If You Don’t Limp, You Shouldn’t Lead

Jacob’s Story: the Ascent of a Leader

Jacob, the Old Testament patriarch of Israel, became a leader in Genesis 32. He didn’t attend a seminar. Years of mentoring didn’t prepare him for his ascent. In fact, what shaped Jacob as a model of biblical leadership wasn’t his ability, knowledge, skill, or competency.

He began to lead the moment he began to limp.

You know the story. Jacob has returned home from years on the run after deceiving his now-deceased father, Isaac, and still living brother, Esau, out of the family birthright. It should have gone to Esau. But Jacob stole it.

In response to Esau’s fury, Jacob left home, living on his uncle’s farm in Haran, where he met and married his wife. Actually, wives plural. Funky stuff.

Anyway, he eventually makes his way back to his homeland with his two wives, their children, and his enormous herd of animals and servants. Materially speaking, Jacob had done quite well for himself.

But Jacob was a coward. Rather than lead his family across the Jabbok River to confront his brother, he planned to send his servants, cattle, and family ahead, hoping that gifts would assuage Esau’s anger.

Yet the night before Jacob is to cross the river, he has an encounter with God. Rather than embrace, they wrestle. In the process, the Lord wounds Jacob in the hip and renames him, Israel.

When the sun came up, Jacob was a new man with a new name… and a limp.

Somehow, this encounter sparked a change within Jacob that motivated him to change his mind about how to approach Esau. Rather than follow, he would lead. Limping, he would go first, meeting his brother not with his strength but in weakness.

While the reunion exceeded Jacob’s expectations, the point of the story for us is that Jacob became a model of leadership who was willing to step up not when he thought he was able but when he had no confidence in his ability to defend himself from his enemy-brother. He would have to live and lead in the strength of the Lord.

What Jacob learned is true for us. You can’t be an effective leader until you have a limp.

This cuts across the grain of conventional wisdom, doesn’t it? Throughout history, we have perceived the best leaders as strong, competent, able, and fearless. Like the kings of other nations, Israel wanted someone like Saul, who was tall of stature. A warrior who could beat anyone in an arm-wrestling match.

We tend to look for leadership on the outside, which is why a limping leader does not meet most expectations of someone who is worthy to follow into battle — even if a spiritual battle.

Think about how many other themes in the Bible seem utterly counterintuitive (and even naive). For example, to be mature, you must become a child. To live, you must die. To be rich, you must give. To be first, you should be last. To defeat our enemies, you must do good to them.

And to be strong, you must be weak.

Using our terminology, if you don’t limp, you shouldn’t lead. Let me say that again: If you don’t limp, you shouldn’t lead.

Limping Leaders

When we scan the biblical landscape, we see many limping leaders like Moses, who had a speech impediment and was called upon the be the spokesman for Israel before a ruthless Egyptian dictator called Pharoah.

As king, David had a substantial limp that resulted from his famous moral failures. Not only was he a woefully negligent father, but he allowed his lustful impulses to drag him into adultery, lies, and murder. The next king, Solomon, followed in his dad’s womanizing steps.

Even apostles like Peter and Paul were limping leaders. Peter is known for the most famous betrayal of Jesus in history and Paul would be stricken with a wound that would cause him to limp in such a way that he was finally able to learn dependency upon the strength of God to work in and through him.

Paul records this lesson in 2 Corinthians 12:7b-10. After revealing that he had been given a vision into heaven like Isaiah, he confesses,

“Therefore, in order to keep me from becoming conceited, I was given a thorn in my flesh, a messenger of Satan, to torment me. 8 Three times I pleaded with the Lord to take it away from me. 9 But he said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.’ Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me. 10 That is why, for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong.”

Here we have the foundation of biblical leadership. The best leaders limp.

But let’s be honest. While limping leadership sounds sweet and inspirational in theory, nobody wants to be a limping leader. We aspire to just the opposite, right? At least I do.

Thank God for Failure

When I took my first job as a senior pastor, I was pretty sure that I was going to be the church’s hero. I understood gospel concepts like a professional gambler knows cards in Vegas and was a reasonably decent communicator. When I arrived in town with my bag of tricks, I expected people to fawn over the vast number of ministry ideas I had collected from extensive reading and research. We were going to be the next church growth darling. I could envision magazine articles written about us, speaking opportunities, and consulting requests.

