Part One: Coming Home to Ourselves in God’s Presence

“When I want to do good, evil is close at hand.”  ~the apostle Paul

Moses was destined to be a leader. When you are raised as the son of a princess, you are groomed to lead. You are scrutinized and evaluated regarding your capacity to lead. Expectations are high. But Moses was not just expected to be a leader by virtue of his situation; he was also called to be a spiritual leader and a liberator by God himself. And this is never as easy as it sounds.

Who Am I?

You see, Moses had a problem. He was not an Egyptian by blood nor was he related by blood to the royal princess who was raising him. Even though Moses’ life and story contained much evidence of God’s grace, it was still a convoluted childhood by today’s therapeutic standards! He was born into a highly unsafe and volatile environment for children. He was abandoned by his mother even though it was for the best of reasons. He was then reunited with his birth family only to be returned to his adoptive family later on. Raised in a pagan environment that was fundamentally different than the environment in which he had spent his early years, he was prohibited from living and worshipping with his family and his countrymen according to the traditions of his own heritage.

He lived between two worlds—always longing for home.

Moses probably had a bit of a chip on his shoulder because he always had something to prove. As an outsider both among his own people and among the Egyptians who had raised him, he probably wrestled every day with issues related to his identity. Should he fit into the environment in which he had been raised and follow the path marked out for him there? OR should he identify with his own people and try to make it by those rules instead? Neither one was a very good choice. Either one would involve emptiness and loss.

Moses’ Leadership BS

Moses developed some pretty good coping mechanisms for dealing with the pain of his situation as all human beings do. One was to repress his anger since he had nowhere to go with it. But he also used that anger to “power up” in relation to others and to control situations that seemed out of control.

One day his anger—this anger that had been building for so long—got the best of him and everything exploded. On this particular day he went to visit his people and he saw the injustice of their oppression and forced labor. When he saw an Egyptian abusing a Hebrew, his anger overwhelmed him and he killed the Egyptian and then tried to hide his sin by burying the body in the sand. This is a snapshot of Moses’ leadership BS—his leadership before solitude—and it was not a pretty sight!

The very next day, when Moses tried to help his fellow Hebrews by refereeing a fight between two of them, they would not have it. They had seen Moses’ out-of-control attempts at “helping” and were quite cynical about it. Their reaction to his unrefined and undisciplined leadership was, “Who made you a ruler and a judge over us? Do you mean to kill us as you killed the Egyptian?” Moses was afraid, as well he should have been. He was afraid that he would be found out, that he would be seen for who he really was. What had been present under the surface of his life was now on the surface and it could no longer be ignored.

Settling into Solitude

This experience of the destructive power of his raw and unrefined leadership was so frightening that Moses fled into solitude. He did not walk. He did not jog. He did not take time to put his affairs in order. He fled into solitude. He said, in effect, “This part of me, if left as it is, will be no good for anyone.” Often this is what it takes to move us beyond mere dabbling in solitude and silence to a more substantive experience—an encounter with God that eventually changes the trajectory of our lives. And as improbable as it may seem, something of our calling is embedded in these humble and disturbing beginnings.

The first thing that happened to Moses during his extended time in solitude was that he settled—in Midian, to be exact. It was a place far from public view, far from the places where the most painful parts of his life had occurred, far from the place of his greatest mistake so far. And solitude began to do its good work.

The next time we see him exercising any leadership, he is starting to use it for good in more effective ways. The strong sense of justice that was so essential to his nature was still there but this time he used it to come to the defense of some shepherd girls who were being threatened by unruly shepherds. This time Moses was truly helpful—he defended the shepherd girls and helped them to water their sheep—and he exercised more restraint. This time he accomplished justice without killing anyone—a real improvement! His withdrawal from his more public existence and the settling that has taken place there is already paying off.

Naming Ourselves in God’s Presence

Moses remained in a solitary, non-public existence for a long time. It was as if— in some deep and fundamental way—he just let go. He let go of his dreams of fixing anything, of helping anyone or even living among his people. Instead, he received what was given. He was offered a home in Midian and so he settled there. He was given a wife and so he took her as his own. He fathered a son and it became a touchstone in his life, an opportunity to name something about himself with more courage and realism than ever before. When his son was born he named him Gershom because “I have been an alien residing in foreign land.”

This was a profound admission. Finally, he began to make sense of his own history and he was able to say, “This is who I am. This is where I’ve been. The experience of living my life as an alien in a foreign land is what has shaped me.”

Finally he came home to himself in God’s presence. Finally, he was on the path to becoming a leader who could do some good in the world.

