What it looks like to lead biblically

One of our adult Sunday school classes recently went through the new Art of Marriage DVD series.  It’s generated some good conversations.  A few weeks ago we looked at biblical roles for husbands and wives.  As I’ve thought through this material, it has forced me to face the reality of what leading biblically really looks like.  It doesn’t come naturally to me, and I don’t think that’s just because I’m fairly passive by nature.  Being a natural leader would not make me a naturally biblical leader.

As I’ve wrestled with what it really means (and doesn’t mean) to lead, ten things have come to mind.  These are things that I need to remember as I try to lead within my family and within my church.  I think they apply to leading in any context, but they’re mainly a needed corrective for me.

What does it look like to lead biblically?

  1. It is not the same as leading in a democracy.  A democracy allows those who are ignorant of their own best interests to vote into authority leaders who promise to cater to their self-destructive inclinations.  I don’t mean that a democratic form of government is unbibical; I mainly mean that the point of biblical leadership is not to make sure you get voted back into office.
  2. It is not the same as trying to keep everyone happy.  In the series we’ve been watching, Russell Moore has observed that in the case of husbands, biblical leadership is not doing what makes your wife happy.  It’s doing what will make your wife happy twenty years from now.  Those aren’t just two different questions; they represent two categorically different approaches to leading.
  3. It takes the kind of work required for careful planning and initiative.  This is true for everyone.  Nobody leads well by accident.  Really understanding what’s best for others requires dedicated attention.
  4. It requires a humble willingness to receive input from those who have not put in the work required to lead.  When I have put in the kind of work described above, I often expect my ideas to be readily appreciated and accepted.  But the fact that I’ve thought about things doesn’t mean (believe it or not) that I know everything.
  5. It includes removing the filter of my desires from my evaluation of the best interests of others.  It is in my kids’ best interests, for example, to obey their parents.  But my functional motivation for leading them toward obedience often has a lot more to do with my convenience than with their long-term good.  It’s easy to assume that if I’m trying to help someone else do what’s right, then I’m right in trying to help them do it.
  6. It involves knowing those I’m leading.  If the horse I’m trying to lead to water (in hopes that he’ll drink) turns out to be a bull, I’m going to be ill-prepared for the process.
  7. It requires a humble willingness to acknowledge when my decisions have been incorrect or ineffective.  Leadership involves judgment calls.  Those judgment calls are often based on a complex set of incomplete information.  They’re also controverted by the selfish motivations that lie so close at hand.  So I should expect that sometimes I’ll make the wrong call, and be wary of the pitfalls caused by defensiveness and self-pity.
  8. It includes a willingness to strategically give up control.  Shepherds may not like sheep poop, but they’ll have to put up with it if they’re going to focus on effectively guiding their flock.  Going OCD on this one will always end badly.
  9. It has to be aimed at a bigger goal than the vindication of my own leadership.  Much as this principle should go without saying, this one probably hits the hardest for me.  If people like the way I lead, their appreciation is a distracting enough bonus for me that I don’t naturally stop to consider whether they’ve actually benefited from my leadership.  The converse is true as well – if people are critical of my leadership, I’m tempted to give up, regardless of what my giving up might cost them.
  10. Its specific shape will differ according to who is leading.  My leadership, even when it is fully biblical, will probably look different from the biblical leadership of someone who is naturally energetic and practical.  That’s OK, as long as it is characterized by #1-9 above.

Preaching the Gospel to my Irritations

I have noticed in recent weeks an increasing willingness to complain about things that irritate me.  I don’t go on and on (I don’t think), and I don’t regularly lose my temper.  But when something happens that I don’t like, my reflex is to groan, or grunt, or make some other manly noise that’s supposed to let me whine without sounding whiny.

I’ve realized that when this happens, there’s something other than the gospel that’s filtering my responses to the little details of life.  I suspect my bad filter includes the assumption that things should move along for me in a way that is convenient and pleasant.  Of course, that’s neither realistic nor biblical.

Realizing that I should anticipate a spectrum of hard things is somewhat helpful, but I need more than that in order to really “count it all joy” when I encounter a variety of trials that seem mundane and unnecessary.  LIKE LEAVING YOUR BIKE IN THE MIDDLE OF THE GARAGE WHEN IT BELONGS IN THE SHED.  What I really need when this happens is to preach the gospel to my irritations.

