The motif of entering into the desert, a dry and waterless place, for a time of spiritual testing, pain, and growth is prevalent throughout the Bible. Shelley Trebesch in her book Isolation: A Place of Transformation in the Life of a Leader explicates these periods of isolation for Biblical leaders from Moses to Paul, not failing to mention Jesus’ rather important sojourn into the desert for 40 days. What is interesting is that the theme of isolation does not end with the closing of the canon. Trebesch points out that in her research at least 90% of leaders will experience a time of isolation in their lives. When one begins to think historically through a list of Christian leaders, the isolation experience further becomes standard. Patrick spent years as a slave in a foreign land before catching the vision to reach the pagans of Ireland with the gospel. Teresa de Avila faced an uphill climb and much isolation in her attempts to enact her vision, and her friend John of the Cross gave us the very apt phrase of anguish in isolation, “the dark night of the soul.” More recently it was discovered that Mother Teresa had experienced tremendous bouts of spiritual isolation. Off the top of my head I can think of several good friends who have passed through seasons of isolation because of ministry changes, failures, retirement, or conflict.
Trebesch defines isolation (via Clinton) within the leadership model as: “the setting aside of a leader from normal ministry involvement in its natural context usually for an extended time in order to experience God in a new and deeper way (10).” For Trebesch the focal point for any isolation experience is to grow in greater intimacy with God, and to thus encounter a time of radical spiritual transformation. Isolation experiences can be entered into either voluntarily or involuntarily, but they are always a result of God wanting to do something new in the core of our lives. Ultimately, Trebesch find three main reasons why God brings us into an isolation experience: “to transform identity, to introduce a paradigm shift, and to deepen his relationship with the leader (46).”
All of this written on the page often sounds admirable and deeply spiritual. It seems that we would all want to jump expectantly at the opportunity to have an isolation experience, but Trebesch does an important job in reminding us that isolation experiences, sojourning through the desert alone, are not pleasant experiences. They are often a result of chaos in the world that leads to sickness, imprisonment, failure, burnout, and transition. Isolation is often a place of deep anguish and pain, as the familiar and the comfortable melt away. Trebesch outlines the process of isolation in the steps of: 1. Stripping, 2. Wrestling with God, 3. Increased intimacy, and finally 4. Release to Look Towards the Future. The process of stripping and wrestling with God are painful and disorienting, but is the key of what allows us to be re-made and transformed anew.
Trebesch’s work here is ultimately hopeful, in showing the role of isolation (as painful as it can be) in radically forming and shaping leaders to be more like God and more in line with God. Isolation is often a part of God’s plan, and the Bible would suggest that the humbling of leaders into truly godly people is an essential part of the leadership process for God. As Western Christians however, we often shy away from the transformative pain of isolation. We question those who have burned out, or failed. Rarely do we offer pastors and leaders the grace and understanding they need in these moments. As leaders ourselves, we do not see the power of the isolation experience to our own health and vitality. As such, we fight against God’s plan for our lives, avoiding the pain that can transform us. Really, this is scary stuff!! No one wants to enter the desert alone. We demand comfort and safety, when God calls into a place of danger, isolation, and chaos. God calls us into the whirlwind to meet him and be transformed. Perhaps as Western Christians we need to recapture the spiritual practices of sacrifice, of pain, of pilgrimage into the wilderness (a practice that was once common), and an embrace of isolation.
Have you ever experienced a period of isolation? If so, how did God use it to change you?