Danger Ahead: When Mature Leaders Rely on Experience
The longer you walk with God, the more dangerous the path.
It’s dangerous not because of hardship and suffering (though they may be present) but because of the temptation to rely on your ever-growing experience instead of on Christ alone.
Amplifying this temptation is the presence of many young people who are impressed with your faith, in awe of your wisdom, and who long to learn from you. The admiration of younger Christians isn't bad, but it can lure us out of humility and into an inflated view of ourselves. The praise of others shortens the distance between walking in dependency and walking in self-trust. Decisions that once would have seemed foolish now might masquerade as wisdom—after all, I am the most mature one here.
Consider the moral and theological failures of ministry leaders. Whether it’s the embrace of a person who is not their spouse or the embrace of a theology that is not from the Bible, most leaders give in to these temptations after many years of faithfulness. This is a sobering reminder for me because I know apart from God’s grace, I too may be numbered among them.
The danger facing mature and seasoned Christians is the temptation to forsake the dependency that inexperience and naïveté forced upon us.
The Foolish Confidence of Kings
This temptation is not new. My recent survey of the kings of Israel surprised me. So many of my favorite, faithful kings end their days in disobedience and pride—a sobering and terrifying reality. Here's a brief overview of some of the most faithful and godly kings of Judah:
David emerges as a humble shepherd boy, eager to defend the name of God in the midst of Goliath's mockery. But years later, after many victories, he sins against one of his own mighty men, Uriah, in adultery, deceit, and murder.
Solomon, famous for his humble request for wisdom, brought in a golden age of national worship as the temple was completed. Yet his old age exposed his improper love for foreign women: "When Solomon was old his wives turned away his heart after other gods, and his heart was not wholly true to the LORD his God" (1 Kings 11:4).
Asa sought the Lord, removing idols and cult prostitutes from the land. But after thirty-six years as king, he put his trust in a foreign political power, not in the Lord.
Jehoshaphat famously sought God in his distress, saying, "We do not know what to do, but our eyes are on you" (2 Chron. 20:12). But "after this Jehoshaphat king of Judah allied himself with Ahaziah king of Israel. He acted wickedly in doing so" (2 Chron. 20:35 NASB).
Joash repaired Solomon's temple and tore down the temple to Baal. But after many faithful years, he listened to the officials of the land “and they abandoned the house of the LORD, the God of their fathers, and served the Asherim and the idols" (2 Chron. 24:18).
Amaziah trusted God and defeated Edom, but mistakenly brought back the gods from Edom and then arrogantly assaulted king Jehu in his confidence. He was defeated and captured.
Uzziah sought God and fortified Judah from their enemies, "but when he was strong, he grew proud, to his destruction. For he was unfaithful to the LORD his God" (2 Chron. 26:16).
Hezekiah reopened the temple in Jerusalem for service, celebrated the first Passover in centuries, and looked to God when the Assyrians attacked. But in his later years "Hezekiah did not make return according to the benefit done to him, for his heart was proud" (2 Chron. 32:25).
Josiah tore down idols and restored the temple. The book of the law was found because of his efforts, and he repented and sought the Lord in beautiful humility. But near the end of his days, he grew confident and went out to attack the king of Egypt, though God had not instructed him to do so. His confidence in his own understanding cost him his life.
These are kings who sought God, who desired to serve Him, who humbled themselves and saw great victories. Yet a sobering theme emerged as I studied their lives: Pride seemed to pose the greatest threat in their later years. The further these men were from their humble, dependent, and inexperienced beginnings, the more tempted they were to trust themselves.
Safety in Dependence
Pride lurks when we grow confident in our own abilities. Like the kings above, our past victories can tempt us to walk in our own strength and wisdom. But assuming we no longer need the Lord is a grave mistake, one with serious consequences.
So inexperience and desperation, it seems, are actually friends of our faith. Taking hold of our trembling hands, they lead us to the only safe place for our souls: dependency on God alone.
God knows we are eager to depart from the safety of dependency. In Deuteronomy, He warned His people of the dangers in such a departure. After years in the wilderness, the long-awaited entrance to the promise land was just around the corner. Can you imagine the eagerness of the Israelites to escape the daily dependency of the desert? To be in possession of more than just one day's worth of food? To find security and peace in the walls of a city rather than a pillar of fire?
And yet on the eve of something so joyous, He issues this warning:
"Take care lest you forget the LORD your God by not keeping his commandments and his rules and his statutes, which I command you today, lest, when you have eaten and are full and have built good houses and live in them, and when your herds and flocks multiply and your silver and gold is multiplied and all that you have is multiplied, then your heart be lifted up, and you forget the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery" (Deut. 8:11–14).
Dependency is painful. It assaults our desire to be in control and self-sufficient. It removes our ability to boast. It's not surprising that we're eager to get away from our need of the Lord. But neediness is the only safe place for our souls.
More Hope for a Fool
In actuality, we're just as needy when we're older and more experienced as in the day we first believed. Our problem is that we think we aren't as needy. And therein lies the danger.
Looking back at past victories and the inexperienced young ones who follow behind us, we may find the temptation to trust ourselves at our doorstep. Of course I know how to counsel that couple or lead that small group. This isn't my first rodeo. But when we assume our next steps before hitting our knees in prayer, it's a sign that we've departed from dependency. And though these self-wrought decisions may be cloaked in the language of godliness, they are founded on folly. "Do you see a man who is wise in his own eyes? There is more hope for a fool than for him" (Prov. 26:12).
Let us not be fools in our later years, but instead make Proverbs 3:5–7 our anthem:
Trust in the LORD with all your heart, and do not lean on your own understanding. In all your ways acknowledge him, and he will make straight your paths. Be not wise in your own eyes; fear the LORD, and turn away from evil.
After such an eye-opening study of the great kings of Israel, my prayer for myself and for you is that our spiritual growth would not result in self-confidence, but in God-confidence. May dependency be our address all the days of our lives.