The Temptations of Leadership
I want to start by describing a scenario:
There’s a charismatic leader, usually but not always a man. He’s good-looking, or rich and powerful, or maybe he’s humble and vulnerable-looking, or perhaps he’s very brilliant and accomplished. He gathers a following of people who admire him, who see something rare and compelling about him, or who feel moved by his words and actions. They trust him, and his power and influence grow. Maybe it’s political power, or emotional power. It might be spiritual power.
But one day it turns out that he’s betrayed that trust. He’s used his power and his magnetism to draw people in and then abuse them – maybe physically, maybe sexually, perhaps emotionally and spiritually. His followers are devastated, angry, disillusioned. The harm ripples out and out, as people turn away from him and his cause. The victims of the abuse go through painful stages of acknowledgement, hurt, feeling betrayed and angry, grieving, and perhaps finally finding healing.
Does it sound familiar? Who does it make you think of?
Many of us are thinking of Jean Vanier, founder of L’Arche, greatly admired and even revered as saintly, but recently found out to have been the abuser of several women who came to him for spiritual guidance. He abused their trust in order to gratify his own sexual desires.
The people to whom we turn for leadership, the people whom we put on pedestals as we admire them, face enormous temptations to use that power for their own ends. And that’s at least in part what the story of Jesus’ temptations is about. What are the subtle and not so subtle temptations of leadership? What makes leadership good and healthy, even holy? What makes it twisted and toxic?
In today’s gospel Jesus is about to embark on his ministry after his baptism and call experience. But first he spends 40 days on retreat in the Judean wilderness. The gospel says that it was the Spirit of God that led him there. He has to go through a period of facing temptation first, before he’s ready to become the leader we know as the Messiah, the chosen and promised one.
And what are his temptations? They’re all about satisfying his own ego versus following God’s way: he’s tempted to turn stones into bread to satisfy his famished physical hunger; he’s tempted to pull a stunt by throwing himself off the top of the temple and surviving, to dazzle people with his spiritual power; and he’s tempted to bow before the devil and taking global power for himself.
This isn’t a story of the devil running temptations by Jesus and Jesus easily matching them and tossing them aside with Bible verses. This is about Jesus wrestling with real possibilities, real options. He could have succumbed and chosen a path of egotism and personal aggrandizement, as so many have done. But he didn’t. He faced that dark potential and turned away from it by grounding himself in God’s way.
When Jesus did use his spiritual strength and giftedness, and his ability to move and inspire people, it was never for his own benefit. Rather, it was for the healing and feeding and blessing and building up of others. And when the final collision with the powers of darkness came, he chose the way of non-violence and self-giving, and placed himself entirely in God’s hands even in his death on the cross.
We need to ask ourselves who we give leadership to, and who we trust. Are they people who are meeting their own needs, or people who are servant leaders?
We need to recognize the awful potential for abuse when we idolize someone, or put them on a pedestal, or believe the secrets they tell us.
I hate to say this, but that’s particularly true of religious and spiritual leaders. We enter very closely and deeply into people’s lives at times when they’re vulnerable, so the power to misuse that trust is very real.
But I don’t want this just to be a sermon about abusers of power and leadership. I want us, always, to focus on Jesus and God’s way. And in this period of Lent we have an opportunity to examine ourselves, look at our own temptations, and pray for the grace to confront them honestly and bravely.
Jesus knew that to be the beloved Son of God he needed to feed his soul not his body. He knew that he had to feast on the word of God, and let it shape him. He knew that he could depend utterly on God, but not for his own aggrandizement – rather, for his letting go into the love of God. He knew that he had to keep God at the centre of his heart and life.
So what tempts us to feed our physical or mental cravings rather than our spiritual hunger? What tempts us to try to use God for our own ends? What gets in the way of us keeping God at the centre? It’s usually our own brokenness and neediness and insecurity that lead us off the path and towards self-serving ends. We try leaning on other things or other people, rather than turning back again and again to God, to love, to letting go of self.
We’re only human. Jean Vanier was only human. We all fall short. But let’s be honest about that, and challenge each other, and encourage each other. Let’s hold each other to account, and not put our leaders on impossible pedestals.
And this Lent, let’s face with honesty the temptations in our own paths, confront our own weaknesses and longings, and pray for grace to turn again to God’s way, in Christ.