Martin Luther King, Jr.’s Strength of Soul

“Every genuine expression of love grows out of a consistent and total surrender to God.”
Martin Luther King, Jr.

One of the things that disturbs me most about the way we talk about spirituality and related themes in evangelical circles today is the way we often create false dichotomies between being and doing, prayer and action, contemplation and missional engagement with the world.

Oh, she’s a contemplative” we might say, while on the inside we might also be thinking “so all she does is sit around and pray all day.

Or “He’s an activist…so that means he doesn’t pray very much.”

Or, “She’s a mystic… so that means she’s dangerous and theologically unsound.”

Or “If we focus too much on spiritual formation, we will neglect evangelism and involvement with the needs of the world.”

Soul stuff is soft stuff,” this line of thinking goes.  “Let the contemplatives (or desert fathers) sit around and gaze at their navels while the activists fly over their heads and get the job done.”

I actually heard the statement like that made from the platform at a leadership conference and I have never forgotten it for so many reasons.  First of all, it made me feel embarrassed about who I was—someone who was discovering the presence of God very powerfully in solitude, silence, and contemplation—and someone who is wired for activism and desperately did not want to believe that that meant “flying over the heads” of the desert mothers and fathers whom I had come to respect so deeply. I was frustrated that a respected leader would use his platform to further cement a false dichotomy that is rooted in so much fear and misunderstanding.

But the fear is real. Activists fear that if contemplatives emphasize prayer and the inner life too much, people will become self-focused, narcissistic and never get anything done.  Contemplatives fear that activists don’t pray enough, that they are shallow and that too much action causes people to become disconnected from the reality of God within. Because we are afraid of falling into the excesses of one side of this polarity or the other, we subtly (or not-so-subtly) dismiss and diminish aspects of the spiritual life that must be held together in tension if our spirituality is to be healthy.

It is time we get beyond this.

Beyond Either-Or Thinking

Sometimes a picture is worth a thousand words and the life of Martin Luther King, Jr. is a powerful illustration of what it looks like when a person fully integrates a life of prayer and deep spirituality with a profound commitment to decisive and loving action in the world. For King, it was never prayer or activism. It was never being in God or doing something for God. It was never missional engagement with the problems of the world or contemplation of the presence of God within. It was both.  All the time.  He was profoundly non-dualistic in this regard. “Life at its best,” he believed, “is a creative synthesis of opposites in fruitful harmony.” [i]

Today as we celebrate the life and work of MLK, Jr., it is important that we remember that it was King’s keen spiritual insight and attunement with the heart of God that made it possible for him to know what many Christians and other well-meaning individuals had somehow avoided knowing—that racism is an offense to the heart of God and contradicts the essence of the Gospel.  There is no longer Jew or Greek…slave or free…male and female; for all of you are one in Christ. (Galatians 3:28)

The soul force to which he often referred was the “force” of God-directed action motivated by love and emerging from the soul of a person who was in touch with the Spirit of God witnessing with their spirit about things that are true. “To our bitterest opponents we say: We shall meet your physical force with soul force.  Do to us what you will, and we shall continue to love you… One day we shall win freedom, but not only for ourselves.  We shall so appeal to your heart and conscience that we shall win you in the process, and our victory will be a double victory.” [ii]

Martin Luther King Jr.’s Strength of Soul

It was strength of soul that made it possible for King to live within the paradoxes inherent in adopting and maintaining a non-violent approach to confronting evil. “Through nonviolent resistance we shall be able to oppose the unjust system and at the same time love the perpetrators of the system…[iii] Folks, this is just not easy to do and it was King’s spirituality that kept his activism grounded in such radical truth.  Without strength of soul it would have been impossible for him to live these truths himself, let alone lead others in it!

King’s encounters with God in times of prayer kept him in the game. His spiritual vitality was a powerful undercurrent that carried him beyond fear and concern for his own survival to the fulfillment of God’s purposes for him in his own generation.  The day before his assassination, he spoke passionately about being strengthened by what can only be described as a mystical experience of “going to the mountain” and gaining a spiritual perspective on his life and the cause he was championing. “We’ve got some difficult days ahead,” he thundered, “but it really doesn’t matter with me now, because I’ve been to the mountaintop.

