“If I’m not careful, I can create a well-worn path to all the wrong places by allowing myself to love all the wrong things.”
Q: For me, leading is an exhausting exercise. It depletes me more than any of my other responsibilities as a pastor. Do you have this problem? And, if so, what have you done to guard against its potential for negative impact in your life and ministry?
A: Though leadership is one of my primary gifts and I love it, I too can get worn down and pushed off course. In fact, my primary leadership obstacle is often myself. I have to be in the right place in life in order to lead others. This isn’t easy for me. I have a wandering heart. If I’m not careful, I have great capacity to move from loving the right things to the wrong things… without even recognizing it.
So, I’ve been forced to come up with ways to check my heart… to make sure I’m staying on the right path in life. Surprisingly, a slice of life from my childhood has really helped me get a better handle on this.
When I was 10 years old, my dad bought some property in Northern Michigan where he could escape with his family. At the time, it seemed uninhabitable. There was no house or cabin. It was just woods and over grown fields of waist high weeds, sumac, and thorny blackberry bushes.
There weren’t any roads or trails. It wasn’t easy to get around the property and it was quite dangerous. There were large hidden rocks that caused some unexpected and unwelcomed attempts at flying while racing on our dirt bikes and ATVs.
Over the years, through constant use, we now have dirt roads and trails all over that property. It’s easy to get around, and, unless we decide to go off trail, we’re no longer getting thrown from our vehicles. And, here’s the important point. It’s easy to recognize the places we value most on our property. They’re at the end of the most well worn trails.
This experience has given me a better understanding of my spiritual journey. When I first started following Christ, I had a hard time finding my way. The spiritual part of my life was all overgrown and unmarked. The entire experience for me was new. Everyday, I was cutting a new trail. It wasn’t easy, and I made a lot of wrong turns, hit quite a few hidden rocks, and got thrown off the right path many times.
Over time, as I developed positive patterns for growing spiritually, the right paths became easier to see. When we consistently do the right things to get and stay close to Christ, the path can become easier to recognize… easier to see… and easier to follow.
Here’s the danger. If we consistently do the wrong things, we create a trail… an easy and comfortable path… to all the wrong places. As with our family property, the well-worn trails of our lives… those things we think, feel, and do most often… reveal what’s really important to us. So, we have to always make sure we’re consistently being the right person and doing the right things.
Now, with that as context, let me answer your question. In order to make sure that I stay on the right path, I have learned to keep a close eye on my heart. I have learned that everything I am, do, and become is ultimately shaped by my heart. When I get off the right path and fail spectacularly, my heart determines it. When I succeed spectacularly, my heart drives that as well. “Above all else, guard your heart, for it is the wellspring of life,” Proverbs 4:23.
I have discovered that those things that can ruin our lives, relationships, reputations, and opportunities in life come from inside of us. They come from our heart. The condition of our heart creates the character of our life and relationships.
If I’m not careful, I have found that I can create a well-worn path to all the wrong places by allowing myself to love all the wrong things. So, I have realized my need to be concerned and careful about my heart above all other issues of life. I need to know, watch for, and pay attention to the danger signs that my heart is messed up.
Here are five danger signs of the heart:
When I start comparing myself to others, I know I’m cutting the wrong trail. When I see this in my life, I look for ways to cooperate with and celebrate others. I consciously seek to follow God’s admonition in Romans 12:15. “Rejoice with those who rejoice; mourn with those who mourn.”
I’m a fairly intense person. When I begin losing control of my intensity, I know I’m getting ready to crash and burn. I have found that the right solution is always found in some expression of forgiveness. I’ve been holding onto something that I shouldn’t be holding on to. When I let go of it, I find my heart moving back in the right direction. (If this is your issue, checkout Ephesians 4:26, 31-32.)
When I find myself looking at or wanting the wrong things, I know I’m off track. The solution for me is found in looking up to God by looking into His Word. In the words of Colossians 3:1-2, I have to set my heart on the right things. I need to get God’s Word flowing back into and directing my heart.
When I start isolating myself from those who are closest to me in life or start hiding who I really am in my teaching, I know I’m in trouble. It didn’t work for King David, and it won’t work for me. There’s always a reason behind my hiding. More often than not, the problem is guilt. So, when this happens, I know it’s time for some introspection and confession.
When I start seeking to control everything, it’s a sure sign that I’m resisting God’s way and pursuing my own. Pride is a very natural and destructive force in my life. I have to fix it before I mess everything up. From Hezekiah, I’ve learned that the only way to fix it is to recognize it and repent. (See 2 Chronicles 32:26)
These are issues that all of us will wrestle with for the rest of our lives. Those of us in ministry can be especially susceptible to them and need to become especially sensitive to them. If we don’t, the well-worn paths of our lives will lead to all the wrong places. So, whatever you do, I encourage you to take care of your heart. It really is the wellspring of your life and ministry.