In the year 1801, William Wilberforce, a member of the English Parliament and leader of the anti-slavery forces in the British Empire, passed through a severe spiritual crisis.
The core issue? Political ambition. Had he mishandled the experience, it is possible that the history of 19th-century England would have been quite different.
Wilberforce's struggle began when a general election produced a new prime minister, Henry Addington. The banter in the streets was that Wilberforce was on Addington's A-list of possible cabinet members. Biographer Garth Lean writes that Wilberforce was sucked into the speculation and, for a while, could think of nothing else. Later, recounting those days, Wilberforce described himself as "intoxicated (with) risings of ambition."
Many of us who have experienced the privileges of leadership understand such "risings" well, and ambition is just one of them. You can put abuse of power on a "risings list" along with anger, competitiveness, integrity issues, and moral temptation. And that's just the beginning. When we leaders get enamored by a fantasy or an egregious attitude about someone or something, it's hard to stop them. They almost never stop by themselves.
For Wilberforce, the great seduction was ambition. Many leaders know what it is like to be mesmerized by the lure of something bigger, more influential. Usually it's followed by the temptation to manipulate people and processes to grasp for whatever it is that the ego desires.
It was on a Sunday when Wilberforce finally confronted his ambition. At the end of a day of worship and solitude, Wilberforce wrote, "Blessed be to God for the day of rest and religious occupation wherein earthly things assume their true size. Ambition is stunted." The crisis was addressed.
In this brief comment, William Wilberforce references one of the great secrets of his personal life: his commitment to weekly withdrawals from the wild scramble of public life so that he could engage in worship, connection with a small circle of close friends, and quiet reflection.
It's the third of these three activities—reflection—that fascinates me most about Wilberforce. Reflection is an inner conversation—discourse one generates with oneself and with God. During inner conversation, your engagement with other people is suspended. There's a time to love, to serve, to care for other people. But a time of inner conversation is personal and private.
Engaging in inner conversation
Withdrawal for inner conversation parallels the priority flight attendants express when passengers on a plane are told that, if the oxygen masks appear, they should put theirs on first before helping others. Counter-intuitive, especially for mothers, but thoroughly logical.
Writer Anthony Bloom described his father as a man who knew inner conversation well. When he felt the need to do his own soul-work, he would sometimes tack a sign to his front door: "Don't go to the trouble of knocking. I am at home, but I will not answer the door."
This is not easy for those of us who are people-pleasers. We are suckers for knocks on our front door.
In the Scriptures, you get a sense of inner conversation when, in the Psalms, the writer quizzes his deeper self: "Why are you so downcast, O my soul?" Or when the writer invites God's attention: "Search me, O God, and examine my thoughts."
Sometimes inner conversation originates with God. You see it in the words God uses to caution Cain: "Why are you angry? Why is your face downcast?" You see it in the question God asks when Elijah flees to the wilderness in fear of Jezebel:"Elijah, what are you doing here?" Then saying, "Slow down, sleep, eat, drink. And then tell me again how you got here." What follows is a fascinating inner conversation in which Elijah's inaccurate perspective on things is repaired.
Paul is probably referring to inner conversation when he speaks of his "thorn in the flesh" and his frustration with it. "Three times I pleaded with the Lord to take it away." But God didn't.
During his many years a public servant, Wilberforce rarely deviated from his Sabbath commitment to this inner conversation. And on the particular Sunday when he dealt with his ambition, he demonstrated why this discipline of the calendar is so important. Had he used the day for other purposes, there is no telling how his life might have gone wrong.
Wilberforce not only set aside Sundays for inner conversation, but he usually began his working days in a similar but briefer way. Sometimes I call what he did on these mornings pushing the spiritual reset button or sweeping out the heart. Once Wilberforce said of these occasions, "In the calmness of the morning before the mind is heated and weary by the turmoil of the day, you have a season of unusual importance for communing with God and with yourself."
Garth Lean commentsnts, the day-to-day battle it was, more and more, these early morning hours … and his quiet Sundays that gave (Wilberforce) strength and perspective on himself and the world."
Wilberforce's habit of the heart has marked me greatly over the years. It has influenced my own commitment to early morning "Sabbaths" and the inner conversations I might otherwise ignore.
Why we neglect this Conversation
In my younger years as a pastor, I was often loaded with too much energy and too many ideas to actually believe that setting aside time for quiet inner conversation was useful. The newspaper, breakfast appointments, getting work done, seemed far more attractive. It was only as the evidence began to mount—fatigue, frustration, bad decisions, faulty wisdom—that I got the message. My priorities were out of alignment.
In my later years of Christian service, I've had the privilege of speaking to and teaching pastors from almost every denomination. I am usually not asked to talk about management or church growth or preaching. Rather, I'm most often asked to speak to the personal side of a leader's life, where the interior battles (like Wilberforce's) occur. Central to my presentation: the place of inner conversation and the question, "What's yours like?"
