Editor’s Note: This is part one of a five-part series on the glory of God and leadership. Stay tuned over the coming weeks for the other installments in this series.
Jonathan Edwards’ (1703–1758) is well known for his theology on the glory of God. Glorifying God drove his life and ministry. In particular, his God-centered theology equipped him for a lifelong ministry which entailed much adversity and heartache. So in this blog series we are going to look at how the glory of God can impact leadership in the local church, especially in hard places. We will begin this series by looking briefly at what Edwards means by the ‘glory of God’ and then we will see how this impacts Christian leadership under 5 headings—the leader’s task, motivation, character, preaching and strength.
The Glory of God
The starting point for all Edwards’ thinking is his dissertation called, “The end for which God created the world.” Edwards wrote this dissertation at a time when the prevailing theology of the day was man-centered. Moral philosophers argued that God created the world for man’s self-love. It was purely for man’s happiness. God was cut out of the equation.
However, for Edwards, this was incorrect, because God is infinitely glorious and worthy of praise in and of Himself. Therefore, He could not have created the world solely for His creatures. This would mean that they add something to God and that He needs them to complete Him; thus, he depends on their existence. Edwards argues, instead, that God is infinitely glorious, good, and happy in and of Himself, and created the world as an overflow of His infinite blessedness. Therefore, the world has been created out of His fullness, for His own sake. God loves Himself ultimately and supremely and is the chief end in creation. Simply put, God created the world for His own glory.
However, this does not mean that God is unconcerned for His creatures. Edwards argues that God’s joy and the joy of His creatures are not two separate ends, but rather one and the same. The joy of the Triune God spills out in creation and His creatures find their highest joy in Him. In fact, God takes delight in His creatures finding their joy in Him. As Edwards concludes: “(God’s) happiness consists in enjoying and rejoicing in himself; so does also the creatures’ happiness. It is a participation in what is in God, and God and his glory are the objective ground of it.” The ultimate end of man is, therefore, as the Westminster shorter catechism puts it, “to glorify God and enjoy him forever.”
The Leader’s Task
The chief end of man is to glorify God and enjoy him forever. This, then, is the leader’s task too. Leaders should make it their primary mission to glorify God by delighting in Him and encourage their people to do the same. Edwards, preaching on John the Baptist in John 5:35, puts it this way, “It is the excellency of a minister of the gospel to be both a burning and a shining light.” He goes on to explain that God has sent forth leaders to be, “subordinate (secondary) lights” in order to reflect the light that they have received to those to whom they minister. Simply put, Christ is the great light and the leader radiates the light they have received from Him to others. His light shining through the leader will reveal, “glories to their hearers”, “refresh their souls”, and “bring them to eternal happiness.”
This means it is essential that leaders know the Lord intimately and esteem His value, worth, and beauty; finding their delight in Him above all. In other words, leaders cannot be a burning and shining light unless they are, “enkindled by the flame of Christ.” They need to see His external and infinite glory, and bask in His eternal, blessed light. This was something that Edwards experienced personally in his own life. Early on in his Christian life, after reading 1 Timothy 1:17, he writes, “…there came into my soul, and was as it were diffused through it, a sense of the glory of the divine being; a new sense, quite different from anything I experienced before. I thought with myself, how excellent a being that was; and how happy I should be, if I might enjoy that God, and be wrapped up to God in heaven, and be as it were swallowed up in him.” He didn’t want to just know God but to enjoy Him and have a “sense of the gloriousness of God in his heart.”
Therefore, Edwards would encourage every leader to be walking with God through His means of grace. This includes disciplined reading of God’s word, fervent prayer and enjoying creation. These three areas sustained Edwards in his ministry.
Firstly, Edwards took the reading of God’s word very seriously. One of his many resolutions states: “To study the scriptures so steadily, constantly, and frequently, as that I may find, and plainly perceive, myself to grow in the knowledge of the same.” Edwards was resolute and disciplined in his reading of God’s Word. However, this was not a dry and boring exercise. He constantly studied God’s Word so that he might know God better and delight in Him above all.
Secondly, Edwards encouraged leaders to have an intimate prayer life where they leaned into Christ on a daily basis. He writes that Christians should know their “own emptiness and helplessness” and “should be ever dependent on Christ.” This is vitally important for the leader who has been called to humbly shepherd the flock. If a leader begins to get proud and think they can lead without the power of Christ, then they will fall like King Uzziah. Prayer reminds leaders that they are simply beggars telling other beggars where to find bread. It keeps them on their knees so that the glory of God is at the forefront of their minds.
Thirdly, Edwards found that interaction with creation refreshed his soul. He enjoyed creation because it brought him into fresh contact with the glory of the Creator. For Edwards, the created order is “a display and communication of God’s glory.” To put it in biblical language: “The heavens declare the glory of God.” Therefore, Edwards used to take long walks through the forests and mountains and drink in the beauty of creation. In particular, the creation reminded him that the Father had created the world for, and through, the Son, who loved him and gave himself for him. Thus, the creation revealed spiritual realities to his soul.
These disciplines are something leaders must fight for in our age of technology and distraction. Technology is a great blessing but it “tends to discourage deep contemplation and to promote shallow thinking instead.” Christians can spend hours watching their favourite Netflix series but find it hard to concentrate on prayer for prolonged periods of time. They procrastinate on social media, but struggle to meditate on God’s Word. It also drives them to behold the beauty of the screen, instead of the beauty of God found in creation. Further, technology is rewiring the brains of this generation so that they find contemplation more difficult. This means leaders need to be disciplined in moderating their use of technology in order “to glorify God through attentive worship and probing prayer.” It is through these simple disciplines that leaders behold the glory of God in the face of Christ, and are changed, so that they may minister to others.
And this is particularly important in areas of deprivation where leadership is often a slow, gruelling war of attrition. In these places there are many needs, and the hardships often outweigh the blessings. So, leaders must delight in the glory of God so that they do not burn out or grow cynical in the ministry. Leaders are constantly pouring out their lives in the service of others, and so must drink deeply at the infinite wells of Christ. As Spurgeon comments, “…let a man have his heart weakened in spiritual things, and very soon his entire life will feel the withering influence.”
Thus, it is out of eternal joy and grace of the Godhead that leaders minister. They cannot be a blessing unless they are dependent on the Blessed one. As Edwards writes again, “These lamps have all their oil from Christ, and are enkindled by his flame, and shine by his beams; and becoming dependent on him, they are near to him, and held in his right hand, that they receive light from him, to communicate to others.” Therefore, the task of leaders is to be a “shining and burning light” to those they lead, and to point them to the infinite riches they can have in Christ. Their leadership is an overflow of their joy and delight in the Triune-God.