Spiritual Leadership May Be Heartbreaking, but It Is Always Hopeful

Any time a selfish sinner is tasked with leading other selfish sinners in a Godward direction — whether in families, friendships, small groups, churches, or broader movements — there’s going to be trouble.

Take Moses, for example. No Old Covenant leader was as meek as Moses (Numbers 12:3), had more intimate interaction with God (Exodus 33:11), and was more unjustly and harshly criticized by those he led.

Here’s an overview of Moses’ experience as a spiritual leader:

  • At first the Israelites rallied behind him (Exodus 4:31), but when Pharaoh increased their work they lost faith (Exodus 5:21).
  • Then after the Passover Moses was their hero (Exodus 12:28)! But that quickly evaporated on the seashore when Pharaoh’s army showed up (Exodus 14:11).
  • Then the sea opened for them and closed on the Egyptians and Moses was the best leader ever (Exodus 14:31). That is, until they came to Marah and found bitter water (Exodus 15:24).
  • But God sweetened the water and that was great! Until they got hungry. Then Moses took a serious dive in the polls (Exodus 16:2).
  • Then the manna fell and that was marvelous! Until they got thirsty again. Then they wanted to stone Moses (Exodus 17:4).
  • In Exodus 18, they were wearing Moses out with their disputes. Thank God for Jethro!
  • Then Moses tarried on Mount Sinai with God. This earned him a “no confidence” vote and the people elected a golden calf to lead them (Exodus 32). Not exactly a high water mark for the majority.
  • Then they got sick and tired of eating boring old miracle manna. So Moses cried out to God: “I am not able to carry all this people alone… If you will treat me like this, kill me at once” (Numbers 11:14–15). Yikes. God mercifully gave Moses some elders.
  • Then, to add heartbreak to insult, Miriam and Aaron publicly opposed Moses because of his interracial marriage (Numbers 12).
  • Next, the twelve spies’ presented their Promised Land Report, And the people threatened to depose Moses and Aaron and stone Joshua and Caleb (Numbers 14).
  • Then Korah led a coup and God wiped out the rebels. But the people blamed… yep, Moses (Numbers 16:41).
  • Then they got thirsty again at Meribah. So they grumbled against Moses, who lost his temper and struck the rock. The people got water but Moses was barred from Canaan (Numbers 20).
  • Now, one would think the lesson might sink in, but again the people complained against Moses about food and water. And they got fiery serpents (Numbers 21).
  • And after all this, many Israelites rejected the Lord and embraced Baal (Numbers 25). Sigh.

Moses is a reminder that spiritual leadership is hard and sometimes heartbreaking. It is accompanied with adversity and opposition. A prophet may have honor, but not usually among those who know him best (Matthew 13:57).

So if we believe that, who in the world would want to be a Christian leader? Only a servant (Matthew 23:11).

A servant-leader:

  • like Jesus, doesn’t hope in people’s approval (John 2:24–25), he hopes in God (Psalm 43:5);
  • is not defensive, but leaves his vindication to God (Isaiah 54:17).
  • like Moses, he faithfully teaches and lives by God’s word (Deuteronomy 32:47);
  • doesn’t hope in his own giftedness, but “in God who raises the dead” (2 Corinthians 1:9);
  • believes that he is God’s workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works (Ephesians 2:10);
  • believes that God is always at work in his work (Philippians 2:13);
  • believes that humble, faithful planting and watering (1 Corinthians 3:6) in reliance upon Jesus will yield fruit (Matthew 25:21), even in the midst of painful controversy and resistance;
  • and ultimately, he believes that the cross of Jesus — the worst rejection, adversity, and opposition ever faced — and his triumph over death guarantee us that no labor in the Lord will ever be in vain (1 Corinthians 15:58).

Spiritual leadership may be hard and heartbreaking, but it is always hopeful because of where the hope is anchored. Moses’ reward was not the peoples’ admiration, and not even the Promised Land. God was his reward (Hebrews 11:26). And any servant-leader whose reward is God can weather the storms with overcoming faith and joy.

Any leader whose reward is something else will not last.

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Jon Bloom (@Bloom_Jon) is the author of Not by Sight: A Fresh Look at Old Stories of Walking by Faith and serves as the President of Desiring God, which he and John Piper launched together in 1994. He lives in the Twin Cities with his wife, Pam, their five children, and one naughty dog.