The Sacred Wilderness



Leadership is broken because leaders are unbroken

Wilderness Wanderings Series:
Learning to Live the Zigzag Life

The wilderness is God’s original temple, His personal dwelling place where He called His followers out to meet Him and be in His presence.

It was in the wilderness that God called and commissioned Moses; it was in the wilderness that God gave the Ten Commandments; it was in the wilderness that God formed Israel; it was in the wilderness that God designed and guided Moses to create the tabernacle; it was in the wilderness that God disciplined His people to serve Him and to represent Him among the nations; it was in the wilderness that God prepared David to be king of His nation and the prototype of His Son; it was in the wilderness that God met with His prophet Elijah and prepared His prophet John the Baptist; it was in the wilderness that Jesus went to be tested, tempted, and proven to be qualified as Messiah; it was in the wilderness that Paul’s theological thinking was fashioned and finalized.

It is in a different kind of wilderness that God takes all His leaders in order to transform us to become His instruments of life change and vision accomplishment because the wilderness is still His temple and the place of His personal presence…

Why is it that in all the beauty of creation with its snow capped mountains and verdant valleys and its rolling seas and lush islands God chooses the wilderness to be His life-transforming temple? Why is it that He chooses to call His leaders into such a forbidding place? Why make this barren place His leader’s finishing school? Because it is a picture of reality as God knows it, an insight into the interior of His leaders and their followers. The physical barrenness and futility of the wilderness pictures exactly the spiritual barrenness and futility of His leaders until they enter His sacred desert temple.

No matter what flashes of beauty we may have—and the wilderness has beautiful moments—ultimately we who lead are all as arid and fruitless as the Sinai desert apart from the purity and power that God’s presence produces in us and through us. Until God transforms our barrenness into His beauty by teaching us what matters most about us as leaders, we lead in the futility of our own personal wilderness.

And what is it that we must learn? That what matters most about us is not what we do with our hands, but what God does with our hearts.

The wilderness of life is God’s cardiac clinic, the place where He takes us to transform our hearts in order to release our hands from the futility of self to the fruitfulness of grace. Once He transforms our hearts what we do with our hands becomes eternally impacting through life changing actions that bear fruit that remains.

We enter the wilderness in the futility of our foolishness and emerge from it in the fruitfulness of God’s wisdom and His powerful weakness. We do the same things we have always done, but now the 5,000 are fed, the spiritually dead raised, the disinterested motivated, the deaf given new ears, and the blind see. And all because of God’s grace through us as a result of our time in the wilderness.

Our wilderness experience is not over after one time there. To some degree we never quite leave the wilderness because God will not finish transforming our hearts until we are fully in His presence, and He gives us our ultimate new heart. So we continue in our wilderness struggles, sometimes with lesser intensity and sometimes with greater demand, often returning to old places in the midst of our wilderness struggles now made refreshing oases by God’s good hand.

At other times we find new barren and fruitless places in our lives, places the Father has never shown us before, even though they have been a part of us for as long as we have been alive. When this happens we know we are entering God’s cardiac clinic one more time for heart surgery without anesthesia. There is no way to sleep through God’s vein repair or valve replacements, let alone His heart replacements; we only gain the full benefit of His heart surgery when we enter into the pain and hurt we have brought to ourselves and others through our futile efforts to advance our cause in the name of Jesus. God is corrective and not punitive in bringing us into this pain because the only way to break through sin is for us to be fully aware of the death that the wages of sin bring, both in us and in those we lead and profess to love.

We move through the wilderness in a zigzag line of struggle, confusion, and uncertainty. Why do we keep returning to the same fruitless and useless place? Haven’t we been here before? Why must we come back here again? How can this zigzag line be the shortest distance between where we are and where we want to go? Doesn’t God know He’s wasting our time taking us back to the same dry holes again and again? If He can run a universe on time, why can’t He run our lives more efficiently? Why won’t He give us people who are as motivated as we are, who want to go where we want to go, who care as much as we do?

When we finally emerge from the wilderness and look back at our zigzag line, we realize that it was the most direct route God could take in our lives, in fact, the only route He could take. As in the case of the Children of Israel, the problem was not with God but with us. If we had trusted Him more readily He could have moved more quickly. Think of how quickly God could have moved Israel into the Promised Land if they would have trusted Him. They would have gotten there in one year, not forty years.

Here’s what we must realize: God gets us out of the wilderness as quickly as He can, but never before we are ready to move forward. That may be why some of us never move from futility to fruitfulness.

God has a pattern and a purpose in bringing us into this apparently useless wasteland, and that is to transform our hearts so He can bear fruit through our hands. Once we learn this, we return to the wilderness at God’s impelling call with the anticipation of dread: the burning sands of God’s holiness can only be faced bare-footed and that hurts, but God is there to comfort and heal us and send us forth more whole than ever.

The wilderness is an inescapable life reality, a barren and uninhabitable place that reveals our futility, but we are impelled to enter it order to be tested and tempted as we are purified and proven to be God’s fit leaders. Come, let’s pursue God’s zigzag path to leader effectiveness together. Join me in entering God’s original temple and become part of that long line of leaders who have gained the freedom of release by passing through God’s Leader Finishing School, the wilderness where He conducts His cardiac care clinic so He turn us from futility to fruitfulness.


From "The Sacred Wilderness" on Broken Leadership Blog is about changing the leadership conversation from what we are doing with our hands to what God is doing through our hearts.


Bill Lawrence is the President of Leader Formation International, Senior Professor Emeritus of Pastoral Ministries and Adjunct Professor of DMin Studies at Dallas Theological Seminary where he served full-time for twenty-four years (1981-2005). During this time he also was the Executive Director of the Center for Christian Leadership for twelve years.