The most fascinating parts of Creativity, Inc. have to do with failure. Let me unpack a few of Ed Catmull’s points about failure.

1. Leaders must overcome fear.
At the heart of failure is fear. Leaders must overcome fear of failure themselves, and they must loosen its grip on their followers. As Catmull puts it, “The goal, then, is to uncouple fear and failure—to create an environment in which making mistakes doesn’t strike terror into your employees’ hearts” (p 123). Failure is an opportunity for learning, and an opportunity for creativity. In fact, Catmull says the ideal is to create a culture where staff are empowered—not only to explore new areas, to have room for experimentation and to fail without major consequences, but to break outside constraints to solve problems. There’s an enormous upside to such empowerment: “If you create a fearless culture (or as fearless as human nature will allow), people will be much less hesitant to explore new areas, identifying uncharted pathways and then charging down them” (p 111). Some of the ways Pixar creates these avenues:

  • Animated shorts, which have lower budgets and give new directors more opportunity to learn story telling and explore the range of technology.
  • Pixar University, which offers classes for all staff across the company to learn drawing, scene lighting or management.
  • Notes Day, where the entire organization once took a day off to work toward solutions to a problem that impacted them all.

2. Leaders must respond well to failure.
The book is worth reading just to catch the story of how an overly-enthusiastic programmer at Pixar accidentally erased the entire Toy Story 2 movie from the company servers, and how a rogue staffer who had previously set up some backdoor work processes managed to save it. When I shared the story of the accidental deletion with my nine-year-old daughter, her first reaction was, “I’ll bet he got fired!” That’s how most CEOs would respond, and that’s the best way to undermine everything you’ve been preaching. Catmull says if employees are given freedom to experiment, they should never be punished for mistakes. “Leaders must demonstrate their trustworthiness, over time, through their actions—and the best way to do that is by responding well to failure” (p 125).

3. The desire to avoid failure will doom your organization.
One of Ed Catmull’s most exciting moments came when Disney bought Pixar and put him and chief creative officer John Lasseter in charge of both animation studios. They found Disney Animation was paralyzed by institutional fear. “For too long, the leaders… placed a higher value on error prevention than anything else” (p 264). There’s no way to create original ideas or to liberate your employees to innovate if error prevention is your driver. That was the case when Disney went 16 years without an animated film coming in first at the box office.

The irony for Pixar, a company that has hit number one with every film, is that they consider failure to be inevitable. They therefore plan for failure. Yes, they guard against it, but they aren’t paralyzed by it. “If you aren’t experiencing failure, then you are making a far worse mistake: You are being driven by the desire to avoid it. And, for leaders especially, this strategy—trying to avoid failure by outthinking it—dooms you to fail” (p 109).

4. Failure is best done quickly.
How does Pixar keep from failure at the box office? By allowing—or even forcing—failure to happen earlier, when consequences are fewer. Catmull says every film that goes on to success is born an “ugly baby.” It needs a lot of work, and it would be shut down if held up against any standards of success.

Instead of trying to overplan or avoid failure, it’s better to make a decision and see where it goes. This is true for directors and the film-making process, where Catmull says there’s an upside to decisiveness: “The time they’ve saved by not gnashing their teeth about whether they’re on the right course comes in handy when they hit a dead end and need to reboot. It isn’t enough to pick a path—you must go down it” (p 111).

Catmull also says it’s true at the top of the company. “Leadership is about making your best guess and hurrying up about it so if it’s wrong, there’s still time to change course” (p 228). Catmull intuitively pushes many of the tenets of design thinking. It’s a “ready–fire–aim–fire again” approach that takes a best guess and moves forward with it, knowing you have a better chance of hitting the target the second time because of the lessons learned by missing early.

The beauty of Ed Catmull’s approach at Pixar and Disney is that he raised up an army of empowered problem solvers. That approach allowed him to serve as president over two animation studios at the same time. Here’s how he sums up his leadership style:

If we allow more people to solve problems without permission, and if we tolerate (and don’t vilify) their mistakes, then we enable a larger set of problems to be addressed. When a random problem pops up in this scenario, it causes no panic, because the threat of failure has been defanged. The individual or the organization responds with its best thinking, because the organization is not frozen, fearful, waiting for approval…. If you push the ownership of problems down into the ranks of an organization, then everyone feels free (and motivated) to attempt to solve whatever problems they face, big or small (p 164).

