Why Do the Best Leaders Limp?

Or, what if an epic failure could be used of God to redirect your life for good, fueled by newfound grace and humility?

Read below or listen to the podcast.

Jacob’s Story: A Defining Moment in the Ascent of a Leader

Most of us have defining moments that shape the rest of our lives. Like that night walking down sorority row at Ole Miss when I met a ridiculously cute red-head from Benton, Mississippi. That encounter was a defining moment for which I am eternally grateful.

However, not all defining moments are joyful ones. Loss, heartbreak, hardship, brokenness, and tragedy may also serve as defining moments. Divorce. Addiction. Clinical depression. A battle with cancer. The loss of a job or a child. All these things can mark and shape us.

The defining moment God used to change Jacob’s life for good was like that. Painful. You know the story.

Jacob has returned home from years on the run after deceiving his brother out of the family birthright. It should have gone to Esau. But Jacob stole it.

In response to Esau’s fury upon realizing what Jacob had done in posing as Esau to gain the blessing of their now-deceased father, Isaac, Jacob left home, living on his uncle’s farm in a region to the east called Haran, where he met and married his wife. Actually, wives plural. I know—funky stuff.

He eventually makes his way back to his homeland with his two wives, their children, and his enormous herd of animals and servants. Materially speaking, Jacob had done quite well for himself.

But Jacob was a coward. Rather than lead his family across the Jabbok River to confront his brother, he planned to send his servants, cattle, and family ahead with gifts, hoping such gestures would assuage Esau’s anger.

Yet, the night before he is to cross the river, Jacob has a life-altering encounter with God—a face-to-face, personal confrontation that marks a turning point in the patriarch’s life that would shape him into a unique type of leader. He didn’t attend a seminar. It wasn’t mentoring that made the difference. What shaped Jacob as a model of gospel leadership wasn’t his ability, knowledge, skill, or competency. All of those things can be good and helpful.

For Jacob, he began to lead the moment he began to limp.

As we recount his story in Genesis 32:13-33:4, we will see how even and maybe especially the most unwanted experiences can be used by God for good to shape us into gospel-shaped, limping leaders in the specific context in which he has placed you, whether in the church, home, business, or school.

Let’s read Jacob’s story.

32:13 He spent the night there (at the Jabbock River), and from what he had with him he selected a gift for his brother Esau: 14 two hundred female goats and twenty male goats, two hundred ewes and twenty rams, 15 thirty female camels with their young, forty cows and ten bulls, and twenty female donkeys and ten male donkeys. 16 He put them in the care of his servants, each herd by itself, and said to his servants, “Go ahead of me, and keep some space between the herds.” 17 He instructed the one in the lead: “When my brother Esau meets you and asks, ‘Who do you belong to, and where are you going, and who owns all these animals in front of you?’ 18 then you are to say, ‘They belong to your servant Jacob. They are a gift sent to my lord Esau, and he is coming behind us.’ ” 19 He also instructed the second, the third and all the others who followed the herds: “You are to say the same thing to Esau when you meet him.  20 And be sure to say, ‘Your servant Jacob is coming behind us.’ ” For he thought, “I will pacify him with these gifts I am sending on ahead; later, when I see him, perhaps he will receive me.” 21 So Jacob’s gifts went on ahead of him, but he himself spent the night in the camp.

22 That night Jacob got up and took his two wives, his two female servants and his eleven sons and crossed the ford of the Jabbok. 23 After he had sent them across the stream, he sent over all his possessions. 24 So Jacob was left alone, and a man wrestled with him till daybreak. 25 When the man saw that he could not overpower him, he touched the socket of Jacob’s hip so that his hip was wrenched as he wrestled with the man. 26 Then the man said, “Let me go, for it is daybreak.” But Jacob replied, “I will not let you go unless you bless me.” 27 The man asked him, “What is your name?” “Jacob,” he answered. 28 Then the man said, “Your name will no longer be Jacob, but Israel, because you have struggled with God and with humans and have overcome.” 29 Jacob said, “Please tell me your name.” But he replied, “Why do you ask my name?” Then he blessed him there. 30 So Jacob called the place Peniel, saying, “It is because I saw God face to face, and yet my life was spared.” 31 The sun rose above him as he passed Peniel, and he was limping because of his hip. 32 Therefore to this day the Israelites do not eat the tendon attached to the socket of the hip, because the socket of Jacob’s hip was touched near the tendon.

33:1 Jacob looked up and there was Esau, coming with his four hundred men; so he divided the children among Leah, Rachel and the two female servants. 2 He put the female servants and their children in front, Leah and her children next, and Rachel and Joseph in the rear. 3 He himself went on ahead and bowed down to the ground seven times as he approached his brother. 4 But Esau ran to meet Jacob and embraced him; he threw his arms around his neck and kissed him. And they wept. 

