What Steve Jobs (and I) learned in the wilderness


May 1985. Apple’s mountain of unsold inventory was growing along with its debts. Sales were declining and losses were looming. Apple’s co-founder Steve Jobs was “relieved of operating responsibilities,” and a few months later he resigned from the chairman’s post to start a new computer company called NeXT.

What came next for Jobs was the unexpected – 12 years in the corporate wilderness. 12 years of painful, dispiriting, humiliating, stressful failure. His vision was to build a high-powered personal mainframe computer for students. He was advised to keep the price under $2000, but ended up going to market with an underpowered computer carrying a $6500 price tag. For students! The printer alone was another $2000.

When students didn’t bite, Jobs started selling to businesses and fared little better. He eventually got out of manufacturing and tried to make NeXT’s software profitable. His main customer was Apple R&D, who eventually took over the company when Jobs returned to Apple in 1997.

And what a return it was! Apple’s business model was rotten and fermenting. Fruitful it was not. But Jobs’ return turned Apple around and the rest, as they say is history (and billions of dollars).

What changed? All who know Jobs agree that the wilderness years transformed him:

It’s hard to see how anything like that would have transpired. The Steve Jobs who returned to Apple was a much more capable leader — precisely because he had been badly banged up. He had spent 12 tumultuous, painful years failing to find a way to make the new company profitable (Randall Stross, Professor of Business at San Jose University).

I am convinced that he would not have been as successful after his return at Apple if he hadn’t gone through his wilderness experience at Next. (Tim Bajarin, president of Creative Strategies).

He’s the same Steve in his passion for excellence, but a new Steve in his understanding of how to empower a large company to realize his vision (Kevin Compton, previously senior executive at Businessland).

Among the lessons he learned were:

  • How to delegate. At NeXT he did everything, from designing the office furnishings to designing the finish on internal computer screws. He once kept Businessland executives waiting 20 minutes as he directed a landscaping crew where to place sprinkler heads.
  • How to listen to advice. Many had tried to advise and counsel Jobs, but he wouldn’t listen. Seven vice-presidents left or were “let go” from NeXT from 1992-1993.
  • How to retain, not just attract, top talent. Apple Inc. has a remarkably stable executive team.
  • Stop modeling future technology on past technology. The iPod, the iPhone, and the iPad all abandoned conventional shapes.

The idea of a life-transforming wilderness experience is nothing new to the Christian, of course. Moses, David, and even our Lord Himself went to Wilderness University. Nobody wants to study there, but God sometimes sees fit to send us there.

I spent nine months in Wilderness University in the year 2000. And I learned more there than I ever learned in Seminary. Our church had divided over moral and doctrinal matters. I was sure I had done what was right and had taken a stand for truth. Yet I ended up without a congregation and on the pastoral shelf for nine long months. I was so cast down, I even stopped preaching for a couple of months and withdrew from all church service.

Among the lessons I learned at WU:

  • No one is indispensible. God may use us for a time and then leave us out of the picture for a while as His picks up other instruments to advance his Kingdom.
  • God does not owe us anything. At the end of the day we are unprofitable servants, having done only what was required of us.
  • You can do the right things in the wrong way. Pride, self-confidence, and the desire for victory and vindication are obscene, whatever the rights and wrongs of a situation.
  • Self-pity is dangerous pity. Feeling sorry for oneself is utterly pointless, totally selfish, and spiritually catastrophic.
  • God bruises and breaks to prepare for future usefulness and fruitfulness. Without the wilderness I was nowhere near ready to pastor the flock God gave me in November 2000.

No, my return from WU was not as financially profitable for me as it was for Steve Jobs. However, I do believe it produced a huge spiritual return that continues to pay dividends to this day.

If God has you presently enrolled in one of WU’s courses, I hope you will be encouraged by the invaluable lessons you can learn there. I’ll probably be back for a refresher course some day as well!