Wrestling With the Question

The question “Who am I” is a poignant one for leaders, isn’t it? There is the person others need us to be, the person we think we are or have convinced ourselves we are, and the person God knows us to be.

Wrestling with this question in an honest way is an important practice for leaders and ensures a greater level of integrity in our leadership than if we refuse the question. Such wrestling enables us to tease out these distinct threads so at least we understand which aspect of ourselves we are working out of on any given day. And it can give us hints as to why we are getting the results we are getting on any given day!

The point is to be willing to wrestle, as Bonhoeffer does below. As we come home to ourselves in God’s presence, we can trust God to put the pieces together in such a way that we are able to bring what is most needed to those he has called us to lead.

Who Am I?

Who am I? They often tell me
I emerge from my cell
serene and cheerful and poised,
like a noble from his manor.

Who am I? They often tell me
I speak with my guards
freely, friendly, and clear,
as though I were the one in charge.

Who am I? They also tell me 
I bear days of misfortune
with composure, smiling and regal, 
like one accustomed to victory.

Am I really what others say of me?
Or am I only what I know of myself?
Disquieted, yearning, sick, caged like a bird,
fighting for breath itself, as at the hands of a strangler,
craving colors, flowers, birdsong,
thirsting for kind words, human closeness,
shaking with rage at tyranny, the pettiest offense,
tossed about in anticipation of great events,
helpless in worry for friends endless distances away,
tired, with nothing left for praying, thinking, working,
weary and ready to take leave of it all?

Who am I? This one or the other?
Am I one today and another tomorrow?
Am I both at the same time? Before others a hypocrite
and in my own eyes a contemptibly self-pitying weakling?
Or does what remains in me resemble a defeated army,
retreating in disorder before victory already won?

Who am I? It mocks me, this lonely probing of mine.
Whoever I am, thou knowest me; O God, I am thine!

~Dietrich Bonhoeffer

© Ruth Haley Barton, 2018. Adapted from Strengthening the Soul of Your Leadership: Seeking God in the Crucible of Ministry (InterVarsity Press). Poem by Dietrich Bonhoeffer, taken from the book Who Am I? (Augsburg Books, 2005).

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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 (Oct 2022).
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Ruth, we don’t know one another but I feel with you a kindred spirit. Your book, Strengthening the Soul of Your Leadership, is timely for me and I am grateful.

I have never faced this question so viscerally. Whereas before it might have been a soft hum in the background of all that I attempted, it has now become a ringing in my ears. Based on the experience that I do have in ministry, I have been a bit disquieted-even disappointed-by the realization that I am facing this question head on right now. I’m thankful for Bonhoeffer’s quote and the parallels with Moses that Ruth has pointed out. Even someone as hardy as B, who wrote “when God calls a man he bids him come and die” can vulnerably expound on his personal identity crisis. Thank God.

Lovely. Just lovely!

Well written. I could relate to Moses in new way. I’m passing this on to friends.

[…] read a blog post by Ruth Haley Barton this evening and she shares a wee something from Dietrich Bonhoeffer that I can deeply resonate […]

Beautiful and poignant and piercing to the heart.

There’s a grammatical mistake in your last sentence which is distracting. You ommitted
“…we are able “to” bring what is most needed”….
Just thought I’d mention that.

Thanks. Fixed.

The question of “Who Am I” came forth as I spent time in solitude on my first TC retreat. It took me by surprise as I didn’t know how this could be possible with years of being in ministry, I thought I knew. I now find myself wrestling between resistance and surrendering to the process of waiting and asking God this question in solitude. Although I wrestle with the waiting, I get glimpses of relief knowing there are many others who have gone before me, like Moses, whom God brought forth as the man and leader He was calling him to be. That brings hope. Thanks for this reflection, Ruth.

It’s a very honest (albeit uncomfortable) place to be…God will meet you there.

Two of the most powerful words is “know thyself.” When one answer that question, the other question is answered as well.

An interesting convergence here…just finished reading Dr. John Sarno’s book, The Mindbody Connection, about how repressed anger manifests itself as bodily symptoms (TMS). Thank you for this timely reflection!

I have the book from which this passage is taken. Reading it has helped me a great deal. This is not your ordinary self-help book, but a deep search into one’s character through Haley’s beautiful writing. The final passage here by Bonhoeffer made me feel very humble. He, like Moses, gave everything for others.

With increasing intensity of late, this question is rising forcefully to the surface!

The best thing to do, then, is pay attention! 🙂

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