Leaders at the Forbidden Tree
Three Temptations That Every Leader Must Overcome
There is an epidemic of Christian leadership failure in America. From mega-church pastors to trusted priests, non-profit executives to seminary presidents and beyond, the breadth and frequency of moral failings is staggering. It’s local, regional and national. It cuts across all races, denominations and sizes of churches and ministries.
Godly, committed leaders are falling all around us. The question is ‘why’?
I believe the root of the problem lies in the recent history of leadership training and education that has valued traits and techniques over character and values. Good leadership has been reduced to checklists of action steps that mimic the habits of ‘successful’ leaders. “Do what they do and you will be successful, too” is the promise. The problem is, what is venerated as leadership success by educational institutions and the leadership training industry too seldom resembles anything Jesus taught His followers.
Throughout Scripture, leadership success was the final step in a process of brokenness, humility and surrender. Hardly a curriculum for a masters degree in leadership. However, biblical leaders developed depths of trust and obedience that allowed God to work through them to accomplish His good purposes. In God’s leadership academy, character is everything.
Which brings me to the main message in this blog post. Christian leadership is replete with temptations. We all face them. It’s not a matter of avoiding them but in taking them head-on and trusting in God’s power to help us overcome. I believe every Christian leader will face, often continually, a version of the three-fold temptation that brought sin into the world through the first couple. Let’s look briefly at how the enemy was able to convince the first couple to sacrifice Eden.
The enemy begins with a question, “did God say you couldn’t eat from any of the trees of the garden?” Eve’s response was a restatement of God’s command that all fruit was good for eating, except the tree which stood before her. Why would the enemy begin with such a question? I believe he was planting the seed of doubt in the goodness of God. If God was truly good, why would he withhold anything from them? Why not this tree? God set boundaries that were in the best interest of the first couple. The enemy challenged them to consider what might be beyond those boundaries, and why a good God would keep it from them.
Psalm 16:6 states, “The boundary lines have fallen for me in pleasant places.” When God sets boundaries they are indicators of our freedom. What he says no to, what he forbids and sets apart from us is for our pleasure and great joy. The enemy can’t tolerate it. So he tantalizes us with the prospect of what might be just outside those boundaries. For leaders who are offered forbidden fruit, all their training in technique and process will ultimately fail them. Only godly character, born of a process of humility and surrender, can reject such temptation, trust in the goodness of God and find contentment within the pleasant places He has set for us. What boundaries are being challenged in your life as a leader today?
The enemy’s second approach is as insidious as the first. He offers to solve for the first couple a problem they didn’t even know they had. In promising them that their ‘eyes would be opened’ should they eat of the fruit, he is implying that their eyes are presently closed. I can hear them reply, “How can this be? We’ve trusted God since the day we were created. He’s provided for all of our needs. Now you’re telling us that we’ve been blind all this time?” Yet despite the absurdity of it, the enemy’s offer took root in their soul. It began to work a lack of trust in God’s provision and opened up the possibility that maybe, just maybe there was more to see than what God had allowed them to see. Maybe it was time to begin trusting in themselves.
This is the second temptation common to every Christian leader. At some point, and likely at many points, we will be tempted to trust in ourselves, to follow our own vision, to believe our own press. Leaders who sacrifice intimacy with God on the altar of busyness, accomplishments and a secularized version of ministry success will find this temptation an ever-present reality. When they succumb, their eyes do see differently. Suddenly it becomes their ministry, their church, their vision done their way for their glory. Only the cultivation of a spirit of absolute dependence, total surrender and unequivocal trust will keep a leader from this temptation. Where is the enemy tempting you to take your organization on your own shoulders and lead it to success?
The final, and ultimately convincing offer to the first couple was to abandon their trust in the goodness of God and become gods themselves. While it may seem ludicrous that the first couple would actually fall for such a ruse, Christian leaders face the exact same temptation and often succumb to it under the banner of “visionary, charismatic leadership.” Who doesn’t want a leader who is confident in their ability, sure of their vision and unwavering in their pursuit of it? Well, God for one. Building on the first two temptations, when leaders believe the success of their church or ministry is ultimately up to them, they have eaten the fruit. They’ll ultimately use and abuse positional power, authority and influence in service of themselves. When this happens, boundaries no longer apply to them and what was once forbidden fruit becomes part of their daily diet. Where are you being tempted to take the place of God in leading your organization?
The greatest single weapon Christian leaders have against such temptations is a daily, intimate and deepening relationship with Christ. There is no substitute for this in the life of an obedient, faithful leader. That’s why the enemy attacks leaders at this point without mercy. He plays on our pride, getting us to believe that we are so spiritual that we can survive without being in the Word, on our knees or in relationships of accountability. Being like God means we have the power to emulate the traits of a successful Christian leader without truly following Christ. It is a leadership house built upon the sand, and all around us we are seeing the great crash of Christian leaders who have built their ministry on what they do and how they do it, instead of who they are and whose they are.
The moral failings, abuse of power and general ineffectiveness of Christian leadership will only change when we commit ourselves to preparing Christian leaders from the inside out. God is looking for leaders whose eyes are looking for Him, who are willing to die to self as a first step as leaders, who are ready to sacrifice reputation and the need to be relevant in order to be emptied enough to be filled up and used by God in mighty ways. This is a very different type of leader. We believe such a leader is a steward leader, and we are committed to equipping a new generation of steward leaders who will not ponder at the forbidden tree, give ear to the enemy’s enticing appeal, nor consider the empty promises of deceptive fruit. They will withstand all of this because their eyes are fixed on Jesus, their heart is surrendered to Him and their feet are committed to unequivocal obedience in pursuit of His kingdom purposes.