At such conferences, in quiet encounters with men and women in leadership positions, I hear several recurrent themes, many of them alarming: "I am exhausted … I've run out of ideas … I don't know how much longer I can keep on doing this … It seems like everyone has a piece of me and there's nothing left for myself … I find myself running from people … My family is miserable … Porn (or sexual fantasy) is a problem … I am terribly disappointed in me … God seems a million miles away … It's not much fun anymore."
One day when I was at a New England conference center speaking on the ways in which we leaders order our private world, I found an old book describing the history of New England Baptists. In it I found a letter written in 1932 by a frustrated pastor to the executive ministry of his area:
"I have been in my present pastorate seven years. I need a change. My people want me to go, although they have not yet called on me and said so. Pretty soon they may get that blunt. Attendance is down; offerings are small. I'll candidate anywhere. Just get me the opportunity."
This man thinks the answer to his problems is a fresh start, perhaps a nicer home for his family, a board of elders or deacons who'll be nicer to him.
When I read a letter like this or have the kind of conversations I just described, I find myself asking, "Did God really mean for spiritual leaders to feel this way? I know that suffering is often a part of the call to ministry, but is this the way things are supposed to end up for so many? Or are these descriptions of pastoral life a result of neglecting the inner conversation?
Henri Nouwen admitted a similar disturbance about leaders when he wrote, "What prevents (leaders) from becoming dull, sullen, lukewarm bureaucrats, people who have many projects, plans, and appointments, but who have lost their heart somewhere in the midst of their activities?"
Admittedly, I may be the old guy—not unlike Nouwen in this sense—who worries too much. Perhaps I wrongly assume that most everyone is going to fall into some of the traps I occasionally fell into. But my worry increases when I see too many who have failed to take into account the indispensable need for a quiet dimension to the calendar in which inner conversation—with God, and, yes, with themselves—can happen. Lacking this, they lack resilience, sustainability, the capacity to continuously grow (or deepen) and provide spiritual leadership during the 50 or so years that God gives to most of us.
"The battle is won in the secret places of the will before God," wrote Oswald Chambers. "Never first in the external world. … Nothing has power over the (person) who has fought out the battle before God and won there."
This, of course, is what William Wilberforce was experiencing on those Sundays: an inner conversation in the secret places.
Among my most frequently-asked questions to men and women in leadership who are struggling with spiritual malaise is, "What does an ideal week look like for you? Describe for me the priority activities that fill your week." Usually, I hear a list of leader-like activities with which we are all familiar: staff meetings, sermon study, consultations with church leaders, training seminars, budget meetings, counseling appointments, long-range planning functions. Sometimes there is comment about physical exercise (that's good) and family functions (that's even "gooder"). But what is missing all too often? Any allusion to a personal Sabbath: those times for activities that enlarge and cleanse the soul, times for inner conversation.
"What do you do in Sabbath time?" I am sometimes asked. I disappoint, I suspect, when I evade the formulaic answer. I discarded the gimmicks a long time ago. They didn't work for me. What became more important was outcomes. What do I do? Simple: whatever it takes for a renewed sense of conversion to Christ, a deeper awareness of the biblical way, an assurance that God's grace and power remain with me.
When I ask many leaders if there is time in their calendars for the pursuit of such outcomes, I get these kinds of responses:
- I'm just too busy.
- I don't have the slightest idea what I'd do if I took the time.
- My mind is too full of thought; I can't concentrate.
- I'm an extravert. Being alone, being quiet, reflecting is not my thing.
- I don't get any immediate result out of doing it.
- It's boring.
Sometimes I've imagined Moses sitting in on a conversation when things like these were said. He was the leader who erected a tent called the Tent of Meeting at the edge of the camp where the Israelites stayed while Moses conferred with God on the mountain. When Moses went to that tent, we are told that "the Lord would speak to (him) face to face, as a man speaks with his friend." That sounds like inner conversation language to me
Although the God of the Bible is great and mysterious and cannot be described in human terms, here is an exceptional description of conversation between Moses and the God of Israel. It dares to describe God in intimate human language. But the purpose of the writer is not to make God seem like one of us, but to express the way of inner conversation in which Moses is able to recalibrate his life as a leader.
I find it interesting that the story of Moses' tent is preceded by his devastating experience of finding his people dancing around a golden calf, a reversion to Egyptian paganism. Surprised by their behavior, he lost it. I suspect that he wanted to quit, to walk away. But based on the way the writer lined up these stories, I think we are being told that in that tent, Moses was able to say what he thought, ask about things he needed to know, and hear God renew his mission and his courage.
Moses had his tent (a certain space) and Wilberforce had his Sabbaths (a certain time). And both men renewed their strength as a result. They exemplify Paul's thought to the Corinthians when he wrote—and I use Eugene Peterson's genius for paraphrase here—"Test yourselves to make sure you are solid in the faith. Don't drift along taking everything for granted. Give yourselves regular checkups."
