Cultivating the Soul

Spiritual formation can happen without saying a word.

Thirty years ago, when real estate in this part of New Hampshire was cheap, my wife, Gail, and I purchased an old farm and called it Peace Ledge. During the 1800s the land's valuable timber had been clear-cut and transformed into pasture where enormous workhorses could be bred and raised. Then around 1900 the farm went belly-up, was abandoned, and, after 70 years, became a forest again.

Occasionally, Gail and I select a small piece of this woodland and clear it. We eliminate unhealthy trees. We rip out the kind of ground vegetation that makes for fire danger. And we dig away the ubiquitous boulders (the gift of ancient glaciers) that might create havoc with the blades of our tractor mower.

Gail and I enjoy our accomplishments—for a little while—until our eyes begin to spot more work begging attention in adjoining areas we'd not considered before.

This refreshing of our land is a lifelong task. And when we die, our descendents, presumably, will continue the job.

For me this outdoor labor mirrors the discipline of spiritual formation, for just as one cultivates the land, so one must regularly, systematically even, cultivate the deepest parts of the interior life where God is most likely to whisper (not shout) the everlasting promises into one's life.

To be candid, I've gone through periods when I neglected spiritual formation. I had all the reasons I hear from others: too busy, not practical, unable to concentrate, no clear sense that spiritual formation gets results. My neglect in those moments was pure foolishness.

Spiritual formation involves cutting, weeding, digging, raking, and planting—not with a chainsaw or shovel, of course, but through the work of worship, reflection, prayer, study, and a score of other soul-oriented activities described in books by Richard Foster, Dallas Willard, and Henri Nouwen, to name a few.

When a piece of our land is renewed, Gail and I are always surprised at the beauty that occurs almost overnight. Wild flowers appear; forest animals visit; good trees mature. The virtues of creation just seem to appear. And when the soul is similarly attended to, there appear the virtues of godly character.

A frank opinion? I don't think a lot of men and women in leadership know this. I mean really know it. What drives my opinion are these impressions.

First, the primary subject matter of most training and motivational conferences on leadership seems to be all about vision, about clever, well-researched programs, about growing large, successful institutions. Admittedly good stuff. But missing is the recognition that soul cultivation goes before institution building. How do you grow large, healthy, and authentic churches (the current rage) without growing the soul of a leader, which sustains the effort over the long haul?

A second impression: the dreadful casualty list of men and women who do not make it to a tenth anniversary in Christian ministry. Burnout, failure, disillusionment are exacting a terrible toll. I'm amazed how many ministers just disappear, drop off the edge.

A third: the constant conversations I have with younger men and women who confide that they are spiritually dry, unmotivated, despairing, and wondering what to do about it.

And maybe there's a fourth: I never forget how close—how really close—I myself came to missing the cut. Though my own defining moment of personal crisis came 20 years ago, the memory is always fresh.

Saint Paul's words to Timothy are too easily ignored in this high-pitched, high-casualty leadership lifestyle of ours: "Train yourself to be godly … godliness has value for all things, holding promise for both the present life and the life to come" (1 Tim. 4:7-8) I smell spiritual formation in these remarks.

The forming of the soul that it might be a dwelling place for God is the primary work of the Christian leader. This is not an add-on, an option, or a third-level priority. Without this core activity, one almost guarantees that he/she will not last in leadership for a lifetime or that what work is accomplished will become less and less reflective of God's honor and God's purposes.

In his 20s, William Booth (founder of the Salvation Army) wrote a letter to his wife, describing his feelings of discouragement and ineffectiveness. He was close to quitting, he said. Catherine, a remarkable woman, wrote back: "I know how possible it is to preach and pray and sing, and even shout, while the heart is not right with God. I know how popularity and prosperity have a tendency to elate and exalt self, if the heart is not humble before God. I know how Satan takes advantage of these things to work out the destruction (if possible) of one whom the Lord uses to pull down strongholds of his kingdom, and all these considerations make me tremble, and weep, and pray for you, my dearest love, that you may be able to overcome all his devices, and having done all to stand, not in your own strength but in humble dependence on Him who worketh 'all in all.'"

As far as I can tell, Catherine was 23 when she wrote these words. But she was not too young to "get it." William's spiritual core, she understood, was the key to everything.

