Editor’s Note: This is part two of a five-part series on the glory of God and leadership. You can read part one here.
God cares more about the heart than any other thing in our lives. We think that God cares most about our outward actions.
The Desire of Our Hearts
We think He cares about the things we do (and He does). But God cares most about where our hearts are at. He cares about our motivations. And this is of vital importance for the leader to understand. People go into leadership for all sorts of different reasons, but only the motivation of the glory of God will enable the leader to minister to others with a pure heart. The Psalmist writes: “Not to us, O LORD, not to us, but to your name give glory” (Ps 115:1).
However, this is an almighty battle for every leader because, by nature, we are glory thieves. In our pride, we want to build our own little kingdoms and bring glory to our own names. The church, sermons, ministry, discipleship, and spiritual experiences can lead to a puffed-up vision of ourselves.
The Danger of Self-Interest
So how are we, as leaders, to battle with such temptation? Edwards argues that this will happen when the ground of our affections are found in the “amiable nature of divine things as they are in themselves.” In other words, when leaders love and serve God first and foremost because He is glorious in and of Himself, and not for any perceived gain. When we seek our own glory in ministry, we use God as a means to an end. We serve Him, not out of love, but for the spiritual benefits we receive from Him.
It’s like in a healthy marriage—husband and wife seek to love one another because their spouse is beautiful to them, not for what they can get from them. If they simply loved for the benefits, then it would turn the relationship into something transactional and manipulative. They would only love when they seem lovely to them. Yet, this is exactly how many leaders treat God in their ministries.
Often self-interest is the leader’s motivation, and they use Him, and people, for their own selfish ends.* As Edwards writes, “…selfish proud man naturally calls that lovely that greatly contributes to his interest, and gratifies his ambition.” In other words, self-interest moves the leader away from loving God to loving the benefits of ministry. This happens when a leader loves the blessings of God rather than God Himself.
So, when God is blessing their ministry they are full of thanksgiving because their ego is being stroked. Their heads will be puffed up, and there will be an arrogance about their leadership, which leads them close to destruction (Prov. 16:18). The faith of many leaders has been shipwrecked by the sin of pride. However, when the billows roll, or ministry is meagre, their hearts become bitter and resentful towards the Lord. They become introspective and will be prone to despondency. And this despondency is like a miry bog that sucks the joy out of them. Leaders’ hearts, therefore, bounce from pride to self-pity. This, in turn, can lead to a hardness of heart.
The Importance of Our Affections
This is why, Edwards argues, a leader’s affections must be enraptured by God Himself. The leader must enjoy and love who God is, in and of Himself, and not any perceived benefit for self-interest, including gaining a reputation for himself. When leaders find their highest happiness in God, they seek to glorify Him first and foremost. Only the motivation of God’s glory will keep their eyes off themselves and sustain them in their ministry. Edwards comments: the “true saint doesn’t spend time looking at his own attainments but keeps his eye on the prize – God Himself!”
Another danger of being motivated by self-interest, instead of the glory of God, is that leaders are tempted to use people for their own ends. When they seek their own glory, brothers and sisters in Christ become pawns to them. If those they are caring for make them look good, then they love them; if they are causing them problems, then they loathe them. If they are aiding their own glory train, then they treat them well; if they are derailing their self-glory, then they grow in bitterness, anger, and resentment toward them. This can be true of friends, family, and fellow church members. Many a leader has sacrificed friends and family on the altar of ministry. They look like they are working for God, but they are working for their own ends, and using God as the means.
This thirst for glory can also lead to the dangerous waters of spiritual abuse. Bob Kellerman describes spiritual abuse this way: “Spiritual abuse is a spiritual role-reversal where a shepherd, instead of clinging to and emulating the Great Shepherd by shepherding God’s people (Acts 20; 1 Pet. 5; 1 Tim. 3; Eph. 4), subtly demands that members exist to meet the shepherd’s needs (James 4:1-4). Rather than relating as a servant leader, the pastor “pulls rank” and “lords it over others” (Matt. 20:20–28; 1 Pet. 5:1–6), not for the benefit of the flock, but for the benefit of the pastor.” The people of God have been entrusted into a leaders’ hands, to shepherd, nurture, and love. But in seeking their own glory, leaders turn this upside down and replace service with lordship. They no longer love, but demand; they no longer care, but abuse.
This is particularly dangerous in an area of deprivation and poverty where new Christians become ‘projects’ and leaders become ‘saviours’. The person who comes to Christ often has baggage from their past and seeks constant counsel from the leader, which in turn fuels the leader’s ego. The relationship becomes one of dependency and self-service, instead of mutual love and fellowship. Further, when the disciple is walking closely with the Lord, it brings the leader a sense of achievement. However, when the disciple walks away from their faith, the leader grows in anger and despondency. The leader’s joy becomes wrapped up in the progress of the disciple, instead of in God Himself.
Having said that, leaders must watch out for the opposite danger of people pleasing. Leaders are called to warn the sheep of danger. This means they are called to exhort and rebuke those under their care. The leader’s job is not to cater to people’s desires. They are called to reprove and discipline. Edwards knew this intimately in his own ministry, and was often unpopular for calling out sin.
As McClymond and McDermott comment: “Edwards was a man of principle. He refused to compromise, even in the face of great personal loss.” If leaders are seeking their own glory then they will only seek to communicate what people want to hear instead of what they need to hear. Only the glory of God will help them to rebuke others so that they might grow in godliness. They will see the greatness and grandeur of God’s glory over and above their own personal happiness. Furthermore, leaders will love the person truly, because they delight in seeing the person finding their true happiness in God rather than their sin.
In conclusion, the leaders’ motivation is extremely important. Leaders are not serving for their own “worldly advantages, but for God’s glory, and men’s salvation.” If leaders esteem the glory of God, then they will have a passion for the advancement of God’s kingdom, and a burning love for people to see them find their joy and happiness in Christ.
*I use self-interest as Edwards does in religious affections. I am referring to sinful self-interest that leads to selfishness rather than good self-interest that leads to joy in God.