My Tragedy Turned to Triumph
I wish that I could say that I have always sought to be a servant in my political career. But I haven’t.
I came to Washington, D.C., in 1987 with the mixture of a yearning for justice and the young man’s disease of an overarching ambition. The first time I heard the term “Potomac Fever” was during a trip to Washington in 1986, when I was the student government president at Houghton College. As soon as I heard the term, I knew I had it. Everything about the place was alluring to me: the stately Roman columns, the marble halls, the “speechifying,” the media attention, and the roiling debate.
Politics holds a special attraction for people who care about justice and wrestle with pride. It may be that pride tends to drive people to politics or that politics tends to fan the flames of our pride. Whichever it is, a yearning for justice and personal power can go hand-in-hand.
I’m not saying that I had completely given myself over to pride. To the contrary, from my first day in Washington as an entry-level staff assistant in the office of a congressman, I have been aware of my pride and fought mightily against it. I regularly prayed to be humble. Outwardly, I did well, at least according to my friends. I was not known as pompous or self-seeking. But God knew my heart.
I remember being at a political function when a student was waiting to talk to me. As my eyes scanned the room to find the strategic people to advance my career, I brushed past the student to make my way to a prominent man on the other side of the room. I knew my sin, even later that day as the Holy Spirit showed me how I had wronged the student, but I did a poor job in successfully fighting my self-seeking ambition. Intellectually, I trusted that God had a good plan for my life, but I couldn’t stop helping his plan along with some self-promotion of my own.
It took a humiliating event to get me to make progress in my quest for humility. In one job, I was forced to resign—resign or be fired. I hadn’t done anything wrong, and the stated reason for my dismissal was unwarranted and inexplicable. I was counseled by my circle of godly brothers not to widely share the back-story, both because the story didn’t sound plausible and being at odds with my former employer would only hurt my future job prospects. So I kept the story to myself.
As I looked for a new job, speculation swirled about what I might have done to merit my abrupt departure. Had I had an affair? Had I misused taxpayer funds? Was I delinquent in my responsibilities? Newspaper accounts theorized false and unflattering stories about me. I’ve always prided myself on my conscientious work, and not responding to the rumor mill was very difficult.
One morning, as I ascended from the Washington subway en route to a job interview, I felt the pain of my situation like a knife between my ribs, and I felt despair about my future. I silently raised my hands, palms upwards, offering to God my reputation. I concluded then that God could use me with a good reputation or a bad one, providing that I humbly submitted to him each day.
So I let my career be God’s problem. I repeatedly recited Colossians 3:1-4, telling myself over and over again, “Bill Wichterman is a dead man” —and I almost felt that way, seeing my promising career slip away. I imagined that my next job would be dull and unfulfilling. But I concluded that my life was now “hidden with Christ.”
The trial I was enduring was no longer my problem. I had been treated unjustly, but God still had good plans for me, both during my job transition and eventually in a new job. I knew that God’s will for me would not be thwarted by any injustice. I alone could stop God’s will from being accomplished in me. I knew that if God could take the worst thing in the world (the unjust crucifixion of Jesus at the hands of evil men) and turn it into the best thing in the world (the salvation of the world), then I knew his plans for me would not be stopped by anyone other than me.
The thing is, I didn’t know this all at once. It was a daily struggle to die to myself, to internalize the outward humiliation so I could be inwardly humbled. It hurt more than anything else I had ever experienced. But I now see that God was doing his cancer surgery on me, removing a big chunk of the malignant pride so I could be healed. He was answering my fervent prayers to become humbler. Through humiliation, I was learning humility.
Within just a couple of years, I was able to look back on that painful period as the best thing to have happened in my spiritual life since I had become a Christian. It was a turning point. I learned with my heart what I had already known in my head: I’m a servant. My life isn’t about seeing how high I can climb on the professional ladder before I die. It’s about how I can live every moment with a desire to serve God and serve others. That’s how we please God.
I came to experience the unfettered joy that comes from being fettered to Christ. He is a good, kind, and loving master. Even as he gives us specific jobs to do, he remembers our needs and our wants.
At my better moments when my trust in him is at its highest, I find comfort in hardships that come my way, knowing that he has a good plan for me. With James, I have sometimes been able to confidently say, “Consider it pure joy, my brothers, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith develops perseverance. Perseverance must finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything” (1:2-4). I wish I could maintain this confidence all the time, but I often forget and am prone to curse hardship, forgetting the God who is there with me, waiting to redeem it for my good . . . if I'll let him.
Hardship can just suck . . . unless we allow God to use it for our eternal benefit. The choice is ours.
I also learned that God can take any experience and turn it for good. My career was propelled forward, eventually leading me to the White House. Like Joseph, who was sold into slavery by his brothers, what others had intended to harm me “God intended it for good” (Gen. 50:20).
Important caveat: God doesn’t always prosper us here and now. Although Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego were saved from the fiery furnace for not bowing down to the golden statute of King Nebuchadnezzar, they knew that God could have let them be burned up and he would still be God. Contrary to the health-and-wealth gospel falsely preached in some churches, fidelity to God doesn’t necessarily lead to our earthly benefit, but I have been amazed at how often it has in my life.