously egotistical phrase, Louis XV of France (1710-1774) dismissed the judgment of history on his long and decadent reign. “After me, let the flood come.”
Those inclined to treat the utterances of kings as prophecies saw a grim fulfillment of Louis’ statement in the flood of social rage and violence that swept his grandson from the throne just 15 years after Louis’ death. As his grandson mounted the guillotine in the Place de la Concorde, the old king’s vanity and arrogance were widely viewed as the incendiaries that had lit the torch of the French Revolution.
History has long since made its judgment about Louis XV, even though some revisionist historians have recently attempted a rehabilitation of the king’s reputation. Almost no one, however, defends the blunt arrogance captured in the famous line.
Which is why you have never heard any Adventist pastor, administrator, or congregational leader say anything like “Après moi, le déluge.”
They know enough of history and human nature to avoid the gross egotism that cost Louis’ grandson his head.
But there is a variant of the old French king’s line that has acquired the gravitas
of apparent truth, if only because it is heard so often.
“Avant moi, le déluge.”
“Before me, there was a flood.”
Nothing is so common among Adventist leaders on every level as to hear the history of the organization they now lead described as unmitigated chaos before they arrived on the scene. In the post-Flood narrative that many tell, there was nothing but boulders, evaporating lakes, and thin vegetation when they emerged from the ark of safety to lead the remnant. And it required all their skill and all their time to rebuild from nothing the organization they inherited. Bad decisions had been made in times past; finances had been exhausted; policy manuals had grown dusty with disuse; festering problems had been ignored. And while, at least in some cases, some of these things may be true, there is a grim symmetry in noting that their successors in leadership will be saying very much the same things five or 10 years from now: “Avant moi, le déluge.”
“Before me, there was a flood.”
Leaders from local elders to General Conference personnel tell such stories because they underline the significance of personal effort in negotiating the challenges of the modern-day church. And let me be the first to say that I stand in reverent awe before the contributions many such leaders are making to the cause—in congregations, in conference offices, as departmental leaders, as senior executives. Their effort is, in many cases, herculean. Our system of governance and church leadership, however, is notoriously spare with affirmation: we rarely stop to say to those who lead and serve—“Well done, good and faithful servant.”
If we did, we might hear the recent history of this movement described more accurately—and more charitably.
For the true story of the Adventist experience through 150 years is not a story told by leadership about how well it did in serving, but a continuing “people’s history” of the grace and goodness of God in the midst of human brokenness. This is not a history captured in dusty pictures of former leaders decorating office walls, but a history known in kingdom growth, in food shared with the hungry, in faith deepened and developed, and in children nurtured in the ways of God.
In His goodness God blesses His church with gifts of service, administration, and helps so that His kingdom expands. And when any leader’s time of usefulness is completed, God calls another to serve His people. If they are wise, new leaders will view the history of the group they lead from the longer-term perspective of the people—those who have watched leaders and programs and initiatives and campaigns come and go. What built the people’s faith? What grew them as disciples? What taught them kingdom values? What sparked the people’s witness?
Leaders who ask—and answer—such questions need never fear for their reputations, on earth or in heaven. The verdict of history will be identical with that of Jesus: “Well done, good and faithful servant. . . . Enter into the joy of your lord”
(Matt. 25:21, NKJV).*
* Texts credited to NKJV are from the New King James Version. Copyright © 1979, 1980, 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
Bill Knott is editor of Adventist Review. This article was published February 14, 2013.