A New Day, a New Man

When the sun came up, Jacob was a new man with a new name… and a limp.

It was an encounter that sparked a transformation within Jacob that motivated a 180-degree change in how he would approach Esau. Instead of following his family across the river, He decided to go first, meeting his brother not with strength but in weakness.

Jacob didn’t cower in fear or swagger with self-confidence. Instead, he took the approach of a broken, humble brother. He made no demands or excuses. Not only did his leg limp, but so did his heart.

The lesson we learn from Jacob is that you can’t be a gospel-shaped leader until you have an encounter with God that causes you to limp.

This cuts across the grain of conventional wisdom, doesn’t it? Throughout history, we have perceived the best leaders as strong, competent, able, and fearless. Even ancient Israel wanted a king like other nations. Someone tall of stature—a warrior who could beat anyone in an arm-wrestling match. They didn’t want a limping leader. So, the LORD gave them Saul to teach them and us that the kind of leader who represents the Kingdom of God is not the one who enters the city in a chariot but on the foal of a donkey.

Part of the problem is that we tend to look for leadership qualities on the outside—Looks, resumes, and accomplishments—which is why a limping leader does not meet most expectations of someone who is worthy to lead. Limping leadership is utterly counterintuitive to the American ethos.

But think about how many other themes in the Bible seem backward (and even naive) to the way we are conditioned to think. For example, in the Kingdom of God, to be mature, you must become a child. To live, you must die. To be rich, you must give. To be first, you should be last. To defeat your enemies, you must do good to them.

And to be strong, you must be weak.

Put simply, if you don’t limp, you shouldn’t lead.

Limping Leaders

When we scan the biblical landscape, we see many limping leaders. Consider Moses, who had a speech impediment yet was called upon the be the spokesman for Israel before a ruthless Egyptian dictator called Pharoah. He would have to wholeheartedly trust the LORD to sustain his calling as Israel’s deliverer. It would not be in Moses’ strength but God’s strength through the limping leader, a man whom Deuteronomy says was most well-known not for his ability but his humility.

As king of Israel, David had a substantial limp that resulted from his infamous moral failures. Not only was he a woefully negligent father, but he allowed his lustful impulses to drag him into adultery, lies, and murder. The next king, Solomon, would follow in his father’s womanizing steps.

This is not to say that we should pursue moral failure in order to qualify for gospel leadership. No. We already have plenty of moral failure on our rap sheets to qualify. The question is whether we’ve been broken to the point of genuine repentance.

For example, in Psalm 51:1-2, David laments his sin, confessing a desperate need for God’s mercy:

1 Have mercy on me, O God, according to your unfailing love; according to your great compassion blot out my transgressions. 2 Wash away all my iniquity and cleanse me from my sin. 

Even apostles like Peter and Paul were limping leaders. Peter is known for the most famous betrayal of Jesus in history and Paul, who had been a proud, self-confident Pharisee, would be stricken with a wound that would cause him to limp in such a way that he was finally able to learn dependency upon the strength of God to work in and through him.

Paul records this lesson in 2 Corinthians 12:7b-10. After revealing that he had been given a vision into heaven like Isaiah, he confesses,

7b “Therefore, in order to keep me from becoming conceited, I was given a thorn in my flesh, a messenger of Satan, to torment me. 8 Three times I pleaded with the Lord to take it away from me. 9 But he said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.’ Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me. 10 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.”

Here we have the foundation of gospel-shaped leadership, which is why the best leaders limp.

But let’s be honest. Limping leadership is inspirational in theory, nobody wants to be a limping leader. We aspire to just the opposite, don’t we? That is my story.

Thank God for Failure

When I took my first job as a senior pastor in 2003 (and here comes a confession), I think I secretly aspired to be the church’s hero. I understood gospel concepts like a professional gambler knows cards in Vegas. When I arrived in town with my bag of tricks, I expected people to fawn over the vast number of ministry ideas I had collected from extensive reading and research. We were going to be the next church growth darling transforming our community for the glory of God. Or at least for someone’s glory. I could envision magazine articles written about us, speaking opportunities, and consulting requests.

But there is a reason why most folks have never heard of me. There were no articles and no big stages on which to stand. Things are going great in that church now. But when I was there, it was a lot of struggle, frustration, and disappointment.

Maybe I was an ice-breaker.

But I definitely failed to be the hero.

Like the Wizard of Oz faking greatness from behind the curtain, I had faked it in the pulpit, in the board room, over lunch… everywhere. I had sought to wield all the skills of the most gifted pastoral leader: preaching, team building, ministry management, counseling, home and hospital visitation, staff development—you name it. But I couldn’t keep up the facade of multi-faceted pastoral giftedness.

Four years later, my hero-dream was dead as I left town… limping. At first, I was convinced that the breakdown in leadership was their fault. Eventually, the Lord showed me it was largely mine.