If you haven’t had the opportunity to read my previous blog post, “Humbled!” I suggest you take the time to read that one as context for this post. In that post, I asked for your stories about failure. I want to share my own example here and draw a few conclusions.

I was studying engineering when God showed me very clearly that I needed to change my major and move toward a career in missions. How was it so clear? I was failing Physics and another class foundational to engineering. At the same time, I heard a missionary share about the huge need for graphic design in missions. I had always played with design, but never thought of it as a career, let alone in missions. I couldn’t get it out of my head that I needed to change majors and change schools, and that graphic design was my path to missions.

While many find the idea of a “calling” somewhat mysterious, for me it was more practical. God clearly closed a door and opened another. At the point of failure of my plans, when I was ready to listen, God used a missionary to challenge me.

Shortly after we graduated, my wife and I attended the Urbana student mission conference. While visiting the mission booths, I found out Wycliffe Bible Translators had a huge need for graphic design, helping create displays, magazines, brochures, calendars and websites. But more than the need for my skills, the mission of Wycliffe grabbed me. This was an organization marked by perseverance, going into the difficult places, advocating for the marginalized, the minority languages that were so easily overlooked.

So my wife and I joined Wycliffe and took our first assignment in Canada. I managed a small team of designers, and put my energy into Wycliffe Canada’s award-winning photojournalistic magazine.

As I think back, I got pretty comfortable and even somewhat cocky in my position and abilities. I had won some design awards for Wycliffe’s Word Alive magazine, and I was able to “leverage” my abilities to take a similar position with Wycliffe USA, an organization about ten times the size of its Canadian counterpart. I remember thinking about the expansion of my influence to a larger constituency.

So my family and I moved down to Orlando and began the most difficult two years of my life.

A larger organization requires more specialization, and my job changed to the point that it played away from my strengths for big-picture thinking and ideas. I got buried in minutia and I found myself boxed in. My frustration grew, and I took it out on my boss, rebelling against her leadership. I lost trust and the hole I was in got deeper. I’m not at all proud of the way I handled myself, and I fully deserved the words my boss gave me near the end: “You’re gifted at a lot of things, but management isn’t one of them. Maybe you should find a job that doesn’t require management.”

I suppose I was gifted in a lot of things. But I was taking credit for success that wasn’t mine to take. Many of the ideas I was so proud of came in moments of unexpected inspiration. Most of my successes were done in the context of team, not solo. I was not very self aware.

This job came to an end when my boss sent me to a leadership conference. Given her thoughts on my leadership ability, it was a funny place to send me, but it turned out to be the best money she ever spent. An hour into the conference, I heard these momentous words: “If you don’t like your job, quit!” So I did. I was walking a fine line because I didn’t want to quit Wycliffe. I was still committed to the vision. But I walked away from graphic design. I was at rock bottom, not sure if anyone would want a washed-up designer, not sure I could find another job in this organization I loved.

At the bottom of my spiral of despair, as I debated my future, a senior vice president asked me to work for him as a project manager. I suppose if I’d learned anything from those two difficult years, it was project management, so I jumped at this surprise opportunity. He pulled me up from my knees and brought me into the president’s office. I discovered the amazing world of executive administration and big-picture strategy. I loved it! But I still had a lot to learn about management, so I took a 5-year detour, leading teams at various levels before returning to administration in a role responsible for developing leaders in the organization. I had learned from my experiences and had developed a soft heart for young leaders.

