“The thing that makes you exceptional, if you are at all, is inevitably that which must also make you lonely.” from the Broadway play, A Raisin In The Sun

I heard this quote on a Christian radio talk show recently with the host asking listeners if they thought this was true. Caller after caller agreed with this idea, sharing their stories of loneliness.

Aloneness IS a big deal. As I’ve asked people around the country what they are most missing in the walk with God and their calling, the overwhelming response has been the absence of deep, meaningful friendships.

I’m not sure that our “exceptionalness” is the primary reason. Many of us rationalize our drought of deep friendships by our giftedness, our walk with God, our “place in the Kingdom”, our mission or calling. I would venture to say that if our spirituality was extracted from us, we may still not have any deep, meaningful friendships.

I have heard phrases like:

  • My spirituality intimidates people.
  • I don’t do shallow talk.
  • No one sees what I see, hears what I hear, knows what I know.
  • No one can relate to my degree of spiritual warfare and spiritual burden.

This view of personal exceptionalness is not healthy, helpful or true.
The truth is that while our life and calling is unique, our heart and journey is common. You and I are exceptional, as are others who have encountered the redemptive work Jesus Christ.

I have heard hundreds of in-depth life stories and have seen my life in every one of them – with different details, but common themes.

The world, the flesh and Satan will use two strategies to isolate, incapacitate and destroy us:

One is diminishment – the thought that no one wants to be with me because my life is so small, mundane and disappointing.

The other is exaggeration – the thought that no one wants to be with me because my life is so large, epic and threatening.

The world wants conformity to one of these extremes. The flesh wants attention by emphasizing one of these extremes. Satan, knowing we are truth seekers, wants us to camp or abide in one of these extremes (distortions).

We are set apart, but not set above, nor set aside.

Our true exceptionalness originates first in our Christ-likeness (the fruit of the Spirit) and secondarily in our calling (the gifts of the Spirit).

The Holy Spirit produces this kind of fruit in our lives: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.” Gal. 5:22

I believe that if we pursued and possessed the fruit of the spirit in our life we would have to determine how many deep and meaningful relationship we could handle, not how to find one.

So, if I had called-in to answer the question, “Do you think that ‘the thing that makes you exceptional…is inevitably that which must also make you lonely’ ”, I would have said, no. It’s the way that you relate to others with your exceptionalness that make you lonely.

God has told us not to be selfish, not to try to impress others, but to be humble, thinking of others as better than ourself, not to look out only for our own interests, but to take an interest in others, too. (Phil 2:3-4 NLT)

  • If my spirituality intimidates people, it may be that I’m trying to impress them.
  • If I “don’t do shallow talk”, it may be that I only want to talk about what interest me.
  • If I think that no one sees what I see, hears what I hear, knows what I know, it could be that I’ve rarely asked others what they see, hear and know.
  • If I believe that no one can relate to the degree of spiritual warfare and spiritual responsibility that I carry, then I’m thinking that I’m better than others

If we, in humility, offer our heart to others verses primarily our gifting, there will be times of laughter and crying, celebrating and sorrow, gain and loss, building-up and tearing down. (Eccl. 3). This is the life that we all have in common.
While our life and calling is unique, our heart and journey is common.


Imitating Spiritual Leaders

I know a company founded by a man with a passion for writing, coupled with a love for a hobby. He published a magazine centered on his hobby. The fledgling company flourished. It soon had a suite of great products but lacked market penetration.

When the founding president retired, he replaced himself with a marketing expert.

The new marketing-president ran the company for five years. During his tenure, sales tripled. The rapid growth created organizational challenges. When it came time for his retirement, he promoted his organizationally-minded CFO to replace himself.

The new structural-president brought in much needed organization. Their products were great and their marketing terrific; now internal processes hummed. The company didn’t grow, but expenses were cut, operations streamlined, and profit margins soared.

The structural-president was pleased with his improvements. When it came time to retire, he replaced himself with another organizationally-minded CFO.

Within a few years, revenues were down 30%, product quality suffered, market penetration shrank, and corporate morale tanked. So he cut more jobs.

When the second structural-president retired, he hired a CFO … just like himself.

Who are the truly brilliant leaders?

All five presidents were highly gifted in their unique talents (an entrepreneur, marketer, and organizers); maybe in the top fifteen percent of all the business leaders I’ve met.

But only the first two were brilliant.

Highly gifted leaders are actually quite common, virtually a dime-a-dozen. But truly brilliant leaders are exceptional, because they also know their limitations. All five presidents were outstanding in their own specialties. But the first two alone had the humility to recognize that someone else’s unique talents were more important now.

To a hammer—even an exceptional hammer—everything looks like a nail.

Building monuments

What’s the purpose of Christian leaders? Why are they here? Is it to lead, organize, inspire, illuminate, or teach? No! A leader’s reason for being is to lift up others; to “raise the poor from the dust and to lift the needy from the ashes” (1 Sam. 2:8).

King Saul was a leadership disaster. God rejects him after he disobeys a prophet and he builds a monument in his own honor! The idea of building a monument in our own honor repulses us (I hope), though we see Christian Celebrities do so all the time.

