The run of Marvel movies over the last few years has brought me great joy. I have always loved the superhero narrative, and now I get to enjoy it come to life on the big screen. But my fascination with the genre is more than entertainment to me. There is a scene in a movie that forever changed how I understand our war against the enemy of our souls.
In Thor: Ragnarok, Heimdall, played by Idris Elba, is standing guard over the city of Asgard. His only job is to watch for any sign of the enemy, and he does it well. At a certain point in the movie, however, he appears to lose his mind. With no threat in sight, Heimdall abandons his post and begins to run at breakneck speed down the bridge into the city. Suddenly, he launches himself off the bridge and into the abyss. Just when it seems his death is inevitable, he takes out two daggers and drives them deeply into the side of a ship cloaked in invisibility. His heroic act destroys the ship, saving the city from an enemy that was trying to go undetected.
When I saw the scene, I realized that this is precisely how we need to behave toward the enemy. All day, every day, he is trying to enter the cities of our soul to wreak havoc on our lives. We are told this in 1 Peter 5:8–9:
Be sober-minded; be watchful. Your adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour. Resist him, firm in your faith, knowing that the same kinds of suffering are being experienced by your brotherhood throughout the world.
The devil is walking around ready to overthrow us so that we will serve his purposes instead of God’s. Our missional life, our family life, our work in ministry, and the reputation of the gospel depend on our vigilance against his attacks. The problem is, like that ship in Thor: Ragnarok, the enemy often comes in secret, and we have been tasked with keeping watch over a lot of territory, our own hearts included. If we give even the tiniest of a foothold, the effects of the invisible will become horribly visible.
Unlike Heimdall, who singlehandedly protected Asgard from a covert invasion, we cannot hope to overcome the enemy alone. Our survival—not to mention our effectiveness and longevity in ministry—is dependent on our commitment not to be the only pair of eyes standing watch over our life and work. When we attempt to take on the enemy alone, we are setting up ourselves, all that we stand for, and all that we value for catastrophic failure.
Desire Transcends Accountability
For years the church has taught that accountability is the strongest and safest watchman for leaders and laypeople alike. If that’s the case, how is it that so many of the pastors whose heartbreaking failures ended up in the headlines had very solid accountability parameters in place?
The trouble is, accountability does not change desire. It can only do so much in warding off bad decisions, because desire transcends accountability. Once misdirected desire is born, desire will always find a way around accountability, usually in the form of a lie.
So, should we abandon accountability? By all means, no. Accountability plays a critical role in guarding our hearts. But it isn’t the only solution.
Something more powerful is required: intimacy. Intimacy in our relationships with God, our spouse, and our biblical community is a powerful guard over our souls. These three relationships are the Heimdall at the gates of our hearts.
God reveals it in Scripture this way. Solomon, the wisest man who ever lived, said, “Above all else, guard your heart, for everything you do flows from it” (Prov. 4:23 niv). Solomon is speaking of the inner part of our humanity. From our heart is born our passions, loves, and desires. That’s why we as people draw hearts in the sand when we want to express a picture of love. The emoji for love is a little red heart, not a little grey brain. Thoughts come in your head and feed your heart. From there desires grow. And out of desire grow passions. If they are the right passions, protection and wonder are born. If they are the wrong passions, sin. Your mind feeds your heart, and your heart births powerful things. You and I will give ourselves to what we love.
I’m not talking about love as a logical action of commitment, which Christians have flattened love to be. I’m talking passionate, holistic, full-feeling, full-throttle, heart’s-a-pounding love—and not only the romantic kind but also the brotherly kind. That is intimacy, which is the love that compels us to lay our lives down. Built over time and regularly tended to, it is the hallmark of relationships in which you’ve made yourself fully known to a select few. That’s the type of love we as humans pursue. When we are in love with the right things, we don’t blindly pursue those things that will ultimately lead to destruction.
Intimacy with Jesus
Ninety-nine percent of the time, when I ask people how their relationship is going with Jesus, they tell me about a sequence of things they do. To be sure, learning about Jesus is great. Understanding the life and teachings of Jesus is important. But are you in love with Him? Is your mind blown and your heart turned upside down and inside out as you reflect on the things He does in your life? Do you go through your day thinking about Him? Are you captivated by Him? Does He stir things in you? That’s the love and intimacy I’m talking about.
