Spiritual leadership presents its own unique spiritual dangers.
Some are obvious. Calvin identified three sins that spiritual leaders are prone to cave in to. Lust. Greed. Sloth. I have been in pastoral ministry for 7 years and I have watched friends that entered vocational ministry around the same time as I did, fall into each of these 3 snares. All three sins continually crouch at my own soul’s door, ready to devour. These are the sins that those in spiritual leadership are often disqualified by. They are scandalous, sensational, headline-grabbing sins and the watching world latches on to the hypocrisy and inconsistency of Christian’s stumbling into such moral failure.
As dangerous as these public sins are for the spiritual leader and the testimony of Christ’ church, the truth of the matter is, these scandalous sins are typically malignant mutations of a far subtler set of spiritual sins.
The Pride of Holiness
In his classic devotional masterpiece, Humility, Andrew Murray (1828-1917) writes on the subtle dangers that emerge in our pursuit of holiness.
“Let all teachers of holiness, whether in the pulpit or on the platform, and all seekers after holiness, whether in the closet or the convention, take warning. There is no pride so dangerous, because none some subtle and insidious as the pride of holiness.”
Full disclosure: I don’t typically write in my books. But I underlined “the pride of holiness” in bold ink. Murray is making a stunning observation. Let me paraphrase.
In our pursuit of Christ-likeness, a subtle, but dangerous form of spiritual pride raises its head. The pride of holiness is a sin that ironically and perhaps even paradoxically, only emerges when we are attempting to put sin to death.
It is an unspoken danger for sinners in the lifelong process of sanctification. As we grow in our personal holiness, we begin to at times feel more holy. And therein lies the problem. Of course, as we grow in personal holiness we become, by a work of the Spirit, more aware of our sinfulness too, but that awareness is found wanting often. The sweet chord of spiritual progress ringing in our ears can begin to dull our sensitivity to our own sin while increasing our sensitivity to the sins of others.
Murray notes this dynamic:
“It is not a man ever says or even thinks “Stand by thyself…I am holier than thou”. No, indeed, the thought would be regarded with abhorrence. But there grows up, all unconsciously, a hidden habit of soul, which feels complacency its attainments, and cannot help seeing how far it is in advance of others. It reveals itself, not only in words or thoughts, but in a tone, a way of speaking of others, in which those who have the gift of spiritual discernment cannot but recognize the power of self. Even the world with its keen eyes notices it and points to it as proof that the profession of a heavenly life does not bear any specially heavenly fruits.”
To put another way, as sinners grow in Christ-likeness they begin to see their own progression in godliness as proof of their own spiritual superiority. The glare of our own fading glory bouncing off our dusty, spiritual trophies blinds us to our own sin. Like the sad 30 something, insisting people delight in their 6th place ribbons won on their 10-and under soccer team. We begin to feel entitled. Superior. Underappreciated. How cunning are the enemies schemes? He uses the progression of the saints to promote their regression into sin.
Who will deliver us from this body of death? Jesus.
Murray ends with a strong warning and a sweet encouragement:
“Oh brethren let us beware. Unless we make, with each advance in what we think holiness, the increase of humility or study, we may find that we have been delighting in beautiful thoughts and feelings, in solemn acts of consecration and faith, while the only sure mark of the presence of God, the disappearance of self, was all the time wanting. Come and let us flee to Jesus and hide ourselves in Him until we be clothed with his humility. That alone is our holiness.”
As we run the race of the Christian life let us remember what we are running toward. Or more accurately who we are running toward. We are not running to Christ-likeness, we are running to Christ. This not merely semantics. Christ-likeness, personal holiness, only occurs when our end is not “progress” but a “person” and that person is Jesus. Progress puffs up. The Person and Work of Jesus Christ humbles and sanctifies. And as we fix our gaze on Jesus, true, deep, lasting spiritual fruit is wrought.