Lately I’ve seen an interesting phenomenon in church and culture. A leader is working with a team, surrounded by people eager to help and serve joyfully to carry out a God-sized task. The helpers work hard and are faithful to the leader and to the task. But they are human – so things happen and the enemy intervenes, and the project stalls or the vision is attacked or it simply takes longer than the leader expected.
And the leader has a choice: shift his/her perception to see that the task is not really his but is bigger than him and see the heart of the people serving, maintaining a heart of gratitude despite the hiccup; or let their feelings take over, going in to panic mode, assuming the absolute worst of the people helping carry out this task and acting like the helpers are hindrances to the goal instead of partners deserving gratitude and respect.
I keep seeing leaders choose the second course. I’ve seen it probably four different times in the past year. The leader was tired and overwhelmed in every case. They were all good people. They were trying to do big God-sized things. I don’t think they realized they were barreling through life and through friendships as they tunneled toward this goal. I don’t think they realized they were dishonoring the people helping them in the process. But they forged on and they left a path of damage behind them.
Their choice revealed them, and hurt the people around them. They weren’t leading, they were using. It wasn’t about the people and teamwork and doing things as unto the Lord. It was about the leader’s agenda and needs and when times got hard, they revealed their true lack of faith. They thought their panic was because of their helper’s incompetence, but their panic was really because they weren’t trusting God to begin with. Not only that, but they showed the task was more important than the hearts and health of the people helping. Now, that is not the heart of any of these leaders all the time, but in this case, at least for a little while, the leader believed that the battle was between them and what they could carry out, and not Believers working together in a common battle against the true enemy of our soul.
I saw a powerful interview with Jason Russell, the founder of Invisible Children, the guy who had a very public nervous breakdown earlier this year. He literally lost his mind when the task God had given him proved too much for him. He has few memories of the day he was pacing and beating the ground naked in front of his home, or the two weeks he was incoherent, rambling and raging, hospitalized in a mental institution. His wife, who was there with his children when his fragile mind snapped, wasn’t sure if the man she married would ever return to her. But after weeks of intensive therapy and medications, Jason Russell did return to his sanity and his family, and his story is really powerful.
He took a God-sized vision, to rescue children in Africa from Joseph Kony and the LRA, and he made it his personal mission. He had highlighted himself and his son in a campaign to make Kony famous, and when it went viral and the media descended, he took it on himself to answer the questions and defend his vision. For over a week he did not sleep and rarely ate as he fought to defend against the forces opposing him and the movement he saw as his. The people around him saw the signs and tried to warn him. Meetings were held telling him to step back and let someone else take over, but he pushed back and ignored those around him. And one morning, in his kitchen, he snapped.
Most of the world saw the video of him raging and beating the ground with his hands (until his wedding ring bent and his hands were bruised and broken). His breakdown did massive damage to the ministry he helped create. Rumors that he was gay or on drugs circulated widely. And he now says, with humility, that it was his ego that snapped, taking his mind with it. That what kept him awake those many nights was his role in the movement, the Nobel prize talk and the requests for interviews and the high-profile people who wanted to partner with him.
He believed he must carry this vision, and the vision he was never intended to carry crushed him under its overwhelming weight. He blew through the people serving Invisible Children and when he fell apart, he left them to pick up the pieces. Jason told Oprah that God broke him to take Invisible Children away from him and return it where it belonged, in the hands of the God who hears the cries of the children and who calls us to partner with Him in His work. Even now, months after the breakdown, Jason has a very limited role in Invisible Children and in the mission to rescue children from Joseph Kony, because he has learned his limits and he is working to stay within them. And slowly the reputation of Invisible Children and Jason Russell is being restored because he is doing the hard work of confessing his weakness. I know that the Lord will bless that, and seeing him be faithful has given me hope in the restoring work of the Lord after a great failure.
So what do we learn from Jason’s powerful confession, his story, and the situations I have seen this year? What do we do if we are this leader and we have barreled through people in pursuit of our goal, even unknowingly? What do we do if we are making ourselves physically sick trying to shoulder responsibilities never given to us to carry? What do we do if we have been hurt by the dishonoring actions of someone we respected?
Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit, but in humility consider others better than yourselves. Each of you should look not only to your own interests, but also to the interests of others. Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus: Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself and became obedient to death-even death on a cross! Phil 2:3-8
I think we realize first that we are human, weak, flawed, sinful, selfish and that we can all develop tunnel-vision about the things that are important to us. (I am not speaking as one who judges, by the way. I am speaking as one who for years has struggled with ulcers and depression and losing sleep over things that are not mine to control. I get it – I live in this place. That’s why I related to Jason. I could see myself in his story.) We search our minds for times when we have treated others as servants instead of serving. We spend a few minutes confessing these things to the God who created us and who understands our fragile minds and our limitless egos. We lay these burdens we are not capable of carrying at his cross. We curl up on our beds and we confess our absolute need of Him and dependence on Him, and we give back to Him the things that have always been His.
“Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.” Matthew 11:28-30
Then we confess to each other. If we have done things out of selfish ambition, we make the hard phone call. We mend fences and get back on the same team. We embrace each other in grace and respond to each other in humility. We see it is never to late to express gratitude and respect to those who partner with us for the Gospel.
If we were a helper, and have walked away feeling dishonored and used, we confess that hurt and bitterness and we seek to forgive so we can lay that burden down as well. God will never waste the times we have served others – our sacrifice was for good and the God who sees all will bless those who served him (Luke 12:37). The leader you loved and served is still loved by a God who has a great plan for him. Trust the Lord to mend the broken and restore the stolen. Try to see this as an opportunity to “consider others better than yourselves.” Realize how easy this sin is to commit, and release the person from the prison in your mind.
And together, as we go forward, we realize that according to Christ, to lead is to serve. Our leader washed feet and died on a cross in the pursuit of the goal God had given Him. When we position ourselves with humility, giving of ourselves, we will get far more done than we would sitting at the head of the table, delegating and organizing. We give the people around us the benefit of the doubt, and we treat them with grace. We make ourselves their servants. It is not human to make ourselves less – but it is righteous. So we seek ways to serve, and trust the Lord with the results. The task is always His, after all.
Jesus help us to see big tasks as being Yours, and not ours. Protect us from ourselves. Give us eyes to see others as You see them and keep us from using people for our personal gain. Thank you for Jason Russell’s confession – please use him powerfully to show your grace, forgiveness, and resurrection of all that is lost. Bless each person who confesses today, and who lays down their hurt. We love You Lord and trust You that someday all that is invisible will be made visible, an all of our hurts will have meaning.
I remember my affliction and my wandering, the bitterness and the gall.
I well remember them, and my soul is downcast within me.
Yet this I call to mind and therefore I have hope:
Because of the Lord’s great love we are not consumed, for his compassions never fail.
They are new every morning; great is your faithfulness.
I say to myself, “The Lord is my portion; therefore I will wait for him.”
The Lord is good to those whose hope is in him, to the one who seeks him;
it is good to wait quietly for the salvation of the Lord. Lamentations 3:19-26