Here’s a short list of what I’m trying to tell myself as I work to retrain my habits of thinking and responding.  Everything in this list starts with “I don’t like this, but…”:

  • I deserve far worse.
  • Jesus endured infinitely more for me.
  • This is temporary.
  • God will work it for my good.
  • This gives me a rewardable opportunity to serve.
  • This provides me with a real-life opportunity to trust God’s promises.
  • God cares for me, and is altogether aware of how this inconvenience affects me.
  • Jesus promised trouble in this life, and this is one more reminder that his promises are trustworthy.

Spurgeon: Better Farther On

I’ve been reading Spurgeon’s Faith’s Checkbook recently. It’s a great tool for regularly reminding myself of the gospel and its implications.  I was particularly struck by his entry based on Nahum 1:12:

There is a limit to affliction.  God sends it, and God removes it.  Do you sigh and say, “When will the end be?” Remember that our griefs will surely and finally end when this poor earthly life is over. Let us quietly wait and patiently endure the will of the Lord till he cometh.

Meanwhile, our Father in heaven takes away the rod when His design in using it is fully served. When He has whipped away our folly, there will be no more strokes. Or, if the affliction is sent for testing us, that our graces may glorify  God, it will end when the Lord has made us bear witness to His praise. We would not wish the affliction to depart till God has gotten out of us all the honor which we can possibly yield Him.

There may today be “a great calm.” Who knows how soon those raging billows will give place to a sea of glass, and the sea birds sit on the gentle waves? After long tribulation the Rail is hung up, and the wheat rests in the garner. We may, before many hours are past, be just as happy as now we are sorrowful. It is not hard for the Lord to turn night into day. He that sends the clouds can as easily clear the skies. Let us be of good cheer. It is better on before. Let us sing hallelujah by anticipation.

Assurance of Salvation (the second kind)

“Not only that, but we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope.” - Romans 5:3-4

In verse 1 of this chapter, Paul has made a statement of confident assurance, grounding the believer’s hope of salvation on faith in Christ alone.  He has expanded on this confident expectation in verse 2, describing it as “hope of the glory of God”.  So far, this certainty has had no reference at all to the results of faith in the believer’s life.  Assurance has happened prior to any kind of fruit inspection.

But now Paul goes a step further, and provides another source of hope.  It is an ironic one, since it starts with the kind of circumstance that would tend to crush the normal human kind of hope.  The line that he draws to hope begins with suffering.  This suffering, in God’s economy, produces good things for the believer.  In particular, it produces endurance.  This is not simply because the believer has become a better person, but because the believer has seen more of God’s trustworthy love.  What has grown is not the believer himself, but the believer’s faith, which looks away from the believer’s capacities to the all-sufficient resources found in God.

As suffering produces endurance, so endurance produces character.  These two kinds of producing happen in much the same way.  The believer who looks to God over and over again in the midst of trials gets to see God in transforming ways.  As this happens, the character of Christ is manifest with increasing clarity through the believer.  And as the believer becomes more like Christ, he gains a fuller experience of the hope that began in verse 1.  This is very similar to the connection that Peter describes between sanctification and assurance (2 Pet. 1:3-11).

In Paul’s description as well as Peter’s, this kind of assurance is secondary.  It must be, because without a clear sense that I am accepted by God on the basis of Christ’s righteousness alone, no amount of Christian growth will be able to convince me that I am justified.  There are simply too many problems mixed in with my growth at every point.  For every evidence of growth, I can come up with evidence of remaining sin.  An evaluation of my motives makes things even messier.  There is no good thing that I can do that will guarantee, by its nature, that I will do it for the right reason.  I can run myself in circles, and eventually into the ground, if I try to start with assurance based on my growth.

On the other hand, if I can stand firmly on the fact that I have peace with God because I am justified by simple faith, then I can have a brand new way of looking at my halting, imperfect growth.  Suddenly, the good things I do become evidence that the righteousness of Christ is actually at work in me, since I know I could never produce those things on my own.  The remaining sin is what I contribute on my own, but the fact remains that I am not on my own.  God justifies the ungodly, and my knowledge of my remaining sin reminds me that I am exactly the kind of person that God justifies, through faith in Christ alone.

