by Thom Rainer
Simon Peter is one of my favorite Bible characters. He is so real…so human. He was the leader of the apostles, named first in the lists of the disciples in the New Testament. Still, though, he fell in a dramatic way (Luke 22:31-62).
The story of Peter’s fall is filled with warning signs for today’s leaders. Though these signs don’t always happen in a linear fashion, each one should cause us to slow down and evaluate our lives.
1. Being overconfident
Jesus told Peter the Enemy would sift him, but Peter strongly affirmed his commitment to go to prison or to death for Jesus. Surely Peter meant those words, as evidenced by his later willingness to defend Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane. Within hours, though, he would deny knowing Jesus. Peter was overconfident and didn’t know it—and that’s the danger of overconfidence. Believing “it won’t happen to me” is a huge warning sign.
2. Suffering emotional and physical fatigue
The disciples were to watch and pray in the garden, but instead they slept. The emotional fatigue of mounting opposition to Jesus had taken a toll. Exhaustion increased their vulnerability to the Enemy’s arrows. Under the wearying strain of a leader’s responsibilities, we, too, sometimes let our guard down. Carrying too many burdens and getting too little rest can lead to serious consequences.
3. Failing to pray
“Pray,” Jesus commanded the disciples in the garden. Even if they wanted to, still sleep came easier than prayer. The problem here is simple: Prayerlessness reflects self-dependence rather than dependence on God. Anytime we’re not praying, we are susceptible to a fall. In fact, prayerlessness usually correlates to acting first and following God second—as Peter did when he first defended Jesus with a sword.
4. Growing distanced from Jesus
Peter followed Jesus after His arrest from a distance. That distance was obviously geographical, but his heart would quickly grow distant from Jesus too. His actions soon to come would make that point. He who had stood with Jesus and said he would die for Him wouldn’t stand for Him when challenged. Our distance from Jesus may be marked more by less Bible reading and fewer prayers than public denials, but any distance can set us up for a fall.
5. Trying to hide in public
Peter did not hide well, of course, but that doesn’t mean he didn’t try. He warmed himself at the same fire that warmed the enemies of Jesus. Surely he hoped no one would see anything unusual in his presence. Good leaders don’t ignore this warning sign: If you’re tempted to hide something (even while still serving publicly), you are moving in the wrong direction.
A servant girl looked intently at Peter and accused him of being a follower of Jesus; in fact, the wording suggests she stared hard at the disciple. Face to face. Eyeball to eyeball. Accountability in action. Still, Peter lied to her. She challenged him with the truth of who he was, and he denied it. You know a fall is at full throttle if you lie when confronted with the truth of what you’re doing.
7. Escalating denials
Three times others initiated a conversation about Peter’s relationship with Jesus; three times the disciple denied it. To admit he was a follower of Christ would have been to risk his own life, and Peter would not go there. In fact, his denials escalated to the point that he was angry, swearing he had no relationship with Jesus. “May curses fall on me if it’s otherwise,” he said. Leaders in the midst of a fall often convince themselves that loud continual denials somehow change reality.
Here’s the danger for leaders today. For Peter, the process of falling occurred rapidly. It was as if he ran and leapt into disobedience. Most leaders don’t leap into trouble, though; they slide there. Sometimes the process happens so imperceptibly that leaders are in a disaster before they know it.
That’s why good leaders know these warning signals and guard their hearts.
Thom S. Rainer is the president and CEO of LifeWay Christian Resources (LifeWay.com). Among his greatest joys are his family: his wife Nellie Jo; three sons, Sam, Art, and Jess; and six grandchildren. He was founding dean of the Billy Graham School of Missions, Evangelism, and Church Growth at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. His many books include Surprising Insights from the Unchurched, The Unexpected Journey, and Breakout Churches.