Serious Joy for Leaders Who Last

To the Class of 2021

Commencement Address | Bethlehem College & Seminary | Minneapolis

I would like to speak to you for a few minutes about education in serious joy for the sake of survival in leadership.

I could say: for the sake of survival — period. But my assumption behind our education at Bethlehem College & Seminary is that everyone is a leader at some level, and that our aim is not merely that our students learn to survive, but that they learn to survive for the sake of leading — that is, for the sake of loving people wisely enough to help them get where God says they should be.

Serious Joy for Desperate Times

Christian education never terminates on the educated. It is always for the sake of their influence on other people for their good — especially their eternal good. And in that sense, all Christian education is for the sake of leadership: helping other people get where God says they should be.

We wouldn’t be wasting our time to talk about education in serious joy simply for the sake of survival — period. Because survival is the precondition of leadership. If you are physically or intellectually or volitionally or emotionally or spiritually dead, you cannot lead anyone in a hopeful way. And to be sure, life itself — not to mention leadership — brings us enough depleting setbacks to threaten our very survival.

“Christian education never terminates on the educated. It is always for the sake of their influence on other people for their good — especially their eternal good.”

But leadership does present us with even more depleting setbacks. Try to love someone, or some group, wisely enough to move them to where God says they should be, and setbacks will multiply. Now add to that perpetual reality the challenges of the past year for Christian leaders. All around the world leaders have found the last 14 months to be peculiarly depleting. In families, in churches, in schools, in parachurch ministries, in associations, in businesses, the complexity and heat of controversy and accusation have been, many leaders say, unparalleled in their lifetime. The Barna Group published a report a few weeks ago that 29 percent of pastors have seriously considered quitting in the last year.

So, my focus for these minutes is on education in serious joy for the sake of survival in leadership.

King David — Dejected and Depleted

During the long, drawn-out, conflict-laden transition between the leadership of King Saul and King David, at one point David fled with six hundred men and their families, and settled with the Philistines in Gath under the protectorate of King Achish. Achish gave David the city of Ziklag for his people (1 Samuel 27:1–7).

Then the day came when Achish and his mighty men decided to go up to battle against Saul in Israel. David had won the trust of Achish and went out with Achish in the rear of the army. But when the mighty men of the Philistines said to King Achish, “Absolutely not. David cannot go with us. He will turn on us in battle and ingratiate himself with Saul, so he can return to Israel a hero. He will not go with us into battle” (1 Samuel 29:3–5).

So, Achish relented and sent David and his men back to Ziklag (1 Samuel 29:6–7). This was a humiliating blow to David’s leadership (1 Samuel 29:8–11). But the worst was yet to come. First Samuel 30 begins like this:

Now when David and his men came to Ziklag on the third day, the Amalekites had made a raid . . . against Ziklag. They had overcome Ziklag and burned it with fire and taken captive the women and all who were in it, both small and great. . . . And when David and his men came to the city, they found it burned with fire, and their wives and sons and daughters taken captive. Then David and the people who were with him raised their voices and wept until they had no more strength to weep. (verses 1–4)

No more strength. Depleted. Not only had David been rejected and humiliated by the Philistines, but now everything they owned and all of their families were gone, and they did not know if they would ever see them again. That included David’s wives Ahinoam and Abigail. But the worst is still yet to come. First Samuel 30:6 says,

And David was greatly distressed, for the people spoke of stoning him, because all the people were bitter in soul, each for his sons and daughters.

David had led them into the land of the Philistines. He had procured a city for them. He had been victorious in all his military battles. He had provided for these people with booty and safety. He was their hero and their champion. That’s why they followed him. And now they are ready to stone him to death.

Education in Trinitarian Treasure

How does a leader survive such a series of reversals and depletions: humiliation before his people, devastation to his city and family, and murderous accusations from the very ones he thought were his best supporters? What good is a Christian education — in college or in seminary — if it doesn’t prepare students to survive experiences like this?

At Bethlehem College & Seminary, we believe that education should build into our students six habits of mind and heart: (1) careful observation, (2) accurate understanding, (3) fair evaluation, (4) proportionate feeling, (5) wise application, and (6) compelling expression. Without these habits of mind and heart, you will be of little use to anyone in any situation.

  1. Without careful observation you will be run over by a truck.
  2. Without careful accurate understanding you will always miss the point.
  3. Without fair evaluation you will drink sweet poison.
  4. Without proportionate feeling you will take your jackhammer to a broken heart.
  5. Without wise application you will be sidelined as useless.
  6. And without compelling expression your learning will be bottled up and serve no one.

