Over the past year, I’ve written quite a few posts on perfectionism. I’d like to say that creating publishable pieces on the topic reflect some sort of of linear personal growth. While it’s true that the Holy Spirit has grown my self-awareness and has deepened my understanding of the Gospel, I constantly find myself stuck in perfection-oriented mindsets. In the life of faith, growth is rarely linear. It’s probably more like a spiral, passing the same old lessons over and over and moving just a little with each go-around.
So here I am again, trying to grapple with the way my mind naturally runs contrary to grace.
For much of the past few years, I’ve had the privilege of serving my communities in very visible leadership positions. I was the “Prefect of Spiritual Life” and a captain on several sports teams in high school. At college, I’m on the executive board for my Christian fellowship and help lead sophomore Bible studies; I often joke that ministry has become “my part-time job” at school. In general, I deeply delight in these roles and the responsibilities they bring, but a significant downside is that I’ve almost never existed in ministry without being super visible. Much of my experiences in Christian community have involved being “under the microscope” to exemplify what a faithful leader should look like.
I’ve long thought that good leadership involved demonstrations of stability, maturity, and wisdom. As a result, the past few years have involved a continual push to embody such attributes without flaw, to exemplify an extraordinary Christian. I know that any perceived pressure to do so is mostly internal– a desire for others to recognize me as outstanding, a need to feel useful to God, insecurity. The result? A near-perfect image in ministry, but also emotional exhaustion, a deep fear of making mistakes.
A couple weeks ago, I led a pre-semester retreat for my fellowship– again, visibility through the roof– and left feeling exhausted. The climax of the retreat had been a long time of public confession, repentance, and affirmations of grace among the students present. While it was amazing to see my peers step into vulnerability, I spent the entire evening feeling like I had nothing to share and knowing I had far too much to confess. I might not struggle with visible or quantifiable sins– no addictions, histories of bad choices– but I certainly have enough pride and selfishness for about ten people. My turmoil highlighted the hypocrisy between the pristine external image I had cultivated and the sin I knew stained my internal word.
As I wrestled with this, I happened to be doing a close study of Isaiah 55. Verses 3-5 say,
“Incline your ear, and come to me;
hear, that your soul may live;
and I will make with you an everlasting covenant,
my steadfast, sure love for David.
Behold, I made him a witness to the peoples,
a leader and commander for the peoples.
Behold, you shall call a nation that you do not know,
and a nation that did not know you shall run to you,
because of the Lord your God, and of the Holy One of Israel,
for he has glorified you.”
These verses encapsulate God’s thoughts on leadership and making mistakes. David is used as an example of God’s grace to use broken, mistake-ridden individuals to bless a whole people. We are told that God made David a leader for Israel despite his choices to commit adultery, murder, and so much more (2 Samuel 11-12). The scriptures call David “a man after God’s own heart” despite the sin in his life because of his willingness to repent and follow God (1 Samuel 13:14, Acts 13:22). God didn’t care about David’s mistakes; he cared about his heart.
If this is the case, I’ve got it all backwards. I think I’ve always lived like my usefulness to God depended on having it all together, on being competent to address the needs of everyone around me. This left no room for error in ministry or in my own internal dialogue. Fearing Kingdom uselessness, I’ve chosen instead to self-justify and live with a false sense of competence. Unfortunately, this is nothing more than me fooling myself. Mistakes are inevitable. Sin is ever-present. And in the end, self-justification is exhausting because it is never enough to satisfy the demands of perfect holiness; only the atoning sacrifice of Jesus can do that.
The promise of Isaiah 55 is that like God used David to bless Israel, He will use a Kingdom of broken people to bless the nations. Being useful to God isn’t contingent on having a shiny reputation. Good leadership is not about living free of visible mistakes. Instead, it’s about having the humility to see ourselves as we actually are, bring our sin into the light, and look to Jesus as our source of competence.
John 3:20-21 says, “For everyone who does wicked things hates the light and does not come to the light, lest his works should be exposed. But whoever does what is true comes to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that his works have been carried out in God.” In the end, anything done for God’s Kingdom is “carried out in God,” not in and of ourselves. This becomes clear when we allow our sin and inadequacy to come into the light. It is the Holy Spirit that accomplishes any good in and through us.
If you’re reading this and you’ve grown up in the church, all of this probably sounds like a bunch of Sunday jargon. Yeah, yeah, God uses broken people. We all know that.
But do we? The thing is, I thought I understood the Gospel for most of my life, and it’s only since coming to college that I’ve begin to really understand what it means for me on the daily, in ministry.
It means I don’t have to be terrified of being disliked by others; God can achieve His purposes regardless of how others perceive me.
It means I don’t have to fear unintentional mistakes in leadership, relationships, or school; nothing can get in the way of God’s plans for myself or others.
It means that spiritual maturity is not a competition; I don’t need to be “the most extraordinary” Christian to be chosen and used.
It means I don’t have to be there yet. I don’t have to be fully mature, fully developed, fully wise; as David’s case demonstrates, God has always worked through works in process.
Take a moment to imagine a life where you weren’t scared to be your twenty-year-old self– mistakes and all– in front of community because you are absolutely sure that He would do Kingdom work through you in spite of you.
This isn’t a call to be lukewarm or reckless. It’s not a call to settle for mediocrity, because as slaves to righteousness we are called to seek Christlikeness with abandon (1 Peter 1:15-16, 2 Corinthians 7:1). It certainly doesn’t mean we can be okay with continued patterns of sin or forgo repentance (Proverbs 28:13, James 4:8). But it does mean that as we pursue righteousness, we can be free to let imperfection surface in front of ourselves and others.
Being vulnerable before others doesn’t detract from leadership; it makes a leader real to those they are trying to serve. Perfection is unapproachable; humble honesty is relatable. Vulnerability is what forms the meaningful, grace-filled connections necessary to achieve a collective vision. David was a great leader not because he maintained a perfect image, but because he acknowledged his fallen nature, repented, and relied on God’s covenantal love. Isaiah 55 promises that such covenantal love is also given to us.
I’ve called this post “Confessions of a Mistaken Leader” because a confession is long overdue. For far too long, I’ve lived too scared of being judged, too fearful of being useless to God, too ready to fool myself into self-justification. I’ve been conflicted by my own hypocrisy, by the tension between my constructed image and the reality of my sin. I’ve tried to be everything to everyone, refusing to acknowledge my limitations in ministry. For far too long, I’ve been mistaken about what godly leadership actually looks like.
I confess that I am a mistake-ridden individual who has, by God’s mercy, been placed in positions of leadership. Praise God that Kingdom usefulness does not require perfection; hallelujah that His love is everlasting and covenantal in spite of our fallibility. Thank you, Jesus, for your grace.