Editor’s Note: In honor of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s life, we are offering an eReflections series calling attention to the strength of soul he embodied. Each article highlights a major theme found in his sermons, speeches and other writings. You can read Part 1 and Part 3 by following the links.
“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.
©Ruth Haley Barton, 2011. Feel free to share this article using the buttons below; please do not reproduce and distribute without permission.
Ruth Haley Barton (Doctor of Divinity, Northern Seminary) is founder of the Transforming Center. A teacher, spiritual director, and retreat leader, she is the author of numerous books and resources on the spiritual life including Pursuing God’s Will Together: A Discernment Practice for Leadership Groups (June 2012) and Strengthening the Soul of Your Leadership.
[i] Martin Luther King, Jr. Strength to Love (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1963), p.114.
When and how has your calling to God-directed action in the world pushed you to the edge of your own faith? How has God met you on that edge?
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