“A leader is a person who must take special responsibility for what’s going on inside him- or herself, inside his or her consciousness, lest the act of leadership create more harm than good.”
There comes a time in the spiritual life when one of the major things God is up to is to lovingly help us see ourselves more clearly in the light of God’s presence. This is a very challenging element of the spiritual life, one that many of us shrink from with more than a little dread.
Some of us have been so shaped by shame-based family or church systems that we resist entering into deeper levels of self-knowledge for fear of being debilitated by shame or swept away by remorse. For others, our sense of worth is so fragile or our perfectionism so pronounced that we are not sure we could bear facing “the darkness within” without becoming completely unraveled. And yet…one of the deepest longings of the human heart is to be known fully and to discover that we are loved unconditionally.
Coming Home to Ourselves in God’s Presence
A natural outcome of solitude, silence, and rest in God is that we become more grounded in God’s unconditional loving presence as the ultimate, orienting reality of our lives. In that Presence, we are able to celebrate the goodness of our created selves as well as inviting God to show us those places where we are still living in bondage to sin, negative patterns, and a way of life that just doesn’t work. This is certainly what both Moses and Elijah experienced in their solitude.
One of the early results of Moses’ forty years in the wilderness was his ability to name himself honestly in God’s presence. This allowed God to begin releasing him from old patterns so that his leadership could be a force for good in the world. Moses’ ability to name the unresolved inner dynamics that had shaped him (“I have been an alien in a foreign land”) created space for God’s transforming work in his life.
After sinning spectacularly, he had settled into a more solitary existence far outside the public view and began to change—from being an angry young man who gave in to murderous rages to being a leader who could work for justice in ways that were truly helpful. He started small—coming to the defense of some shepherd girls who were being threatened by unruly shepherds—but this time he was able to help without killing anyone. This is leadership transformation at its best! Eventually, he was ready to be entrusted with God’s ultimate calling upon his life.
Elijah also came home to himself in God’s presence as he became more honest with God in solitude. He first acknowledged just how discouraged, depleted, and depressed he was and God sent an angel to minister to him right where he was. After he got some rest and some nourishment, he was able to go a step further and name “the good, the bad, and the ugly” in his life. The good news was that he had been very zealous for the Lord, the God of hosts. The bad news was that things weren’t going so well on the ministry front. The Israelites were running around tearing down God’s altars and killing his prophets with the sword—not a very good ministry report for a prophet.
The ugly news was the impact it was having on Elijah’s soul. With the words “I alone am left, and they are seeking my life to destroy it,” Elijah acknowledged how completely isolated, and besieged he felt. His ability to name his outer and inner reality accurately seemed to be a significant factor in opening him up to the encounter he needed.
Search Me, O God, and Know My Heart
Without the regular experience of being loved by God in solitude and experiencing the deep rest of God through silence and Sabbath-keeping, we are vulnerable to leadership that is driven by a profound emptiness we are seeking to fill through performance, achievement, and powering up on our world. This unconscious striving is very dangerous for us and for those around us. It will eventually burn us out since there is no amount of achievement that will ultimately satisfy the emptiness of the human soul; and the people we work with will notice they are mere cogs in the wheel of our ego driven plans.
It takes courage to invite God to search and know us at the deepest levels of our being, allowing him to show us the difference between the driven-ness of the false self and the deeper calling to lead from our authentic self in God. There is an elemental chaos that gets stirred up when we have been in God’s presence enough that all pretense and performance and every other thing that has bolstered our sense of self begins to fall away.
In the solitary place we are stripped of external distractions and inevitably we become aware of false patterns of thinking and being and doing that have lurked unnoticed under the surface busyness of our lives. We may even begin to see how these patterns have mis-shaped our leadership. Perhaps we glimpse an ego-driven self that is bent on control and image management. Or an empty self that is hungry to fill itself with the approval of others. We might become aware of a broken self, desperately seeking to preserve the illusion that we have it all together. Or maybe a wounded self that has spent untold energy seeking healing where healing cannot be found.
When I Want to Do Good
All of us have a shadow side to our leadership. We start out with a desire to do good and to make a difference, but as Paul confesses, “When I want to do good, evil is close at hand.” (Romans 7:21) Our personal insecurities, our need to be in control, our anger, our feelings of inferiority, our need for approval and applause—which can actually work for us early on—are often the very same issues that end up precipitating our failure if left unattended. The raw gift of leadership might be there (as it certainly was for Moses) along with a strong sense of what’s right and what we think needs to be done in this world. But it cannot be a force for good if it is not being refined by the rigors of the examen of consciousness (a growing awareness of God-with-us) and the examen of conscience (seeing ourselves more accurately in light of God’s presence).
Psalm 139 describes a healthy, balanced practice of self-knowledge and self-examination. It begins with waking up to the loving presence of God to such an extent that we are utterly convinced there is nothing that can cause us to fall out of that love, no place so dark that the light of God’s presence cannot penetrate it. (Vs. 1-12)
Healthy self-knowledge enables us to experience the goodness of who we are as created beings. (Vs. 13-18) This includes the ability to affirm and celebrate the uniqueness of our bodies, our personalities, the configuration of our soul and its unique way of relating to God and the world, our heritage, our background, and all of the experiences that make us who we are. For some of us, this is not as easy as it sounds!
The culmination of a healthy self-examination process is to bring our whole selves to God—the good, the bad, and the ugly—and to invite God to go with us in the search to “see if there is any wicked way in me and lead me in the way everlasting.” (Vs. 19-24)
The Path to Freedom
It is impossible to overstate how dangerous we as leaders can be if we do not have regularly-scheduled rhythms of examen in our lives—times when we locate ourselves once again in the unconditional, loving presence of God as the ultimate orienting reality of our lives. There the light of God’s presence reveals more fully the goodness of the true self that is hidden with Christ in God and exposes that which is false within us.
Through this practice, we give God freedom to bring his healing love to the unexamined, broken places of our beings and invite him to lead us in new paths that will bring life to ourselves and to others. As Richard Rohr puts it, “If a person keeps growing, his or her various false selves usually die in exposure to greater light.” It is the only thing that really works.
Regular exposure to the light of God’s presence is the essential element of any effective self-examination process—as opposed to morbid introspection or teeth-gritting human effort. When we are not regularly living in this Light, the false self is in the driver’s seat more often than we know.
©Ruth Haley Barton, 2013. Not to be reprinted without permission. For more information regarding self-examination and self-knowledge, see chapter 6 of Sacred Rhythms: Arranging Our Lives for Spiritual Transformation (IVP Books, 2006).
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, Strengthening the Soul of Your Leadership, Sacred Rhythms, and Invitation to Solitude and Silence.
How have you experienced the truth of Paul’s statement, “When I want to do good, evil is close at hand”? How might the examen become an essential practice for your life in leadership?