January 7, 2024 • Life for Leaders
Scripture — Matthew 23:25-26; Luke 6:45 (NRSV)
“Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you clean the outside of the cup and of the plate, but inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence. You blind Pharisee! First clean the inside of the cup, so that the outside also may become clean” (Matthew 23:25-26)
“The good person out of the good treasure of the heart produces good” (Luke 6:45).
Scripture has much to say about the importance of what’s inside of us. In the Bible, we discover how we can do inner work in a distinctively Christian way, and how this work isn’t just ours, but is something God does in and with us. For now, however, I want to answer the “Should we be doing inner work?” question with a resounding “Yes.” Though God certainly cares about what we do with our lives and the fruit they produce, there’s no question that God cares deeply about our inner lives, what the Bible regularly refers to as our hearts. Through the gospels, Jesus invites us to join him in the inner work he’s already begun to do in us.
Today’s devotion is part of the series: A Biblical Guide to Inner Work.
The title of an article in Harvard Business Review caught my eye. It read, “To Improve Your Team, First Work on Yourself.” The author, Jennifer Porter, is an experienced coach who focuses on leadership and team development. She has seen how common it is for leaders to deal with problems by focusing outside of themselves rather than considering how they might be contributing to the problems. This common approach, Porter asserts, is inadequate. Instead, she recommends that leaders learn to “master three foundational capabilities: internal self-awareness, external self-awareness, and personal accountability.”
Leaders should begin with internal self-awareness. Porter explains: “Internal self-awareness involves understanding your feelings, beliefs, and values — your inner narrative.” When we lack internal self-awareness, we tend to be poor teammates, not to mention ineffective leaders. Yet, the good news, according to Porter, is that “internal self-awareness can be learned.” We can become better teammates and better leaders by learning to pay attention to what’s going on inside of us.
This kind of attentiveness is part of what we at the De Pree Center call “inner work.” If you do a Google search on “inner work” or if you dig into the literature on this topic, you’ll find a wide variety of perceptions of what exactly constitutes inner work. For example, Barry Brownstein, professor of emeritus of economics and leadership at the University of Baltimore, is the author of The Inner-Work of Leadership. For Brownstein, “inner-work” has mainly to do with exploring our beliefs and especially “uncovering and then relinquishing false beliefs that you hold” (p. 5).
Others see inner work as broader, inclusive of more than just beliefs. Synergos, an organization that seeks to reduce global poverty through partnerships, has this to say on their website about inner work:
Inner work is deliberate and ongoing reflective practice that increases awareness of self, others, and the systems in which complex social problems arise. . . . Inner work is a multifaceted concept that takes on various names and embraces many different practices and purposes including deep listening, dialogue walks, journaling and other forms of personal reflection, nature retreats, breathwork, sensing journeys, walking in another’s shoes, and the arts.
Noticeably missing from this list of practices are several spiritual disciplines such as prayer, daily devotions, silence, small groups, spiritual direction, and Bible study. This absence may cause us to wonder whether inner work is something Christians ought to engage in. And, if we should be doing inner work, how can we do it in a distinctively Christian way?
I’d like to address that first question today by noting a couple of things Jesus says in the gospels. Both of these sayings, I believe, underscore the importance of paying attention to what’s going on inside of us, something we might call inner work.
The first saying of Jesus comes in Matthew 23, a chapter in which Jesus is repeatedly critical of the “scribes and Pharisees” for being “hypocrites.” In verses 25-26 Jesus says that they “clean the outside of the cup and of the plate, but inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence.” In this context, cup and plate have a literal sense – the things scribes and Pharisees are sure to wash – and a figurative sense – the external lives of these people.
Then, Jesus goes on to say, “First clean the inside of the cup, so that the outside also may become clean.” Of course, Jesus is not talking here about an actual cup. Rather, he’s referring to the “inside” of a person. Jesus plainly cares about the “inside” of these Jewish leaders, not just their behavior. Jesus is calling them to do what we might call “inner work,” which in this case has to do with confronting sinful desires and attitudes.
Jesus also sees the potential for what’s inside of us to produce good things. In Luke 6 he says, “No good tree bears bad fruit, nor again does a bad tree bear good fruit; for each tree is known by its own fruit. Figs are not gathered from thorns, nor are grapes picked from a bramble bush. The good person out of the good treasure of the heart produces good, and the evil person out of evil treasure produces evil; for it is out of the abundance of the heart that the mouth speaks” (6:43-45, italics added). Yes, Jesus cares about the “fruit” we produce in our lives (see also John 15). And, just as a good tree bears good fruit, so we will produce good things that come from “the good treasure” of our hearts. If we want to live good, productive, God-honoring lives, then our hearts need to be filled with “good treasure.” Once again, this affirms the importance of what’s inside of us. We need to engage in inner work if we want our outer work to be fruitful.
Of course, as we’ll see in future devotions, Scripture has much more to say about the importance of what’s inside of us. We’ll discover how we can do inner work in a distinctively Christian way, and how this work isn’t just ours, but is something God does in and with us. For now, however, I want to answer the “Should we be doing inner work?” question with a resounding “Yes.” Though God certainly cares about what we do with our lives and the fruit they produce, there’s no question that God cares deeply about our inner lives, what the Bible regularly refers to as our hearts. Through the gospels, Jesus invites us to join him in the inner work he’s already begun to do in us.
What do you think of the idea that if you want to be a good team leader you should first work on yourself?
As you think about your work and leadership, in what ways does the “treasure” of your heart express itself?
How will you respond to the invitation of Jesus to do the “inner work” of a disciple?
Take some time to reflect on the state of your own heart. Pay attention to what’s good and what’s not so good. Where do you need God’s healing and transforming work in your heart?
Gracious God, thank you for caring, not just about what we do, but also about who we are. Thanks for caring about our inner lives, our hearts.
As I reflect on what Jesus said in today’s passages, I’m struck by the fact that my heart needs some work. So I am saying “Yes” to your invitation to do inner work. And I am thankful that I do not do this work on my own. Rather, I do it with you, guided by you, encouraged by you. So let me join you, dear Lord, in the inner work you are already doing in me. Amen.
Banner image by Lesly Juarez on Unsplash.
Find all Life for Leaders devotions here. Explore what the Bible has to say about work at the unique website of our partners, the Theology of Work Project’s online commentary. Reflection on today’s Life for Leaders theme can be found here: Hearts Filled with Hypocrisy.
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Dr. Mark D. Roberts is a Senior Strategist for Fuller’s Max De Pree Center for Leadership, where he focuses on the spiritual development and thriving of leaders. He is the principal writer of the daily devotional, Life for Leaders, and the founder of the De Pree Center’s Flourishing in the Third Third of Life Initiative. Previously, Mark was the Executive Director of the De Pree Center, the lead pastor of a church in Southern California, and the Senior Director of Laity Lodge in Texas. He has written eight books, dozens of articles, and over 2,500 devotions that help people discover the difference God makes in their daily life and leadership. With a Ph.D. in New Testament from Harvard, Mark teaches at Fuller Seminary, most recently in his D.Min. cohort on “Faith, Work, Economics, and Vocation.” Mark is married to Linda, a marriage and family counselor, spiritual director, and executive coach. Their two grown children are educators on the high school and college level.