A Leader’s Personal Litmus Test

John B. MacDonald /Sunday, June 26, 2022


Litmus paper reveals whether a solution is acidic or alkaline.

As a metaphor, a litmus test is “a test in which a single factor (as an attitude, event, or fact) is decisive” (Merriam-Webster Dictionary).

As with a chemical solution, so with a leader – the ‘litmus test’ does not change the leader; it reveals the leader’s character. 

Here are three litmus tests a true leader can learn from Jesus. 

A basic lesson

A basic lesson we learn from Jesus is the thorny concept of submission. A true leader must learn to follow or submit to God.

What does that mean? And what does it look like?  

After Jesus was baptized by John the Baptist, we get a glimpse of Trinitarian interactivity: the Spirit descends upon the Son as the Father speaks: “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased” (Matthew 3:16-17). 

We then read that “Jesus was led by the Spirit into the desert to be tempted by the devil” (4:10). This is an act of submission by Jesus. No other explanation is given for what is about to follow.

Take a moment to read the temptation of Jesus in Matthew 4:1-11. In part, I’m informed by Henri Nouwen’s thoughtful little book, In the Name of Jesus: Reflections on Christian Leadership

Temptation #1

In Nouwen’s terms, the first temptation is about relevance vs. obedience.

After fasting forty days and nights, [Jesus] was hungry. The tempter came to him and said, “If you are the Son of God, tell these stones to become bread.” (4:2-3)

Grammatically, the “if” statement indicates certainty. So, we can read this as, “Since you are the Son of God, command these stones to become bread.” 

What an obvious solution: turning stones into bread for his hunger. It’s so relevant to the present need—or is it?

Jesus does not do it. Instead, he responds with a statement taken from Israel’s national experience in the wilderness: “Man does not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God” (4:4, quoting Deuteronomy 8:3).

The verse before (Deut. 8:2) explains God’s purpose for Israel in their wilderness situation.   

Remember how the LORD your God led you all the way in the desert these forty years, to humble you and to test you in order to know what was in your heart, whether or not you would keep his commandments.

There is a parallel between the settings for Israel and Jesus—God leads both; in a desert place; being tested; and lacking food.

The challenge is not to see how long one can go without food or how one can get food. Instead, the litmus test is “to know what [is] in your heart, whether or not you [will] keep his commandments.”

What will this test reveal about Jesus’ heart? Will it be to fill his stomach or to keep God’s commandments? Will it be relevance or obedience?

Despite his hunger, Jesus’ path is obedience over relevance

Temptation #2

The second temptation is to be spectacular. 

Transported to “stand on the highest point of the temple” in Jerusalem, the devil says, “If you are the Son of God … throw yourself down” (4:5-6). The devil then backs up his request with a distorted quotation from Psalm 91:11-12. 

Imagine what would happen if Jesus threw himself off the pinnacle in the sight of thousands and angels gently caught him at the last moment. Jesus’ popularity would have been guaranteed instantly.

Instead, Jesus answers with, “Do not put the Lord your God to the test” (4:7, quoting Deuteronomy 6:16).

Jesus refuses the proposed public relations spectacle. Instead, he submits to God the Father. Jesus’ path is obedience over popularity

Temptation #3

The third temptation is to be powerful.

Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor. “All this I will give you,” he said, “if you will bow down and worship me” (4:8-9).

The attraction is to gain all the world’s power immediately. There is just one condition: “bow down and worship me.” It is a choice between submission to God or the devil.

Jesus is secure in his identity and his purpose: “Away from me, Satan! For it is written: Worship the Lord your God, and serve him only” (4:10).

Jesus’ path is submission to the Father, not power obtained apart from God

Four takeaways

If you aspire to become a true leader, here are four lessons you can learn from Jesus:

1.         Your character will be tested. Not only is the test certain, but it will also be real.

You will have to choose: either you submit to God and his purposes, or you prefer something else that is powerfully and deceptively attractive.

2.         You will probably be tested in private—in a “desert” place. It is said that “The truest test of a person’s character is what he or she does when no one is watching” (John Wooden).

In this crucible, you will learn what your true character is at that point.

3.         The test will include the reasonableness, allure, and benefits of relevance, popularity, or power.

You will need to be deeply rooted in your relationship with the God revealed as Jesus Christ. In this way, you will be able to discern the test and make the right choice.

Do you notice how Jesus responds to each temptation with an appropriate text of Scripture? He was immersed in God’s ‘Story’ and living in that ‘Story.’

4.         For the follower of Jesus, failure is never the end. I’m going beyond Matthew 4 here, but I thought I should mention it.

For example, Peter failed when he denied knowing Jesus (Matthew 26:69-75). Yet, in Christ, Peter was later transformed and restored. In the best sense, Peter became a strong leader.


Are you ready for your litmus test?


*This article first appeared on the Living Theology website and has been republished with permission. 

Dr. John B. MacDonald has served for decades as a lawyer and pastor-teacher. He is an associate with Outreach Canada and focuses on equipping and encouraging others to become more like Jesus Christ and to live all of life with God-honoring competence and joy.


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