June 14, 2022 • Life for Leaders
Scripture – 1 Thessalonians 2:1-2 (NRSV)
You yourselves know, brothers and sisters, that our coming to you was not in vain, but though we had already suffered and been shamefully mistreated at Philippi, as you know, we had courage in our God to declare to you the gospel of God in spite of great opposition.
Sometimes it’s hard to know how honest we should be about our failures. Yet, when we tell truth about our own mistakes and how God has helped us nevertheless, we can encourage others who also know what it’s like to fail. Though we should be wise when sharing personal stories, the example of the Apostle Paul and his colleagues encourages us to tell the truth about our failures and God’s amazing grace.
Today’s devotion is part of the series Encouragement from 1 Thessalonians.
Sometimes it’s hard to know how honest we should be about our failures. If you are in a job interview, for example, and are asked about your weaknesses, you know you’ve got to come up with something, but you realize it wouldn’t be prudent to talk about all the ways you have fallen short in the past. You probably shouldn’t say, “Oh, I’ve failed so many times I don’t know where to start!” Or, if you are a leader of a team, you may wonder if it’s wise to talk about your failures with those you are leading. Would your openness build confidence . . . or weaken it?
When I was fairly new as senior pastor of Irvine Presbyterian Church, I once shared in the sermon that I had been struggling in my devotional life. I thought my honesty might help people connect to me and realize that I struggle with the same things they do. But, after the service, a congregant came up to me, quite upset. “We don’t want to hear about your failures and struggles,” she said emphatically. “You’re our pastor. We expect you to be getting these things right.” Yikes! You can be sure I thought twice before once again sharing my shortcomings in a sermon.
There are certainly times in which a leader needs to be careful about sharing their personal lives, including their failures. And when such sharing happens, it needs to be done wisely and appropriately. But I have always been inspired by the biblical example of the Apostle Paul, who was exceptionally open about the negative things in his life as well as the positive. He was willing to share his failures and struggles with his people in an unprecedented way.
We see an example of this in our passage from 1 Thessalonians. In chapter 2, Paul and his co-writers refer to the fact that they “had already suffered and been shamefully mistreated at Philippi” (1 Thessalonians 2:1). Then they add a phrase that we might easily overlook: “as you know.” How did the Thessalonians know what had happened in Philippi? Because Paul and Co. told them when they were with them.
You may recall that in the Book of Acts, Paul and Silas (whom we know in 1 Thessalonians as Silvanus) preached the gospel in Philippi (Acts 16:11-40). During their time there, they encountered an enslaved girl with an evil spirit. When Paul cast a demon out of her, her owners were dismayed. They had been profiting from the spiritual power of their slave. Now, because of Paul, that demonic power was gone. Because they were upset about the loss of income, they grabbed Paul and Silas, dragging them before the civic authorities. The missionaries were beaten severely and put in prison. They managed to get out of prison because of the miraculous intervention of God.
Apparently, when Paul and Co. arrived in Thessalonica they talked openly about what had happened in Philippi. Though they certainly gave God credit for their miraculous deliverance, the missionaries were honest about how poorly their work had gone. They were not directly responsible for the failure they experienced, of course. But their story showed, not only how they had failed to do as they had planned in Philippi, but also how difficult it could be to follow Jesus in the pagan Roman world. Nevertheless, Paul and his associates shared openly what happened to them, both the bad and the good.
Their example encourages me to be open with the people I serve, sharing both my successes and my failures, my courage, and my fear. If you’ve been reading Life for Leaders for a while, you know that I’m fairly open about things in my life, including those things that do not show me in a good light. This kind of vulnerability does not come naturally to me. As a child, when I did something wrong, I worked hard to cover up my misdeeds, even lying to my parents. But as one who has invested years of life studying the Apostle Paul, I have been encouraged by his example to take the risk of being more open than I might otherwise be. This openness includes talking about the negatives in my life.
I find that being open about my failures is particularly valuable in mentoring relationships. Over the years, I’ve had the privilege of mentoring a variety of people. When we meet, I am not the focus of the conversations. My mentees are. But, when it seems helpful, I talk freely about myself, including my failures and what I learned from them. My openness gives the folks I mentor the freedom to be honest about their own struggles and defeats.
One of the most stunning examples of this kind of openness comes in Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians. In the opening chapter of that letter, he shares with surprising candor his recent struggles in Asia: “We do not want you to be unaware, brothers and sisters, of the affliction we experienced in Asia; for we were so utterly, unbearably crushed that we despaired of life itself. Indeed, we felt that we had received the sentence of death so that we would rely not on ourselves but on God who raises the dead” (2 Corinthians 1:8-9). In this context, Paul shares his affliction in order to encourage the Corinthians. Even as God rescued him from such a desperate situation and such deep despair, so God will rescue those who read his letter. Paul’s weakness highlights the power and grace of God as well as God’s care for us.
When we feel crushed, when we fail in things that matter, when we feel weak and frail, God is there for us. When we fall short, when we are mistreated, when we feel beaten down, God is there for us, just as God was there with Paul and his colleagues. This is good news, indeed. Our openness about the negative things in our lives and God’s gracious response allows us to encourage others to be honest and to rely on the matchless mercy of God.
Have you ever experienced a leader (at work, church, etc.) who was open about their mistakes and shortcomings? If so, what did that person do? How did you respond?
In your own leadership, how free are you to talk about your failures? What concerns do you have about doing this?
Sometimes leaders are too open about things that are better kept private. How can we know what is okay to share and what is not okay to share?
Talk with a wise friend or with your small group about when and how it is appropriate for leaders to be open about their mistakes, failures, shortcomings, etc.
Gracious God, thank you for the example of Paul and his colleagues. Thank you for their openness about things that happened in Philippi that were not so good. Thank you for how they challenge us to be more open about the negative things in our lives.
Give me wisdom, Lord, to know when to share my failures and when not to do so. Help me to know how I can talk about my life and work in such a way that you receive the glory.
Thank you, Lord, for all the times you have rescued me from my own poor choices. Thank you also for delivering me when I have been hurt by the misdeeds of others. Thank you, dear Lord, for your great faithfulness and mercy. Amen.
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. Commentary on today’s Life for Leaders theme can be found here: Confrontation Over the Liberation of a Slave Girl in Philippi (Acts 16:16-24)
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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.