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On Taking Up the Cross as a Leader

  • Dr. Bill Lawrence President, Leader Formation International
  • Updated Jan 12, 2011
On Taking Up the Cross as a Leader

Part 1: Absolutely Right, Totally Wrong

He was right! He was absolutely right! He knew he was right. Prophecy said he was right. History said he was right. Reality said he was right. He had to be right. He had staked everything he had, everything he was, and everything he hoped to be on the fact that he was right.

He had walked away from his business to take the greatest gamble of his life because he was right. He had spent weeks away from his family because he was right. He had given up all he ever knew of comfort and security to spend long arduous hours in strange places, sometimes honored, sometimes rejected, but always right.

Peter knew he was right—absolutely right, and that meant Jesus was wrong, totally wrong. That's why he stepped forward and took Jesus aside on that fateful day outside Caesarea Philippi in northern Israel. Perhaps he took Jesus by the hand or the arm and led him aside; perhaps he put his arm around His shoulder and separated him from the disciples. Either way, he took Jesus aside and rebuked Him (Mark 8:32). Why? Because he was absolutely right and Jesus was totally wrong. But it wasn't that way. Peter was totally wrong and Jesus was absolutely right.

It all began when Jesus said words that made no sense to Peter: "The Son of Man must suffer . . ." (Mark 8:31). Prophecy said the Son of Man would rule forever (Dan. 7:14); history said that God was on the side of those who looked for the rule of Messiah; reality said Peter was absolutely right. Hadn't he identified Jesus as the Christ? Hadn't Jesus commended him for thisinsight? His insight was not of his own doing, but from the Father who is in heaven (Mt. 16:17). Peter had to be absolutely right, but he was totally wrong. The Son had to suffer before He could reign. Peter, blinded by the glory of kingdom fever missed the truth of Isaiah 53, even as we who lead often miss the meaning of those Isaiah 53 moments in our lives and fail to realize how like Peter we are.

Think of those amazing words Jesus said to Peter. "Get behind me, Satan . . ." Stunning. Get out of my sight—you are Satan to me. Like Satan you would tempt me to turn from the cross, to gain the crown without the cross, which is exactly what we as leaders often want. Like Peter, we are amazed to discover that we think like Satan and want comfort, power, and control without the self-denial and sacrifice the cross demands.

Jesus gives us an analysis of our thinking in His next words to Peter. " . . . you do not set your mind on the interests of God but on the interests of man (Mk. 8:33)." What are the interests of man for leaders? They are always the same: power, success, and control. And what are the interests of God? They are also always the same: love, sacrifice, and service. Peter, one of Jesus' most significant leaders in training, thought like Satan because he pursued the interests of man and not the interests of God. That's what made him rebuke Jesus and that's what makes us angry with Jesus as well. Sometimes He seems to be against us, to stand in our way, to hinder us—and He is against us. Why? Because no matter what we say, we are not pursuing His interests but our interests.

How can we be delivered from the interests of man and set free to pursue the interests of God? Look at Jesus' answer: deny yourself, take up your cross, and follow me (Mark 8:34). This answer makes the cross absolutely essential for all leaders who want to lead God's way and pursue His interests rather than man's. The cross is a vital key to Christ's kind of leadership, so we cannot be His kind of leaders unless we take up the cross.

One of the biggest issues in Peter's life as in our lives as leaders was his expectations. Because he had recognized Jesus as Messiah and because he had given up all to follow Him, he had expectations of a kingdom, a throne, and a crown. Nowhere in his mind was there the remotest thought of a cross. His expectations were based on prophecy, history, and reality, and they motivated him to leave everything to follow Jesus and drove him to stay with Jesus even when he did not understand all He was doing. Peter had established knowledge that Jesus was going to overthrow Rome and exalt Israel in His kingdom, but when Jesus spoke of the cross he received new information that totally conflicted with his expectations.

We too have expectations of success and all that it brings to us. Of course success brings glory to God, but it will also bring position and recognition to us, and we often strive to fulfill these expectations. This is why we're so frustrated when Jesus turns and rebukes us and identifies us with Satan. We've given up everything! How can we possibly be identified with Satan? Yet our expectations of power, control, and success tell us that we pursue man's interests, and when we are faced with new information about ourselves we do exactly what Peter did: we go right back to our established knowledge, the expectation that we have a crown coming (cp. Peter's superior attitude toward the other disciples in Mark 13:27-31).

An expectation is the anticipation of an achievement and the recognition it brings that becomes part of our core belief system about life, ourselves, and. others. Expectations have a way of turning into demands that we make of God and those around us. We are owed our expectations because we have earned them and the thought of not getting them creates an explosive reaction within us. Our expectations determine our values, our beliefs, and our relationships so they form our identity and determine how we respond to others and the events we face. Expectations also determine what we hear and how we interpret our experiences. This is why Peter reacted so strongly to the announcement Jesus made about the cross. As he saw it, if the cross was true the crown was not, and he would never become a co-ruler with Jesus. Instead, he might become co-crucified with Christ, something repulsive beyond description to him.

