by Stephen Trout
Leaders are storytellers. They can’t help it.
By virtue of their influential positions, their lives are on display – more than most. Through word, and especially example, they write a story that will either bring blessing or harm to those who read it.
While poor leaders’ stories will often be marked by hubris and secrecy, good leaders’ stories will reveal grace in the midst of brokenness.
These redemption stories will be told with honesty, hope, and authenticity – because these leaders have wrestled with God. In doing so, as we’ll see, they’ve come away with a limp, and a new name.
According to many sources, authenticity is one of the defining characteristics of millennials and Gen Z. Generally, this means that they want to cut through the fluff, and live out a story that has both conviction and community.
In some ways, we can affirm those urges as good ones. We all long for Eden, the time when we knew true wholeness, and relationships without shame.
Yet if disconnected from the Gospel, these urges lead to enslavement to false gods (“my latest cause”), and shifting identities are bound to fill the gap.
Speaking of authenticity and identity, imagine if the Apostle Paul lived in our day and had a Twitter account. Here is what you’d likely see:
“Here is a trustworthy saying that deserves full acceptance: Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners—of whom I am the worst.” (1 Tim. 1:15)
Pretty authentic, right?
“I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do… For I know that good itself does not dwell in me, that is, in my sinful nature. For I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out.” (Rom. 7:15-18)
Notice how candid Paul is about his sin and struggles! Yet how strange these admissions of failure – especially from such a formidable leader and spiritual giant – can sound to our ears!
If this is so, perhaps because it’s ingrained in us that anyone in authority or power – be it a boss, president, or even a ministry leader – should be a paragon of virtue (even though anymore, we’re cynical about it actually being true!)
Clearly, we’re not used to a leader who advertises their faults! For most, any show of weakness is off-limits.
So what did allow such honesty in Paul, the Lord’s chosen apostle to the Gentile world?
Three Gospel-Driven Realities
Three grace-created, Gospel-driven realities provide the answer:
1. As Paul got to know Jesus, his identity was no longer in his performance or impeccable religious observances, but grounded in the performance of Christ for him (see 2 Cor. 5:21, 1Pet. 2:24, Isa. 53:11).
2. This new security allowed Paul the freedom to see himself clearly in the mirror of God’s perfect law, and be real (authentic) about who he actually was – a sinner, growing in his awareness of how sinful sin really was, yet seeing the beauty of Christ’s loving hold on him magnified (see Gal. 3). That mirror wasn’t the soap, but led him to it – the cleansing blood of Jesus.
3. Paul’s failure to love perfectly was a present reality, but it wasn’t the final word. Christ’s victory over sin was (see Gal. 2:20). This dynamic was helping Paul to live a life of repentance and grow in love.
So if this was the case with Paul – a central leader and example in the New Testament church – why don’t we see this more in our leaders today?
Dan Allender, author of Leading with a Limp, comments,
“Given how powerful it is when leaders name their own failures, why is it so rare? Three primary reasons come immediately to mind:
A leader who is really open about his failures risks losing the confidence of his staff, or his board could fire him, or clients could leave, etc. The truth is we gain people’s trust, but facing our fears involves risk.
We are often too married to our image to really come clean about how messed up we are.
A struggling leader can easily isolate himself and fill his loneliness with the cancer of addictive substances or behaviors, ranging from sex to alcohol to workaholism.
It is possible to take a different path. As an act of leadership, consider the risk of giving up your life through facing, naming, and bearing your weaknesses, and imagine the paradoxical yet promised benefits.”
What we are describing is not reserved for special cases; it is actually intended to be the norm. We can take a cue from Jacob, Allender notes, who wrestled with God to receive an identity that would transcend his name “deceiver”:
“Prior to his encounter with God in Genesis 32, where Jacob gets both a new name and a limp, scheming and deceit marked his life. That deceit brought division into his family, and caused his brother to hate him. But an encounter with God changed him. The passage that describes Jacob’s struggle with God indicates this is a fight to the bone; it’s a life-and-death struggle, one that permanently marks Jacob.
The process of becoming a person who can lead others with a limp is not what we would predict. It often involves us becoming desperate and exposes our own narcissism, our fears, dogmatism, and tendency to hide. No matter how far off the mark we might be, the story of Jacob shows us the goodness of God as he blesses a conniving, undeserving man [and gives him a new name, Israel]. And we see that if we open ourselves to an encounter with God, we will not come out of it unchanged.”
Again, this is modeled for us all over scripture. Take Psalm 51, for example, the backstory of which is adultery and murder on the part of a believer, King David:
“Have mercy on me, O God, according to your steadfast love; according to your abundant mercy blot out my transgressions. Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity, and cleanse me from my sin! For I know my transgressions, and my sin is ever before me… wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow. Let me hear joy and gladness; let the bones that you have broken rejoice… Restore to me the joy of your salvation, and uphold me with a willing spirit.”
Not the Final Word
Jacob’s deceit and David’s adultery and murder are just two of the numerous failures cited among leaders. We could cite Adam, Moses, Peter, and many more – which should give us hope!
Yet we know that sin didn’t have the final word over their lives, or identities.
What about us? Are we free enough to face our fears, narcissism, and addictions – because we know how deeply we’re loved?
May the Gospel both humble us and free us to live with new honesty. As self decreases and love grows, Christ will be on display – the very things that a watching world needs!
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