“And I don’t mind.

“Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place.  But I’m not concerned with that now.  I just want to do God’s will. And he allowed me to up to the mountain.  And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the Promised Land.

“I may not get there with you.  But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the Promised Land!

“And I’m so happy tonight! I’m not worried about anything.  I’m not fearing any man!  Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord!” [iv]

Prayer that Leads to Action, Action that Leads to Prayer

King’s leadership in the fight for racial justice was more than mere human activism; he understood it to be his destiny that history and God himself had thrust upon him. His actions were an out-pouring out of God’s heart through the life of an individual who was willing to step up and step into the powerful flow of God’s purposes. And that action, which was met with severe disagreement and violent opposition, drove him to sink his roots deeper into the ground of his being which was God himself.

King knew that God and God alone gives us the interior resources to bear the burdens and tribulations of life, especially those that come as we fulfill our call to serve others and to stand for what is right in this world. Had he not known how to move from action back into prayer—how to tap into a deeper Source than mere human activism—we would have lost him to fear and discouragement; the forces of this particular evil would have prevailed, at least for a little while longer. In a sermon entitled “Our God is Able”, King tells a very personal story of how an intimate encounter with God sustained him in the darkest hour of his fight for freedom and equality. When he began receiving death threats just before the Montgomery bus protest, he came to the end of his own inner resources and almost gave into fear. But it was an encounter with God at his kitchen table that empowered him to continue saying yes to his calling. “At that moment I experienced the presence of the Divine as I had never experienced him. It seemed as though I could hear the quiet assurance of an inner voice, saying, ‘Stand up for righteousness, stand up for truth.  God will be at your side forever.’ Almost at once my fears passed from me.  My uncertainty disappeared.  I was ready to face anything.  The outer situation remained the same, but God had given me inner calm.” [v]

King’s choice to orient himself towards God in the midst of the resistance that his action had stirred up became a pivotal moment in his life as a leader. It solidified his calling, transformed his fear into a deep sense of calm, and gave him the strength to go on.  Were it not for his full engagement in the fight for justice and his grounded-ness in the life of prayer, he might never have had the kind of encounter with God that transformed him in the deepest level of his being.

A Powerful Pulse

Martin Luther King, Jr. was an apostle of love and action.[vi] He believed that every genuine expression of love grows out of consistent and total surrender to God [vii] (the basic contemplative stance) and that every action we take in the world must be motivated by love—the most durable power in the world. At the heart of his message was the conviction that love is the creative force exemplified in the life of Christ and it is the most potent instrument available in the human quest for peace and security. [viii] In fact, he believed that the ability to love our enemies was an absolute necessity for our survival.

King’s soul was nourished and strengthened by a powerful pulse: his intimate connection with God (prayer) propelled him to courageous and unreserved engagement with the brokenness of the world (action). And action in the world always drove him back to prayer and radical surrender to God.  This is what mysticism is—it is the belief that God is real, that God can be encountered in the depths of one’s being, and that our human existence can be radically oriented and responsive to that Presence.

By this definition, all the great ones of our faith were mystics.  Mysticism is Moses hearing God’s voice in the wilderness and pushing through all manner of fear and resistance to do that thing he was convinced he could not do because God had called him to do.  It is Elijah on Mt. Horeb seeking a real encounter with God before returning to his call to be a prophet.  It is Paul getting knocked off his horse on the Damascus road and then sitting in silence for three days until God told him what to do next.  It is Peter seeing the vision of the unclean animals and changing the trajectory of his whole life to preach salvation to the Gentiles. It is John caught up in the spirit on the isle of Patmos receiving the vision that would become the book of Revelation.

This is what contemplation is—it is being present to the One who is always present with us and being radically responsive  to that Presence. As Richard Rohr writes, “True contemplatives are paradoxically risk-takers and reformists, precisely because they have no private agendas, jobs or securities to maintain.  Their security and identity is founded in God and not in being right, being paid by the church or looking for promotion in people’s eyes. These alone can move beyond self-interest and fear to do God’s necessary work.” [ix]

Where the Real Action Is

And what is the outcome of a life lived in this kind of powerful pulse?  Love.  Truth. Justice. Courage. Vision.  Staying Power. And action.  Contemplative action, to be exact.