I shall leave the techniques of spiritual formation to other, more qualified spiritual directors. What occupies my thoughts presently are the evidential virtues that spring—like wild flowers—out of a soul aligned with heaven.

Anthony Bloom writes of a desert father who was invited to preach at a mass where a visiting bishop would be in attendance. The monastic refused saying, "If my silence doesn't speak to him, my words will be useless."

The monk's point provokes me because I spend a large part of my life depending upon words, social skills, and an ability to think quickly on my feet to communicate with people. But how should I communicate if I were limited to silence? It could only happen if there were virtues growing out of my soul like flowers erupting from a renewed piece of ground.

What virtues might those be? With caution I nominate five that are all too often in short supply and which, if long neglected, will signal our demise. The list is neither exhaustive nor guaranteed to be the best. But it's mine.

Harvested Humility

If I was bound to silence, I would wish that people would see that, as a result of my soul work, I have made progress in humility. Humility is not something one achieves; it is the result of other pursuits.

To be frank, people who knew me in the earlier years would never have associated me with humility. I fear such people would remember me as full of self, perhaps overconfident, endlessly in motion. Talented, a bit gifted perhaps, but not a humble man.

"A humble man," Isaak of Syria, said, "is never hurried, hasty, or perturbed, but at all times remains calm. Nothing can ever surprise, disturb, or dismay him, for he suffers neither fear nor change in tribulations, neither surprise nor elation in enjoyment. All his joy and gladness are in what is pleasing to the Lord."

If even a sliver of the virtue of humility grows out of the ground of my soul today, it is only because I am old enough to be well acquainted with the overpowering effects of sin, the realities of personal limits and liabilities, and the corrosive effects of perpetual accomplishment. Beyond that it is because I have slowly(!) come to appreciate the grandeur of God and my place before him as a small child.

"The way of the Christian leader," wrote Henri Nouwen, "is not the way of upward mobility in which the world has invested so much, but the way of downward mobility ending on the cross. … It is not a leadership of power and control, but a leadership of powerlessness and humility in which the suffering servant of God, Jesus Christ, is made manifest."

Nouwen's words drip with mystery. They make little sense in the life where planning, promotion, creativity, and charisma seem to mean everything. But this is the direction for the leader who lasts and who, in the end, may not produce large institutions but will eventually produce great saints.

Productive Compassion

If I were forced into silence, I would wish, secondly, that people would see the evidence of compassion as a product of my soul work. Compassion: the ability to identify at heart level with the vulnerabilities, fears, and sorrows of others. And to identify in such a way that one is not paralyzed but energized with great love.

An e-mail came to me this week from someone who wished to know whether or not they would really be welcomed in our congregation if certain secrets in their life were revealed. "I don't want to be somebody's project," this person wrote.

Those words bored into my soul because I realize how easy it is to slot people, as projects, into programs and bypass the taxing experience of authentic identification with struggle.

I'll be frank with my opinion. The larger world is not picking up the signals of compassion from the branch of Christianity of which I am a part. While Nicholas Kristof of The New York Times often applauds our movement for its far-flung programs in AIDS, home building, hospitals, and disaster response, we are not known as compassionate people as we do these things. All our good efforts are covered by the sense that we are proud, angry, and vindictive in our selective approaches to those needing some form of redemption.

I don't want to be perceived as a hard person with an accusatory message who occasionally does good deeds. Much better to be perceived as the wounded healer who exchanges his bandages with the one who has none to offer back.

Steadfastness, Not Stubbornness

If I were to live in total silence, I would wish, thirdly, that spiritual formation would produce steadfastness in me. Steadfastness is not stubbornness, nor is it a resistance to change. Instead it is a ceaseless embrace of certain purposes and commitments from which one will never retreat.

Steadfastness means reliability of character, fulfillment of promises, faithfulness to key relationships, and (most important) living in obedience to Jesus.

Such steadfastness has not been a part of my nature. If it is part of me today, it is because I have had to acquire it. The impulse to quit, to avoid, to cut and run comes naturally to me, and were it not for some mentors and a very strong wife who challenged me to face this, I have no idea where I'd be today.

