Well, I think, Jesus says be faithful in small things, and you will be given authority over greater things—I think that is ultimately eschatological. All of us are doing small things in various ways right now—faithful to that so that we are building the sort of character and virtue of the kingdom to be able to live out as heirs of the kingdom in the age to come. But it also applies in the sense that whatever it is that you are given to do, it’s not accidental. If you have an understanding of the providence of God, then that means that everything that you are given to do is shaping you and preparing you for something. And so you give yourself over to that in a way that says I want to do this with integrity, and I want to do this with joy, and I want to do this because it is not just about this task right now that is there.
So I think that one of the things that I have learned in my life, and I think a lot of people have, is that there are all sorts of things that I have thought in my life were cul-de-sacs. They were little things that, you know, wasted time. In my situation I spent my high school years wrestling with a call to ministry, and then I went into politics for a few years, and then I was called to ministry, and then I went and I was serving in a church. And I loved serving in a church. And then for whatever reason I felt like going to do a PhD. I don’t even remember the thought process behind doing that. I honestly don’t. But that’s what we did. I wound up there at Southern doing a PhD. And at every point it’s like well, this part of this is something that I just kind of spent those years doing, but it doesn’t have anything to do with anything else. Then you step back and you say wait a minute! I see what God was doing here. This is why I was doing this. This is why I was doing that.
And so I think that you ought to say, in your ministries, okay, I am in this dead little church in Bedford, Kentucky, of twenty elderly people who hate me, and who are asleep while I’m preaching. There is some reason why I am here. There is a reason why we are going through this particular struggle right now in our lives. I mean all those things, they tend to come together, and I think if you have a sense of I don’t have to know how that’s happening right now, but to know it.
And then secondly I would say don’t be scared. And I think that is one of the biggest inhibiters to leadership is fear. And it is fear at the big broad level of my life. We are constantly worried about “my life.” You know, I am going to make a misstep, I am going to make a wrong decision, and then my life is going to be ruined. You are worried about that a lot.
I did something the other day that, frankly, it’s because I was listening to Brad Paisley sing “Letter to Me,” you know where he’s writing a letter to his teenage self? And I got to thinking—it was the day that I noticed on my Timehop app that it was ten years ago from that day that I was named dean at Southern. And I said you know what? I am going to do this just as a thought experiment for me—I am going to write a letter to myself at January 27, 2004. It was just kind of advice. So I wrote this letter: “Congratulations! I know what nobody else knows and that is that you don’t have one idea what you are doing.” And then I just went through and gave some advice through that. It was really helpful, and I just did it because I was bored in an airport. But when I looked back it was really helpful for me to do that because then I looked back through there, and I thought all the things that I was so worried about and fearful about at that time, ten years later don’t even matter anymore to me. And so it’s kind of easy to look at it in that direction. But then I thought what would the letter from ten years from now look like? What are the things that I am obsessing about and stressing about right now that aren’t going to matter? So you lose your fear of the big picture of God’s providence over your life.
And then the fear of man. A lot of what is happening—there are some people who think they are more sanctified because they don’t have fear of man, but it is only because they are misanthropic—they don’t care about people, so who cares what people think about me? But most of us aren’t in that situation. But to say if I can lose the fear of constantly having to worry about pleasing everybody, about everybody thinking—then that’s going to give you a lot more freedom to love people, including the people who hate you at the moment, and to recognize that sometimes, not always, but sometimes some of the people that are your biggest critics and opponents, if you will love them and you will listen to them, you will find out sometimes these are going to wind up becoming people who are your biggest allies and supporters. And sometimes the people that you think this is somebody who is with me and will be with me forever, is somebody who is not, ultimately. I think it’s having that sense of perspective as you are going through and being willing to be hurt.
One of the things that I learned probably most in the last ten years is that you can be really hurt when you are involved in ministering to people. And that is just going to be the case. And one of the ways that you can try to prevent that from ever happening again is to say I am just going to be distant from all that. And you have just got to constantly be fighting that all your life because once you have really been in that bad church situation or once you have really been involved in that discipleship situation that disappointed you, then you think well, how can I keep this from happening again? And if I can’t keep it from happening again, how can I keep it from mattering to me? And that is a really dangerous place to be. You can numb yourself over.