Every leader will spend seasons of life wandering in the wilderness. It’s inevitable and inescapable. There are no exceptions.

The wilderness. Barren, empty, lifeless, colorless, solitary, unending hard sand, rock outcroppings, and rugged mountains. Hot in the day, cold at night. Far from the action, from the crowds, from life and what matters. Yet, in the Bible, the wilderness is the place where the action is, where the holy God shows up, where leaders are called, a nation is formed, and a Savior prepared. It is the place of spiritual warfare, the greatest testing and the most intense temptation, yet also the root of fruit, the source of success.

In the Bible the wilderness is not only a physical place, but also a grand metaphor for life and growth and preparation for supernatural opportunity through painful moments, the place where God takes us to make us ready to be used by Him in ways we never thought possible. Never in our most ego-driven dreams could any of us imagine what God has in store for us in the wilderness. Moses met God in the wilderness, Elijah heard God in the wilderness, the Holy Spirit drove Jesus into the wilderness, Paul learned from God in the wilderness. Daniel demonstrated his character in the wilderness of exile when his integrity and resistance to idolatry put his life at stake.

Virtually all the people God ever used became effective only by living in the wilderness in some way, whether actual or metaphorical, many for long periods of time.

Young leaders often ask, “Isn’t there some way I can avoid the wilderness?” Of course there are some ways. You can learn from the lives of those who have gone before you: you can observe what they did and either follow their model or avoid their mistakes. You can listen to their teaching and hear their regrets and do what they say and turn from their failures.

Certainly you don’t have to live an immoral lifestyle or commit adultery or lie or mislead or get a divorce or be harsh to your children. Avoid all you know about immorality or dishonesty and deception or breaking your word or the pride of defensiveness or pursuing your identity driven personal ambition in the name of Jesus. This will definitely help you avoid the wilderness.

The problem with young leaders that makes the wilderness inescapable is not what they know but what they don’t know about God and themselves. They know facts, but they don’t understand what those facts mean because they haven’t yet been in the wilderness.

The time we spend in the wilderness adds understanding to our knowledge and gives timbre to the landscape of our lives. This understanding and timbre is what makes us leaders in life and not just managers of projects.

Many younger leaders—as well as older leaders—don’t understand what it takes to become a leader. They think it takes skill, and it does. They know it takes experience, and they are right. They also know it takes character to lead so they seek to gain character through skill and experience, and that’s where they make their mistake.

Skill and experience don’t give a leader character. Only time in the wilderness transforms a leader from someone who gets something done to someone who changes lives while getting things done because his life has been changed. Invulnerability has been transformed into vulnerability, pride into humility, ambition into service, confidence in self into confidence in Christ, ambition. Now the leader gets vision accomplished, not by using people, but by equipping people so they become themselves in Christ.

The problem with younger leaders or even with older leaders who resist the lessons of the wilderness is that they don’t understand how desperately we need the wilderness. They don’t understand the depth of our spiritual blindness, the inner deception that prevents us from perceiving the assumptions and expectations that arise out of our desperately diseased hearts.

Until we have spent time in the barren and rocky places of life and entered into what this means for us, we don’t realize the wilderness is not outside of us but within us, in our very deceiving hearts. Nothing we ever face is as deceitful as our hearts (Jer. 17:9), so deceitful in fact that Jeremiah cries out, “Who can know it?” And he answers his own question when he says, “I the Lord search the heart and examine the mind to reward a man according to his conduct, according to what his deeds deserve (Jer. 17:10, NIV).”

Fascinating, isn’t it, that when God wants to measure the works of our hands, He searches our hearts? We think what our hands produce is most important, but He thinks what our hearts produce is more important, and the reality of what is in our hearts can only be revealed by time in the wilderness.

The wilderness is God’s great preparatory school. When seminary ends the wilderness begins. In fact, seminary and the wilderness are often synonymous, not because seminary is barren and bad, but because wisdom only comes in the wilderness. Courses, books, lectures, and papers can teach us knowledge, but only time facing our hearts in the struggles of life can give us the wisdom we need to lead.

So it is that every leader will spend seasons of life wandering in the wilderness. It’s inevitable and inescapable. There are no exceptions. You can avoid many, maybe even all of the mistakes the leaders who have gone before you have made, but you cannot avoid your own mistakes because you cannot avoid what is in the wilderness of your heart. Until you face that wilderness and own it and weep because of it and cry out to God because you can’t overcome it, you will be condemned to live in its barren futility. But once you fully embrace life with God in the wilderness, you will find the fullness of His purpose for you.

So I wish you wonderful wanderings in the barren wilderness of your heart as God transforms your futility into His fruit. Such fruit is inescapable if you only you will pay the price it takes to bear it..