Breakfast of Pastors

How God Feeds and Keeps Spiritual Leaders

Find your legs. Each new morning presents us with the fresh opportunity — and need — to do so.

First, of course, we need to find our literal, physical legs as we get out of bed. We’ve been laying down for hours, dead to the world and void of conscious movement. Now, as we roll out of bed, we hope to find them. Conditioned by habit (and clouded by grogginess), we may not realize how significant, and sometimes difficult, these first steps can be.

Then, less obviously, though more importantly, is the need each morning to find our figurative legs. Who am I? What am I doing here? Why did I get up, other than for coffee, breakfast, or a walk to the bathroom? What am I waking up to — to some good use of another priceless day of human life, to some calling from God to bless others and add value to the world?

In other words, as I rise to stand for the day — to get the bearings in my soul — what am I standing on? What gives me footing? How do I find my legs?

Warnings for All Who Lead

Long before Israel had a king, the nation’s first and greatest prophet left specific and perhaps surprising instructions for him, including where and how he would “find his legs” each day as the leader of God’s people.

In Deuteronomy 17:14–20, Moses describes a concession God would make one day, setting a human king over his people. As he does, he warns such kings about the dangers of “excessive silver and gold,” “many wives,” and “many horses” — that is, money, sex, and power (Deuteronomy 17:16–17). Moses gives a specific reason for these cautions: “lest his heart turn away.” This is where the point of departure will be, humanly speaking, for regimes and generations to come: the heart of the king.

As goes his heart, so goes the leader, and so goes the nation. Will he heed the siren calls around him, the subtle temptations to the compromises of acclaim and special privilege? Will he take advantage of his willing and submissive servants who are eager to give him benefit of the doubt? Will he slowly construct his own reality around him that serves his own private comforts rather than the holy interests of the people?

The battle lines will first be drawn in the king’s own heart. Which explains why Moses’s next instructions turn where they do, unexpected and perhaps peripheral as they may seem to some.

Keys to the Leader’s Heart

What the prophet says next is all the more striking because it’s issued generations before the nation would have its first king. When a new king ascends to the throne in Israel — with all the pomp and circumstance that will doubtless accompany such a coronation — as his first act, he is to take out a quill and write word for word, with in his own hand, his own copy of God’s law, and “read in it all the days of his life.”

And when he sits on the throne of his kingdom, he shall write for himself in a book a copy of this law, approved by the Levitical priests. And it shall be with him, and he shall read in it all the days of his life, that he may learn to fear the Lord his God by keeping all the words of this law and these statutes, and doing them, that his heart may not be lifted up above his brothers, and that he may not turn aside from the commandment, either to the right hand or to the left, so that he may continue long in his kingdom, he and his children, in Israel. (Deuteronomy 17:18–20)

Note the emphasis on his heart. God’s plan for his leaders so that their hearts not turn away, is that their hearts be formed and fed daily by God’s word. Consider, then, three aspects of this simple yet profound plan, which is just as relevant for Christian leaders and churches today.

1. The Book Shapes the King

This book, copied long hand by the king himself, is no journal. The new king is not recording his own feelings or preferences or decrees — not in this book. Rather, he is copying the book of God’s law — an objective, fixed text, not open to edits and adjustments. This hand-copied book then is to be reviewed and approved by the priests, to confirm that no changes have been introduced or anything omitted.

“The king doesn’t shape this book; this book shapes the king.”

In other words, the king doesn’t shape this book; this book shapes the king. However great he may be in the sight of his people, the king fundamentally does not shape the world (or even his own kingdom) through his words, but he is being shaped by God through God’s words.

2. The Book Keeps the King

God also designs that this book will keep the king, as he is bombarded by the world of privileges and temptations leadership can bring. As the king keeps the words of God in the book, the book will keep the king — that is, keep him from turning aside to the right or left, turning from the fear of God to fear of man, from faithfulness to God to the pursuit of his own private, sinful pleasures.

In shaping the king’s heart, the book keeps him from the subtle daily migrations away from God, which all sinners experience. Which is why Moses twice mentions the inner man, “the heart.” The unseen heart of the king will come, in time, into expression in his life and the nation’s. Self-humbling before God and his word will give rise to a whole trajectory of thoughts, feelings, words, and actions; pride, another. And the greater the king, the greater the effects, for good or ill.

3. The Book Calls Each Morning

Finally, the king’s hand-copied, priest-approved book, Moses says, “shall be with him . . . all the days of his life.” With him, that is, nearby, constantly within reach. Having completed this great hand-copying project, he is not to store the book away for future reference, but make it functional, accessible, active in his reign — increasingly in him through countless hours lingering over it.

“The kind of reading that does God’s keeping is the kind of reading that feels like steeping.”

This Book is designed to be read daily. And not the sort of reading to which the pace and pixels of our modern lives have accustomed us: fast-break, hurried, distracted reading, with words coming out of the head almost as quickly as they went in. Rather, the kind of reading God intends for his servant is meditative — slow, unhurried, enjoyable, feeding on the text, at the pace of the text, rather than the pace of the world. Pondering God’s words. Rolling them around in the mind long enough to get a sense of them on the heart. The kind of reading that does God’s keeping is the kind of reading that feels like steeping.

Such daily meditation makes us, over time, the kind of person — with a shaped, kept, and fed heart — who can approve what is excellent (Philippians 1:10; Romans 2:18) and discern what is the will of God, good and acceptable and perfect (Romans 12:2), even in the complex, confusing challenges of life and leadership.

Day and Night, Today and Tomorrow

Such daily meditation on the words of God is what God so memorably expects of Joshua as he becomes Israel’s new leader in Moses’s place:

This Book of the Law shall not depart from your mouth, but you shall meditate on it day and night, so that you may be careful to do according to all that is written in it. (Joshua 1:8)

So too, generations later, when Israel finally had its king, the first psalm celebrated where the godly king would find his sense and wisdom to rule: “his delight is in the law of the Lord, and on his law he meditates day and night” (Psalm 1:2). And not only the king, but every man of God: “Blessed is the man . . .” (Psalm 1:1).

So too, when the ultimate man, David’s great heir, came among us, his shaping and keeping and wisdom to live and lead grew out of regular feeding in the Bible. In the words of Sinclair Ferguson, “Jesus’s intimate acquaintance with Scripture did not come de caelo (‘from heaven’) during the period of his public ministry; it was grounded no doubt on his early education, but nourished by long years of personal meditation” (The Holy Spirit, 44).

His Father had appointed means for his stability in his truly human life. And it was not some extraordinary means or special trick. It was the same great and modest, amazing and ordinary daily means heralded by Moses, tested by Joshua, embraced by David, and imitable by the godly today: daily meditation on the very words of God.

Eat Like a King

How do you find your legs each day? However many you lead, whether as pastor, as father, as mother, as friend, as boss — whether in business, at church, in the home, in the community — how do you get your bearings on the shifting deck of life? Where do you find the stability you need to lead well for the long haul, including today?

Give your first and most formative moments to feeding on the word of God. Let his voice be the first you hear each day. Let him feed and keep you like he fed and kept the godliest of kings.