A Note from Kelly King: Leadership consultant and LifeWay Women’s trainer, Casey Merrifield, gets to the heart of self-preservation and self-righteousness in today’s article. In short, they both deal with “self” and the idea that we can measure up to God’s standards. This article will help you think deeply about your leadership and how grace is needed each day.
Have you ever seen one of the street vendors in New York City that sells the knock-off items of very expensive watches, purses, bags, and more? They look like the real thing, but a deeper look reveals that there are major flaws in the craftsmanship, and the quality is clearly not the same as the real thing. I feel like this was a picture of my life some time ago.
Just shy of ten years ago, I walked into a church to visit for the first time not realizing that my life as I had known it would be rocked to the core in the coming months. It was a particular video that caught my attention, where the lead pastors and other ministry leaders shared their greatest struggles. What was displayed was the truest picture of authentic leadership I had ever seen.
Pride. Control. Perfectionism that impacts family relationships. Lust. Fear. Anxiety. Eating food for comfort. Selfishness. The love of self and anger that leads to hurting others deeply. Performance. People-pleasing. Shame. The struggle of feeling loved. All of these struggles, and more, were shared.
I honestly did not know how to respond to this as their gut-level honesty revealed things I had observed in other ministry leaders, but had never heard confessed in public. It was not just their honest confession that gripped my heart, but also their desire to have people walk alongside them in their struggle so that these struggles had less of a grip on their lives and Jesus had more prominence.
I joined this church in the coming months and found myself being awakened to a side of the gospel I had often only seen in those who were being regenerated unto new life through salvation. That raw confession I had witnessed in a video became an every week occurrence in that place, and the humility displayed with the ministry leaders with whom I served was a more thorough, consistent picture of Christ-centered living than I had ever witnessed inside a church setting. So, what made the difference?
Theories of leadership may bore certain people, but I have a fond interest in the topic of leadership. While the theory of authentic leadership appeals to me, it’s the practice of leading authentically that gets to the core of what I believe to be the heart of true leadership. Leading authentically goes beyond mere sincerity and an avoidance of plasticity to a deep dive into self-awareness that causes one to answer these two questions that are at the heart of authentic leadership, according to Robert Terry.1 What is really, really going on? What are we going to do about it?
Becoming a part of this church was like holding a mirror up to my life, and it began to help me see what I had not seen in my life before. What was really going on is that the doctrines of grace that I believed and taught were not matching the condition of my heart in full measure. Don’t get me wrong, I loved Jesus and was pursuing a life that desired faithfulness. But, I had somehow bought into the lie that being there (church attendance), being right (good doctrine), and being outwardly good (rule-following) put me in favor with God. Let me put it plainly. If I was helping make that video, I would have honestly had to say, “I love Jesus, but I struggle with self-righteousness.” In other words, because I do “these” things and don’t do “those” things, God must be really impressed with me.
The journey to this self-awareness took me months to clarify. The pastor challenged us regularly to draw the circle around ourselves and ask God to change everything in that circle so that we could invite others into that transformation. Up until this season in my life, I was asking God to change everyone else outside the circle, while ignoring my own shameful sins that nobody knew about. You see, I had measured my outward obedience as pretty decent (pride), while the deep struggles of my heart were mere “unspoken prayer requests” in a room full of peers.
David’s prayer became my prayer—my drawing the circle around myself: “Search me, O God, and know my heart; Try me and know my anxious thoughts; and see if there is any hurtful way in me; And lead me in the everlasting way.” Psalm 139:23-24
He showed me, so, now what? What do I do with the discovery of sin in my life? Self-righteousness and inward lust. I felt like a white-washed tomb, in some ways. Matthew 15:8-9 pounded in my heart: “These people honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me. They worship me in vain; their teachings are merely human rules.”
Could I confess this? I feared losing credibility. I feared losing influence. I feared my name being disvalued. What would so and so think of me?
As a leadership consultant, I often meet people who struggle to gain influence or have lost it altogether because of a wall of self-preservation. Three questions we have to answer honestly to bust through the wall of self-preservation are these, and they were at the core of my struggle to confess sin in my life:
- What am I afraid of?
- What am I trying to hide?
- What am I trying to prove? And to whom?2
If I was going to be set free from the sin that so easily entangled me and follow Christ faithfully and authentically, I needed to be honest about specific things that were keeping me from that. Practicing James 5:16 was my healing balm. “Therefore, confess your sins one to another so that you may be healed.”
You see, I had grown up in church being taught that if our sins were private, we should keep them private (just between us and the Lord). I found James’ teaching to deliver something different. My self-righteousness and inward lusts were conditions of my private heart and a constant struggle throughout seasons of my life, though certainly there were outward expressions I missed that affected others. They were keeping me bound to a lie when grace offered something more. I came to understand that God was not mad at me for the struggle, but that only He could set me free from the sin if I was honest about its grip on my life. Confessing to close friends and community group members was my act of obedience. The fears I exchanged with confession, I gained in liberation.