Limping away was excruciatingly painful at the time and I would never go back to relive that experience. But how I thank God now for that limp. It taught me that the only hero in the church is Jesus.

Looking back, pastoral failure may have been one of the best things that has ever happened to me.

There is a Good Kind of Strong Leadership

Don’t misunderstand. Being strong is not wrong. Even Paul recognized that there was a way to be a strong leader. But it would not be in the strength of self but in an alien strength, where we are emptied of self and filled with the Spirit of Jesus.

In Ephesians 6:10, Paul, the limping, thorn-afflicted apostle, encourages his friends to be strong against the schemes of the enemy. But how? Where were they to find their strength? Paul leaves no room for doubt, writing, “Finally, be strong in the Lord and in his mighty power.”

The only way I will seek the power of someone else is when I am out of resources. Only when I am weak enough will I cry out for help with my limp. While the limp is uninvited and unwanted, it is necessary for the gospel-shaped leader.

Three Characteristics of Limping Leaders

1) Limping leaders go first.

When something is hard, they do not send others to test the waters. Like Jacob show us, they go first, whether crossing a river or repenting to someone they have sinned against. And they are the first to forgive. They go first by showing what it looks like to live in view of the cross.

John Newton, the 18th-century slave trader turned preacher, one said, "When I was young, I was sure of many things; now there are only two things of which I am certain: one is, that I'm a miserable sinner; the other is that Christ is an all-sufficient Savior (of miserable sinners)."

It is from that limping posture that Newton would write the hymn, Amazing Grace, which probably should be the theme song of any limping leader.

2) Limping leaders boast in their weaknesses.

We Americans are a success culture built on the backs of rugged individualism, resolve, and strength. Not weakness. But there is something about the Kingdom of God that continually turns the tables on what we expect to be true. Just at the moment when Jacob must have thought he would be defeated, he experiences an unexpected victory and blessing of reunion. Not in spite of his limp, but because of his limp.

For example, Paul originally thought that his thorn was prohibiting him from effective ministry, when all along, his thorn actually was equipping him for effective ministry. Because the only way he could fulfill his apostolic mission was to be weak enough to need the enabling grace of Jesus.

3) Limping leaders have tenacious confidence in the grace, mercy, and love of God.

In his wrestling match, Jacob hangs on with all his might. Why? Since he would now limp for the rest of this life, Jacob needed to know that his wounding was a gift and not a curse. He sought the blessing of God.

What we learn in the gospel is that when the Lord wounds, it is to heal. That is even true of Jesus, who was wounded that we would be healed.

Now, the blessing we receive is like Jacob. We get a new name. We are no longer orphans but adopted sons and daughters. No longer are we condemned sinners. We are justified saints. We are not known to heaven as the cursed of God but the beloved of God.

As we limp, we will need to remember that with tenacious confidence, lest we think the pain is meant to defeat us. Instead, the wound is intended to lead us to Jesus for the support we need.

The Support We Need

As a grown man with political aspirations, Franklin Roosevelt acquired polio and lost the function of his legs. In practically every photo released of FDR to the public after the disease crippled the President, he either is sitting in his convertible shaking hands with passers-by or he is standing to give a speech. It is noteworthy that when standing, he always wore leg braces and was never without visible support, whether holding firmly onto a podium or grasping to someone else’s arm for stability.

One of those who was often seen by his side was his son. Even FDR’s own legs couldn’t hold him up, his son could, enabling Roosevelt to stand while delivering the speeches that gave the country the hope it needed to endure the Great Depression and to face the trauma and challenges of the Second World War.

Every leader needs the same kind of support. Not from a son but from the Son.

Paul wrote in Romans 5:1-2,

1 Therefore, since we have been justified through faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, 2 through whom we have gained access by faith into this grace in which we now stand. And we boast in the hope of the glory of God. 

The boast of the limping leader is not in his own knowledge, skill, competency, or accomplishments. It is in the finished work of Jesus upon a cross, where the now risen Savior exchanged his life for ours, taking our sin upon himself and giving us the grace of gift-righteousness upon which to stand—upon which to live… and limp.

Because of the present value of Jesus’ blood, it is safe to limp. And limping leaders become those who make a safe place for limping sinners, reminding us all that our hope is not in our ability to walk well but is in Jesus’ ability to save completely.

Originally, Jacob thought that he could pacify Esau’s anger with gifts. But Esau wasn’t angry, anymore. He didn’t want his brother’s stuff, he wanted his brother’s heart. While justice demanded that Jacob receive his brother’s wrath, in mercy, Jacob receives an embrace that looks a lot like the return of the prodigal.

In the cross, Jesus fulfilled the law’s demand for justice on our behalf. Now we, like Jacob, become not the givers of gifts to God but recipients of grace from God—limping as we lead to the praise of his glorious grace.

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