MENTAL TOUGHNESS More important than ever for all leaders

RJD Nasho008

4718345 Corporal R. J. Denton


My first memorable experience of being placed in a situation requiring mental toughness occurred when I was conscripted into the Australian Army at the age of twenty for two years of military service. On the first morning of my ten week recruit training program, I found myself with 1500 other recruits at the Puckapunyal Army camp in Victoria in the middle of a very cold winter. At 5.30am the light went on in the hut where I and 15 other recruits were assigned, and we were hustled onto the parade ground for role call in our pyjamas with our bed sheets under our arms. It was pitch black outside and the sub-zero temperature ensured that the parade ground was covered in ice and mist.

I was far from prepared for all that I would experience in the next ten weeks of recruit training and soon realised that my greatest need would be to give attention to the muscle in my mind that would result in rapid growth in my mental toughness. For it seemed that my mental toughness more than my IQ and my skills, would help me complete the training that would begin to prepare me for life in an arena of war. In fact it seemed that my development in mental toughness would increase the effectiveness of my IQ and my skill level. The more I study the scriptures, the more I see the need for the quality of mental toughness for spiritual leaders if they are going to fulfil God’s purposes in their life time. Mental toughness is a characteristic of self leadership, without which a person will not be able to lead others.  In his excellent book SPIRITUAL LEADERSHIP, J. Oswald Sanders lists discipline as the first essential quality of a leader. “Without this essential quality, all other gifts remain as dwarfs: they cannot grow…… Before we can conquer the world, we must first conquer the self. A leader is a person who has learned to obey a discipline imposed from without, and has then taken on a more rigorous discipline from within. Those who rebel against authority and scorn self discipline – who shirk the rigors and turn from the sacrifices – do not qualify to lead. Many who drop out of ministry are sufficiently gifted, but have large areas of life floating free from the Holy Spirit’s control. Lazy and disorganised people never rise to true leadership.”

As we develop mental toughness, we learn to become comfortable with that which is uncomfortable and we learn how to handle such difficulties as setbacks, disappointments, dangers, rejections, discouragements, fatigue and many other challenges along the way.


    Dr J. Robert Clinton has studied the lives of 1300 leaders, from Biblical leaders right through to contemporary leaders. His conclusion was that less then 30% of leaders finish well and that this startling conclusion “should frighten any present day leader who desires to count for God.” His paraphrase of Paul’s words to the Corinthians indicates how Paul was still advocating a life of self leadership after 21 years in ministry: “I am serious about finishing well in my Christian ministry. I discipline myself for fear that after challenging others into the Christian life I myself might become a casualty.” (1 Corinthians 9:24-27)
    I am learning that the greatest contribution a person can make is in the second half of their life as long as they continue to grow and live a disciplined life and stay connected to the world at large. The writer of the letter to the Hebrews wrote to Christians who were struggling with the challenges of living in a non-Christian world. Would they experience the fruitfulness of growing on in the second half of life? His words regarding mental toughness are just as relevant to us today as they were to his readers of long ago who were struggling with various discouragements.
    “Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles, and let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us. Let us fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfector of our faith, who for the joy set before Him endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. Consider Him who endured such opposition from sinful men, so that you will not grow weary or lose heart.” (Hebrews 12:1-3)
    A person’s growth in mental toughness is a major contributing factor to that person’s growth as a leader. This in turn contributes to the growth of the organisation because growing leaders attract other leaders (and create an environment for other leaders to grow). Consequently, it is hard to see how an organisation’s size will ever get to outgrow the life of the leader.
  1. WE ARE ACCOUNTABLE It is a matter of stewardship. Our lives are not our own to do as we please. There will be an ultimate accountability where we will stand before Jesus to give an account for the life we have lived. We want to be able to say as Jesus said, “Father…. I have brought you glory on earth by FINISHING the work you gave me to do. (John 17:4)”


Carefully read through these scriptures and reflect on how they illustrate lives that display mental toughness.