My first American wedding

I was privileged to conduct my first American wedding on Friday. It was an extra special honor for me because I was marrying a young American soldier friend who has been serving overseas, most recently in Afghanistan. It was such a joy to see him and his beautiful bride together, especially after the many anxious months of waiting and praying, waiting and praying. After explaining God’s institution of marriage, and God’s instructions for marriage, I gave a wedding address based on John 2:1-11.

The first country a newly-inaugurated President chooses to visit is always a significant statement regarding the character and priorities of his presidency.  One of the first things Jesus did after God inaugurated him to the ministry at His baptism, was to go to a wedding in Cana. What does that decision tell us about His character and priorities?

1. Jesus is interested in everyday life

Jesus was not an ascetic monk who lived in reclusive isolation. Rather he took part in the everyday aspects of life. By going to a wedding He was saying, “I’m interested in ordinary people and ordinary life. I’m concerned about every area and arena of human experience. I want to be involved in your whole life.”

2. Jesus honors marriage
By going to a wedding so early in His ministry, and by performing His first miracle there, Jesus was expressing His esteem for marriage. He was honoring its institution and instructions. And he did this because He knew how marriage would come to be so dishonored and threatened. He knew what a key role marriage and families would have in preserving and building His church. And he knew that it would serve as such a beautiful symbol of His relationship with His people.

3. Jesus demands respect
When Mary suggested that Jesus provide wine for the wedding party, He took the opportunity to gently remind her that though He was her son, that relationship was now going to change. She must not think of him so much as her son but as Her Lord. As such, it was no longer her place to give Him instructions about what to do and when. Jesus asserts His Lordship over all His creatures and over all their lives.

4. Jesus performs miracles
Jesus was not a show-off or an exhibitionist. He did not perform miracles like a magician performs tricks. He always performed miracles in response to clear and specific needs. This water-into-wine miracle was no different. His miracles encourage the needy to come to Him with their needs. He who can turn water into wine, can turn our mourning into rejoicing, our darkness into light, our pain into comfort, our death into life. The result of this miracle was that some believed on Him. All had more wine, but some had more faith.

5. Jesus creates joy

Wine was an emblem of joy in the Old Testament (Jdg. 9:13; Ps. 104:15). Here the wine had run out and all that was left were the six 30-gallon containers of purification water. That was a sermon in itself. The Jewish religion had no wine, no joy, no gladness. All they had was water that could wash the body. When Jesus turned that water into 180 gallons of wine, it was another way of saying “I’ve come that you might have joy, abundant, overflowing joy.” Or to put it another way, Jesus is God’s best wine.

6. Jesus predicts the future
This scene of joyful celebration was not just a picture of Christ’s relationship with His people on earth, but also of their eternal enjoyment of him (Luke 22:18; Rev. 19:6-9). For the believer, heaven is like having your wedding day over and over and over again – without the stress!

The secret to powerful preaching

There is no secret behind powerful preaching – apart from secret prayer. The biggest mistake we can make as preachers is to think that we can learn to preach powerfully from books, from seminars, or from lectures on preaching. No, for preaching to be powerful it must be preceded by, accompanied with, and followed by prayer.

It is prayer that imparts reality to our sermons. It makes God real to us – His holiness, His power, His love. It makes sin real to us. It makes heaven and hell real to us. It makes eternity real to us. Such reality transforms mere lectures, talks, and Bible studies into living and life-changing sermons. This cannot be learned from books, manufactured or imitated.

It’s an awful experience to stand up to preach knowing that you have hardly prayed about the sermon; that you have spent too long on preparing the sermon and not enough on preparing yourself. Few things drain the power from a sermon as much as prayer-less preparation and delivery.

I’m sure we all pray to some extent before starting our sermon preparation, and hopefully at regular points in the preparation process. But what about praying when we have completed our preparation. I’m afraid that we often just pick up our completed sermon and run to the pulpit with it.