Like Peter, my philosophy of leadership is very much shaped by my failures:

  • I love to take on “projects.” Several times I have taken on a staff member whose recent career was marred by a bad performance appraisal, because I see potential in them and suspect that they were in some way a victim of circumstance. If I feel like the situation I can put them in will lead to success, I’ll take a risk on them.
  • I don’t believe firing is the worst thing you can do to someone. Letting them stay and spread their misery and discontent is worse for them and for the people around them.
  • I lead as an art director. I surround myself with great people who can do things I can’t, then paint a vision and let them add their creativity and input. The result is usually better than if I did it myself. So I have a much more realistic view of myself—my strengths and weaknesses and passions. I try to do what only I can do, and empower the people around me to use their strengths.
  • I look for talent in people across various industries. If a graphic designer could make a project manager and eventually a president who practices “design thinking,” then how could other skills translate into new situations?
  • I don’t confuse my job with my identity. I’m in at least my third career since I joined Wycliffe 17 years ago, and it’s been over a dozen years since I held the same job more than two years. So hold your passion, vision and calling more tightly than what you do.

Three years ago a search committee contacted me. They were looking for a young leader who wasn’t afraid to lead change, who had a track record of developing young leaders and who could turn Wycliffe Canada around from some significant areas of decline. When my wife heard what they were looking for, it was so clear to her that they were looking for me. “We’re moving to Canada,” she said. God had prepared me for this precise job at this precise time.

In my own story, I see a resemblance to Peter’s journey. Throughout each step, I see the Spirit working behind the scenes, shaping and preparing in order to accomplish his purposes. It causes me to take myself less seriously and to say with a twinkle in my eye that it’s God’s sense of humour that he’d put a graphic designer in charge of a Bible translation organization.

Roy Eyre, B.F.A.

Imagine for a minute that you’re the apostle Peter. Jesus has just gone. You are left gazing longingly at the sky, not wanting to release your grip on him, wanting him to stay just a few minutes longer. You’re suddenly not sure what your job is. You spent a lot of years in the family business as an angler. Then this Messiah showed up, saying that you were going to be a fisher of men. Three years later, right before leaving, he changed the metaphor on you and told you that you were going to be a shepherd. However, unlike any other shepherd, you were going to care for people. That sounds like some kind of leadership responsibility, but what on earth kind of job is that?

Imagine further. On the Jerusalem Chamber of Volunteer Organizations website, you see a position posted. Wanted: Leader of Christ’s church in Jerusalem. Something in you stirs, so you begin to put together a resume. What would you put on that resume? Think about your credentials for a minute. What makes you qualified to lead the Church? What would you put down as your purpose statement? How would you “sell yourself” and your qualifications for a job like that?

Absurd, isn’t it?

It’s a role we couldn’t have imagined for the impulsive Peter of the Gospels. Nowhere in those four books do we see any indication that Peter is a servant, a pastor or priest, a humble leader.

It turns out Peter’s best credentials come out of his failures.

In Leading With a Limp, Dan Allender says,

No one is humble by nature…. Humility comes from humiliation, not from the choice to be self-effacing or a strong urge to give others the credit.

Humility that has not come from suffering due to one’s own arrogance is either a pragmatic strategy to get along with others or a natural predilection that seems to befit only a few rare individuals. For most leaders, humility comes only by wounds suffered from foolish falls. (p69-70)

I’ve wrestled with Allender’s words for years, arguing that there has to be another way. After all, doesn’t James 4:10 suggest that you can choose it? “Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will exalt you.” But the context of this choice to humble yourself is the same as that of the prodigal son in the pig sty or the vindictive Saul blinded and kneeling on the road to Damascus. James is speaking of sinners who repent and grieve their sin. God then picks them up from their knees and exalts them.

My editor, Beth Koehler, offered this insight as we discussed this passage:

We’re talking about repentance and grieving personal sin before the Lord. How difficult it is for any of us, but especially so for leaders. Over and over we see that when leaders repent and grieve sin, their humility leads to a similar response in those they lead. It’s as if some major obstacle to repentance has been removed from the masses.  We see this in the Old Testament. We see it in more recent church history where revivals take place.

A leader’s real power is to be a living, walking example of the gospel.

In John 21, Peter was at a place of repentance and grief. He’d just betrayed his rabbi, his Messiah. Jesus’ response is to come to him on the beach and commission him as a shepherd. “If you love me, feed my sheep.” Somehow, this humbled man ends up leading the church in Jerusalem. Years later, he sends an exhortation to the leaders of the exiled and persecuted church. Peter writes from Rome as a mature believer and elder in the church, a different man from the Peter of the Gospels.

