Part 3: Love in Action

Part 1: Opposites in Fruitful Harmony
Part 2: Inner Strength for Outer Action

“Every genuine expression of love grows out of a consistent and total surrender to God.”

– Martin Luther King, Jr.

One of the most striking aspects of Dr. King’s life and ministry was his commitment to love as the most durable power in the world; he was an apostle of both love and action.[i] He believed that every action we take in the world must be motivated by love—the creative force exemplified in the life of Christ and the most potent instrument available in the human quest for peace and security.[ii] King was convinced that the strength to love our enemies—even in the face of injustice and oppression—is an absolute necessity for our survival.

Practical Mysticism

One could argue that Dr. King’s spirituality was a kind of practical mysticism which is simply 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 against all odds. The practical outworking of such encounters is that we are moved to loving action in the world that God loves.

By 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. 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.

It is Dr. King, afraid for his life and ready to slip out the back door of the Civil Rights movement, until he experienced God’s presence so profoundly that he could pick his head up off the kitchen table ready to reengage the battle.


Where the Real Action Is

As it turns out, love is where the real action is, spiritually speaking. Love in action 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. It is the willingness to move beyond being concerned primarily for our own safety and survival to the confidence that comes from knowing that our real life is hidden with Christ in God no matter what happens to our physical life.

Love in 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 that perfect love which casts out fear. Such risky action is impossible until we stop hesitating and give in to the authority of an invisible God.[iii]

Real action is not about the absence of fear; it is the courage to look fear in face and master it through love. Dr. King (by his own admission) 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.”[iv]

This kind of love-directed action is not about our natural preferences.  As King once said, “I don’t march because I like it.  I march because I must.” It 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. It is not about what seems humanly possible. It is about saying yes to the God with whom all things are possible and doing whatever we do in union with God. “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 receptivityon the part of man, can transform the old into the new.”[v]

Love worth Celebrating

Dr. King’s commitment to the moral ethic of love enabled him to envision and articulate a way forward that involved meeting violence and oppression with nonviolent resistance, combatting real fear with profound courage, and confronting social evil with soul force.  This love is not to be confused with sentimental slop; it is creative, redemptive goodwill toward all people—including (and perhaps most especially) one’s enemies. In the depths of his being he knew that “returning hate for hate multiplies hate, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars.  Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that.  Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.”[vi]

And so he chose the way of love—love in action—and that made all the difference.

©Ruth Haley Barton, 2012. Feel free to share this article using the buttons below; please do not reproduce and distribute without permission.

[i] Coretta Scott King, from the forward Strength to Love, by Martin Luther King, Jr. (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1963), p. 9.
[ii] Martin Luther Kind, Jr. Strength to Love, p. 56.
[iii] A reference to Thomas Merton, Thoughts in Solitude (New York:  Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 1956), p.24.
[iv] Strength to Love, p. 119.
[v] Ibid., p.133.
[vi] Ibid.., p.53.

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.
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Thank you so much Ruth for these 3 powerful, timely articles! The message of being transformed by God so we are able to love with his Love is so relevant today. Refugees are pouring into our countries and as followers of Jesus we are called to love our “new neighbors”. Many other voices are calling us to fear and withdraw; to avoid any risks involved in truly loving in whatever way God leads us to love them.
It seems this is a call, an invitation from God, for us to go deeper ourselves into opening up to receive the Love of Christ, not just as head knowledge, but in our innermost being – to receive it over and over with humility and soul-hunger, to receive it without blocking it by trying to earn it. Then we are able to truly love him back. Then there will be the overflow of his Love that we need to love these refugees. Some are believers we need to embrace. Many have never encountered a genuine follower of Jesus; many will be amazed as they experience his Love coming through us – if we take the risk of the unknown and tell Jesus we are available for his Love to come to them through us – however he leads us.
Thank you for the encouragement this series gives us to never be satisfied without being on the transformation journey with God that empowers to live and love in ways we could never live and love on our own!

Well said! Thank you.

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