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Cowboys, Crosses and How a Devilish View of Strength Is Killing Us

  • Russell Moore

    Russell Mooreis president of the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention. The ERLC is the moral and public policy entity of the nation’s largest Protestant…

  • Updated Sep 22, 2020

seemingly prideful man pretending to be strong

Photo Credit: ©GettyImages/Deagreez 

Many of you are familiar with the controversy erupting over television commentator Skip Bayless’ comments about Dallas Cowboys’ quarterback Dak Prescott disclosing that he was treated for depression coinciding with the death of his brother by suicide. After the inevitable blowback, Bayless sought to clarify his remarks but didn’t apologize for them.

Bayless criticized Prescott for revealing his struggles with depression because Prescott is supposed to be a leader, and shouldn’t reveal “weakness” in front of the team he was to lead. “If you reveal publicly any little weakness, it can affect your team’s ability to believe in you.” 

That makes perfect sense in a social Darwinist world, in which “survival of the fittest” means that human beings should adapt, like puff lizards, to pretending to be strong in moments of vulnerability.

But it is a complete contradiction of the gospel of Jesus Christ.

I am not so much interested in this opinion in terms of sports commentary—especially since the immediate reaction shows how out of touch Bayless’ views were with the NFL and with ESPN, among others. But I’m more worried about how this mentality so often shows up in terms of Christian leadership—and how that mentality destroys. 

Over the past couple of years, I have seen several people that I respect and love in Christian ministry die by suicide. I have seen many, many more walk away from the ministry to which they were called, forever. And every single day I talk to many others who are just barely holding on. 

In every single case, one of the greatest contributing factors was the pressure to pretend—allegedly for the sake of the “ministry”—to be “strong” where they were weak, to be “happy” where they were grieving.

Whether anyone explicitly told them this or not, they received the message that vulnerability must be covered over, unless someone thinks they were failures. After all, people are drawn to “winners,” not “losers.” And so many, trying to serve the people they were called to serve, did what they thought was their duty—and pretended. 

Pretend strength is the gospel of antichrist.

This mentality—of pretend “strength” as an aspect of leadership—is not only out of step with the gospel of Jesus Christ, it is, in fact, a completely different gospel—the gospel of antichrist.

From the very beginning, God created human beings—even before the Fall—to see their creatureliness and dependence. Human beings were fed, after all, by God. They were not self-sufficient deities, but “frail children of dust, and feeble as frail.”

The Serpent of old is the one who told them to pay no attention to that vulnerability. Eat, the snake said, of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, which has been forbidden to you, so that you can gain freedom from vulnerability. “You will not surely die,” but instead, “you shall be as gods.” 

This sort of animalistic strength of fallen humanity is pictured in the boasts of Lamech—“I have killed a man for wounding me; a young man for striking me. If Cain’s revenge is sevenfold, then Lamech’s is seventy-seven fold” (Gen. 4:23-24). It continues in the life of Pharaoh and Nebuchadnezzar and Belshazzar and Herod—all of whom postured with their power, and were brought down in their so-called strength by God. 

The evil king Rehoboam boasted, “My little finger is thicker than my father’s thighs” and “my father disciplined you with whips, but I will discipline you with scorpions” (1 Kings 12:10-14).

But God did not bless this. Why? It was so different from the starting point of Rehoboam’s father Solomon—who said “I am but a little child. I do not know how to go out or come in…Give to your servant therefore an understanding mind to govern your people, that I may discern between good and evil, for who is able to govern this your great people?” (1 Kings 3:7-9). It pleased the Lord that he asked this (1 Kings 3:10). 

The endpoint of the biblical story pictures the same reality.

The Beast of the Apocalypse appears to be invulnerable—a mortally wounded head is healed “and the whole earth marveled as they followed the beast” (Rev. 13:3). The people in thrall to this sort of human “strength” said to themselves, “Who is like the beast, and who can fight against it?” (Rev. 13:4). And yet, the power behind that theatrical strength was, once again, the same old Reptile we saw at the start of the Bible (Rev. 13:4; 12:9).

The way of Christ, on the other hand, is pictured—as everywhere else in the Bible—in terms of the greatest depiction of “weakness” any power could muster—that of the cross. 