And now, a word to you who are elders in the churches. I, too, am an elder and a witness to the sufferings of Christ. And I, too, will share in his glory when he is revealed to the whole world. As a fellow elder, I appeal to you: Care for the flock that God has entrusted to you. Watch over it willingly, not grudgingly—not for what you will get out of it, but because you are eager to serve God. Don’t lord it over the people assigned to your care, but lead them by your own good example. And when the Great Shepherd appears, you will receive a crown of never-ending glory and honor. (1 Peter 5:1-4)

Peter’s leadership is shaped by his experiences in his early days. As Will Rogers quipped, “Good judgment comes from experience, and a lot of that comes from bad judgment.” Peter made a lot of mistakes, and the advice he gives to leaders reflects the lessons he learned during some of his greatest failures.

Let’s examine a few of the phrases in this passage.

  • “A witness to the sufferings of Christ.” He didn’t intend to be a witness; in John 13:37, he had told Jesus he would die for him. Indeed, while nine of the other disciples immediately ran away, Peter attempted a single-handed defense with a dagger. Jesus’ rebuke forced him to reluctant disengagement. When the mob’s thirst for blood threatened to draw him back in, he finally denied Christ to save himself—his single greatest point of failure.
  • “Care for the flock.” You can just hear Jesus’ words ringing in Peter’s ears decades later: “Feed my sheep!”
  • “Watch over it willingly,” and Peter says it again a few verses later: “Stay alert! Watch out for your great enemy, the devil.” Wasn’t Peter one of the three disciples who fell asleep three times in the Garden of Gethsemane after Jesus told them to keep watch while he prayed?
  • “Don’t lord it over them.” Another harsh lesson. This time the immediate screw-up wasn’t Peter. In Mark 10, James and John had just approached Jesus to seek honour and glory when he sets up his kingdom. Jesus responds that they would join him in drinking his cup (suffering) but it wasn’t up to him who would get glory. Now it’s Peter’s turn:

When the ten other disciples (Peter included) heard what James and John had asked, they were indignant. So Jesus called them together and said, “You know that the rulers in this world lord it over their people, and officials flaunt their authority over those under them. But among you it will be different. Whoever wants to be a leader among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first among you must be the slave of everyone else. For even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve others and to give his life as a ransom for many.” (v41-45)

  • “Lead by your own good example.” In John 13, when Jesus took the basin and towel to wash his disciples’ feet, Peter argued at his audacious display of behaviour unbecoming of a leader. Jesus summarized the lesson:

“I have given you an example to follow. Do as I have done to you.” (v15)

Ouch! Peter’s leadership springs out of the bruises remaining from his greatest failures. Gentleness and humility began with his failures and were honed during his leadership of the early church through the peaks of rapid growth and the Holy Spirit’s miraculous power and the deep valleys of persecution, martyrdom and scattering.

It was only after all those experiences that Peter could say, “So humble yourselves under the mighty power of God, and at the right time he will lift you up in honour” (1 Peter 5:6). Peter certainly took a difficult journey to humility. Yes, in the early days the other disciples let him go first. He was the extrovert, he was unafraid. But being outspoken isn’t the same as being a leader. It wasn’t until he went through the darkest point in his life and was restored that we see the beginning of Peter’s journey to bold preacher, leader of men and elder shepherd.

What is your story? Have you gone through a point of failure? How does it shape you today?

Have you taken the time to reflect on your failures and what you can learn from them? Don’t waste those dark moments. They are critical to your character and habits as a leader.

How do I know? Because my own story resembles Peter’s more than I’d like. In my next post, I’ll share my own journey.

Recently (and finally), I began reading Ruth Haley Barton’s Strengthening the Soul of Your Leadership. Judging from the first third, I know it is going to end up near the top of my list of leadership books and will be worth a re-read down the road. She builds her book around the story of Moses, which suits me fine because I’ve always been intrigued by his leadership model.

I never saw it before, but Moses is a classic third culture kid. He was Hebrew-born, an identity forgotten in his childhood but that he longed to retrieve as an adult. He was raised as an Egyptian, an identity so woven into him that he doesn’t deny that label when first introduced to the priest of Midian. Born into poverty and slavery, he was raised in the home of Pharoah. His education and wealth was surely both a huge privilege and a weight. Barton concludes that “He lived between two worlds and yet was not fully at home in either place.”