Killing Pride by the Hope of Glory

“For the creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of him who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God.” - Romans 8:20-21

When Satan tempted Eve in the garden, he offered her two things:  freedom and glory. He offered her the ability to do whatever she wanted, and to look amazing to everyone who saw her. When the enemy did this, he tapped into the fact that Eve, along with her husband, was created for both of these things. The appeal in Satan’s temptation was that he offered a shortcut to them. Or so it seemed. As soon as Adam and Eve fell to temptation, it began to become evident that what they received were counterfeit freedom and counterfeit glory.  Behind the thin veil of Satan’s offer was the exact opposite of what Adam and Eve thought they were signing up for.  Instead of freedom and glory, they found bondage and shame.

Ever since then, the children of Adam and Eve have been longing for true freedom and true glory, and have been looking for them in all the wrong places. Satan is still at work offering shortcuts, and we are still prone to the same kind of deception and rebellion that drives us to pursue these things in the wrong way. Pride is found wherever we pursue freedom and glory on our own terms, without any connection to God.  It comes when the prospect of being like God gets cast off in the pursuit of trying to be God.  Satan baited his hook in this way with our first parents, and he is still at it with a great deal of success today.

The way to defeat pride is not to stop wanting freedom and glory. It would have been dishonest and ineffective for Eve to deny that she wanted what the fruit in the garden seemed to offer her. What she needed, and what we need, is to recognize that God offers us the real versions of these things.  And by God’s design, the creation itself longs to see us get them. In some mysterious way, God has consigned all of creation to an experience of the decay that comes along with bondage to sin. In this way, the creation groans along with us, longing to experience what Paul calls “the freedom of the glory of the children of God”. This is not a sideshow in God’s plan for history. The revealing of the sons of God is what the creation eagerly longs for. And through union with Christ, we get to be a part of it.

How does this expectation help us to defeat pride? Not simply by telling us that pride is wrong. We were created to want the glory of God, and to want it in a way that glorifies God instead of ourselves. And this is what God promises to give us. He promises that someday, because of Christ, his character will shine through us unhindered. As his children, we will be free to shine like our Father. And in that day, we will be free from every inclination to hijack that glory and point it back at ourselves. This is the true freedom of the glory of the children of God. This is the kind of hope that kills pride.

(More Specific) Reasons to be Reasonable

“Let your reasonableness be known to everyone. The Lord is at hand” - Philippians 4:5

The fact that the Lord is near should produce a reasonableness in my response to others.  In order for this kind of response to happen, I need some clarity about what the Lord’s nearness means for me, particularly in frustrating situations.

Because he is the Lord, he is the most important person in the room. Whatever I’m going through, it’s first and foremost about him. It’s not about me or about the person who’s causing problems for me, and the solution to the problem isn’t ultimately found in either of us. The significance and the solution are both found in Christ.  His lordship – his preeminence (Col. 1:16) – should reorient my perspective on every situation.  That reorientation can begin even before I remember the provision that the Lord offers to me in his nearness.

And I must not forget his provision. As the Lord, he is in control. When I am interacting with an unreasonable person, it feels like that person is hijacking control of my life. Or at least some part of it. It’s unsettling to see part of my life taken over someone who clearly doesn’t have my best interests in mind. And at one level, this can really happen; but the hijacker’s influence is not ultimate. Final and definitive control of my life and all of its details lies with the Lord alone.

The Lord who is near has made promises to me that the unreasonable person can’t break. These are lasting promises that can’t be matched by anyone.  He promises to exercise the full force of his power, wisdom, and love to ensure that every detail he assigns to me is worked out for my good. He promises to get me to a place where where fear of the future will be gone forever, and where I will look back without a single regrets about any of his dealings with me.

This Lord, who works for my good in ways that are often painful for me, is not cold and clinical about the pain that process requires. He’s not like the stern, one-dimensional parent who is exclusively concerned about growing up to be big and strong, and entirely unconcerned about how hard it is to develop a taste for broccoli.  This is the Lord who calls me to cast all of my cares on him, because he cares for me (1 Pet. 5:7).

Because he is the Lord, it’s his evaluation of me that matters. Someday, when I stand before him, the importance of everyone else’s opinion of me will vaporize. And (unlike me) this Lord is more than reasonable. He is kind. Instead of insisting that I measure up before he accepts me, he has done the measuring up for me.

