More Christians have been martyred for their faith in this past century than in all previous nineteen combined. According to the World Mission Digest, close to 100 million Christians have paid the ultimate sacrifice for the cause of Christ in the 20th century.
The call to modern Christian leadership is an echo of the first century call. It is a call to suffer and die. By definition, spiritual leaders must be willing to pay a much greater price than that required of their corporate or political contemporaries. “The servant-leader,” writes Henri Nouwen, “is the leader who is being led to unknown, undesirable and painful places. The way of the Christian leader is not the way of upward mobility in which our world has invested so much, but the way of downward mobility ending on the cross” (In the Name of Jesus: Reflections on Christian Leadership).
The biblical requirements for servant leadership are clear, absolute and irrevocable. “This is how we know what love is,” asserts the Apostle John: “Jesus Christ laid down his life for us. And we ought to lay down our lives for our brothers” (1 John 3:16). Nothing less than radical commitment to suffer for Christ and his Church qualifies the spiritual leader.
Jesus’ admonition remains the timeless benchmark for leadership: “Whoever wants to hold the first positions among you must be everybody’s slave. For the Son of Man did not come to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom” (Mark 10:44-45, C.B. Williams).
The only thing that Jesus took pains to reveal after his resurrection was his scars. On the road to Emmaus, Jesus’ followers did not recognize him or his message. When he broke bread with them, they saw his nail pierced hands: “Then their eyes were opened and they recognized him” (Luke 24:31). Later that night, Jesus stood in the midst of his disciples in the upper room. “Put your finger here; see my hands,” he bid them. “Reach out your hand and put it into my side” (John 20:27). Jesus embodied the timeless truth that scars are the marks of sterling discipleship and authentic leadership. When people have long forgotten a leader’s looks and message, they will remember his or her scars.
In April 1942, Dietrick Bonhoffer sat in a Nazi prison awaiting his execution that would take place a year later. Reflecting on his suffering, he penned a letter to his twin sister, Sabine:
“It is good to learn early that suffering and God are not a contradiction, but rather a unity, for the idea that God himself is suffering, is one that has always been one of the most convincing teachings of Christianity. I think that God is nearer to suffering than to happiness, and to find God in this way gives peace and rest and a strong and courageous heart.”
A half century later, Ravi Zacharias echoes and reaffirms Bonhoffer’s experience and theology of suffering. In his book Cries of the Heart, Zacharias testifies:
“Contrary to what might be expected, I look back on experiences that at the time seemed especially desolating and painful, with particular satisfaction. Indeed, I can say with complete truthfulness that everything I have learned in my seventy-five years in this world, everything that has truly enhanced and enlightened my existence, has been through affliction and not through happiness, whether pursued or attained . . . . This of course is what the cross signifies, and it is the cross more than anything else, that has called me inexorably to Christ.”
To the spiritual leader who is suffering, the Apostle Paul extends words of assurance. He validates the high cost of leadership and gives the promise of ultimate victory in Christ. “We are hard pressed on every side,” the Apostle acknowledges, “ but not crushed; perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed. We always carry around in our body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be revealed in our body. For we who are alive are always being given over to death for Jesus’ sake, so that his life may be revealed in our mortal body” (2 Corinthians 4:8-11).