It was in the process of spiritual formation that I faced down the "quitter's gene" that lives in me. Through rebuke, through the inspiration of the lives of the biblical greats (and the saints beyond them), and through the encouragement of my personal community, I acquired something of the discipline of steadfastness. Today I like to think that I'm a pretty good "sticker," but without the continuous restoring of the soul, it just wouldn't have happened.

"Be steadfast, unmovable, always abounding," Paul wrote to the Corinthians. He was obviously driving at something important. Perhaps he was speaking to people who were habitually undependable, short-lived in their commitments, caving in to pressure—people like the natural me.

Faith Beyond Sight

If words were taken from me, I would hope that others would see faith in me. Faith: an ability to trust in and draw upon the power of God beyond my rationality, my instinctive pessimism, my willingness to settle for less than best.

I love to read about and observe faith-driven people, and this is part of my spiritual formation activities. Faithful people inspire me. I can't get enough of John Wesley, William Wilberforce, the Countess of Huntingdon, and Charles Simeon: all 18th-century evangelicals who had the temerity to believe that the gospel of Jesus Christ could alter the social fabric of England. When I finish with any of them in my books, I'm ready to spring into motion believing God for such transformations today.

I'm often drawn to the Bible story of the poor widow who put her two "mites" in the Temple treasury and gave, according to Jesus, "all that she had." That's faith in a nutshell: a calm, quiet, unostentatious offering of all her assets, believing that God would provide for her needs.

Spiritual formation means building a heart that is comfortable in asking for and believing in God to do the seemingly impossible. Praying for healing of the sick, transformation of the wicked, the lifting of the hand of the oppressor.

There is an intimate connection between faith and vision. I see a lot of both when it comes to building institutions and buildings. I guess I would like to demonstrate my own faith and vision less in institutions and more in the possibilities that God has for people.


If my life, like the monk in Anthony Bloom's story, were to be lived in silence, I would hope that the spiritual fruit of self-control would be in evidence.

This, of course, has a lot to do with discipline and one's willingness to cultivate the ability to say no to wrong as well as yes to the right things in life. Not a popular subject, really.

Self-control is in play when a leader is opposed, slandered, unappreciated, ignored, or required to go the second mile. How does he/she respond? Self-control speaks to our use of money, our handling of power and influence, and our response to inflated adulation. How do we bring healthy limits to our lives?

The Older Testament offers several portraits of individuals who lacked self-control: Samson, Saul, and Solomon come to mind. And the champions? Joseph, of course. And Daniel. And Esther.

When I imagine self-control at its fullest, I picture Jesus in the garden of Gethsemane surrounded by failing friends, cruel soldiers who have come to arrest him, and the scurrilous Judas Iscariot. What a time to lose one's cool. But he didn't. He kept his dignity and became the calm center of a wildly chaotic situation. That's self-control.

"It is the quality of leaders that they can bear to be sat on, absorb shocks, act as a buffer, bear being much plagued," wrote Fred Mitchell a one-time leader in the old China Inland Mission. "The wear and tear and the continual friction and trials which come to the servants of God are the greatest test of character."

Outside the window of the little study I maintain here at Peace Ledge is a large boulder. It would probably take a box four feet high, wide, and deep if I were going to ship it someplace. Many years ago the boulder was buried in the ground and only an inch or two of it poked through the soil. My wife, Gail, thinking it to be a minor task, began to dig it up.

The more she dug, the more she realized how big a project she'd undertaken. But there was no going back now. Two days later we (now she had me involved) were removing this gargantuan piece of stone from a hole big enough for a swimming pool (I exaggerate to make my point). As I write this piece, I see the once-submerged boulder out my window.

The stone remains a constant reminder of spiritual formation. Some things need to be dug out. Still more things need to be cut away. Other things need to be planted. Then in the long run, you have something beautiful. Really beautiful.

And you don't need words to tell other people what they're seeing. They observe God at work in one's life—even if there is only silence. Spiritual formation can happen, without saying a word.

—Gordon MacDonald is editor at large of Leadership and chair of World Relief, and lives in Belmont, New Hampshire.

LEADERSHIP JOURNAL, Summer 2005, Copyright by the author or Christianity Today International/LEADERSHIP JOURNAL.

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