We like to gloss over the hard parts of life, move quickly through them, or avoid them at all cost. We focus on the successes, forgetting failures, disappointments, and deaths mold and shape us just as much as the successes.
This reality is evident when high school students apply for college, as applicants are encouraged to list all their awards, accolades, and leadership positions. These accomplishments are held in tandem with their rigorous course work, GPA, and standardized test scores. Outside of an essay, there is little room to share ways that the hard seasons of life shaped and formed their being.
I see this tendency mirrored in ministry contexts. When applying for pastoral positions, I was not asked about the ways God shaped me through suffering and grief, nor how I navigated failure or rejection. I was asked about ministry successes as evidenced through metrics from serving others.
Personal bios and resumes are the stuff of success, not suffering.
If we are truly interested in having solid leaders step in and influence our communities, then we’d do well to start asking different questions in our admissions and hiring practices.
In the Undefended Leader: Leading out of Who You Are, Simon P. Walker notes the importance of struggle in the shaping of a leader. Struggles come in different forms, including physical, emotional, intellectual, and spiritual. Walker references Victor Frankl, a Jew who survived incarceration in Auschwitz during WWII. Frankl noticed how quickly his fellow prisoners would die once they lost their sense of personal meaning and purpose. He resolved, regardless of all he was stripped of, never to lose sight of his purpose and meaning for living, for “meaning was the irreducible core of our human being, which could never be taken away.” It is clear not all individuals endure struggle and suffering the same. Some are molded in positive, life-giving ways, while others become bitter, angry, and destructive. Indeed, “struggle offers us choices…and often the path we take determines our destiny.”
For millennia, Christians have understood the sanctifying importance of struggle in the lives of God’s people. From enslaved Israelites to Jesus on the cross, we are keenly aware of how struggle has shaped the great cloud of witnesses that surround us. Our ancestors of faith learned when all is stripped away, God is there.
For example, a few hundred years after Jesus’ death, resurrection, and ascension, men and women of the faith moved to the desert. They did this not to flee the external world, but rather flee the “world they carried inside themselves: an ego-centeredness needing constant approval, driven by compulsive behavior, frantic in its effort to attend to a self-image that always required mending.” By entering the desert, they elected to be stripped of false identities to experience oneness with God. In their suffering and dying to self, new life emerged. It is in places of suffering and isolation, deprived of “comfort, security, and self-esteem…when we find ourselves truly free and capable of loving God.” As one’s ability to love God and be loved by God increases, so does the ability to serve others, for service flows not from “an anxious sense of pity for others or a grandly noble desire to serve, but out of abandonment of the self in God. (Thus producing) a love that works for justice…able to accomplish much because it seeks nothing for itself.”
Jesus exemplified such abiding, justice-filled love through action and word. Three years before he was stripped, beaten, and crucified, he had already died to self during his 40 days in the desert. Desert experiences reveal the “spiritual path has more to do with subtraction than with addition.” It was in the barren wasteland where Jesus discovered who he was in the depths of his being.
It is in the desert where the process of differentiation happens, where we learn about and embrace the limits of our humanity and recognize the humanity of others. It is in the desert where servant leaders are forged through the harshness of suffering so God’s glory can burst forth in redemptive and life-giving ways. True leadership success comes not from countless awards, but from a posture of submission and silence forged through suffering.
If this is true for Jesus and countless saints, why do we expect it to be different for us?
As followers of Jesus, are we willing to roam the desert, pick up our cross daily, or walk the roads of suffering to Golgotha, to die to self? To the degree in which we are able to embrace our humanity through suffering, is the degree in which we are able to lead and love well. The ripple effect of such leadership is profound. Without it we have little to nothing to offer the world. Our testimony is empty. Our efforts futile. Freed leaders lead others to freedom. Bound leaders slap chains of bondage on others. The American Church has endured such bondage for far too long.
The time has some. Spirit is leading us into the desert. Will we follow?
 Simon P. Walker. The Undefended Leader: Leading Out of Who You Are. (Carlisle, UK: Piquant Editions, Ltd., 2010) 139.
 Ibid., 140.
 Hebrews 12:1.
 Belden C. Lane. The Solace of Fierce landscapes: Exploring Desert and Mountain Spirituality. (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, Inc., 1998) 166.
 Ibid., 73.
 Ibid., 76.
 Ibid., 167.