‘Now Jesus was going up to Jerusalem. On the way, He took the Twelve aside and said to them, “We are going up to Jerusalem, and the Son of Man will be delivered over to the chief priests and the teachers of the law. They will condemn Him to death and will hand Him over to the Gentiles to be mocked and flogged and crucified. On the third day He will be raised to life.” (Matthew 20: 17-19)

“Going a little farther, He fell with His face to the ground and prayed, ‘My Father, if it is possible, may this cup be taken from me. Yet not as I will, but as you will.’” (Matthew 26:39)

“And now compelled by the Spirit, I am going to Jerusalem, not knowing what will happen to me there. I only know that in every city the Holy Spirit warns me that prison and hardships are facing me. However, I consider my life worth nothing to me, my only aim is to finish the race and complete the task the Lord Jesus has given me – the task of testifying to the good news of God’s grace.” (Acts 20:22-24)

“Then Simeon blessed them and said to Mary, His mother, ‘This child is destined to cause the falling and rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be spoken, so that the thoughts of many hearts will be revealed. And a sword will pierce your own soul too.’” (Luke 2 34-35)

“King Nebuchadnezzar, we do not need to defend ourselves before you in this matter. If we are thrown in to the blazing furnace, the God we serve is able to deliver us from it, and He will deliver us from Your Majesty’s hand. But even if He does not, we want you to know Your Majesty, that we will not serve your gods or worship the image of gold you have set up.” (Daniel 3:16-18)


    From the time that Hudson Taylor, the missionary to China, heard God call him to China at the age of 17, he began to prepare himself for a life that would call for great physical endurance. He started to exercise more, he exchanged his feather bed for a hard mattress and carefully watched his diet. Instead of going to church twice on Sunday , he gave up the evening service to visit the poorest parts in town, distributing tracts and holding cottage meetings. He began devoting even more time to prayer and personal Bible study. He began to get up at five in the morning and go to bed early. He began to study Latin, Greek and the rudiments of Hebrew. He gave ten percent of his income to the work of the Lord. He left his aunt’s pleasant home and rented a room twelve foot square in a small shack. His twofold object was to accustom himself to endure hardship and to economise in order to help those among whom he was labouring in the gospel. It was during this time that Hudson Taylor gained a deeper, more painful understanding of the sacrifice that would be required to go to China. But there was more to come. He fell in love with a beautiful Christian girl who told him she would not go to China with him. He broke the relationship and it nearly broke him. But he could say later, “Now I am happy in my Saviour’s love. I can thank Him for all, even the most painful experiences of the past, and trust Him without fear for all that is to come.” Adapted from HUDSON TAYLOR’S SPIRITUAL SECRET by Dr and Mrs Howard Taylor. J. Oswald Sanders wrote, “Discipline in early life, which is prepared to make sacrifices in order to gain adequate preparation for the life-task, paves the way for high achievement.” Or as Jeremiah wrote, “It is good for a man to bear the yoke while he is young.” (Lamentations 3:27) Over the years, experience has shown me that the issue that is not in doubt, is that we need to go through a program of mental toughness preparation. Sometimes we will take the initiative to develop our own program as Hudson Taylor did, or alternatively God will prepare His own program for us. Somehow we need to develop this strength. And once we start, the program never usually stops if we want to live our lives in fruitful service for the Lord.
    Developing the quality of faithfulness has a lot to do with living a life of mental toughness. The words of Jesus, “You have been faithful with a few things; I will put you in change of many things” (Luke 16:10), has been a recurring theme in my own Christian experience. Being faithful in the little things made me conscious of the fact that I would always have a heavenly audience of one and that I needed to bring my A performance with me in whatever I did. This would test my mental toughness at times when I felt tired or discouraged or overlooked. But it also reminded me that God is in the habit of testing people’s faithfulness before He approves them to undertake greater responsibility. 1 Thessalonians 2:4
    It is always too soon to give up when God has called you to serve Him. There is a big difference between doing something that is a good idea and doing something that is God’s idea. A deep sense of God’s calling leads to a strong conviction and a strong conviction is something people will die for. Great leaders have strong convictions. Paul, on trial for his faith, testified “So then, King Agrippa, I was not disobedient to the vision from heaven.” (Acts 26:19). People with mental toughness develop the ability to be led by their convictions and not by their feelings or opinions. It was written of Jesus that “when the time had come for Him to be received up, that He steadfastly (resolutely) set His face to go to Jerusalem” (Luke 9:51) This is a great description of mental toughness.
    The writer of the letter to the Hebrews said “let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles…..” (Hebrews 12:1) So often it can be the good things that get in the way of the best things. In the life of Hudson Taylor we see that a life of discipline led to a life of liberty. The disciplines a mentally strong person develops are never an end in themselves, but rather they are a means to an end. They set us free and put us in a position to be able to achieve all that God calls us to achieve. Travelling lightly involves living a life of discipline and in his book A RESILIENT LIFE Gordon McDonald lists the following four benefits of living a life of intentional discipline:
  2. Discipline strengthens the will.
  3. Discipline brings the spiritual gifts and skills of a person to the highest possible level of effectiveness.
