“For the Spirit God gave us does not make us timid, but gives us power, love and self-discipline.” (2 Timothy 1:7)

I had read the verse countless times. Probably due to messages I had heard, my attention was always drawn to the first half. Timothy was comparatively young and inexperienced in ministry, but that was no reason for others not to respect him or for him to be afraid even when others didn’t. But I hadn’t reflected on the second half of the verse nearly as much—not nearly enough.

How do Christian leaders follow God’s leading and call in difficult situations where fundamental biblical principles are being violated by others, whether doctrinal or ethical? How do they stand the best chance of succeeding when others are self-centered, demanding their own way, cantankerous, divisive, misled, jealous or troublemaking? Paul gathers together three key terms here that most people don’t naturally think of as belonging with each other. Any one of them by itself is usually not enough. Two of them together are much better. But all three are necessary for a full-orbed personality of godly leadership.

My father was the best teacher I ever had of any subject at any level of my schooling. He was a lifelong Spanish teacher, with most of his career spent in the public high school in Rock Island, Illinois. I had him for third- and fourth-year Spanish in the early seventies. He modeled all three of these character traits, most of the time, in a very excellent blend. The same was true of him as a parent. It took an awful lot to get him mad, either in the classroom or at home, but no one ever doubted that he was in charge or that he cared deeply about his children and his students. His power was balanced by love and normally kept in check by self-control.

But every once in a great while he would “blow.” You didn’t want to be around when he got angry. Yet his positions were almost always justified. When he unleashed his invective at someone else, he would often explain to me afterwards, “Sometimes you just have to turn up the volume!” What he meant was that sometimes people needed to see how upset they had made you; it wasn’t good enough just to keep your emotions under wraps. Somehow, carefully choosing his times to “explode,” my father would almost always get what he wanted.

Over the years of my adult life, I have occasionally tried to imitate Dad. For whatever reason, the process has seldom worked as well for me. Maybe it’s because he taught in a secular context and I teach in a Christian context, where people are far less used to seeing leaders get visibly upset. Maybe it’s because we don’t think long and hard about what occasions triggered Jesus’ and the apostles’ anger. (Answer: when legalistic insiders to the faith made a sham of their religion and deserved rebuke; the evangelical world, in contrast, tends to kowtow to such people and reserves its rage for non-Christians when they discover them acting like non-Christians!)

Maybe there’s a third reason as well. I have known leaders, with whom I’ve worked closely over a prolonged period of time, who just never get visibly mad. There is no question they are in a position of authority and know how to exercise it, but their self-discipline is so honed that even when they have to mete out unpleasant consequences to persistently intransigent people defying the policies of the institution, they do so calmly, exercising self-restraint. And meting out such consequences is always a very last resort; meanwhile, they consistently look for “win-win” situations when people under them are ensnared in division or simply can’t agree with their own views. I can’t confirm that these people have never gotten visibly angry in their entire Christian lives; if that were true they’d have done better than both Paul and Jesus! It’s just that it’s so rare that I’ve never seen or heard about it.

The older I get, the more I aspire to that model. I still blow it, more often than I care to admit, but not as often as I used to, so I think I’ve made some progress—power balanced by love and both held in check, with proper boundaries, by self-control. Why hadn’t I noticed that earlier in 2 Timothy 1:7?