leadingWhen you encounter the same idea two days in a row, from different sources, you take notice. On Wednesday (November 18th) I was reading Leading for a Lifetime, by Warren G. Bennis and Robert J. Thomas (Boston, MA: Harvard Business School Press, 2007). In their extensive study of leaders, they conclude that:

Each of our subjects . . . had undergone a heroic struggle of some sort, had overcome a series of unique obstacles, in the course of becoming a leader. In trying to find the right term for the events and experiences that tested and shaped our leaders’ characters and ultimately changed their lives, we decided on the term crucibles, the vessels in which medieval alchemists attempted to transform ordinary materials into precious ones . . . The crucibles that forged our leaders were often history-making, global experiences — World War II, in the case of our many of our older leaders. Other crucibles were powerful but profoundly personal events — a life-threatening illness, a sudden change in one’s personal fortune, or in the case of Mike Wallace, the tragic accidental death of his son. (ix-x)

Yesterday, as I prepared for our Care Group meeting (we are working through Scot McKnight’s The Jesus Creed, Brewster, MA: Paraclete Press, 2004), I read the following:

Every vocation is tested by God. If the general vocation of all Christians is the Jesus Creed, then our love for God and love for others will be tested. Jesus’ own vocation of loving God was tested severely. . . . before Jesus crosses the Jordan and enters into the land to offer the kingdom to his people, the Spirit of God drives him into the wilderness to test his vocation. . . . When we think “vocation from God,” we need also to think “test by God.” (248)

Bennis and Thomas, and McKnight, tell us that in life we will go through hardship but these hardships will test and shape us.

In our church, we have just concluded a series of Bible expositions on the story of Joseph from the book of Genesis. Joseph went through a series of experiences that would have broken most of us, including: sold into slavery by his own brothers, framed by a “desperate housewife” and thrown into prison for doing the right thing, and forgotten by people who promised to help get him out of prison.

In the end, however, he rose to the second most powerful position in the superpower of the day and was instrumental in saving God’s covenant people (his family), the people of Egypt, and many people in the surrounding regions. He survived his tests, purified by God’s crucibles, to become the leader he was meant to be. Through it all, he understood that God was shaping him for his life’s work. In his own words:

Then he said, “I am Joseph your brother, whom you sold into Egypt. Now, do not be upset and do not be angry with yourselves because you sold me here, for God sent me ahead of you to preserve life! For these past two years there has been famine in the land and for five more years there will be neither plowing nor harvesting. God sent me ahead of you to preserve you on the earth and to save your lives by a great deliverance. So now, it is not you who sent me here, but God. He has made me an adviser to Pharaoh, lord over all his household, and ruler over all the land of Egypt. (Genesis 45: 4b-8 NET)

This is how Bennis and Thomas puts it:

. . . all our (leaders) saw their crucibles, however punishing, as positive experiences, even as the high points of their lives. . . . they not only survived their struggles, they were inspired and strengthened by them. . . . the extraction of wisdom from the crucible experience is what distinguishes our successful leaders from those who are broken and burnt out by comparable experiences. In every instance, our leaders carried the gold of meaning away from their crucibles. (Leading for a Lifetime, 94.)

The apostle Paul was no wimp yet in 2 Corinthians 12, he refers to a painful experience he went through, an experience so bad that three times, he asked the Lord to take it away. But the Lord did not. This is what Paul learnt from that crucible:

Therefore, so that I would not become arrogant, a thorn in the flesh was given to me, a messenger of Satan to trouble me — so that I would not become arrogant. I asked the Lord three times about this, that it would depart from me. But he said to me, “My grace is enough for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” So then, I will boast most gladly about my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may reside in me. Therefore I am content with weaknesses, with insults, with troubles, with persecutions and difficulties for the sake of Christ, for whenever I am weak, then I am strong. (2 Corinthians 12: 7b-10 NET)

I don’t think we are supposed to go looking for trouble so that we can learn. But sooner or later, living in a fallen world, we will encounter crucible experiences. Bennis and Thomas “discover” a truth that was in Scripture all along, that a gracious God uses the painful experiences in our lives to test and shape us.

Looking back on my life from the perspective of middle age, I heartily agree. I wish I could turn back the clock and do many things differently. I guess there was little I could do to prevent the death of my first wife from cancer. But I should have been much wiser in how I managed my life after her death. If I had been wiser I may not have made the choices that led to the break up of my second marriage and all the horrible pain that came as a result of that. But I can’t. I can’t turn back the clock. What I can do, what I have tried to do, is to learn from my life, to search for the nuggets in my crucibles.

There are some things however, that Bennis and Thomas either do not know or cannot mention in a “non-religious” book. One, that as a child of God, the Spirit of the Jesus who triumphed through His crucibles, indwells and empowers me for my crucibles. The other truth is this, that in the community of believers, the Lord has provided us with Barnabases, encouragers who walk with us and help us process our lives from a divine perspective. I am grateful for the Barnabases who walked with me. I now try to pass it forward by being a Barnabas to my friends in their crucible moments.

Followers of Jesus are not Pollyanas who try to minimise the crippling horror of the things some of us have to go through. But we are followers of a God who brought life out of the Cross, and who is able to do the same gracious alchemy for us in our most painful moments, if we allow Him.