As an outsider both among his own people and among the Egyptians who raised him, he probably wrestled every day with issues related to his identity. Should he fit into the environment in which he had been raised and follow the path marked out for him there? Or should he identify with his own people and try to make it by those rules instead? Neither one was a very good choice. Either one would bring about emptiness and loss.

In many ways, I can identify with Moses as a Canadian and an American who is really neither Canadian nor American. In reflecting on my own path into leadership, I think the pivotal moment for me was my transplant at age eight from the suburbs of Toronto to the suburbs of Atlanta. I remember struggling with the question of whether to assimilate or hold stubbornly to my culture that first year. I remember wearing the wrong clothes, pronouncing words the wrong way and knowing nothing of “importance” — usually pop-culture references that went over my head. Fortunately, I was a quick study. I chose assimilation and blended in successfully. However, that sense of imbalance as an “outsider” was a feeling I never wanted to experience again. I’ll bet I could trace much of my leadership style to that stage in my journey.

However, I can see the benefits of third-culturehood. Putting myself in Moses’ shoes, I can sense the conclusion that eventually began to formulate in his mind. The Hebrews needed rescuing. Who else was in a better position to be the solution? Why else had he had such a unique upbringing? He was born for such a time as this, and God had gifted him in leadership. In addition, confidence and power had likely been built into him every day in Pharaoh’s home and schools. His sense of justice began to stir as he explored his roots. The mantle of “savior” had fallen on him. All he needed was opportunity.

Days after the glorious failure of his salvation initiative, Moses traveled alone in the wilderness, forced to confront the ugliness in himself. There was the raw anger that blazed out of control. He hadn’t intended to kill the guard. There was the lack of support from the Hebrews. Didn’t they see that he was appointed for this task? There was the loss of privilege that he hated and yet was so attached to. There was the shame of failure. He was through with leadership.

Over months and years in Midian, God began to peel away the coping mechanisms, the assumptions, the scabs and calluses from his wounds until he could come face to face with his core issue of inadequacy and pain. There’s a moment that sums up his 40 year journey. Barton puts it this way:

He fathered a son, and it became a touchstone in his life, an opportunity to name something about himself with more courage and realism than ever before. When his son was born, he named him Gershom because ‘I have been an alien residing in a foreign land’ (Exodus 2:22).

As a leader, what do you do with your upbringing? Like it or not, you will lead out of it. Anything else would be disingenuous and unsustainable. Suppressed pain and experiences will eventually emerge when you face crisis, complexity, loneliness, betrayal and weariness. Better to embrace what shaped you and lead from there.

That means seeing — or waiting for — the right opportunity. Moses wasn’t wrong about being the “savior.” He was wrong about doing it in his own strength and timing. Only after his 40-year education could he see how the pieces fit together. Only after arguing vociferously but ineffectively with God could he embrace the idea of a second attempt.

That means leading out of brokenness. It means allowing God to do a deep work to redeem your pain. It also means stepping out in faith when you don’t feel confident. Barton quotes Os Guinness, who offers a unique spin on the idea of a leadership calling:

Calling is not only a matter of being and doing what we are but also of becoming what we are not yet but are called by God to be.

Don’t wait to be the person you think God needs. Believe the One “who gives life to the dead and calls things that are not as though they were.” (Romans 4:17)

That means leading out of power. Counterintuitively, there’s real power in leading out of who you are. You might not like what you see in the mirror, but opening your soul and leading from who God made you to be is a powerful starting point. Barton points out that Moses was equipped to lead the Hebrews through 40 years in the wilderness only because he had emerged from 40 years in the wilderness.

There’s a remarkable current-day example. Wess Stafford, president of Compassion International, says he got the job because he cared about children the most. His own story of abuse is remarkable and the driver behind all that he has accomplished. He admits, “I am never more than 10 seconds away from tears.” His willingness to put his own pain out for all to see has given him a platform to accomplish amazing things.

I remember hearing Stafford speak at Willow Creek Leadership Summit in 2009. He urged leaders to spend 30 minutes in front of a mirror, taking the time to ask yourself some tough questions. Who am I? What do I care about? Why do I lead what I lead? Is my passion driven by pain or success?

