The most difficult person that I will ever have to lead is myself.
That person is a package of impressive strengths mingled with equally great insecurities, wounds, and inconsistencies, all judiciously packaged, as best as we know how, to project the best possible public face. All the while fully aware of the concealed brokenness inside the box. And that brokenness, if not restored, will be our undoing.
We have all watched the lives of public figures unravel as their weaknesses are exhibited in real time across every media outlet that has access to a news truck. Sports figures, television personalities, movie stars, politicians, and, the most salacious of all, religious celebrities are caught on countless cameras doing the “perp walk” while futilely attempting to shield their disgraced faces. There is a beguiling yet tragic patheticness to the whole thing.
Do you suppose any of them envisioned this degrading ending in the promising, beginning days of their careers? Not likely. A finale like this would be far from the thoughts of most. Yet week by week another icon’s collapse is paraded in high definition into the sanctuary of our living rooms.
But what is more tragic and unquestionably more detrimental to the Kingdom of God than the collapse of distant celebrities is the frequency with which trusted spiritual leaders are forced to abandon their Father’s call due to a heartbreaking moral failure.
The ripples of resentment, disbelief, and skepticism radiate from this broken trust for years and, in many cases, for generations. The gift of a promising ministry ends in a jaded legacy of scorched earth.
Surely, no one starts out in ministry with this kind of ending in mind. Yet it materializes with such
regularity that the spiritual skeptics seem to have a ready-built case personally supplied by the disgraced Kingdom servants. Money, sex, and power are darkness’s simple tools to entice our gaps and fractures of character into disastrous choices with eternal consequences.
So, how can we protect ourselves from this kind of ending? How can we ready ourselves for a Kingdom ministry that flourishes for a lifetime? With all of our leadership responsibilities, how can we most conscientiously lead ourselves?
Over the next three weeks we will look together at foundational character and how it works itself out over our increasing levels of leadership responsibility. If we fail to master this at a foundational level, the inevitable, tragic results become increasingly far-reaching as our ministry broadens.
Over these three weeks, we will discover three key factors that should inspire us to deeply desire to personally take on the character of Christ. These are: (1) My lowest point of character is my highest point of capacity. (2) The way that I do one thing is the way that I do everything. (3) Personal transformation only grows from intimate transparency.
My lowest point of character is my highest point of capacity. This might strike some as unkind or
unfair, but a close look through Scripture or current events leads us to the same inevitable conclusion: My leadership, especially spiritual leadership, cannot grow beyond my lowest point of character.
Picture an antique wooden water bucket made from vertical boards (staves) fashioned together into a cylinder. If those boards were of different lengths, the shortest board would logically dictate the limits of water the bucket could contain. If 15 boards were 12 inches long, and one board was 6 inches, the defining limit of that container is determined by the shorter 6-inch stave.
Our weakest character point always determines our capacity.
Let’s use Peter’s life to illustrate this truth.
When we think of Peter’s most tragic of moments, our minds index quickly to his public and profane denial of his dearest friend and rabbi, instantly punctuated by the crow of a rooster. To conceive that this sentence would ever pass through his own lips would be to Peter unthinkable:
After a little while the bystanders came up and said to Peter,
“Certainly you too are one of them,
for your accent betrays you.” Then he began to invoke a curse on himself and to swear, “I do not
know the man.” And immediately the rooster crowed. (Matt. 26:73–74)
This uncharacteristically spineless scene seems to be an aberration to the typically masculine persona of this virile fisherman-turned-disciple. If it weren’t for Jesus’ prior prediction of the event, we would be left awestruck, for Peter wasn’t one to cower.
Certainly, there were no hints to foreshadow this breakdown. Or were there?
Much earlier, Jesus gathered his disciples for another opportunity to explain his Kingdom. But on this occasion the tenor of Jesus’ teaching seemed more subdued. He began to explain the necessity of his upcoming crucifixion and resurrection.
This was indeed a twist. Listening to colorful parables and watching jousts with Pharisees were much preferred by his closest of friends.
“From that time Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things from the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised” (Matt. 16:21).
This really wasn’t the news any of Jesus’ friends wanted to hear. It really wasn’t right. Jesus was a
His claims of Messiahship come pre-validated with numerous, unmistakable signs and wonders. He hurt no one and helped so many. The righteous indignation began to boil in Peter’s blood until he could hold it in no longer. He must teach the ways of Palestine.
Was Jesus going to take this lying down? Surely not. Stand up, Jesus. Fight like a man.
“And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him, saying, ‘Far be it from you, Lord! This shall never happen to you’” (Matt. 16:22).
It wasn’t that Peter disagreed with his rabbi on the premise that the religious machine would soon be coming after Jesus, looking to silence him once and for all. There were plenty of indications to see this inevitability. What Peter disagreed with was whether or not the pious bullies would triumph. Jesus had the crowds and the momentum. From where Peter stood, this “victim thinking” would and should never happen, not as long as his strong arms could wield a broadsword.
To most leaders, this declaration of solidarity would be both bolstering and reassuring. But not to Jesus.
In Peter’s words Jesus perceived an enormous character flaw. The Teacher had just finished explaining the “why” and the “what” of his Father’s plan.