Pray before preaching
I would suggest spending a decent amount of time (maybe begin with 15-30 minutes?) praying over your finished sermon before preaching it. Go over every section, applying it to yourself.

  • If you are teaching a virtue, pray for that virtue in your own soul.
  • If you are preaching on a sin, confess your own sins in that area.
  • If you are teaching about the person of Christ, spend time praising Christ for this aspect of His character.
  • Pray for the right spirit and manner, for each section. (Try to feel the sermon in your own soul.)
  • Pray for courage in sections where the fear of man might intimidate you.
  • Pray to be spared from anger if you are condemning a certain sin in the congregation.
  • Pray for specific people you are aiming parts of the sermon at.
  • Pray that God will help you to foresee how some people might misunderstand what you will say.
  • Pray for help with timing.
  • Pray for help with complicated sections.
  • Pray for help to know what to leave out.
  • Pray for help to remember your message.
  • Pray that the Spirit of God will give you extra thoughts and words which you had not prepared.

Pray after preaching
It’s a good habit to go apart to pray as soon as you come home and before other duties distract you. Your prayer may be one of thanksgiving or of confession. It may be more for humility or encouragement for yourself. However, it should also be for those who heard it, that the seed sown would be protected and watered and bring forth fruit. Why is it that our prayers before preaching are usually longer and more common than prayer after preaching? Partly it may be natural tiredness after our exertions. But sometimes it may be simply because our own ego and reputation is no longer at stake!

Pray during preaching
We should cultivate the practice of not only praying before and after preaching, but during it. After every main point, or perhaps even after every sub-point, the preacher should briefly pause and silently pray for God to bless what has just been said and to guide in what is yet to be said. If you use notes then why not insert the word “PRAY” between each point in order to remind you. It will soon become an unconscious and unprompted habit. Prayer during preaching reminds us of our need, but also that we are not alone.

1-Step-Plan to Superproductivity

Many Christians have been unnecessarily suspicious of and averse to modern management strategies and organizational techniques. Perhaps some of this stems from the church’s over-reliance on these things at times – especially in the church growth movement. But usually the hostility or disinterest flows from an over-spiritualized view of good works – as if they are only done in church or on Sundays. The rest of the week it’s just ordinary work, or “worldly” work, but certainly nothing to do with “good works.”

Other Christians seem to think that sermons are all they need to live for God’s glory in this world. They think that sermons or Christian books should just automatically produce good works. And they often look down on any helpful insights from non-Christians about how to live in a more efficient and productive way.

That’s why I really appreciate what Matt Perman has been doing at his blog, What’s Best Next, for a number of years. He has been plugging away at persuading Christians how to do good works not just by listening to sermons, but by reading and studying leadership, organization, productivity and administration through the lens of Scripture. Here’s a great post that sums up his whole approach: Productivity is really about good works. And I’d also highly recommend this interview Matt gave to Christianity Today.

There’s always the risk that a re-emphasis on good works in the Christian life, can end up separating the Christian from the source of his/her life, the Gospel of grace. However, from what I can see, Matt is walking the grace/works tightrope very skilfully. I’m eagerly anticipating his book on the subject next year and hope that God will use Matt’s research, insight, and writing gifts to stir up and incite His people to grace-works.

And as we are on the subject, let me give you the 1-Step-Plan to Superproductivity. You won’t like it!

Connected Kingdom (25): Pastor Conrad Mbewe

Download here.

This morning, Tim and I had the privilege of interviewing Conrad Mbewe, Pastor of Kabwata Reformed Baptist Church Zambia, sometimes called “Africa’s Spurgeon!” Pastor Mbewe is also closely involved in setting up African Christian University. I hope you’ll listen to the interview and be inspired by Pastor Mbewe’s vision of transforming Africa through a biblical worldview based education to the glory of God.

And why not join the 425 Club, renewing the African mind – one life in Christ at a time!