The most important part of a leader’s life is often the most neglected. Their own heart. The interior life of a leader is vital to the future health of the church. What if the people we are leading need us to need Jesus more than they need us to lead them?
In a time of growing suspicion of authority, one of the most important needs for the future of the church is godly leadership that can be trusted. As a pastor of a church for seven years, I have learned ministry will test the depth of your heart more than it will ever test the skill of your hands.
Whether it’s leadership at home, in the church, in ministry, or anywhere else, the world needs more leaders who face reality, take responsibility, and embrace vulnerability because they rejoice in unity.
Leaders Face Reality
One of the hardest things to do as a leader is to see things as they are, not as we want them to be. Leaders do not suppress, escape, minimise, deny, or “photoshop” reality. True leaders will face the reality of their hearts and the reality of how others have sinned against them.
The Reality of Our Hearts
In a psalm of deep repentance, King David says, among other things, “Behold, I was brought forth in iniquity, and in sin did my mother conceive me” (Ps. 51:5).
I have often wondered, “What is the worst thing about me?” While I am tempted to answer by familiar sins—jealousy, greed, anger, lust—the truest answer to that question is the sin behind these sins. I have a constant desire in my heart to justify myself. I still want to do what Jesus has already done for me. It is the worst thing about me. It is the worst thing about all of us.
I have a constant desire in my heart to justify myself. I still want to do what Jesus has already done for me. It is the worst thing about me. It is the worst thing about all of us.
To face reality boldly we must look into our imaginations honestly. We have to plunder our fantasies, longings, and dreams because that is where we go to escape reality. Nothing appears in a fantasy that is not already in our hearts. Our fantasies are trying to tell us what we want that we think will save us. Our fantasies are masking the things we are unwilling to face.
The apostle Paul sets a pattern for how we relate to the life of the mind, “We destroy arguments and every lofty opinion raised against the knowledge of God, and take every thought captive to obey Christ” (2 Cor 10:5). We must take our fantasies captive, interrogate them, hold them by the scruff of the neck, and demand of them, “Tell me what you are hiding! What do I want from you that I’m refusing to receive from Jesus?”
The Reality of How Others Have Sinned Against Us
In the psalms, David says, “All who hate me whisper together about me; they imagine the worst for me. They say, ‘A deadly thing is poured out on him; he will not rise again from where he lies.’ Even my close friend in whom I trusted, who ate my bread, has lifted his heel against me” (Ps. 41:7).
To someone like this, a well-meaning Christian in India might respond with a culturally conditioned, knee-jerk response, “Don’t say things like that. Stop feeling sorry for yourself. Have you forgotten the goodness of God? Forgive your brother and don’t speak badly about anyone again.”
Certainly, the gospel-nourished heart has a bias towards forgiveness and reconciliation. But it also knows the way to these beautiful outcomes is often through the path of grief, anger, restlessness, confusion, heartbreak, and so many other complicated feelings—all so beautifully, honestly, and prayerfully brought to God in the psalms. The ones who pray like the psalmists will find real healing and be able to receive the power to offer real forgiveness.
Are you hiding your feelings from God because they seem too ugly to bring before him? What if you received the invitation of the psalms to bring your wounded heart to God and face the reality you are hiding from?
Unless David faced the reality of how his father and mother forsook him, could he truly enjoy the reality of how the Lord received him?
Facing such reality is most difficult when the ones who have sinned against us are the ones closest to our hearts. There are no sins more difficult for us to name than the sins of our parents against us. But what if where we are least likely to go is where Jesus is most eager to meet us?
In the Psalms, David says something no “good Indian boy” or “well-spoken girl” will ever say out loud about their parents. He says, “For my father and my mother have forsaken me, but the Lord will take me in” (Ps. 27:10).
Is David dishonouring his parents? Is he disobeying God? Not at all. He is facing reality and honouring God by being honest about his parents. We can be honest and honouring at the same time.
Unless David faced the reality of how his father and mother forsook him, could he truly enjoy the reality of how the Lord received him? Facing the broken reality of his earthly family is the reason he can deeply enjoy the beautiful reality of his heavenly Father.
Do you know how your family of origin has sinned against you? Can you see how it influences your marriage, family, relationships, ministry, and work as a leader?
Leaders Take Responsibility
Taking responsibility keeps us from blaming the past for the present. When you read Psalm 51, you hear David say a lot of things but you do not hear any blame. He is not saying, “Lord, because my father and mother forsook me, I took hold of Bathsheba.”
