In a recent interview with The New York Times, the CEO of a world-renowned bank and investment firm revealed his uncommon practice for hiring leaders in his organization. According to the interview, this CEO invites job candidates to breakfast and arrives early to make sure the restaurant messes up their order. The reason he does this is simple: to see how the candidate responds. In his words, he wants to “look inside their heart.” You see, the CEO is most concerned with the character and integrity of the person he is considering hiring for a leadership role in his company. There are many leaders who have credentials in the areas of experience or education, but they are lacking in the area of integrity and character in leadership.
In the Protestant evangelical world, we are often reminded of this truth. Our leaders are in the headlines day after day in recent history. We hear reports of sexual misconduct, abuse of power, discriminatory comments—the list goes on and on. The lesson is simple: even with solidly conservative theology, we sadly often find moral compromise in our ranks. Far too often, our lack of private integrity becomes the source of our public indignity.
On the one hand, many leaders who have fallen because of moral failure has caught us by surprise. Yet at the same time, we understand that the best of men are men at best. We must fight the tendency to puff our chests out in self-righteousness. It is more proper to grieve over the devastating effects of secret sin. As I consider my own comrades who have fallen in infidelity, I am reminded of the words of Jesus, who declared that if you even look at another in lust, you have committed adultery in your heart.
The Exemplary Case of Job’s Character
Because of this, the very first verse of Job should give us pause. It is a powerful summation of a man who exemplifies the integrity and character we should all long for: “There was a man in the land of Uz whose name was Job, and that man was blameless and upright, one who feared God and turned away from evil.”
After the cursory historical facts of his name and place of origin, the first significant thing the writer tells us is about Job’s character. He was a man of complete integrity. This does not mean he was perfectly sinless; it simply means he was not hypocritical. After all, Job readily confessed his own sin throughout the book. It is also noted that he was also a man who feared God. I can think of nothing else that bolsters integrity like a deep reverence for the sovereign Judge of the universe. Finally, he was a man who turned away from sin. That is, he was a man who practiced repentance. In many ways, Job 1:1 puts forth an excellent epitaph for a Christian leader’s headstone, doesn’t it?
Character Is the External Display of Internal Holiness
If we are going to pursue personal holiness, integrity, and character, then we need to be aware of several things. First, as Christians, we need to recognize that while salvation is surrender, sanctification is war. No one drifts toward holiness. This pursuit of holiness begins in our private lives, and for us as leaders who serve as examples for the church, this is of utmost importance. Because the nature of our work is often public, we need to keep a close watch on our lives. It’s no wonder that Paul exhorts Timothy to “keep a close watch on yourself and on the teaching. Persist in this, for by so doing you will save both yourself and your hearers” (1 Tim. 4:16). If we ignore any erosion in our integrity, we could find ourselves in the rubble of our own implosion.
Eric Geiger illustrates this point well in his book How to Ruin Your Life, in which he notes that if you have ever watched a building being demolished, you understand that there are two ways to destroy it. One can demolish a building from the outside with wrecking balls, which is visible to everyone and catches no one by surprise. Or, the building can be demolished from the inside by strategically placed explosives that weaken the integrity of the structure. This second type of demolition is not immediately obvious to onlookers, but, as the structure weakens, the building will eventually collapse. His point is simple: a leader falls apart internally before the ruin and rubble are ever seen externally. Therefore, as Christian leaders, we must diligently destroy our sin before it violently destroys us.
The potential of integrity implosion not only affects us, but it also has implications for those around us. As Christian leaders, we must understand that our people’s greatest need is our personal holiness. Integrity and character in leadership do not mean that we will be sinless. However, the pursuit of character and integrity will mean that by God’s grace we will “sin less.” Part of the sanctification process is the realization that the closer we get to Jesus, the more we realize how much we need to repent. To put it another way, the Christian will still sin, but he will not be able to actively continue in that sin. And as Christian leaders, we lead by repentance. The repentant leader helps build a culture of grace and gives permission for others to repent without fear.
The Character Destroyers of Denial and Despair
There are two ways that sin and the evil one attempt to destroy the sanctifying process of character development in a leader’s heart. The first is denial. The person in denial over his sin is much like the man who approached the pastors after a sermon on sin and declared: “Great sermon, Pastor! I want you to know that I haven’t sinned in a long time!” To which the pastor responded, “Well, you must be awfully proud of yourself!” See, the self-righteous Christian can be so blinded by his own pride that he doesn’t even see the sin in his own life. One of the ways this often manifests itself is when the self-righteous easily recognize the sin in others before they see it in themselves. As Christian leaders, we are often well aware of the struggles of others, and it is tempting to look down on them in comparison in a way that builds an anti-grace culture of self-righteousness.
The second way sin and the evil one attempt to destroy the character development of a leader is through despair. The Christian leader who rarely talks to others about his deep personal struggles is often tempted to despair. In fact, he is often so burdened by shame and guilt that he is eventually crushed by the despair of his sin in isolation. His biggest fear is of being found out. I remember very well when an older well-respected pastor guest-lectured in one of my seminary classes and told the class that “as pastors, we should never reveal our struggles and faults.” He was convinced that revealing any struggle would damage leaders’ credibility beyond repair. I would argue the exact opposite. I think it is appropriate for leaders to confess sin before others, and this confession will often build their credibility.
How the Gospel Bolsters Our Character
It is natural for the pendulum to swing from despair or denial in our struggles with sin. But, let me remind you that the gospel is good news for both sides of the pendulum. To the self-righteous in denial, the gospel brings humility. The gospel reminds us as Christian leaders that Jesus had to die for us because we are so sinful. To the self-centered in despair, the gospel brings hope. The gospel also reminds us that we are so loved that Jesus wanted to die for us. Gospel humility reveals our need for repentance, and gospel confidence gives us the courage to repent. This truth gives us the courage to lead in repentance.
As leaders, we will often face situations that reveal what is in our hearts. When we are pricked, our people will see our hearts, and they need to see us bleed integrity—either true holy character or humble repentance. If there is one thing that the Protestant evangelical world needs right now, it’s men and women of character who can say with Paul, “Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ” (1 Cor. 11:1). One of the greatest legacies we can leave for those who have been placed under our charge is to come to the end of our lives and be able to say that we pursued a life of integrity, we feared God, and we turned away from evil in the power of the Spirit. As leaders, we have to understand that our private integrity will only bolster our public ministry.