Knowing who you are is the greatest platform for leadership.

As I’ve been reading The Lord of the Rings to my boys, a series of moments stick in my mind: the times that Frodo seeks someone to give the ring to. Surely Aragorn or Gandalf or the Lady of Lothlorien would use the power benevolently to combat the evil of Sauron! Each one contemplates briefly the possibility of harnessing such amazing power and concludes that they wouldn’t be any less ruthless and horrific than previous owners. They therefore studiously avoid touching or looking at it, some even taking great satisfaction that they passed the test.

Last week at a leadership development event, we read together Henri Nouwen’s message, In the Name of Jesus. Nouwen is a Harvard man of great earthly success who ended up as a priest working among mentally handicapped people at the Daybreak community near Toronto. He cautions against the rationalization many Christians go through regarding power: that as long as it’s used to serve God and other human beings, it’s a good thing. He points out the irony that, throughout Church history,  followers of the one who emptied himself of power have used power for crusades, inquisitions, enslavement, opulence and manipulation of all kinds and forms. Then he cuts to the point.

What makes the temptation of power so seemingly irresistable? Maybe it is that power offers an easy substitute for the hard task of love. It seems easier to be God than to love God, easier to control people than to love people, easier to own life than to love life.

Wow. Whether you follow Nouwen’s logic and conclude that love is the opposite of power, his words sure slice deep. He’s right: it is easier to control than to love, and yet the latter is clearly God’s command for anyone, but in particular leaders. Nouwen spoke from a long personal journey into the messy world of loving those that our culture overlooks. Control and ownership are wrong methodologies arising from wrong motivations from a wronged heart. Nouwen continues,

One thing is clear to me: the temptation of power is greatest when intimacy is a threat. Much Christian leadership is exercised by people who do not know how to develop healthy, intimate relationships and have opted for power and control instead. Many Christian empire-builders have been people unable to give and receive love.

I remember when I worked in youth ministry that I lost count of the people who got into that field because of their own pain growing up. Few came from a healthy place and wanted others to share in that health; many more were on a personal journey to redemption and sought to help others avoid what they had experienced. But if you haven’t experienced real healing, how do you avoid temptations like power? I think Dan Allender has a lot of solutions in his book, Leading with a Limp. He suggests we confront our brokenness and allow God’s grace to redeem it. Failure and brokenness are not necessarily obstacles to leadership; they can be incredible motivators and a foundation for the right kind of servantly leadership. But those core needs must be addressed and the failures brought into the open.

Nouwen based much of his message on Peter’s example of being restored after abandoning and denying his friend and Rabbi Jesus. The lessons he learned on that beach in John 21 were to love deeply, receive love and give love to others. That was the basis for Peter’s leadership of the Church. It’s a lesson that many of his successors failed to get.

My boys were surprised when I told them I think of Lord of the Rings as a Christian story. I’m still teaching them the idea that a Christian story doesn’t mean that Jesus is a character, or that God is explicitly mentioned. Failure, redemption, fear, ambition, love, evil and desires are deeply woven into the story. And I think I can learn from the characters who suspected themselves and wouldn’t allow themselves to get near to raw, unbridled power.

The key to innovation is risk.

It has two key measurables: success and failure. Success seems like a better metric for innovation. But here’s the problem with success: if you succeed on your first, or even your second try, you’ll never know what other radically innovative ideas you never got to. When I was a graphic designer, I knew what to do with my first few ideas. I worked diligently to articulate them, get them down on paper… and then crumple them up and toss them. First ideas are cliché. They’re your mind’s inclination toward laziness — knowing that if you can come up with a quick solution, you can save yourself the emotional and physical stress of actually working hard to find a great solution.

You cannot undervalue those first few ideas. I wasn’t being completely facetious when I said I worked diligently on them. It’s a discipline you have to go through to actually write them down. If you don’t, you hold onto them in some form. The idea is to fail and then move on toward truly great ideas. I’ve seen a lot of recent design school graduates who were never taught the discipline part; they go straight to the computer and start tinkering without taking the time to brainstorm and sketch and get the failed ideas out of their system.

