What does it mean “to divest”? When words or phrases begin to dominate the air around me, I get their scent and feel compelled to chase them to ground for mastery. I’m sure the roots of that trait trace back to elementary school vocabulary lessons, but I’m not ashamed to be an aging learner. So what does it mean “to divest”?
Research shows: Divest is a verb, an action word. It is an old word, born in the mid-sixteenth century from the marriage of des– (meaning “away” or “removal”) and vestir (meaning “clothe” or “garment”). The figurative sense of the word—“to strip oneself of possessions”—appears earliest in seventeenth-century English.
Divesting, then, means letting go. And why would someone do that? Why would someone let go of anything that is hers?
That question is answerable on several levels. Physically, one might choose to let go of what she is holding in order to take up something else that she wants. Hands that are already full can’t hold anything else. That’s true in other respects, as well. If my mind is focused on Task One but I want my mind to focus on Task Two, I will have to let go of my focus on Task One in order to focus on Task Two. I cannot climb two mountains at once nor sing two songs simultaneously. To put on a crown, I must take off my hat.
Everyone experiences this truth: To wed, one must let go of singleness. To lose weight, one must let go of binge eating. To run a company, one must let go of 9-5 commitment. And to become a ruler, one must let go of being a commoner.
So why am I writing about letting go? Why is the word “divesting” in the air? Well, you know. It’s all over the evening news. Even now, men and women who want to become leaders are being asked to divest, to let go of their other pursuits and privileges. So far, they have not. They are attempting to assume the mantle of leadership while wearing other clothes.
Their desires are understandable. Their actions are not.
Who doesn’t want to hold onto what she has? Out of love, out of fear—whatever the motivation. But even a child with his hands full of toys eventually learns that he must put one toy down to pick up another, lest he drop everything in the futile attempt to gain while holding.
Siddhartha Gautama, known as Buddha, the “enlightened one,” realized this truth in ancient times: “You only lose what you cling to.” Chinese philosopher Lao-Tze also knew: “When I let go of what I am, I become what I might be. When I let go of what I have, I receive what I need.”
From the perspective of my Christian faith, Jesus is the ultimate embodiment of that truth, as described in the New Testament letter to the Christians in Philippi. The writer of that letter instructs his readers:
“Each of you should look not only to your own interests, but also to the interests of others. Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus: Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself and became obedient to death—even death on a cross!” (Philippians 2:4-8/NIV).
Christians call these words “the kenotic hymn,” from the Greek word kenosis, which means “emptiness, emptying.” Jesus emptied himself of his divine prerogatives in order to become a human being, and to live and die as the ultimate servant of all other human beings. An old hymn sings it this way:
His were the planets and stars in the sky;
His were the valleys and mountains so high;
His, all earth’s riches from pole unto pole;
But He became poor to ransom my soul.
“Therefore,” the Philippian letter continues, “God exalted him to the highest place and gave him the name that is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father” (Philippians 2:9-11).
First emptying and then exalting. First letting go and then taking up.
Jesus is not only the ultimate example of what has come to be called “servant leadership,” he instructed his followers to lead likewise: “Jesus called them to himself and said, ‘You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great men exercise authority over them. It is not this way among you, but whoever wishes to become great among you shall be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you shall be your slave; just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life a ransom for many’” (Matthew 20:25-28/NASB).
Now, I realize that governmental leaders are not Church leaders. Nor am I calling them to obey the tenets of Christian faith, unless they profess it. I simply point out the obvious truth of all human experience: To free oneself to meet the challenges of a new day, one must let go of the entanglements of the past.
Our newly elected and selected leaders are on the brink of investiture, when they will be granted incalculable power and privilege. As divestiture means letting go, investiture is its literal opposite, a word born from the medieval ceremonies when men literally put on the garments that symbolized power. My prayer is that before figuratively taking up those garments, these men and women will let go.
As President Theodore Roosevelt said: “We must dare to be great; and we must realize that greatness is the fruit of toil and sacrifice and high courage.”