What is the relationship between trials and Christian leadership? What is the purpose of sitting on the bench while everybody else is engaged in the game? In Isolation: A Place of Transformation in the Life of A Leader, Dr. Shelley Trebesch explains how God uses a diversity of difficult circumstances to make the leader a more refined instrument in His hands. She discovered this pattern in the majority of the leaders that she studied, which led her to conclude that anyone involved in Christian leadership must expect and embrace this process of isolation as part of God’s training.
Isolation is defined 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 or deeper way.” (p. 10) This isolation process can be voluntary or involuntary, and it takes the person through four stages. It begins with revealing deeper issues in the life of the leader that God wants to address. Then the person struggles with embracing this stage and assimilating the circumstances. Later the person begins to experience increased intimacy with God and eventually starts looking toward the future with more clarity and singleness of focus. The outcome of this process is that the leader acquires a transformed identity, a change of paradigm in how to approach life and ministry, and a deeper relationship with God. As a result the leader is equipped to make the level of impact that God desires, because “God will free you from the things that prevent you from being whom you have been created to be.” (p. 75).
In the past semesters we have learned that consumerism affects the way in which people relate to religion. Based on my ministry experience I have discovered that people commonly think, “If I do the right thing God will bless me.” Driven by selfish motives, people treat God like the genie in a bottle. However, a missing part of this theology is the role of hardship in the life of the believer. Consequently, when uninvited trials arrive they can destroy the faith of many. Questioning the prevalent genie-in-a-bottle theology, singer Laura Story wonders, “What if trials of this life are Your mercies in disguise?”
Dr. Shelley Trebesch challenges us to think of difficult times as transformational times, and to embrace a theology that includes trials as an important ingredient of sanctification. Perhaps this is not a message that many consumerist Christians want to hear. Yet, Dr. Shelley is simply echoing what Jesus and the Apostles already told us. Jesus said, “I have told you these things, so that in me you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world” (Jn 16:33). Paul told Timothy, “But you, keep your head in all situations, endure hardship, do the work of an evangelist, discharge all the duties of your ministry” (2 Timothy 4:5). Peter told the church, “Dear friends, do not be surprised at the fiery ordeal that has come on you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you. But rejoice inasmuch as you participate in the sufferings of Christ, so that you may be overjoyed when his glory is revealed” (1 Peter 4:12-13). They all tell us to expect hardship, not to be surprised by it, to keep our heads through it, and to trust Christ in it.
To be honest, I would prefer not to have trials and not to sit on the bench. But I understand that effective leaders need more than classroom theology. We need scars from battle. These are the scars that remind us of God’s faithfulness, giving us refined perspective and purer motives. They also inspire trust and increase credibility. So if I want to be an effective leader, I must be willing to graduate from God’s training school. Actor Jim Caviezel gives us a good example of this deeper faith that is willing to suck it up no matter what. As he reflects on his own trials filming The Passion of the Christ, he reminds us that we were not made to fit in, but to stand out and to reflect Christ. (If you have not seen this interview, I highly recommend it https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0Ejaw0F8-sY).
The first involuntary isolation experiences of my spiritual journey happened during the years in which our church sanctuary burned down and my daughter died in an accident at home. As Dr. Trebesch affirms, these experiences do provide a paradigm shift and deepen our relationship with God. I just wonder how many more scars does God think I need. I pray that no matter what lies ahead, He will take me through it and use me for His eternal purposes. Keith and Kristyn Getty wrote a song entitled “Jesus draw me ever nearer.” It brought tears to my eyes the first time I heard it (and still does today). May this be my prayer as I continue in this journey.
“Jesus draw me ever nearer
As I labour through the storm.
You have called me to this passage,
and I’ll follow, though I’m worn.
May this journey bring a blessing,
May I rise on wings of faith;
And at the end of my heart’s testing,
With Your likeness let me wake.
Jesus guide me through the tempest;
Keep my spirit staid and sure.
When the midnight meets the morning,
Let me love You even more.
Let the treasures of the trial
Form within me as I go –
And at the end of this long passage,
Let me leave them at Your throne.”