[The really humble person] will not be thinking about humility; he will not be thinking about himself at all.C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity
Like many young leaders, I struggled to learn the skill of leading with humility. Things came quickly to me in school, athletics, and business. Our stable family of five kids was comfortable middle class. I had many good friends and even an adult mentor. Being proud was something that my parents promoted rather than tried to suppress. My natural abilities fed the sin of my pride, and I dragged it into ministry. As a budding leader struggling with identity, especially outside of athletics, I often positioned myself as the leader. I believed I had earned the leadership position based on skill, knowledge, experience, and sometimes by sheer resolve. I wasn’t blatant about it, and many people were unable to identify what was amiss. But they didn’t say anything because I was productive. If you are not self-aware, your success can inhibit your emotional maturity, as it did mine. I led people as if they needed to follow my direction or my teaching. I initially entered ministry with the passion for sharing the good news of Jesus but soon became motivated by the success that it could garner me. But that is the opposite of how Jesus led.
Humility is a rare attribute among leaders. It really shouldn’t be uncommon. The gospel calls us to humbly serve like Christ. Whereas pride is self-centered, humility is others-centered, and helping others is ostensibly the aim of leadership.
Leaders tend to vacillate between the extremes of arrogance and timidity. Arrogance is an expression of self-centeredness—seeking to receive undue attention and unmerited credit. Adulation can’t be satisfied. Timidity is also self-centeredness—trying to avoid rejection or failure. This kind of pride can cloak itself in cowardice that appears humble. I was shy as a young boy, and I hated it. Now and then it creeps back up in the form of unassertiveness. Pride in either form is not an option for a leader.
Jesus said, “Apart from me you can do nothing” (John 15:5b). We are not able to do some things or most things or even one thing. Apart from Jesus, we can do nothing. We are not cooperatives, as some would believe, adding our part to God’s grace. If we cut a branch off an apple tree, we would not expect the branch to continue producing apples. We cannot bear any fruit if we lead as if anything is dependent on our ability. God gifts the church with able leaders who disciple believers in Christ’s fullness (Ephesians 4:11–13). The local church recognizes these gifts and provides authority to use them to advance the gospel (1 Timothy 4:14). Timid leaders fear being hurt instead of taking risks, and they selfishly do what is safe for them rather than what will produce good results for others. Timid leaders will not remain leaders for long and will likely experience mistreatment. Arrogant leaders will hurt others until they learn to lead with a humble spirit, or the organization removes them. The good news is that a lot of space exists between the two extremes of arrogance and timidity. This godly space is where the humble leader graciously resides and rests.
Utmost Evil—the Essence of Sin
C. S. Lewis explains that “the essential vice, the utmost evil, is pride. Unchastity, anger, greed, drunkenness, and all that are mere fleabites in comparison: it was through Pride that the devil became the devil: Pride leads to every other vice: it is the complete anti-God state of mind.”1 If pride is an anti-God posture, as Lewis purports, humility is pro-Jesus.
Gospel-shaped leaders must make a comfortable home for humility in their lives and give pride a daily eviction notice. According to John Stott, “Pride is our greatest enemy and humility our greatest friend.”2 Pride sneaks into our homes in the middle of the night and hides within the walls of our hearts. It seeps out in measured amounts to remain undetected until it finally consumes our entire being. Scripture implores us to “walk humbly with . . . God” (Micah 6:8b). Humility is not just a trait of good leadership, it is the essential foundation.
Clay Pots Are (Not) Amazing
We admire and applaud the awesome people in life. We appreciate musicians like Aretha Franklin, Eric Clapton, Mozart, Bach, and of course, Justin Bieber. Authors like Ernest Hemmingway, J. R. R. Tolkien, Agatha Christie, and C. S. Lewis captivate our imaginations. Scientists like Sir Isaac Newton, Louis Pasteur, Galileo, Jane Goodall, and Albert Einstein make our lives better. Great coaches inspire us: John Wooden, Don Shula, Vince Lombardi, Tony Dungy, and Paul “Bear” Bryant. Politicians like Margaret Thatcher, Abraham Lincoln, Winston Churchill, Nelson Mandela, Mahatma Gandhi, and have masterfully shaped our society. And then there are church leaders like Mother Teresa, Billy Graham, Charles Spurgeon, John Calvin, Martin Luther, Jonathan Edwards, and John Stott who propel us to aspire to know and serve God at a higher level. Where do you stand in this company of great people? You may feel inadequate, but you don’t have to.
The gospel is contradictory to today’s celebrity culture in the church. Gospel-shaped leaders do not revel in greatness; they strive to reveal the treasure. Paul says, “But we have this treasure in jars of clay, to show that the surpassing power belongs to God and not to us” (2 Corinthians 4:7). Does it seem strange to you that our weakness works in God’s favor? We are born with a desire for victory. It is the plot of many good movies. In the movie Taken, the family experienced a good life until tragedy struck (kidnapping). Liam Neeson’s character has a very particular set of skills, and he rescues his daughter and restores their comfortable living. The gospel storyline of goodness, tragedy, rescue, and restoration is familiar and appealing. But we distort the gospel when we want to be the hero. We are servants of the King. He alone is the hero, the protagonist in the good news storyline.
The extraordinary power of God resides in weak vessels. Jesus did not come like a lion, with power and strength; he came as a lamb, with meekness and humility. You don’t have to be extraordinary. You are a clay pot that is ordinary, easily broken, and common. God’s power is what is remarkable. Your success resides in your weaknesses, not in your strengths. The gospel alone informs this different way of leading. The clay pots hold the real treasure—the glorious light of the gospel (2 Corinthians 4). Gospel-shaped leaders are merely takeout containers. The goal of the take-out container is to hold something valuable, like the Szechuan chicken from Golden Dragon. The take-out container is incidental, disposable, and recyclable. We, too, are containers for the gospel—we are jars of clay, made from mud. God entrusts the gospel to us, and we must relinquish acting as if we’re of equal value.
We’re all clay pots for the King’s most valuable treasure: the good news that sinners are made righteous by faith through the finished work of Christ. The more we try to be glorious on our own, the less the real treasure will be seen, admired, and valued. Leaders cannot be filled with Christ’s power if they are filled with self. The focus must always be on the treasure and not on the vessel. When I bought my wife’s costly diamond ring, the jeweler placed the ring on non-reflective black velvet so the diamond and setting would have no competition with light shining off the background. Had the jeweler placed the ring on a glittery mat, its sparkle would have been diminished.
The reason for the extreme contrast between the precious treasure and the soon-to-be-rubbish container is to show that the surpassing power belongs to God and not us. We distort the gospel’s proclamation when we try to compete with the real treasure. We do not represent even a supporting role in the gospel story; we are the recipients of grace, and we are the boxes in which the gift arrives to others. Gospel-shaped leaders are not impressive, but the gospel is.
1. C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity (New York: Macmillan, 1952), 94.
2. Mark Dever, The Message of the Old Testament: Promises Made (Wheaton IL: Crossway, 2006), 766.
Excerpted from The Gospel Shaped Leader: Leaning on Jesus to Shepherd His People ©2021 by Scott Thomas. Used by permission of New Growth Press. May not be reproduced without prior written permission.
The Gospel Shaped Leader: Leaning On Jesus to Shepherd His People
Through many years of ministry experience, Thomas has seen the importance of the “soft skills” of leadership—empathy, kindness, and listening—and how not developing those skills negatively impacts churches. Understanding and applying the gospel will bring transformation.