Contemplation is where the real action is spiritually speaking. It is action that emerges from real encounters with God.  It is doing what God calls us to do when he calls us to do it—no matter how afraid we are or how ill-equipped we feel. Contemplative action is the willingness to go beyond being primarily concerned for our own safety and survival to the place where we know that our real life is hidden with Christ in God no matter what happens to our physical life. Contemplative action is doing the right thing, at the right time, in the right Spirit, completely given over to a Power that is beyond our own—even, and perhaps most especially, when the risks are very great. This kind of action is impossible without being radically in touch with the Source of our life through prayer and contemplation. And this kind of prayer is not possible until we stop hesitating and give in to the authority of an invisible God as it relates to our life in this world. [x]

Contemplative action is not about the absence of fear; it is the courage to look fear in face and master it through love. King was often very much afraid but he chose courage which he defined as “the power of life to affirm itself in spite of life’s ambiguities.  This requires the exercise of a creative will that enables us to hew out a stone of hope from a mountain of despair.” [xi]

This kind of action is not about our natural preferences.  As King once said, “I don’t march because I like it.  I march because I must.” Real action is not about our own personal safety. After King went public with his convictions, he was never safe again from a human point of view. Real action is not about what seems humanly possible. It is about saying yes to the God with whom all things are possible. “Neither God nor man will individually bring the world’s salvation. Rather, both man and God, made one in a marvelous unity of purpose through an overflowing love as the free gift of Himself on the part of God and by perfect obedience and receptivity on the part of man, can transform the old into the new.” [xii] (italics mine)

An Integrated Life

As we consider the possibility of living lives that fully integrate contemplation and action, it is good for us to learn from a man who had a God-given dream but didn’t keep it to himself for his own private inspirations.  He emerged from prayer to describe that dream to the rest of us in ways that enabled us to see it and taste it and feel it. It is good for us to emulate a man who not only dreamed dreams and saw visions but also had a God-honoring plan for carrying them out. It is good for us to be challenged and inspired by a man who made a difference in our world through contemplation in action.


[i] Martin Luther King, Jr., Strength to Love (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1963), p. 13.
[ii] Ibid., p.56
[iii] Ibid., p. 19.
[iv] From “I See the Promised Land” sermon (also referred to as “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop”), April 3, 1968, Memphis, TN.
[v] Strength to Love, p.114.
[vi] Coretta Scott King, from the forward Strength to Love, by Martin Luther King, Jr. (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1963), p. 9.
[vii] Ibid., p.50.
[viii] Ibid., p. 56.
[ix] Richard Rohr, Everything Belongs (New York:  Crossroad Publishing Company, 1999), p. 24.
[x] A reference to Thomas Merton, Thoughts in Solitude (New York:  Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 1956), p.24.
[xi] Strength to Love, p. 119.
[xii] Ibid., p.133.

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©Ruth Haley Barton, 2011. Adapted from “Contemplation in Action: Learning from Martin Luther King, Jr.,”  Conversations: A Forum for Authentic Transformation, Fall/Winter 2010.  This article is not to be reproduced without permission.

Ruth Haley Barton is founder of the Transforming Center.  A spiritual director, teacher and retreat leader, she is the author of Strengthening the Soul of Your Leadership, Sacred Rhythms, and Invitation to Solitude and Silence.


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Ruth Haley Barton

(Doctor of Divinity, Northern Seminary) is Founder and Chief Essence Officer of the Transforming Center. A teacher, seasoned spiritual director (Shalem Institute), and retreat leader, she is the author of numerous books and resources on the spiritual life including Life Together in Christ, Pursuing God’s Will Together, Strengthening the Soul of Your Leadership, Sacred Rhythms, and Invitation to Solitude and Silence.

1 Comment

  1. Linda Stoll on January 19, 2011 at 2:59 pm

    … three cheers for refusing to hang labels on each other that are inaccurate, restrictive, unedifying …

    And I appreciate your thoughts on contemplative action. Any thing we DO will fall like seed on rocky soil if it’s not grounded in substantial, deep, intimate encounters with Christ.

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