But there is a reason why you’ve never heard of me. There were no articles and no big stages on which to stand and pontificate about my success.

Things are going great in that church now. But when I was there, it was all struggle, disappointment, and frustration.

I failed to be the hero. Like the Wizard of Oz faking greatness from behind the curtain, I had faked it in the pulpit, in the board room, over lunch… everywhere. I had sought to wield all the skills of the most gifted pastoral leader, preaching, team building, ministry management, counseling, home and hospital visitation, staff development, etc. But I couldn’t keep up the facade of multi-faceted pastoral giftedness.

Four years later, my hero-dream was dead as I left town… limping.

Oh, how I thank God for that limp.

Pastoral failure may be one of the best things that has ever happened to me.

There is a Good Kind of Strong Leadership

Don’t misunderstand. Being strong is not wrong. Even Paul recognized that there was a way to be a strong leader. But it would not be in the strength of self but in an alien strength, where we are emptied of self and filled with the Spirit of Jesus.

In Ephesians 6:10, Paul, the limping, thorn afflicted apostle, encourages his friends to be strong against the schemes of the enemy. But how? Where do they find their strength? Paul leaves no room for doubt, writing, “Finally, be strong in the Lord and in his mighty power.”

The only way I will seek the power of someone else is when I am out of resources. Only when I am weak enough will I cry out for help with my limp. Only then can I truly be a strong leader.

While the limp, like Paul’s thorn, is uninvited and unwanted, it is necessary for the leader who would be truly strong by deriving strength from someone else.

This is the kind of leader the church needs today.

1) We need leaders who are genuinely humble.

Humility is not so much a character trait as it is a lens through which we are able to see all of life from a realistic perspective. The humble see things as they truly are while the proud create distortions, especially concerning their ranking on the scale of cosmic importance, or even just the scale of importance among a small group of peers. Humble leaders know themselves to be the neediest sinner in the room, utterly dependent upon the grace of God not only to save them but to sustain them.

2) We need leaders who boast in their weaknesses.

To say that we need leaders who boast in weakness is an outrageously counterintuitive statement. We are a success culture built on the backs of rugged individualism, resolve, and strength. Not weakness. But there is something about the Kingdom of God that continually turns the tables on conventional wisdom. Just at the moment when Jacob must have thought he was defeated, he experiences an unexpected victory of reunion. Paul had thought that his thorn was prohibiting him from effective ministry, when all along, his thorn actually was required for him to have an effective ministry. The only way he could fulfill his mission was to be weak enough to need the enabling grace of Jesus. Paul, can you do it? No, but Jesus can. And in his way, not mine.

3) We need leaders who express tenacious confidence in the enabling grace of God.

Dr. Jack Miller was known for saying, “Grace flows downhill.” It is not those in the high places that are most in need but those in the low places. Thankfully, this is where God does his most profound work — through sinners in the valley, where enabling grace, like a mountain stream, flows down to those in need. We need leaders who know what it is to drink deeply of the promises of God, tenaciously confident that “he is able to do immeasurably more than all we can ask or imagine, according to his power that is at work within us” (Ephesians 3:20).

The Support We Need

As a grown man with political aspirations, Franklin Roosevelt acquired polio and lost the function of his legs. In practically every photo released of FDR to the public after the disease crippled the President’s legs, he either is sitting in his convertible shaking hands with passers-by or he is standing to give a speech. When standing, he is never without support, whether holding onto a podium or grasping tightly to someone else for stability.

Even though his legs couldn’t hold him up, his son could, enabling Roosevelt to stand while delivering the speeches that gave the country the hope it needed to endure the Great Depression and to face the trauma of the Second World War.

Every leader needs the same kind of support, not from a son but from the Son — the Jesus who proclaimed that his strength is perfected in our weakness. The Savior whose voluntary weakness unto death is the power of God unto our salvation.

Indeed, it is only when we recognize our inherent weakness that we are able to be strong with a strength that is firmly rooted in the mercies of God in the gospel, empowering faithfulness and courage to lead through the enabling influence of the indwelling Holy Spirit.