Assuming your organization is somewhat healthy, where you see failure, you’re seeing risk. Where you’re seeing risk, you’re seeing innovation. Therefore, if you want a culture of innovation, you need to take the time to honor failure.

This post is relevant in the context of my last few posts. Taking a risk on someone who has failed before takes courage. To act as if the Holy Spirit has made a person new opens yourself and your organization to failure. Every one of those “projects” will not turn out as a win. The question is whether you’re expecting perfection, or if you’re going in prepared for some failure and taking steps to mitigate the risk.

When’s the last time you celebrated failure? When is the last time you reported it as a key metric for innovation? Failing is not the end; rather, it’s a sign of health.

As I mull over Jesus’ death and resurrection this Good Friday, I’ve been thinking about Peter’s transformation. I would put the change in his life up against Paul’s for scale of impact of the gospel.

Peter is the kind of guy who thinks out loud, who says what everyone else is thinking. He acts first and thinks later. He’s an uneducated fisherman who learned his trade from his father. For me, the following events sum up his nature.

When he sees Jesus walking on water, he makes the jump of logic that if Jesus can defy rules of nature, he should be able to as well. What incredible, uninformed passion he shows as he climbs out of the boat and tests the surface tension of the undulating waters! It’s amazing to me that, in front of the eleven disciples who never left the boat, Jesus remarks on his lack of faith.

No other chapter sums up Peter’s complexity better than Matthew 16. When Jesus asks who the disciples believe he is, Peter declares his conviction that Jesus is the Messiah and the son of God. It’s on this confession that Jesus will build his church. Yet, a few verses later, Peter reprimands Jesus for talking about his upcoming death, and Jesus puts him in his place: “Get behind me, Satan.” Now, that’s a rebuke! I picture Peter like a dog. When he goes in the wrong direction, you give him a smack or yank on his leash. He sits there stunned for a minute, then shakes it off and sets off again in a different direction. He doesn’t take rebukes personally.

John 13 shows that he’s a long way from getting it. He refuses to let Jesus do such a menial job as wash his feet. Then he pledges loyalty, denying that he would ever deny Jesus. Couple this with his swordwork at the olive grove a few chapters later, and you begin to see that it’s an issue of expectations. I think Peter believes Jesus is preparing to lead an earthly insurrection. Servanthood, arrest and death don’t fit his view of Jesus’ destiny and goals.

Then there’s the lowpoint. While the other disciples flee, Peter sticks around and follows from a distance, only to try to protect himself from the same fate by distancing himself and then flatly lying about his connections to Jesus. His anguish over his denial turns to flight. He heads back home to comfort, the life that comes naturally to him, trying to move on from his failure. He goes back to fishing.

So, when Jesus steps out of the picture, his successor is not at all ready. Is this really the man you want to turn the church over to? Jesus puts a lot of stock in the fact that Peter will rebound from the harsh lessons he learned out of betraying his rabbi and disappointing himself. Jesus turns Peter’s focus from a spiral of dispair with a brief and direct conversation on the beach. Then he’s gone, and Peter is on his own.

Along comes Acts, and Peter is a different man. His hotheaded, impulsive, speak-first ways have morphed into a boldness with a lot of maturity. Maybe you could call the upper room his coccoon. The first words from Peter include a number of quotes from Scripture. I believe he spent the silent days after Jesus left, immersing himself in the Scriptures and in prayer — the qualities the apostles will become known for.

From there, we see a Peter in full command of himself and his followers. He preaches to thousands. He looks lame beggars in the eye and heals them. He faces down Pharisees and Jewish leaders, who can only marvel at his transformation, noting only that he had been with Jesus. Sure, he does some things wrong. I think some of his early decisions are a bit suspect, and Paul later calls him on some hypocrisy. But no one can deny Acts portrays a different Peter than the gospels depicted.

In Leading With a Limp, Dan Allender says that a leader cannot have true humility without being humiliated. And he can’t be truly successful without acknowledging his brokenness. Peter became the leader of the early church because he went through such a deep valley. He came out motivated, compelled by grace and love to follow this Jesus who had done so much for such an undeserving failure.

That’s what Easter is all about.