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In the years following Lance Armstrong’s first Tour de France win in 1999, there was a persistent group of people who questioned the basis of his superhuman performances as he notched up one Tour victory after another. During his victory speech after winning his seventh Tour, Lance had something to say to his detractors: “…to the people who don’t believe in cycling, the cynics and the sceptics: I’m sorry for you. I’m sorry that you can’t dream big. I’m sorry you don’t believe in miracles”.

Sadly, Armstrong’s successes were not miraculous. He was a cheat. And he bullied his entire team into a programme of doping which on occasion saw the team bus parked on the side of remote mountain passes receiving blood transfusions to mask their use of EPO, a performance enhancing drug.

Kathly LeMond the wife of Greg a former teammate and friend of Armstrong had a very pertinent question to ask: “We all heard his speech on the podium at the Tour de France chastising people for questioning his performances: how do you get to be like that?”

Good question, Kathy. How could Armstrong lie, bully, litigate and manipulate for over 13 years until his dark, shabby secret was finally exposed? There are some answers in an essay on leadership by John Ortberg.

Mission and Shadow Mission

To begin, we should note that every person has a mission in life. John Ortberg writes:

You and I were created to have a mission in life. We were made to make a difference. But if we do not pursue the mission for which God designed and gifted us, we will find a substitute. We cannot live in the absence of purpose. Without an authentic mission, we will be tempted to drift on autopilot, to let our lives centre on something that is unworthy, something selfish, something dark – a shadow mission.”

In an interview with Oprah Winfrey, Armstrong said that initially his mission was to become the best cyclist in the world. It was a commendable mission given his abilities and make-up. But sadly Lance’s mission soon morphed into a shadow mission: win at all costs. It is very easy to end up pursuing a shadow mission, for they are often very close to one’s authentic mission. Further, the flesh is attracted to shadow missions. So without constant effort and reflection, you will default to the pursuit of your shadow mission. And shadow missions lead to death. Ask Lance.

Before we explore ways to indentify and overcome your shadow mission, it would be helpful to consider Jesus and His shadow mission.

Jesus and His shadow mission

Jesus had a mission. Having saved Zacchaeus, Jesus said, “today salvation has come to this house”. Then he went on to explain this statement saying, “For the Son of Man came to seek and to save what was lost (Luke 19:9-10).” Jesus’ mission was to seek and to save the lost.

But Jesus had a “shadow mission” as well: to save the lost without suffering. F.F. Bruce writes:

Time and again the temptation came to him from many directions to choose some less costly way of fulfilling that calling than the way of suffering and death, but He resisted it to the end and set His face steadfastly to accomplish the purpose for which He had come into the world”.

When Satan tempted Jesus in the desert, he tempted Jesus to achieve his mission without hunger, “turn these stone to bread”; without pain, “throw yourself down from the temple, and the angels will bear you up”; and without opposition, “bow down before me, and all the kingdoms of the earth will be yours”. You don’t have to be hungry, you don’t have to hurt, and you don’t have to be opposed.

Then later when Jesus began to explain to his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer, and that he must be killed and on the third day be raised to life, Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. Once again, Jesus was being tempted to save without suffering, so He turned and said to Peter, “Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me; you do not have in mind the things of God, but the things of men.”

But Jesus’ temptation to give in to his shadow mission didn’t end with Peter’s thoughtless comment. As he knelt in the garden of Gethsemane sweating blood, he prayed “take this cup away from me”. Then as he hung on the cross the people jeered, “He saved others, but he can’t save himself! He’s the King of Israel! Let him come down now from the cross, and we will believe in him (Mat 27:42).” Jesus could have got people to believe in Him without suffering. But Jesus looked his shadow mission in the face, and at a cost we will never comprehend, He chose to suffer in our place, so that we could be saved.

So if Jesus had a shadow mission and found it tempting, you will struggle with shadow missions too. But how can you fight to overcome your shadow mission?

Overcoming your Shadow Mission

1. Develop your character

One of the great failings of our society is preoccupation with ability. We idolise ability. Ability gets the job done. Ability buys power, money and success. But ability masks character. Commenting on Armstrong, another cyclist called Charles Pelkey wrote: “[Armstrong] used what could otherwise be deemed ‘good works’ as a shield to distract the inquisitive from raising questions about his flawed character.” People overlooked Armstrong’s character because they were beguiled by his ability and “good works”. I hope the same cannot be said of us!

But why is a flawed character so dangerous? With great insight, Ortberg notes that “character is, among other things, the capacity to be inhabited by God. Every wrong choice, every dark thought I entertain, makes me a little less sensitive to the Divine presence (Ortberg).” So when we concentrate on ability at the expense of character, we are destined to be overcome by shadow missions.

Therefore the development of a Godly character is vitally important. But is it possible to develop character without becoming legalistic and proud? For example, if I decide to develop humility by serving others, I run the danger of becoming proud of how humble I am becoming!

Perhaps the safest way to develop character is to pursue God, which means that we must develop our capacity to know God and to walk in fellowship with Him on a daily basis. To do this Ortberg suggests reading “A Celebration of Discipline” by Richard Foster.

So developing character by increasing your capacity to know God and to walk in fellowship with Him is the first step to overcoming you shadow mission. The second step is to find honest input.

2. Find honest input

John Ortberg says: “Character-building rarely happens in isolation. We’ll never successfully battle our shadow mission if we don’t have someone who will speak the truth to us.”

You need to explain the concept of shadow mission to some people that you trust. Then ask them what they think your shadow mission is. We need to receive regular, fearless and honest input from people who love us.

So, as Ortberg says, find people who are “more devoted to the development of your character than impressed by your giftedness”! For me it is my wife and co-pastors.

3. Name your shadow mission

In order to fight your shadow mission, you must give it a name.

Start off by setting aside some time, which you can spend uninterrupted in a quiet place. Pray. Then ask the Holy Spirit to open your eyes to the truth about your hidden motives.

Think back on the past. Ask: When have I failed? When have I felt shame? When has a gentle whisper indicated I have gone off track?

Read the “The Top Ten Shadow Missions”.

  1. Just give me home, health, and 15 thousand a month.
  2. Busy, busy, busy.
  3. I don’t care who is in charge – as long as it’s me.
  4. Show me the money.
  5. It is all about me.
  6. Maintaining hidden addictions.
  7. I’ll think about it tomorrow.
  8. Look nice by avoiding conflict – or everyone must like me.
  9. Climb the ladder first, put people second – or results first; people second.
  10. Kids before everything else.


Which of these strike a chord with you? Try to zero in on recurring temptations and failures. What gets you into trouble repeatedly?

Finally, try to boil it all down to a single sentence, then a catchphrase and then perhaps a single word.

Here is an example:

Sentence: I fall into living my shadow mission when I get so busy that accomplishing tasks becomes more important to me than loving God and my neighbour.

Catchphrase: To do list all done.

One word: Busyness.

Imagine if Jesus had given into his shadow mission. Failure in this area will have a profound effect on your life and the lives of others. Lance Armstrong gave in to his shadow mission. Jesus did not. What about you? Folks, this is worth doing something about.