The crosses of the first century depicted the power of the Roman Empire—who could fight against it?—and the despicable weakness of those pinned to them. That’s why the Gospels detail for us the ridicule Jesus experienced on the cross. The “King of the Jews” above his head was a sarcastic taunt. From the cross, when Jesus uttered the words—“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?,” the crowds taunted, “If you are the Son of God, come down from the cross” and “He saved others; he cannot save himself. He is the King of Israel; let him come down now from the cross, and we will believe in him” (Matt. 27:39-44). 

Jesus’ posture, though, was divergent—a sign of contradiction to the gospel of pretended strength.

How different Jesus’ speech was—on the way to the cross and on the way from it—from that of what the world expects of swaggering invulnerability. As a matter of fact, Simon Peter initially demonstrated the same sort of counsel that Skip Bayless and many leadership “experts” of the present era would give.

When Jesus spoke of his coming crucifixion, Peter rebuked him, no doubt thinking that such talk would “demotivate the troops” and “squelch morale.”

And yet, Jesus wanted precisely that kind of disillusionment, because the cross was, in fact, the way he came to walk. And those who followed him, must give up the Way of the Beast and walk the Way of the Lamb. That’s why Jesus said to Peter, “Get behind me Satan!” (Matt. 16:23). Jesus recognized this for what it was, even when Peter didn’t, and what he saw in it was reptilian, not redemptive. 

The life of the Christian, Jesus says, is about carrying his cross. 

It is impossible to swagger with a cross on one’s back.

That’s why the Apostle Paul—while refusing to discuss his transcendent mystical experiences in the heavenly places—took every opportunity to “boast of the things that show my weakness” (2 Cor. 11:30). In fact, Paul did just that—speaking of his pleading with the Lord to remove from him a thorn in the flesh. Did this weakness cause people to question his leadership? Emphatically yes. But that was just the point. Paul is not a primate seeking to establish dominance in the wild, but an emissary of the crucified Christ. So Jesus said to him, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness” (2 Cor. 12:9).

Paul, then, not only endured weakness, but testified of it gladly because in it “the power of Christ may rest upon me” (2 Cor. 12:9). And so: “For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong” (2 Cor. 12:10). 

A devilish view of strength—popularity, jocularity, thriving all the time—might motivate people seeking that sort of carnal power to think, “I want to be more like this person, if I just work harder.” But what we are called to do is to lead people to know, “I want to follow the One this weak, burdened, dying sinner knows—the Lamb who takes away the sins of the world.”

Those are two very, very different realities. Contrast then, the writings of the Gospels—the way they depict the weaknesses of apostles who testified to those truths—to, say, the depictions of self in the Stoic writings of the time, much less the annals of the Roman leaders. 

Maybe you are feeling your weakness right now. Maybe you are downhearted or crushed or lonely or afraid that you don’t have the strength to keep going. Depending on your situation, there are a variety of different things for you to do. You need those who can help hold up your arms (Exod. 17:12). 

But here’s what you shouldn’t do—play the part of an invulnerable hero, for fear that people will take advantage of you if you admit to weakness. When someone says that to you—or when your own heart says that to you—know that what you hear talking is leading you somewhere other than to the One who stands at the side of the Father with nail-pierced hands and a spike-torn side. 

Malcolm Guite, reflecting in his poem “The Christian Plummet” on George Herbert’s “Prayer,” writes about someone feeling as though they are “thrown overboard” and are sinking, and this is how he describes it: 

But Someone has their hands on your long line,
You sound for them the depths they sail above,
One who takes Jonah as his only sign
Sinks lower still to hold you in his love,
And though you cannot see, or speak, or breathe,
The everlasting arms are underneath.

The sign of Jonah, not the mark of the Beast. The everlasting arms, not the arm of the flesh. The way of the crucified, not the way of the self-confident. 

Maybe some cowboys may pretend to be invincible where they should acknowledge dependence. Good Shepherds never do.

This post originally appeared in my weekly newsletter, Moore to the Point. You can subscribe for free to receive it every Monday.

Russell Moore is president of the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention. The ERLC is the moral and public policy entity of the nation’s largest Protestant denomination.