  4. Discipline develops stamina.
  5. Discipline produces excellence in life and work.
    I developed an axiom that I purposed to live out in my ministry that led me on a world wide search to find the best people who would help me become the best me. “Start at the top And work your way down They might say no But they could say yes” I learnt at a very early age that leadership was more caught than taught. I decided to choose my company carefully because I wanted to get close to people on whom I could model my life. It has been said that people of mental toughness are contagious and will attract others to join them and in turn cause them to grow in mental toughness. In my early years in ministry I travelled to America so I could spend time at a church pastored by Ray Stedman, and I travelled to South Korea to spend time with the pastor of the largest church in the world. I travelled on a number of occasions to Argentina to meet the leaders of the revival that was occurring in that country and I went to Sydney to find a man called John Mallison to ask him if he would be my mentor to which he finally agreed (he was my mentor for over 30 years). Where it was possible, I invited leaders who had impacted me to speak at my church. They included J. Oswald Sanders, Henry Blackaby and R.T. Kendall.
    I chose to live in America for 2 years with my wife and young family so I could study at Fuller Seminary School of World Mission, where to serve on the faculty required a person to have had a successful life serving and leading in cross cultural mission. In these two years I never received a salary and my life of faith was tested, but I met a number of people who became life-long friends and who would be used by God to open doors for me in the following years. In the process I grew in mental toughness. In all of my life I have endeavoured to carefully choose my company.
    We are taught much about the saving grace of God, but not as much about the sustaining grace of God. And the sustaining grace of God only comes to us when we are in situations where we need it; it comes to us not too early and not too late. Paul speaks of how he came to experience the sustaining grace of God in a time where his own resources were insufficient for the challenges he was facing. “We do not want you to be uninformed, brothers and sisters, about the trouble we were experiencing in the province of Asia. We were under great pressure, far beyond our ability to endure, so that we despaired of life itself. Indeed, we had felt we had received the sentence of death.
    But this happened that we might not rely on ourselves but on God, who raises the dead. He has delivered us from such a deadly peril, and He will deliver us again. On Him we have set our hope that He will continue to deliver us, as you help us by your prayers.” (2 Corinthians 1:8-11)
    On another occasion he describes how a thorn in the flesh was given him so that he might learn how to live in the sustaining grace of God. God will stop at nothing to teach us this lesson. During this experience the Lord spoke to him, “My (sustaining) grace is sufficient for you for my power is made perfect in weakness.” He continued, “Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me. 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.” (2 Corinthians 12:9-10) An important element in the development of mental toughness is the sustaining grace (power) of God.
    Perspective is a great help in living a life of mental toughness which includes being willing to go through times of delayed gratification for a greater long term benefit. Jesus modelled a life of delayed gratification for us in order that He might leave a great legacy. “For the joy set before Him He endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. Consider Him who endured such opposition from sinners so that you will not grow weary and lose heart.” (Hebrews 12:2-3) To leave a great legacy means living for things that will outlive you and things that will only emerge in the lives of the next generation. To leave a great legacy means living for the things that are eternal. Moses lived such a life. “He regarded disgrace for the sake of Christ as of greater value than the treasures of Egypt, because he was looking ahead to his reward.” (Hebrews 11:26)
    “But the fruit of the spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.” (Galations 5:22-23)
    The fruit of the Spirit is love to help us love those that are hard to love, joy that lifts our spirits when the way ahead is difficult, peace that can keep us calm in stormy times, patience that keeps us focused and resilient when opposition arises, kindness that helps us respond graciously, goodness that keeps us from compromise, faithfulness that lets others know that we can always be relied upon, gentleness that keeps us from being self-assertive, and self control which I find is a helpful definition of mental toughness.


The Christian, above all others, should be characterised as a person of mental toughness. Paul, like Hudson Taylor, was willing to pay the price of self-discipline and went into strict training to win the prize that will last forever. “Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one gets the prize? Run in such a way as to get the prize. Everyone who competes in the games goes into strict training. They do it to get a crown that will not last, but we do it to get a crown that will last forever. Therefore I do not run like someone running aimlessly; I do not fight like a boxer beating the air. No, I strike a blow to my body and make it my slave so that after I have preached to others, I myself will not be disqualified for the prize.” (1 Corinthians 9:24-27) Paul warns us that not to live a life of mental toughness can disqualify us from the race that God has marked out for us. We all are running a race right now, the race of life that God has entrusted to us. We are to run purposely. We are to run with an eternal perspective. We are to run with discipline. “Therefore, with MINDS that are alert (prepared for action) and fully sober, set your hope on the grace to be brought to you when Jesus Christ is revealed at His coming.” (1 Peter 1:15)

































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