Show Them Your Need For Jesus
Growing up in the church, I thought of my pastors as Supermen. I saw them as having an unachievable level of skill and godliness. I remember the folks in our church context thought the pastor was perfect. He didn’t take days off. He visited the sick at the hospital every day, and he never seemed to sin, at least not publicly. So, when I felt the call to ministry, I was overwhelmed by this bar of perfection. I knew myself, and I knew my sin. I thought, “I can never be like that!” or at least, “The people I serve in ministry can never know I sin so much.”
Does that perspective sound familiar to you? If you’re a Christian leader and you convince yourself that your call requires never sinning, then you’ll live in constant shame and guilt. You’ll be tempted to constantly mask your failures, or you’ll smother your conscience with public lies. If you continue on this course, you’ll—at best—find yourself running on empty, without the energy to do your job. In the worst case, you could end up shocking your congregation with surprising and disqualifying sin.
What if there was a better and more biblical way to lead? What if the gospel set us free not only to show people Jesus but also to show them our need for Jesus? I have comforting news for you. This isn’t just a what-if game. The Bible does teach and model for us a better way. One of the best gifts we can give our people is to show them our need for Christ on a daily basis.
The Bible Isn’t Ashamed of Sinful Leaders
If I were writing a book to be the centerpiece of my chosen religious worldview, I’m pretty certain that I would not have written the Bible. There are events and people in God’s Word that I would just as soon have asked my editor to leave out.
Consider how the story begins: A people made in perfect unity with their Creator reject his love and rule. This book about God starts with the first leaders of the human race—God’s own image-bearers—rejecting God. A few short chapters later, humanity became so wicked that God killed all but a few; and even the leader of the remnant shamed himself through drunkenness. The next key figure was Abraham, the father of God’s new family. But Abraham was impatient with God and slept with his servant girl instead of waiting on God’s chosen child. Israelite history repeats this dark pattern. Consider David, Israel’s prized king; he committed the vilest of acts: sleeping with his friend’s wife and then killing him.
Things don’t really change in the New Testament. During Jesus’s darkest moments, Peter—the Rock upon whom Jesus had promised to build his church—denied the Savior three times. Later Peter acted with a sinful cultural and ethnic bias toward Gentile believers, refusing to share a meal with them at the same table, and Paul had to call him out publicly. (Just think. This was after God spoke directly to Peter through vision about eating with Gentiles and Peter himself saw God work miracles among the Gentiles at Cornelius’s house.). Peter was the leader of the early church in Jerusalem, but the Bible doesn’t hide his dark story.
Imagine hearing a pastor today say something like what the apostle Paul wrote in Romans 7:15: “For I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate.” That pastor would have emails flooding his inbox. But, in spite of the fact that Paul called himself the chief of sinners (1 Tim. 1:15), God used him to change the world.
I could go on. I haven’t touched the Book of Judges, Solomon’s jaded outlook in Ecclesiastes, or the succession of terrible rulers in Kings and Chronicles. If I were writing the Bible, I would’ve been tempted to hide the brokenness of the heroes in my story. So, why would God write his book this way? Perhaps it’s because God wanted us to see his great mercy toward broken leaders and our great need for him. We should be in awe of the people in the Bible and what they accomplished, but we should be in greater awe of God’s grace poured out on their brokenness.
But What About Holiness?
Okay, I can hear your concerns: “Zach, are you saying that we have nothing to offer people other than our sinfulness?” No. Full stop. There is a we-are-all-broken culture that prevents people from growing in Christlikeness. God commands us to be holy; we are to model and teach it to our people. John helps us here:
If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. If we say we have not sinned, we make him a liar, and his word is not in us. My little children, I am writing these things to you so that you may not sin. But if anyone does sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous. (1 John 1:8–2:1 NIV)
John calls the church to holiness but, at the same time, he acknowledges that we are all broken. John states explicitly that if we say we have no sin, we are lying, and God’s truth is not in us. But then he follows this up by stating his purpose for writing: “so that you may not sin.” Yet even with the call to holiness, John doesn’t stray from the good news of the gospel. When we do sin, Jesus is our advocate. In other words, John teaches us that we should pursue holiness, all the while acknowledging that we will sin until we are with the Lord.
Here is my fear: Even though we would never say out loud that we aren’t sinners, our lifestyle and teaching can perpetuate that lie. When I was younger—as I described above—I remember thinking, “My pastor never sins.” He always smiled. I never saw him get angry. He seemed to be perfect, and he was applauded for it. Later, however, it came out that he had been hiding horrible and disqualifying sin. That’s when I realized that an outward perception of perfection may not be a sign of godliness. It may actually be a sign of hidden sin.
If you find yourself around someone who seems to never show remorse for their sin, who never fights with their spouse, who seems to parent perfectly, and has their life buttoned up, I’d encourage you to ask some probing questions about their life. Your goal shouldn’t be to have a “gotcha!” attitude but rather to consider if what you’re seeing is just a veneer. A perfect plastic mask isn’t something to emulate.