I have found the best way to enhance such a check-up, the inner conversation, is through questions. Questions are the extension of one's curiosity, and they work beautifully as one examines his/her own soul in the presence of the Lord.
Questions for inner Conversation
The questions I like most search one's heart just as the Psalmist mentions when he writes, "Search me!" They are meant to test the inner space of one's life and prompt conversation that leads to light.
Inner conversation begins for me by looking back over the time since my last Sabbath experience and reviewing the events that have occurred. Is there meaning in any of those events? Are there lessons to be learned, wisdom to be extracted?
My own theory is that very event, every human transaction in life, offers an insight. But it's often buried like gold or oil. It has to be discovered. Perhaps that's why busy people are impressive but often shallow. No time to mine the gold and drill the oil.
Here are far more "inner conversation starters" than you need, but these are some of the questions that begin to excavate the hidden gold:
- What have been the beautiful moments in which God may have been revealing himself to me? And what have been the evil moments when the worst in me or in the larger world showed itself?
- What happened this week that needs to be remembered, perhaps recorded in a journal so I can return to it in the future and recall the blessing (or the rebuke) of God? Making such a record is like those monuments and altars God had the Israelites raise up when great things worth remembering had happened.
- What have my prevailing feelings been (and what are they at the present)? Has there been a preponderance of sadness, of fear, of anger, of emptiness? Or has it been a time where joy and enthusiasm has been the dominant mood?
- What have been the "blessings," those acts of grace that have come through others or—as I perceive it—directly from God himself? Can I express praise and appreciation (sometimes even written in a thank-you note or journal)?
- Have things happened for which I need to accept responsibility, perhaps leading to repentance? Why did they happen? Were they avoidable and how can they be prevented in the future?
- What have been the thoughts that have been dominating my leader think-time? Noble thoughts? Escapist thoughts that woo me away from more important or challenging issues? Superficial thoughts that lead to nowhere?
- Is there a possibility that I am living in denial of certain realities? Painful criticism, sloppy work, habitual patterns that are hurting me and others?
- Are there any resentments or ill feelings toward others that remain unaddressed, unforgiven?
- As a leader visualizing myself in the company of spouse, children, friends, colleagues: am I a pleasant person to be around? Are people challenged, elevated, enthused when I enter the room? As someone has observed, "Some people bring joy wherever they go; others bring joy when they go." Which am I?
- What is God trying to say into my life today? Through Scripture? Through other readings? What has he been saying through those in my inner circle of relationships? Through critics? What insights swirl up and out of the deepest parts of my soul? Which of them needs to be repudiated, and which needs to be cultivated?
- What are the possibilities in the hours ahead? Where might there be ambushes that would challenge character, reputation, well-being?
- What are the things I might do and say that would make the people in my inner circle feel more loved and appreciated?
- Am I mindful of the socially awkward, the poor, the suffering, the oppressed in my local world and in the larger world? Am I in tune with appropriate current events in the world and perceiving them through the lens of biblical perspective?
- What specific steps will I take today to enhance growth as a follower of Jesus?
I like to ask one more question as part of my personal inner conversation. What if today is the day I meet Jesus face to face … either because he returns or because I am unexpectedly called into his presence? For a people who say we believe in eternal life, this is a rather significant question and should not be avoided.
I don't know whether William Wilberforce approached his quiet Sabbath hours with these kinds of questions. Perhaps he had a different, a better, way. What I do know is that in 1801, when he arrived at a potential turning point in his life, his ways of inner conversations were such that he avoided a terrible mistake. Ambition was "stunted."
Pascal, the French philosopher and inventor, wrote in his Pensees: "All the unhappiness of men arises from one single fact, that they cannot stay quietly in their own chamber." I'm sure I'm taking it a bit out of context, but these words fit the point I am trying to make. Leaders who do not take the time, who do not feel the need, who do not think they are capable of inner conversation put themselves in enormous danger. Unacquainted with the inner person, they set themselves up for possible disaster.
For many years William Wilberforce enjoyed a friendship with John Newton, former slave trader and later man of God. Wilberforce was the politician, Newton the pastor. What they had in common was their faith and their belief that spiritual power was derived, first, from the activities of quiet inner conversation a man had with God (to quote Pascal) in his own private chamber.
Newton had his own ideas of what an inner conversation was like. In his biography of Newton, Jonathan Aitken describes how Newton reduced the core of his spiritual life into five principles he believed would guide him in his leadership with people and his walk with God. He determined:
- To begin and end every day with God.
- To peruse Scriptures with a diligence and attention suited to the dignity of the subject.
- To spend the Sabbath entirely with the Lord.
- To choose for my companions only good people from whom I may derive some improvement.
- To become all things to all men in order thatI may save some.
That will work.
Gordon MacDonald is editor at large of Leadership.
Copyright © 2010 by the author or Christianity Today/Leadership Journal.
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