It can be lonely at the top. Like the time the Apostle Paul wrote to Timothy from a damp, dark prison cell, on trial in a Roman court, believing that the time for his departure was near.
As I recently read this story, I couldn’t help being reminded of one of the great challenges that leaders need to be ready and equipped to face at critical times in their ministry. That being, what to do when your mates desert you? Paul describes this situation in 2 Timothy 4:16-17.
“At my first defence, NO ONE came to my support, but EVERYONE DESERTED me. May it not be held against them. But the Lord stood at my side and gave me strength, so that through me the message might be fully proclaimed and all the Gentiles might hear it.”
How could it be that this great leader could feel deserted at just the time when he would have needed the support of friends to strengthen him? And how would you have felt if your name would have been recorded in scripture as a deserter as Demas was because he had fallen in love with the world?
And Paul wasn’t the only one in the Bible to experience the loneliness that comes from desertion. Even Jesus himself had gone through a similar situation in a deep time of trial. On the night He was betrayed by Judas, “everyone deserted Him and fled.” Luke 14:50.
As I was reflecting on these words of Paul to Timothy, it became apparent that this encounter with scripture was becoming a teachable moment for me. These occasions of being left alone in a critical time come to all of us. Indeed, I started to recall moments when I had felt the aloneness of leadership and how they had impacted me.
So what can we learn from these few words of Paul to Timothy that will help us stay strong in times of testing and even help us experience times of growth as we go through them. After all, to be forewarned is to be forearmed.
TIMES OF DESERTION
- SHOULD NOT COME AS A SURPRISE TO US
The very nature of leadership can bring with it moments of aloneness and desertion that can take us by surprise.
I think of King David when he returned with his men to Ziklag to find “it destroyed by fire and their wives and sons and daughters taken captive……..David was greatly distressed because the men were talking of stoning him; EACH ONE was bitter in spirit because of his sons and daughters.” (1 Samuel 30: 3,6)
What a vulnerable time for David and how he suddenly and unexpectedly would have felt deserted by his own men.
- CAN REVEAL OUR TRUE CHARACTER
It is not that moments of desertion come that is the real issue, it is what we do when these moments come. I can’t remember ever hearing of a course for leaders called, “What do you do………WHEN YOUR MATES DESERT YOU.” That is why we need mentor/role models like Paul and David to show us how to handle these situations so that we might have the character to be strong and purposeful when they confront us.
- CAUSE US TO REALISE THAT WE ARE NOT REALLY ALONE AFTER ALL
Notice the first reflex action that Paul takes in his time of desertion. “But the Lord stood by my side and gave me strength.”
Although David “was greatly distressed because the men were talking of stoning him,” and yet the story continues. “But David found strength in the Lord his God.”
What do you do when your mates desert you? You press into the Lord where you find strength to rise above any situation you will be called upon to endure. This is the Lord who said to His disciples when He commissioned them, “And surely I am with you always to the very end of the age,” (Matthew 28:20) These stories teach us that we must be alone to discern that we are not alone.
- TEACH US TO LIVE IN INTIMACY WITH THE LORD
We were never meant to find our deepest security in our human relationships, as good as they can be, for no human friend can fully do for us what the Lord can do. It is the Lord that loves us unconditionally and who is the same yesterday, today and forever. No human friendship was ever meant to give us the strength that the Lord can give us and could it be that without times of desertion and aloneness, we would never experience the intimacy of the Lord. How sad it would be for a Christian to go through the whole of life without ever experiencing the reality of the one who said, ”Never will I leave you, never will I forsake you.” (Hebrews 13:15)
Psalm 91 is one of David’s finest Psalms where he speaks of the presence of the Lord in his times of danger. He begins, ”Whoever dwells in the shelter of the Most High will rest in the shadow of the Almighty. I will say of the Lord, ‘He is my refuge and my fortress, my God, in whom I trust.’”
- CAN SERVE GOD’S PURPOSES FOR OUR LIVES
The Lord’s presence was not an end in itself, but rather a means to an end; “The Lord stood at my side and gave me strength, SO THAT through me the message might be fully proclaimed and all the Gentiles might hear it.”
Paul had the insight to see that he was on trial in Rome, the centre of the world, and that this time of crisis had opened a door of opportunity that would allow him to testify to his faith in Jesus before Gentile rulers and consequently to the ends of the Gentile world.
May we learn from Paul and see that even when we are deserted, that it is in these moments when we are weak, that God is strong and able to use us in ways that are beyond our finite thinking.
What an important leadership lesson. What do you do when your mates desert you? You call out to the unchanging Lord who will stand at your side and strengthen you so that you can continue to live out the calling He has on your life.
P.S. MATE = friend (Australian)