More importantly, consider if you’re the one who is hiding behind a front. Ask yourself if you’ve bought into the lie that no one can really know what your life is like. Have you ever thought that you’d lead people away from the gospel if they really knew you? Are you afraid that you’ll be exposed as a fraud? If that is you, I encourage you to believe this simple gospel truth: Growth as a Christian doesn’t mean attaining perfection in holiness; it instead means growing in a deeper understanding of the depth of your sin so that you also grow in greater wonder about the vastness of God’s amazing grace. Holiness is found in discovering that you are more sinful than you thought you were. It’s finding yourself less impressive and Christ more so.
I do hope that as you grow in Christ your moral decision making improves, your marriage gets better, and your relationships are more soaked in love. But I believe the only way that happens is for you to have a deeper understanding of, disappointment in, and brokenness over your continued sinfulness. You see, it’s in that place where the One who saves from sin will meet you. Yes, even you, Christian leader.
So, What Does This Mean for My Leadership?
I’m glad you asked. Here are four implications:
Lead as someone riddled with sin and in need of the gospel. As you cling to Jesus and run from sin, allow people to see you. Welcome them into your own story of figuring out how to live a godly life. Allow them to see you as a blood-bought sinner who happens to be called to a vocation in the church. If you are to be honest as a sinner, then you must admit that you’re wrong sometimes. And the people who serve under your leadership need to see that. Self-righteousness leads to a type of narcissism that doesn’t allow peoples’ voices in. Saying “I’m sorry. I was wrong” is an incredible gift to those around you. People need to see your blind spots and shortcomings.
Leaders who don’t sense a deep need for the gospel often don’t feel a need for rest. I remember a pastor who bragged about not taking a day off. This was his model of “godliness” for his congregation. The trouble with that logic is that God commands rest. Resting regularly communicates to people that you are human (not God) and get tired, that you are broken, and that your gas tank doesn’t fill itself. Discipline yourself to take days off on a weekly basis and to take vacations throughout the year. This is a form a discipleship for you, your family, and the people you lead.
God has not put a hedge of protection around church leaders. We suffer. We experience family drama, death, depression, and hurt. And our people are blessed when we show them this. Does this mean we post on social media every time something bad happens? No. However, when you communicate your burden and sorrows with people, you are knitting your heart to theirs. You are communicating trust in them as you give them a glimpse into your life. So, tell the people you lead your story. Show them your scars. This isn’t about mere self-deprecation. It’s to help them see your need for the gospel and for daily grace from God.
I remember a camp speaker saying, “If I can get up at 4:30 in the morning, work out, read my Bible, and pray before work, then so can you!” I’m sure the man was well intentioned, but he set himself up as the model for godliness. That isn’t helpful to anyone. There may be times when using yourself as a godly example is helpful, but it should be rare. Many times, this comes across as self-righteous, and it places an unintended yoke around people’s necks. Instead, use examples of times you’ve failed the Lord and how he taught you to depend on him for grace. You might be honest about how you got angry when you were cut off in traffic or (with your family’s permission) tell about an argument you had with your wife or your struggles with parenting. These can be helpful windows into your life that allow people to see and emulate your need for Jesus.
As Christian leaders, our calling is to help people follow Jesus while we also follow him. We are not at the finish line coaching people across. We are in the race. And the race has potholes, detours, and distractions. We can be tempted to make it look like smooth pavement, but it’s not. Our people need to see the difficulty and our desperation. They don’t just need hard truth; they also need us to honestly model a life of dependence. One of the greatest gifts we can offer those we lead is to show them our deep need for Jesus.
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Three Ways to Cultivate Confidence in God’s Care and Love For You
The beauty of the gospel story is that we are not a bride with a father who has withheld a bridegroom to take care of us. He provided one. Jesus was given to us so that we know we will be taken care of. With his broken body and his blood, he met us at the alter vowing with his life to take care of us and love us forever. That’s the story of gospel. That’s your story.
The Role of Self Clarity
In a world full of self-love and apathy, we don’t need less self-clarity, we need more. If you read this and see no need for self-clarity or self-awareness, then I might encourage you that you are the very person who needs this. I’d urge you to be curious about how you are being experienced by others, to find honest people to tell you how you are doing in loving others, and find tools that might help you on that journey.
Pastor, Kill Your Inner Pharisee
It’s alarming how easy it is to forget what we were saved from and that it was not because of our own effort, but only by the grace of God. So subtly can we start to believe that our spiritual maturity simply happened or that we’ve gotten to where we are merely by our effort.
Conversations with Leaders Who Are Struggling Forward
I believe there is an underlying narrative surrounding the value of women that threatens the influencing and flourishing of women in the local church. Beginning to grasp that reality was a painful and confusing process for me. Sometimes this narrative shows up in the most heartbreaking of ways in the local church—like in stories of the devaluing and abuse of women in the church. Sometimes the narrative is less extremely represented through the absence of women in ministry. And sometimes, like in my case, I didn’t think this narrative applied to me at all because of the good ministry situation I was in.