To survive as a leader, these habits of mind and heart must be in place and active. But that is not what makes an education Christian. What makes those habits of mind and heart Christian is that they are received, experienced, and pursued in a Christian way; that is, they are received as gifts of grace bought by the blood of Christ, they are experienced in reliance on the power of the Holy Spirit, and they are pursued for the glory of God. Christian education is grounded in and permeated by the convictions that the glory of God is the goal of all reality, the cross of Christ is the ground of all grace, and the power of the Holy Spirit is the key to all holiness.

“All Christian education is for the sake of leadership: helping other people get where God says they should be.”

But those six habits of mind and heart, received and experienced and pursued in that Christian way, is not the peculiar ingredient that Bethlehem College & Seminary brings to the banquet of Christian higher education. We embrace all of that with joy, but then we add Christian Hedonism: We believe that the receiving of those six habits of mind and heart as blood-bought gifts of grace to sinners like us should be a joyful receiving. And we believe that the experience of reliance on the power of the Holy Spirit should be a joyful reliance. And we believe that the pursuit of the glory of God through all those six habits should be a joyful pursuit.

But even that is not the essence of Christian Hedonism. The essence is this: we believe that the worth of Christ’s blood, and the worth of the Spirit’s power, and the worth of God’s glory cannot be glorified — magnified, adored, exalted, shown to be great — as they ought, if they are not joyfully received as part of the greatest treasure in the universe.

Four Ways to Nourish a Depleted Soul

Now, what does that have to do with David, devastated and depleted in the ruins of Ziklag? Let’s go back and read 1 Samuel 30:6 again, and this time, finish it:

And David was greatly distressed, for the people spoke of stoning him, because all the people were bitter in soul, each for his sons and daughters. But David strengthened himself in the Lord his God.

Here are four observations about David’s response to devastation and depletion.

1. Admit your need for help.

David needed strength. Strength to think straight. Strength to feel hope. Strength to make some wise decisions. Strength to move his legs and walk to Abiathar the priest and get the ephod and call on the Lord. He did not presume self-sufficiency. He needed help.

2. Lean on God’s power.

When it says he strengthened himself, the point was not that his self was the source of the strength he needed. That strength was “in the Lord his God.” But he had learned strategies to put himself under the waterfall of God’s grace and power. This is one of the great purposes of Christian education: learning biblical strategies of availing ourselves of divine strength when we are utterly depleted.

3. Trust your covenant Lord.

He strengthened himself “in Yahweh his God.” His God! Not “a God.” Not “the God.” But “his God.” David was united by covenant to Yahweh as his God. Isaiah promises to every one of us who throws himself empty-handed on the grace of God that we will have this same relationship with God:

Come, everyone who thirsts,
     come to the waters;
and he who has no money,
     come, buy and eat!
Come, buy wine and milk
     without money and without price. . . .
I will make with you an everlasting covenant,
     my steadfast, sure love for David. (Isaiah 55:1, 3)

That covenant God entered history as the God-man, Jesus Christ, who died and rose and promises to be with us to the end of the age. Paul said, “I can do all things through him” — through Christ — “who strengthens me” (Philippians 4:13).

4. Taste gladness in God.

Finally, what was the experience like when David was strengthened in the Lord his God? David wrote a psalm about the dangers he experienced while living among the Philistines, Psalm 34, which is not specifically about this particular moment, but I think what he says applies generally to how he strengthened himself in the Lord in those days.

I sought the Lord, and he answered me
     and delivered me from all my fears.
Those who look to him are radiant,
     and their faces shall never be ashamed. . . .

Oh, taste and see that the Lord is good!
     Blessed is the man who takes refuge in him!

My soul makes its boast in the Lord;
     let the humble hear and be glad. (Psalm 34:4–5, 8, 2)

He sought the Lord. The Lord heard. David tasted the goodness of the Lord. He tasted it. And it tasted good. And his face became radiant. Like Jonathan when he tasted the honey in the forest, “his eyes became bright” (1 Samuel 14:27). And David called out for all the humble to join him in his gladness: “Let the humble hear and be glad.” There was nothing trite or glib or shallow about this gladness. It was a serious joy. In a very serious situation. But it was joy. The joy of the Lord was David’s strength.

And when David followed up the command, “Join me in my gladness” (v. 2), with the command, “Magnify the Lord with me” (v. 3), he meant: “Do these two things because the Lord will be magnified in your being glad in the Lord.” Christian Hedonism was at the very heart of how David survived the depletions of leadership.

So, my prayer for all of you graduates is that when your efforts to love people wisely meet with devastating and depleting setbacks, you will know how to strengthen yourselves in the Lord your God: that you will call upon him, and taste his power and goodness, and find him so satisfying that your heart is made glad in the Lord — seriously glad — and that this gladness will be your strength and show God’s infinite worth.