The Lord’s nearness gives me what I need for stability when it feels like my world is being shaken.  His wise and loving control of my life, his unbreakable promises, his personal care for me, his righteousness in exchange for my shame, all come together to form a broad and solid place to stand.  But in order to stand there, I need to get there, and I don’t get there by accident.  Rather, I get there and stand there by faith.

I prepare to weather tough moments by faith as I commune with the Lord who promises to be near when they arrive.  I also prepare for them by applying the truth about the Lord and his nearness in these tough moments.  The more I live by the truth in real-life situations, the better I know it, understand it and love it, and the better prepared I am to live by it more fully in the future.

Reason to be reasonable

“Let your reasonableness be known to everyone. The Lord is at hand” - Philippians 4:5

If it came naturally for us to be reasonable with everyone, Paul would not have to tell us to do it.  But it is not natural.  It is so often reflexive for me to respond to the inconveniences that people introduce into my life with irritation instead of reasonableness.  That irritation might be expressed or unexpressed, mainly depending on my level of familiarity with the irritating person.  But if my internal response isn’t reasonable, then my reasonableness won’t be known to them, even if I don’t snap at them (this time).

Of course, I don’t choose to be unreasonable.  In fact, some of my most unreasonable moments are the ones in which I feel most vehemently reasonable.  I feel this way because I sense the other person being unreasonable with me, and my rational powers go to work popping off reasons why they shouldn’t do it.  My response makes perfect sense… to me.

Now certainly, Paul is talking about more than being logical.  But he’s not talking about less.  He’s not insisting that I simply ignore certain things, like the fact that a telemarketer’s friendly greeting is a cheaply disguised tool to pry money out me.  Rather, Paul is calling me to put things in their proper order of priority, which is a very logical thing to do.  In the logical order of priority, the first thing that needs to shape my view of any situation is that “The Lord is at hand.”  This begins to change everything, if I don’t miss it.

I naturally see my conflicts as involving two people:  myself and the unreasonable person.  And in this kind of situation, I see myself as the central point of reference.  The other person may have information to contribute, but the authoritative evaluation belongs to me.  And it’s about me.

With that as my starting point, I can move in a basically logical direction, demonstrating why I’m so right.  It’s logical (usually) in the sense that one idea builds properly on another.  My flow of thought isn’t irrational; my premise, however, is.  In the moment, my premise involves a narrow, stilted view of reality that looks a lot like Carl Sagan’s view of the cosmos:  “My kingdom is all that is, or was, or ever will be.”  I know how idiotic a statement like that that sounds when some smart guy on PBS says it, yet I’m prone to build a string of logical arguments on the same dumb idea.  It’s not truly reasonable, and that’s not hard for others to see.

In order to be really reasonable, I need to start with something that shakes all the garbage out of my original starting point, and starts my logic off in a different direction.  That something is the convicting, liberating, reason-restoring fact that “The Lord is at hand.”  He really is.

I can’t carry what I can’t touch

We all carry many different burdens at different times. Some of those burdens are necessary and unavoidable.  Others are not.  Whenever I haul around burdens that I’m not supposed to, I rob myself of the strength I’m supposed to spend on my real responsibilities.

One of the unnecessary burdens I carry is the burden of anxiety over real responsibilities that I will need to take care of in the future. With seminary work, increasing responsibilities in ministry, five boys to raise, and a marriage to protect, there is no end to the demands on my time. There is always a list of things to do; some of those things are written down and organized, and some of them are just in my mind. Having my future responsibilities well-organized helps, but it does not really solve the problem.

What does help is to remember that almost all of my anxiety has to do with the future. I very rarely worry about the current moment. Sometimes the current moment is hard, but my worry is almost always about what is to come. It might be focused on 30 years from now, or it might be focused on 30 seconds from now. However far away the focus of my worry is, what I need to remember is that I can’t get there. I’m worrying about something that I can’t touch, and because I can’t touch it, I have no direct control over it, or responsibility for it.

Worry over what I will be responsible for in the future creates a persistent and unnecessary burden. It must be part of the burden that Jesus describes when he says “come to me all you who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.” (Matt. 11:28)

In order to cast off the burden of anxiety over the future, I need to remember two things – one thing looks back, and the other looks forward.

