When Leaders are Desperate

We often look to wisdom from the most famous people in Scripture. People like Moses, David, Joseph, Esther, Peter, and Paul offer great insights on life and leadership. While these leaders are certainly worth studying, I’d like to also challenge you to consider some priceless wisdom from nameless people. A group of these “nameless” people are found in the Gospel of Mark, and they teach us a powerful leadership lesson on desperation.

After a few days, Jesus returned to Capernaum, and word got around that he was back home. A crowd gathered, jamming the entrance so no one could get in or out. He was teaching the Word. They brought a paraplegic to him, carried by four men. When they weren’t able to get in because of the crowd, they removed part of the roof and lowered the paraplegic on his stretcher. Impressed by their bold belief, Jesus said to the paraplegic, “Son, I forgive your sins.” (Mark 2:1-5 MSG)

We don’t know the names of these four men, but from their lives we learn three priceless lessons. These lessons on desperation provide hope for the leadership journey.

1. Desperation is Awakened When Hurt Meets Hope. 

The crippled man in this story had four friends, some very good friends I might add, who believed it didn’t have to be this way. Leadership is similar. Most of us can see a situation that doesn’t have to stay the same. In the instance of the paraplegic, we don’t know what compelled his friends to get him to Jesus. Maybe they were all best friends. Perhaps one of the friends caused an accident that left the man crippled. The guilt would have certainly ravaged their minds and made them desperate to help.

What we do know is that their friend was hurt. And when they heard about a man who could heal the sick, desperation abruptly awoke. Therein lies our first lesson: desperation is awakened when hurt meets hope.

Perhaps you know the feeling. Maybe your leadership feels crippled by pressure and circumstances. Maybe your finances are in trouble. Perhaps the relationships on your team are disintegrating. Here’s what I want you to know: in the middle of your hurt, there is hope. And when you get a glimpse of that hope, desperation (in a good way) will come alive within you. And why is that important? That brings us to our second lesson.

2. Desperation Turns Obstacles into Opportunities when You Think and Act Differently

Mark 2:4 says, “When they weren’t able to get in because of the crowd, they removed part of the roof and lowered the paraplegic on his stretcher.” Imagine that happening at your house. I’m guessing you wouldn’t be too happy. Dust and debris begin to fall to the floor as a man lying on a stretcher is lowered through the hole in your roof. Sounds crazy, even bizarre. But desperation will do some pretty crazy things.

Sheer desperation drove these four men onto the roof, and through the roof. They weren’t content to wait another day. They didn’t say, “We’ll catch Jesus at the next crusade when the crowds have thinned out.” They didn’t know if there would be another day. So they scooped up their faith, radically changed their thinking, and took a desperate leap forward. The willingness to think and act differently turned a natural obstacle into a supernatural opportunity.

A similar thing happened to Elizabeth Keckly in the 1800s. Born a slave in Virginia, Elizabeth knew first hand the horrors of abuse. But  she caught a glimpse of hope in her mid-twenties when she moved to Petersburg, Virginia where she met single women who owned property and operated businesses. Needless to say, her hurt met hope and desperation came alive with a new vision. Not only did she envision freedom, she determined to own a business.

That dream grew stronger when she relocated to St. Louis, Missouri. She started making dresses and carefully developed her skills as a seamstress. Then the family she was serving hit hard times and offered Elizabeth her freedom for $1,200. The amount seemed insurmountable, but many of her customers who she made dresses for donated the money to buy her freedom. And on November 13, 1855, Elizabeth Keckly and her son were free.

Despite the financial gift, Elizabeth worked for five years to pay back every person who gave her money. Then she pursued the second part of her dream: entrepreneurship. She moved to Washington D.C. and began working as a dressmaker. She honed her skills and built a great network of clients. Then her ultimate dream came true: she became the exclusive dress maker for Abraham Lincoln’s wife, Mary Todd Lincoln.

