“Suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope”

Romans 5:3b-4 (NRSV)


Grape vineyards in Piedmont, Italy.
Photo © Gayle Chi, 2016

Recently I was in Italy for several weeks traveling with friends. One of my favorite destinations turned out to be the Piedmont region, which is the home of some of the best vineyards in Italy. This was a surprise for me since I’m not a wine aficionado. (Of course, my friends more than made up for my deficiency!) Still, one of the most interesting events of our tour was a talk given by a representative from one of the leading vineyards in the area. He began his talk with a startling statement, “The quality of the wine is based on the suffering of the vine.”

Grape vineyards in Piedmont, Italy.
Photo © Gayle Chi, 2016

What did he mean by that? As we looked out on the vineyards, we noticed that the hills were densely populated with vines. Our host pointed out that the vines were deliberately planted close together so that they had to compete for nutrients and water. The competition drove their roots deeper into the soil and gave the grape they produced the complexity and richness required to make a great wine, such as the Barolo for which the region is known.

Great leaders rarely develop in isolation. As today’s text from the Apostle Paul reminds us, character is formed by enduring suffering. And, as my Italian vineyard host suggests, that suffering is like that of a grapevine. It comes from being placed in particular times and places, and with a particular community of people, that requires us to “go deep looking for nutrients and water.” That’s how our capacity to serve the communities and organizations we lead is formed within us.

I find myself often wanting to escape the conditions that make for great wine in leadership. It’s tempting to avoid dealing with difficult people and unmanageable circumstances. And, being an optimist by disposition, it’s also easy to gloss over important underlying issues rather than dealing with them. Dietrich Bonhoeffer wisely said that idealism is the enemy of community. In other words, not facing the realities of our leadership context actually undermines the possibility of real and healthy organizational relationships. And, it deprives us and those we lead with the gift of being required to “go deep looking for nutrients and water.” To use the language of Paul, we should see our suffering as God’s gift to form our character and that of those we serve and lead.

The noted biblical scholar, N.T. Wright, has said that the biblical text is both supple and subtle. Sounds almost like the characteristic of a great wine, doesn’t it? So it should be for those of us who are formed by a biblical vision of leadership. But that means embracing the suffering that leadership requires rather than escaping into a simplistic and ultimately destructive practice of leadership. As our leadership context – and the suffering we encounter there – requires us to go deeply into the soil of God’s character and faithfulness, we find ourselves developing a complex and rich capacity to lead.

We become a great wine worthy of the Great Wine Maker.


What does “going deep looking for nutrients and water” look like for you in your leadership? How do you find strength and encouragement when leadership becomes difficult?

In what ways does suffering play a role in your leadership experience? What are the causes of suffering in leadership for you?   How do you respond to that suffering?

What does it mean for leadership to be “supple and subtle”?   What might that look like for you?


Lord Jesus Christ, we are grateful that you are the vine and we are the branches. We are grateful that your life is what produces fruit in our lives, and that we are not left to try and produce that life on our own.

Thank you for not only being the vine but also being the One who tends the vine. Thank you for placing us in our particular work circumstances and with our particular work colleagues.   Often we find ourselves in close quarters with what seem to us impossible problems. But, we are reminded that you have placed us there by your design and for our good.

Help us to embrace the gift you have given us and to go deep with you. You are our help and confidence alone.

Produce in us the great wine that is worthy of your name. Amen.


Explore more at the Theology of Work Project online Bible commentary: Grace Transforms Suffering in Our Life in Christ (Romans 5:1–11)

One Comment

  • Uli, this is powerful stuff and very deep. It will take me some time to think through it well and answer the questions thoughtfully and truthfully. I want to share this with our leadership team. Thank you!

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