What would be the first words from a man who just had his right arm cut off in an industrial accident?
Over forty years ago, Tom Heflin, a seminary student assigned to me as my “big brother,” told me the following shocking story in our first phone conversation.
“I work in a warehouse with several other seminary students. We were shutting down the plant for the weekend, and I was in the back of the facility cleaning a machine. My right arm was fully extended into the device I was cleaning. The other men were in the front of the plant and did not know I was in the back. As one of them flipped a switch, which activated the machine I was refurbishing, my right arm was immediately cut off just below the shoulder. I just arrived home from the hospital today.” He then paused and said, “Isn’t God good?”
His tone was not cynical or flippant but reverent and trusting. I was stunned and declared, “Tell me again what you said happened to you.” He patiently relayed the story, adding a few more details, and then ended with the same question, “Isn’t God good?” He did not pose it as a question he wanted me to answer but as a core creedal conviction he was inviting me to embrace with him.
Where does such true grit and unstoppable, sustainable faith come from?
Over the next several years, I closely watched Tom and discovered why his severed arm did not cut off his faith in God’s goodness. Yes, his injured spirit slugged through the swamp of grief and loss. Of course, his tragic loss caused him to lock arms with doubt and even despair. It’s true that the three-letter word “why” tried to build a permanent path in his mental record and pin him to the mat of unbelief.
It was his daily habit of filtering every aspect of his life through the lens of God’s character and promises.
What pushed Tom through a thousand quitting points and sustained his hope? It was his daily habit of filtering every aspect of his life through the lens of God’s character and promises. He fed his faith in God’s goodness by saturating his mind with the life of Christ, his primary focus in seminary. I remember him saying with deep passion on countless occasions, “The life of Christ!” Tom was not talking about theological information regarding a religious figure, but the living and loving Savior who daily shaped his life.
Tom’s trust in God’s quest to use every circumstance of his life to make him more of a Christ-like servant empowered him. This firm belief in God’s complete forgiveness of him, in Christ, compelled him to compassionately forgive the co-worker who had flipped the switch that ripped off his arm. I watched him maneuver his “prosthetic partner” as he spoke in preaching class on God’s goodness, worked in a study group with other students, shuffled papers as he prepared to teach, or helped his wife clean up after hosting people in their home. Tom forged his fake arm into an ongoing opportunity to declare his confidence in the goodness of God.
What will sustain you when your soul feels cut in half? How do you respond when your spirit seems severed and ugly circumstances pound away at the foundation of your faith?
Tom’s model taught me the essential foundation to true grit, get-back-on-the-horse-and-ride, sustainable Christian leadership: intentionally filtering the circumstances of your life through the character and promises of God.
Know and believe God’s story so that it becomes your strong shield against the slashing swords of unbelief.
Scripture reveals that we were created to image God by exercising long-term sustainable leadership over his creation. “God created man in His own image, in the image of God He created him; male and female He created them. God blessed them; and God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth, and subdue it; and rule over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the sky and over every living thing that moves on the earth.” (Gen. 1:27-28, NASB)
Yet, Genesis chapter three reveals that when Adam and Eve believed Satan’s lie that God is not good and trustworthy, they sought sustainability without God and plunged the world and us, their descendants, into the black hole of death and degeneration. Forget long-term sustainability!
But that is not the end of the story!
God, our ultimate sustainer, purposed to redeem and restore us through the work of Jesus Christ. In Jesus Christ, God did for us what we could never do for ourselves. He lived a life of perfect obedience to the Father, died to pay for our sins and rose from the dead to give us eternal life.
When we place our faith in the work of Jesus Christ on our behalf, we are given the core essentials for slash-proof leadership: a new identity in Christ, motivation to live for God’s glory and the power of the Holy Spirit to fulfill our calling. As his ambassadors, our leadership is to provide a taste of God’s unstoppable kingdom now and a foretaste of his ever-sustainable not-yet coming kingdom.
“Therefore, my beloved brethren, be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that your toil is not in vain in the Lord.” (1 Cor. 15:58, NASB).
To help you never forget and pass along this essential, please carefully read and follow these instructions:
Filter One Leadership
- Fully extend your left arm and lift your hand so you can see the back of your hand and all five of your fingers fully extended. Your extended left hand represents your life circumstances, good and bad.
- Now take your right hand and slightly spread your fingers as if they were a “filter” you could look through. Place your right hand over your eyes, so you can look through the gaps between your fingers. The “filter” formed by the parted fingers of your right hand represents the character and promises of God.
Followers of Christ are called to be “Filter One Leaders.”
Let’s call this “Filter One Leadership.” It is authentic Christian leadership rooted in the habit of believing in God’s goodness because of the Cross, not life circumstances, and measuring God’s power by Jesus’s resurrection, not life’s condition.
Warning! The only other option is the exact opposite of the one we just described. Let’s call it “Filter Two Leadership.”
Filter Two Leadership
To help you remember the second option, please utilize the following instructions:
- Fully extend your right hand, which represents the character and promises of God, and bring your left hand, which represents your life circumstances, before your eyes, using your fingers as a filter.
- This second option is too often the way we live: We filter God through the circumstances of life, and as a result, believe lies about his holy character. We lose heart and become hardened.
These two ways of viewing life profoundly shape every aspect of our being. Followers of Christ are called to be “Filter One Leaders.” Abandon or neglect this call, and you will neither flourish nor finish well. You can take Jesus’s word for it: “Everyone who hears these words of Mine and acts on them, may be compared to a wise man who built his house on the rock…Everyone who hears these words of Mine and does not act on them, will be like a foolish man who built his house on the sand…” ( Matt. 7:24, 26 NASB)
Face the reality God’s revelation unveils by deciding, once and for all, to depend on the Holy Spirit and become a Filter One Leader. He will sustain you!
Steve King is Senior Pastor Emeritus for Cherrydale Baptist Church, Arlington, Va., where he served as Senior Pastor for nearly 36 years, through Aug. 31, 2019. He served on the board of Pioneers International for 29 years, and is part of the leadership team of One Heart DC. For more insights on sustainable leadership, read King’s new book Beware the Slow Leaks: Eight Ways Ministry Leaders Can Thrive and Finish Strong (Salem Books, June, 2019).