Expectations arise from fear and are often based on previous painful experiences that we seek to avoid; they also produce selfish ambition in us in the name of Jesus because when they become realities we think we are safe, successful, and significant. What could be greater than to be a co-ruler with Jesus in His worldwide kingdom with Jerusalem as His capital and Israel as the most strategic nation on earth—and Rome banished to oblivion. That was Peter's expectation! Can you imagine how the cross shattered his crown? Can you understand why he reacted so strongly? And what of our expectations? What of our identity-driven demands? How does the cross threaten them? The cross is ruthless in confronting these expectations of success or safety or security. Leadership is not safe, not secure, and not always successful, certainly in the way we want. The cross is risky, dangerous, costly, and painful; it demands sacrifice and always leads to death. When we take up the cross we put down our lives; that's because the cross is an instrument of death. Once we take it up death is the inevitable and unavoidable outcome. Death is what the cross is all about, and we who lead must be prepared to follow our Leader and live exactly as He lived—by dying.

But why the cross and what does Jesus mean by the cross?

In ancient Rome the cross was an instrument of physical death for those who did not hold the values of the empire, but in Christ the cross became an instrument of spiritual redemption for all who trust Him. It became a form of death that leads to life—eternal life, abundant life, true life. The cross is God's means of putting to death all that displeases Him in us, and to take up the cross is to agree with Him that our expectations need to be put to death so His expectations for us can be made alive. It is the place of redemption, of holiness and justice, of love and mercy, all brought together by grace through God's power that condemns, convicts, cleanses, and releases all who turn to it; it is the place of accountability and deliverance for all who trust Jesus.

To take up the cross is not to take a literal instrument of execution as Jesus did; He is using a metaphor, of course, to speak of what the cross stood for: death to sin and deliverance from sin. This is what it still means in our lives. Like Peter, we seek for a crown and are greatly threatened when Jesus calls us from our efforts to reach for that crown and directs us to grasp the splinters of the cross. We are not looking for a handful of splinters but a life full of glory. At times without saying it or even recognizing it, glory is what drives us as leaders, and Jesus must call us from the pursuit of that glory to the sacrifice and death of the cross if He is to use us as He desires.

So we must come to the cross where our sin is revealed, where denial is demanded, where self must be sacrificed, where we have been judged and accepted and where we are still confronted with our sin so we can be released from our sin. Once we were put to death in Christ at the cross and raised from the dead with Him; once again we must put our sin on the cross so He can live His resurrection life in us. While we never face eternal accountability again, we must face accountability for our selfishness, drivenness, and self-centered ambition. Only as we choose to put these heart attitudes to death can we find the power and fruitfulness we so desperately seek through the fulfillment of our expectations. The cross continues to be an instrument of death for our crowns, but it has become an instrument of life for God's glory. Through the cross Peter found a rest for his heart and a release for his hands that set his tongue free to proclaim truth to his listeners in Acts 2. Once he gave up his crown for the cross, he became fruitful in Christ.

Sometimes as leaders we find ourselves confused because nothing is working. None of what we have been doing is making a difference. Everything that used to be effective is now failing. People who used to be for us are against us; methods that made an impact now fall fruitless before us; prayer is greeted by silence. It feels as if God has vacated the universe, shut down His e-mail, and changed his cell phone number without letting us know. Finally in desperation we cry out to the Lord and ask Him, "Why are you so against me?" His answer? "Because I am so for you!" And His word to us in times of confusion and futility is the same word He had for Peter so long ago: Give up your crown and go for the splinters!

That way you won't be totally wrong because you will be absolutely right.

Bill Lawrence is the President of Leader Formation International (LFI) as well as Senior Professor Emeritus of Pastoral Ministries and Adjunct Professor of DMin Studies at Dallas Theological Seminary. 
Bill began LFI in 2002 to minister to leaders around the world who are impacting the nations for Christ. Having watched God form his own life as a leader-mentor over thirty-seven years in ministry (including twelve years as a founding pastor, twelve years as the Executive Director of the Center for Christian Leadership, and over twenty-three years as a seminary faculty member), Bill helps other leaders recognize the reality that their success as a leader depends upon God's formative work in their heart. Bill has been privileged to personally serve leaders in Asia, Central Asia, Europe, Latin America, and Africa. He has also produced a six-part video/workbook series,
 Forming Davids for the 21st Century, which is a perfect resource to help groups of individual leaders engage with each other in the leader formation journey.

Publication date: January 12, 2011