Elizabeth developed a close friendship with Mary Todd Lincoln over the years. She even comforted her when Mary’s son, Willie, died. Elizabeth was so successful that she eventually made more money than the three children of her former owner.

How did things change for Elizabeth Keckly? First, her hurt met hope and desperation was born with a vision for the future. But then she did what so many fail to do. She chose to think and act differently, turning natural obstacles into extraordinary opportunities.

You may feel trapped by your circumstances. Your may feel like your leadership is slipping through your hands. You see obstacles at every turn, and you feel desperate as a leader. But please hear me:

You will never feel your way into a new set of circumstances. Your desperation must shift from a feeling, to a new way of thinking and acting. Only then do obstacles become opportunities. Only then will your leadership see a brighter day.

James 2:17 says, “Isn’t it obvious that God-talk without God-acts is outrageous nonsense?” (MSG) And verse 26 says, “The very moment you separate body and spirit, you end up with a corpse. Separate faith and works and you get the same thing: a corpse.” Don’t let inaction cripple you. Think differently and then act differently. That’s what desperate leaders do.

3. Desperation Captures the Attention of God and Moves the Hand of God. 

Mark 2:5 says, “Impressed by their bold belief, Jesus said to the paraplegic, “Son, I forgive your sins.” Then, Jesus had a brief dialogue with the religious leaders of the day who were disgruntled because Jesus claimed that he could actually forgive sin. Now, let me just make a quick side note here:

Sometimes your biggest obstacle isn’t your problem, but rather the people who keep telling you that your problem is permanent. Remember, you’re a leader. Don’t let others set the temperature of your circumstances.

Mark 2:8 says, “Jesus knew right away what they were thinking…” In other words, for these religious leaders, the only thing their thinking could see was the obstacle. But desperate leaders think and act differently. Then Jesus said:

“Why are you so skeptical? Which is simpler: to say to the paraplegic, ‘I forgive your sins,’ or say, ‘Get up, take your stretcher, and start walking’? Well, just so it’s clear that I’m the Son of Man and authorized to do either, or both . . .” (he looked now at the paraplegic), “Get up. Pick up your stretcher and go home.” And the man did it—got up, grabbed his stretcher, and walked out, with everyone there watching him. They rubbed their eyes, incredulous—and then praised God, saying, “We’ve never seen anything like this!” (Mark 2:8-12) MSG

What was it that captured Jesus’ attention and moved him to heal this man? It was the “bold belief” of his four friends. And when Jesus saw their desperation, he was moved to do something.

As a leader, what “bold belief” do you need to display? What is God saying to you that you need to act on? Let your desperation lead you to act with faith in God.

Several years ago I was on a mission trip to California and Mexico. One afternoon was designated as a free day, so we headed to the beach. I remember stepping into the bone chilling cold water. The tide was coming in and the current was growing stronger. As I moved deeper into the water, my feet suddenly left the sandy floor of the ocean. The strong undertow left me treading water. Fighting the current, I began to grow desperate as I moved further away from the shore. In that frantic moment, I suddenly thought, “I’m going to die.”

At that point of desperation, I didn’t quote Scripture. I didn’t even scream for help. I prayed two fear-filled words: “Jesus, help!” That was it. And trust me, that prayer came from the deepest part of my being. In a matter of seconds my feet touched the ocean floor again, and I trudged back to shore. I was completely exhausted when I got out of the water.

As I reflect on that moment, I’m reminded of a powerful leadership truth: God responds to our desperation because it’s usually a sign that we’ve reached the end of ourselves. 

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If you’re feeling desperate as a leader, don’t give up. Search for hope…that’s when your desperation is fully alive. Begin to think differently about your circumstances. This might require you to get around other leaders who can help you think clearly and gain perspective. And then act with bold belief. I believe God will honor steps of faith and integrity that are coupled with dependence on God. When leaders are desperate, that’s the only way to move forward.