Bringing these struggles into the light, as Paul talks about in Ephesians 5, enabled me to walk in Christ’s righteousness and truth rather than a powerless, man-made substitute of self-righteousness and false purity. I did not lose credibility or influence. I received grace through friends who helped me walk in freedom from self-righteousness and lust. What I really gained was Christ’s power in me to walk in faithfulness, where His name was more valued than my own. I had to be honest about my idol of self to tear through the wall of self-preservation, and I found God’s liberating grace through the process, where true influence increased.
Through this journey, I have learned that hypocrisy is not that we sin as believers. Of course we do; our flesh has not yet been given over to a glorified and resurrected body. Rather, not owning up to the sin struggles of our hearts or those we are aware of but continue to ignore is what makes us hypocritical. What we do with this struggle determines whether we increase our influence for Christ or confuse people about what His gospel really means.
We must all see ourselves as we really are or we’ll never understand grace for what it really is. We run the risk of viewing ourselves too highly or viewing God too lowly, and we miss out on the freedom Christ offers us in our journey to be like Him.
Remember the New York City knock offs? What I realized is that my life in Christ was no knock-off brand. It was the real thing living in the identity of a cheap imitation. Rather than allowing His signature of grace to stamp my life, I was adding my own stamp to the brand, and it was a flawed craftsmanship of righteousness according to the law, much like the Pharisees. I needed to be honest about my own sinful contribution, so He could correct course. This is a lifelong journey that requires daily self-awareness.
I regularly ask the Lord to show me where I must become less that He can be greater still (John 3:30). This includes asking others to help me see what I don’t see about myself. Authentic leadership requires us to be honest about what’s really going on, and then do something about it. We must take necessary steps to let Christ redeem the messy parts we discover or we will continue in them.
Christ-centered authenticity is not being “true to yourself,” but rather, being true to who Christ wants to be in you. Your journey won’t lead you to be sinless this side of heaven. But, it will lead you to sin less. Humility is the key to this journey because anything that is good in us is because Christ is the good in us.
Are you struggling today with pride and self-righteousness, where your being right overrides kindness? Do you have a hidden sin that you can’t quit, but you fear confessing? Are you prone to actions that seek the approval of others, and you find yourself constantly performing to be noticed or recognized? When you are wrong, do you own that and apologize specifically to those you lead? Are you constantly at the center of drama that you are causing or are stirring? Maybe you have a secret addiction to pornography or prescription medication, and you fear losing influence if someone finds out. Do you crave control and hurt others in the process? Maybe your sin isn’t hidden, it’s just ignored.
Whatever your struggle, please hear me: God is not mad at you. But, He cannot give you life a part from Him. You must bring these things to light so that He can bring healing and liberation to your heart. If you’re a leader in any capacity—maybe you lead a small or large organization or team or maybe you are a faithful Sunday School teacher or small group leader—don’t struggle alone. Find freedom from your bondage, and let Christ be healer and reconciler of these broken parts. Christ in you is the hope of glory (Colossians 1:27). Self-preservation will only keep you in chains. Talk to a trusted friend today who knows and understands grace—one who will walk with you to freedom and not let you continue living in chains.
How would you answer the questions to self-preservation? What are you hiding? What are you afraid of? What are you trying to prove, and to whom? Don’t let the enemy’s lie keep you from finding freedom in Christ. Yes, even you, believer in Jesus. Even you. I needed grace, and so do you. Let the kindness of the Lord lead you to repentance today (Romans 2:4). He’s not mad. He loves you! Find real life in Him today!
Casey Merrifield, a native Texan, has made her home in Oklahoma thanks to a good Elk City man, whom she married in the Spring of 2013. Her journey from Texas to Oklahoma began when she finished high school in Texhoma, Oklahoma and graduated from Oklahoma Baptist University (OBU). Her life has been full of adventure serving the Lord in full-time student ministry and Christian higher education in Texas & Oklahoma. She completed her M.A. in Marriage & Family Counseling and Christian Education at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary prior to beginning her Ph.D. (ABD) in Leadership Studies with a concentration in ministry. She currently works as a Senior Associate for GiANT Worldwide, a global leadership consulting firm and serves on the State Women’s Leadership Team with Oklahoma Baptists. She is often involved with the women’s ministry of First Baptist Church, Elk City helping with their yearly IF:Gathering and leading Bible studies. She is enjoying married life with her husband, Scott and their dogs, Mex the bird dog and Bodee, the cutest pug you’ve ever seen.
1 Terry, R. W. (1993). Authentic Leadership: Courage in Action. San Francisco; Jossey:Bass.
2 Taken from the GiANT Worldwide Leadership Toolkit at www.giantworldwide.com