Part 2: Inner Strength for Outer Action

Part 1: Opposites in Fruitful Harmony

“Admitting the weighty problems and staggering disappointments, Christianity affirms that God is able to give us the power to meet them.  He is able to give us the inner equilibrium to stand tall amid the trials and burdens of life.  He is able to provide inner peace amid outer storms.  This inner stability of the [person] of faith is Christ’s chief legacy to his disciples.”

– Martin Luther King, Jr.

There is no question that the primary rhythm that sustained Dr. King for the long haul of his leadership was the rhythm of prayer and action, action and prayer.  He 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 chosen to move back and forth between action and prayer—regularly tapping into a Source of soul-strength deeper than mere human activism—there is every evidence that he would have been swept away by fear and discouragement.  The forces of evil would have prevailed, at least for a little while longer.

Strengthened in the Inner Being
In a sermon entitled “Our God is Able” Dr. King recounts a very personal story of how an intimate encounter with God sustained him in the darkest hour of his fight for freedom and equality.

Almost immediately after the Montgomery bus protest had been undertaken, we began to receive threatening phone calls and letters in our home.  Sporadic in the beginning, they increased day after day.  At first I took them in my stride, feeling they were the work of a few hotheads who would become discouraged after they discovered that we would not fight back.  But as the weeks passed, I realized that many of the threats were in earnest.  I felt myself faltering and growing in fear.

After a particularly strenuous day, I settled in bed at a late hour…and was about to doze off when the telephone rang.  An angry voice said, “Listen, n@*#!, we’ve taken all we want from you. Before next week you’ll be sorry you ever came to Montgomery.” I hung up, but I could not go to sleep.  It seemed all my fears had come down on me at once. I had reached the saturation point.

I got out of bed and began to walk the floor.  Finally, I went to the kitchen and heated a pot of coffee.  I was ready to give up.  I tried to think of a way to move out of the picture without appearing to be a coward. In this state of exhaustion, when my courage had almost gone, I took my problem to God.  My head in my hands, I bowed over the kitchen table and prayed aloud.  The words I spoke to God that midnight are still vivid in my memory.

“I am here taking a stand for what I believe is right.  But now I am afraid.  The people are looking to me for leadership, and if I stand before them without strength, they too will falter.  I am at the end of my powers.  I have nothing left.  I have come to the point where I can’t face it alone.”

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.

Three nights later, our home was bombed. Strangely enough, I accepted the word of the bombing calmly.  My experience with God had given me a new strength and trust.  I knew now that God is able to give us the interior resources to face the storms and problems of life.  Let this be our ringing cry…that there is a great benign Power in the universe whose name is God, and he is able to make a way out of no way, and transform dark yesterdays into bright tomorrows.  This is our hope for becoming better [people].  This is our mandate for seeking to make a better world.[i]


Transformed on the Edge

I share this account in its entirety because the emotions Dr. King experienced and the faith edge on which he found himself is an inevitability of any true call to God-directed action in the world.  Such action will always call us to face our fear and then move beyond it to the very edge of what we think we are capable of. And that is exactly where God wants to meet us.

Dr. King’s choice to orient himself towards God in the midst of the resistance that his action stirred up became a pivotal moment in his transformation 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 moved him beyond fear to deeper faith, transforming him at the deepest level of his being. The work that God is doing in us is always as important as the work God is doing through us.

Continue reading:
Part 3: Love in Action
Part 1: Opposites in Fruitful Harmony

©Ruth Haley Barton, 2011. Feel free to share this article using the buttons below; please do not reproduce and distribute without permission.

 [i] Martin Luther King, Jr. Strength to Love (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1963), p.114.

Ruth Haley Barton

Ruth (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, Ruth is the author of numerous books and resources on the spiritual life including Strengthening the Soul of Your Leadership, Sacred Rhythms, Life Together in Christ, Pursuing God’s Will Together, Invitation to Solitude and Silence, Invitation to Retreat, and Embracing Rhythms of Work and Rest.
Notify of

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Oldest Most Voted
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments

Well I agree with all of you guy

What an inspiring article. We don’t get a glimpse often into those moments when a great leader is about to give up. Most of us may never be a leader like Marin Luther King but we have spheres of influence where others watch what we will do in the face of persecution, heartache, loss of any kind, disappointment. It is in that moment when we bow our head and cry out to God that we “can’t do this” that He empowers us. I think He waits for us just to ask.

I could not compare my experience to Dr. King’s because as a white woman in the American South I have a position of privilege he did not have. My life has never been in danger as his was. However, as a woman mininster I have had my ministerial life threatened because I chose to stand up for an AIDS patient. In 1992 I was dismissed from my local Southern Baptist denominational responsibilities and told I could not serve even in the woman’s organization. I fell off the edge of my faith, but what I discovered was God was bigger than I had ever allowed myself to experience before. I began a journey of trust with God and today I am grateful for the push of those men out into the arms of God.

A wonderful testimony of how God uses anything and everything to bring about our transformation in his presence. Your story rings both painful and true. Thank you for sharing.

Join thousands of pastors and spiritual leaders

Receive Beyond Words®, reflections on the soul of leadership. Written by Ruth Haley Barton, each reflection provides spiritual guidance and encouragement for those seeking to be in God for the world.