He bemoans the depravity of his own heart because he knows—as all true leaders do—that our heart’s renewal is our responsibility before God. Our heart’s sinfulness is not the fault of their sin against us.
Leader, do you know Jesus loves you more than you condemn yourself? He has more affection for you than you feel ashamed of yourself. Take heart in Christ, so you can take responsibility for your heart.
As the apostle Paul urges the Ephesian elders, “Pay careful attention to yourselves and to all the flock. . .” (Acts 20:28). His mandate for shepherds is to be responsible for both our hearts and God’s flock; not one at the expense of the other. It is easy for leaders to feel more responsibility for others than for themselves.
Taking responsibility means I need to kill sin before it kills me. My sin hates me. It wants to destroy my life, my marriage, my children, and my ministry. We need to hate our sin more than it hates us, and desire to kill it before it is allowed to kill us.
We can only hate our sin more than it hates us when we know Jesus delights in us more than we despise ourselves. Leader, do you know Jesus loves you more than you condemn yourself? He has more affection for you than you feel ashamed of yourself. Take heart in Christ, so you can take responsibility for your heart.
Leaders Embrace Vulnerability
In these post-covid times, our hearts are grieving. They are hurting, they need care, and they need attention. We need to meet the Man of sorrows who meets us in our grief. The world wants leaders to be tough. Jesus wants leaders to be tender.
Have not the past two years completely exposed our vulnerability and total lack of control? Embracing vulnerability is submitting to him who is always in control. Always.
On March 21, only 15 minutes after I finished a sermon in which I mentioned my mother and her life-long struggle with mental illness, I got a call from my father saying she may have passed away and doctors were trying to revive her. She went home to be with the Lord without any warning. As I drove to the hospital, the song that broke my shock and brought me to tears was a song by David Crowder Band that boldly declared, “You are holy.”
Our vulnerability is frequently exposed by sin, conflict, crisis, suffering, pandemics, or death. But the holiness of God who does all things well, even when we do not know what to do, can help us embrace our vulnerability as we cast ourselves onto his sovereign authority.
Leaders Rejoice in Unity
Why would anyone take these postures, and how do we take them? If God was the CEO of the universe and he had a vision statement for his work, it might be, “to unite all things in him [Christ], things in heaven and things on earth” (Eph. 1:10).
God exists in perfect unity and desires perfect unity. Jesus’s desire for unity among his people is expressed in his priestly prayer for us—“that they may all be one, just as you, Father, are in me, and I in you, that they also may be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me” (John 17:21).
May the pressures of serving the Lord always be overcome by the pleasure of belonging to the Lord.
Sin divides, isolates, and alienates us from God, as well as from each other. Jesus hates it because it corrupts unity. He desires and delights in unity. The world is so divided. Even the church can be so disunited. How the heart of God must long for a truly united church in a deeply divided world.
There are no shortcuts to real unity. Seeking unity requires we go through the difficult but rewarding pathway of facing reality, taking responsibility, and embracing vulnerability. We know this because this is the pathway Jesus took to bring us into real unity with the Father.
Jesus Looked at the Reality of Our Sin Without Looking Away
He chose us in him before the creation of the world (Eph. 1) and knew us before we knew ourselves (Psalm 139). We can only face our hearts without looking away when we know God first looked at us without looking away.
Jesus Took Responsibility For Our Salvation Without Turning Away
He has taken responsibility for our whole salvation—from start to finish (Phil. 1:6, 1 Cor. 1:8-9). We can only hate our sin more than it hates us when we know Jesus loves us more than we condemn ourselves (Rom 8:1-4).
Jesus Embraced Vulnerability Without Running Away
Our Saviour could have demanded a different cup or asked for a legion of angels to save him. He could have called for God to save him. But then, who would have saved us? He became the Man of sorrows to meet us in our sorrows and to redeem them. He submitted to his Father’s perfect will so we can be brought into his Father’s perfect love.
Jesus Brings Us Into Unity With the Father Which Cannot Be Taken Away
The gospel means we are united to God through our union with Christ. We are “in Christ.” God has placed his seal on us and given us his Spirit in our hearts as a guarantee (2 Cor. 1:21-22). The gospel is both cosmic and personal.
But dear leader and dear reader, today and everyday, I want you to feel how it is deeply personal. This union makes the apostle Paul rejoice in Jesus, “the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me” (Gal. 2:20).
In these times and in this age, our hearts need Jesus more than the world needs us. May we work for a future of leaders who walk humbly with God—facing reality, taking responsibility, and embracing vulnerability because they rejoice in unity. May the pressures of serving the Lord always be overcome by the pleasure of belonging to the Lord.