First, at every moment in my past, without exception, God is been faithful to provide for me. The simplest evidence for God’s faithfulness to me is the fact that I’m still here, and I’m not ruined. God has never once failed to keep me.

Second, this same God has promised to meet all of my needs in the future. Whatever pain he chooses to allow into my life, he has promised that he will not allow me to be destroyed. Given his demonstrated faithfulness to this promise at every single point in my past, I have every reason to believe it for the future.

This truth leads to real freedom, if I am disciplined to actively believe it. It takes discipline to cast all of my cares on the Lord, remembering that he cares for me (1 Pet. 5:7). But when I do this, I find the peace of mind that can’t be explained in human terms. I find a liberating and energizing sense that all will be well, because my well-being is in the hands of someone who can guarantee it.

I will have to do hard and painful things again in the future. I will face situations that make me feel hopeless in myself. This is a healthy thing.  Because of God’s provision, every impossible situation that I face will leave me with one more experience of God’s ability to do what nobody else can.  Like carry the future.

Standing secure, looking forward

“Through him we have also obtained access into this grace in which we stand, and we rejoice in hope of the glory of God.” (Romans 5:2)

As I purposefully arm myself with the truth of the gospel against Satan’s attacks, I find Romans 5:1-11 to be particularly helpful.  In this passage there is a powerful list of reminders about the gospel and its implications for me.  In this verse, there are at least two.

First, I stand in grace.  My justification by faith does not usher me into a state of tenuous obligation.  It is not my job to sustain God’s kind intentions toward me.  Certainly, I am obligated to obey the Lord.  But that obligation is not smuggled into my life inside the otherwise good gift of the gospel.  It is a good part of the gospel itself.  Through the finished work of Christ and my union with him, I can now “walk in newness of life” (Rom. 6:4).  That, along with my perfect acceptance before God, is what grace gives to me.

Second, I can gladly and confidently look forward to a full experience of the glory of God.  Sometimes I’m too vague in the way I envision this experience.  The glory of God is not just a light so bright you can’t quite look at it.  The glory of God is the combined expression of everything that is good about him (in other words, everything that is true about him).  My enjoyment of the kindness, intelligence, attractiveness and abilities of others in this life serves as a tiny spark of what it will be like to enjoy the glory of God.  I will spend eternity benefiting from his inexhaustible kindness (Eph. 2:7), being impressed by his unstoppable power, and unpacking the intricate wisdom of his plan to redeem his people.

Yet my experience of God’s glory will not only come through observation.  It will be even more personal than that.  I have sinned, and in my present state, I fall short of the glory of God.  I fail to glorify him by failing to be glorious like him.  I don’t live up to his glorious character.  But in eternity, that will no longer be the case.  When Christ is revealed, I will be revealed with him in glory (Col. 3:4).  From that point on and forever, I will be unhindered in my expression of the righteousness of Christ that I have received through the gospel.  I will no longer fall short of the glory of God.

Assurance by faith alone

“Therefore, having been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ.” (Romans 5:1)

This is a statement of profoundly confident assurance.  This assurance is not based on an examination of our Christian growth, or on any other thing about us.  It comes from looking entirely away from ourselves to Christ.  That is what “by faith” in “justified by faith” refers to.  When we believe, like Abraham did, God’s impossible promise to bring death out of life, God credits righteousness to our account and treats us as totally acceptable.

At the point of justification by faith alone, even before noticeable sanctification happens, we can confidently say “I have peace with God.”  And that peace is complete.  It is not a state in which God, though he is legally obligated to accept me, still harbors some personal animosity toward me or frustration about me because of my ongoing sin.  Rather, he is altogether for me.  He is never angry with me.

God is comprehensively aware of the sin remaining in my attitudes and behaviors.  He hates that sin, and is not content to leave it in my life.  As a result, he works in a variety of ways – often painful for me – to remove that sin.  Yet even when he brings this discipline into my life, he does so with sovereignly kind intentions toward me.  He frowns at my sin, but he smiles at me.

It is only when I hold on to this understanding of God’s disposition toward me that I can move on to the further promises of Romans 5, and the deeper assurance of hope that comes from proven character (v 4).