Intimacy with our Creator is the ultimate defense from ruining your life and the lives of others. When you are in love with Jesus, you are less vulnerable. Jesus teaches this in John 14:15: “If you love me, you will keep my commandments.” Our intimacy with Jesus births a love that naturally stirs a desire to follow His ways. If Jesus is not one of the stirring desires in your heart, then you will not follow Him. Jesus is not using some sort of manipulative parent approach when He says this. He’s telling us that we can be at peace that the gates of our hearts are well guarded when we follow Him. If you are totally in love with God, your flesh may still be tempted to do stupid things, but avoiding them won’t feel like a burden; it will be a joy. Obedience will be a response of love, not obligation. Your life will be one grand (though imperfect) expression of your love for Him, and it will look like walking in the truth.
Intimacy with Your Spouse
There is something that stirs in me that makes me want to be with my wife. For more than twenty years, we have been nurturing that relationship. Do I feel this way every day? No! There are days I don’t want to be anywhere near the woman. Many days, she looks at me and I know what she’s thinking: “I don’t like you.” But here’s the reality: This woman, I love her. You see, while I love my wife, I am safe. I have no desire to love any other woman. I have never talked to someone who had an affair and said, “I was just so connected and in love with my wife, and then suddenly I had an affair.” It’s always, “My wife and I slowly grew apart these last few months or years.” When you are intimate with your spouse, in love and best friends with one another, you are not going to have an affair.
Now, our intimacy may not protect me from momentary lapses in judgment. That’s why I still have accountability measures in place, and you should, too. But intimacy creates the space where the people closest to you know you well enough to know your vulnerabilities and to call you out when you are lying. Because they are watchful for you and with you, they can tell when your intimacies with your Creator and family are a little off.
Intimacy with Your Biblical Community
Often, pastors and ministry leaders assume that they ought not to have friends in the church because it gets sticky. I have experienced the exact opposite. When our most intimate friendships are within our daily biblical community, we are safest from the sorts of devastating decisions that can destroy lives and ministries. I would argue that not being open and vulnerable with people from the church they lead is part of the reason leaders can fall. If you don’t have friends in your church, that’s a problem.
If you ever listen to sermons I’ve preached, you’ll discover that much of my journey and struggle is brought to the stage. It’s my final frontier of openness. The early stages of recognizing the erosion of intimacy is the perfect opportunity to come to the congregation with vulnerability and let them know that I am with them in the struggle of dailyness. What a privilege we have as leaders that we get to bring light to darkness in front of hundreds of people. This is a freedom and a safety net, not a burden. If light is our friend, then the stage is our freedom. If the shadows are our friend, the stage is a burden.
What follows are some practical steps I take to stay vigilant against the enemy’s attacks and the slow erosion of my soul. It is how I have learned to keep my intimacies intact and strong.
1. I watch.
At the end of every week I literally ask myself, “Do I love Jesus, my wife, and my biblical community more now than I did at the beginning of the week?” Taking the time to ask and answer this question regularly is an important part of preserving the intimacies in your life and avoiding doing something stupid. This kind of ongoing, frequent assessment will give you time to make course corrections before the enemy can gain a foothold.
2. I nurture.
The question here is, what works are most advantageous to the relationship in need of nurture? When it comes to God, it may be a variety of the disciplines of the faith. These are biblical and historical habits that help us engage in intimate spaces with God. They are the things that put us in the soil of transformation. When it comes to your spouse, it may be date night or a small getaway. Maybe it’s just being more intentional with the way we say hello and good-bye each day. This looks different for all of us, but when you’re doing it well, things in you feel different and you feel in love. You are captivated by and obsessed with that reality.
3. I’m open.
Openness means I choose to be vulnerable, to live my life out of the shadows and in the light. When detect the lion prowling or I feel scared, I ask my wife and closest friends to watch my life more deeply. I invite them to pay attention to the little nuances in my life, and they do. Do you know how that makes me feel? It makes me feel safe.
It’s Not Over Yet
When your intimacies with Jesus, your spouse, and your biblical community are diminished, you are vulnerable day in and day out to the onslaught of whatever the enemy wants to bring. Once this happens—once your Heimdall is weakened or dies—it’s just a matter of time before some great burnout or fallout occurs in your life. If you want your heart to be guarded well, you need to develop, protect, evaluate, and assess your intimacies. That’s how you’ll keep your city safe.
Editor’s Note: This post is adapted from What Great Ministry Leaders Get Right: Six Core Competencies You Need to Succeed in Your Callingby Jimmy Dodd & Renaut van der Riet (© 2021). Published by Moody Publishers. Used by permission.