Yet we build them too. We turn our followers into little clones—to be just like us—and so build a monument in our own honor. Let’s not build a house of clones, where every opinion is the same as ours and every gift-mix is a shadow of our own.

That monumental house of clones will collapse.

Nascent idolatry

They say that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. When following spiritual leaders, imitation is usually the first sign of idolatry.

Some leaders love this imitation. I once saw an excellent speaker teach his followers how to pack a suitcase, shave their beards, and shine their shoes. (I kid you not.) Why in the world would a man gifted in communication consider himself an expert in personal hygiene (he wasn’t) unless … he enjoyed the flattery of his drones?

Other leaders are guilty by silence. They silently watch followers self-clone as they mimic hand gestures, talk with the same cadence, and train in the same profession.

We should raise up people to be who God designed them to be. Sadly, we allow clones to form themselves into a monument in our honor. Shouldn’t we hate this?

You and I are guilty too

It’s not just Celebrity Christian leaders of mega-church (or mega-book) fame. It’s us too, the not-so-famous leaders. We overvalue our own variety of savvy. And we undervalue—or ignore—all the other varieties of competence. We all do it.

Visionaries undervalue administrators, who look down on counselors, who pooh-pooh preachers, who scoff at academics, who laugh at visionaries. I have personally seen:

  • A counselor/pastor who invested all his time with his pastorally gifted members, completely ignoring his administrative and worship staff, who were dying.
  • A national leader who refused to allow differing discussions. He promoted all who agreed with him and demoted all who offered any contrary ideas.
  • Two leaders of an international movement whose success was linked to their complementary gifts. One leader finally demanded ultimate authority, he over-exercised his style, and the movement died.

Yes, let’s love the gifts God gives us. But remember: God gives equally valuable gifts to others. We need their gifts as much as they need ours. Probably more.

Here’s a leader I love

The most brilliant, unsung leader in the Old Testament is the crown prince, Jonathan. He is extraordinary; an astonishingly gifted spiritual leader (see 1 Samuel 14).

When Jonathan meets David—his competitor to the throne—he gives David his own robe and sword. Most leaders put their blade in their enemy’s belly; Jonathan puts his sword in his opponent’s hand. (How many leaders do you know who would do that?)

Jonathan was the son of the king, but he did not count kingship a thing to be grasped. He emptied himself, taking the form of a servant. He sought out and raised up the unique giftedness of another, even at the eventual cost of his own life.

Doesn’t he remind you of another famous, spiritual leader?


Honing a Skill for God

We are currently in the middle of the Sochi Winter Olympics. As I’ve been watching these Olympic Games, I’ve thought about the strength that these athletes possess.

Olympians display a specific strength that they’ve developed and honed for a particular event. As we hear their back-stories, we realize how precisely they’ve trained over a long period of time.

Where I went with these thoughts, as I always do, is to the idea of our personal calling. Scripture says that we are to “press on [strenuously pursue] to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me.” (Phil. 3:12) So, what was Jesus after and what am I to take hold of? To be an “oak of righteousness, planted by God to display his glory.” (Isa. 61:3)

An other word for glory is strength. We all possess an aspect of the glory of God (a particular strength) that we are to offer to others.

So, how do we develop the strength or glory that God has given us?

You can find some of these answers in the way our bodies develop strength or muscle. Here are a few of those principles:

Lift Heavy and Push to Failure – you must push your muscles with resistance (weight) to the point where they must adapt by getting bigger and stronger.

If we are to develop the glory or strength of our life, we must push beyond our current experience. Not just once, but every time we get to a point of adequacy. What we currently see as the strength, the glory of our life is only a facet, an indication of who we truly are in Christ and what we have to offer.

We are to strenuously pursue, not dabble with our calling.

God is like a personal trainer who is with us in the gym coaxing us to push through the pain and doubt to get to the next level of our potential. There is little growth in the comfort zone and little comfort in the growth zone.

Strength development is Progressive – weight (resistance) should be increased week by week. We must give our body a reason to grow or else it will plateau.

Strength is not acquired in a moment, though acquired strength can be released in a moment. Strength and brilliance (other words for glory) develop over time.

Instantaneous attainment of strength or skill is as unlikely as a someone who’s never skied deciding to try Freestyle Aerial Skiing and on his first run performs a near flawless triple flip with five twists.

You see, the strength that we were created to bring to the world is attained “little by little…until [we] have increased enough to take possession of [it].” (Exodus 23:30) That’s why we are not to “despise these small beginnings, for the LORD rejoices to see the work begin…” (Zechariah 4:10)

Flexibility enhances strength development – as our strength progressively develops we need to continually improve circulation and range of motion in order to reduce pain and soreness and the chance of injury.

As we develop the strength or brilliance that God has give us as a display of His glory, it’s easy to become stiff, unbending, inflexible. As a personal trainer, God helps us stretch so that His life can freely circulate throughout the strength that He has helped us develop. Without flexibility, we will experience unnecessary pain and injury.

Since we have the same personal trainer, I’ll see you in the gym.