It wasn’t something from which He was trying to escape. It was something he must do. Peter was blind to the fact that his self-assured protection was neither wanted nor possible.
“But he turned and said to Peter, ‘Get behind me, Satan! You are a hindrance to me. For you are not setting your mind on the things of God, but on the things of man’” (Matt. 16:23).
With stout words Jesus corrects His friend. Peter was thinking from a fleshly perspective planning to use fleshly power. Jesus well knew this was a character pattern with Peter, one that, if not corrected, would devastate his discipleship.
Fast-forward Peter’s story all the way to the Upper Room.
Jesus had just publicly called out Judas as a budding traitor (his character issues were about to be on display in full bloom), and then the teacher dramatically foretold, yet again, of his death and
resurrection. This first Lord’s Supper must have been a sobering experience for Peter.
“And when they had sung a hymn, they went out to the Mount of Olives” (Matt. 26:30).
Gethsemane—and an excruciating appointment of emotional, physical, and spiritual abandonment—was next on the agenda for Jesus.
History’s greatest achievement would soon happen quietly and solitarily in a common garden. Ironically the lesson Peter needed most to learn was being lived out in front of his unseeing eyes.
The King’s strength was not found in His frame or his will, but in His complete surrender. On his way to Gethsemane, Jesus prophesies about how his comrades would fare through the strain of the upcoming storm. It wasn’t good news:
Then Jesus said to them, “You will all fall away because of me this night. For it is written, ‘I will strike the shepherd, and the sheep of the flock will be scattered.’ But after I am raised up, I will go before you to Galilee.” (Matt. 26:31–32)
Peter’s pulse began to pick up speed. He wasn’t a quitter. He wasn’t a fair-weather friend. Maybe Judas and some of the others but certainly not him! Jesus needed to know the depths of his devotion.
“Peter answered him, ‘Though they all fall away because of you, I will never fall away’” (Matt. 26:33).
I imagine Peter felt much better after his declaration. How could Jesus get this so wrong? This fisherman is made from much stronger stuff than that.
But Jesus’ grief only increased after Peter’s sanctimonious pronouncement. How could Peter continually get this so wrong? With a breaking heart Jesus shrugged, “Truly, I tell you, this very night, before the rooster crows, you will deny me three times” (Matt. 26:34).
Jesus knew the strength Peter needed could not come from sinew or resolve. This lesson had been
repeatedly heard but never learned. It was Peter’s most limiting character deficiency.
Ironically, with everything Peter had witnessed from Jesus over the last three years, he still felt the need to have the last word. Looking at Jesus with his chest puffed out and a furrow in his forehead, he brazenly corrected Jesus one final time.
And these would be his last words to his soon to be crucified rabbi and friend.
“Even if I must die with you, I will not deny you” (Matt. 26:35).
Jesus had great plans for Peter. He handpicked him from the teeming crowds to be his own disciple, one whom he would send as an apostle of good news. He walked with him and taught him and brought him into his closest circle. There was no greater outlay of spiritual energy toward a single individual than Jesus’ investment in Peter.
Despite this, Peter’s lowest point of character continued to be his highest point of capacity. As long as Peter saw himself as his source of strength, there was no Kingdom future for this apostle. This
“weakness of strength” was at the heart of Jesus’ distress for his friend. In the midst of his own
imminent execution, Jesus spent precious time and emotional energy preparing His companion for the most important lesson of his life.
Imagine how Peter’s last words would have haunted his soul. He was so sure that he would be the most faithful, but in the end, he, himself, was the greatest coward. Where could he go from here? The low point of Peter’s character had been laid open and exposed to the bone. There was no strength Peter could point to. He had aborted his haughty vows to the farthest extent imaginable. He was alone and empty and uncovered.
Our lowest point of character is always our highest point of capacity. But how fortunate we are that we have a gracious God who “sets us up” so that we can see our weakness, and in that epiphany, we can discover His strength.
For Peter, God’s grace was actualized through character repentance.
When they had finished breakfast, Jesus said to Simon Peter, “Simon, son of John, do you love me more than these?”
He said to him, “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.”
He said to him, “Feed my lambs.”
He said to him a second time, “Simon, son of John, do you love me?”
He said to him, “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.”
He said to him, “Tend my sheep.”
He said to him the third time, “Simon, son of John, do you love me?”
Peter was grieved because he said to him the third time, “Do you love me?” and he said to him, “Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you.”
Jesus said to him, “Feed my sheep. Truly, truly, I say to you, when you were young, you used to dress yourself and walk wherever you wanted, but when you are old, you will stretch out your hands, and another will dress you and carry you where you do not want to go.” (This he said to show by what kind of death he was to glorify God.) And after saying this he said to him, “Follow me.” (John 21:15–19)
Since Peter had no record of strength that he could appeal to in order to declare his devotion, he simply and humbly appealed to the omniscience of his King. He trusted that Christ knew his heart deeply loved him. And that was all he had.
With that low stave of character growing, Jesus reinstates Peter with his Kingdom assignment. He
prophesies that Peter would indeed make good on his vow to die for Him.
But first things first. Jesus reminded his friend about the simple keys to Kingdom character, just as he did when they first met.
Jeff Christopherson is a church planter, pastor, author and Missiologist at the Send Institute – an
interdenominational church planting and evangelism think tank.